Democracy as an ideal first appeared in the ancient world, some two and a half thousand years ago. It has a rich and inspiring life story – and the latest chapter is only just beginning. What it embodies is the natural human aspiration for a society free from all kinds of oppression.
There are various claims as to where democracy first appeared, including Vaishali in India in the 6th century Before the Common Era (BCE). But present knowledge indicates that a developed theory and practice of democracy first arose in Greece, reaching its high point in the 5th century BCE. Democracy as an ideal first appeared in the ancient world, some two and a half thousand years ago. It has a rich and inspiring life story – and the latest chapter is only just beginning. What it embodies is the natural human aspiration for a society free from all kinds of oppression.
“The challenge at the time was to develop new strategies for suppressing the abuses of power and injustice, to restore a functioning social order, and to do so from the middle of society. In other words, the community itself had to be able to accomplish something that otherwise only a tyrant was capable of … The only way for Greeks to stay true to themselves was to change and, astonishingly, they largely succeeded in doing this.” (A Culture of Freedom by Christian Meier, 2011)
The idea that people themselves could find solutions to problems in a collective, non-hierarchical way did not arise from a cultural blank slate nor was it a European or ‘Western’ notion. Miletus, a Greek polis (city-state or body of citizens) on the west coast of today’s Turkey, was a “conjunction between the emergent Greek civilisation and the ancient empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, nourished by their knowledge but immersed in the liberty and political fluidity which is typically Greek”, Carlo Rovelli notes.
The theory and practice of democracy existed – indeed was only possible at that time – alongside the subjugation of a slave class. Slaves who did not have citizenship rights carried out menial labour, while free citizens acquired the leisure to think about nature, society and thought itself.
But the existence of slavery in no way diminishes the ground-breaking innovation of the ancient Greeks, especially the Athenians. They advanced a political practice based not on a supreme ruler or priest, but on the equal status of citizens. Their assembly appointed a sage called Solon as their archon or ruler in 594 BCE. He enacted a series of laws “valid for both high and low, fashioning straight justice for everyone”. Solon received his authority not from an aristocracy but from an “ad hoc assembly”. (Christian Meier)
The Athens assembly met 40 times a year, perhaps more frequently, with a quorum of 6,000 citizens meeting on the Pnyx hill. It aimed for unanimity and consensus but also put issues which had significance to formal votes. Women, foreigners, and slaves had no political rights, only adult male citizens. But, significantly, the majority of these were working people.
Historian Neil Faulkner explains in A Marxist History of the World how things worked: “The ten leading city officials (strategoi) were up for election every year. The Council of Four Hundred (boule), the main deliberative body, was selected by lot. The Popular Assembly (ekklesia), a mass open-air meeting of all citizens, was the sovereign decision-making body of the state. Justice was administered by jury-courts of up to 2,500 ordinary citizens. Ostracism was an election in reverse: if anyone secured 6,000 negative votes, they were expelled from the city for ten years.” The Athenian form spread to other city-states across the Greek world.
Democracy in a recognisable form seems to have disappeared until towards the end of the first millennium of the Common Era (CE). Consultative assemblies – called by various names including Thing, Ding, Sameting, Folkmoot, Tynwald and Thinghowe – took place in northern European societies. In England these were episodic gatherings in a country where the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings contested power in a divided country.
This conflict was brought to a close by a third party – the Normans. After the Normans conquered the country, they systematically went about building a unified – and above all, centralised – state under an absolute monarchy using the most brutal of methods. North of England rebellions were put down with maximum force.
In 1085 William the Conqueror commissioned the Doomsday Book which surveyed property and livestock holdings for over 13,000 settlements. This was about taxation, to discover what had been owed during the period before the invasion. It was used to reassert the rights and legitimacy of the new rulers. The emergence of a defined, identifiable state with its claim to authority over all citizens would provoke a series of struggles for rights by those denied power and ruled in an arbitrary fashion. These struggles have continued through to the present day.
Milestones in the long struggle for democracy have directly or indirectly been the outcome of actions, sometimes by a few in secret, illegal societies, at other times by powerful forces, or large numbers who came together in militant groups or uprisings.
In 1215 King John was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta. This charter set down limits on the power of the monarch. It stated: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” Over the next centuries nobles, lawyers and judges used it as a bulwark to assert rights against the arbitrary wielding of power. It was the beginning of enshrining rights in documents, such as charters, agreements and constitutions, so that struggles would bring about real change.
Amongst the first mass movements was the Great Rising of 1381, following the Black Death pandemic. Anger at the levying of the Poll Tax sparked a revolt in Kent which quickly spread throughout the country and Wat Tyler led thousands of people in a march on London. The poor and the middle classes challenged the right of Parliament (on behalf of the landowners) to hold down labourers’ pay and restrict people’s movement. The rebels attacked not only the tax collectors, but the London citadels of their oppressors: the Savoy Palace and the Treasurer’s Highbury Manor. They opened up prisons and destroyed legal records.
As Parliament became more established from the 14th century onwards – although it could be easily dismissed – the Crown used it to reaffirm its own legitimacy. For example, the dissolution of the monasteries in the first half of the 15th century was carried through by an Act of Parliament which affirmed the break with Rome. The ending of the Tudor period with the death of Elizabeth I ushered in the Stuarts and in 1628 Parliament was dissolved for 11 years, a period known as the ‘personal rule’ of Charles I. Conflict became inevitable.
When Parliament was recalled in 1641 for Charles I to raise money for a war with Scotland, he was presented with the Grand Remonstrance. This was a list of grievances drawn up by MPs and presented to Charles I after narrowly passing through the Commons. Within a year, the English Civil War between Crown and Parliament had broken out, lasting until 1649.
In 1647, the Levellers – sometimes referred to as history’s first political party – drew up the Agreement of the People, which was debated by the Army Council at St. Mary’s church, Putney and which included rank-and-file soldiers’ delegates. This draft constitution advocated universal suffrage for men, strict limits on executive power and the abolition of monarchy. Charles I was executed in 1649 and England became a republic for 11 years.
John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn campaigned for a political and constitutional settlement which embodied the principles of political freedom, “anticipating by a century and a half the ideas of the American and French revolutions,” as the late Tony Benn put it. Another group, the True Levellers or Diggers, sought to abolish private property rights.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chartists and later the Suffragettes led the struggle for the right to vote in Britain. This was the form through which the property-less, disenfranchised classes and women sought to achieve political and other representation as a means of gaining access to power.
The long struggle to achieve democratic representation and a share in power outlined here has been transformed today from an ideal into a meaningless generalisation by the political establishment, the mainstream media, schools, universities and churches. They have appropriated the term ‘democracy’ and we need to reclaim it for ourselves so we can give it fresh meaning and content.
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