Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, April 29, 2006

On the origins of democracy.

With the European Social Forum meeting in Athens, it is perhaps timely to consider an article by Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard (not the Mary Beard, socialist historian of Charles and Mary Beard fame), on 'the origins of democracy' in ancient Greece. Mary Beard argues this constitutes 'a poor model for re-creating the virtues of government in the 21st century' and so she attempts to debunk what she calls the 'glorious myth' that surrounds ancient Athenian democracy:

'This fetish casts ancient democratic Athens as the foundation of modern political virtues: one man one vote, freedom of expression, communal decision-making, the sovereignty of the law and equality before it, and so on. At the same time, it deftly airbrushes out the less appealing aspects of Athenian democratic culture. The well-known exclusion of women and slaves from any form of political action is one factor, but not the only one. And to be honest, even if Athens operated a more thoroughgoing repression of its female population than any other Greek state we know, no ancient culture would score highly here.

The Athenian democracy which we so admire was, in reality, a short-lived and violent political experiment; it lasted 50 or so years in its most radical form, a half-century that saw the assassination of one of the most influential democratic reformers and numerous attempts by the enemy within to betray the city to the undemocratic Persians or Spartans. During its almost equally short-lived empire in the fifth century BCE, it imposed democratic government on its satellites with as much ruthlessness (and probably as little understanding) as George Bush and his allies. It was also a tiny community, with perhaps some 30,000 full male citizens, making its political nucleus roughly the same size as the student population of the modern University of Manchester, or, to put it another way, half the size of Kidderminster. And their citizen rights were fiercely guarded. With a strategy that would endear it to the BNP, it made sure that only those born of both Athenian mothers and Athenian fathers would qualify to be part of the exclusive club of citizens. No political integration of migrants or asylum seekers here.'

She goes on to argue that 'the big problem for the 21st century is surely how to redefine the notion of "people power" (Greek demokratia) so that it can work for vast political conglomerates from which almost everyone feels alienated, and in which power has moved decidedly away from the "people" in any meaningful sense. There is also, as Paul Cartledge hinted in some recent discussions of Greece on Radio 4's Westminster Hour, the need to reconfigure ideas of the rights and obligations of citizenship in the new context of a global political economy that transcends the boundaries of the nation state. In projects of this kind, the founding myth of a small city, the size of a large student union - and with a decidedly unglobal and unmulticultural agenda - is more of a hindrance than a help.'

Is Mary Beard right to dismiss this small scale and short lived 'experiment' as of no use today? I am no classicist, but I have always had a soft spot for Every Cook Can Govern, 'A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece and Its Meaning for Today' by the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. In it James did not dismiss the fact that there were limits and problems with classical democracy in Athens but defended in the most vigorous terms the experiment in direct democracy, the fact that it was the people - rightly or wrongly - who made all the decisions:

'The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek Democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Now the average CIO [trade union] bureaucrat or Labour Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.'

Beard's hostility to this experiment should not be that surprising, as it is not new. James noted in 1956 that 'intellectuals like Plato and Aristotle detested the system. And Socrates thought that government should be by experts and not by the common people. For centuries, philosophers and political writers, bewildered by these Greeks who when they said equality meant it, have either abused this democracy or tried to explain that this direct democracy was suitable only for the city-state. Large modern communities, they say, are unsuitable for such a form of government.' Yet 'the larger the modern community, the more imperative it is for it to govern itself by the principle of direct democracy (it need not be a mere copy of the Greek). Otherwise we face a vast and ever-growing bureaucracy.'

As James put it, 'we make a colossal mistake if we believe that all this is past history. For Plato’s best known book, The Republic, is his description of an ideal society to replace the democracy, and it is a perfect example of a totalitarian state, governed by an elite. And what is worse. Plato started and brilliantly expounded a practice which has lasted to this day among intellectuals — a constant speculation about different and possible methods of government, all based on a refusal to accept the fact that the common man can actually govern. It must be said for Plato that, in the end, he came to the conclusion that the radical democracy was the best type of government for Athens. Many intellectuals today do not do as well. They not only support but they join bureaucratic and even sometimes totalitarian forms of government.

The intellectuals who through the centuries preoccupied themselves with Plato and his speculations undoubtedly had a certain justification for so doing. Today there is none. What all should study first is the way in which the Greeks translated into active concrete life their conception of human equality. The Greeks did not arrive at their democracy by reading the books of philosophers. The common people won it only after generations of struggle.'
Because of this struggle, the Greeks who took part in the democracy were so vigorous in their defence of it against tyrannical usurpers. It strikes me, that faced with tyrants like Bush and Blair who wage war without democractic mandate, who are happy to undermine what democratic control of society remains through privatisation, we could learn a thing or two from thinking about the principle of 'direct democracy' today. If the decision to wage a war on Iraq had been put to a vote of all the people in the world - Bush and Blair would not have had a mandate. Those who attack such democratic experiments - whether in the past or in the present - it seems to me reveal only their fear that those at the very bottom of society are incapable of deciding democratically how their lives should be run.

Lenin made this argument very persuasively in 1917, during the Russian Revolution, when there was a similar fear among many intellectuals of what might happen if power slipped into the hands of ordinary workers and peasants, who were insultingly referred to as 'the dark masses'. Lenin was absolutely insistent that power should be in the hands of the people - that 'every cook can govern' and he called for 'All Power to the Soviets [Worker's Councils]'. His defence of revolutionary democracy was put forward in both The State and Revolution and Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? . The Bolsheviks argued that a future workers' state - run by those who produce all the wealth of society for those who produce all the wealth of society would not only 'work' effectively - it would also be infinitely more democractic a society than anything possible under class society. It would unleash the stifled creative human potential of millions of people for the first time in their lives. To those who feared that a insurrection led by the Bolsheviks and working class in a backward country such as Tsarist Russia would be overwhelmed by a wave of counter-revolution, Lenin argued that 'We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes, that the state is helping the poor to fight the landowners and capitalists, is breaking their resistance. Only then shall we see what untapped forces of resistance to the capitalists are latent among the people; only then will what Engels called "latent socialism" manifest itself. Only then, for every ten thousand overt and concealed enemies of working-class rule, manifesting themselves actively or by passive resistance, there will arise a million new fighters who have been politically dormant, suffering in the torments of poverty and despair, having ceased to believe that they are human, that they have the right to live, that they too can be served by the entire might of the modern centralised state, that their contingents of the proletarian militia can, with the fullest confidence, also be called upon to take a direct, immediate, daily part in state administration.' This is not the place to discuss how the hopes of the October Revolution in 1917 were eventually to be smashed on the rocks of Stalinism. What is vital to hold onto however is the idea that those of us who want a vastly more democratic system than that on offer under capitalism should not let liberal intellectuals casually dismiss the Greek city state experiment of 'direct democracy' as a 'hinderance' for progressives today. On the contrary, for all its limitations, what took place in the city states of ancient Greece should be seen as a struggle against oligarchy that led to a flourishing in new ideas and new experiments in running society. Indeed, arguably, like the Russian Revolution, we should see this radical experiment in democracy as an inspiration.

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At 8:21 am, Anonymous Nathaniel said...

The modern theorizing that advocates offices chosen through sortition, demarchy, fascinates me immensely. It's an idea that I think should get far wider coverage in the socialist movement. It's something that I could see really working as "people power" in a socialist system.

I also wrote a blog post about the halfbaked notion I had (and I've seen it elsewhere since then) that demarchy might be a good system for Cuba.

At 7:06 am, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

It was a real interesting, and well articulated argument for direct democracy.


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