Bristol Radical History Group: From Athens to the Electoral Lottery

Dan Bennett, of the Bristol Radical History Group, presents a description of the Athenian democratic system and proposes a sortition party.

Cheerleaders for parliamentary democracy often hark back semi-legendary ‘golden ages’ as a foundation of the modern electoral process. Do these myths have any basis in reality and what relevance do they have today? Dan Bennett uncovers the hidden history of Athenian popular democracy and proposes a modern alternative.

‘Every Cook Can Govern’: From Athens to the Electoral Lottery – part 1, part 2, part 3.


19 Responses

  1. Ideas para discutir cómo enriquecer la democracia


  2. You can read C L R James’ pamphlet ‘Every Cook Cam Govern’ at


  3. Are there any substantive disputes about the historiography of “Every Cook Can Govern”?

    I am particularly interested in the claim that it was the independent citizen-rowers who were the driving force to extend democracy to all social classes (of free adult males). Did the Greek navy, then, abjure galley slaves?

    This is part of the claim made in “Every Cook…”:
    “The port of Athens was, as it is to this day, the Piraeus. There, for the most part, lived the sailors of the merchant fleet and the navy and a number of foreigners, as takes place in every great naval port. The leaders in the popular assembly were sometimes radical noblemen and later were often ordinary artisans. But the proletarians of the Piraeus were the driving force and they were the most radical of the democrats.”


  4. The histories I read (secondary sources) agree with this description. I guess the main primary source is Thucydides which describes the situation during the Peloponnesian wars.


  5. I also have read the same thing (about the significance of the rowers) in more than one history of Athens. Where there is some disagreement about C L R James’ history is the question of whether the rowers struggled for and won inclusion in governance, or whether they were simply granted that right by Cleisthenes the leader of one faction of the elite aristocracy, because he believed they would side with him against his opponents.


  6. Terry, I suspect just about every democratic advance happens that way–some member of the elite decides to enlist the masses on his side as a way of winning some power struggle. Powerful people in the Anglo-American world are well aware of the possibility, and are on guard against it. They even have a name for it–“populist,” which is automatically supposed to be a term of insult among political insiders.

    Obviously, a “populist” in this sense can be good, bad, or indifferent. He can produce meaningful political reforms that last, wreck the political system, or make no lasting changes while fattening his Swiss bank account. But if leaders like this are typically part (though certainly not all) of the process of institutional reform, then anyone who wants to reform institutions should look for ways to make use of them.


  7. Yes, a good argument for not seeking an all-sortive solution, If you put forward a political programme that entirely disenfranchises elected politicians this will be unlikely to garner their support.


  8. Back to considering the impetus that impelled or inclined or forced Cleisthenes to institute democracy in 507/8 BCE … I don’t understand how the claim is made that the rowers were instrumental since the Persian War — in which Greek triremes were such an important factor — didn’t occur until decades later.


  9. It’s been quite some time since I looked at James’ essay, so I don’t know if he is really saying something questionable. But my understanding is that there was a lengthy process of democratization, through which the political power of the traditional nobility was broken. Solon’s reforms were part of that, and Cleisthenes did much more by democratizing the Boule. The last major change took place around 462-461, when the Areopagus (the ruling council of the nobility) officially lost most of its remaining powers. The critical importance of the rowers contributed to the process, but it had begun long before that.


  10. In Paul Woodruff’s book, “First Democracy”, he discusses the fact that Athens was dependent on its navy because of its connection to various islands and trade, etc. Its navy was dependent on the loyalty of its working class citizen rowers (slaves were primarily used as house servants, and maybe in mining). Garnering support of the working class rowers is frequently mentioned as an impetus towards democracy.

    I find this quote of Woodruff on page 27 to be significant…
    “Democracy evolved because it worked and because once started it was hard to stop. It was not invented by intellectuals on the basis of ideas.”


  11. Good point, but we need to be careful not to assume that something that worked in an ancient city-state would necessarily work in the same way for modern political entities several orders of magnitude larger (this appears to be Chouard’s assumption). The word “democracy” refers to a wide range of political institutions and I agree that the challenge is finding what works for us. This will involve a combination of social science experiments and (I’m afraid to say) some input from political theorists — even if the role of the latter is limited to pointing out what wouldn’t work. It’s hard also to imagine the modern equivalent of citizen rowers (having said that I’m a citizen and I’ve spent the morning on the river in a coxed 8. Perhaps I could persuade our rowing club to become the vanguard of the movement for real democracy!)


  12. Useful replies. Thank you. / Wondering about another aspect. If Athenians knew nothing of ‘representation’, as has been said in this blog … what would one call the choosing of 50 citizens from each of the 10 demes to the Council of 500? … I’ve asked and answered this to myself several times and come up with: There are two meanings of ‘representation’: 1.) standing for a group (as in ‘from each deme’ — as a delegate thereof); 2.) being ‘like a person from a conglomerate’. The latter is the concept that was not conceived until … when? Is my understanding correct here?


  13. > If Athenians knew nothing of ‘representation’

    What does this mean? At most it can be claimed that Athenians did not have an explicit theory of representation. (Even that is not quite true – it certainly seems like Socrates discussed representation.) Would you say that Athenians knew nothing of gravity because they had no explicit theory of gravity?


  14. Hi, Yoram, it isn’t I who made that statement. I’m taking it from having read ‘the Athenians had no concept of representation’ … somewhere in this blog (sorry, not sure where). / Your reply is indeed my question.


  15. I know. I am guessing the person who made the claim would show up soon.


  16. A question about vote counting at the Assembly.
    Since the vote was taken by raising hands — up to 6,000 squeezed into the Pynx — and the “count” was through eyeballing by officials … are there any records of disputes about the outcomes?
    Or allegations of voting fraud or any other electoral malfeasance?


  17. > If Athenians knew nothing of ‘representation’

    “The concept of representation, particularly of human beings representing other human beings, is essentially a modern one. The ancient Greeks had no corresponding word.” (Pitkin, 1967, p.2).

    As for the notion that the Greeks had no concept of probability, the prime source is Ian Hacking’s Emergence of Probability (1975). I agree though with Yoram that the lack of an formal theory doesn’t thereby mean there was no corresponding intuition, as every medieval cook would have known that a sample of the soup would give her an indication of what the whole cauldron would taste like.

    The argument that selecting 50 from each deme was a form of representation has been addressed elsewhere (probably Dowlen). I’m not aware of any arguments that this was intended as a form of representation in either of the above senses.


  18. Thank you, Keith. That is just the information I was seeking.

    Thanks also, generically, to Yoram for maintaining this excellent blog resource.

    …. Any voting fraud or complaints of miscounts at the Assembly?


  19. According to M. H. Hansen, the show of hands were estimated by a committee of nine selected by lot for the day from among the Council of 500. If there was doubt (and even a single citizen could make the appeal), the show of hands would be repeated. Presumably, if the committee of nine was divided about the result, they would vote among themselves (thus the number nine rather than the customary ten of most small bodies of magistrates. Hansen suggests there is no record of voting disputes.


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