Echoes of Autonomy: The Historical Legacy of Participatory Democracy

workers over city in 30s

Echoes of Autonomy. The Historical Legacy of Participatory Democracy

Most people today associate the term ‘democracy’ with the modern parliamentary versions of representative democracy that have come down to us from the bourgeois revolutions of England, North America and France, closely linked to the economic development of capitalism. In a world of total crisis on many levels, this form of democracy has now lost much of its legitimacy in many parts of the world. To a large degree it has become an outright oligarchy and plutocracy, a corporate state run by integrated economic-political elites, no matter who gets elected.

There is, however, also a historical legacy of ‘people power’ (demo-cracy) and autonomy, of direct or participatory democracy, which is barely known. Here, the people themselves have found forms of self-government, self-rule, autonomy, i.e. without the need for rulers or a separate political, and in some cases administrative/judicial, class. However, given the limitations of patriarchal societies, most often the pre-modern forms of participatory democracy excluded women and their societies sometimes included the institution of slavery (e.g. the Greek polis).

The following is a doubtlessly incomplete list of such practical examples, chronologically arranged. (The original text includes voluminous endnotes with additional supporting evidence from the literature. WordPress will not download those endnotes, so anyone interested in reading them can find them in the Resources section of the IOPS website here:

The ongoing collective human project of autonomy ‒ i.e. the ‘good society’ in which the people in free association and mutual aid make all their own rules about how to live and work together – may take inspiration from these sketches. Another world is indeed possible.

? till modern times: many egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes

c. 2000 BCE Syrian-Mesopotamian self-governing assemblies (Sumerian ukkin, Akkadian puhrum) especially within Babylonian and Assyrian empires

c. 1500 BCE Indian self-governing assembly republics (early Vedic period) influenced by Syrian-Mesopotamian assemblies

c. 1000 BCE Phoenician assemblies of free male citizens throughout Phoenicia and colonies along the coastlines of the whole Mediterranean basin (influencing Greek democracy)

5th century BCE Greek polis: direct democracy of free male citizens (women and slaves were excluded)

? till modern times: Kabyles, a peasant Berber tribe in North Africa, practise village direct democracy of all men of age based on the principle of consensus

Early Middle Ages Europe: the folkmotes of the arising village communities autonomously regulate all disputes using customary law and move from the blood revenge to the principle of compensation

High Middle Ages Europe: the ‘12th Century Renaissance’ sees both an increase in the free self-government of many village communities and a blossoming of direct democracy and mutual aid in the town neighbourhoods and guilds of the fortified burghs, towns and cities all over Europe

13th century onwards Swiss rural canton assemblies (‘Landsgemeinde’), now only two remaining (women were excluded in many)

Middle Ages Basque anteiglesia (‘before the church’), town meetings voting on local matters and electing representatives to regional assemblies

17th century onwards New England town meetings (founded by the Puritans)

1647 March-October, resisting attempts by Parliament to partially disband them without fully paying arrears of wages and sending the rest off to conquer Ireland, rank and file soldiers of the parliamentary army during the English Revolution organize their own meetings and elect two ‘Agitators’ for each regiment, these plus two commission officers form an Army Council which sought the resolution of their grievances; radical Agitators captured the king and linked up with civilian radicals and Levellers to express social and political concerns

1789-93 Paris Commune and its sixty sections/neighbourhood assemblies during the French Revolution

1871 Communes of Paris and other French cities during the Prussian invasion

1905 October-December first development of strike committees into revolutionary workers’ councils (soviets) in Petrograd and Russian provinces during the Revolution (40-50 plus a few soldiers’ and peasants’ councils)

1915 British shop steward and workers’ committee movement, first national rank and file conference of metal workers

1917 February Russian Revolution and forming of workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets) and factory committees ; despite calls by the Provisional Government to delay any revolutionary actions until the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, Russian peasants form village assemblies, committees, communes and expropriate the land-owning gentry; first German workers’ council in Leipzig (April); first soldiers’ councils in the French army (May); first national congress of Russian workers’ councils and anarchist-led workers demonstration in Moscow calling for ‘all power to the soviets’ (June); first workers’ and soldiers’ council in Leeds (June); election of national Administrative Council of British movement of shop stewards and worker committees (August); first national congress of Russian factory committees (October)

1918 Moscow and Petrograd factories elect own delegates councils against the now Bolshevik-dominated soviets (March); soldiers’ and workers’ councils formed all over Germany, political anti-monarchy revolution in Berlin, general assembly of 3000 Berlin soldiers’ and workers’ council delegates elects new government of the socialdemocratic republic (November); general congress of German soldiers’ and workers’ councils declares itself for the parliamentary system (December)

1919 Conference of Rhine-Westphalia soldiers’ and workers’ councils begins socialisation of mining industry (January); conference of Ruhr soldiers’ and workers’ councils declares general strike and armed struggle against the counter-revolutionary Freikorps (February); Proclamation of the Hungarian Council Republic (March-May)

1920 Occupation and temporary management of c. 600 north Italian steel factories by about 500 000 workers (September)

1921 Insurrection of the anarchist Kronstadt Commune of sailors against the Bolshevik dictatorship and for free soviets in Russia

1931 Attempt by Spanish agricultural workers to form elected rural communes

1936-39 Widespread anarchist self-management in Spanish villages and factories during the Spanish Revolution and civil war: 1000 to 1600 agricultural collectives, all industry and public services collectivised in Catalonia and 70% in the Levante, perhaps 5-7 million people directly or indirectly involved

1956 Hungarian Revolution against Communist dictatorship carried by workers’ councils

1968 Participatory democracy in many grassroots parts of the international student movement; occupation of factories, schools and universities during the non-violent May-June insurrection in France

2001- ongoing: After the 2001 debt crisis, economic collapse and the loss of legitimacy of government and parties in Argentina, the people set up neighbourhood assemblies and barter systems; abandoned factories and enterprises (270 as of 2013) were occupied and are run cooperatively, 70 % without bosses and with equal pay; thousands of autonomous neighbourhood cooperatives also organise work and services

2011 The Occupy and Indignados movement assemblies in the US, Spain, Greece and elsewhere practise participatory decision-making

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 13, 2014.

One Response to “Echoes of Autonomy: The Historical Legacy of Participatory Democracy”

  1. […] By peterln […]

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