Luciano Canfora and the Question of Democracy

by Matthijs Krul on January 10, 2014

In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?

Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?

Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.

More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.

It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.

The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.

A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.

This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.

The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.

Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.

But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.

Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.

But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.

The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.

However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps the central question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.

How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:

In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.

Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.

Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.

For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.


1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.

  • http://www.williamsstudiogallery.com William C Crain

    Democratic socialist } i’d consider myself. Excellent review/topic not to mention so well elucidated upon. Thank you.
    i’m of the opinion that we make our changes through the ballot box.(barring any political party shinanigans) because i feel the other choice is molotov coctails ~ not that they aren’t long over due but the civilized method of one person one vote per representative of proportional constituents. In Montana we have 2 US so called Senators for less than a million residents, CA has 2 for 13 million ~ Hello proportions.
    i’m for National Public Vote. issues such as Pres Elect, War, Safety Net is given to all eligible voters on a voting holiday…with a paper reciept.
    The atitude of not Voting cause it’s the opium of the masses is a wives meme if ever there was one. Lazy Luzers throw in the towel and the beast, the two headed dragon (Repugs and Dems) scoorches the %99 from a Neo-Liberal mouth. I hate electoral politix as much as anyone but i can’t kill the dragon sitting on the couch watching Tee Vee sitcoms.
    I feel Capitalism is the ‘player’ that kills ‘democracy’ and big ‘D” Neo-libs pour thru the Neo-con doors indemifying themselves from any wrong doing intentional on not… We don’t have a democracy, we have soft fascism on the cusp of full on Fascism ~ votes won’t be counted in this senario and i want my G-kdzzzz to have a life not live like the poor courageous Palestinians.
    Happy New Year.

  • David Jones

    Hey there FW Crain, good to see you engaged, I just discovered North Star today. As for democracy,such reforms as suffrage, districting and instant run-off will have little effect on egalitarian outcomes as long as capitalist ideology/culture is hegemonic. Therefore, the economic and kinship spheres must be addressed simultaneously with the political (revolution in the universal sense). Personally, I think the democratically owned and operated workplace with balanced job empowerment , as in the Participatory Economy, is the place to begin the transformation to democracy.

  • Jacob Richter

    All political and related administrative offices, and also the ability to influence or
    participate in political decision-making, should be free of any formal or de facto disqualifications due to non-ownership of non-possessive property or, more generally, of wealth.

    Since Bordiga and “democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship” are mentioned, why is there no discussion about the possibility of inverse restrictions on political participation? Universal suffrage isn’t a principle to be upheld. By no means does this suggested condition demand in the grammatically double negative (“disqualifications” and “non-ownership”) preclude the very illiberal disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie – and other owners of the aforementioned types of property – as one of the possible measures of worker-class rule.

    In fact, not only did the original Soviet constitution deprive voting
    rights from the bourgeoisie and others even on more functional criteria such as
    hiring labour for personal profit, but agitators from the sans culottes / lower classes in the French Revolution demanded the limitation of the right of suffrage to those
    classes only.

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