Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Reviews of The History of Democracy

A very positive review of my book, by Tony McKenna was published in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books in 2014. Among other things, he writes:

"Not only have people related to the idea of ‘democracy’ in all manner of fashions, but the idea itself has remained contested throughout its history, and has been embodied in a series of often quite distinct social forms. That is why Brian S Roper’s The History of Democracy is such a welcome offering; for the author attempts to trace methodically the historical development of different forms of democracy throughout history, to locate each in the socio-historical conditions which provide for its possibility; and then to distil from these multifarious templates the notion of what a true and fully comprehensive democracy might look like." 

"To see Roper’s fine book as a work of synthesis is to see in it its practical value. The History of Democracy is a work of activism in the best Marxist sense; it reconstructs the essence of democracy as a living process which is part and parcel of the class struggle. Yes, argues Roper, its most concrete manifestation (Russia 1917) might well have been defeated by the economic conditions which pertained in the country more broadly, and the 13 Western nations whose armies strangled it at birth; but nevertheless the logic of historical development conclusively demonstrates that the possibility for a more concrete mode of democracy grounded in the self-activity of the broader population is not utopic – it is actual. And it is something we must fight for!"

A critical but generally very positive review of my book: The History of Democracy - A Marxist Interpretation, in the Irish Marxist Review (Vol.3, No.9, 2014). 

• Ben Hillier, editor of the Australian magazine Socialist Alternative, concludes his review as follows:
"All told, this is a book worth reading – and one which will no doubt be returned to as a resource and reference. The history of democracy provides a Marxist interpretation of the rise of Western civilisation and convincingly argues for the need to build on the achievements of the past by extending democracy to create a world in which “all cooks shall govern”. 

Socialist Review (UK), January 2013. The review describes this book as: "an excellent exploration of the history of democracy and the struggle to extend it".  For the full review go to:

 • Resolute Reader concludes their review by stating, "Brian S. Roper has produced a useful and interesting overview of the history of an idea. It is one that will be useful as we try to understand the processes taking place around the world, particularly in the Arab Revolutions, as millions struggle against dictators, for democracy, freedom and social justice."

• The review in the London Socialist Historians Group newletter states: 

"The book is clearly divided chronologically and in this sense is an excellent text for anyone seeking to understand a socialist perspective on democracy, historically rooted, and then read on further. There are suggestions for more in depth reading at the end of each chapter. Roper proceeds from Athens, via the transition from feudalism to capitalism on to capitalist democracy itself and concludes with two examples of socialist democracy in practice — the Paris Commune and the first years of the Russian Revolution from 1917. The majority of the text is a well written summary of a Marxist perspective on the particular period under discussion followed by a brief and usually incisive commentary on it."

The full review can be read at: 

  My book has been reviewed in Arabic at 

In her review in the Jordan Times Sally Bland comments: 
"The title of this book signals a quite ambitious project of cutting-edge relevance for the Arab region and the world. By analysing the practice of democracy (or its absence), from ancient Greece until today, Brian S. Roper provides useful historical background for assessing the recent Arab uprisings.

The author counts himself lucky that writing his book coincided with these events: “These revolutions provided inspiration across the world to those in other countries wanting, among other things, more equality and democracy, and less austerity, unemployment and poverty. It appeared to many that resistance was no longer futile and that revolution was possible.” (p. x)

Roper’s evaluation of how democracy has been or can be achieved at certain historical junctures is neither abstract nor simplistic, as he examines “the dynamic interconnections between the social and economic arrangements prevailing in various societies and the democratic state forms that emerged and governed” them. (p. xiv) Reading about the advances and setbacks for democracy in different phases of the French and Russian revolutions, for example, gives a new, long-range perspective on the contradictory trends that have emerged in the wake of the Arab revolutions — and are now, in some cases, literally fighting it out in the streets."

The full review is at:

• A constructively and rigorously critical review by Geoff Kennedy at:

Positive comments include: 
"The History of Democracy is quite an accomplishment. Roper skilfully synthesizes some of the more significant Marxist contributions to the history of state and class formation in the West including Athens, Rome, Europe in the Middle Ages; the 'bourgeois' revolutions in England, America and France; Europe between the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871; and the development of Marxist inspired forms of participatory socialist democracy in the twentieth century."

"Having said all that, this is an invaluable book, both in its synthetic character as well as the source material it contains for further reading, and should find its way onto the reading lists of anyone interested in learning about the history of Western democracy."

The main criticism is that: "The book is light on the history of democratic political ideas, and where it does deal with them, it is largely reliant on secondary sources. It would have been strengthened by spending more time linking the development of democratic and anti-democratic thought to the aspects of class and state formation that constitute the bulk of the work."

This is a reasonable point and one that I will certainly consider carefully if I get a chance to revise the manuscript for a second edition. The problem is that to do this well would have required a book close to double the length and it would have also taken even longer to finish it (see, for example, Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket, Chicago, 2012). Also, there is a lot of work that focuses on the history of democratic ideas - much less that attempts to develop a Marxist analysis of the overall history of democracy focusing on the changing social and economic contexts of particular democratic state forms.  

Regarding the originality or otherwise of my book when considered as a contribution to the Marxist tradition- this depends on what counts as original. Certainly it doesn't rest on original empirical research into primary sources (I do this kind of research but not in this project), nor does it aim to develop a particularly original theoretical interpretation of the history of democracy. Rather, the originality of the book lies in the ambitious scope of the project- covering the bulk of the history of democracy in a single volume, and in the application of a theoretical perspective that is broadly within the classical Marxist tradition to an analysis of Athenian, liberal representative and socialist participatory democracy. 

In this respect, the book is an original contribution to the Marxist tradition not only because it does something that hasn't been attempted since Novack's Democracy and Revolution: from Ancient Greece to Modern Capitalism (New York: Pathfinder Press) was published in 1971, but because the breadth of scope yields some important and original intellectual insights.  

Above all else, my book analyzes and identifies the historically unique qualities of Athenian, liberal representative, and socialist participatory democracy, and argues that once it is fully appreciated that what is will not always be then we can begin to understand the respects in which the present is a mediating moment between the past and future and see in it ‘the tendencies out of whose dialectical opposition [we] can make the future’ (Lukacs, 1971: 204). 

This is not the place for a more detailed response, suffice to say that I welcome this review because it has challenged me to think more clearly about the contribution that it makes to the Marxist tradition. It's certainly comforting to know that if one applies the Kennedy criteria for originality then both Lenin's State and Revolution and Harman's A People's History of the World would be categorised as 'unoriginal' contributions to the Marxist tradition. I am more than happy to be an unoriginal writer in such company! 

I will close by noting the main limits that I placed on the project in order to make it possible to complete it. It is important to note that I had to write it within the constraints of the 100,000 word limit in the contract with Pluto. The final published version is around 139,000 words long, an earlier draft was 205,000, so obviously some hard choices had to be made about what to include and exclude. 
The limits were:
- The book could not be based on an original investigation of primary empirical sources. Most of my writing focusing on New Zealand politics and history is based on primary sources- this is clearly not practicable for a project of this scope.
- The book could not provide a history of political ideas. This was both to make the project feasible, but also reflected the overall theoretical and methodological framework that I developed for the book.
- The book could not focus in depth on the history of socialist participatory democracy. At some point in the future I hope to write a book that focuses at length on this.
- The book could not focus in depth on the changing gender dimension of the history of democracy. Given that I've been profoundly influenced by socialist feminist writers, this is the limit that I've been most uncomfortable with.



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