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Echoes of Autonomy. The Historical Legacy of Participatory Democracy

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[I'll park this here and in Resources for what it's worth. Not necessarily comprehensive, but a start. Am working on a few more quotes in the endnotes, but don't want it to get too extensive either... Perhaps a lot of activists may be a little confused on the depth of difference between mainstream and social democratic/liberal notions of 'democracy' and the radical notion of participatory democracy as autonomy, self-management and social revolution. Enjoy. Peter.

P.S.  The IOPS site seems to be experiencing quite a few probs since its technical collapse a while back?]


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.


There is, however, also a historical legacy of ‘people power’ 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 class. The following is a summative list of such practical examples, chronologically arranged, with additional supporting evidence outlined in the endnotes. The ongoing collective human project of autonomy ‒ i.e. the ‘good society’ in which the people in free association make all their own rules about how to live and work together – may take inspiration from these sketches. Another world is indeed possible.


For ease of reading, sources and all supplementary evidence for this overview have been confined to the endnotes.


Some egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes[i]

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


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


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

5th century BCE Greek Polis of free male citizens (women and slaves were excluded)[v]

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[vi]

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

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)[viii]

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’ councils (soviets) and factory committees[ix]; 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[x] ; 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 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[xi]

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[xii]

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



[i] From the blurb to a sociological study of ‘regulated anarchy’ in African tribes, Christian Sigrist’s Regulierte Anarchie (1967, own translation PL-N): “The result of his research is that a society without domination is possible not only in small, homogenous groups but also in large and much sub-divided tribes which may have as many as 900 000 members. These tribes or ethnicities – in which there may be numerous inequalities of gender, age, property and influence ‒ are able to secure very differentiated systems of law without a political centre or coercive institution. Behavioural management both in familial, clan and local units and between these units is made possible according to the principle of reciprocity through the solidary behaviour of groups as well as through the mediations of ritual specialists. Group members prevent these specialists from expanding their limited rights into political power often through the violent protection of norms of equality, for example via the persecution of the power-hungry as wizards.”

On Eskimo tribes, H. Barclay, People without Government (1982), p. 40: “In Eskimo society there is no-one who can be called a ruler ‒ a person who can order others to obey him, having behind this order an exclusive right to employ physical force to compel obedience. Leadership is informal and the role of leadership only loosely defined. The commands of a leader can be ignored with impunity, but this could be dangerous, especially in connection with a malevolent shaman. In a community major issues are openly discussed in informal gatherings. Consensus regarding a course of action may result, usually being an approval of the suggestions made by influential men. However, if unanimity is not forthcoming, the disagreeing parties may merely go their own way.”

[ii] J. Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), pp.109ff. “These much older assemblies of Syria-Mesopotamia teach us fundamentally to rethink the origins of democracy. They demand that we prepare ourselves for a shock: they invite us to see that democracy of the Greek kind had eastern roots and that therefore in a very real sense today’s democracies are indebted to the first experiments in self-government by assembly of ‘Eastern’ peoples traditionally written off as incapable of democracy in any sense. Ex oriente lux: the lamp of assembly-based democracy was first lit in the East.” (p.113)


[iii] Ibid. p.124: “[…] the ancient self-governing assemblies of Syria-Mesopotamia were contagious. […] assemblies spread towards the east, for instance into what is today the Indian subcontinent, where sometime after 1500 BCE, in the early Vedic period, republics governed by assemblies became common.”


[iv] Ibid. p.108 “It is easy to see that the Phoenicians were ultimately responsible for introducing the culture of government by assemblies into the Greek world. Less obvious is the way in which the Phoenicians’ taste for assemblies had been acquired by their sustained contact with peoples who lived further to the east, in the vast river basins etched from the desert hills and mountains of Syria-Mesopotamia by the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries.”


[v] Ibid. pp.3-78


[vi] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down. Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972), pp.61-68.

[vii] P. Kropotkin, The French Revolution 1789-93: “In the villages it was, in fact, the peasants' Commune which insisted upon the abolition of feudal dues, and legalised the refusal to pay them; it was the Commune which took back from the lords the lands that were formerly communal, resisted the nobles, struggled against the priests, protected the patriots and later on the sans-culottes, arrested the returning émigrés, and stopped the runaway king.

In the towns it was the municipal Commune which reconstructed the entire aspect of life, arrogated to itself the of appointing the judges, changed on its own initiative the apportioning of the taxes, and further on, according as the Revolution developed, became the weapon of sans-culottism in its struggle against royalty and against the royalist conspirators the German invaders. Later still, in the Year II. of the Republic, it was the Communes that undertook to work out equalisation of wealth.

And it was the Commune of Paris, as we know, that dethroned the King, and after August 10 became the real centre and the real power of the Revolution, which maintained its vigour so long only as that Commune existed.” […]

“Lacroix says: ‘The state of mind of the districts . . . displays itself both by a very strong sentiment of communal unity and by a no less strong tendency towards direct self-government. Paris did not want to be a federation of sixty republics cut off haphazard each in its territory; the Commune is a unity composed of its united districts. . . . Nowhere is there found a single example of a district setting itself up to live apart from the others . . . But side by side with this undisputed principle, another principle is disclosed . . . which is, that the Commune must legislate and administer for itself, directly, as much as possible. Government by representation must be reduced to a minimum; everything that the Commune can do directly must be done by it, without any intermediary, without any delegation, or else it may be done by delegates reduced to the rôle of special commissioners, acting under the uninterrupted control of those who have commissioned them . . . the final right of legislating and administrating for the Commune belongs to the districts — to the citizens, who come together in the general assemblies of the districts.’

We thus see that the principles of anarchism, expressed some years later in England by W. Godwin, already dated from 1789, and that they had their origin, not in theoretic speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution.” […]

“There was something even better than this. Not only did the sections throughout the Revolution supervise the supply and the sale of bread, the price of objects of prime necessity, and the application of the maximum when fixed by law, but they also set on foot the cultivation of the waste lands of Paris, so as to increase agricultural produce by market gardening.

This may seem paltry to those who think only of bullets and barricades in time of revolution; but it was precisely by entering into the petty details of the toilers' daily life that the sections of Paris developed their political power and their revolutionary initiative.”


[viii] O. Anweiler, Die Rätebewegung in Russland 1905-1921 (1958), pp.57-59


[ix] Ibid. pp. 136-137 (own translation PL-N): “The formation of the soviets after the February Revolution over all of Russia is a mass phenomenon. The movement was spontaneous in the sense of soviets springing up everywhere independently of each other, without any theoretical preparation and out of the practical necessities of the revolutionary moment. The soviet idea – the idea of a revolutionary representative organ that could be set up everywhere and at anytime with simple means ‒ seemed almost self-evidently to Russian workers and soldiers to be the most adequate form of class organisation in a time of political and social transformation. The workers in the industrial towns and the soldiers in the garrisons and at the front instinctively felt the necessity of an independent organisation which expressed their numerical strength and their revolutionary energy. The workers’ antagonism towards bureaucrats, capitalists and the bourgeoisie as such, as well as the common soldiers’ mistrust of the old officers, created the mass-psychological conditions for the soviets’ unique expansion.”


[x] O. Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War (1989): “[During spring 1917] open assemblies were held in almost every village to discuss the current situation and to formulate resolutions on a broad range of local and national issues. […] Whereas village politics before 1914 had been dominated by the communal gatherings of peasant household elders, the village assemblies which came to dominate politics during 1917 comprised all the village inhabitants and were sometimes attended by several hundred people.” (pp.32-33) “The district and provincial peasant assemblies of 1917 […] were a sort of ‘political apprenticeship’, in which the peasantry learned how to organize and legitimize its interests at a territorial level which had previously been dominated by state organizations. As the power of the state collapsed in the provinces during 1917, the political initiative passed to these district and provincial assemblies, which began to turn themselves into autonomous ‘governments’, authorizing the peasant seizure of private property in the rural localities.” (p.40)



[xi] On the present-day significance of the Spanish collectives: “What nobody will be able to deny is that the scale on which the collectivist enterprises operated in Spain was such as to silence once for all those critics who argue that self-management along anarchistic lines is possible on a small scale but quite impractical when applied to large enterprises and urban concentrations.” (Vernon Richards, foreword to Gaston Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, Freedom Press London 1975)


[xii]  V. Baird, ‘Argentina’s challenge’, New Internationalist June 2013: “[…] what emerged from the rupture was a wealth of popular initiatives that included pickets, neighbourhood assemblies and barter systems. Decisions were made by consensus. As direct democracy grew, so did the dream that this could radically transform society.” Since then: the occupation and cooperative running of abandoned Argentinian factories and workplaces has continued, although often “their legal ownership remains ambiguous and is contested by the original owners” (‘Who needs a boss?’, New Internationalist June 2013). Thousands of autonomous neighbourhood co-ops – 6,024 new ones were created in 2012 alone – provide improvements to everyday quality of life for the poorest: “If adults have missed out on education, can’t find work, and struggle to buy food or pay for childcare, they don’t fall into jobless destitution. They work and learn together within autonomous neighbourhood co-ops.” (ibid.)


Discussion 1 Comments

  • Dave Jones 25th Nov 2013

    Thanks for this focus on a key dilemma for Participatory society, reconciling what Rousseau called public economy. or government, with supreme authority or sovereignty. I think lots of people struggle to envision a political process, in the best sense of the word, that will reflect the General Will, protect minorities and not eat up all their leisure time. Especially when it comes to allocation of goods and resources.

    I am one who believes "an excess of unity" is as much a threat to democracy as inequality and that a society, even a participatory one, should strive to remain plural and entertain as many diverse viewpoints as possible.