The century of democratic demand

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

A reflection on our times - III.AIJAZ AHMADFrontlineI WANT to start with five propositions:

1. That the actually existing democracy, even of the formal/ bourgeois kind, is in reality very much a matter of the 20th century;

2. That this too has been achieved not by the bourgeoisie but by those workers, peasants, women, colonised peoples, subordinated castes and ethnic groups, the non-white victims of European racism whom the bourgeoisie has sought to exclude from the democr atic project;

3. That in taking the project of democracy out of the hands of the bourgeoisie, these victims of capitalism have given to 'democracy' a historically different meaning and have pressed it in a revolutionary direction;

4. That the defeat of the struggles for socialism and national liberation, which had dominated the 20th century, has thrown the democratic project itself into a crisis because democratic freedom is not a reflection of the illusory "freedom" of the market , as the bourgeoisie claims, but a point of struggle for radical and real equality on the part of the oppressed, which cannot survive without its intrinsic link with struggles for socialism and national liberation; and, therefore,

5. The task of the Left in the coming century shall be to recover that vision of Marx which conceives of socialism itself, in his own words, as a "perfection" of democracy.

These are controversial ideas and therefore require some explanation. The bourgeois project itself claims the right to vote as the fundamental democratic right. One statistic alone should suffice to make the point that even in this narrow sense democracy is a matter really of the 20th century: this century began with women having the right to vote only in New Zealand and in the American State of Wyoming - nowhere else - but by 1960 women had gained this right in all the countries where elections were al lowed (except a couple of Islamic countries and Switzerland). It takes an enormous leap of imagination to grasp the distance this one right alone has traversed during this century.

The emphasis on the idea of actually existing democracy means, meanwhile, that the rights and practices which in fact exist are always more important than pronouncements of principle. That the founding document of the republic in the United States resoundingly declared that "All men are created equal" in the last quarter of the 18th century is less significant than the fact that the U.S. Constitution allowed slavery of millions of Black Americans for the next 80 years. In fact, the legal segregat ion of the white and non-white races which persisted in large parts of the United States well into the 1950s means that even formal, juridic equality of all American citizens came some years after the founding of the Republic in India.

THE bourgeois democratic project, which dates itself from the American and French Revolutions, has had three notable features. One, even in principle it offers a vision of democracy far more limited than the one that had been available in more radical st rands of political thought, from Aristotle to Rousseau. Second, even in its moment of origin it separated economy from politics, defined equality in purely legal terms, and sought to keep most people disenfranchised for as long as possible. ("We, the Peo ple," in whose name the American Declaration of Independence was promulgated, was a hollow phrase; it included neither women nor the non-white indigenous populations and the slaves of African origin.) Third, the bourgeoisie has always vastly exaggerated its own achievements.

That even the revolutionary bourgeoisie was more interested in confining than expanding the conception of democracy can be illustrated, on the theoretical plane, not only with a reference to Rousseau who had already posed the famous questions - can you r econcile liberty with inequality? and, can people be equal in law when they are unequal in their access to material goods? - but even by going much further back, to Aristotle's distinction between democracy and oligarchy. For him, democracy was a type of constitutional arrangement in which, as he put it in Politics, "the free-born and poor control the government - being at the same time a majority" whereas oligarchy was one in which "the rich and better-born control the government - being at the same time a minority." He greatly emphasised the crucial importance of the labouring multitude directly participating in the exercise of political power, and he thought that a constitution which required a vast majority of the citizenry to abstain from d irect lawmaking and to delegate legislative powers to a select minority for many years at a time was not democratic but a combination of democracy and oligarchy; such a constitution, he thought, would benefit the rich. He did recognise that some legislat ive power would have to be delegated to others under certain circumstances - but he thought that the poor should delegate power only to others of their own kind, only temporarily, and on condition that the delegate would be subject to instant recall. Thi s definition recalls for us not the French or American Revolutions but the Paris Commune.

As Ellen Wood has pointed out, the political system which the Americans were the first to call "representative democracy" and which came universally to be seen as the quintessential democratic form, corresponded almost exactly to what Aristotle had calle d 'oligarchy'. A majority of the labouring multitude was not allowed to vote. All kinds of restrictions - of race, gender, education, property, nationality - were imposed before you could even qualify as a voter. Private property was constitutionally gua ranteed and laws could only be made to implement this guarantee. A system was devised in which a very large number of voters elected a handful of legislators who were then at liberty to legislate as they pleased, with no direct consultation with the citi zenry on specific pieces of legislation; the poor were then periodically invited to choose between one professional politician and the other.

Until the end of the 19th century, even that much democracy was exceptional. In no European state was bourgeois democracy completed as a form until after the War of 1914. The monarchical form remained the order of the day: imperial monarchies in Russia, Germany and Austria; a precarious royal order in Italy; a constitutional monarchy in Britain; less than constitutional monarchies in Spain and Portugal. The Russian monarchy was to be overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution in the aftermath of that War, b ut the traditional orders in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain and Portugal gave way not to stable democracies but to fascism and military dictatorship. Only after the Second World War did Germany and Italy gain stable bourgeois-democratic regimes, just a c ouple of years before this form fully emerged in India, but such was not to be the case in Spain and Portugal, where military dictatorships were overthrown much later, in the 1970s. Even in the states of the great imperial and colonial powers, bourgeois democracy is not nearly as old as its ideologues claim.

While monarchs, fascists, military dictators and liberal democrats were busy settling accounts among themselves, something of historic proportions had begun to happen - behind their backs, as it were. Challenges to this ruling order were emerging in all kinds of ways, four of which proved in the long run to be decisive: workers' and peasants' movements against the rule of property; the anti-colonial movements against the rule of the European bourgeoisie over the rest of the globe; women's struggles for equality and emancipation against male power and privilege; and a global struggle, centred in the white settler colonies of North America and the Caribbean, against slavery and racism. None of these struggles were new. Glimmerings of it all date back to the closing years of the 18th century and even earlier, but all these gained fresh momentum and underwent a qualitative change in the later decades of the 19th century and then, with explosive force, in the 20th.

IT was really with the leftist tendency in the French Revolution that 'socialism' and 'communism' had emerged as terms for a new kind of society that would abolish individualism and the privilege of property. And, Marx and Engels had of course given to t his current a comprehensive theoretical form in the middle of the 19th century. It was only in the 1880s, however, that mass working class parties emerged even in some countries of Europe. Yet, even those parties remained too small actually to contemplat e the formation of governments. It was only in the 20th century that state power became a practical possibility for communists in one way, for social democrats in another. In a parallel development, the revolutionary rhetoric of "We, the People" in the U nited States and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France had already prompted Mary Wollstonecroft to ask: what, then, is the gender of the Citizen, and does Woman have the same rights as Man? It was only in the latter half o f the 19th century, however, that sizable women's organisations arose in some parts of Europe and North America, mainly on the issue of suffrage. Even so, none was strong enough to gain for women the right to vote; all that was to come in the 20th centur y.

At no point in history did any Asian or African people go down without fighting against colonialism, and the 19th century had its own vast history of anti-colonial uprisings. Most of them were marked by certain characteristics, however. Autonomous peasan t uprisings remained localised and uncoordinated. Most of the larger and better organised uprisings were led by traditional property-holders and/or men of learning, in defence of traditional systems of power and frequently using religious sanction or com munal/tribal affiliation for solidaristic purposes. The reformers who arose out of the emergent modern strata were typically not anti-colonial in any insurgent sense, and the ones who were, commanded influence only in elite groupings but had no mass base . Even this began to change toward the end of the 19th century, as was testified by the Filipino patriots, for example, when they tried to found a bourgeois republic at the turn of the century, in 1898. However, mass movements of national liberation from colonialism that were led by strata drawn from the modern classes and the professions, which then implicitly assumed the making of a new type of state different both from the traditional and the colonial ones, were to emerge almost entirely during the p resent century.

It was only in the 20th century, in short, that the whole range of democratic demands that had emerged, so falteringly and in so small a corner of Europe, became a hurricane from below and came to envelope increasingly larger parts of the globe. In this context, then, let us recall the original meaning of the word 'democracy' and see how the emergence of these new mass movements - of class, gender and nation, which then heralded many others - returned, in some sense, to that original meaning after the b ourgeoisie of 18th and 19th century liberal capitalism had sought to restrict that meaning. As the name of one of humanity's oldest aspirations, 'democracy' is actually an ancient word, already fully there in classical Greek thought, as demokratia , which is itself a composite of two words: demos, for 'people', and kratos, meaning 'rule'. Aristotle's definition, which I cited earlier and which invokes demos against the oligarch, is based squarely on this literal meaning, as is Marx's - himself a sensitive scholar of classical theory - when he defines socialism as a perfection of democracy. In both cases, what is envisioned is a mode of governance in which there is no separation between economics and politics, the ruler and th e ruled, state and civil society - indeed, civil society, as a multitude of producers and politically participating citizen who legislate collectively, is the state.

This is the meaning of 'democracy' against which the liberal bourgeoisie of the 19th century used to rage and rebel. Daniel Defoe, one of the architects of the English novel, fumed against it because it violated what he called "the Great Law of Subordina tion" and Disraeli, the British politician, described the coming of democracy as "a leap into the dark" because it would incite the mob to mutiny, with unforeseeable consequences. It was safest to restrict the arena of politics to the parliament of the p ropertied, and all politics that went outside these confines were to be suppressed or at least dismissed as a deviation from the real business of politics - that sense of danger and subversion still hangs over the term "extra-parliamentary."

In the mass movements for emancipation and liberation which came to fruition in the 20th century, the practice of democracy was returned to the multitude and the word itself now came to imply a much broader politics of all kinds of entitlement. Movements for socialism and communism, which brought forth the proletariat and the peasantry as the central agents of history, returned to 'democracy', in a radically modern form, its Aristotelian meaning of rule by the poor so as to safeguard their own interests against the rich. If the vision of a universal humanity beyond race or nationality had once been upheld by the radical side of European Enlightenment and then destroyed by capitalism and colonialism, it was in the anti-colonial movements that the vision was resurrected by the non-European freedom fighters against their own European masters; Europe was being told to renew its own Enlightenment and be worthy of it. The movements for women's emancipation demonstrated how false were the claims of the liber al bourgeoisie that it had created even juridic equality of all citizens, that political rights had no substantive meaning without social emancipation, and that social oppression was not merely superstructural but deeply connected with economic exploitat ion and settled historical forms of inequality.

What was striking about these mass movements of democratic demand in the 20th century was that they produced countless points of intersection and cross-fertilization whereas in the 19th century they had remained largely separate and discrete. Few suffrag ists who fought for women's emancipation during the 19th century had anything to do with socialism. In the 20th century, on the other hand, not only have communist parties and socialist regimes played a key role in the extension of women's rights but soc ialist ideas have had an influence far beyond such parties and regimes, far beyond socialist feminism itself, into many strands of feminism which would otherwise be hostile to Marxism. Something analogous would be true of the struggles against racism. Th e slave rebellions of the 19th century of course had nothing to do with socialist theories, but the keenest writers on the issue of race in the 20th century - Du Bois and Nkrumah, Cesaire and Fanon, and many others - have been deeply marked by their enco unter with socialism.

SIMILARLY, there was practically no anti-colonial movement of the 19th century that connected itself with socialism; there was hardly any such sizable movement in the 20th century that did not include a good number that were inspired by the Bolshevik Rev olution - and, indeed, several of the most important such movements were led by socialists. It needs to be said, however, that Marxism's encounter with and involvement in movements of cross-class liberation and emancipation in the 20th century - of natio n, gender, race, caste, ethnicity and so on - has transformed the body of Marxist knowledge, as well as its practical sense of strategy and tactics, far beyond anything it inherited from the 19th century. For any understanding of the questions of nation and nationalism, for example, the socialists of today would go not so much to Marx and Engels as to Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or half a dozen other Marxists of the first quarter of the 19th century who were suddenly forced to think of it all anew thanks to the outbreak of nationalisms on both sides of the divide, among the imperialists as well as the colonised.

That revolutionary struggle has involved the peasantry as much as the working class, gender as much as nation, has meant that when we speak of the 20th century as a century of revolutions, we speak of the overlapping dynamics of great many struggles, in which class is central but not exclusive as the organising principle of the historical dynamic as a whole. This is what defines the place of class struggle in the whole complex sweep of democratic demand, but also the sheer scale and multiplicity of form s this demand has taken.

Some dates and magnitudes should give us a sense of that scale. We have noted, for example, that only in New Zealand and the little statelet of Wyoming in the U.S. did women have the right to vote when the 20th century began. Women in Norway, Finland an d Australia then won the right in the early 1900s. In the U.S., the great imperial power of the 20th century which prides itself for having pioneered bourgeois constitutional governance, women got this right only in 1919, while women in Britain, the grea test colonial power of all times, had to wait until 1928. Perhaps the more curious case is that of France, the country par excellence of the classic bourgeois revolution where the revolution itself was inaugurated by the women of Paris with their famous bread riots, and where women gained the right to vote only in 1945 - but that too thanks only to the ascendancy of the Left after the anti-fascist Resistance. We now forget that the communist parties had emerged from the Second World War as the largest p olitical parties in France and Italy, and that both played the key role in obtaining sweeping reforms on gender issues, including the right to vote, in these two major Catholic countries of Europe.

This record of women's democratic rights in the core capitalist countries does not compare much too favourably with a number of the subordinated countries in Latin America where women gained that right roughly at the same time, for example Ecuador (1929) , Brazil, Uruguay and Cuba (early 1930s), or Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia (1940s and 1950s). Even in India, universal suffrage came with the founding of the Republic itself; in no European country did women gain voting rights at such low levels of literacy and economic development, and never at the very inception of the nation-state. The record of socialism, in its founding moments, was incomparably superior to that of imperial capitalism. Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, a broad ran ge of laws were enacted - pertaining to political representation, education, employment and profession, marriage and inheritance, and so on - which gave women rights far greater than anywhere, in "advanced" Europe. The Chinese Communist Party recognised women's legal equality at the moment of its inception, in 1921. When socialist regimes emerged in eastern Europe after the Second World War, women in countries such as Bulgaria and Yugoslavia had infinitely greater legal protection and social status than in comparable countries of the capitalist West, such as Spain, Portugal or Greece, and the legal status of East German women remained superior to those of West German women till virtually the end.

If the opening decades of this century were a time of great upsurge in women's emancipation, so were they for the expansion of labour movements, anti-colonial mass agitations and revolutions of all kinds - those that succeeded and those that failed, the communist and the reformist, and even neo-traditionalist. These movements were of diverse inspirations and were spread across continents. In Europe, labour movements dominated this new kind of democratic demand; outside Europe, they tended to take a nati onalist form and made a gradual transition from neo-traditionalism to modern reform and even revolution. Some dates and magnitudes can be given for these developments as well.

The rate of expansion of the social democratic parties is a good indicator for Europe. Germany of course had the largest such party but the trend was visible across the continent. Thus, the Belgian party's electoral strength grew from 13.2 per cent in 18 94 to 39.4 per cent in 1925; the party in the Netherlands grew from 3 per cent in 1896 to 18.5 per cent in 1913; the Norwegian party rose from a paltry 0.6 in 1897 to 32.1 in 1915; the Swedish party went from 3.5 in 1902 to 36.4 in 1914; in Finland, Soci al Democrats had already won a plurality in 1907, getting 37 per cent; the Austrian party gained 27 per cent in 1907 and then a plurality of 40.8 per cent in 1919. This, combined with the crisis provoked by the First World War, was the context in which t he Bolshevik Revolution broke out in Russia, leading to a wave of revolutionary insurrections across several countries - notably Germany, Italy and Hungary - during the "Red Years" of 1918-20. The hope was that the Russian October would be followed by re volutions in other countries where labour movements had grown so spectacularly. That was of course not to be, though this is not the place to go into the causes of that failure.

OUTSIDE Europe, this same period begins with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 in Iran, which coincided perfectly with the aborted Russian Revolution of the same year, and included the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the E gyptian Revolution of 1919, the rise of Amanullah Khan's nationalist and anti-imperialist regime in Afghanistan (also 1919), the May 4 Movement and the founding of the Communist Party in China (1919 and 1921, respectively), the Khilafat Movement and the Rowlatt Satyagraha as well as a massive strike wave in India between 1919 and 1923, and the Turkish Revolution of 1923. The list could go on and on. The second decade of this century can be regarded as having begun that wave of anti-colonial and anti-imp erialist movements that began to recede only after the end of the Vietnam war and some of which remained even in the closing quarter of the century, as in South Africa and Nicaragua.

Those nationalist movements had their revolutionary wings as well as the reformist and conservative ones, and the latter often dominated; Eric Hobsbawm is not entirely wrong when he says that after the outbreak of mass uprisings from 1919 onwards the Bri tish relied for the continuation of their rule much more on Gandhi's moderation than on their own army and police. What is much more surprising, however, is that so many of those movements came under the hegemony of the Left, from Indochina to southern A frica, and that many of the anti-communist but radical nationalists, such as Nehru and Nasser, took from socialism itself what they safely could.

These explosions of the democratic demand were at the heart of the Short Twentieth Century (1914-89). Imperialism fought hard, suffered innumerable defeats, seemed for a time - between the Cuban Revolution of 1958 and the Vietnamese victory in 1975, let us say - to be on the retreat. Instead, the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed three historic reversals: the unravelling of the socialist project in countries that had for a time escaped from capitalism, the exhaustion of the nationalism of the n ational bourgeoisie in the former colonies of Asia and Africa, and the demise of the social democratic reformist project in western Europe. In the Third World at least, radical nationalism seemed unable to sustain itself without the aid and inspiration i t had historically received from powerful communist parties and states.

These later crises of the democratic project have made credible the idea that there really is no alternative to this latest phase of imperialism which goes under the euphemism of 'globalisation'. And these crises have also given rise to a whole array of political pathologies: religious revivalism across the globe, from the United States to West Asia to India itself; racist and fascist movements across Europe, including eastern Europe and Russia; fundamentalism and majoritarianism; a global revolt of the privileged against any project of redistributive justice; the rise of something resembling a 'world government' comprising the U.S., NATO and multilateral agencies such as the IMF and the WTO which polices the world militarily and economically.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment