The development of democracy

Last updated: 11 11 2021

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

The word democracy comes from the Greek demos meaning the people and kratein meaning government. The first known democratic system was built in Ancient Greece in 500 BCE. This is when the Greek state of Athens went from a dictatorship to a certain form of democracy. However, it was still only free men who were allowed to be involved in decision-making. Women, slaves and foreigners had no influence on decision-making. Accordingly, we wouldn't call Athens as it was at the time a democracy in the modern sense of the word.

From antiquity until today, Europe's history was far from democratic in the way that Sweden is today. Democracy has emerged in various ways thanks to people resisting power being unequally distributed in society.

Following antiquity, the Christian Church, for example, has a lot of power in society for many hundreds of years. Autocratic kings and emperors claimed that their power came from God and not from the people. However, in the 16th century, the power of the Church began to weaken, primarily because many people wanted to change the church. They no longer though that the Catholic Church stood for the Christian faith and that its activities were more about power and money. This change is called the Reformation. The Reformation led to a split and weakening of the Christian Church. Sweden left the Catholic Church in the 16th century and instead became protestant.

From the middle of the 18th century, a movement emerged in Europe that is usually called the Enlightenment. People were inspired by scientific advances and continued to criticise the Church and others who said that the power to govern a country was handed down by God. One philosopher who had a major significance during this period on the view of how a country should be governed was the Frenchman Charles Louis de Montesquieu. He thought that if the power was split into different parts, there would be a good balance. The three parts were the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

A significant event in the development of democracy in Europe was the French Revolution in 1789. During the French Revolution, the French people rose up against the king. After the Revolution, France adopted a law inspired by the Enlightenments' ideas that power comes from the people and that no person is worth more than any other. However, it was only male citizens who were allowed to vote for who would make decisions.

Socialism was developed in the 19th century and the most important person in this doctrine was Karl Marx. According to socialism, equality and justice should prevail between all people. These ideas were spread widely and both trade unions and socialist parties were set up all around Europe. At the end of the 19th century, there were increasing calls for equality and justice to also encompass women.