What is Democracy? (24): A Short History of Democracy

1. Ancient Greece

Democracy is a Greek invention, created by some of the ancient Greek city states, in particular Athens. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens – not including women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, i.e. the majority of the population – gathered together to discuss and decide on the policies of the state. Within this minority (the proportion of which is difficult to estimate but some put it at 10% of the total population), participation, equality and freedom was unrivaled. The quintessential description is given in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, still today one of the basic texts in democratic theory.

The word “democracy” combines the elements demos (which means “people”) and kratos (“force, power”). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy”. Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats. People in the ancient times wondered if the Athens could ever survive this devastating lifestyle. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, Athenian direct democracy required much personal effort of those participating. The meetings were long, frequent and intensive. It has been said that without the slave-economy and the imperial subjugation of other cities, this experiment would not have been possible. More on direct democracy.

Athenian democracy had some of the characteristics of representative democracy. Some decisions were taken by chosen representatives, such as judicial decisions. However, the choice of officials was not by election but by lot.

2. Medieval taxation

One of the historical origins of the representative system is the principle that prohibits taxation not based on laws approved by the people who pay the taxes (“no taxation without representation”). At the time when this principle came into force, the taxpayers were mainly the wealthy members of the new middle class or bourgeoisie.

These people demanded representation in return for their money and used this representation to control the expenditures of the government. If the government wished to spend a lot of money on a stupid and unnecessary war for example, then the representatives would refuse to vote in the laws required to spend this money. Still today, budgetary control as a means for the people to check if government spending is worth paying for is an important function of parliaments.

Parliaments and representation owe their existence to taxation. The increasing costs of warfare, administration and infrastructure made the kings of the late Middle Ages dependent on the money of the wealthiest class of the moment, which happened to be the new middle class. Now and again, these kings were forced to organize meetings (for example the so-called “States-General”) where the representatives of the cities and the middle class could or could not agree to finance certain government projects. If they agreed, they did so because their interests would be served by the project. They always agreed by way of covenants, contracts or laws, whereby they not only authorized spending but also received certain rights and privileges in return. Because they paid, they were able to enforce certain reforms, at first only local and specific privileges, but later also more abstract rights, which had the advantage of being applicable in very different situations.


These meetings were gradually institutionalized into what we now call parliaments. Parliaments therefore existed before modern democracy. Starting out as an instrument for budgetary control in the hands of a part of the population, they gradually acquired more power compared to the executive (in most cases compared to the king) and they gradually engaged in legislation.

3. Contemporary evolutions

The most important evolution in modern times was the extension of the franchise. In the early period of the modern state, democracy implied the right to vote only for a small portion of the make upper class population. Gradually, more and more groups gained equal political rights: workers, women, and in some contemporary democracy, even resident aliens. This has been called universal suffrage.

The two world wars and the end of the cold war were considered victories of the democratic states over dictatorial ones. The end of colonization, however, although theoretically a victory for democracy, was in reality a mixed blessing for many new third world states, with the notable exception of India.

An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. (Wikipedia)

Also important and promising is the advance of corporate democracy.

4. Communes

Throughout history, and in many different countries and circumstances, small groups of people organized themselves democratically. Examples are the workers in the Paris Communes in the 19th century, the Swiss Cantons, the New England towns, the Italian medieval cities, the Early Bolshevik Soviets etc.

Marx and Human Rights

According to Marx, human rights are the “rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community”. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature

  • who regards his free opinion as his intellectual private property instead of a part of communication
  • who uses his right to private property not in order to create a beach-head for his public and cultural life but to accumulate unnecessary wealth and to protect unequal property relationships
  • who uses the right to privacy as a wall keeping out the poor snoopers watching the rich people
  • who considers fellow men as the only legitimate restraint on his own freedom, and therefore as a limit instead of the source of his own thinking, identity and humanity (this is the way in which Marx read art. 6 of the French constitution of 1793: “Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others”)
  • who considers freedom to be no more than the ability to pursue selfish interests and to enjoy property, unhindered by the need to help other people, “without regard for other men and independently of society”
  • and who considers equality to be the equal right to this kind of freedom (everybody can emancipate himself by becoming a bourgeois).

Human rights, in this view, serve only to protect egoism and the unequal distribution of property, and to oppress the poor who question this and who try to redistribute property. On top of that, human rights obscure this fact because they are formulated in such a way that it seems that everybody profits from them. Contrary to what is implicit in their name, “human” rights are not general or universal rights. They are the rights of those who have property and who want to keep it. A specific situation of a specific group of people is generalized in human rights.

Of course, this criticism can be correct. No one will deny that human rights can serve to protect and justify egoism, oppression of the poor and indifference. They can help to shield people behind private interest and to transform society into a collection of loose, self-centered, self-sufficient, withdrawn, independent, sovereign and isolated individuals. Because the rich have more means to use, for example, their freedom of expression, this freedom can be an instrument of the rich to monopolize political propaganda and political power and to use this power to maintain their privileged situation. Economic relationships can be maintained by legal means.

However, in order to judge and possibly reject a phenomenon, one should also look at its intended and ideal functions, not only at the ways in which it can be abused. Human rights not only protect man against the attacks and claims of other people (for example the attacks and claims on his property); they also create the possibility of forcing people to help each other. They do not allow you to do something to other people (taking their property, determining their opinions etc.), but at the same time they invite you to do something with other people. In other words, they are not only negative. They not only limit the way we relate to other people, they also stimulate and protect the way we relate to other people.

What Are Human Rights? (11): Equal Rights

The idea of equal rights resulted from the emergence and the ascent of the bourgeoisie in 17th and 18th century Europe, and was in the first instance, a tool for the protection of their interests. The bourgeoisie was, compared to the aristocracy, a relatively open class. One could enter and leave this class in a relatively free and sudden way and the moment of entering or leaving was sometimes hard to predict. For this reason, it was undesirable to create a new set of privileges in the style of those of the older classes. If the bourgeoisie was to have rights to protect its interests, they had no choice but to instate rights for everybody.

Historically, the transformation of privileges (or freedoms and rights limited to certain groups, such as guilds, corporations, the nobility etc.) into general or human rights was the invention of the revolutions of the 18th century. From this moment on, human rights were considered to be rights of individuals as entities detached from concrete relationships and groups.

Of course, in the beginning this was to a large extent rhetoric. Women and the working class didn’t have the same rights as white affluent men. There was also slavery, colonialism etc. It took centuries of struggle to make people aware of the contradictions between human rights philosophy and social reality. We have made enormous progress (slavery is abolished in many countries, the civil rights movement in the US has ended many types of discrimination like the Jim Crow laws etc) but still the struggle isn’t finished.