18 Early State and Democracy

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Early State and Democracy

Leonid Grinin

Uchitel’ Publishing House

The present article is devoted to the problem which is debated actively today, namely whether Greek poleis and the Roman Republic were early states or they represented a specific type of stateless societies. In particular, Moshe Berent examines this problem by the example of Athens in his contribution to this volume. He arrives at the conclusion that Athens was a stateless society. However, I am of the opinion that this conclusion is wrong: and I believe that Athens and Rome were early states. Therefore the present article is in many respects a direct discussion with Berent (as well as with other supporters of this idea).

In this contribution a specific aspect of the problem of multilinearity in sociopolitical evolution is examined. So to a certain degree it is an organic continuation of my another article (‘The Early State and Its Analogue: A Comparative Analysis’) in the present volume. On the one hand, simultaneously with early states there coexisted complex non-state societies comparable to the states in size, population, other parameters and functions. Elsewhere I have termed such polities the analogues of the early state (Grinin 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004; Bondarenko, Grinin, and Korotayev 2002). On the other hand, the diversity of sociopolitical evolution is expressed also in a tremendous variety of the early states proper among which the bureaucratic states represent just one of many types. The democratic early states without bureaucracy were early states of another type. In this article I analyze Athens and the Roman Republic as examples of this very type.

Preliminary remarks

The problem as to whether Athens and the Roman Republic were early states is important in itself. However, attempts to settle it inevitably result

Grinin / Early State and Democracy, pp. 419–463

in a consideration of a wider problem of great importance: what polities in general can be considered as early states. In particular, is it also possible to regard as such the democratically organized societies? As a matter of fact, though quite a few scholars insist on the non-state character of democratic polities directly, actually almost all the analyses of the early states attributes explicitly (see e.g., Petkevich 2002: 148) or implicitly proceed from the idea that the early state was obligatorily a hierarchically arranged society of a monarchic type.

This idea determines some rather widespread views on typical features of the early state. In particular that, first, the opportunities to influence politics are concentrated almost exclusively in the ruler's clan or in a rather narrow higher circle (e.g., see how Claessen [1978: 589; Claessen and Skalník 1978: 633] characterizes the discrepancies between inchoate, typical and transitional early states). Second, the majority of population is excluded from influencing politics. Thus the common people are only destined to bear the duties (military, tax, and labor) and in order to fix such a distribution of duties the presence of a coercive apparatus is required. Berent's article mentioned above is an excellent example to demonstrate the prevalence of such views.

Of course, these phenomena can be observed quite often but not always. For example, in Athens and the Roman Republic monarchs were absent, the influence of patrimonial relations on authority was insufficient, the system of staff selection was based on some different principles than in other societies, the citizens were not excluded from political life and violence was applied irregularly upon them. Thus, the question, whether Athens and Rome were early states? is not vain. See, for instance, about Joyce Marcus's ‘suspicion’ concerning ‘the Greek case’ ‘that societies called “city-states” are often not states’ (Marcus 1998: 89).

Certainly, from the Marxist viewpoint they may be regarded as almost classic examples of the state. It is not without reason that Engels paid so much attention to the history of Athens and Rome in his ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ (1961). According to him, the ancient state was primarily ‘the state of slave-owners aimed at suppressing slaves’ (1961: 179). Both these polities correspond well with Lenin's famous definition of the state as an agency with the help of which one class exploits another class and keeps it in obedience (Lenin 1974: 24).

However, some Soviet historians always had problems with applying the concept of historical materialism to the societies of their personal professional concern. As for Greece and Rome, the problems originated primarily from the fact that sometimes it was impossible to apply the notion of social classes to characterize the social strata and early estates (see e.g., Shtaerman 1989: 81–85). Second, the notion of the state was firmly associated with bureaucracy and other features characteristic of Oriental despoties. Meanwhile, in Rome and Athens the government officials bear little resemblance to bureaucrats (see e.g., Osborne 1985: 9). Third, some difficulties were encountered when dealing with other features considered obligatory attributes of a state, such as for instance, compulsory taxation (we will return to this point later). These and some other specific features of ancient communities provided grounds for raising a number of complicated questions including such as whether a polis was a state (Koshelenko 1983: 31; Utchenko 1965: 18) and whether it was a city at the same time? (Koshelenko 1979: 5–6; 1983: 31; Marinovich and Koshelenko 1995).

At present, some Russian scholars regard Athens, some other Greek poleis, and the Roman Republic as stateless societies of a specific type alternative to the state as having comparable level of development and organization complexity (Bondarenko 2001: 259; Bondarenko and Korotayev 2000: 10–11; Bondarenko, Korotayev, and Kradin 2002: 16; Korotayev, Kradin, and Lynsha 2000: 37; Korotayev, Kradin, Lynsha, and de Munck 2000: 25). Although I appreciate greatly many of these researchers' ideas, I find it impossible to agree with this statement. And, since to substantiate the idea of the Greek polis and the Roman Republic's statelessness they refer to the opinions of Berent and Shtaerman in the first place, I found it necessary to criticize the arguments of these particular authors: Berent (2000a, 2000b) and Shtaerman (1989, 1990).

Berent approaches Athens and other poleis as stateless communities and Shtaerman insists that the Roman civil community or civitas in the times of its flourishing was ‘a community restored at a new stage and headed by the type of “authority” characteristic of communities and acting “for the common benefit” of the civic collectivity…’ (p. 89)1.

However, I would like to make a reservation that in this article there is neither a possibility nor a necessity to analyze the peculiarities of numerous Greek poleis. Athens would be sufficient. All the more so as Berent though speaking about polis in general, basically pays attention to Athens. I proceeded from the assumption that, if it were possible to prove that Athens was an early state, it would suffice to achieve my goal. On the other hand, if my opponents were right that Athens was a stateless society, it would also apply to many other poleis probably, with the exception of Sparta.

In the meantime, to maintain that all the poleis of Ancient Greece were states would be, from my point of view, a bit precipitate. On the contrary, I presume that some of the poleis, due to their small size and specific status, simply did not need to have any state form (for such poleis, see Andreyev 1989:72; Koshelenko 1983: 10–11). So some poleis failed to overcome the pre-state condition, while others succeeded in outgrowing it by transformation into analogues of the early state. Thus, the Delphic polis could probably be an analogue of the early state2 (Gluskina 1983a: 45, 71). But Athens, as well as many others, undoubtedly were states.

Some weak points of Berent and Shtaerman's

approaches in connection with theoretical

problems of state formation and sociopolitical


First of all, I must formulate my personal viewpoint:

Athens and the Roman Republic cannot be considered as mature states. They were early states. But they were early states of a specific type essentially different from other (especially bureaucratic) types.

Unfortunately neither Berent nor Shtaerman actually make any difference between the mature and early state in their contexts, though the former uses the term early state in the very title of his paper and the latter discusses the problem of the border between the chiefdom and the early state at the very beginning of her work. Very often their arguments against recognition of the state in Athens and Rome are, in fact, the arguments against the existence of a mature or at least completed state there. That is the way a substitution unnoticed by the authors takes place: at first it is proved that there is no completed state and then the conclusion is made that there is no state at all. For instance, Shtaerman writes, ‘Thus, during its heyday the Roman classical civitas can hardly be regarded as a completed state. It was a community...’ (p. 89; emphasis added – L.G.). But not to be a completed state does not mean at all to be stateless and not an early state. On the contrary, as a rule early states were not completed ones.

Regrettably, the conviction that the early and mature states have the same basic attributes is rather a common mistake. If it were so, the transition from the early state to the mature one would not be so dramatically difficult. However, the majority of early states failed to become mature states (see e.g., Claessen and Skalník 1978b; Claessen and van de Velde 1991; Skalník 1996). Why? The reason is the following. Early states developed under different conditions, their structures were quite different too, and various political means were used to tackle their own problems. On the one hand, such states were often quite up to the goals and circumstances of the time. On the other hand, their organization lacked the mechanisms and potentials that, under favorable conditions, could push them up to a higher stage of the evolution ladder (or the required favorable conditions failed to turn up). From the point of view of the social evolution theory it means that there were different types of the early state. And the difference is not only in size but also in the principle of organization.

From the aforesaid simple but important inferences follow logically.

First, the presence of different types of early states means that later on some of them turned out to have evolutionary prospects while the others evolutionary dead-ended. In its turn, this means that:

a) not all the political, structural and other achievements of early states remained in demand in mature states;

b) however, although many institutions and relations were ‘useful’ only under certain conditions and in certain societies, this does not mean at all that the polities possessing them were not early states. Let me set a simple example. In the course of evolution, the principle of direct succession of throne (i.e. from father to son) was established. However, it does not at all mean that the societies where the crown was passed not to the eldest son but to the senior next of kin (like for example in Kievan Rus) were not early states. The same applies to the principles of formation and functioning of the state apparatus, army, political regime, etc. The very fact that monarchy was the predominant type of state does not mean at all that democratic polities were not states for this only reason. The problem of characterizing such polities should be solved on the basis of comparing them with pre-states and state analogues, as I have already pointed it out elsewhere (Grinin 2002b: 24–66; 2003c) and what will be discussed in the present article later;

c) thus it is absolutely necessary to give up the unilineal approach to evolution in general and evolution of the state in particular. If we are going to regard as those of the state only the attributes that became the leading ones later on, we shall narrow and distort greatly the state formation and politogenesis processes (for details of the term politogenesis, see Bondarenko and Korotayev 2000b; Bondarenko, Grinin, and Korotayev 2002; Grinin 2003c: 164; for the distinction between both terms, see Grinin 2001; 2002a).

Second, three main attributes of state namely: 1) existence of administration in the form of bureaucratic and coercive apparatus; 2) division of population by the territorial principle; and 3) existence of taxes and taxation, are often pointed out. But these characteristics typical of many mature states, сan hardly suit early states, as usually some of these attributes are either missing or expressed not clearly enough (for more details, see Grinin 2002c, 2004). However, in many early states any of these attributes (which were to become the leading ones in a mature state) could be substituted with other ones, effective enough for solving particular problems. So in this case my aim is to prove that in ancient Greek states law and court substituted developed administration bodies.

Third, if we speak about different types of the early state, the absence of bureaucracy itself in the Greek polis and in Roman civitas cannot provide a proof of their not being early states. This is a proof of something different: the polis and civitas represented not the bureaucratic but a specific type of the early state (for the similar opinions of some participants of the discussion on the Shtaerman's article, see e.g., Andreyev 1989: 71; Jacobson 1989: 77; Trukhina 1989: 74).

That is why when Berent and Shtaerman try to prove that there was no state in Athens and Rome pointing out their distinction from large agro-literate states, it means that they actually reduce the diversity of early-state forms to the only one, just because that very form has become evolutionary the leading one.

However, if we recognize the existence of different types of the early state, we must treat all of them as ‘correct’ (valid) ones although some of them resemble future mature states to a larger degree than others. It follows that common features of early states should be established not through the recognition of a single – a ‘standard’ and ‘correct’ – one among various types of them, but that it should be done at a higher level of abstraction. I mean that such abstract common features of the early state must correlate with each type of the early state (for detail, see Grinin 2004).

Typology of the early state

Working out a typology of early states is a specific and quite a complicated task. I am not trying to cope with it in this article. But it is absolutely obvious that one is perfectly rightful to speak about numerous types of the early state. The polis and civitas (although sharing many features) each represents a specific type of the early state. Probably it can explain why their evolutionary potentials turned out to be different. The Roman Republic, though not without crises, transformed into a mature state. But the same transformation turned out to be impossible for a small democratic polis though a certain evolution took place there in the 3rd–2nd centuries B.C. (see Sizov 1992: 72–73). Among other types of the early state the bureaucratic states should certainly be singled out. The Third Dynasty of Ur in Mesopotamia is a classic example of the type (D'jakonov 2000: 64–65; Vitkin 1968: 433–434). However, we can also speak about ‘sacral’ states where bureaucracy is not developed considerably (like, for example, the young states of Oceania that formed at the end of the 18th–19th centuries after the arrival of the Europeans, namely: Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti); imperial non-bureaucratic states like the Aztec state (Johnson and Earle 2000: 306); predatory states (like ancient Assyria).

Ancient Rus and Norway provide examples of the druzhina type where power of the ruler ‘was measured primarily by the number of his armed followers’ (Gurevich 1980: 131). The druzhina (prince's armed forces or retinue) was formed of the prince's closest supporters who helped him to rule the army and the princedom (Gurevich 1970: 173; Shmurlo 2000: 107). We can also speak about military-trading states, particularly in regard to the nomadic ones (like the Khazar [Pletnyova 1986; 1987: 206–207; Shmurlo 2000: 38] and Turk [Gumilev 1993: 42] Khaganats). A number of medieval European states, Moscow Rus in 15th –16th centuries, the early Ottoman Empire as well as its predecessor in Asia Minor in the 11th –13th centuries, the Seljuquid state were nothing but military-servant (military-feudal) states (Gordlevsky 1947: 69; Petrosyan 1990: 91; Stroeva 1978: 5–11), etc.

A typology of early states can be provided along different lines like for example, the monarchic and democratic ones. In this case, one cannot help taking into account the fact that any democratic (at least to some extent) state differs from a monarchic one as its citizens with the right to vote are the supreme power while in the monarchic state the supreme power is the monarch's will based on his peculiar rights and privileges. That is why the democratic lifestyle is necessarily associated with a regular transfer of power or replacement of government when such procedural moments as organization of elections, decision-making, etc. become of major importance. As for the monarchies, the questions of making and executing decisions become important at a much higher level of development.

It is worth pointing out that in their theoretical constructions Berent and Shtaerman do not give enough consideration to the specific character of democratic states in comparison with monarchies. So when they point out some features of Athens and Rome (for example, short term of office) as proofs of the absence of a state in these societies they do not take into account that such traits were in fact quite typical of other democratic states (the Italian medieval republics in particular). In other words, some features that make Athens and Rome different from the oriental states are not the differences between states and stateless polities but the differences between the democratic early states and monarchies.
Naturalness of the democratic path

of state formation and its evolutionary


Transformation of a polis into a state

As it is generally recognized, many elements of primitive democracy existed in the hunters-gatherers communities. Though to a lesser extent, democracy was spread rather widely among primitive farmers and cattle-breeders. The stratification into nobility and common people, the wealthy and the poor, those having more rights and less rights as well as the growth of the society in territory and population, pushed it aside significantly. However, due both to the long-standing tradition and difficulty for power usurpation, democracy remained one of natural paths of politogenesis for quite a long period.

The ‘choice’ of the democratic form of political organization was determined by various reasons, actually by a complex set of them. Some of these reasons will be discussed later on. One of the most important of them is the community's geographic location as it can become an obstacle on the way of smaller polities integration into larger ones (e.g., Korotayev 1995).

The polis belonged to such small polities. ‘Polis is a comparatively small community (several hundred to several thousand) of citizens, whose main occupation was farming, which was the basis of the polis economy’ (Koshelenko 1983: 30). It is easy to see that such a polis is an inherently pre-state polity (Grinin 2003c) from the point of view of the state formation stages3. A primitive early state usually incorporates at least from 5,000 to 6,000 people and even with that large population it is not obligatory for a society to transform into a state. In fact, the formation of a state usually required much larger scopes.

Consequently, the transition to the early state was connected with the growth of the polis in size that led inevitably to changes in organisation of government.

Such an increase in size could take place:

– with the enhancement of wars and synoecism as a result of it. For even a small polis was often formed by the fusion of several communities. The polis was a civic community as a rule, resulted from the merge of territorial communities (Koshelenko 1983: 36; 1987: 40; Kurbatov et al. 1986: 44). That was enough to tear certain traditions apart;

– after victorious conquests and as a result the enlargement of a land stock as in the case of Sparta's conquering Messenia in the 8th –7th centuries B.C. (Andreyev 1983: 201). Of course the similar cases can be observed not only in history of poleis. Such events happened very often during state formation process as Carneiro (1970, 1978, 2000, 2002) brought out clearly. Early Rome is the most vivid example of a military way of development;

– in the case of availability of free land resources what promotes natural population growth (the case not typical of Greece with the exception of a few colonies, but found in early Rome where free land, the so-called ager publicus was always available);

– finally, with the change of the production basis, that is: a) introduction of more intensive cultures (such as olives, grapes), and, b) increase of the role of crafts, trade and work for market. This way turned out to be acceptable for Athens and a number of other poleis.

There is no doubt that certain important preconditions for the emergence and development of the democratic state already existed in the pre-state polis.

First, traditions in many pre-state societies were strongly democratic.

Second, in the situation of population concentration on a small territory – a typical situation for a city community – the government was based on direct territorial closeness of people to power and the possibility for the inhabitants to participate directly in governing. It contributed quite often to the emergence of democratic forms of government as well as their evolution towards strengthening of institutionalization, formalism, of the legal and procedural components of the power function. Under certain circumstances, especially at war times, it facilitated the transition of a city community into a state. The history of poleis is a good illustration of my idea that a state is born in the situation of some abrupt changes and serious deviations from the standard situation (Grinin 2003c: 155). Revolutions and counter-revolutions of all kinds, migrations, tyrannies and their falls, wars – all of them were able to facilitate the transition from traditional forms of regulation to state forms.

Third, in the course of time the lack of space provoked the necessity for a strict control over the number of migrants. For this reason at a certain moment the community started to restrict their inflow. This is how the ideology of special closeness of a definite number of people, the polis citizens, appeared: it was easier to abandon the previously used principles of differentiation according to belonging to a particular family, phratry, or tribe this way.

Fourth, the profane or restricted sacral character of the ruler (or chief) of such a community was on the whole the reason for the weakness of the royal power. Besides, a monarch did not have an effective coercive apparatus at his disposal. No wonder then that the Greek basileis lost their power. And if we turn to the history of Rome, the reasons for the comparatively easy revolutions and banishment of kings when they started to exceed their authorities will become much clearer. Thus in Rome, according to some researchers, a king: a) was a stranger; b) he had no right to demise his power to a heir; c) in line with the tradition, almost all the Roman kings were assassinated – some of them by the heirs (Nemirovsky 1962: 151–152).

To sum up, it can be stated that, just like the chief's strong power in a chiefdom contributes to the formation of a kingdom, the primitive democracy of a polis could grow into a democratic state. However, it should be noted that the developed democracy of a polis does not evolve directly out of the pre-state democracy. Using Hegel's expression, it is already the product of the negation of the negation, of a long-lasting rivalry of various tendencies: the aristocratic and demotic, tyrannical and democratic. It ‘has been established long ago that the Greek polis, prior to acquiring the organization of a democratic state, had to pass a long way in its development, through a number of intermediate stages’ (Vinogradov 1983: 394).

The political form quite often depended on particular circumstances and results of political struggle. However, it can be admitted that the democratic tendencies were enhanced by the development of crafts and trade4. And there is no doubt that the growth of marketability, crafts, and commerce in Athens led to the growth of political power of the demos which found its expression in rough political events of the early 6th century B.C. According to some researchers, in the 5th century B.C. the evolution of the Athenian polis resulted in overgrowing the polis framework by the economic and political principles, social structure, moral and political values (Gluskina 1983: 7).

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