- Democracy: A World History by Temma Kaplan, and: Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood by Armin Mattes, and: The Struggle for Democracy: Paradoxes of Progress and the Politics of Change by Christopher Meckstroth
At the beginning of The Struggle for Democracy, Armin Mattes states, “By now it must be admitted that [democracy] has proved its appeal to peoples on every continent and every major cultural and religious tradition on earth” (p. 2). We can hope, then, that historians of democracy will increasingly find themselves thinking about the worldwide context of their subject and that world historians will find it equally hard to avoid thinking about the course of democratic development. In each case the demands made on a scholar are going to be high. The challenge is often going to be, for those interested in world history, [End Page 692] breaking away from classic themes and historiographical approaches and moving to a wider analysis.
Three recent books try to say something new and useful about democratic development in ways that are not restricted to a single national or regional context. All three works seek to provide a new perspective; all three fall short of discussing the global relevance of the material that forms the central subject matter.
Of the three books, only one is written by a historian—namely, Temma Kaplan, whose Democracy: A World History is among the thematic and topical volumes of the series called The New Oxford World History. (Other thematic volumes include food, the city, and migration; there are also volumes organized by geography and chronology.) Democracy, and presumably the other books in the series, is aimed at a general or student audience.
Kaplan has a strong commitment to world history and to making it come alive. Her book covers a very long sweep of time, from the New Stone Age to the present. It also contains many interesting incidents from all over the globe and discusses a large number of people important in their own regions but generally unknown in the Anglophone world. But these anecdotes are not used effectively to build up a systematic analysis of democracy’s history. If we look at the first lines of chapter 1, we find Kaplan stating that farming and the need to allocate water fairly were important aspects of ancient democracy. This suggests that she will examine resource allocation as the foundation of early democracies. Exciting! But such an analysis never emerges. Kaplan’s treatment of ancient democracies is surprisingly inadequate. The laws of Hammurabi, the famous divineright legislator of ancient Babylon, are used as an example of “a certain level of cooperation for which people were responsible” (p. 6). Only such a vague standard of democracy could make Hammurabi and his advisers relevant to the topic. Further in chapter 1, the treatment of ancient Greece, more obviously important to the world history of democracy, shows no awareness of the best recent scholarship, such as Mogens Hansen’s discussion of the polis.2 Next up, an uninspiring description of Roman government slides into a discussion of religious institutions with communitarian impulses (with most attention given to the origins of Sikhism). A thin discussion of European government in the Middle Ages (the word “commune” does not appear) brings the first chapter to its end. The reader has no idea what might come next. [End Page 693]
In other chapters, too, it is seldom made clear how similar events in different parts of the world might be related to each other. For instance in the chapter on “Democracy against All Odds” the reader feels a lack of comparative analysis of the conflict between local or regional democracy and imperial ambition. In many historic contexts those fighting for...