Utopian social experiments are strongly associated in the public mind with brutal dictatorships and the suppression of civil liberties. Given our century’s history this is to be expected. Although there is a growing realisation in Britain of a need for constitutional change, visions of what this might involve are modest.

Devolution of power to regions and alternative parliamentary electoral systems may be open for discussion, but the supercession of parliamentary democracy itself is almost unthinkable. Our object in this chapter is to think the unthinkable — specifically, to advocate a radically democratic constitution. We outline a modernised version of ancient Greek democracy, and defend such a system as the best political counterpart to socialist economic planning.

Democracy and parliamentarism

It is one of the great ironies of history that election by ballot, for millennia the mark of oligarchy, should now pass as the badge of democracy.

In his dystopian novel 1984 Orwell makes ironic reference to Newspeak, a dialect of English so corrupted that phrases like ‘freedom is slavery’ or ‘war is peace’ could pass unremarked. What he was alluding to is the power of language to control our thoughts. When those in authority can redefine the meanings of words they make subversion literally unthinkable. The phrase ‘parliamentary democracy’ is an example of Newspeak: a contradiction in disguise. Go back to the Greek origins of the word democracy. The second half of the word means ‘power’ or ‘rule’. Hence we have autocracy — rule by one man — and aristocracy — rule by the aristoi, the best people, the elite. Democracy meant rule by the demos. Most commentators translate this as rule by ‘the people’, but the word demos had a more specific meaning. It meant rule by the common people or rule by the poor.

Aristotle, describing the democracies of his day, was quite explicit about the fact that democracy meant rule by the poor. Countering the argument that democracies simply meant rule by the majority he gave the following example:

Suppose a total of 1,300; 1000 of these are rich, and they give no share in office to the 300 poor, who are also free men and in other respects like  them; no one would say that these 1300 lived under a democracy (Politics, 1290).

But he says this is an artificial case, “due to the fact that the rich are everywhere few, and the poor numerous.” As a specific definition he gives:

A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well off, being in a majority, are in sovereign control of the government, an oligarchy when control lies in the hands of the rich and better born, these being few (ibid.).

With regard to the filling of official positions, he further remarked that in Greece, “to do this by lot is regarded as democratic, by selection oligarchic” (Politics, 1294).

What the ideologists of capitalism call democratic procedures would be more accurately described as psephonomic procedures (Greek psephos: vote by ballot).

By glossing over the nature of class relations, such ideologies confuse the right to vote with the exercise of power. In fact all capitalist states are plutocratic oligarchies. Plutocracy is rule by a moneyed class; oligarchy is rule by the few.

These are the characteristic principles of the modern state. This state, the end or telos of history according to Fukuyama (1992), the most perfect form of class rule since the Roman republic, exercises such hegemony, spiritual and temporal, that it appears to have banished all competition. Effective power resides in a series of concentric circles, concentrating as they contract through parliament and cabinet to prime minister or president: oligarchy. This power is openly exercised in the name of Capital, it being now accepted by all concerned that the job of government is to serve the ends of business, the highest objective of a state: plutocracy.

The plutocracy’s power derives from its command over wage labour, a relationship of dominance and servitude whose dictatorial nature is not abolished by the right to vote. Psephonomia or election is merely a mechanism for the selection of individual oligarchs. It at once lends legitimacy to their rule, and enables these to be recruited from the ‘best’ and most energetic members of the lower classes (aristoi). At best, election transforms oligarchy into aristocracy.

Aristotle regarded oligarchy as a deviation from aristocracy:

However the name aristocracy is used to mark a distinction from oligarchy. . . it describes a constitution in which election to office depends on merit and not only on wealth.But oligarchy readily passes for aristocratic since almost everywhere the rich and the well educated upper classes are co-extensive (Politics, 1293).

Substitute ‘meritocratic’ for ‘aristocratic’ and the verbal change well encapsulates the historical metamorphosis of British society since the early 19th century, as Parliament was opened to individuals of merit who were not necessarily well born. But the key question is not that some individuals of relatively humble origin are recruited to public office, it is who holds power. All else is illusory.

Direct democracy or soviet democracy?

What differentiates oligarchy and democracy is wealth or the lack of it. The essential point is that where the possession of political power is due to the possession of economic power or wealth . . . that is oligarchy, and when the unpropertied class have power, that is democracy. But as we have said the former are few and the latter are many (Politics, 1279).

Parliamentary government and democracy are polar opposites. Democracy is rule by the masses, by the poor and dispossessed; parliament, rule by professional politicians, who, in numbers and class position, are part of the oligarchy.

Marx and Engels quite explicitly followed the Aristotelean definition of democracy when they wrote, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848, that “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” (Marx and Engels, 1970, p. 52).

The violent overthrow of the aristocratic state and the establishment of proletarian rule were, for the founders of communism, synonymous with democracy. They spoke in 1852 of proletarian rule as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Dictator’ is a word deriving from the Roman republic rather than Greece. It refers to one individual who was given temporary power to rule by decree in an emergency. There was a natural tendency for temporary dictatorship to degenerate into lifelong rule. Lenin and Stalin were dictators in this Roman sense. Is this what Marx meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat? Certainly not. What he meant was a mass democracy unconstrained by entrenched constitutional rights defending private property. Two and a half thousand years earlier Aristotle had described such democracies.

Another type of democracy is the same in other respects but the multitude is sovereign and not the law. This occurs when the decrees are sovereign over the provisions of the law. When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign you will find demagogues. The people becomes a monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign not as individuals but in aggregate (Politics, 1292).

And what did these demagogues propose? Communistic measures like the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of property 1. For a democracy to be of any use to the proletariat, the masses must be sovereign, unchained by the rule of law, able to issue decrees that violate well established rights to property in land or capital.

Direct democracy or soviet democracy?

On the left historically there have been two other candidates to replace parliamentarism: soviets and communist party dictatorship. The latter functioned as a viable political system for half a century in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but has now collapsed, and anyway few people in the West have ever openly advocated it. Instead there is a sentimental attachment to the idea of soviets. These are seen as the original unsullied form of proletarian power, before it was corrupted by Leninist dictatorship. We use the word ‘sentimental’ advisedly, since many of those who say in their heart of hearts they would like to see a soviet system, are quite willing on grounds of ‘realism’ to accept parliamentary government. The idea of the soviet acts as a sort of moral insurance policy. This is not to underestimate the importance of soviets as insurrectionary organs that might provide a focus for the overthrow of parliament. But certain generalisations can be made from historical experience:

(1) Soviets tend to be formed only when a dictatorship or absolute monarchy is overthrown. They do not seem to arise in parliamentary states.

(2) Soviets only provide a revolutionary challenge when they are armed (workers’ and soldiers’ soviets). Armed soviets are only formed under conditions of military defeat: France 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917, Hungary 1919, Portugal 1975.

(3) They are able to overthrow the existing state only if they are led by a cohesive group of determined revolutionists. Otherwise, like the Paris Commune, or workers’ councils in the Portuguese revolution, they tend to leave the existing state power unchecked until they are themselves disbanded.

(4) They provide the ideal medium for the establishment of a one-party state.

This is because they are based upon a restricted franchise and indirect elections from lower to higher soviets. This tends to concentrate any initial preponderance of the communists. Such communist domination is probably a precondition for the overthrow of the bourgeois state in any case.

Soviets are transitory institutions, not lasting forms of state structure. Once they become regularised, it is necessary to write down and amend the ad hoc rules by which they were initially formed. There is a need to specify who is, and who is not entitled to vote. The councils cannot be made up of only factory workers and soldiers indefinitely. There is then pressure to define territorial constituencies with universal suffrage: hence the Stalin constitution of 1936. In the absence of any clearly formulated alternative constitutional plans, a soviet system tends to evolve either in the direction of a one-party dictatorship, or towards bourgeois parliamentarism.

The harking back to the purity of pre-Stalinist (pre-Leninist) soviet democracy is no more than an unthinking nostalgia, derived from an uncritical acceptance of Lenin’s State and Revolution. In this book Lenin carried out a brilliant defence of the writings of Marx and Engels, in particular their reflections on the Paris Commune, the first workers’ state. In the Russian context, he argued for the “complete destruction of the old state machine, in order that the armed proletariat itself may become the government” (Lenin, 1964, p. 489). Sad to say, this genuinely democratic state, a state of soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, degenerated in short order into something rather different.


                                                Petrograd soviet in session. Russia, summer, 1920.

The historical process by which, to paraphrase Trotsky, the Bolshevik Party substituted itself for the proletariat, the Central Committee for the Party, and then the supreme leader for the Central Committee, is too well known to require emphasis. This process, already well established under Lenin, was carried to its conclusion with Stalin.

Western socialist critics of the resulting system commonly applaud the theory outlined in State and Revolution, but highlight the conflict between Lenin’s theory and subsequent practice. Some blame Lenin and his theory of the Party, some blame the difficult circumstances of Russia, some blame Stalin, some Khrushchev, some Gorbachev. But few question the original model of a state of workers’ councils described by Lenin.

A mere counterposing of theory versus practice, good intentions versus foul deeds, is not a critique. Instead we must understand how the inner logic of the model set out in State and Revolution led to the Soviet Union. This model envisaged a system of councils of factory workers and soldiers electing deputies through a hierarchy of city, regional and national councils to a Supreme Soviet.

To ensure that the deputies responded to the workers, the delegates would be subject to recall and would receive only average workmen’s wages. These latter provisions were drawn from the experience of the Paris Commune. Lenin defended these measures against the jibe of Bernstein that they were a reversion to primitive democracy with the rejoinder that

the transition from capitalism to socialism is impossible without a certain “reversion” to “primitive” democracy (for how else can the majority, and then the whole population without exception, proceed to discharge state functions?) … (Lenin, 1964, p. 420)

This is a crucial passage, and the rhetorical question is apt, but we must now, three quarters of a century later, ask if Lenin’s understanding of ‘primitive’ was deep enough. It was characteristic of primitive democracy that all citizens without exception were called upon to discharge state functions, but the institutions by which this was done were far more radical than anything envisaged by Lenin.

Institutions of classical democracy

The first and most characteristic feature of demokratia was rule by the majority vote of all citizens 2. This was generally by a show of hands at a sovereign assembly or eklesia. The sovereignty of the demos was not delegated to an elected chamber of professional politicians as in the bourgeois system. Instead the ordinary working people, in those days the peasantry and traders, gathered together en masse to discuss, debate and vote on the issues concerning them3.

There was no ‘government’ as such; instead popular administration was carried out by a city council or Boule with 500 members. Unlike the councils of our present plutocracy, the members were chosen by lot, not by election. There was rotation of offices and individuals only served on the council for one year before being replaced4. This council had no legislative powers and was responsible merely for enacting the policies decided upon by the sovereign assembly. Each citizen had the right to speak and vote in the assembly and was paid for earnings lost through attendance.

The second important institutions were the people’s law courts or dikasteria. These courts had no judges, instead the dicasts acted as both judge and jury. The dicasts were chosen by lot from the citizen body, using a sophisticated procedure of voters’ tickets and allotment machines, and once in court decisions were taken by ballot and could not be appealed. It was held by Aristotle that control of the courts gave the demos control of the constitution.

Kleroterion. This device was used for the jury selection system in Athens. Bronze identification tickets were inserted to indicate eligible jurors who were also divided into «phylai» (a territorial subdivison of the «demos»).By a random process, a whole row would be accepted or rejected. (Photo Marsyas)

Election was viewed with suspicion, and was not used except for military officials. Elections, Aristotle said, are aristocratic not democratic; they introduce the element of deliberate choice, of selection of the ‘best people’, the aristoi, in place of government by all the people (Politics, 1300). What he implies, as would be evident to any Marxist, is that the ‘best’ people in a class society will be the better off. The poor, the scum and the riff-raff are of course ‘unsuitable’ candidates for election. Wealth and respectability go together. Only where a specific skill was essential, as with military commanders, was election considered safe. The contrast with our political and military system could not be more striking.

With administration chosen by lot, anyone might be called to serve, producing a highly politicised population.

The same men accept responsibility both for their own affairs and for the state’s, and although different men are active in different fields they are not lacking in understanding of the state’s concerns: we alone regard the man who refuses to take part in these not as non-interfering but as useless (Pericles, as reported by Thucydides in Book II of the History, 1988, p. 85) 5).

For all his desire for a state run by pastry-cooks, Lenin was unable to conceive of the constitutional forms needed to achieve it. Referring to the workers’ state he wrote

Representative institutions remain, but there is no parliamentarism here as a special system, as the division of labour between the the legislative and the executive, as a privileged position for the deputies. We cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions (Lenin, 1964, p. 424)

Lenin here completely misses the point. The reason why parliamentarism is a form of state suited to propertarian interests has its basis in election, a principle that Aristotle has shown long ago to be anti-democratic. A proletarian dictatorship can be established by an elected assembly, as in the Paris Commune, where the electors and the candidates were exclusively drawn from the proletariat. But it cannot long be sustained by election.

‘Democratic centralism’—a dead end

Lenin’s notion of ‘democratic centralism’, whereby the outstanding class-conscious members of the working class, organised in a Communist Party, are elected through a system of workers’ councils to form a workers’ government, is fundamentally flawed. It seeks to build a democracy on an instrument of class rule: elections. The fact that the vote is restricted to workers does not stop elections being an aristocratic system in the classical sense. Politics becomes a matter for the politicos. Like all aristocracies, it degenerates into a self-serving oligarchy, and is eventually replaced by an ‘honest’ bourgeois plutocracy.

The idea that a right of recall would be an effective constraint on this process is laughable. The right of recall is written into the state constitution of Arizona, and was in Stalin’s Soviet Constitution without noticeable effect. It takes the collection of tens or hundreds of thousands of signatures to secure the recall of an official. It is bound to be a rare event compared to regular elections, but if elections do not keep officials in line why should recall? As for average workmens’ wages, who is to enforce this? What is to stop elected officials voting themselves other benefits?

Is democracy possible today?

In his recent book Is Democracy Possible? (1985) John Burnheim advocates a system that he calls ‘demarchy’, with striking resemblances to classical democracy. Instead of nation states he envisages a system in which power is decentralised and decision-making processes carried out by representative bodies drawn by lot from among those with a legitimate material interest in the subject under consideration 6.

The advocates of democracy present a radical critique of the 20th century bourgeois state, but the practices of classical democracy seem, paradoxically, so novel and alien that there is a danger that people will automatically reject them. Advocates of genuine democracy have to mount a persuasive case and fend off the standard objections.

Contemporary political science is overwhelmingly elitist in sentiment. It is held that the complexity of the modern state is such that only an elite of political professionals is capable of dealing with it. Ordinary Athenian citizens might have been able to run a simple city state, the argument runs, but they would be ill prepared to confront the full-time bureaucracy of the modern state. For this you need full-time politicians with paid research staffs. In practice, we know that these full-time politicians are virtually powerless in face of a determined executive branch, and anyway are generally little inclined to question radically the system which furnishes their career opportunities. More fundamentally, the argument from expertise confuses two issues. On the one hand there is the question of technical expertise in specific matters such as public health, technology and military affairs, while on the other there is what Protagoras called politike techne, the art of political judgement. Protagoras held that all were equally endowed with this ability. When it comes to judging whether a decision is in her interest or not, a Drumchapel shop assistant is as well equipped as a Westminster MP to decide, given that neither has any relevant special technical knowledge.

Another common argument against classical democracy is that it was a democracy of the slave owners, and so has nothing to teach us. On the one hand this objection is just irrelevant: the modern advocates of direct democracy do not propose the reintroduction of slavery. It is also based upon a misconception about ancient Greek society. Athens was not a slave-owners’ democracy, it was a democracy of the freeborn citizens. Slaves were excluded from citizenship, but the majority of the citizens were not slave-owners. The great bulk of the demos was made up of the working poor peasants and artisans. The demokratia was the instrument they used in their class struggle against the rich, the big landowners who were also the big slave-holders. The latter favoured an oligarchic constitution, and were eventually able to impose this with the help of Roman imperialism.

A more prosaic objection to direct democracy focuses on scale. You just cannot gather all the citizens of a modern nation in the agora or town square to debate affairs of state. But this is to overlook the power of modern technology.

Television has created the global village 7. There is no technical problem with fitting a voting console to each TV to allow us all to vote after seeing debates by a representative studio assembly. The TV current affairs programmes routinely invite randomly selected audiences to question politicians. On these programs the public show themselves far harder on the politicians than the hacks who normally question them. It took an ordinary woman from the floor to put Thatcher on the defensive over the sinking of the Argentinian battleship, the Belgrano. We have every confidence in the people’s ability to take important political decisions after such debate.

The modern state, as we have said, is based upon centralist, hierarchical principles. The institutions of democracy provide a quite different model. In a democracy there was no government, no prime minister, no president, no head of state. Sovereign power rested with the popular assembly. Particular branches of the state were run by juries or officials drawn by lot. Power flows neither up nor down, but is diffused. We can sketch out how these principles might be applied today. At one level, the sovereignty of the people would be exercised by electronic voting on televised debates. To ensure that this was universal, TVs and voting phones should be available free as a constitutional right. This would be analogous to the payment for jury service that the Athenians introduced to allow the poor to participate in the assembly.

Since only a minority of the decisions that have to be taken in a country can be put to a full popular vote, other public institutions would be supervised by a plurality of juries. The broadcasting authority, the water authority, the posts, the railways and so on would all be under councils chosen by lot from among their users and workers. Such councils would not be answerable to any government minister, instead the democracy relies upon the principle that a sufficiently large random sample will be representative of the public. A system of democratic control over all public bodies would mean that at some time in their lives citizens could expect to be called up to serve on some sort of council.

Not everyone would serve on national councils, but one could expect to have to serve on some school council, local health council or workplace council. If people were to participate directly in the running of the state, we would not see the cynicism and apathy which characterise the typical modern voter.

Democracy and planning

For economic planning we envisage a system in which teams of professional economists draw up alternative plans to put before a planning jury which would then choose between them. Only the very major decisions (the level of taxes, the percentage of national income going towards investment, health, education, etc.) would have to be put to direct popular vote.

One of the great advantages of the system of labour-time prices advocated in earlier chapters is that it translates questions of national budgetary policy into terms that every citizen can understand. Today only a handful of professional economists and economic journalists are able to make an intelligent assessment of the budget. To make sense of it one has to know how big the national income is in terms of billions of pounds. That excludes the vast majority of the population for a start. Then one must know what proportion of the national income goes to the various categories of earners, in order to estimate the returns from different levels of income tax. One has to know how many billions of pounds of VAT-rated goods are sold, and the returns from excise duties. On the other side of the government accounts, one has to know about the cost estimates of different government spending programs, making allowance for inflation. A full understanding of the budget therefore rests on a vast body of data that is only really available to the Treasury.

Expressed in terms of labour hours the whole exercise could be made much more intelligible. People can understand what it means to work 3 hours a week to support the Health Service or 4 hours to support education. If people were presented with an annual ballot sheet, listing the main categories of public expenditure in terms of the hours per week that these cost them, they could form an opinion on whether they were willing to pay more or less for these services.

Suppose that for health service expenditure one could vote to increase expenditure by x percent, leave it the same or reduce it by x percent 8. These votes could be tallied and averaged, with the resulting average being used as the proportionate increase or decrease that should be made in the NHS budget. Electronic ‘ballot forms’ could easily be set up in such a way that people are constrained to make consistent choices (for instance, they can’t vote a 100 percent increase in all kinds of spending!).

Over a period of years one would expect expenditure levels to stabilise then slowly change with shifts in public opinion. Under normal circumstances roughly the same number of people would want to increase expenditure as would want to cut it so any changes would be slight.

Although it is feasible to have democratic decisions on levels of public expenditure, this cannot be combined with independent democratic control over taxation. If both taxes and expenditure are subject to distinct votes, there is no assurance that the budget will balance (the US Congress can and does take inconsistent votes on expenditure and taxation, with notorious results). Rather, the level of the basic flat tax would have to be automatically adjusted to cover what people had voted to spend, allowance made for other forms of revenue such as rent. Voters would then have to take into account the tax implications when making up their minds on the expenditure side of the national budget. As a variant on this, a voter might first of all choose a level of overall spending (and therefore taxation). Then when she’s making her choices on individual public spending categories, the ‘ballot form’ program would indicate the consequences for the rest of the budget of a vote to change spending in one area.

The acephalous state

A neo-classical democracy would still be a state in the Marxian sense. It would be an organised public power, to which minorities are forced to submit. The demos would use it to defend their rights against any remaining or nascent exploiting class. But it would be acephalous: a state without a head of state, without the hierarchy that marks a state based on class exploitation.

The various organs of public authority would be controlled by citizens’ committees chosen by lot. The media, the health service, the planning and marketing agencies, the various industries would have their juries. Each of these would have a defined area of competence. A committee for the energy industry, for instance, would decide certain details of energy policy but it could not disregard a popular vote, say, to phase out nuclear power. The membership of the committees need not be uniformly drawn from the public. The health service committees could be made up partly of a random sample of health service workers, and partly of members of the public. As Burnheim argues, the principle should be that all those who have a legitimate interest in the matter should have a chance to participate in its management.

This view is radically different from both Social Democracy and the practice of hitherto-existing socialism. Planning, for example, is not under government control but under a supervisory committee of ordinary citizens, who, since they are drawn by lot, will be predominantly working people. In the sense that they are autonomous of any government, these committees can be thought of as analogous to the autonomous bodies of bourgeois civil society: independent central banks, broadcasting authorities, arts councils, research councils etc. It is not necessary for them to be under direct state control; their charters and the social backgrounds of their governors ensure their function. Provided that the socialist analogues of such authorities have founding charters open to popular amendment, that they have supervisory committees who are socially representative of the people, and that their deliberations are public, popular control would be assured.

The powers of demarchic councils would be either regulatory or economic or both. An advanced industrial society requires a complex body of regulations to function. In present society some of these regulations are what we recognise as laws, emanating from the decisions of politicians and enforced by state power, but a larger part already originate in autonomous bodies. Professional organisations define codes of practice binding on their members. Trade organisations define standards for industrial components, something absolutely essential for rapid technological progress. International bodies define standards for the exchange of electronic data by telephone, telegraph and fax.

In many cases these regulations affect only the internal operation of particular branches of production or social activity, and the composition of their regulating councils should remain limited to people who participate in that area. In others — areas like broadcasting or processes which may impinge upon public health — general social interests are affected. In these cases the regulating council would have to be extended to include a majority of other citizens, selected by lot to represent the public interest.

The other powers of demarchic councils would stem from their command over resources, human or inanimate. A council might be entrusted with the administration of certain immobile public property: buildings, historic monuments, transport routes, energy and water supply facilities. To the extent that these are immobile, the principal contradictions that may arise are over access.

One thinks here of how the propertarian-dominated British commission responsible for ancient monuments denied the dispossessed access to Stonehenge. But to the extent that the property deteriorates and has to be maintained, even immobile properties presuppose an influx of labour and materials.

A council will also be entrusted with mobile public property in the form of machinery, vehicles and raw materials. This is more significant for demarchies administering manufacturing processes, but would affect them all to some extent. We assume that all such mobile property is ultimately allocated by the national plan. A council running a project has the use of the property unless and until a more urgent use arises.

Finally a council disposes of the labour of the members of its project. Since this labour is a fraction of society’s total labour, and could potentially be devoted to other activities, it is, from the standpoint of the national accounts, abstract social labour. Similarly, the flow of mobile public property into the project presupposes a fraction of society’s labour being devoted to the reproduction of these items. As a flow, therefore, it too is abstract social labour. The dynamic economic power of a council is, finally. command over social labour.

The magnitude of its power is measured in the hours of its labour budget. But by what right does it gain this power and who regulates its magnitude? It is a power that is either devolved or in the last resort delegated by the people themselves. Consider a council administering a school. Its power might be devolved from some local or national educational council who vote it an annual labour budget. Let us assume that schooling is a local matter. In that case, the budget of the local education council would be set by the local electorate who would annually decide how many hours were to be deducted from their year’s pay to fund education.

In the case of a manufacturing council, the delegation is more indirect. Its products—perhaps lead-acid storage batteries—meet an indirect social rather than concrete and local need. The number of batteries that society needs is a function of how many cars, telephone exchanges, portable radios, etc. are manufactured. Only the national, or in the long term federal, planning authority can calculate this. Thus only the planning authority can delegate a budget for battery production.

In all cases the people are the ultimate delegators of power. Either they vote to tax themselves and entrust a demarchic council with a budget to produce a free service, or they choose to purchase goods, in which case they are voting labour time to the production of those goods.

The great virtue of the rule of the demos was the elaborate constitutional mechanism they evolved to defend their power against usurpation by the upper classes. That rule flourished for some two centuries until crushed by the Macedonian and Roman empires. During that period it generated a beacon of art, architecture, philosophy, science and culture that illuminated the subsequent dark centuries. The Enlightenment golden age of bourgeois culture was a self conscious reflection of that light. The torch will not truly be reignited till the modern demos come to power.


Source: This text is the chapter 13 of Towards a New Socialism (1993), by W. Paul Cockshott and Allin F. Cottrell. The book was published by Spokesman, Bertrand Russell House, Gamble Street, Nottingham, England. A digital edition was prepared by Allin Cottrell, which was used to produce this text.


[*] William Paul Cockshottis a Scottish computer scientist and political economist.  He earned a PhD in Computer Science from Edinburgh University. In computing, he has worked on parallelism, 3D imaging, the limits of computability, video encoding, electronic voting and various special purposes computer designs. In political economy, he works on value theory, socialist planning theory and the econophysics models of production and money. His most recent books are Classical Econophysics (2009), with Allin F. Cottrell, Gregory G. Michaelson, Ian P. Wright and Victor M. Yakovenko, Arguments for Socialism(2012), with David Zachariah, and Computation and its Limits (2012). He is now an honourary research fellow at the University of Glasgow, having retired from teaching. 


[*] Allin F. Cottrell is a Scottish political economist. He earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. He moved to the U.S.A. in 1983 and taught at UNC-Chapel Hill and Elon College before going to Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA, in 1989. He is a professor in the Economics Department at Forest University ever since. Research interests include the history of economic thought (Marx and Keynes in particular), macroeconomics, and the theory of economic planning.  His most recent books are Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union (2010), with W. Paul Cockshott and Heinz Dieterich, and Gretl − Gnu Regression, Econometrics and Time-series (2016), with Riccardo Lucchetti.




  1. For a discussion of the role of demagogues (originally meaning just a leader of the people) see G.E.M. Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981, chapter V).
  2. The requirement of citizenship excluded women, slaves and metics, or in modern terms resident aliens.
  3. The similarity between the eklesia and those spontaneous organisations of modern workers’ democracy, the mass strike meetings that are so hated by the bourgeois world, is immediately apparent.
  4. Aristotle summarised the arguments of the classical democrats as follows: From these fundamentals are derived the following features of democracy. Elections to office by all from among all. Rule of all over each and each by turns over all. Offices filled by lot, either all or at any rate those not calling for experience or skill. No tenure of office dependent upon a property qualification. The same man not to hold office twice, or only rarely, or only a few apart from those connected with warfare. Short terms for all offices or for as many as possible. All to sit on juries, chosen from all and adjudicating on all or most matters, i.e. the most important and supreme, such as those affecting the constitution, scrutinies and contracts between individuals. The assembly as the sovereign authority in everything, or at least the most important matters, officials having no sovereign power over any but the most minor matters (the council is of all offices the most democratic as long as all is members do not receive lavish pay….). Payment for services, in the assembly, in the law courts, and in the offices is regular for all. As birth, wealth and education are the defining marks of oligarchy, so their opposites, low birth, low incomes and mechanical occupations are regarded as typical of democracy. No office has perpetual tenure, and if any such office remains is being after a revolution, it is shorn of its power and its holders selected by lot instead of by election (Politics,1317). [All the quotations from Aristotle are from The Politics, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986]
  5. Thucydides, History, II (ed. P. J. Rhodes), Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988.
  6. The potential relevance of the mechanisms of ancient democracy has also been discussed from the perspective of the historian by Moses Finley (Democracy Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973). Further useful discussions of classical democracy are offered by G. E. M. de Ste Croix (1981) and David Held (Models of Democracy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).
  7. Already in the 19th century, J. S. Mill was arguing that the development of the railways and newspapers made possible a modern, large-scale equivalent of the agora (see Finley, 1973, p. 36).
  8. We can specify how the votes should be counted more precisely as follows. Let x percent be the maximal amount by which an item of the budget may be changed in one year. Suppose y percent of the people vote for this increase. It follows, eliminating non-voters, that (100 − y) percent voted against the increase, giving a majority for the increase of y − (100 − y) = 2y −100 percent. The resulting change in expenditure should be (2y − 100)x/100 percent. Where everyone votes for the increase, the budget will rise by x percent; where a majority votes against, it will fall by some fraction of x percent.