Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne

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Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A concise history of democratic governments through the ages, from those of classical Greece to the present day, showing how events in one continent may increasing impact on those in the countries of another
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 330 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845950620

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Most authors writing on the subject of democracy tend to concentrate on political theory. Osborne approaches the subject from the historical angle instead, looking at different democracies from that of Greece in the sixth century BC, to the present day. 'Humanity's finest achievement', as Osborne calls it in the first sentence of his prologue, comes from the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (rule). It had its origins in the system devised in ancient Athens, the earliest in the world which did not first operate through complex relations of kinship and deference, as had others up to then. Parallels would be seen in Rome a few centuries later.

Various European cities in the medieval ages followed the model to some extent. For me, however, the book really came alive from Chapter 5, dealing with the English revolution, onwards. There is arguably a case for tracing a thread in democracy from Charles I and his struggles with Parliament over the Petition of Rights in 1628 and afterwards to the present. Incidentally, this section of the book includes as admirably concise an account of the events leading up to the Civil War and its aftermath as I have seen anywhere for a long time.

The two subsequent chapters, on America from the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 and the consequences of the French Revolution in 1789, are also excellent. A commentator writing in a London journal of 1832 is quoted as predicting that democracy in America was fated not to last, bearing in mind the experience of other countries elsewhere – 'the despotism of the many occasioning the misery of all, and terminated by the absolute power of the few'. He had in mind above all the unhappy period in France, where the revolution had been controlled for the first three years by bourgeois lawyers and traders in the Assembly, until the sans-culottes of Paris became impatient for change and took matters into their own hands with increasingly savage effect. This would be repeated in Russia in 1917, when the revolution which put an end to the Tsarist empire was overtaken by the Bolsheviks under Lenin who had no patience with the moderate rule of Kerensky and his followers.

From the nineteenth century, Osborne finds it increasingly difficult to look at national democracies in isolation. This is hardly surprising. In a more unified world, one nation after another modelled itself on systems which had been tried, tested and were found to work to a greater or lesser extent. We are shown how and why the year of revolutions in 1848 had more effect on most European nations than in England where the Chartists, the main advocates for change in the years following the Great Reform Act, represented a peaceful movement which sought to petition Parliament and argue the case for greater democratic participation without resorting to armed struggle. Europe from the nineteenth century onwards is considered as a whole, with the growth of working class power and its assimilation into the political process, and the differing reactions of conservative and liberal parties in Britain and Germany during the era of Disraeli, Gladstone and Bismarck respectively, and of the mass strikes in Russia in 1905 which forced Tsar Nicholas II to agree to a state Duma with legislative powers, elected by universal male suffrage. The time was coming when events in America would have a direct impact on countries in Europe, and Osborne argues that the end of an admittedly very unsettled democracy in the young post-war republic of Germany was precipitated or at the very least accelerated by the Wall Street crash of 1929, when investment from the United States dropped by 80% and export markets for German goods in Europe suddenly dried up.

Yet recovery, or rather military triumph, for the larger power and its allies in 1945 made good the previous collapse and changed the history of global democracy by being able to impose democratic structures on the vanquished, often in a deliberate attempt to halt the spread of communism. At the same time, European powers were forced to accept a diminished role in the world and begin the often painful process of decolonisation. This leads into a chapter on India, where the emergence of democracy began with the largest former colony of all. In fourteen pages, Osborne provides an admirably concise summary of government in India from the fourth and third centuries BC up to the era of Nehru, the Gandhis and beyond.

Five more chapters follow, taking the story from the wreckage of much of Europe’s industrial heartland in May 1945 to the iron curtain, the democratic west and the communist east, and the collapse of communist states from 1989 onwards. The process of course is still unfolding before us. As the last paragraph reminds us, a democratic society is never achieved, but is always a work in progress.

As a work of history I found this a very enlightening read. Some of the earlier chapters were perhaps a little heavy going, but as it dealt with eras of which I knew very little, that can hardly be blamed on the author. I was fascinated by the way in which he told the story of the last two centuries in particular as a political history of the world, demonstrating how events in one country or even continent impacted closely on those of another. In just under 300 pages he has told the story admirably and thoughtfully, as well as revealing how the roots of our society and government have their origins in a process which can be traced back to ancient times.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy:The New Rulers Of The World by John Pilger and House of Fun: 20 glorious years in parliament by Simon Hoggart (an entertaining compilation of parliamentary sketches covering the last two decades).

Buy Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne at Amazon.com.


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