Saturday, February 21, 2009

Charles Kurzman's "Democracy Denied"

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, and The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Democracy Denied, 1905-1915: Intellectuals and the Fate of Democracy, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Democracy Denied, 1905-1915, we find a group of pro-democracy intellectuals in China struggling to keep their toe-hold in government in 1913. They had come to power, at least partially, a year earlier through a revolt that toppled China's ancient monarchy, promising to re-make the government and the people of China through a modern program of democratization and state-building. They had held elections and won a significant portion of parliament. Newspapers had flourished under the newfound freedoms. Labor unions and other segments of civil society began to mobilize in a way that they never had before. The government embarked on public-health and educational reforms. The rule of law was flawed, and suffrage was limited -- but China enjoyed more political freedoms during this brief period than ever in its history, before or since. In a matter of months, the intellectuals who had led these battles had managed to alienate all of their erstwhile allies. And now, on page 99, they are being fired from their government positions and ousted from parliament by the president of China, an authoritarian military figure who was soon to declare himself the new emperor. The democratic experiment in China was ending.

The snapshot on page 99 captures one of the primary themes of the book: the failure of modern-educated intellectuals, who had led democratic revolutions in the early 20th century with such idealism and hopefulness, to consolidate their political project. The book discusses five other countries, in addition to China, where similar institutions emerged and collapsed during the decade before World War I: the Russian Revolution of 1905, Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution of 1908, the Portuguese Revolution of 1910, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911. By the outbreak of World War I, all of these democratic experiments had been undermined except Portugal's, where multi-party politics survived feebly until the fascists overthrew it in 1926. These relatively democratic interludes provided a precursor to later waves of democratization, and they offer a window in the social bases of democracy in the early 20th century.
Read an excerpt from Democracy Denied, 1905-1915, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue