Liberalism and Direct Democracy

by Dr phil. René Roca, Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie (Research Institute for Direct Democracy)

Over the past 200 years, the citizens of Switzerland have developed democracy into a model that is unique in the world. Direct democracy is an integral part of political culture and the decisive foundation for the country's economic success. As a prelude and brief overview text, the article “Historical research and direct democracy” (see Current Concerns No. 16 of 8 August 2020) summarised the previous research. Now, as announced, the research results are to be explored in depth in a loose sequence, with reference to individual topics. The list started with the article on the topic of Catholicism and its significance for the history of democracy in Switzerland (see Current Concerns No. 2 of 5 February 2021). This is now being followed by an essay on the importance of liberalism for the emergence and development of direct democracy in Switzerland. The following is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of the conference proceedings “Liberalism and modern Switzerland”.1

Freedom – community spirit – progress

With a view to the national elections in autumn 2015, the Swiss “Liberal Democratic Party. The Liberals” (FDP) developed a new strategy for the future. The party titled this strategy with the words “Freedom, community spirit and progress – for love of Switzerland.” This strategy for the future can still be found on the party's website under the chapter “Values” – even after the elections – and is paraphrased as follows:
  “Switzerland is world class. We are doing better than almost anyone else. This success story has always been based on the liberal values of freedom, community spirit and progress. Liberal achievements such as our liberal economic and social order, federalism, direct democracy, the rule of law, a strong but lean state, the militia system, a good education system and cosmopolitanism are based on these values.”2
  If one studies the history of liberalism in Switzerland, one can undoubtedly determine that it made a significant contribution to the development of the achievements described, with the exception of federalism and direct democracy. With regard to federalism, most liberals were in favour of the Helvetic model of centralised structures for a long time. Only with the resistance of the Catholic Conservatives and the Sonderbund War of 1847 was a federal, federalist compromise possible in 1848.3 The liberals also consistently fought direct democracy in the first half of the 19th century.
  Even before the FDP party was founded in 1894, the liberal movement in Switzerland had been divided into sub-movements, which only integrated direct democratic popular rights into theory and practice after 1848.

Historical positioning of the terms “liberalism” and “direct democracy”

As a political term, the term liberalism can be assigned to the post-revolutionary epoch after 1789. The «Liberals» were united by their rejection of the Ancient Regime and their support for political change. Particular emphasis was placed on the freedom of the individual and freedom of conscience, and early on, there were warnings about the dangers of equality. The goals of most liberals were a constitution with the recognition of individual rights, the separation of powers and the principle of democracy, fixed firmly on the basis of a representative system. The elections were to be subject to a census system. A referendum would, at best, only serve to sanction the constitution, other than that no votes based on direct democratic people's rights were envisaged.4
  Liberalism is generally based on natural law and appears as a political term on the occasion of the struggle for the Spanish constitution in 1812 and in France during the Restoration (“idées libérales”) in 1817.5
  The liberal movement in Switzerland was successful shortly before and especially after the July Revolution of 1830 in France. In twelve of 22 cantons, upheavals took place, which led to liberal-democratic constitutions and brought a majority of liberal forces into executive and legislative powers. But after 1830, the victorious liberal movement quickly broke apart, and liberal exponents developed radical currents, some of which also advocated revolution and the use of force (Jacobinism). At any rate, they advocated profound changes in the existing conditions. However, parts of the liberal movement in Switzerland (liberal radicals such as Ludwig Snell or Kasimir Pfyffer) had become radicalised even before 1830 and distinguished themselves more sharply from the early liberals and only moderate reformers. During the Sonderbund period, the liberal radicals distinguished themselves as champions of a fundamental renewal of political institutions.6
  The actual Swiss radicalism, which was more strongly represented in western Switzerland, never had a uniform political theory; what united the different directions was the goal of national unification and the establishment of a strong central state. After 1848, radical currents gave rise to early socialism, which bore egalitarian and statist features more pointedly, but also more consistently represented the principle of popular sovereignty and advocated more direct democracy (democratic movement of the 1860s).7
  The term direct democracy means on the one hand a political system and on the other hand a political decision-making process, i.e. for Switzerland, the origin and development of the initiative and the referendum in the first half of the 19th century. Proceeding from individual cantons, the federal government also integrated direct democratic people’s rights into its constitution in the second half of the 19th century (1874 optional legal referendum, 1891 constitutional initiative). Important theoretical elements were the cooperative principle, modern natural law and the idea of popular sovereignty. The historical reference points were the American and French Revolutions, whose theorists had discussed elements of direct democracy in the context of constitutional discussions.8

The extended liberal family and its relationship to direct democracy

The Swiss historian and political scientist Erich Gruner (1915–2001) speaks of the “extended liberal family” when he defines the liberal movement in Switzerland of the 19th century. Apart from all facets and special tints, three important lines of thought showed the development of liberalism and its relationship to direct democracy: Liberalism, radicalism and democratism.9 Before Gruner shows the differences between the respective doctrines, he emphasises their common foundations: “The common intellectual basis lies in the commitment to a free social and state order, to free intellectual expression of opinion, in short, it lies in the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.”10
  Swiss liberalism derived its intellectual roots, on the one hand, from the time of the Helvetic Republic and, on the other hand, from Benjamin Constant’s (1767–1830) political and social theory. His approaches are particularly anchored in western Switzerland, and such original thinkers as Alexandre Vinet, Charles Secrétan and Philippe Bridel further developed his teaching. Constant, like John Locke (1632–1704), is convinced that the people can only act politically through representative bodies. He clearly advocates a representative democracy with an electoral census, i.e. the restriction of the right to vote to educated and wealthy classes, and explicitly rejects direct democracy. In clear dissociation and in opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Constant formulates an individualistic concept of freedom, restricted to a small upper class. With this Constant and his successors leave the principles of natural law and speak for a utilitarian approach. Constant’s teaching led to liberal conservatism, advocated for example by Johann Caspar Bluntschli (1808–1881) and liberal-radical teachings such as that of Ludwig Snell (1785–1854), which was influential for the Swiss Regeneration.
  Swiss radicalism, which did not develop a closed system in Switzerland either, but advocated modern natural law, with its main demand for national unity, took up the postulate of a revolutionary reorganisation of Switzerland and thus was in some ways a driving force for the Sonderbund War of 1847 and the subsequent founding of the federal state. A central source of Swiss radicalism is Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780–1866), who with his conservative and religious attitudes cannot easily be classified, but, as a radical politician and as a teacher at the Aarauer Lehrverein, had a broad impact in favour of democratisation and the founding of the Swiss federal state.11 It was notably Troxler who emphasised as a natural, primeval and archetypal fact his belief that the nation is nothing other than the expression of its people. The people of the confederation are the real sovereign, enthroned over all laws and treaties. Consequently, it was Troxler who, from the 1840s onwards, together with other radicals, further developed the liberal conception of a representative democracy and made popular sovereignty more concrete with demands for the right to veto, referendum and initiative as well as the election of preferably all authorities.12
  The demand for more direct democracy, i.e. the expansion of the existing democracy into pure democracy, indicates the third direction, namely so-called democratism. The democratic movement of the 1860s took up the postulate of direct democracy and promoted the ideal of social democracy in various cantons, especially in north-western and eastern Switzerland, in opposition to the established bourgeoisie, which stood for liberalism (in the canton of Zurich, the “Escher system”). Notably Karl Bürkli (1823–1901) set early socialist accents with his support of the cooperative movement and his other economic and political demands,13 but the democratic movement also drew on conservative sources. Before 1848, the Catholic Conservatives had succeeded in introducing the legal veto in individual cantons (for example in the canton of Lucerne), and this was now attempted by the Democrats. They pursued the goal of balancing out the differences in industrial society and replacing representative democracy; they considered direct democracy to be a community-building force.14
  The three political directions of liberalism, radicalism and democracy were united by their commitment to the national and liberal federal state. For a long time, the representatives of liberalism were of the opinion that political power should belong to a “natural aristocracy” and not to the “uneducated masses”, that otherwise there would be the threat of anarchy and ochlocracy. It was only after 1848 that –also thanks to practical experience with radical and democratic approaches – the liberals began to develop learning processes giving greater weight to the value of direct democracy as a political instrument that permanently ensures the social integration of citizens in a social unit.  •

1 Roca, René. “Introduction”. In: id. (ed.). Liberalismus und moderne Schweiz, Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie. (Liberalism and modern Switzerland, contributions to the study of democracy.) Volume 2, Basel 2017, pp. 11–50
2, 7 November 2016
3 Roca, René. “Der Beitrag des Katholizismus und der Katholisch-Konservativen zur direkten Demokratie in der Schweiz – Die Kantone Schwyz und St. Gallen”. (The Contribution of Catholicism and Catholic Conservatives to Direct Democracy in Switzerland – The Cantons of Schwyz and St. Gallen.) In: id. (ed.). Katholizismus und moderne Schweiz, Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie. (Catholicism and modern Switzerland, Contributions to the Study of Democracy.) Volume 1. Basel 2016, pp. 57–79, here p. 78f.
4 Vierhaus, Rudolf. Art. Liberalismus. (Art. Liberalism) In: Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. (In: Basic Historical Concepts. Historical Lexicon for Political-Social Language in Germany. Ed. by Reinhart Koselleck et al., Study Edition Volume 3, Stuttgart 2004, pp. 741-785, here pp. 750f.
5 ibid.
6 Bouquet, Jean-Jacques. Art. Liberalismus. (Art. Liberalism.) In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS). (In:  Historical Lexicon of Switzerland (HLS), Volume 7, Basel 2008, pp. 823–827, here pp. 823f .; Roca, René. Bernhard Meyer und der liberale Katholizismus der Sonderbundszeit. Religion und Politik in Luzern (1830–1848). (Bernhard Meyer and the Liberal Catholicism of the Sonderbund Period. Religion and Politics in Lucerne (1830–1848). Bern 2002, pp. 81–86
7 Tanner, Albert. Art. Radikalismus. ( Art. Radicalism.) In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS), (Historical Lexicon of Switzerland (HLS), Volume 10, Basel 2011, pp. 61f.
8 Roca, René. Wenn die Volkssouveränität wirklich eine Wahrheit werden soll … Die schweizerische direkte Demokratie in Theorie und Praxis – Das Beispiel des Kantons Luzern. (If popular sovereignty is really to become a reality ... Swiss direct democracy in theory and practice - the example of the canton of Lucerne. Zurich/Basel/Geneva 2012, pp. 223–225
9 Gruner, Erich. Die Parteien der Schweiz. (The parties of Switzerland.) Bern 1969, pp. 73-79
10 ibid., p. 74
11 Roca, René. “Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler und der Aarauer Lehrverein. Wie eine private Bildungsanstalt die Demokratieentwicklung in der Schweiz entscheidend förderte”. (Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler and the Aarau “Lehrverein”. How a private educational institution decisively promoted the development of democracy in Switzerland.) In: Argovia 2014, Jahresschrift der Historischen Gesellschaft des Kantons Aargau (Annual journal of the Historical Society of the Canton of Aargau) 126. Baden 2014, pp. 140–154
12 ibid.
13 Roca, René (ed.). Frühsozialismus und direkte Demokratie, Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie. (Early Socialism and Direct Democracy, Contributions to Research into Democracy) Volume 3, Basel 2018
14 Bürgin, Markus. Art. Demokratische Bewegung. (Democratic Movement.) In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS). (Historical Lexicon of Switzerland (HLS)) Volume 3, Basel 2004, pp. 639–641

René Roca (ed.). Liberalism and Modern Switzerland

Contributions to the Study of Democracy 2

ro. The liberal idea of the state has its roots in the Enlightenment and the French Revolutionary period. It was reflected in the guiding principles of the Swiss constitutions. With this and the promotion of the primary schools, liberalism had a lasting influence on the further democratic development in Switzerland in the 19th century. However, liberal theory and practice, with its tendency towards aristocratisation, repeatedly ran the risk of negating modern natural law and favouring a utilitarian principle in its place.
  The relationship between Swiss liberalism and direct democracy, which is the focus of Volume 2, was ambivalent and conflict-loaded, but the two approaches enrich one another and in practice, they became important building blocks of modern Switzerland.

Table of contents
Elisabeth Kopp and René Roca. Foreword

René Roca. Liberalism and Direct Democracy. Theory and Practice in Switzerland. An Introduction

Paul Widmer. Rejection of Direct Democracy in the Origins of the Political Philosophy of Liberalism (Emmanuel Joseph Sièyes, Benjamin Constant)

Robert Nef. Zaccaria Giacometti and Friedrich August von Hayek. How Compatible is Classical Liberalism with Democracy?

Werner Ort. Heinrich Zschokke in Search of ‘True’ Democracy

Daniel Annen. Switzerland — a Liberal State. But how? Democratic Structures for the Confederation in Kant, Schiller, Ragaz and Inglin

The Editor
René Roca holds a doctorate in history and is a grammar school teacher in Basel. He founded and directs the Research Institute for Direct Democracy ( He regularly publishes on the topics of direct democracy, the cooperative principle and natural law.

Schwabe Verlag Basel
ISBN 978-3-7965-3639-7

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