Between Constituent Power and Political Form: Toward a Theory of Council Democracy

Date01 February 2021
Published date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(1) 54 –82
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720925435
Between Constituent
Power and Political
Form: Toward a Theory
of Council Democracy
Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen, PhD, Postdoc1
This essay goes beyond the dominant conception of constituent power
developed by Emmanuel Sieyès and Carl Schmitt by excavating an
alternative through the practices of twentieth-century workers’ councils
and the interpretations of council democracy by Cornelius Castoriadis and
Hannah Arendt. Interpreters of the constituent power often agree on its
fundamentally antagonistic relation to constituted power, hereby making
constituent politics a momentary experience, which cannot be sustained
in constituted politics. Council democracy, instead, discloses a modality
of politics, which bridges the gap between constituent power and political
form in order to provide institutional means through which the spirit of
revolution can survive the founding moment. With this alternative concept
of council democratic constituent power, this essay contributes to radical
democratic theory by stipulating ways in which institutions can be rethought
radically democratic as a way in which constituent power (creativity, novelty,
freedom) can be institutionally approximated and continually reexperienced.
constituent power, council democracy, radical democracy, Hannah Arendt,
Cornelius Castoriadis
1Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School,
Frederiksberg, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen, PhD, Postdoc, Department of Management, Politics and
Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Porcelænshaven 18B, Frederiksberg, 2000,
925435PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720925435Political TheoryPopp-Madsen
Popp-Madsen 55
Theories of constituent power often point to its paradoxical nature. While
constituent power is the highest power of the polity and designates the peo-
ple’s power to freely create their own constitutional forms, constituent power
exists only outside the constituted order. Although constituent power is the
foundation of legality, law must at the same time appropriate it, as they can-
not coexist.1 Moreover, constituent power is enacted in the name of the peo-
ple, although the legitimate subject of this power comes only after the very
act of constituting.2 Constituent power, then, while being the source of con-
stitutional forms, procedural norms, and positive law, is itself formless,
normless, and lawless. Despite constituent power being the ultimate founda-
tion for ordinary politics, it is itself an extraordinary power. This dominant
understanding of constituent power derives from two of its most influential
interpreters, Emmanuel Sieyès and Carl Schmitt. In the famous pamphlet
“What is the Third Estate?“ (1789), Sieyès describes the constituent power as
above constituted politics, as “the nation exists prior to everything; it is the
origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is law itself.”3 Sieyès uses a
famous metaphor to describe the formlessness of constituent power, as it
“never leaves the state of nature,” because it “is independent of all forms . . .
it is the source and supreme master of all positive laws.”4 Schmitt similarly
stressed the formless nature of constituent power, as this power can “change
its forms and give itself continually new forms of political existence. It has
the complete freedom of political self-determination. It can be the ‘formless
formative capacity.’”5 The result of this dominant image of constituent power
is that an unbridgeable gap between constituent power and political form is
created that depicts the two as fundamentally oppositional.
In this essay, I develop an alternative to the Sieyèsian-Schmittian conception
of constituent power by turning to the historical experiences of workers’ coun-
cils in the twentieth century and the interpretations of council democracy by
twentieth-century political thinkers, predominantly Cornelius Castoriadis and
Hannah Arendt. It is a principal concern for democratic politics, I argue, to con-
ceptualize ways in which constituent power can be institutionalized so that its
relation to freedom, creativity, and emancipation remains intact while its arbi-
trariness, groundlessness, and formlessness is held in check. The historical
experiences of worker’s councils in early twentieth century provide an opportu-
nity for thinking democracy precisely at this intersection of constituent power
and political form. As such, the councils played a key role in twentieth-century
politics. The self-governing neighborhoods of the Paris Commune of 1871; the
strike movement of revolutionary St. Petersburg in the failed Russian Revolution
of 1905; the delegates from army regiments and factories of Petrograd during
the Russian Revolution(s) of 1917; the German workers’ and sailors’ councils

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