Democracy and the Early State

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* Article: Democracy and Early State. Leonid Grinin. Social Evolution & History. Volume 3, Number 2 / September 2004



"The 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. Some scholars suppose that even in the times of their flourishing these societies were stateless ones. I am of the opinion that this conclusion is wrong: and I believe that Athens and the Roman Republic were early states. Therefore the present article is in many respects a direct discussion with the supporters of the idea of the stateless character of the ancient societies.

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

Thus, in this contribution a specific aspect of the problem of multilinearity in sociopolitical evolution is examined. 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 termed such polities the analogues of the early state (e.g., Grinin 2003c, 2004c; 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."



Typology of the Early State

Leonid Grinin:

"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). As for Sparta Finley denotes it as a model military state, but the paradox is that this model was destroyed because of the greatest military success of Sparta (1983: 40). However many ancient states were military ones. So it is more correct to regard Sparta as a military-communal slave-owning type of state.

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 monarchic ones."