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Current Concerns  >  2010  >  No 16, September 2010  >  Communal Freedom and Democracy [printversion]

Communal Freedom and Democracy

Adolf Gasser’s attempt of a conceptual clarification

by Dr phil René Roca, historian, Switzerland

The historian Adolf Gasser (1903 – 1985) suggests that democracy is a historically evolved but rather fragile achievement. In his major work “Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas” (Communal freedom as the salvation of Europe)1 and in many further contributions he reflects on a definition of the term “democracy” which should be as comprehensive as possible. For Gasser the term has a historical, an ethical and an educational dimension. The term “communal freedom” is at the center of his considerations. Starting point of his theoretical considerations is a historical paper on “sound and fragile democracies” in Europe after World War I.

In 1919 all European states up to the Russian border were characterized by democratic structures. But during the next two decades the democratic beginnings disappeared in favor of authoritarian or totalitarian systems of government in many states. This could particularly be observed in states, which had introduced a democracy for the first time after World War I. Gasser does not consider the principal reason for this “widespread dying of European democracies” a foreign problem, but a domestic one. Democracy particularly failed in those states, in which it did not succeed to combine freedom and order to an “organic compound”. Those states, which had a specifically shaped democratic tradition, resisted the totalitarian temptation despite the world economic crisis and World War II. Among them were, besides the Anglo-Saxon countries USA and Great Britain, the Scandinavian states, Holland and Switzerland. This, Gasser says, proves that there are two kinds of democracies, sound ones and fragile ones:

“Therefore we are to refrain from claiming that somehow democracy as such or an interlinked economic system has failed. We rather have to keep in mind that the uniform term ‘democracy’ is a quite unrealistic abstraction. In reality the term democracy, like all other social auxiliary terms, reveals a different trait from country to country. ‘Democracy’ and ‘democracy’ can be rather different things despite corresponding constitutional features; particularly, its nature is determined by the spiritual-political attitude of the individual people. In other words: After all, democracy is not a matter determined by the kind of state order, but a matter determined by the people’s convictions.”2

Thus Gasser describes a feature, which makes it possible to differentiate clearly between the sound and the fragile democracies at any time. The terms “spiritual-political attitude” and “people’s convictions” illuminate an ethical dimension of democracy. To Gasser, this dimension is not ideationally inflated or ideologically curtailed, but linked with a fundamental structural feature. The feature is the organization of the communal and regional autonomy. All sound democracies, as different as they may be, have a

“traditional and extremely lively self-governing system of their local and regional subsidiary associations. Widespread decentralization of the administration: that is the essential characteristic of these ‹old and free people’s states›.”3

Gasser considers the contrast between decentralized and centralistic administrative systems to be the key to the problem, which explains why some democracies were successful and sustainable and others were not.
For Gasser, the starting point for decentralized public administration is the “free”4 commune, which has cooperative roots. The cooperative as “a particularly finely-woven organizing element”5 defines itself by the three so-called “selves”: self-governing, self-determination and self-help. If free communes, organized in such a manner, come together to build a state, this state is federal, thus structured in a decentralized way. The human dimension in this structure must be based on certain ethical principles. The people, based on their specific cultural background, develop into these socio-economic structures; they shape and advance them. The ethical principles provide the stability, security and predictability:

“State formations, which grew from bottom to top and which represent the concept of self-governing, are usually communities of a very special kind; because they are primarily held together by spiritual and ethical forces while power-political braces are subordinate.”6

The ethical dimension of communal freedom

With the description of different principles Gasser tries to define the ethical dimension more clearly. In this context, he speaks of a kind of “synthesis of civic watchfulness on the one hand and civic self-discipline on the other”7. This mental-moral dimension cannot simply be introduced by a written constitution. It does also not follow automatically, if a commune is free. In order to make this dimension humane, moral values are required, which are to be taught in education and set as an example within the political level. The free commune, Gasser writes, educates the citizens not to a quantitative, but to a qualitative way of civic thinking. This important element shows the commune as “autonomous small-scale organization”, as “a school for citizenship”8 in an educational context, which is both founded on values and creates them.
In the following Gasser’s different ethical principles will be described in more detail.

The principle of co-ordination

Civic community life is only possible in the context of an organizing principle. The two possible organizing principles are the principle of subordination and that of co-ordination. In other words, the principle of administration by authoritarian dominance opposes that of co-operative self-governing.

“Either the stately order becomes secured by an authoritarian command and power apparatus, or it is based on the free social will of a people’s collectivity.”9

In the first case the structure of the state develops essentially from top to bottom, in the second case from ground to top. Either the people have to get used to being commanded or (most of them) to obeying, or they are guided by the will to co-operate freely. In this context, Gasser mentions that there are of course mixed forms; however, all the examples show a certain tendency towards one of the two organizing principles.
For Gasser, the contrast “rule vs. cooperative” is the most important contrast social history knows. It sheds light on the most elementary foundations of human community life and has mental and moral consequences.

The principle of voluntariness

Co-operatively organized communes require free, social co-operation. The working together represents a synthesis of freedom and order and is possible only if the will to free collective co-operation is inseparably combined with the will to free collective integration. The free acceptance of voluntary and adjunct work in addition to the regular duties results in a militia system, which is indispensable for the smoothest possible social procedures on all national levels.

“A sound development of democracy on a large scale will only be possible where it is practiced and realized on a small scale every day.”10

The principle of shared responsibility

The voluntary cooperation, which is practiced within the manageable area of the commune, naturally leads to a further ethical principle, the principle of the shared responsibility. It develops, as Gasser expresses, an “internal bond to reality”,11 i.e. primarily to the commune, which shapes a “system of collective readiness to share responsibility and to political tolerance”.12 Freedom must combine itself with a feeling of duty for the public matters, because

“[…] where there is a lack of genuine will for responsibility, for shared responsibility, there is an immediate threat that freedom will dege nerate into bare individualism and egoism.”13

However, the individual does not completely dissolve in the collective; it must not subordinate to the community:

“Starting point of the cooperative, decentralized states is not the individual freedom, but the communal freedom. But there is a seed of individual freedom to be found inevitably in the communal freedom […].”14

The principle of the collective respect for law

A collective conviction of what is right is central to the communal freedom. Those national state systems that were developed from bottom to top, that are based on communal freedom, show a completely different development of the law than centralistic authoritarian states. The “ancient right” (or also the “ancient freedom”) developed in co-operative and decentralized political systems has become a tradition throughout the centuries, and in conflict situations it represents an important point of reference in each case. The old civic and legal education – often verbally delivered and condensed in a kind of customary law – was of great importance, because it was backed by the collective. This backing of the existing order, often expressed in rituals and symbols, is only possible if the order is considered to be absolutely legal in its basic outlines. If this legal order is to be changed and adapted, it is usually developed, but not destroyed.

The principle of collective confidence

According to Gasser, the co-operative combination of freedom and right creates forces of “outrageous moral strength”15. For Gasser, this is above all general political and social confidence. The individual’s readiness for confidence is a prerequisite for a collective fundament of trust. Under these circumstances, no communal citizen must fear a political breach of law by fellow citizens. This “being free from fear” represents a substantial characteristic of all co-operative and decentralized communities for Gasser. Where the communal freedom exists, people steadfastly stick to the decentralized organizing, self-governing principle, and usually native confidants are entrusted with certain executive functions. So bi-partisan readiness for confidence can develop, which leads to the acceptance of the democratic majority principle:

“Only from deep-rooted confidence in communalism, i.e. to the free community will, one is able to generally take it as natural that a majority considers the free will of a minority if possible – and a minority is for its part morally obliged to submit by its own free will to the free will of a people’s and a parliament majority.”16

The principle of collective tolerance

In the free commune, Gasser says, everyone is forced to compromise with the political opponent. If the communal citizen gets accustomed to being responsibly moderate in this small, assessable area, then “from the beginning strong forces of reconciliation and mediation are involved.”17
The “communal freedom” is not able to manufacture heavenly conditions. Human passions and feeling of hate remain components of human nature. However, these often destructive forces repeatedly encounter “wholesome barriers” in the free commune, which “diminish their political explosive effects”, Gasser states.18 One of these “barriers” is the readiness to compromise:

“Striving for clear compromises backed by genuine consideration for the justified vital interests and attitudes of our fellow citizens, also of those organized in other parties, must become second nature somehow, if the liberal democracy were to become a firmly rooted way of life.19

From this collective tolerance emerges a high readiness to accept good faith as a guiding value. Thus one cannot absolutely guarantee but effectively secure the inner and outer peace of a community nevertheless.

Conclusion: the principle of ethical collectivism

Gasser’s term “communal ethics” is determined by the described mental and moral principles, to which the individual must feel bound. For its existence and advancement, the free commune requires such a “collective will to bind oneself”20 or, expressed differently, an “ethical collectivism”21. Gasser thus sheds light on the “internal nature”22 of democracy and gives his definition a socio-psychological dimension by including ethical principles.
Gasser always refers to this dimension in his texts. He starts out from a positive concept of man: Man is good by nature.23 As a person, each human being has certain rights and duties and can establish his necessary social relations at best in the surroundings of a free commune. Thus people develop their skills and forces and are able to solve the problems together with others. Thus, the autonomous small areas form the basis, and take influence on greater stately regions, regardless of their structure.
“Moral bonds” secure the peace of a society against inside threats as well as threats from outside. All communal and federal democracies, built from bottom to the top, have a basically pacifist tendency, Gasser claims. With its synthesis of freedom and order, the decentralized structure including free communes reaches a degree of social justice, which curbs militarist and expansive forces. The individual is more content, feels safe and cannot easily be seduced to foreign policy war adventures.

Educational dimension of communal freedom

Finally the “educational dimension” of communal freedom is to be presented briefly, as Gasser repeatedly mentions it. For him, the commune is a “humanitarian school for citizenship”24 and in a lively democracy it serves an educational purpose which should not be underestimated:

“Only in an assessable, natural community the normal citizen is able to acquire what we use to call political sense of proportion, a feeling for the human proportions. It is the only place where he can learn to understand and consider the justified requests of his neighbors and their different ideas and interests in the daily discussion; it is the only place where the necessary minimum of communal structure develops on the ground of freedom, which is able to effectively impede the tendency to authoritarianism as well as to anarchy. In this sense autonomous small areas remain irreplaceable schools for citizenship, without which the free democratic state would wither from the roots.”25

A lively democracy does not only require educated humans, who master cultural techniques and who acquire certain abilities and skills and develop them. A democracy also requires as it were the people’s “emotional intelligence”.26 This intelligence must develop in the family first, as well as in the assessable, natural community first; later on it can also be effective beyond that sphere. As far as educational issues are concerned, Gasser always refers to the work of Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827). In digesting and summarizing the different historical aspects and the ideas of progressive thinkers, Gasser can be called the actual discoverer of the “small region” and “assessability” as the basic conditions of a working democracy. Therefore it is certainly worthwhile to apply his ideas, modified by new research, to the question how direct democracy was historically developed in Switzerland.•

Translation Current Concerns

1 Adolf Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas. Grundlinien einer ethischen Geschichtsauffassung, Second, grossly extended edition, Basel 1947, p. 7–12.
2 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 10.
3 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 10f.
4 Gasser uses the term “free” or “freedom” in the context of a national political category of the “commune” quite comprehensively. He does not limit it to the political rights of co-determination. Those were limited in Switzerland in the “ancient régime” to the citizens of a single commune, i.e. they were exclusive. Only in times of the Helvetica and then again during Regeneration the rights of co-determination were extended on a cantonal level. Women were excluded longest.
5 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 15.
6 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 17.
7 Adolf Gasser, Bürgermitverantwortung als Grundlage echter Demokratie, in: Gasser,A., Staatlicher Grossraum und autonome Kleinräume, Basel 1976, p. 43
8 Adolf Gasser, Staatlicher Grossraum und autonome Kleinräume, Basel 1976, p. 147
9 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 12
10 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 11
11 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 19
12 Adolf Gasser, Der europäische Mensch in der Gemeinschaft, in: Gasser, A., Staatlicher Grossraum und autonome Kleinräume, Basel 1976, p. 4
13 Gasser, Bürgermitverantwortung, p. 33
14 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 27
15 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 20
16 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 97
17 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 24
18 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 24
19 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 24
20 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 16
21 Gasser, Der europäische Mensch …, p. 4
22 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 10
23 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit, p. 255
24 cf. Adolf Gasser, Die Schweizer Gemeinde als Bürgerschule (1959), in: Gasser, A., Staatlicher Grossraum und autonome Kleinräume, Basel 1976, p. 85–91
25 Adolf Gasser, Zum Problem der autonomen Kleinräume. Zweierlei Staatsstrukturen in der freien Welt, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Attachment to the weekly magazine Das Parlament, vol. 31/77, p. 4
26 cf. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, New York, 1996

Adolf Gasser

The Swiss historian Adolf Gasser (1903–1985) completed his studies in Heidelberg and Zurich with doctorates in history and classical philology. From 1928 to 1969 he taught as a grammar school teacher in Basel. In the course of his lectureships he became private lecturer in 1936 and an adjunct professor in 1942; from 1950 to 1985 he taught as an extraordinary professor for constitutional history at the University of Basel. After World War II he started an active lecturing activity in the Federal Republic of Germany. Gasser was joint founder of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, from 1953 to 1968 he was a Liberal member of the Grand Council of Basel, and he was a president of the FDP of the canton Basel.
His works include (published in German language, all titles are translated here for better understanding):
– The territorial development of Switzerland. Confederation 1291–1797, 1932
– History of the People’s Freedom and Democracy, 1939
– Communal freedom as salvation of Europe, 1943
– On the foundations of the state, 1950