Peasants and the Process of Building Democratic Polities: Lessons from San Marino *

Article excerpt

This essay challenges the conventional wisdom that democracy must be built upon the foundation of an established middle class, a belief forthrightly asserted in Barrington Moore's resolute dictum of "no bourgeois, no democracy". Taking a lead from Aristotle who thought peasants to be the best social group on which to build a political order that would preserve liberty, l consider the hypothesis that peasants can construct democratic systems of government. The little-known little country of San Marino provides a case study. Its long history serves to demonstrate that the driving force behind the establishment of democracy need not be an educated and wealthy middle class but that a poor and uneducated peasantry can provide this impetus. This is a finding that calls into question the very formula that Western governments, scholars and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank routinely prescribe for Third World countries.

The Framework of this Inquiry

The late twentieth century was--and the early twenty-first century is likely to continue to be--characterized by efforts to spread "liberal" democracy to all corners of the globe. And yet, while the spreading of democracy (1) is the official and well-funded policy of Anglo-Saxon polities and, to a lesser extent, of Western Europe, the actual advances of democracy are modest. There are no easy answers to the question of why the world-wide growth of democracy is rather sluggish. (2) This essay explores two issues that have significant ramifications for the efforts of establishing democracy in developing countries, namely the role of peasants in the process of building democratic polities, and the nature of the democratic order sought by Western planners for developing countries.

Part One of this essay challenges a commonly-held view that only urban, educated and wealthy middle classes can build democratic polities. It proposes that poor and illiterate peasants also can construct democratic systems of government, and deals with some of the theoretical issues that may be raised by this proposition. Part Two provides a concise history of the peasant republic of San Marino and thus empirical evidence that peasants can, indeed, build democratic polities. The history of a tiny country may easily be dismissed as having little, if any, relevance given present-day global political trends. However in the Conclusion I argue that, in countries in which the peasantry comprises the majority of the population, trying to build democracy without at least their passive tolerance is likely to produce poor results.

Part One. The Hypothesis: Peasants Can Build Democratic Systems of Government

Much of the literature on the evolution of democracy postulates, rather categorically, that it is exclusively a wealthy and educated middle class which can bring about a democratic order, a view most firmly expressed in Barrington Moore's resolute, but a- historical dictum of "no bourgeois, no democracy". (3) Remarkably, the apostles of capitalism and communism alike agreed that it is the middle class that performs the pioneering task of building democratic polities. To quell any lingering doubt in the virtue of the middle class, pro-democracy propagandists turn to Aristotle as the ultimate character witness. He is often, wrongly said to have ascertained that only the middle class could establish "democracy".

This essay does not question the fact that the middle classes have brought about democracy in many Western countries. What it does question, however, is the implied universality of the "no bourgeois, no democracy" dictum. Such a claim is unscientific since a variety of European countries have seen democracy established by peasants. (4) Interestingly, Dankwart Rustow asserts, that in "the typical Western country it was the growing strength of the lower classes in the wake of the Industrial Revolution that forced the ultimate transfer of power from oligarchic to democratic regimes". …