Review: “The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation” – Brian S. Roper

What are the origins of ‘democracy’? Are countries like the US, Canada, Britain, etc., democratic? In “The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation,” Brian S. Roper examines liberal assumptions about the origins and essence of democracy using Marxist historical materialism.

Roper begins by examining the system of participatory democracy in Athens and Rome and its later suppression under the Roman Empire. In this, Roper differs little and indeed borrows significantly from Ste. Croix’s “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests.” The only significant difference between Ste. Croix and Roper’s studies of Athenian and Roman democracy is that Ste. Croix examines how the class struggle shaped the political systems of Athens and Rome.

In contrast, Roper looks at Athenian and Roman democracy to underscore how little capitalist representative democracy shares with the democracy of the ancient world. Although the franchise was significantly smaller and excluded enslaved people, women, etc., Athenian and Roman democracy enabled far greater possibilities for active participation in the political system than is possible under capitalist representative democracy. As Roper writes, a critical difference between Athenian and capitalist representative democracy “lies in the status of the labouring citizen in the two forms of democracy. Here the full significance of the earlier model of democracy stands out in start contrast, for it is only in this model of democracy that the labouring citizens exert genuine influence over the governance of society” (p. 35).

More significantly is Roper’s study of the origins and functions of modern capitalist representative democracy. It is here where Roper’s study is second to none. Roper offers a devastating critique of capitalist representative democracy, beginning with the American Revolution. The particular form of democracy that developed in the US, Roper writes, was due to the need of American independence leaders to appeal “to universal notions of liberty and democracy, on one hand, while simultaneously defending the sanctity of property and the rule of a rich capitalist minority, on the other” (p. 129).

Roper defends Charles Beard’s brilliant 1913 study “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” which I own and have read, that although the drafters of the US constitution might not have benefited financially from it, as non-Marxist historians argue, “they had a clear understanding that the new constitutional framework would have to, as one of its core tasks, successfully entrench and codify the rights and liberties of property. If it failed to do so, their own wealth and privileges would be undermined, and the rapid expansion of capitalist agriculture, industry, commerce and banking would be impossible. The Republican notion of civic virtue served their purposes admirably in this respect because it enabled them genuinely to believe that they were acting not in their own selfish interests but in the interests of property generally, interests that they equated ideologically and philosophically with those of the society as a whole” (pp. 138-139).

Capitalist representative democracy has redefined the words citizenship and democracy to be devoid of their traditional social meanings. Democracy no longer means the active participation of the citizens themselves, their exercise of political power, but their relinquishment of political power, its alienation from the populace, hitherto the antithesis of democracy. Rather than being the defining feature of democracy, its revolutionary essence, the active participation of the poor and working-class population is seen as fundamentally antithetical to capitalist representative democracy. As Roper writes, capitalist representative democracy “is a historically unique form of democracy” because “it ostensibly embodies but actually curtails the rule of the majority of people” (p. 152).

Roper’s study of democracy is fundamentally flawed in his analysis of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the spread of capitalist representative democracy in the age of imperialism. Alas, Roper is a Trotskyist, and his brilliant use of historical materialism in the study of democracy slowly disintegrates under the weight of his idol’s corrupting ideological influence. Typical of a Trotskyist, Roper fails to follow his political theories to their logical outcome and makes absurd arguments, such as Lenin didn’t believe a socialist revolution in Russia was possible until the prophet Trotsky showed him the light; that decolonization in Africa, Latin America, and Asia was possible because of the self-sufficiency of the capitalist world in raw materials, labour, etc., and the post-WWII capitalist economic boom; and that the US and its NATO allies that as per Roper are fundamentally antagonistic to genuine democracy supported revolutionary-democratic uprisings in Libya and Syria.