An Eclectic Bibliography of the World History of Democracy

by Steven Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University.

Theoretical Considerations

There are many books on democratic theory. These are just a few that I parrticularly liked, or which provoked me to think about important issues. Other works, such as Hayek's, I have read, but somehow did not get into the bibliography. I would be interested in hearing about essential books I haven't listed here, especially if they have a firm empirical basis. Please write me.

 Visit the World History of Democracy site.

Chua, Amy.   World on Fire:  How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.   New York:   Doubleday, 2002.

Might as well start out with the bad news!   Despite the sub-title, this is not a critique of democracy so much as an argument that that "exported" institutions can have deleterious effects in a new environment.   Best seen as a very interesting survey of intractable the social and cultural divisions that affect many parts of the world, and make any kind of government difficult.  It is not, however, very useful in analyzing what has made democracy work in those places where it has succeeded.

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989.

A fine discussion of basic issues, based firmly on an historical analysis. Highly recommended.

Dunn, John, ed., Democracy: The Unfinished Journey.

A collection of articles re-surveying the history of democracy, from a European, early-1990s perspective. The articles vary in quality.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Democracy on Trial. Concord, Ont.: Anansi, 1993.

These are the Massey Lectures of 1993. It is a far more positive view of liberal democracy than seen in C.B. Macpherson's 1965 lectures in the same series (see below). Elshtain is particularly critical of the "politics of difference."

Femia, Joseph V. Marxism and Democracy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

A brief book by a scholar of Gramsci's thought. Thoroughly exposes the fact that Marxism has no room for democracy in it without contradicting major tenets of Marxism. This is a good primer on Marxism and its implementation.

Foner, EricHistory of American Freedom.   New York:   Norton, 1998.

Perhaps this doesn't belong in a section on democratic theory.   However, I found it an astonishingly good book, and it needs to be listed somewhere on this site.   It does not treat "freedom" as an ideal handed to Americans by the Founding Fathers, but as something Americans have disagreed about and struggled over, ever since 1776.

Jacobs, Jane. Systems of survival : a dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics. New York : Random House, 1992.

A very interesting fictional dialogue about human morality systems and how they determine how a society works. Her discussion of democratic access to good looks (through plastic surgery) and capital (through penny banks) is very insightful.

Levin, Michael. The Spectre of Democracy. The Rise of Modern Democracy As Seen By Its Critics. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

This book is a bit of a grab-bag, but does a good job of raising issues and discussing them briefly.

Part I talks briefly about the history of the extension of the franchise in USA, Britain, France, and Germany for historical context, then discusses criticisms of democracy in a general way. Part II examines the ideas of John Adams, Hegel, de Tocqueville, and Carlyle in some detail. Part III examines the special cases of the denial of votes to blacks in the USA and women more generally. The conclusion discusses the definition and the quality of democracy.

Lijphart, Arend. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977.

This book is part analysis and part prescription. The author believes that the misconception that democracy must mean strict majoritarian rule has distorted the perception of the development of democracy in plural societies and narrowed the choice of strategies for implementing it. Plural societies are those, in his view, that have strong vertical cleavages, in which people's contacts and identification are largely within their own sub-society. Consociational democracy is democracy that modifies its majoritarian principles to acknowledge the interests of these separate segments.

Magagna, Victor V. Communities of Grain. Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

An excellent and thought-provoking book, one that gives the reader a good grasp of the common features and tendencies of rural communities in their relations with outside authority.

M. repeats over and over again that these rural communities were not egalitarian or "egalitarian utopias." In the last chapter in particular he stresses the limitations of the communitarianism of the rural community. Modern communitarians who are attached to individual rights and the possibility of wider citizenship (=transferable rights of citizenship between one locality and another) cannot hope to recreate old-style rural communitarianism in the modern world.

It would be interesting to read this book in conjunction with Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (see below).

Macpherson, C.B. The Real World of Democracy. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1965.

This is the fourth series of CBC Massey Lectures, presented in early 1965.

The argument of this book is that liberal democracy is only one of three sorts found in the world of 1965, the others being the non-liberal democracies of the communist and underdeveloped countries. These other two have a valid claim to the name democracy because they aim to "provide the conditions for the free development of human capacities, and to do this equally for all members of the society." (p. 58) He takes seriously communist claims about the goals of communism and the economic successes of communism, and believes that a non-liberal society can at least lead the way to the free development of human capacities. The constant transfer of economic power from the majority to a small dominant group is seen as a unique problem of liberal democracy. (!)

 Interesting to read in the light of the developments of the 1990s, and worth comparing to Elshtain's Democracy on Trial, a later series of Massey lectures.

Mansbridge, Jane J. Beyond Adversary Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

A detailed investigation of two "unitary democracies," a small Vermont town and an urban countercultural workplace. Mansbridge is most interested in how these minidemocracies affirm unity and work for a perceived common good. It is based on extensive interviews, and that material is used well. M's chief theoretical point is that democracy need not only be "adversary" democracy in which everybody votes on an issue and the majority wins.

Markoff, John.  Waves of Democracy:   Social Movements and Political Change. Pine Forge Press, 1996.  

Markoff has argued that "the history of democracy is profoundly polycentric."   In this book he tries to account for the democratic and anti-democratic waves of modern history by examining the interaction between "social movement challengers" and "elite reformers" in all parts of the world.    Markoff takes comparative history and transnational interactions seriously, which puts him way ahead of the pack.

May, Larry, and Stacey Hoffman. Collective Responsibility. Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics . Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.

A collection of articles on various aspects of the question.

Moore, Jr., Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

This book has become a classic. It seeks to discover why some societies have in the process of modernization ended up as democracies, some as fascist dictatorships, and some as communist dictatorships. Moore believes that how and on what terms the countryside is modernized is the key.

Moore seems to be reacting against a very conservative mood in American academe in the early 60s, in which many people thought they had proved without a doubt that violent revolutions don't work and are unnecessary, and that gradualism is a much better way. Moore rejects this view on a number of grounds.

Modernization of countries in a world of industrial powers does not resemble modernization of the first few industrial powers. In other words, the path to modernization no longer is particularly conducive to the development of parliamentary regimes.

His view is that in all the paths to modernization, there has been a great deal of injustice, and injustice continues in all societies today. Peasant society in particular has been demolished or exploited in every modernizing society. He finds the arguments for both gradualism and revolutionary transformation equally flawed, and sees both Western liberalism and communism as obsolescent and repressive systems that cannot achieve just societies as they are.

Compare to Magagna's Communities of Grain (see above), which addresses some of the same concerns.

Putnam, Robert D. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 65-78.

This article had a moment of fame when it first came out. The focus is on the face-to-face associations that Tocqueville (see below) noted as particularly characteristic of American democracy. Putnam offers figures that show that membership in such associations--which he believes lead to a sense of identity and social trust--are in decline, although the USA still has more than many countries, and thinks this is a bad trend. The rising membership in "tertiary organizations" such as the Sierra Club, in which the member does not necessarily know the others, does not compensate in his view.

Putnam suggests that more research is needed into this question, and that methods of increasing social capital should be identified.

Rejai, M. Democracy. The Contemporary Theories. New York: Atherton Press, 1967.

A good collection of selections from theorists.

Sartori, Giovanni. Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1987.

Sartori 's intent in writing the book is to clean up the language of political theory. Since he last wrote a theory of democracy (Democratic Theory, 1962), he finds that language has been debased, especially the term democracy itself. In the book he hopes to define what democracy is, what we can expect from it, and how the claims for new or better types of democracy are false.

 A major point of Sartori's argument is that letting oneself get carried away by idealism is counterproductive. If every existing democracy is imperfect, that does not necessarily mean that democracy does not exist. Ideals must be matched to ideals, and realities to realities. Sartori is especially concerned that the striving for equality, or economic democracy, or some other good, has led people to forget how important political freedom is, that without political freedom there is little hope to hold on to anything else.

 Liberalism is a key value for Sartori. For Sartori, the essential good is the liberal society that preserves basic freedoms. A weakness of the book is that "liberalism" is not as clearly defined as other key terms.

 Strengths: He demolishes all sorts of dumb ideas and exposes many empty slogans.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America.Edited by J.P. Mayer. Translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

The purpose of this book was to investigate the prospects of democracy by an investigation of the most democratic society known to T. It was written in two volumes, five years apart, in the 1830s.

Tocqueville had a specific definition of democracy: he meant a society in which there were no important social or legal divisions. So when he talks about democracy, he is investigating a type of society more than a form of government, and is interested as much in social conditions and customs as in the details of government.

Despite its age, the book is still useful for both its observations and its theoretical discussion. Note that T.'s journal has also been translated and published. It is interesting for showing that many respectable Americans in 1830 (lawyers and such) told T. that democracy had already "gone too far."

Weiner, Myron. "Empirical Democratic Theory." In Competitive Elections in Developing Countries. Edited by Myron Weiner and Ergun Ozbudun. Pp. 3-34. Duke University Press, 1987.

Weiner finds that almost all social and economic theories of the prerequisites for democracy are incapable of accounting for the success or failure of various democratic experiments without making many ad hoc exceptions.

Weiner finds the most telling empirical evidence on the matter is the fact (emphasized in the original): "Every country with a population of at least 1 million (and almost all the smaller countries as well) that has emerged from colonial rule since World War II and has had a continuous democratic experience is a former British colony." Therefore he is particularly interested in the British practice of colonial government.

Zakaria, Fareed.  The Future of Freedom:  Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2004.

A pessimistic view by a journalist, of interest for his forthright assertion that freedom requires a certain kind of elitism.

Copyright (C) 1998, 2000, 2004 Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.