The Greeks—that is to say, Plato and Aristotle—knew that democracy was a bad idea because it would allow the poor to plunder the rich. Modern democracy, however, has been a great success, even though a certain amount of plundering of the rich does go on. The reason is that democracy in Europe has been superimposed on the established constitutions of modern states. As a result, Government of the people (which is meaningless) becomes government by a balance between different groups. If one or other of these groups comes to seem dominant, then democracy begins to look rather like a concealed oligarchy. This is why the standard criticism of modern democracies has been to reveal them as concealing oligarchy.

Marxism is the classic version of this template, and later, Italians such as Michels and Pareto turned it into a kind of realism about democratic realities. James Burnham’s discovery that the bourgeoisie were being...

A new initiative for discerning readers—and our close friends. Join The New Criterion’s Supporters Circle.
Popular Right Now