“Representative democracy” is, at the moment of its emergence, an oxymoron. Representation, and in any case the electoral representation, has always been considered an aristocratic institution. Rousseau saw it as a “modern”, that is medieval, feudal, form of government, linked to the institution of estates. Representation referred to the estates (even in Locke), or – in Hobbes or Bossuet – to the incorporation of both God and society in the figure of the monarch. The model of Sieyès, where the representatives of the estates were to become constituent power, representing the sovereign nation, merged the two (contradictory) senses of representation together. The oxymoronic formula sends from its both terms away to something else – namely, to the contradiction itself which, far from being since then “sublated”, is perpetuated and may at any time turn its restorative-conservative or radical utopian side. Furthermore, this formulaic tension is in fact a sign of the event which goes beyond the concept but which opens up its internal contradiction and determines the tendency that would prevail for a time.

In general, one may argue that the representative democracy as such is a creation of revolution. Revolution is a point where a society turns against itself, a moment of its internal conflict. But it is also the internal fold where the society aspires to constitute itself from within. The “re-“ of representation is of the same nature that the “re-“ of revolution: both refer to the internal fold of the modern society which, in its political structure, turns toward and against itself . In this context, the “representative” democracy implies an ambivalent attitude to (direct) democracy: here, the democratic politics becomes wary of democracy. Representative democracy may mean a restraint of democracy — as for Hamilton — or democratization of the (hitherto estate-based) representation — as for Sieyès.

It has long been noticed that the task of the revolution – the self-constitution of a state – was a self-contradictory one. Revolution by definition is ambivalent, allowing opposite interpretations. Who is entitled to constitute a new state, if any legitimacy would only be born with this constitution? Who is the “self” – the people, the nation – who has to constitute itself before even existing at all? Will the old people constitute the new one, or the new people will retrospectively recreate its own origins? E. Sieyès, writing his Qu’est-ce que le tiers Étatjust before the French revolution, during the election of the General Estates, suggests solving this problem by distinguishing between the constituent power and the constituted power. The former does not have a legal status or form, but depends on a fact. The fact is, however, that of representation. If the deputies of the third Estate come to Paris from all over France, it is not that important by which rule they were elected or which legitimate status they have. Therefore:

Whatever is the manner in which they are delegated, in which they assemble, and in which they deliberate – if one cannot ignore (and how could the nation that commissions them, ignore them?) that they act in virtue of an extraordinary commission of people, their common will shall mean (vaudra) the will of the nation itself.

Albeit imperfectly, the deputies do represent the nation, and there is no formal criteria to apply in this case. The nation is by definition constituent and sovereign. It can give a constitution to a new republic, even through the few people who claim to represent it. The representation does not mean here substitution, or identity – it means the fact of the mere presence of the deputies, and the event, in which these delegates to the king become sovereign legislators. Any emphasis on fact means a desire to suppress history, forget the past and to deal with the datum. There is then, paradoxically, something deeply revolutionary in the appeal to the fact – such appeal should be distinguished from any “positivism”, since here “fact” means an eventful change of perspective, a possibility of what had been previously deemed impossible (hence, also, the oxymora and the paradoxes in the revolutionary language, which thus conveys surprise). Indeed, it was shown that the very term “revolution” in reference to a political turmoil was censored, in the 18th century, for its connotation of a fait accompli (Rachum 1999). The moment that Louis XVIth, in his well known exchange with the Duke de Liancourt, admitted that the events of the 14th July were a revolution – he actually admitted that they had happened.


The Soviet Union, as it is widely known, had maintained the institution of the revolutionary councils, Soviets – which, however, had lost all real power to the Communist Party since the early 1920s. [1] The Soviets of workers’ deputies first emerged in 1905, during the first Russian revolution, on the basis of strike committees, and often took in their hands the task of the local self-government. Although soviets certainly had some roots in the communal culture of the Russian peasantry [2], at least no less important was the revolutionary reversal of a form that was created purposefully by Moscow police. Richard Wortman, in his book Scenarios of Power, tells how the Russian tsarist state purposefully created the workers councils, as a part of their project to unite the tzar with the people and to solve the social question from above. As Wortman writes:

Finally, the police began to organize unions in the industries of Moscow. They arranged for elective district assemblies, and a workers council (soviet) for the entire city of Moscow. In the first years of the twentieth century the experiment of police spread to other cities. Thus the tsarist administration, in resisting the appeal of revolutionary groups among proletariat, sanctioned workers’ grievances and gave them their first lessons in political participation.

Obviously, this policy was based upon the corporate understanding of society, as ultimately embodied in the Tzar – a model similar to the one that stimulated the medieval concept of representation. In February 1917, when the new revolution started in Russia, its leaders decided to reproduce these councils or Soviets. The newly founded Soviets of the workers’ and soldiers’ deputies became a center of power that was alternative to that formed by the former Duma (the “Provisional Government”). After a period of double-rule, the Bol’shevik party effected a coup against the government, in order to give “All power to the Soviets”, according to their slogan. For a while, it seemed to many, including the Bol’sheviks, that Soviets were a viable form of democracy that could become a basis for a new state of the working people. Soviets were in many ways different from the regular “parliamentary” type of representation. The Soviets, unlike the parliaments, were thought as bearers of “all“ power – which, in technical terms (that were not used), meant that they were sovereign. At the same time, only the deputies to local Soviets were directly elected. These Soviets sent their delegates to the Congresses of Soviets at a higher level, etc. The system was built as contiguous chain-like delegation, based, in its foundation, on direct democracy. The Congresses of Soviets did not work permanently but gathered several times a year, and the rest of the time a permanent organ formed from their midst (the executive committee, ispolkom) assumed the supreme (not just executive) power. All vote was open. The deputies (except the members of ispolkom) worked in the Soviets on a non-professional and non-permanent basis.

Now clearly, such institution is attractive not only because it emerges spontaneously and because it relies on the active part of the people, but also because it provides a diffuse continuity, and not hierarchy, in the relations among the deputies and their electorate.Arendt suggests that the reason for the Soviets’ failure would be their involvement in actual management. However, what doomed the Soviets more directly was their organizational weakness. The irregularity of their meetings, the non-professional character, and the open vote made the Soviets easy to control and to manipulate, particularly through their small but permanent ispolkoms (which had double subordination, both to the Soviet and to the central government of the country). The “all power” (“vsia vlast’”) accumulated in the Soviets was used by the Bol’sheviks to gradually establish the full and supreme power of their own party through subsuming the Soviets to the party dictate. In 1936, the “Stalin” constitution introduced the secret vote and the direct vote for the “Supreme Soviet” of the USSR. Soviets were now called “Soviets of the working people” (Sovety trudyashchikhsia), not of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ deputies, as before. The Congresses of the Soviets were abolished. But this step in the direction of “parliamentarianism” simply meant that the Soviets had lost all their meaning as organs of power. In 1977, the new Constitution renamed the Soviets once more: this time, as the “Sovety Narodnykh Deputatov,” “Soviets of the People’s Deputies”. This meant that the Soviet state was even further absorbing the ideology of parliamentarianism, although, of course, changing nothing in the actual decorative functioning of the institution.

In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev, the new General Secretary, decided, as a part of his more general program of democratizing the socialist regime, to revive this institution by making the election competitive, with votes honestly counted, by forcing the true power-holders, the party secretaries, to run in this election, and by reviving the Congress of People’s Deputies. Gorbachev, and his liberal supporters, revived the slogan of 1917: “All Power to Soviets”, striving, first, to revive the mobilizational energy of the October revolution, and second, to bring the system closer to the Western political system, with its “rule of law” (“pravovoe gosudarstvo”). The same slogan was further used as a weapon by the new pro-Western deputies of the Congress, to challenge the rule of the Communist party itself.

The new system was clearly an attempt to create a Soviet analogue of the Western parliament. However, it preserved in itself many features of the revolutionary, and later powerless, Soviets: the huge, rarely convoked, and unprofessional Congress; the mixed system of election to it (part of the deputies were chosen by the “social organizations”), the indirect election of the permanently working “Supreme Soviet”, the imperative mandate, or right to “recall” deputies (otzyv) and, most importantly, the aspiration to the plenitude of power (Lenin’s motto “Vsya vlast’ Sovetam”, “All Power to the Soviets”, was revived by Gorbachev). All of these features made the new Congress into a classic case of constituent power, hardly into a stable parliamentary organ. But, as the events further showed, this constituent organ would not easily give up its sovereign power.

Ironically, Gorbachev’s plan worked, in a sense, better than he ever thought. The system of Soviets became a channel for the expression of people’s anger. This anger united the deputies most of whom otherwise tended to speak of the problems of their region, in the old good tradition of the estate representation. The Congress, then, became truly democratic and truly representative of the society, not only representing its different groups but in aspiring to constitute its political unity. The TV coverage of the Soviet Congress provoked the mass rallies in the centers of big cities, and the political mobilization on all levels, across the country. Using the system of Soviets in the Russian Republic (reformed after the Soviet model), B. Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s reformist opponent, ultimately succeeded in rising to power and, after the failed 1991 coup, in dissolving the Soviet Union and unseating Gorbachev. However, soon after this victory, there developed a conflict between Yeltsin and the Russian Congress of Soviets. The latter had a broad authority under the Constitution (“All Power”!), which it used to consolidate its power against the President and against the economic and political reforms he advocated, trying instead to build a parliamentary republic and unseat the President. In 1993, there formed a situation of “double rule”, similar to that which developed between the Russian Soviets and the Provisional Government in 1917. The Supreme Soviet of the newly “independent” Russia, and particularly its leader, I. Khasbulatov, sometimes called themselves a “parliament”, but sometimes emphasized that they were “Soviets”, trying to prove the deeply national Russian roots of this institution. However, the general line of the Congress and the Supreme Soviet was the reactive opposition to the reformist policies of the President and of the Government.

Yeltsin and his advisors blamed the conflict on the imperfect structure of Soviets – the structure inherited from the USSR and not fully corresponding to the Western model of democracy. The pro-Western liberal media called for “desovietization,” for the turn toward the “normal” parliamentary system, and for the separation of powers – thus interpreting the new democratic Soviets as the last trench of the “old regime”. After a major clash between Yeltsin and the Congress of Soviets in 1993, which ended in the armed dissolution of the latter, the new constitution was accepted on a referendum on the 12th of December, 1993. The Soviets system was destroyed and substituted with the parliamentary system of the contemporary Western type, with a very limited authority. Ironically, it was called “Duma”, after the Tsar’s powerless “parliament” which had been overthrown by the revolutionary Soviets. In the 1993 Constitution, many features of the Soviet system were suppressed, such as: the very institution of Congress, the non-professional status of most deputies, the relatively easy opportunity to revoke a deputy who would not fulfill his/her promises. The new Constitution created a professional Parliament which was perhaps more efficient in making laws but much easier to control and to bribe by the presidential administration and by the government. Soon, in 1994, Yeltsin’s administration started a war in Chechnya, where the military separatist regime stemmed originally from the democratic, revolutionary mobilization. Further development of Russia showed the successful subordination of the Duma to the President and its transformation into a bureaucratic, lobbyist organ.


Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, criticized the classic concept of political representation for alienating and demobilizing the subject. Instead, she pointed to the phenomenon of revolutionary councils, which“spontaneously” emerged in all large European revolutions, particularly during the French revolution of 1789-1799 (the Parisian “sections”), the Parisian Commune of 1871, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and in Hungary of 1956. The councils, according to Arendt, provide a chance of self-government that would not be direct democracy but which would preserve the continuity among the levels of representation, or delegation, and would stimulate active political participation.

In the Russian post-communist revolution, the democratic institutions emerged out of the frozen, relict representative forms of the communist Soviet regime, in the same way that the soviets themselves emerged in 1905 out of the artificial police-created organs of social work, and in the same way as the actors of the French revolution originally used the General Estates, with their medieval form of representation. This paradoxical development allowed a diffuse, network-like, mobilizational form of representation. The effect of this representation was largely negative and at times even paralyzing rather than constructive – but this means that its primary function was to represent the society’s internal rupture. The temporal knot formed by this revolution of representatives indicates that we deal with a fold where the society turns towards and against itself. In the further development, this form of representation was suppressed and substituted by the parliamentary representation, which sharply divided the representative from the represented. Political democracy in Russia has, since then, been limited and even minimal, since the balance between too much and too little democracy has, at least by now, been not attained. But – one could claim — the revolutionary representation, as a potential for diffuse resistance, remains (as it may be shown) a hidden ground of legitimacy for the regime.

For Arendt, the councils, or Soviets, was the truly revolutionary mode of government, alternative to representation or a better species of it. [3] Arendt’s councils are an analogue of what Sieyès called “constituent power” – the formless, pre-legal sovereign democratic authority which precedes and operates the creation of constitution and of the government. Arendt chooses the Soviets because they provide a way of signification based on contiguity – metonymy – rather than on metaphoric substitution. Similarly, Sieyès insists that the constituent representatives of the nation represent it simply by making its part, a part that just happened to be in the right place in the right time – neither because of the superior qualities of the representatives nor because of the procedure of the nation’s “reproduction”. In French, one could speak of this kind of representation using a partitive form: “il y a de la nation”. Clearly, it is more democratic, and more linked to the specific situation (event) that requires representation, than the procedural election that aspires to the correct reproduction of the society.

Arendt has the Soviets emerging “spontaneously” [4] (she repeats this word many times), through the “organizational impulses of people themselves”, in the climate of the “swift disintegration of the old power”. For her, this means that in spite of an existing tradition of such councils, which goes back to the Middle Ages, their emergence has never been planned in advance. But “spontaneity” has also the meaning of unconditional freedom, creation ex nihilo – and this meaning seems to be also important for Arendt, since she speaks of Soviets’ “miraculous” emergence. However, this accent on the “spontaneity” seems to me problematic in view of the critique of political subjectivity that Arendt powerfully develops in The Human Condition and in On Revolution. In The Human Condition, she argues against the view of the subject as the author and owner of his actions, proposing instead the concept of action as irruption into the preexisting chain of events.In On Revolution, she shows that the revolutionaries face the double, paradoxical task of (negative) destruction and of (positive) foundation, which allows them to create a fleeting moment and space of freedom, being very hard to permanently preserve. To derive the revolutionary power from “spontaneity” means, in many ways, begging the question and holding the task of auto-constitution for a simple positive fact.

Arendt’s apology of Soviets found its more recent follower in Antonio Negri, particularly in his book Potere Constituente. For Negri, Soviets are the only truly immanent political institutions, they synthesize the political creativity with the economic one (productive work) and destroy the juridical divide between state and civil society. Soviets are the “constituent power” in Sieyès’s sense, but the one that lasts continuously, and does not disappear with the act of constitution. They are part of an alternative history of modernity, which is divided between the emancipatory (immanent) and repressive (transcendent) trend and does not allow for any mediation between the two.For Negri, like for Arendt, Soviets are sites of true “spontaneity,” “invention,” and “activity”. The working class, according to him, “invents” the Soviets in the course of class struggle. Thus, both Arendt and Negri transpose the fiction of absolute beginning from the formal constituted power, to the formless constituent one. However, history shows that the organs of constituent power do not emerge out of the void. They usually build, in this or that fashion, upon the already existing institutions of the old regime. It is simply that the meaning and function of those institutions are radically reversed.

The constituent power often emerges not out of nothing but out of a representative institution of an autocratic regime subsequently overthrown by it. So it was with the General Estates in France, with the Russian Soviets of 1905 and with the degraded Soviets in USSR. The turn to these institutions often seems a restorative, archaic gesture, since they are clearly dated, no longer corresponding to the absolutist state or to the bureaucratic communist regime, respectively.

There is much in common between the revolutionary workers’ councils and the estate representation of Ancien Régime (semi-imperative mandate, the non-professional character, the indirect chain-like structure of delegation, the right of recall). While the French Constituante emerged directly from the General Estates, the “municipal revolution” which gave birth, among others, to the Parisian commune also relied, to a large extent, on the electors to the General Estates, a chain in the indirect mechanism of the medieval representation. The Soviets of 1905 had their roots partly in the attempt of police at incorporation and regularization of workers. Even in 1917-1918, the Soviets were conceived as the vehicles of the estate, or class, representation. The city Soviet was conceived as the one of the “soldiers and workers”, being elected proportionally only from these groups, in factories and in the troops. The all-Russia Congress of Soviets was also one of the soldiers and workers, and the peasants’ Soviets had their own Congress. Only after the Bol’sheviks’ victory, and not without a struggle against the Socialist Revolutionary party that prevailed in most peasants’ Soviets, the Soviet Congresses began to reunite “workers’, soldiers’, peasants’, and Cossacks’ deputies”. Some ideologues of Yeltsin’s constitution of 1993 even call the Soviets an “estates institution,” ignoring the constituent democratic function of these organs. The institution of Soviets in the communist Soviet Union played, partly, the role of a king’s court, being a regular reunion of the country’s elite – but it also served as a chance to speak of some local, regional or professional, problems that the leaders of the country could resolve. In this latter sense it was not that different from estates institutions, or other representative institutions of the autocratic countries.

History shows that the “estates” and the councils can turn one into another. Both of them are alternatives to parliamentary representation with its mask-like substitution. Instead of this logic of substitution, estates and councils are based on the loose contiguity of delegation. However, the medieval estates are representative of complaints and protests, while the councils are organs of rule. The transformation of estates (or even ritualized communist Soviets) into the revolutionary councils is the conversion of the negative and passive stand into the positive and active one. This conversion is, however, easily reversible. What is important here is the very link of representation to the revolutionary event which changes (converts) its meaning to the opposite (descendant model of power into the ascendant one, the analytic representation of social groups into the “synthetic” representation of unity; passive representation of complaint and interest into the active representation of constitution and foundation).

The prefix “re-“ in “representation” designates opposition, repetition, and reversal of time. Where there used to be an absolute, transcendent authority, now there is a fold or a knot, a site of a paradox and aporia of self-government (or of subjectivity), which takes a temporal form. The revolution – and this is well shown by Arendt – essentially implies a turn to the past, a will to “restoration”, which aspires to self-constitution but which cannot help but stopping and subverting the present by this very turn. Moreover, the revolutionary representation creates a topsy-turvy world, world standing on its head, thus symbolizing the resistance to representation or symbolization.


Thus, we need a historical concept of representative democracy, instead of its formalist, legalist concept. The democratic legitimacy is derived from revolution; it is therefore finite and historically concrete. [5] The formalist concept of representative democracy doesn’t work because it is a logical contradiction, a site of an aporia (as many other Modern political concepts, such as natural law, sovereignty of the people, etc.). The democratic legitimacy is based on the event of liberation, negation and even inversion of the past (not imitate the West but draw on our own liberating experience which repeats it).

One cannot fully separate the positive, constructive side of representation from its negative and passive one. On the contrary, political power is acquired only through protest and resistance, which may (or may not) gradually crystallize into the structures of rule. The negative side of revolution precedes its positive side, and the former therefore should not be disavowed or rejected. <…> It is important that democratic representation follows the temporal logic of referring to a past (but not entirely past) event, and not only the spatial logic of gathering provincial deputies in the center. Time is a sphere of loose, indeterminate, internal borders, which corresponds better to the representative model of councils than to the hierarchical representation of the parliamentary type. The reference to the past, which is inscribed in the revolutionary constitution of the representative democracy, introduces into the representation a creative indeterminate asynchrony.<…>

The form of representation is never self-sufficient. The most wonderful institutions can entirely reverse their meaning (become an instrument of hierarchical rule out of an organ of democratic mobilization – and vice versa). Soviets, and other semi-spontaneous forms of constituent power, strangely resemble the pre-Modern forms of political representation (the estates), even though the latter were not at all disposed to be a democratic organ of self-ruling people, they were rather a consultative body for a prince. Both exist at the limit, at the place of negative foundation, of the Modern self-sufficient subjectivity.

One has therefore always to keep an eye not only on the political form but also on the fact. When one institution ceases to be democratic or representative, there may be another that is representative but not democratic, or yet another, which is democratic but not politicized – not representing the unity of the country. One has to democratize representation and to represent the democracy. Thus, today’s media are an organ of representation and therefore of political power, much stronger than most parliaments. Why not democratize them? Before our eyes, Internet, being a form of media, becomes itself a new peculiar form of democratic communication (and thus, representation) even if, like other semi-spontaneous forms of constituent power, it is easy to manipulate it and, potentially, subsume to the non-democratic ends. A technology, an event, or a simple social fact can thus be constituent of representative democracy without being sufficient for it, since it has yet to be reoriented through a revolutionary event.


First published at “Redescriptions Yearbook of Political Thought and Conceptual History”, 2007, vol. 11. P. 61-78.

The text is published here in author’s edited version.


Artemy Magun Professor of democratic theory, Chair of the Department, Department of Political Science and Sociology, European University at Saint-Petersburg, Also teaches at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Saint-Petesburg State University, Member of the group Chto Delat?