Parliament or democracy?

The Problem of Democracy


The French Revolution of 1789 put an end to the idea that some people were born to rule. In only a short number of years one of the oldest and most powerful monarchies in Europe was swept away. In its place came the idea of legal equality and individual rights as set out in the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.'

The basis of these new rights, established on foot of a great social upheaval, was the real hallmark of the French Revolution since it was accepted, from that point on, that laws and how they were made were the expression of the 'general will'. As such these laws could be made and unmade as that 'general will' was discerned. This was the real break with the past.

At the time of the French Revolution the idea of the 'general will' was still new in politics. Even so the implications for the future were not difficult to make out. Sixty years earlier, in England, during the Civil War the very same issues had come to the fore. If the monarchy was to be dispensed with, what type of society should replace it? What exactly constituted the 'general will'? And, as importantly, in whose service was its rule to be applied?

During the Putney Debates, the anti-Royalist forces who had fought to depose Charles II argued over these very issues. The principal leaders of the anti-Royalist movement, men such as Oliver Cromwell and others, were definite that the King's arbitrary rule should end. But, equally, they were clear that the running of society could not be left to just anyone. The King's right of power had rested on his birthright. Now that this was gone, a new form of distinction was needed, they argued, lest the rule of society fall into the hands of the common people. That new distinction was to be property. As Cromwell's general, Henry Ireton, put it:

'I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in disposing of the affairs of the Kingdom... that have not a permanent fixed interest in the Kingdom.' 1

But this view was not shared by others who had also fought the King. The Civil War had thrown up many groupings. Some, such as the Levellers, were conscious of the social conditions of the day. Others still, the Diggers, had seized un-worked land and declared it their own by virtue of the plants they had put on it and the labour they had expended. Such groupings were profoundly stirred by the struggle against the autocrat Charles II. They were anti-authoritarian and viewed matters differently from the likes of Cromwell. The well-known Leveller, Thomas Rainsborough, countered Ireton with:

'I think that the poorest ... in England hath a life to live as the greatest...and therefore ... every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.' 2

But this idea that everyone, irrespective of individual wealth, was entitled to a say in the running of society had dangerous implications. Implications that directly threatened the interests of the 'men of property' and the rich. Ireton again:

'By the same right of nature… by which you say a man hath an equal with another of the choosing of him that govern him, by the same right of nature he hath the same right in any goods he sees.' 3

The central matter being 'goods'. English society in the era of the Civil War was a much poorer society than it is today but, relative to the population of the time, there was still an abundance of wealth. That wealth was not shared equally. There was a massive disparity in who owned what, a major source of grievance as the Digger, Winstanley, noted:

'And this is the bondage that the poor complain of, that they are kept poor by their brethren in a land where there is so much plenty for everyone.' 4

So, in the English Civil War, the abolition of the rule of the King had raised almost immediately a more intractable problem. If full equality was conceded wouldn't the privilege of the rich be brought to an end? After all, it was Aristotle, thousands of years earlier, who had pointed out the most glaring fact: 'The rich are few and the poor are many.' In any straight forward count (or referendum) the interests of the rich would be swamped alongside the priorities of the more numerous poor. So was born the 'problem of democracy'.

The immediate solution employed by the rich during the English Civil War was, of course, force of arms. This was the fate suffered by democrats such as the Diggers and the Levellers, both of which were dispersed using military means. It was 'propertied' men such as Cromwell and Ireton who benefited most. They ruled through a new Parliament, and had greatly increased power, while the poor suffered on. As an observer noted5 in his journey across England in 1660:

'The island ... is ... governed by the influence of the sort of people that live plentifully and at ease upon their rents extracted from the toil of their tenants and servants ... each of whom within the bounds of his own estate acts the prince; he is purely absolute, his servants and labourers are in the nature of his vassals; his tenants indeed are free, but in the nature of subjects.' 5

Like the English Civil War, the French Revolution would have a limited effect on how society was organised in the short term. Though the French monarchy was fatally weakened and the 'rule of law' was established, the real beneficiaries were the emerging bourgeoisie. These, the merchants and bankers of France, had been one of the motive forces in the fight against the monarchy. They had provided the ideas and reasoning for the Revolution. For too long they had suffered unjust taxes, levied on them by a corrupt King. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, with their hands on the reins of power, they remade the laws in their own interest, to benefit trade and those who traded.

But the French Revolution was also crucially different - in a way that would have important overall consequences. Firstly, it 'was alone of all revolutions which preceded and followed it a mass social revolution'.6 The masses themselves had been one of the prime forces in its success. At crucial periods in the struggle for power they had, by their very presence, pushed events forward. This had struck a chord with the downtrodden everywhere, but it also taught a crucial lesson: where reform from above proved fruitless, revolution from below could work. In part, as a reflection of this, political consciousness rose across Europe.

The French Revolution was particularly important for a second reason. It occurred as the very early stages of the industrial revolution were getting underway. Overall, wealth in society was increasing. In France and England it is estimated that society's wealth doubled in the 18th century. But, in the next fifty years, as machinery and labour were harnessed, the rate of increase in wealth accelerated rapidly.

Beginning first in England, where conditions were most favourable, industrialisation spread relatively quickly to the continent of Europe. By the 1840s 'the actual industrial transformation of the non-English speaking world was still modest ... a little more than one hundred miles of railway line in the whole of Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the entire Balkan peninsula...' 7 But, even so, 'the actual rise in production and exports were gigantic'. 8

What this meant for the 'rich and privileged' was a vast increase in their wealth. How vast is often not appreciated. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, gives one indication with his explanation for the dramatic rise in railway construction that occurred at this time in Britain. In just twenty years railway construction there jumped from just a few dozen miles of line (in the 1820s) to 4,500 miles of line by 1840, to 23,550 miles by 1850. Where, he asks, did the money come from, for such endeavours? His answer is instructive: 'The fundamental fact about Britain in the first few generations of the Industrial Revolution was that the comfortable and rich classes accumulated income so fast and in such quantities as to exceed all available possibilities of spending and investment'.9 Hence, the 'speculative frenzies' concentrating on railway stock investments which hit England in 1835-7 and again in 1844-7, known with hindsight as 'railway mania'.

Yet, this enviable predicament contrasted sharply with the lot of the multitude whose role it was to labour for such enterprises. For them '...the transition to the new economy created misery and discontent...' 10 Those without property - those who, in effect, became known as the proletariat - didn't immediately take to the new order. 'Labour had to learn to work in a manner suited to industry... It also had to learn to be responsive to monetary incentive...' 11 The early generations of workers didn't find this easy, nor did they like it. There was considerable resistance.

The solution, notes Hobsbawm, 'was found in a draconian labour discipline, but above all in a practice where possible of paying labour so little that it would have to work steadily all through the week in order to make a minimum income...' 12 that it could survive on. This often required the whole family to work. Between 1834 and 1839, in the English cotton mills, of all workers, 'one quarter were adult men, one half women and girls and the balance boys below the age of eighteen.'13 By the 1840s, in Western Europe, 'the characteristic social problems of industrialisation ... the horrors of breakneck urbanisation ... were commonplace and of serious dimensions'.14

Small wonder then that Europe was convulsed by revolution in 1848. Whilst liberals in Italy, France, Hungary and Germany pressed forward against the continuing power of royalty in their own countries, independent demands of a serious nature emerged from the 'workers in Paris and other European cities'. Raising the cry for 'social revolution, for the Red republic' their 'demands challenged both property and the laws of the market'. 15


On to

Chapter 2. A Suitable Solution


From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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