Popular Assemblies in Revolts and Revolutions

Painting of participants in a popular assembly

From the main square Puerto del Sol in Madrid, to Syntagma square in Athens, Rossio square in Lisbon and other central squares in major cities throughout Europe, popular assemblies have been convened to discuss pressing economic and political issues, to place demands on governments, and to decide on the future actions of these movements.

Several commentators have pointed to the freshness of these assemblies; their openness and creativity, their spirit of solidarity, and respect for the diversity of opinions. And indeed, these assemblies are a refreshing and innovative alternative to the charade of conventional parliamentary politics. These assemblies derive not only from the initiative of their protagonists but also from the history of the major revolutions in Europe from the 18th to the 20th century and uprisings against dictatorships and neoliberal regimes in the 21st century, in which popular assemblies have recurrently been a vehicle for social movements to advance their goals.

What is a Popular Assembly?

Before we look at some of these examples, what is a popular assembly? A popular assembly is a space that is open to all citizens from a certain area, be it a neighborhood, city, or a broader region. This space is used by the citizens to discuss matters that are important to themselves, and to decide on how to act to solve these issues. The assembly may make its decisions through a vote, or try to come to an agreement that is acceptable to all (often called consensus). The most important feature of a people´s assembly is that decisions are made in a directly democratic manner, meaning that each participating citizen holds an equal amount of power in the assembly.

This does not imply that all citizens have to be involved in dealing with all the issues of the assembly. When specific tasks have to be done or minor decisions have to be made, the citizens delegate these tasks to people who are elected by the assembly. Often, therefore, a popular assembly has a host of committees that deal with specific issues, depending on the circumstances of the assembly.

A popular assembly is more substantive than just a meeting that is open to all residents. It is not a single event, but rather a series of meetings that has taken on a permanent character. The popular assembly is a political institution, where the whole point of the assembly itself is to be the most important decision-making institution in the area where it is located. In order to widen the scope of their decision-making powers, popular assemblies often join other assemblies in a confederation and strive to create a directly democratic polity that can challenge the prevailing powers.

The Sections in the French Revolution

Of the many examples of popular assemblies in uprisings and revolutions, France in the 18th century and Argentina in the 21st century provide but a few. Probably one of the most well known instances of a city being run by popular assemblies is Paris during parts of the so-called Great French Revolution from 1789-1793. The assemblies in Paris were called sections, after the electoral assemblies the French monarchy convened to choose the middle-class deputies to the semi-national assembly, Estates General.

The citizens of Paris were not content with the limited liberties that the monarchy conceded them through the Estates General, so they started using these electoral assemblies for their own purposes. They removed the class divisions limiting who was considered a legitimate participant, and by opening the assemblies to the “lower classes”, they opened the floodgates for the revolutionary tide. It was the sections that propelled the French Revolution to abolish the monarchy and pushed for radical reforms in the new government. By 1793, the sections regularly met twice a week, and during especially hectic periods, even daily. The number of participants could vary from a hundred or less when the agenda was routine to fully packed sessions in commandeered churches and chapels when grave issues confronted the revolution. For a short period of time, these popular assemblies became the de facto government of Paris. As described by Murray Bookchin:

“The sections … represented genuine forms of self-management. At the high point of their development, they took over the complete administration of the city. Individual sections policed their own neighborhoods, elected their own judges, were responsible for the distribution of food, provided public aid to the poor, and contributed to the maintenance of the National Guard … During the period … when controls were established over prices and wages to prevent runaway inflation the sections took responsibility for the maintenance of government-fixed prices. To provision Paris, the sections sent their representatives to the countryside to buy and transport goods and see to their distribution at fair prices.” (Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 182-183)

Neighborhood Assemblies in the Argentinian Uprising

One of the most recent examples of a large popular assembly movement is the one that occurred in Argentina in 2001 and 2002, during what has been called the first rebellion against neoliberalism in the 21st Century. As Maria Thompson writes:

“The assembly movement was born in the power vacuum that occurred following the nation-wide economic crisis that struck Argentina in 2001. Following days of protest, members of the middle class that had lost their savings, jobs, and livelihoods came together in an attempt to organize a movement out of the chaos in the streets. The neighborhood assembly movement was their attempt to meet the immediate needs in their communities, while also forming an alternative method of public participation that was truly democratic and responsive to the people.”

Just a few months after the beginning of the rebellion there were close to 120 popular assemblies in Buenos Aires alone, and more assemblies were being established in other cities around the country. The assemblies became very popular among the citizens of the capital. At one moment in the uprising, a poll by a local newspaper showed that one third of the residents had participated in a popular assembly or an activity organized by them. There were even attempts to gather all the local assemblies into a city-wide assembly. This Asemblea Interbarrial met for a few times with several thousands of people, and passed resolutions on questions of national importance. Like in Paris in the 18th Century, the popular assemblies in Argentina also took on a host of communal activities. As Thompson explains:

“The assemblies were active in the development of their communities. Members met daily or weekly to discuss the economic crisis and to plan weekly mobilizations against the State. After realizing the negative impacts that the crisis was having on their neighborhoods, they began to organize free community kitchens, classes, nurseries and other needs-based services in their communities. The assemblies also participated in the protest actions of other social movements such as participation in the human rights movement, the factory takeover movement, and the unemployed workers movement. Eventually, some assemblies began to establish their own spaces within buildings, some of which were taken through illegal occupation of vacated spaces. With this, the assemblies took on more ambitious projects including productive enterprises such as community bakeries.”

Why do Popular Assemblies Continue to Recur?

So why do popular assemblies reappear over and over again at the heart of revolts and revolutions? The explanation lies partly in people’s desire to govern their own lives and partly in matters of necessity. Popular assemblies normally arise in situations where people do not feel that their views and needs are properly addressed by other institutions, and where they see no other solutions than to take matters into their own hands. As such, the assembly is a natural choice of organization: If no one else is acting in your interest, what would be more proximate to one’s everyday life than to combine with neighbors to address pressing common issues. In Pots, Pans and Popular Power, Ezequiel Adamovsky describes how the neighbors in his part of Buenos Aires started to talk to each other during the devastating economic crisis in December 2001 and ended up establishing a  popular assembly:

“There were people of all ages, sexes, and professions, with and without previous political experience. Many thought we would not last a single month together. What did we have in common? We were on our own, in a country devastated by capitalism. We yearned to decide for ourselves how to live, and no longer trusted any representative. It’s the only thing that we shared. Almost nothing. Almost everything.” 

Although popular assemblies often arise spontaneously, they rest on a long tradition of communal self-organization among people in villages and cities that is frequently invoked – knowingly or not – in times of social crisis. In an account of popular movements in the revolutionary era from England in 1688 to Spain in 1936, Bookchin details how already existing municipal networks and assembly institutions were seminal in fostering the grassroots movements that actually made the revolutions – and that later were crushed by either reactionary forces or revolutionary parties that established their own dictatorships.

There is a great well of experiences accumulated by previous movements based on popular assemblies that is relevant to the current assembly movement in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Right now, for example, there is an ongoing discussion on how to take the present assembly movement in Spain out to “the people”. The people in these discussions may learn from France and Argentina and other places where movements have experimented with direct democracy.

Finally, popular assemblies are at the heart of revolts and revolutions, because it is these type of institutions – and not radical parties or politicians – that can muster the power to create major social changes. As Bookchin writes in his The Third Revolution:

“Broadly speaking, [the major revolutions of the modern era], always encompassed conflicts between the exploited and their exploiters, the rich and the poor, the well-to-do and the materially denied. But knowingly or not, these revolutions were also conflicts between opposing visions of political life. Workers, peasants, and radical intellectuals tended to favor the groupings they had formed in their own communities, often pitting their decentralized institutions of popular rule and face-to-face democracy in sharp opposition to statist forms of rule based on nationhood, top-down control, centralism, and bureaucracy. […] Revolution in their eyes meant the institutionalization of direct action: namely, engaging in self-administration as a normal form of politics.” (Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution, Vol. 1, pp. 9-10).