Razmig Keucheyan: Universal suffrage, a still-unfinished conquest

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Ephemeral democracies

It is very widely believed that the establishment of universal suffrage marks the final outcome ofthe democratic process: any backward step would be impossible. Yet viewed at a worldwide level, the conquest of the right to vote has been far from linear in its progress: having suffered frequent retreats, attempts to shape our collective destiny have required ever more vigorous popular mobilisations.

Democracy is in crisis. A recent illustration of this is the gap between the Thessaloniki programme – on which basis Syriza won January’s parliamentary elections in Greece – and the cascade of concessions that the European Union has forced upon the resulting government. ‘It’s the logic of 70-30’, the European Economics Commissioner Mr. Pierre Moscovici earnestly explains. ‘70% of the measures [that Brussels wants] are non-negotiable, whereas 30% can be changed’. In the hierarchy of the political values of our time, popular sovereignty cuts a very pale figure indeed.


Like all political systems, democracies are mortal. They can die; and to understand that, we have to ask how they are born. Representative democracies consist of a set of political, juridical, economic and cultural institutions; the establishment of social security in France is not just a social conquest but also a democratic one, allowing each person to exercise their citizenship sheltered from the hazards of existence. Yet universal suffrage seems to be a characteristic principle of contemporary representative democracies; that is, the right for each adult person to choose their representatives or express their view in referendums. This right is accompanied by a series of fundamental freedoms: of conscience, of expression, of assembly, of organisation…

Universal suffrage did not just appear from one day to the next. In fact, the so-called ‘bourgeois’ revolutions never immediately secured the right to vote for all citizens. For example, during the French Revolution the legislative assembly of 1791 was elected by a two-class franchise, limited by a property qualification. Following the establishment of the First Republic – the fruit of the popular insurrection of 10 August 1792 – suffrage was extended for the Convention elections, and yet women as well as men without independent income were still excluded. The Constitution of the Year I (1793) provided for the introduction of universal male suffrage, yet it was never implemented and the property-qualified franchise returned in 1795.  It took time for fully representative democracies to emerge, and this development would also require other factors to intervene, in particular popular struggles ‘from below’ for the extension of democratic rights. As the political scientist Adam Przeworski put it, ‘political rights were conquered by the poorer classes’ [1]. Elites only consented to this when they were forced to do so. Conversely, the drying up of these struggles and the difficulty that social movements face in demanding new rights explain the current withering of democracy. 

A look at the history of universal suffrage around the world allows us to bring into relief the question of what were the determining factors in driving democratisation. Liberia (1839) and Greece (1844) were the first countries to introduce universal male suffrage [2] while New Zealand (1893), Australia (1901), Finland (1907) and Norway (1913) were the pioneers when it came to truly universal suffrage. These countries were all relatively ‘peripheral’ on the geopolitical and economic stage. At the turn of the twentieth century seventeen states had established universal suffrage for men, but just one country had adopted voting rights for all.

A variable-geometry right to vote

There was a breakthrough after the First World War: in less than fifteen years, the number of representative democracies with full universal suffrage rose from four to ten. Then their number fell across the 1930s, with the rise of the fascist regimes. In Germany, for example, the Weimar Republic introduced universal suffrage for both sexes in 1919, but Hitler effectively abolished it in 1933. So the real universal suffrage revolution only came after the second global conflict. To mention just a few examples, France introduced it in 1944, Japan in 1945, Italy in 1946, Belgium in 1948, the United States in 1965 (with the Voting Rights Act, allowing Southern blacks to vote) and so on. The principles of modern democracy proclaimed at the end of the eighteenth century took more than a hundred and fifty years to fully become reality. After all, in the minds of many of its real or supposed ‘founding fathers’, the right to vote was reserved to well-off white men.

The extension of this right rarely followed a linear process. After the Revolution – which itself saw four different forms of suffrage – France again shifted from a property franchise (re-established in 1815) to male universal suffrage (adopted by decree on 5 March 1848) before briefly returning to a property franchise (through a 3 March 1850 law, removing 2.5 million males’ voting rights) and then again to universal male suffrage (under the Second Empire and the Third Republic). Fully universal suffrage was only finally introduced in 1944 [3]. History is often punctuated by such reverses, and there is no reason to think that they are now definitively a matter of the past.

Three main criteria have been used in contemporary history to exclude people from voting rights: class, sex and ‘race’. The social criterion is the most commonplace one. It includes, and often combines, conditions concerning private property, income, taxation or even literacy. Though less frequent, the sexual and racial criteria proved more enduring. The United States only abolished its racist electoral laws in 1965, and Switzerland only put an end to its sexist voting system at the federal level in 1971 (some cantons having already done so in the 1950s): for a long time, such countries were unfinished democracies. Moreover, US electoral law has recently made backward steps, with the return of criteria for exclusion: in the November 2014 mid-terms many Republican governors tried to kick ‘bad voters’ out of the polling booths: namely, voters from poor, black- or Hispanic majority districts, likely to support the Democrats [4].

Is there any logic behind the extension of voting rights? While democratisation cannot be reduced to a single cause, there are ‘imitation effects’: the greater the number of democracies in the world, the more pressure there is on non-democratic states to at least make a pretence of democracy. In the twentieth century the worst dictators claimed to have democratic backing and organised fraudulent elections.

But there is a factor that’s a necessary condition for the extension of suffrage: the existence of popular struggles for such rights. At a statistical level, we can see that the total number of strikes, demonstrations, riots and other (more or less violent) forms of mobilisation systematically increase in the years that precede the extension of the right to vote [5]. The statistical correlation between the expansion of democratic rights and other variables – economic growth, literacy, urbanisation – is notably weaker. 

The explanation for this is a simple one. For political or economic reasons, dominated groups – the workers’ movement, feminists, minorities… - demand equal rights, and in particular the right to vote. Elites resist as much as possible. The idea that the extension of suffrage represents a threat to private property was a commonplace of nineteenth and twentieth-century political thought (and not only among conservatives), as was the argument that only property-owners are capable of governing in the general interest [6]. Arguments of this type also regularly reappear in the history of democracies, like in 1975, when the trilateral commission led by Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington and Joji Watanuki published its report into the supposed ‘crisis of governance’ in modern societies [7]. But when popular pressure is too strong, elites are forced to give in.

That does not mean that the popular classes won these democratic rights all by themselves. Two supplementary factors also played a decisive role in the democratisation process: wars, and divisions among elites.

According to the sociologist Göran Therborn’s expression, some democracies are ‘democracies by defeat’: that is, they arose during or after a war [8]. In Austria, Germany, Italy, and Japan, for example, the extension of the right to vote was a more or less direct consequence of military reverses. Just like in France at the end of the nineteenth century, where male universal suffrage returned after the fall of Napoleon III, following his defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. And it’s no chance thing that the universal suffrage revolution took place in the years following the Second World War.

Military defeats pull apart the existing political coalitions. They weaken the hegemony of the ruling power bloc and allow other forces to make their demands heard. Sometimes the extension of suffrage has also taken place in the context of the preparations for war, serving to galvanise the population. In his memoirs Otto von Bismarck wrote that ‘the adoption of universal suffrage [in 1866] was a weapon in the fight against Austria and the other foreign powers, a weapon in the fight for national unity’ [9].

Divisions among the ruling classes have also contributed to the extension of voting rights. The aristocracies of France’s ancien régime relied on hierarchies of status in order to cement their rule, and these also served as a means of regulating differences. The bourgeoisie – a ruling class of a new type – at least partly dissolved these hierarchies. Yet given the social and spatial division of labour, ‘fractions’ formed within the bourgeoisie (industrial, agricultural, commercial, financial etc. forces), whose interests did not necessarily coincide. These fractions compete with each other for the appropriation of power and profit; and though they mostly do so peacefully, they sometimes also resort to war. For example, the aggravation of the clashes within the ruling classes in the United States was one of the causes of the 1861-65 War of Secession.

The dynamics of alliances and conflicts

To organise its domination and ensure that the competition among its different fractions did not reach more extreme proportions, the bourgeoisie resorted to a new regulating mechanism: parliamentarism. ‘Proto-democratic’ regimes thus arose at the threshold of the modern era, like the Icelandic parliament of the 930s onward, the Italian, German and Swiss city-states, and then the British parliamentary monarchy of the mid-seventeenth century, this country along with Sweden having the oldest such institutions. The roots of parliamentarism go back to Antiquity, but its combination with capitalism conferred new historic functions upon it.

The existence of fractions among the economic elites thus gave rise to dynamics of alliance and conflict. This opened up a political space within which context dominated groups could make their own demands heard, including the right to vote. Their success in this regard has sometimes owed to the alliances that they managed to build with certain sections of the elites. The extension of voting rights to women owed not only to the pressure exercised by feminist movements, but also, in some cases, to this or that ruling-class element’s belief that women’s vote would suit its own purposes: for example, in Catholic countries it was widely held that women would follow the clergy’s recommendations. The pressure ‘from below’ was thus combined with the divisions that existed ‘above’.

What lessons does the tumultuous global history of universal suffrage allow us to draw for the present day? If democracy today seems to be in danger, this is because the main reason for its emergence – a century and a half of popular pressure – has significantly weakened in the last quarter-century, at least in longstanding developed countries (the ‘emerging countries’ have quite a different history). The lack of divisions among the ruling classes also seems to encourage the retreat of democracy. In recent decades neoliberalism has been so hegemonic that it has not tolerated any alternative political project, even one coming from within the elites [10]. For this reason, the solidity of the ruling bloc has prevented popular movements from establishing any sort of a hold. It is striking to note, in this regard, that the economic crisis that struck in 2008 did not shake the unity of the ruling classes – as we see in the solitude of the Greek government in the face of European intransigence. Syriza’s victory has however served to demonstrate that breaches do exist. Our hope is that more such breaches will open up simultaneously in the years to come, and democracy will be able to resume its forward march.

Razmig Keucheyan

Sociology lecturer at the Sorbonne (Paris-IV), and editor of the Gramsci anthology Guerre de mouvement et guerre de position, (La Fabrique, Paris, 2012).

[1] Adam Przeworski, ‘Conquered or granted ? A history of suffrage extensions’ (PDF), British Journal of Political Science, vol. 39, no. 2, Cambridge, April 2009.

[2] Founded by an American colonisation initiative seeking a territory for freed slaves, from 1839 Liberia enjoyed a constitution setting out all men’s right to vote on the lieutenant-governor. The country became independent in 1847, and adopted a property-qualified franchise.

[3] Cf. Alain Garrigou, ‘Le suffrage universel, “invention” française’, Le Monde diplomatique, April 1998.

[4] Cf. Brentin Mock, ‘Retour feutré de la discrimination électorale’, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2014.

[5] Adam Przeworski, ‘Conquered or granted ? A history... ‘ (PDF), op. cit.

[6] Cf. Bernard Manin, Principes du gouvernement représentatif, Flammarion, Paris, 2012 (first edition 1995).

[7] Cf. Olivier Boiral, ‘Pouvoirs opaques de la Trilatérale’, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2003.

[8] Göran Therborn, ‘The rule of capital and the rise of democracy’, New Left Review, I/103, London, May-June 1977.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cf. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, ‘Alliance au sommet de l’échelle sociale’, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2010.

See also the letters page from the May 2015 edition of Le Monde diplomatique

Translated by David Broder, see here for the original