When Marx met Mill

People just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously di

May I suggest some summer reading? Consider it as a little extra homework, or an intellectual workout for the holiday season. The book is Democracy: Crisis and Renewal by Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ginsborg is a public intellectual of international renown, but you probably won't have heard of him because he writes mainly for the Italian press. The book is only 124 pages long, if you don't count the notes and bibliography. It is written in a perfectly accessible, non-academic style. It would take you an afternoon by the pool to get through it and, as a result, you would be vastly better informed about the state of global democracy and well placed to engage with the political process when you return from your holiday.

How do you feel about that? Patronised? Even more turned off politics than you were before you started this article? Deeply determined to read the latest Robert Harris after all? Your perfectly understandable reaction proves one of the main points of Ginsborg's book: it really is very difficult to inform people about the importance of participating in the democratic process. Because people just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously difficult to teach.

Ginsborg argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has entered into a period of crisis not of quantity (something like 120 of the 192 nation states of the United Nations can now be described as democracies), but of quality. As he writes: "While formal, electoral democracy expanded with great rapidity all over the world, disaffection grew in democracy's traditional heartlands. This is expressed in a consistent decline in voter turnout and membership of political parties and a loss of faith in democratic institutions and the political class."

This decline has also seeped into the new democracies of Europe, however. In the 2004 European parliamentary elections, turnout in the UK was under 40 per cent. But it was 38.5 per cent in Hungary, 28.3 per cent in the Czech Republic, 20.9 per cent in Poland and just 17 per cent in Slovakia. People may not have liked communism, but they do not seem greatly enthused by democracy, at least not at the level of the European Parliament.

Ginsborg's delightfully bonkers book begins with a meeting in London in March 1873 between two great political minds of the age, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. Over a generous dinner followed by port at Mill's home in Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, the two men discuss their competing visions of democracy. Marx argues for a "participatory" model based on the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers seize direct control in a process of radical decentralisation (otherwise known as proletarian revolution). Mill, on the other hand, argues for the "representative" model, in which an elected elite rules over the less-informed, poorly educated and hopelessly prejudiced majority. The party broke up just before midnight, and the two great men agreed to differ, although Marx conceded that in some countries, perhaps even Britain, progress towards true democracy might be possible without violence.

Did it really happen like that? You will have to read the book for yourself to find out. Mill's belief in "the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state" remains something on which all democrats would probably agree. By the late 19th century, the Marxist tradition and the liberal tradition diverged, with the latter ultimately triumphing in the revolutions of 1989. Ginsborg believes this discussion remains central to contemporary political debate: democracy should be essentially representative, or could people become more engaged with a country's political institutions if there were more direct involvement on the participatory model.

Like many on the left, Ginsborg is excited by the participatory politics of Porto Alegre, a city of four million in southern Brazil. In a system set up by the Workers' Party, the people of Porto Alegre take part in a series of meetings throughout the year to decide on priorities for the forthcoming budget. Delegates from local assemblies are then elected to a central budget council, where they thrash out a policy programme to be adopted by the mayor at the end of the year. In 2004, the Workers' Party was defeated in local elections, but such was the consensus around the participatory budget that the incoming coalition agreed to keep it.

Could such a model be adopted in Britain as a way of breathing life into local politics? Well, it has been tried, in the leafy outer London borough of Harrow, of all places. In spring 2005, in collaboration with Helena Kennedy's Power inquiry into political participation, the Harrow Open Budget Process brought together 300 residents to discuss priorities for the 2006/2007 budget and elect a panel to monitor how local politicians responded.

Ginsborg's book ends with an imagined conversation today between Marx and Mill about the merits of the Harrow experiment. Curious to know what had become of it, I called Harrow Council's press office. It has yet to get back to me. A report I found online showed that 94 per cent of those who took part thought it was a "good" or "very good" experience, and 74 per cent suggested it should be repeated. So what did happen? The Conservatives seized control of Harrow and the idea was scrapped. One thing you can rely on in Britain is that the dead hand of local politics will always throttle anything approaching genuine participation.