Decent Democracy
About | Acknowledgements | Contact | | Follow site activity RSS 2.0

Solar Fire and Hannah Arendt

First published August-2012
last update 27-October-2012

In my previous (and first blog) oto chronicle the long process of writing Denentralized Democracy, I was under the impression I had time in front of me to work on Decentralized Democracy.

... Then we decided to launch a Solar Fire campaign to develop a wood based solar concentrator. Though of course this is work on decentalized democracy, since developing a solar based fire is a critical precondition it’s bloged about on

But solar is not the only important thing, and so I return nudging forward the overall task here at Decent-Democracy.

In finishing this morning Hannah Arendt’s, On revolution, I am shaken by the gems on decentralized government, what Arendt call "the council system" in the last chapters of the book.

I have no specific affinity in the revolutionary literary tradition (outside understanding history) for reasons Arendt expresses succinctly:

"The part of the professional revolutionists usually consists not in making a revolution but in rising to power after it has broken our, and their advantage in this power struggle lies less in their theories and mental or organization preparation than in the simple fact that their names are the only ones which are publicly known.—p252

She also has an end note mentioning "[...] an interesting example. At the election to the National Assembly in 1871, the suffrage in France had become free, but since there existed no parties the new voters tended to vote for the only canditates they know at all, with the result that the new republic had become the ’Republic of Dukes’. [1])

So in this light the purpose of Decent-Democracy is to make a guide book not for self-appointed revolutionaires, but to real communities, real ’councils’ that ’For the remarkable thing about the counciles was of course not only that they crossed all party lines, that members of the various parties sat in them together, but that such party membership played no role whatsoever. They were in fact the only political organs for people who belonged to no party. Hence, they invariably came into conflict with all assemblies, with the old parliaments as well as with the new ’consituent assemblies;, for the simple reason that the latter, even in their most extreme wings, were still the children of the party system. At this stage of events, that is, in the midst of revolution, it was party programmes more than anything else that seperated the councils from teh parties; for these programmes, no matter how revolutionary, were all ’ready-made formulas; which demanded not action but execution — ’ to be carried out energetically in practice’, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out [...] the counciles were bound to rebel against any such policy since the very cleavage between the party experts who ’knew’ and the mass of people who were supposed to apply this knowledge left out of account teh average citizen’s capacity to act and to form his own opinion. The councils, in other words, were bound to become superfluous if the spirit of the revolutionary party prevailed. Wherever knowing and doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost."p. 256

For Arendt notes the spontaneous organization of the people into the council system, in every major revolution since the French revolution (as well as previously noting the "town hall meatings" as the driving force of the American revolution), such as "the French captical under siege by the Prussian army ’spontaneously reorganized itself into a miniature federal body’, which then formed the nucleus for the Parisian Commune government in the spring of 1871; the year 1905, when the wave of spontaneous strikes in Russia suddenly developed a political leadership of its own, outside all revolutionary parties and groups, and the workers in the factories organized themselves into councils, soviets, for the purpose of represnetative self-government; the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, when ’despite different political tendencies among the Russian workers, the orgaization itself, that is the soviet, was not even subject to discussion’; the years 1918 and 1919 in Germany, when, after the defeat of the army, soldiers and workers in open rebellion constituted themselves into Arbeiter- und Soldaternate, demanding, in Berlin, that this Ratesystem become the foundation stone of teh new German constitution, and establising, together with the Bohemiams of the coffee houses, in Munich in the spring of 1919, the short-lived Bavarian Raterepublick; the last date, finally, is the autumn of 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution from is very beginning produced the council system anew in Budapest, from which it spread all over the country ’with incredible rapidity’. — p254 (Arendts sites many interesting sources) [2]

"The mere enumeration of these dates suggests a continuity that in fact never existed. It is precisely the absence of continuity, tradition, and organized influence that makes the sameness of the phenomenon so very striking. Outstanding among the concils’ common characteristcis is, of course, the spontaneity of their coming into being, because it clearly and flagrantly contradicts the theoretical ’twentieth-century model of revolution — planned, prepared, and executed almost to cold scientific exactness by the professional revolutionaries’. It is true that wherever the revolution was not defeated and not followed by some sort of restoration the one-party dictatorship, that is, the model of the professional revolutionary, eventually prevailed, but it prevailed only after a violent struggle with teh organs and institutions of the revolution itself [i.e. the council system]. The councils. moreover, were always organs of order as much as organs of action, an it was indeed their aspiration to lay down the new order that brought them into conflict with the groups of professional revolutionaries, who wished to degrade them to mere executive organs of revolutionary activity." p.255

Ok, I could essentially quote most of the last quarter of the book, so these one’s I just wanted to get down to incorporate into the Decent book. Well, ok, one last one:

"... The founders should have found it easy enough to console themselves with the thought that the Revolution had opened the political realm at least to those whose inclination for ’virtuous disposition’ was strong, whose passion for distinction was ardent enough to embark upon the extraordinary hazards of a political career. Jefferson, however, refused to be consoled. He feared an ’elective despotism’ as bad as, or worse than, the tyranny they had risen against: ’If once [our people] become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves." — p. 230 (Quotin Hefferson from a letter to Colonel Edwards Carrington, 16 January 1787).

So what has this to do with Solar Fire

Everything! Since all the above leads up to the question "Why did the revolutionary party (controlled by professional revolutionists who mostly ’show up’ after the revolution is already underway) defeat the spontaneous council system of the people?" as Ardents says in no unequivocal terms:

The outbreak of most revolutions has surprised the revolutionist groups and parties no less than all others, and there exists hardly a revolution whose outbreak could be blamed upon their activities. It usually was the other way round: revolution broke out and liberated, as it were, the professional revolutonists from wherever they happened to be—from jail, or from the coffee house, or from the library. Not even Lenin’s party of preofessional revolutionists would ever have been able to ’make’ a revolution; the best they could do was to be around, or hurry home at the right moment, that is, at the moment of collapse. Tocqueville’s observation in 1848, that the monarchy fell ’before rather than beneath the blows of the victors, who were as astonished by their triumph as were the vanquished at their defeat,’ has been verified over and over again. p.252

Indeed, she observes that Bolshevik party (professional revolutionists) had to name their new government after the soviet councils who they did everything to destroy and did destroy, but so associated were the soviets with the cause, work and purpose of the revolution, that

"Practically, the current ’realism’, despair of the people’s political capacities, not unlike the realism of Saint-Just, is based solidly upon the concious or unconscious determination to ignore the reality of the councils and to take for granted that there is not, and never has been, and alternative to the present system."p. 262

"The councils, obviously, were spaces of freedom. As such, they invariably refused to regard themselves as temporary organs of the revolution and, on the contrary, made all attemps at establishing themselves as permanent organs of government. Far from wishing to make the revolution permanent, their explicitly expressed goal was ’to lay the foundations of a republic acclaimed in all its concequences, the only government which will close forever the era of invations and civil war;’ no paradise on earth, no classless society, no dream of socialist community fraternity, but the establishment of ’the true Republic’ was the ’reward’ hoped for as the end of the struggle. p.256 Arendt citing Anweiler.

Her answer is found on ... to be continued.


[1End note 70: Maurice Duverger — "Who’s book on Political Parties. Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State"(French edition, 1951), New York, 1961, supersedes and by far excels all former studies on the subject — mentions an interesting example. At the election to the National Assembly in 1871, the suffrage in France had become free, but since there existed no parties the new voters tended to vote for the only canditates they know at all, with the result that the new republic had become the ’Republic of Dukes’

[2To this list we can also add the Anarchists rebellion in Spain, the Zapatista’s in Mexico, the liberation theology movement of South America, and many others.

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

Table of Contents

*Chapters in grey are in progress.

About | Acknowledgements | Contact |
Built with | template | | Follow site activity RSS 2.0