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Historical Evidence that Government by Voluntary Federation Can Quickly Replace the Status Quo of Central Authoritarian Government in a Revolution

by John Spritzler

updated from 2011 on January 1, 2024

The URL of this article for sharing it is


One of the chief goals of egalitarian revolution (read what that is here) is to remove the present dictatorship of the rich from power and to create a genuine democracy based on the principle of voluntary federation of egalitarians (read about this here).

This raises the question, “Is it realistic to think that voluntary federation can quickly replace the status quo of authoritarian national governments (read about them here) after a revolution?” If it is not realistic, then revolutionaries would need to think about less-than-ideal transitional ways of achieving the social order that people will understandably want. And if such a less-than-ideal transitional form of government is necessary in the short term, it raises the question that perhaps it is necessary in the longer term as well, and where does this leave the idea of voluntary federation as a practical notion?

I believe that the experience of Europe in the 20th century, as discussed by Hannah Arendt in her book, On Revolution [formerly online at, and from which I obtained by cut and paste (with a few glitches--sorry) the excerpts below], provides strong evidence that voluntary federation can very quickly replace the status quo in a revolutionary situation.

To start with, let me briefly say what I mean by ‘voluntary federation of egalitarians.’ Voluntary federation means that local assemblies are the only bodies that make laws. Local assemblies are meetings that the following people, and only they, have a right to attend: all adults in the community who support the principles of no-rich-and-no-poor equality, mutual aid, fairness and truth and who believe that such people have the right to democratically make the laws that all people in the local community must obey. All members of the local assembly have equal status in decision-making. Social order on a larger than local scale is achieved by local assemblies making voluntary agreements with each other, facilitated by sending delegates to larger-region bodies (and these in turn sending delegates to even larger-region bodies) to craft proposals (not laws!) for the local assemblies to accept or reject as they wish. Large-scale agreements are thus arrived at by negotiation among local assemblies.

Hannah Arendt’s discussion of autonomous revolutionary local bodies does not explicitly describe their specifically egalitarian character, but I think this is largely implicit. You be the judge.

What follows are excerpts from On Revolution that describe how voluntary federation, or at least something very similar to it, spread rapidly in Europe. A key sentence of Arendt’s is this one:

"The most striking aspect of these spontaneous developments is that in both instances it took these independent and highly disparate organs no more than a few weeks, in the case of Russia, or a few days, in the case of Hungary, to begin a process of co-ordination and integration through the formation of higher councils of a regional or provincial character, from which finally the delegates to an assembly representing the whole country could be chosen."

Please read the excerpted text below, and I think you will see that, based on the actual experiences of Europeans not that many years ago, it is perfectly reasonable to expect voluntary federation to replace the status quo after a revolution in a matter of weeks.

[full text from On Revolution starting at page 261 and continuing to page 267 begins here:]

Hence, no tradition, either revolutionary or pre-revolutionary, can be called to account for the regular emergence and re-emergence of the council system ever since the French Revolution. If we leave aside the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris, where a commission pour les travailleurs, set up by the government itself, was almost exclusively concerned with questions of social legislation, the main dates of appearance of these organs of action and germs of a new state are the following:

the year 1870, when the French capital 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; 75


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 representative self-government;


the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, when 'despite different political tendencies among the Russian workers, the organization itself, that is the soviet, was not even subject to discussion'; 76


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 Soldatenrate, demanding, in Berlin, that this Ratesystem become the foundation stone of the new German constitution, and establishing, together with the Bohemians of the coffee houses, in Munich in the spring of 1919, the short-lived Bavarian Rdterepublic;


the last date, finally, is the autumn of 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution from its very beginning produced the council system anew in Budapest, from which it spread all over the country 'with incredible rapidity'. 78

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 councils' common characteristics is, of course, the spontaneity of their coming into being, because it clearly and flagrantly con-
tradicts the theoretical 'twentieth-century model of revolution - planned, prepared, and executed almost to cold scientific exactness by the professional revolutionaries'. 79


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 the organs and institutions of the revolution itself. The councils, moreover, were always organs of order as much as organs of action, and 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. It is true enough that the members of the councils were not content to discuss and 'enlighten themselves' about measures that were taken by parties or assemblies; they consciously and explicitly desired the direct participation of every citizen in the public affairs of the country, 80 and as long as they lasted, there is no doubt that 'every individual found his own sphere of action and could behold, as it were, with his own eyes his own contribution to the eyents of the day'. 81


Witnesses of their functioning were often agreed on the extent to which the revolution had given birth to a 'direct regeneration of democracy', whereby the implication was that all such regenerations, alas, were foredoomed since, obviously, a direct handling of public business through the people was impossible under modern conditions. They looked upon the councils as though they were a romantic dream, some sort of fantastic Utopia come true for a fleeting moment to show, as it were, the hopelessly romantic yearnings of the people, who apparently did not yet know the true facts of life.


These realists took their own bearings from the party system, assuming as a matter of course that there existed no other alternative for representative government and forgetting conveniently that the downfall of the old regime had been due, among other things, precisely to this system.

For the remarkable thing about the councils 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 'constituent 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 the party programmes more than anything else that separated the councils from the 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 with such amazing clearsightedness about the issues at stake. 82


Today we know how quickly the theoretical formula disappeared in practical execution, but if the formula had survived its execution, and even if it had proved to be the panacea for all evils, social and political, the councils were bound to rebel against any such policy since the very cleavage between the party experts who 'knew' and the mass of the people who were supposed to apply this knowledge left out of account the 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.

The councils, obviously, were spaces of freedom. As such, they invariably refused to regard themselves as temporary organs of revolution and, on the contrary, made all attempts 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 consequences, the only government which will close forever the era of invasions and civil wars'; no paradise on earth, no classless society, no dream of socialist or communist fraternity, but the establishment of 'the true Republic' was the 'reward' hoped for as the end of the struggle. 83


And what had been true in Paris in 1871 remained true for Russia in 1905, when the 'not merely destructive but constructive' intentions of the first Soviets were so manifest that contemporary witnesses 'could sense the emergence and the formation of a force which one day might be able to effect the transformation of the
State'. 8 

It was nothing more or less than this hope for a transformation of the state, for a new form of government that would permit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become a 'participator' in public affairs, that was buried in the disasters of twentieth-century revolutions. Their causes were manifold and, of course, varied from country to country, but the forces of what is commonly called reaction and counter-revolution are not prominent among them.


Recalling the record of revolution in our century, it is the weakness rather than the strength of these forces which is impressive, the frequency of their defeat, the ease of revolution, and - last, not least - the extraordinary instability and lack of authority of most European governments restored after the downfall of Hitler's Europe. At any rate, the role played by the professional revolutionaries and the revolutionary parties in these disasters was important enough, and in our context it is the decisive one. Without Lenin's slogan, 'All power to the soviets\ there would never have been an October Revolution in Russia, but whether or not Lenin was sincere in proclaiming the Soviet Republic, the fact of the matter was even then that his slogan was in conspicuous contradiction to the openly proclaimed revolutionary goals of the Bolshevik party to 'seize power', that is, to replace the state machinery with the party apparatus. Had Lenin really wanted to give all power to the Soviets, he would have condemned the Bolshevik party to the same impotence which now is the outstanding characteristic of the Soviet parliament, whose party and non-party deputies are nominated by the party and, in the absence of any rival list, are not even chosen, but only acclaimed by the voters. But while the conflict between party and councils was greatly sharpened because of a conflicting claim to be the only 'true' representative of the Revolution and the people, the issue at stake is of a much more far-reaching significance.


What the councils challenged was the party system as such, in all its forms, and this conflict was emphasized whenever the councils, born of revolution, turned against the party or parties whose sole aim had always been the revolution. Seen from the vanguard point of a true Soviet Republic, the Bolshevik party was merely more dangerous but no less reactionary than all the other parties of the defunct regime. As far as the form of government is concerned - and the councils everywhere, in contradistinction to the revolutionary parties, were infinitely more interested in the political than in the social aspects of revolution 85 - the one-party dictatorship is only the last stage in the development of the nation-state in general and of the multi-party system in particular. This may sound like a truism in the midst of the twentieth century when the multi-party democracies in Europe have declined to the point where in every French or Italian election 'the very foundations of the state and the nature of the
regime' are at stake. 86


It is therefore enlightening to see that in principle the same conflict existed even in 1871, during the Parisian Commune, when Odysse Barrot formulated with rare precision the chief difference in terms of French history between the new form of government, aimed at by the Commune, and the old regime which soon was to be restored in a different, non-monarchical disguise : 'En tant que revolution sociale, 1871 procede directement de 1793, qu'il continue et qu'il doit achever.... En tant que revolution politique, au contraire, 1871 est reaction contre 1793 et un retour a 1789 … Il a efface du programme les mots "une et indivisible" et rejette l'idee autoritaire qui est une idee toute monarchique . . . pour se rallier a l'idee federative, qui est par excellence l'idee liberale et republicaine' 57 (my italics [Arendt’s, not J.S.’s.]).​

These words are surprising because they were written at a time when there existed hardly any evidence - at any rate not for people unacquainted with the course of the American Revolution - about the intimate connection between the spirit of revolution and the principle of federation. In order to prove what Odysse Barrot felt to be true, we must turn to the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia and to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, both of which lasted just long enough to show in bare outlines what a government would look like and how a republic was likely to function if they were founded upon the principles of the council system. In both instances councils or Soviets had sprung up everywhere, completely independent of one another, workers', soldiers', and peasants' councils in the case of Russia, the most disparate kinds of councils in the case of Hungary : neighbourhood councils that emerged in all residential districts, so-called revolutionary councils that grew out of fighting together in the streets, councils of writers and artists born in the coffee houses of Budapest, students' and youths' councils at the universities, workers' councils in the factories, councils in the army, among the civil servants, and so on. The formation of a council in each of these disparate groups turned a more or less accidental proximity into a political institution.

The most striking aspect of these spontaneous developments is that in both instances it took these independent and highly disparate organs no more than a few weeks, in the case of Russia, or a few days, in the case of Hungary, to begin a process of co-ordination and integration through the formation of higher councils of a regional or provincial character, from which finally the delegates to an assembly representing the whole country could be chosen. 88


As in the case of the early covenants, 'cosociations', and confederations in the colonial history of North America, we see here how the federal principle, the principle of league and alliance among separate units, arises out of the elementary conditions of action itself, uninfluenced by any theoretical speculations about the possibilities of republican government in large territories and not even threatened into coherence by a common enemy. The common object was the foundation of a new body politic, a new type of republican government which would rest on 'elementary republics' in such a way that its own central power did not deprive the constituent bodies of their original power to constitute. The councils, in other words, jealous of their capacity to act and to form opinion, were bound to discover the divisibility of power as well as its most important consequence, the necessary separation of powers  in government.

[End of excerpted text here]

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