Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Honouring the Democrats

Great Democrats, edited by A. Barratt Brown (Spokesman books), reviewed by Anthony Arblaster

March 18, 2014
5 min read

great democratsIt is not often that a multi-authored collection of essays is resurrected after eighty years, but Alfred Barratt Brown’s tribute to the champions of modern democracy, first published in 1934, more than deserves its republication.

The names of some of these brave and persistent campaigners are probably familiar only to specialist historians, but since we owe the rights we now enjoy to them, they ought to be better known. There is Joseph Arch, nineteenth-century champion of agricultural workers, and Joseph Sturge, who campaigned against slavery as well as in support of the Chartists, and Millicent Garrelt Fawcett, an early fighter for women’s rights.

Best of all, there is Major John Cartwright, who sacrificed a respectable career to campaign for parliamentary reform. He was no timid gradualist. As early as 1776 he got to the heart of the issue : ‘Personality is the sole foundation of the right of being represented, and property has… nothing to do in the case.’ He is honoured in London WC1 with a statue and gardens, but how many people know why?

Other names are of course better known – from Rousseau and Tom Paine to Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln. Some of these inclusions are dubious, to say the least. Of the novelist John Galsworthy, St John Ervine is forced to admit ‘He could scarcely be called a democrat’, while L.P. Jacks struggles unsuccessfully to present Thomas Carlyle as a democrat. He was in fact one of democracy’s most eloquent and forceful critics. Nor do the ‘Christian Socialists’ really deserve their place in this collection. And Disraeli presents the paradox of a politician who was not a democrat in theory, but by pushing through parliament both electoral and social reform did “more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals in fifty”, as an early Labour MP put it.

Some of the contributors seem to have largely ignored the editor’s request that they concentrate on their subjects’ status as democrats.  There has never been a more brilliant and forceful radical journalist in Britain than William Cobbett.  He had to be included in this collection.  And who better to write about him than the great socialist historian and campaigner, GDH Cole?  But, alas, Cole tells us little about Cobbett’s democratic credentials.  The same can be said of Oliver Baldwin’s essay on another outstanding radical, William Morris, and of Henry W Nevinson’s piece on Edward Carpenter – a strikingly independent figure who has regularly to be rescued from the neglect of posterity. On the other hand MM Postan addresses directly the thorny issue of Marx’s view of democracy, and comes up with a carefully considered and plausible interpretation.

In his introduction Michael Barratt Brown draws attention to two obvious limitations of his father’s selection: it is predominantly English and predominantly male. Given the possibility of global coverage, it might have been better to have gone for exclusively British democrats, and to have reached back to include the seventeenth-century Levellers, who in the famous Putney debate of 1647 gave very clear expression to fundamental democratic principles.

The absence of women – only three feature alongside thirty-six men – is more serious, and surely somewhat surprising. In 1934 it was only five or six years since women in Britain had at last obtained the vote on equal terms with men, yet there is no chapter on the Suffragettes, nothing on the Pankhursts, and even the essay on John Stuart Mill does not pay much attention to his advocacy of women’s suffrage. There is, however, an excellent essay by Evelyn Sharp on Mary Wollstonecraft, whose extraordinary talent for radical analysis is epitomised in one of her pithy comments on Edmund Burke: ‘Security of property! Behold in a few words the definition of English liberty!’ – an observation which has certainly not lost its relevance.

Equally good is John Middleton Murry’s piece on Mary’s son-in-law, the poet Shelley. Murry takes Shelley’s politics seriously, and shows how they permeated his poetry. ‘Democracy was the vital atmosphere of his political thought.’ Tie this in with Bertrand Russell’s essay on Paine, and you can see how the period of the French and American Revolutions was when the democratic imagination blossomed as never before, and perhaps never since.

There is at least one exception to this – the mid-nineteenth century American poet, Walt Whitman, who is rightly included in this collection. In his passionate belief in human equality, he was a true, complete democrat, or as Gerald Bullett put it in his excellent essay, ‘a man full-blooded and brotherly, unselfconscious in his democracy and genuinely at ease with all kinds and classes.’ Democracy, properly understood, is not just a system of government, but a commitment to universal human equality.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee