How should political and economic power be distributed in a society?
All societies, large and small, develop some form of government. During prehistoric times, when small bands of hunter-gatherers wandered Earth in search of food and game, government might have been as simple as a few elders making decisions for the group. The invention of farming triggered the evolution of more formal systems of governments. Once people learned how to raise food, they settled down into permanent villages. This new way of life created a host of novel problems and conflicts. Governments had to evolve to meet the needs of the more complex societies they ruled.
Over time, some farming villages grew into cities and city-states. A city-state is a sovereign state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory.
Around 3000 B.C.E., the first city-states arose in Sumer, a region located in what is today southern Iraq. There, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Sumerians grew crops of barley, wheat, dates, apples, and plums.
Then, as now, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates was largely desert. Farming in this region depended on irrigation. Governments arose to resolve issues pertaining to the fair and orderly distribution of water. They also provided protection by building walls around their cities and organizing armies to ward off invasions by nomadic tribes. A similar evolution occurred in ancient Egypt, India, and China.
Gradually, power in many city-states became concentrated in the hands of a single ruler. The strongest of these rulers conquered neighboring city-states to create the world’s first empires. Sargon of Akkad was one of Sumer’s early conquerors. Sargon, whose name is thought to mean “the true king,” carried out more than 30 battles against the Sumerian city-states to consolidate his empire. To legitimize their power, empire-builders like Sargon often declared that the gods had given them the right to rule. Some rulers even claimed to be gods themselves. As power passed from father to son in these early empires, monarchy became the most common form of government in the ancient world.
In the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek city-state of Athens made a radical change in its form of government. The Athenians reorganized their city-state as a direct democracy. In a direct democracy, public decisions are made directly by citizens meeting together in an assembly or voting by ballot. The Athenian leader Pericles explained the new form of government this way:
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.
The Athenians established an early form of direct democracy in the fifth century B.C.E. This cartoon pokes fun at the belief held by most people living in a democracy that their form of government is superior to all other forms.
When Pericles spoke of government being in the hands of “the whole people,” he meant in the hands of male citizens of Athens. Women, slaves, and foreign-born people living in Athens were not allowed to participate in government affairs. For those who did qualify, however, they participated on a scale that was unique in the ancient world. Never before had so many people dedicated so much of their time to the business of governing themselves.
Elsewhere, the Italian city-state of Rome was developing a different form of people power. In 509 B.C.E., the Roman people overthrew their monarchy and turned Rome into a republic. Over time, the Romans set up a representative democracy to govern their republic. In a representative democracy, public decisions are made by leaders who are elected by the citizens to represent their interests.
The Roman Republic lasted nearly 500 years. During that time, officials elected by Rome’s citizens headed the government. Then, in 31 B.C.E., after 20 years of civil war, the Roman Empire was established. Power passed from elected leaders to emperors who held absolute power for life.
For a time, Rome’s emperors ruled an empire that included most of Europe, as well as North Africa and western Asia. In 476 C.E., Rome fell to invading tribes from the east. In parts of Europe once ruled by mighty Rome, the empire broke into tiny districts, each ruled by a duke, lord, king, or other noble.
With no strong central government to provide security, each district had to look out for itself. It often made sense for weak nobles to look to a nearby, more powerful neighbor for protection. However, protection had a price. Because money was scarce, the powerful lord or local king usually took his payment in land. In this way, some lords gained control of very large areas.
By the 700s, many lords acquired more land than they could manage. They began granting parcels of land, called fiefs, to tenants. In return, the tenant became the lord’s vassal. A vassal took an oath of loyalty to the lord and promised to provide him with military service in time of war. This system of exchanging the use of land for military and other services became known as feudalism.
In addition to serving as warriors, the vassals also had political obligations. For example, they all sat together at the lord’s court to help settle disputes. The lord was also expected to seek the advice and consent of his vassals before making new laws. Europe’s parliaments developed from meetings of vassals summoned by a lord or king.
During the 1200s, the feudal system of lords and vassals entered a period of decline. The BOOs saw the rise of absolute monarchies, or governments headed by hereditary rulers who claimed unlimited powers. These powerful monarchs consolidated the patchwork of feudal districts in their kingdoms into the world’s first nation-states.
By the 1700s, several European countries had become nation-states headed by absolute monarchs. These all-powerful rulers based their legitimacy on the divine right of kings theory. So important was the role of the monarch in France that Louis XIV is reported to have said of himself, “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”).
Some monarchs ruled with the best interests of their people in mind. Others ruled as despots, or tyrants, who used their power for selfish ends. Growing dissatisfaction with this form of government triggered a series of world-altering revolutions, first in Europe and then in the American colonies.
The first of these revolutions against tyranny occurred in England in 1688. The Glorious Revolution, also known as the Bloodless Revolution, led to the establishment of Europe’s first constitutional monarchy-a system of government in which the powers of the monarch are limited by a constitution, either written or unwritten.
The second of these revolutions began in 1775 when American colonists rebelled against what they saw as British tyranny. The American Revolution led to the creation of the first modern constitutional democracy-a democratic government based on a written constitution. Abraham Lincoln would later describe this form of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
A third revolution broke out in 1789, when the French people took up arms against their king. At first the French Revolution seemed likely to produce another constitutional democracy. Instead it took a radical turn and eventually collapsed into chaos. In time Napoleon Bonaparte restored order, but only by establishing an authoritarian regime-a system of government in which the state exercises broad control over the lives of its citizens. Napoleon, for example, used secret police forces to spy on French citizens. To stifle opposition, he censored the press while mounting his own propaganda campaigns.
Some historians argue that Napoleon’s approach to governing set the stage for rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century. A totalitarian government is an extreme form of an authoritarian regime that seeks to control almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
Twentieth-century totalitarianism dates back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. That revolution overthrew the Russian monarchy. In its place, revolutionaries established the Soviet Union as the world’s first state based on communism.
The term communism has several meanings. It can mean a system of government in which a single political party controls the government and the economy. It can also mean the theories developed by German philosopher Karl Marx about the ideal society. Marx’s goal was the creation of a society that provides equality and economic security for all. To accomplish that end, he called for government ownership of land, factories, and other resources.
The theory of communism appealed to many people in the 1900s. In practice, however, it led to the creation of totalitarian states, first in the Soviet Union and later in other countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba. In these states, dictators like Joseph Stalin used spies, secret police, and government censors to suppress all opposition.
A form of totalitarianism known as fascism first appeared in Italy during the 1920s. Fascism resembles communism in terms of its control of citizens’ lives. Unlike communism, however, fascism allows businesses to remain in private ownership, though under government control. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, used his power to turn his country into a police state.
A third type of totalitarianism, Nazism, took root in Germany. Nazism is a variety of fascism built in part on the myth of racial superiority. After taking power in Germany in 1933, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler launched an extermination campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and other groups he defmed as “undesirable.”