From the Archive | Every cook can govern

Resistance by elites, including intellectuals, to the idea of the common people governing themselves stretches back to Classical Greece.

Every Cook Can Govern, first published in 1959, takes its title from a magazine article by Vladimir Lenin published in 1917. In this essay, Lenin addresses the question of self-government by the formerly oppressed: “Is there any way other than practice by which the people can learn to govern themselves and to avoid mistakes? Is there any way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self-government by the people? The chief thing now is to abandon the prejudiced bourgeois-intellectualist view that only special officials, who by their very social position are entirely dependent upon capital, can administer the state.”

C.L.R. James wrote this essay after the 1956 uprising in Budapest, which had set up workers’ councils governed by direct democracy. He aimed to provide his readers with a radically democratic conception of socialism.

This is an edited extract of the essay. In the full version, James acknowledges that democracy in ancient Greece did not include women and slaves.

The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organised the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organised upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method that amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Modern parliamentary democracy elects representatives and these representatives constitute the government. Before the democracy came into power, the Greeks had been governed by various forms of government, including government by representatives. The democracy knew representative government and rejected it. It refused to believe that the ordinary citizen was not able to perform practically all the business of government.

Trust in the people

Intellectuals such as Plato and Aristotle detested the system. And Socrates thought that government should be by experts and not by the common people. The essence of the Greek method was the refusal to hand over these things to experts, but to trust to the intelligence and sense of justice of the population at large, which meant, of course, a majority of the common people.

The Greeks had very few permanent functionaries. They preferred to appoint special boards of private citizens. Each of these boards had its own very carefully defined sphere of work. The coordination of all these various spheres of work was carried out by the council. A great number of special commissions helped to carry out the executive work. For example, there were 10 members of a commission to see after naval affairs, and 10 members of a commission to hear complaints against magistrates at the end of their term. One very interesting commission was the commission for the conduct of religious ceremonies.

The Greeks were a very religious people. But most of the priests and officials of the temples were elected and were for the most part private citizens. The Greeks would not have any bunch of bishops, archbishops, popes and other religious bureaucrats who lived by organising religion. Some of these commissions were elected from the council. But others again were appointed by lot.

At every turn, we see the extraordinary confidence that these people had in the ability of the ordinary person, the grocer, the candlestick maker, the carpenter, the sailor, the tailor. Whatever the trade of the individual, whatever his education, he was chosen by lot to do the work the state required.

Democratic drama

Here is some idea of the extent to which the Greeks believed in democracy and equality. One of the greatest festivals in Greece, or rather in Athens, was the festival of Dionysus, the climax of which was the performance of plays for four days, from sunrise to evening. The whole population came out to listen. Officials chose the different playwrights who were to compete. On the day of the performance, the plays were performed and, as far as we can gather, the prizes were at first given by popular applause and the popular vote. You must remember that the dramatic companies used to rehearse for one year, and the successful tragedians were looked upon as some of the greatest men in the state, receiving immense honour and homage from their fellow citizens. Yet it was the public, the general public, of 15 000 or 20 000 people that came and decided who was the winner.

Later, a committee was appointed to decide. Today, such a committee would consist of professors, successful writers and critics. Not among the Greeks. The committee consisted first of a certain number of men chosen by lot from each section of the city. These men got together and chose by lot 10 men from among themselves. These 10 men attended as the judges. At the end of the performances, they made their decision. The 10 decisions were placed in the hat. Five were drawn out. And the one who had the highest vote from among these five received the prize. But even that does not give a true picture of the attitude of the Greeks towards democracy.

Despite the appointment of this commission, there is evidence that the spectators had a preponderant influence on the judges. The Greek populace behaved at these dramatic competitions as a modern crowd behaves at football or baseball games. They were violent partisans. They stamped and shouted and showed their likes and dislikes in those and similar ways. We are told that the judges took good care to notice the way in which popular opinion went, because, and this is typical of the whole working of the democracy on the day after the decision, the law allowed dissatisfied citizens to impeach the members of the commission for unsatisfactory decisions. Members of the commission (we can say at least) were very much aware of the consequences of 15 disregarding the popular feeling about the plays.

Yet it was the Greeks who invented playwriting. In Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, they produced three tragedians who, to this day, have no equals as practitioners of the art they invented. Aristophanes has never been surpassed as a writer of comic plays. These men obviously knew that to win the prize, they had to please the populace. Plato, the great philosopher, was, as can easily be imagined, extremely hostile to this method of decision. But the Greek populace gave the prize to Aeschylus 13 times. They were the ones who repeatedly crowned Aeschylus and Sophocles, and later Euripides, as prize winners. It is impossible to see how a jury consisting of Plato and his philosopher friends could have done any better. There you have a perfect example of the Greek attitude to the capacities, judgment and ability to represent the whole body of citizens, which they thought existed in every single citizen.

Working politics

The Greeks, or to be more strict, the Athenians (although many other cities followed Athens), knew very well that it was necessary to elect specially qualified men for certain posts. The commanders of the army and the fleet were specially selected for their military knowledge and capacity. And yet that by itself can be easily misunderstood. The essence of the matter is that the generals were so surrounded by the general democratic practices of the Greeks, the ordinary Greek was so vigilant against what he called “tyranny”, that it was impossible for generals to use their positions as they might have been able to do in an ordinary bureaucratic or representative form of government.

So it was that the Greeks, highly sophisticated in the practice of democracy, did not, for example, constantly change the men who were appointed as generals. Pericles ruled Athens as general for some 30 years. But he was no dictator. He was constantly re-elected.

The Greek populace elected Pericles year after year because they knew that he was honest and capable. But he knew and they knew that if they were not satisfied with him, they were going to throw him out. That was the temper of the Greek democracy in its best days.

This democracy was not established overnight. The early Greek cities were not governed in this way. The landed aristocracy dominated the economy and held all the important positions of government. For example, rich and powerful noblemen, for centuries, controlled a body known as the Areopagus, which held all the powers that later were transferred to the council. The magistrates in the courts were a similar body of aristocrats who functioned from above with enormous powers such as modern magistrates and modern judges have. The Greek democracy had experience of expert and bureaucratic government.

Anti-democratic intellectuals

It was not that the Greeks had such simple problems that they could work out simple solutions or types of solutions which are impossible in our more complicated civilisations. That is the great argument which comes very glibly to the lips of modern enemies of direct democracy and even of some learned Greek scholars. It is false to the core. And the proof is that the greatest intellectuals of the day, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others (men of genius such as the world has rarely seen), were all bitterly opposed to the democracy. To them, this government by the common people was wrong in principle, and they criticised it constantly. More than that, Plato spent the greater part of his long life discussing and devising and publishing ways and means of creating forms of society and government which would be superior to the Greek democracy.

But we make a colossal mistake if we believe that all this is past history. Plato’s best known book, The Republic, is his description of an ideal society to replace the democracy, and it is a perfect example of a totalitarian state, governed by an elite. And what is worse, Plato started and brilliantly expounded a practice that has lasted to this day among intellectuals – a constant speculation about different and possible methods of government, all based on a refusal to accept the fact that the common man can actually govern. It must be said for Plato that, in the end, he came to the conclusion that the radical democracy was the best type of government for Athens. Many intellectuals today do not do as well. They not only support, but join bureaucratic and even sometimes totalitarian forms of government.

The Greeks did not arrive at their democracy by reading the books of philosophers. The common people won it only after generations of struggle. The struggle was continuous. The old aristocratic class and some of the wealthy people made attempts to destroy the democratic constitution and institute the rule of the privileged. They had temporary success, but were ultimately defeated every time. In the end, the democracy was defeated by a foreign enemy and not from inside.

The full version of the essay is included in A New Notion: Two Works by C.L.R. James: Every Cook Can Govern and The Invading Socialist Society, published by PM Press.

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