Book Review: Of the People, For the People- A New History of Democracy

Of the People, for the People

Of the People, By the People by Roger Osborne.

Osborne, Roger (2011) Of the People, For the People: A New History of Democracy. London: The Bodley Head. RRP £14.99 paperback.

With everything that’s been going on around the world over the last few years, you would be forgiven for feeling a little disillusioned with democracy. Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the UK are just two of the most prominent examples of a world that feels increasingly divided, antagonist, and extreme. But democracy has always been flawed. As Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So what feels to me like impending disaster might just be the normal state in a flawed system. In this context, I found Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne to be an engaging and illuminating read.

Let’s be clear from the beginning: democracy is humanity’s finest achievement. Championed, idealised, misused, abused, distorted, parodied and ridiculed it may be…but democracy as a way of living and a system of government is the avenue by which modern humans can fulfil their need to construct lives of real meaning.

Osborne, 2011; p.1

Of the People, By the People traces democracy from its origins in Ancient Athens right up to when the book was published in 2011. One of the first points that Roger Osborne makes is that democracy is actually a relatively unusual form of government. Durimg the Roman period it disappeared for hundreds of years, and has only really become of the dominant form of government around the world in the last century or so. With this in mind, Osborne considers historical societies that we wouldn’t consider to be democratic, but which exhibited elements of democracy, in order to try and understand why and how democracy develops. The book considers what the conditions are that are conducive to the development of democracy. By extension, it also asks ‘What is democracy?’ What are its defining characteristics? Where are the boundaries between democracy, and other forms of government? Osborne doesn’t offer clear answers – these are massive questions, and I would be very sceptical of any simple answer anyone put forward, but he encourages the reader to reflect, and come to your own opinions.

Many books that claim to offer a global history have a tendency to actually focus on Western history, with perhaps a cursory glance towards the rest of the world. In Of the People, By the People, Osborne actually takes non-Western democracy seriously, devoting entire chapters to South America in the 1800s, post-Independence India, and post-Independence Africa. This genuinely global focus is refreshing.

Osborne also considers how and why democracy has been lost throughout history. On some occasions, such as in Nazi Germany, democracy was even voluntarily given up by the people’s elected representatives. Combined with the realisation that democracy is actually a very unusual form of government, rather than the permanent factor that I think many in the West believe it to be, Of the People, For the People is a powerful reminder that democracy has to be protected and defended. If we take it for granted, we may well lose it.

Of the People, By the People, is a well-written book and informative book that I genuinely enjoyed reading. If you are feeling slightly dazed and confused by everything that’s going on in modern politics, then it may well put things into context. It probably won’t restore your faith in democracy entirely, but it might help a bit.

Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

Beatrice and sidney Webb

Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

Beatrice and sidney Webb Russia

Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb