Of the People by the People: A New History of Democracy

Edward Vallance is impressed with a concise rundown of democracy from Athens to the Arab Spring


Reviewed by: Edward Vallance
Author: Roger Osborne
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £20


With his 2006 book Civilization Roger Osborne established a reputation as an author who could deliver a very big subject in a relatively short book. He repeats the trick in this new history of democracy, a narrative which begins in ancient Athens and ends with a nod to the ‘Arab Spring’ of last year.

Within a mere 300 pages of text, Osborne not only manages to cover the more familiar moments in the history of democracy – the republics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Putney debates, the American and French revolutions – but also less well-known episodes such as the emergence of democratic government in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the 16th century.

The book is a brilliant example of authorial brevity, the writing neither hurried nor baldly functional: see here Osborne’s wonderful description of the French revolution’s turn from democracy to terror as being like “a sow eating its own farrow”.

Yet while there is much to admire in this book, telling such a complex story in one smallish volume does bring with it some problems.

In his introduction to the volume, Osborne makes it clear that he is not offering an essay in the history of political thought. The book is not an exploration of democracy as a concept but an investigation of how democratic governments emerged from “practical experience and continual human interaction”.

This approach certainly has its benefits, not least that, in focusing on the actual experience of democratic government rather than ideas about democracy, Osborne is able to remind us that we are not on some irreversible trajectory towards a liberal, democratic utopia.

Democracies have come and gone throughout history. Indeed, as Osborne points out, in moving towards modern mass democracies based around the exercise of the vote, we have lost many of the participatory elements (service to the community, the parish, the borough) that were a feature of premodern ‘democracy’. However, in places Osborne’s practical approach leads to a rather unnecessary antipathy to political theory.

It is certainly doing a disservice to western political thought to associate conceptions of the ideal society primarily with 20th-century fascism or communism as Osborne does here. More to the point, political concepts also surely shape “practical experience”. To develop a representative form of government, you must have some idea of what ‘representation’ amounts to.

The difficulties with this approach are evident when Osborne unwittingly inserts his own ‘conception’ of what democracy is into the text, as when he states that “the basic rights of the citizen” are an “essential element of democracy”. Yet, as he demonstrates very effectively in the book, ‘rights’ have been understood in very different ways across historical periods.

Finally, for a book that is interested in the actual operation of democratic government rather than in ideal types, Osborne shows relatively little interest in those left out of the democratic process. For example, he does not comment on the fact that the citizens of democratic Graubünden were perfectly happy to exercise undemocratic lordly authority over other parts of the surrounding region.

Glaringly, women, largely excluded from ‘democracy’ for much of western history, are mainly dealt with in a single paragraph on the female suffrage movement.

However, these criticisms do not detract from Osborne’s impressive achievement here. To retell the history of democracy so vividly and yet so concisely is no mean feat. His work serves as an important reminder that the price of democratic freedom is eternal vigilance. 

Edward Vallance is author of A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010)

See also…


Ancient Greek democracy: as similar to ours as we think?