“Démocratie. Histoire Politique d’un Mot:” A critical look on bourgeois parliamentarism

Two years ago, Francis Dupuis-Deri—a political science professor at UQAM also known for his anarchist activism and support of feminism—published a book entitled “Démocratie. Histoire Politique d’un Mot” (“Democracy: Political History of a Word”). With this historical study, he offers us a sharply critical look at the foundations of the parliamentary political regimes that today dominate the world. Reading his book is not only enjoyable, but also very useful for anyone looking to dispel the ideological veils that parliamentarism displays to better conceal the power of ruling class.

There is no word more closely associated with the parliamentary political regimes of our times than “democracy”; it is even completely overused. It’s just about impossible for anyone—no matter his/her tendency—to claim political legitimacy and criticize an opponent without doing so in the name of democracy. With democracy now recognized as a “universal value,” modern governments are somehow immune to any radical critique; we can always discuss the details but, as democracies, our states are basically unassailable.

The fact that democracy is unanimously recognized by all actors across the political spectrum could be seen by some as a progress. However, Dupuis-Deri suggests another hypothesis. According to him, the current success of the word democracy—and in particular its powerful identification with the ruling political regimes and the major governing parties—expresses a great historical defeat of the masses. Or rather two big defeats: one in the field of political struggle, the other at the ideological level. The people were first deprived of democracy as they were excluded from power, then they were later stripped of the memory of their defeat, while the new ruling classes have christened their exclusion from power with the name of democracy.

Francis Dupuis-Deri supports this hypothesis by analyzing the political discourse that prevailed in the United States and France from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. It will seem surprising for many to hear that the thinkers and founders of modern political regimes were not democrats. In fact, Washington, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Lafayette, Robespierre and many other great patriots and revolutionaries but were quite openly and violently anti-democratic. Abundantly quoted by the author, their comments in this regard are of striking clarity.

In the Age of Enlightenment, at the time of the French Revolution and of the American Revolutionary War, the word “democracy” possessed only one meaning—that of its ancient origins. It referred to a political regime where the people—understood as all citizens—exercised directly their power, the example being that of classical Athens. But the bourgeois political and intellectual vanguard from the eighteenth century was steeped in a profoundly elitist culture and were horrified by the idea of the plebs directly involved in debates and political decisions. The popular classes were considered irrational, manipulated and uninterested in the “common good.” Democracy was synonymous with abandoning to them the fate of the government; it was synonymous with chaos and, inevitably, a threat to property.

The bourgeois strongly preferred the example of the Roman Republic where people’s participation was limited and strictly regulated, and largely offset by the aristocratic components of the regime such as the Senate and the principal magistrates. They established their new modern republics with this in mind; by introducing the mechanisms of representation and of the elective system, they succeeded in keeping the masses away from power. The people are sovereign in the sense that those who govern are acting on their behalf, but they do not exercise direct sovereignty—they do it through their representatives, who are those who effectively decide. The only power that the people possess is the possibility to choose who will be the representatives of their masters among a minority of well-born, educated and wealthy.

This seizure of power by the bourgeois elite was challenged by the most militant sectors of the popular classes, who tried to impose their massive and direct participation in political life by the way of people’s assemblies, demonstrations, and insurrections. Although the French Revolution provides many examples of these challenges, these democratic “excesses” were strongly repressed and driven back by the new ruling class who strengthened the authority of the parliamentary system by lowering the vast majority of the sovereign people to the role of passive voters.

It is in the nineteenth century that the bourgeoisie gradually began to appropriate the word democracy to qualify the parliamentary system, in order to curb the increasing erosion of the legitimacy of governments that only served the privileges of a minority of rulers. By twisting the concept, which for centuries had been used to describe the direct participation of citizens in government, they weakened the ideological capacity of the masses to think of and claim their emancipation.

Dupuis-Deri concludes his study with a defense of the anarchist tradition, which according to him is the rightful heir of the genuinely subversive character of democracy, before it was reclaimed by the wealthy and dominant. What Dupuis-Déri doesn’t say is that it was in fact Marx and Engels—and later Lenin—who, in their time, perfectly unmasked the illusions of bourgeois democracy as they condemned parliaments as being the face of bourgeois dictatorships.

Dupuis-Déri’s study of modern political discourse confirms in every way that parliamentary regimes have indeed been designed and built by their founders as class dictatorships—that is to say, to protect the interests of the ruling class and to keep the oppressed out of power. That they were later revamped with a “democratic” ideological veneer changed nothing, nor the fact that the bourgeois regimes progressively extended suffrage to the working poor and the freed slaves, women and Indigenous people. The bourgeoisie always kept the upper hand on the composition and the reciprocation of the so-called “people’s representatives” in an institution built for them.

André Ayad