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[Gr.,=rule of the people], term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat. The definition of democracy has been expanded, however, to describe a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes. Such a philosophy places a high value on the equality of individuals and would free people as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed. It insists that necessary restraints be imposed only by the consent of the majority and that they conform to the principle of equality.


Democracy first flourished in the Greek city-statecity-state,
in ancient Greece, Italy, and Medieval Europe, an independent political unit consisting of a city and surrounding countryside. The first city-states were in Sumer, but they reached their peak in Greece.
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, reaching its fullest expression in ancient AthensAthens
, Gr. Athínai, city (1991 pop. 2,907,179; 1991 urban agglomeration pop. 3,072,922), capital of Greece, E central Greece, on the plain of Attica, between the Kifisós and Ilissus rivers, near the Saronic Gulf. Mt. Aigáleos (1,534 ft/468 m), Mt.
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. There the citizens, as members of the assembly, participated directly in the making of their laws. A democracy of this sort was possible only in a small state where the people were politically educated, and it was limited since the majority of inhabitants were slaves or noncitizens. Athenian democracy fell before imperial rule, as did other ancient democracies in the early Italian cities and the early church. In this period and in the Middle Ages, ideas such as representationrepresentation,
in government, the term used to designate the means by which a whole population may participate in governing through the device of having a much smaller number of people act on their behalf.
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 crucial to modern Western democracy were developed.

Doctrines of natural law evolved into the idea of natural rights, i.e., that all people have certain rights, such as self-preservation, that cannot be taken from them. The idea of contract followed, that rulers and people were bound to each other by reciprocal obligations. If the sovereign failed in his duties or transgressed on natural rights, the people could take back their sovereignty. This idea, as postulated by John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
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, strongly influenced the development of British parliamentary democracy and, as defined in the social contractsocial contract,
agreement or covenant by which men are said to have abandoned the "state of nature" to form the society in which they now live. The theory of such a contract, first formulated by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (in the Leviathan,
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 theory of Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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, helped form the philosophical justification for the American and French Revolutions. The idea that equality of opportunity can be maintained through political democracy alone has long been challenged by socialists and others, who insist that economic democracy through economic equality and public ownership of the major means of production is the only foundation upon which a true political democracy can be erected.

English settlers in America faced frontier conditions that emphasized the importance of the individual and helped in breaking down class distinctions and prejudices. These led to a democratic political structure marked by a high degree of individualism, civil liberty, and a government limited by law. In the 19th cent. emphasis was placed on broadening the franchise and improving the machinery for enabling the will of the people to be more fully and directly expressed.

Since the mid-20th cent. most political systems have described themselves as democracies, but many of them have not encouraged competing political parties and have not stressed individual rights and other elements typical of classic Western democracy. With the collapse of one-party Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the fall of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America, and the end of some one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the number of true multiparty democracies has increased. Despite the increase in the number of countries holding multiparty elections, however, the United Nations issued a study in 2002 that stated that in more than half the world's nations the rights and freedoms of citizens are limited.


See H. Laski, Democracy in Crisis (1933, repr. 1969); R. A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956, repr. 1963) and Democracy and its Critics (1989); M. I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973); C. B. MacPherson, Democratic Theory (1973); J. Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy (1982); B. R. Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Democracy for a New Age (1984); P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality (1985); F. Bealey, Democracy in the Contemporary State (1988); T. E. Cronin, Direct Democracy (1989); M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (tr. 1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


From the Greek, meaning ‘rule by the people’. In modern times, those forms of government in which all full, adult members of a society or organization make up the policy-making body – direct democracy – or are represented by others who they elect to such a body – representative democracy. Until the 20th-century, democracy, in either of these forms, was a relatively rare phenomenon, confined to some city states, or to some organizations. Even in these cases, the number granted full citizenship or accorded full democratic rights was often limited – limited democracy. In both Greek city states and some modern Swiss cantons, only males are eligible to vote.

Direct democracy has only proved possible in a meaningful way in city states (e.g. the Greek polis) or similar settings, e.g. Swiss cantons. Plebiscites and referenda, in which people are asked to decide an issue are a form of direct democracy, but the timing and content of plebiscites and referenda usually rests with governments. PUBLIC OPINION POLLS have sometimes been presented as a new means of direct democracy. In practice, the polling of opinions can equally be regarded as a new tool helping governments and political parties, e.g. in managing election campaigns.

Representative democracy is usually seen as the only form of democratic government feasible for complex, large-scale modern societies. It is also argued that it is only in modern societies that economic and cultural resources exist to make representative democracy viable, e.g. the development of a participatory POLITICAL CULTURE, and the capacity to satisfy the demands for social welfare, etc., which representative democracies generate. See also CITIZEN RIGHTS.

As well as representative democracy, in the modern world most other forms of political system, including many single-party systems, usually attach to themselves the epithet ‘democracy’ – e.g. people's democracies – on the grounds that they involve rule in the interests of the people as a whole. Nor does this usage lack all sociological justification. State-dominated or ‘totalitarian’ expressions of democracy may be seen as one inherent tendency within modern political systems, an outcome which is only, and not always, avoided in most western societies by the preservation of plural élitist forms of democratic participation. See also ÉLITE THEORY, SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, STABLE DEMOCRACY, PLURAL ÉLITISM, IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY, TOTALITARIANISM, TOCQUEVILLE, MOORE.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a form of political organization of society based on a recognition of the people as the source of power, their right to participate in the resolution of state affairs, and the provision of a rather broad range of rights and liberties for citizens. Democracy in this connection is primarily a form of state. The term “democracy” is also used with respect to the organization and activity of other political and social institutions (such as party democracy and democracy in the organizations of production) and the appropriate social movements, policies, and currents of sociopolitical thought.

An authentically scientific interpretation of democracy is provided by Marxism-Leninism, which views it as inextricably connected with the material living conditions of society and its class structure. Democracy is a historical phenomenon that changes as society develops and socioeconomic formations succeed each other. Under the primitive commune system there were no classes or class contradictions, and there was a nonpolitical democracy that was embodied in the institutions of tribal and family self-government. With the appearance of economic inequality, private ownership, and exploitation, that is, the appearance of antagonistic classes, political democracy arose along with the state. The development of political democracy in a class society is inextricably linked to the state as the principal institution of political power.

In a class society, democracy as a form of state is an expression of the dictatorship of the dominant class as the essence of the state. A democracy is distinguished from other forms of state (such as despotism, autocracy, and overt military dictatorship) by the following: official recognition of the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority, equal rights for citizens, the possession of broad political and social rights and liberties, the election of the main bodies of the state, the leading role of elected representative bodies of power in the system of state institutions, and the supremacy of the law. There is a distinction between institutions of direct democracy and those of representative democracy: the former assume the making of basic decisions directly by voters (for example, on the basis of a referendum), and the latter call for decisions to be made by plenipotentiary elected institutions, such as a parliament.

The history of class society has not known a supraclass or nonclass democracy. Bourgeois democracy—the most highly developed historical type of democracy in an exploiter society—is a form of dictatorship of the capitalists over the proletariat and other semiproletarian and nonproletarian toiling classes and strata of the population. It is characterized by a manifest contradiction between the declared “rule by the people” and the actual dominion of the exploiters. The functions of the institutions of bourgeois democracy consist in ensuring a class dominance that guarantees the privileges of the exploiter class and disguising its dominion, consolidating the class of the bourgeoisie, and solving its own internal class contradictions. This interpretation of bourgeois democracy by Marxism-Leninism does not signify an absolutely negative assessment of it: a democracy, even if it is only a formally declared one, is of significant value, since in conditions of democracy the framework of political freedom and independent social and individual activity is incomparably broader than in conditions of authoritarianism and other nondemocratic regimes. Bourgeois democracy, which emerged as a political expression of the economic system of capitalism, represented great progress over the feudal political system and created considerably broader opportunities to develop the movement and organization of the industrial proletariat. In the conditions of capitalism, the proletariat is not satisfied with the democratic institutions that have been created by the bourgeoisie and that are limited on a class basis, but struggles for the expansion and renewal of democracy on a new social foundation, creating its own political parties, trade unions, and other class organizations. In the period of imperialism and especially of developed state-monopoly capitalism, the working class opposes the reactionary attempts of the monopolistic bourgeoisie to curtail and undermine democracy and to replace it with fascism or any other overtly reactionary regime with its own democratic demands, system of democratic organizations, and the fight for socialism. A general democratic struggle led by the working class develops against the monopolies, as a component of the struggle for socialism.

Historically, the highest type of political democracy is a socialist democracy. It is the only possible form of socialist state, and it arises as a revolutionary rejection of bourgeois democracy. At the same time, socialist democracy takes over and develops those progressive elements and institutions that were the result of the sociopolitical creativity of the toiling classes under capitalism and became established in capitalist society. The fundamental qualitative difference between socialist democracy and the earlier forms of democracy lies in the complete correspondence between the form and content of democratic institutions and laws and the power of the toiling people. As a consequence of this correspondence, the reality, guaranteed nature, and completeness of political rights and liberties and their fundamental unity with socioeconomic and cultural rights are achieved; the equality of citizens’ rights and duties; the sovereignty of representative institutions; the practical realization of the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority; equal rights of nationalities and peoples; and socialist internationalism and other fundamentals and norms of political life based on the economic groundwork of socialism. Socialist democracy is a universal principle of the entire socialist political organization of society—that is, the principle of the organization and activity of state organs, social organizations, and organs of independent public activity; the principle of interaction of all the component parts of the system of workers’ power; and the principle that determines the identity of the actual and the legal situation of the individual in society define the status of a citizen of the socialist state.

In combination with the new social system, socialist democracy develops continually, passing through a series of basic stages: proletarian democracy as a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat during the transitional period from capitalism to socialism; democracy growing into a democracy of the entire people (along with the transformation of the state from a dictatorship of the proletariat into a state of the entire people), in conditions of the creation of a well-developed socialist society; democracy of the entire people as a form of state of the entire people and political power belonging to the entire people, in conditions of developed, well-ripened socialism and the construction of communism. At every stage of its development, socialist democracy has a proletarian class nature and orientation. Democracy for the toiling people objectively means some limitation of democracy for the exploiters (as an element of the suppression of their resistance) in the transitional period and the suppression of hostile class, criminal, and antisocial elements at every stage of the formation and development of socialism.

Socialist democracy includes the requirement of social discipline and conscious self-discipline by the toilers (production discipline, state discipline, and so forth). Socialist democracy develops as a result of the political creativity, scientifically justified by Marxism, of the working people led by the proletarian revolutionary party. The expansion and perfection of democracy is a planned process directed by a Marxist-Leninist party, the leading force in the system of organizations of socialist democracy. The general unfolding and perfecting of socialist democracy as the main direction in the development of the socialist state system is defined by the Program of the CPSU.

The forms of socialist democracy are varied. State and sociopolitical construction in the countries of the world socialist system has brought out a number of specific features and modes of organization and functioning of socialist democracy, while the latter preserves its main general features. Marxist-Leninists vigorously oppose reformist and right-wing revisionist demands for “pure,” or “nonclass,” democracy, which in fact are a rehash of the views of bourgeois ideologists on this question, and they equally oppose left-wing revisionist efforts to reject socialist democracy and replace it with a military-bureaucratic regime.

In the historical context, socialist democracy as a political phenomenon will wither away together with the state and the entire political superstructure, in the conditions of the highest phase of communism. Socialist democracy will be replaced by a nonpolitical democracy as a form of organization of communist social self-government.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. Grazhdanskaia voina vo Frantsii. Ibid., vol. 17.
Marx, K. Konspekt knigi Bakunina “Gosudarsvennost” i anarkhiia’. Ibid., vol. 18.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21.
Engels, F. Ob avtoritete. Ibid., vol. 18.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. Marksizm o gosudarstve. Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. Tezisy i doklad o burzhuaznoi demokratii i diktature proletariate!. Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii. Ibid., vol. 37.
Sovetskaia sotsialisticheskaia demokratiia. Edited by M. B. Mitin. Moscow, 1964.
Chkhikvadze, V. M. Gosudarstvo, demokratiia, zakonnost’: Leninskie idei i sovremennost’. Moscow, 1967.
Problemy demokratii v sovremennom mire. Moscow, 1967.
Marksistsko-leninskaia obshchaia teoriia gosudarstva i prava: Osnovnye instituty i poniatiia. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. government by the people or their elected representatives
2. a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members
3. the common people, esp as a political force
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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