Democracy: the word gets bandied about a lot. It’s paraded as the Holy Grail of all social systems, the calling card of every liberal and freedom fighter, every politician, and most recently, it’s been flogged continuously as the justification for (ironically) unsanctioned foreign aggression and involvement in the destabilisation of centralised governments. It is defined as “a system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives”, and which is understood to thereby serve the needs of those very people. But what, tangibly, is democracy? Is what we have today truly a democracy, or a facsimile? And what of its perceived nemeses – communism and socialism – are they really as undemocratic as we’ve been told?
The earliest indication of democracy as a social governing order hails from Ancient Greece, taking root at first in Athens and then spreading to other Greek City States. Athenian democracy was direct, i.e. anyone from the eligible voting body could take part and directly influence policy. The eligible voting body in Greece at that time consisted of men who were Athenian citizens, 20 years or older, and who had completed their full military training – this represented only between 10-20% (depending on whether there had been a war on recently) of the entire population, which was otherwise made up of women, children, slaves, and foreigners. Decisions on policy, legislation, judiciary matters, etc, took place at an Assembly, where any member of the eligible body could attend if they so wished. It may sound idyllic, but at the time it drew considerable criticism. Posterity’s complaint primarily concerns itself with the limited eligible body, but contemporary opinion swung the opposite way, chiefly that there were too many people involved, and too few of them knew what they were doing. The rule of the Assemblies often resulted in mistakes, short-sightedness, or cruelness. It could easily descend into what could arguably be classed as Mob Law. It was, in fact, under the Assembly system that Socrates was sentenced to death. The frequent ineptitude of the system, partially inspired Plato in his work on The Republic, which puts forward a Philosopher King as the single, wise and learned ruler of a stratified, centralised system. The other chief shortcoming of Athenian democracy was that the Assemblies, which could number in the thousands on any given day, would take an incredibly long time to progress anything, simply due to the sheer volume of input.
Modern day representative democracies, fashion themselves more closely on the Roman Senate system. The Roman Senate was the primary legislative, advisory and executive body throughout Rome’s history, and saw many different reiterations as Rome transitioned from Kingdom, to Republic and finally Empire. While it retained some of the trappings of Athenian democracy, it differed significantly in several key aspects. The members of the Senate were chosen exclusively from the elite aristocratic patrician class, supported by further representatives chosen from the minor families, or gentry. Only relatively late on in the Republic were the common classes, or plebeians, permitted to be represented by a college of ten elected Tribunes. Later still, senatorship was opened to plebeians, however, they were restricted to minor positions. Technically, it was not possible to progress any law or decree without agreement in the Popular Assembly – a hail-back to Athenian direct democracy, where every eligible male citizen (again, the voting pool was quite narrow) could take part; however, in reality, the executive magistrate who presided over the Popular Assembly had almost absolute power over the outcome of the vote.
The Road to Modern Democracy
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, democracy went out of fashion for a good long while, certainly in Europe, where absolute monarchy and strict centralised and stratified government was all the rage. Echoes of it appear in the Magna Carta, the development of the Parliamentary system in England with the emergence of the House of Commons, the Representatives to the Estates in France, The Duma in Russia, or the Elections of the Doge in Venice, among others. However, nothing akin to a republican democracy would gain traction in Europe until Oliver Cromwell, and only then for the short period of time between the English Civil War and the Restoration in the 17th century. It would not emerge again until the French Revolution, quite late down the line, at the end of the 18th. A key point to note here is that across much of the world, the majority of the populace did not have a say in their lot. Oppression under the Colonial Powers extended not only to the natives of future colonies, but formed the basis of internal economics and policy. In regards to the French Revolution, controversial as always, though it brought about many good things (including the first recognition of rights for people of colour, personally championed by Robespierre) its aims largely served the bourgeoisie, rather than the wider working populace, on whose shoulders it was carried, sparking three more revolutions before a stable Republic could finally emerge.
By the turn of the 20th century, of today’s leading powers, the closest approximation of true representative democracy existed only in America – Europe consisted of Empires. Some democratic processes existed to serve the Commons of Parliaments, but eligibility was restricted by gender and wealth. This is a time associated with great social change, including the rise of the terrifying “spectre of communism”, but what is perhaps less known, is that the class battle was in fact, also an intrinsically democratic one. Though it is frequently represented as a tyrannical system and the antithesis to democracy and freedom, in fact, its roots are firmly grounded in the oldest of democratic traditions.
Communism and the Rise of Democracy
The early 1900’s managed to create spectacular conditions for major and global, civil unrest. The fruits of the Industrial Revolution saw rampant consumerism flourish; its profits, driven by pure profit-margin-pragmatism, amassed and amassed, and saw those with money grow more decadent, while those without grow more discontent. Against the backdrop of arguably the world’s most idiotic pissing contest, known as World War 1, people without a voice became more and more intent on getting one. Although Europe would flirt with socialism and communism over much of the 20th century, it first took root in Russia, yielding a more democratic form of government than most people are probably aware of.
Whisperings of unrest in Russia had started early. Strikes and demonstrations had become almost commonplace by the time the 1917 October Revolution came about. Largely agrarian, much of the Russian Empire was woefully backward. The Industrial Revolution largely left its mark in the larger cities – in Moscow, and St. Petersburg, among others. The upper classes had become completely morally deviant and there was a feeling that the whole country was falling to bits. The catastrophic mismanagement of the army during the First World War left soldiers, who were drafted from the factories and the fields and sent to slaughter, understandably disenchanted and angry. More than anything, these people wanted a voice, to be represented – they wanted a say.
I believe much confusion stems from the fact that the USSR or Union or Soviet Socialist Republics is actually mistranslated. The word “soviet” transcribed phonetically in English, actually means something closer to “council” or “committee”. The Bolshevik tagline, “Power to the Soviets”, did not mean power to a specific party, it referred quite literally to committees, organised on a local, municipal, regional and national level, which consisted of elected representatives from the peasantry and proletariat (i.e. factory workers). The Bolshevik idea was to provide wide representation to the entire class, where local concerns could be solved by elected representatives directly involved in the community, while larger questions of regional or national importance were discussed by representatives from all the vast regions of the country. The revolution itself was hardly homogenous in its political elements – which was partly to blame for the length of time it took to set up a stable and consistent government. The name of the revolution was incited not only by the Bolsheviks, but by Social Revolutionaries and Anarchists, Menshiviks and Liberal Democrats – all with very different views of the “democratic” path Russia was to follow. Some of the parties wanted representatives to be chosen from specific classes (e.g. the intelligentia) or to retain some of the class stratification from the Empire. In July 1917, Lenin slammed these ideas as not being truly democratic – i.e. they were not direct or representative of an entire class. In its purest form, Bolshevism advocated for a slightly more representative Athenian form of democracy. Sadly, this had the same problem that the Athenian system did, in that it expected a group of farmers to know how to govern, command armies, or establish industry, which resulted in some early stumbling blocks. The drive for equal rights for all that was the linchpin of the Revolution, and which granted women voting rights in 1917, contributed heavily to the pressure on Western states to accept Women’s suffrage.
Democracy in the USSR
The USSR’s written constitution places power firmly in the hands of the people, and indeed, representatives were regularly elected. The primary executive body of the USSR was the Supreme Council, which consisted of representatives from two committees: the Council of Nations and the Union Council. Representatives to each were elected for a 4 year term – for the Union Council, one representative for every constituency of 300,000, and for the Council of Nations: 25 representatives per Republic, 11 from each autonomous region, and one for each municipality for a specific nationality. The Supreme Council would then elect the government for the 4 year term (i.e. the Ministers) and the Chairman, also for a 4 year term. Committees were everywhere – school clubs, committees for social events, charity work, anything and everything. To be eligible to be elected Chairman, a candidate must have had experience governing at every level – local, municipal, and regional. During the war, elections were not held and power was concentrated under Stalin, however, it should be taken into account that pragmatism during a state of war demands stability. Although many of the things captured in the constitution (like freedom of speech and the rights of man) were not actually realised until after the 50’s (and some never fully implemented at all), in its day to day function, the spirit of the system was democratic, as evidenced by proliferation of committees at each level of society (frequently counterproductively). The single party system served an ideological purpose, to concentrate the means of manufacturing and industry centrally under the government, to ensure public, not private profit (although corruption was, and still is a major problem). Largely, this allowed the government to provide free, or for those with good grades – subsidised with grants, education, healthcare, and nominal rent and utility fees, as well as guaranteed employment by designation in your field following graduation.
Although it may not seem like it, and it may not meet certain norms expected from democracies today, the origins and spirit of the Revolution and country for most of its existence was genuinely people-centric. In fact, the USSR in some ways, managed to be more democratic than some developed countries are today.
While a single party system is unquestionably limited in the matter of ideological choice, I would argue that the situation is not much different in the rest of developed world today. The paragon of democracy that is the United States only has two parties, both of which follow the same ideology and differ only in nuance. The same is true of the UK, which only has two viable parties with the same problem, but at least it offers a host of small, primarily regional, parties (although, admittedly, it is much better at it than the US). The same is true again of much of Europe.
Inherently, democracy presumes a form of government that is representative of the will of the electorate; however, increasingly this key point becomes more and more forgotten in the “democracies” of the developed world we see today. A recent study by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page found that, based on data-driven research, the current United States is an Oligarchy, not a Democracy. After reviewing answers to 1,779 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 on public policy issues, they found that “multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence”. i.e. the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.
The study also found that a proposed policy change with low support from economically elite Americans, is successful only ~18% of the time, vs. a proposed change with high support, which is adopted ~45% of the time. Conversely, “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it”. Occupy Wallstreet is a poignant example of this.
In Europe, this is evident in the widespread disenchantment with politics due to a lack of representation of voters’ needs and low political engagement on the one hand, and the rise of marginal “protest vote” parties on the other.
100 years on from the start of the first world war and the early rumblings of revolution, it may be time to review and reconsider what “democracy” means to us, whether any of us really, actually live in one?Tags: Europe
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This post was written by Kate Zagoskina