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Democracy in History

As Homer told us long ago, violence visibly bathed the lives and
imaginationsofcitizensinclassicalGreece.Myonetimecollaborator,theirrepressi
bly witty political scientist Samuel Finer, phrased it this way: “Competitive,
acquisitive, envious, violent, quarrelsome, greedy, quick, intelligent, ingenious
– the Greeks had all the defects of their qualities. They were troublesome
subjects, fractious citizens, and arrogant and exacting masters” (Finer 1997, I:
326). Among other forms of violence, the region’s city-states warred
repeatedly against one another.
In 431 BCE, nevertheless, a delegation went from Sparta to Athens in the
name of peace. All the Athenians needed to do to avoid war, the Spartan
delegates declared, was to stop interfering militarily and economically with
Sparta’s allies in the region. Athens’ citizens held a general assembly to debate
their response to Sparta’s challenge. Advocates both of immediate war and of
peacemaking concessions spoke to the assembly. But Pericles, son of
Xanthippus, carried the day. Pericles (rightly thinking that in case of war the
Spartans would invade Athenian territory by land) recommended preparation
for a naval war and reinforcement of the city’s defenses, but no actual military
action until and unless the Spartans attacked.
Thucydides, the first great Greek historian to work on contemporary events
using contemporary sources, transcribed Pericles’ speech. Thucydides
concluded the episode with these words:

Such were the words of Pericles. The Athenians, persuaded of the wisdom of his advice,
voted as he desired, and answered the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] as he recommended,
both on the separate points and in the general; they would do
nothing on dictation, but were ready to have the complaints settled in a fair and
impartial manner by the legal method, which the terms of the truce prescribed. So the
envoys departed home, and did not return again. (Thucydides 1934: 83)

Sparta’s ally Thebes soon attacked Athens’ tributary territories, and the
Second (Great) Peloponnesian War began. Formally, it lasted just ten years,
until the Peace of Nicias (421). But counting its sequels the war did not really
stop until Sparta and its allies conquered Athens in 404. Remember the
comedy Lysistrata? Its plot centers on the campaign of Athenian women to
end the long war with Sparta by refusing to have sex with their husbands. The
great Athenian dramatist Aristophanes produced his play in 411 BCE.
Western histories of democracy typically start with the extraordinary
politics of these same bellicose Greek city-states between about 500 and 300
BCE. Each city-state had its own distinctive history and institutions. Yet
broadly speaking all of them balanced power among three elements: a
centralexecutive,anoligarchiccouncil,andageneralassemblyofcitizens. Athens
in the time of Pericles had long since displaced kings from its central executive
in favor of short-term offices filled by lot or (in the rare cases of specialized
skills and military emergency) election. Wealthy
lineagesdominatedthegreattradingcity’scouncils,butallcitizenshadthe
righttovoiceingeneralassemblies.AsinthestoryofPericles’greatspeech,
thoseassembliesdecidedmattersofdeepimportancetotheAthenianstate.
Before we rush to identify Greek city-states as the original democracies,
however, we should reflect on a fundamental fact: around half of Athens’
population consisted of slaves. Slaves had no citizenship rights
whatsoever;citizensownedthemaschattel,andmediatedanyconnections slaves
had with the Athenian state. Nor did resident foreigners or wives and children
of citizens qualify as citizens. Only free adult males could hold citizenship.
Slaves nevertheless played critical parts in the Athenian polity; their labor
freed slave-owning citizens to participate in public politics. Even if Athenians
sometimes called their polity a demokratia ( rule by the people), the massive
presence of slaves raises doubts as to whether 21st-century students of
democracy ought to include Greek city-states of the fifth and fourth centuries
BCE in their subject matter.
Two features of those regimes do argue for placing them among the
ancestors of modern democracies. First, they created a model of citizenship
that had no known predecessors. Of course old lineages and the rich
enjoyedpoliticaladvantagesinthesecity-states.Inthesovereignassembly,
however, every citizen however patrician or parvenu, rich or not so rich,
had a voice and a roughly equal relationship to the state. Second, these regimes
generally rotated civic responsibilities very widely. Athens even filled its
magistracies by lot for one-year terms rather than by election or inheritance.
Within the citizenry, then, the principle of equal rights and equal obligations
prevailed.
The case against calling these regimes full-fledged democracies, however,
eventually gains overwhelming weight. In these city-states, did relations
between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, mutually
binding consultation? If we narrow our attention to the free adult males who
then qualified as citizens, the answer is probably yes; this is why so many
historians have considered the Greeks to have invented democracy. But if we
consider the whole population under the state’s jurisdiction – women, children,
slaves, the many resident foreigners – the answer becomes emphatically no.
After all, inequality pervaded the city-state political system as a whole.
Athenian arrangements excluded the great bulk of the population from
protected, mutually binding consultation. Nor did republican Rome perform
democratically by these standards.
Which regimes did perform democratically, how, and why? As a preface to
explanations of democratization and de-democratization in later chapters, this
chapter surveys where and when democratic regimes multiplied. It notes some
patterns of change and variation in democratic forms for further explanation.
It makes the case for Western Europe and North America during the later 18th
century as crucial staging areas for democratic regimes at a national scale. But
mostly it clarifies what we must explain: how, over the centuries, democracy
rose, fell, and varied in character.
Between 300 BCE and the 19th century CE, a number of European regimes
adopted variants on the Greek model: privileged minorities of relatively equal
citizens dominated their states at the expense of excluded majorities. In their
days of republican government (that is, when some tyrant had not seized
power), such commercial city-states as Venice, Florence, and Milan all lived
on the labor of excluded, subordinate classes. After the turmoil of Florence’s
politics had excluded him from his previous career as official and diplomat in
1512, Niccolo` Machiavelli began to write the great analyses of politics that
still make his work required reading today. His Discourses ostensibly consider
the constitutions of classical
Rome, but actually range widely over the Italian politics of his own time.
Gesturing back to a tradition for which the Athenian Aristotle laid some of
the foundations, Machiavelli conceded that many authors before
him had distinguished three main types of government: monarchy, aristocracy,
and democracy. They had, furthermore, often seen monarchy as
disintegratingintotyranny,aristocracyintooligarchy,anddemocracyinto
“licentiousness” (Machiavelli 1940: 111–112). But, according to Machiavelli,
the best constitutions balanced the three elements – prince, aristocracy, and
people – under a common constitution. Legendary lawgiver Lycurgus
bestowed just such a constitution on long-surviving Sparta, while equally
legendary Athenian lawgiver Solon made the mistake of establishing popular
government alone.
Nevertheless, following his interpretation of Greek and Roman regimes,
Machiavelli eventually made the case for a choice between just two models: a
principality in which the ruler governs with support of an aristocracy and
pacifies the populace with good works (an idealized picture of Florence under
the more benign of the Medici) and a republic in which the aristocracy actually
rules, but appoints an executive power and deals judiciously with the common
people (an idealized picture of the republican Florence he had long served
before his exile).
What was Machiavelli describing? Italian city-states lacked slaves, but they
strikingly resembled Greek city-states in other regards. Although the capital
cities themselves commonly instituted general assemblies of property-holding
adult males, they rarely consulted them except in emergencies. Small
proportions of all adult males qualified as full-fledged citizen members of
governing councils, and even fewer could hold major offices. All city-states
governed tributary areas from which they drew revenue but to which they
granted no political rights. As a matter of course,
women,children,andservantslikewiselackedpoliticalstanding.Whether
principalities or republics, they fell far short of broad, equal, protected,
mutually binding consultation.
Nor, up to this time, had democratic regimes existed at a national scale
elsewhere in Europe or anywhere else on earth. Europe pioneered democracy
in two ways: by creating the distinctive, if restrictive, institutions of citizenship
we can witness in Greek and Italian city-states and eventually by battling
toward broad, equal, protected, mutually binding consultation. But only the
18th century brought significant steps in that direction, only the 19th century
established partial democracies in Western Europe and its settler colonies, and
only the 20th century saw the extension of something like full citizenship to
many European women.
At this point, many readers will no doubt complain that such a position
isEurocentric,modernist,both,orworse.WelloutsideofWesternEurope, what
about the simple democracies of pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, Subsistence
peasants, fisherfolk, and warrior bands? Leaving aside the sub ordinate
position of women in the political lives of almost all such communities, let me
declare at once: some elements of democracy existed at small scales across the
world well before the 18th century. Taken separately, some forms of broad
participation, rough equality, binding consultation, and (more rarely)
protection have sometimes governed local and regional politics. On all
inhabited continents, councils of lineage heads occasionally met to make
momentous collective decisions in rough equality for millennia before
glimmers of democracy appeared in Europe. If, under the heading of
democracy, all we are looking for is negotiated consent to collective decisions,
democracy extends back into the mists of history.
But here I must again insist on the questions this book is pursuing: Under
what conditions and how do relations between states and the populations
subject to their rule become more – or, for that matter, less – broad, equal,
protective, and consultative? At a national scale, how do democratization and
de-democratization occur? How do they affect the quality of political life? For
those questions, the bulk of the relevant experience comes first from western
countries and their settler colonies during the 19th century, spreading across
the world during the 20th and 21st centuries. Democracy is a modern