Book Review from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation, by Brian S. Roper. Pluto Press, 2013
It is ironic that, just at a time when the undemocratic nature of the SWP’s internal structure is being exposed to the public glare, an SWP sympathiser should bring out a book on democracy.
Roper’s basic thesis is that the Ancient World produced two different models of democracy – Athenian direct democracy and Roman representative democracy – and that bourgeois democracy conforms to the latter. Rome, even in its republican days, was always ruled by an oligarchy of patricians; the plebs only had a say through representatives, magistrates who were either rich plebs or patricians starting their political career.
To make his point, Roper examines the English, American and French revolutions and has no difficulty in demonstrating that their leaders rejected the concept of universal manhood suffrage; where they did accept a fairly wide franchise they imposed property qualifications on those who could be elected. Some of the New England towns practised direct democracy but the US constitution and that of its states practised what Thomas Hamilton called ‘representative democracy’, where the people were represented by those who had more property. The French republic had a similar constitution before it was overthrown by Napoleon.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw popular struggles in all capitalist countries to remove property qualifications and extend the franchise. It is a pity that Roper hardly goes into these, but those in Germany, Belgium and Russia gave rise to interesting discussions within the Marxist-oriented Social Democratic movement as to the tactics of the struggle and why it was important. He mentions Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Mass Strike but omits to mention that she was advocating this as a tactic in both Russia and Germany to obtain the vote and political democracy.
Marx himself supported the Chartist demand for a parliament elected by universal suffrage and with paid MPs and later campaigns to extend the vote to more workers. Roper does not discuss the extent to which this – where workers could in theory represent themselves – could still be called a ‘representative democracy’ in the sense Hamilton meant it but continues to use the term as if it was.
In the eulogy which Marx drafted for the First International on the Paris Commune of 1871 after its suppression, he offered a different model: a federation of municipalities elected by universal suffrage where these would send mandated delegates to a central assembly; in other words, a parliament which would only be indirectly elected. Whether this would be more democratic than a directly elected one remains a matter for debate.
Roper completely ignores Marx’s view that, under certain circumstances, the workers might be able to win control of political power via the ballot box, so turning universal suffrage from an instrument for duping people into an agent of emancipation.
According to Roper, ‘the experience of the Commune highlighted the need for a centralised revolutionary party to exercise leadership within the working class during the course of the revolution in order to ensure that capitalism and parliamentary democracy are successfully overthrown and replaced by socialist democracy.’
By ‘socialist democracy’ he means the system that was supposedly established in Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, based on ‘soviets’ (workers’ councils), in which the direct democracy of a workplace assembly would be the basic unit and which would elect delegates to wider decision-making bodies. Whilst it is true that directly elected parliaments have been hi-jacked by leadership-run parties dominated by MPs who refuse to consider themselves delegates, it is also true that the Russian soviets were taken over and manipulated by the vanguard party that the Bolsheviks were. They never did function as they were supposed to. What happened could even be used to reach the opposite conclusion to Roper’s on the Paris Commune: the dangers of the existence of a centralised party seeking to exercise leadership over the working class.
This is not a work of original research but to a large extent a rehash of the writings of SWP theorists such as Alex Callinicos and the late Chris Harman.