Althusius: A Thinker of European Federalism

Johannes Althusius
Johannes Althusius

As the ‘F-word’ is increasingly discussed in the intellectual and political circles as a viable solution to the Eurozone crisis, it is useful to remind ourselves that there is more to federalism than the well-known model of the United States. In fact, there is an older strand of federal thought that is peculiar to Europe. And this unknown thinker whom I would like to present on the following lines can be rightly called its father. Readers will shortly discover that Althusius’s federalism is easily distinguishable from its American counterpart by its extension of the federal principles onto the society as a whole. The federation is not simply a kind of a nation-state that distributes political prerogatives between the institutions at the state and federal levels. Althusius’s European federalism goes much further below. It is already families, firms, towns and other socio-economic entities that are perceived as rightful holders of political and other rights, and who need to have a say in the decision-making of higher strata of society that contains them. This, indeed, might be precisely what is needed in building a functioning polity in such a complex social reality as we have in Europe.

Let us first briefly start with the life of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) himself. Besides being a jurist and prolific Calvinist political thinker, Althusius was engaged in active politics of the city of Emden. As a syndic of that city, he had become the main instigator of the arrest of the city’s provincial lord, count of Eastern Frisia, by Emden’s city councillors that transpired on 7 December 1618. Althusius vigorously defended the councillors’ decision as a ‘legitimate act of self-defence and resistance’ against the provincial lord’s infringements on the city’s rights, considering it an ultimate resolve ‘warranted under every natural and secular law’.[1] As will become apparent with the discussion of his work, the right of resistance to tyranny of a government that does not respect the rule of law is a key part of his federal thought.[2] His most famous work Politica Methodice Digesta (Politics Methodically Digested, first published in 1603), which will be taken here as the main source of Althusius’s federal thought, in a similar vein justifies the right of the Dutch provinces to secede from the crown lands of the Spanish ruler.

Nevertheless, we would do injustice to Althusius’s work if we thought that his federalist thought consisted only of the effort to defend the rights of cities or provinces against tyrannical rulers. Quite the contrary. Althusius, as a witness to wide scale social changes of the early modern period, primarily strove to strike a balance between individual freedoms and responsibilities coming from shared communal belonging. On the one hand, people at the beginning of the 17th century were no longer as tied to their place of birth as in the medieval times, and especially bourgeoisie was becoming increasingly emancipated from the nobility. On the other hand, newly acquired freedoms did not lead people to perceive themselves as lone individuals and they retained the older idea of considering themselves citizens with mutually binding responsibilities. Althusius’s model of ‘bottom-up’ societal federalism was meant to provide such an answer to a potential clash between demands of private associations and smaller political communities, and more encompassing political bodies such as province or realm. Besides the rights of communities, Althusius therefore to the same extent defends the necessity of inter-communal cooperation and solidarity. We will now move on to discuss Althusius theoretical assumptions on the nature of society, which serve as the pillar of his unique kind of federalism.

The Consociation as the Basic Element of Societal Federalism

Similarly to other political thinkers, Althusius starts Politica Methodice Digesta by explaining his philosophical presuppositions. In the first chapter, Althusius names consociatio as the basic element of society. More precisely, by this term Althusius understands a partially autonomous community that comes into existence through a social compact freely agreed between persons or consociations, thus uniting them into a new social whole.[3] Every human community is such a consociation: they are not just of public nature (as city, province, or realm are), but include private communities, such as family, kinship, guild, and professional college.

This particular theory of social contract is based on Althusius’s observations of the social nature of human beings. Although he does not deny aggressive or selfish impulses present in the human nature, he nevertheless believes, very much in the Aristotelian spirit, that all humans are just as well endowed with ‘the instinct for living together and establishing civil society’.[4] Human beings are ‘symbiotes’—they have natural capacity to form cooperative unions with other human beings. Notwithstanding whether this social compact is concluded tacitly or explicitly, it comes from the general human need to share ‘whatever is useful and necessary’ for their life, that is, goods, services, and rights. Every consociation first comes to existence only because there are persons who are able to see beyond their immediate individual interests and are willing to contribute to the welfare of an integrated and interdependent social whole. The act of founding of a consociation is an act of decision: every consociate expresses that he sees some common, higher values and needs that he might share with other human beings. Thus, the modern liberal idea of considering human beings atomised individuals only capable of maximising their personal interest is rejected by Althusius from the start. Symbiotes – be it persons or consociations – come together to consensually form a consociation ‘for the common advantage of the symbiotes individually and collectively’.[5] Pure self-interest (Rousseau’s l’amour propre) alone would never allow them to form any consociation with mutually shared responsibilities in the first place. Indeed, as it was already noted above, in the Althusius’ time it still remained an unquestioned assumption that citizens should contribute to the common good of the community.[6]

It therefore might not be surprising that sharing of material resources and services is an intrinsic part of the consociation building—because it provides ‘hard’ material basis for the day-to-day functioning of the consociation, that is, for the subsequent communication of other goods, services, and rights within the community. In sharing their resources and services, consociates do not rely on the centralistic administrative apparatus of the state – the activity is entirely in their own hands and it is also up to them to secure the communication of goods, rights, and services politically. Althusius’s thought thus contains a remarkable and untraditional ‘socialist’ element. As Thomas Hueglin notes, ‘such considerations are socialist because the distribution and use of scarce resources is not left to the highest bidder but remains under co-operative control’.[7] Furthermore, it is untraditional, because even though it emphasises collective good, it is not collectivist. It is dependent on the previous consent of symbiotes deciding which services should be delegated to the level of their consociation and which should be retained by lower consociations. In those areas where the consociation members decide that they have common interest, public property, conduct of public works, and voluntary charity are the ultimate acknowledgments of their long-term shared interests.[8]

The Consociational Government

After this brief exposure to Althusius’s general theory of consociations, the reader might rightly ask where does politics and federalism in particular have a place in all this. Althusius’s answer is strikingly simple: politics is the process of consociation building, and federation (or rather, as we will see, federalising) is the result of this perpetual process. We can easily ascertain this assumption from the following quote, where Althusius defines politics as

the art of consociating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating and conserving social life among them. It is also called “symbiotics.” The subject matter of politics is therefore consociation, wherein the symbiotes pledge themselves, each to the other, by an explicit or tacit pact, to the mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the exercise and harmony of social life.[9]

Almost by definition, the participation in a consociation requires active political engagement of the symbiotes in the continuous process of community building and renegotiation: communication of goods, rights, and services. As it was mentioned already above with regard to the sharing of material resources, it is only the political decision of the symbiotes that decides on the functional scope of the consociation. The consociation is therefore founded by a social compact of symbiotes. Interestingly enough, the social contract is for Althusius present at the basis of both private and public consociations. Although private and public consociations clearly differ in their purpose, as private consociations have particular, limited aims, such as economic gain, or perpetuating kinship relations, they share with public consociations the same consociational element: the communication of goods, rights, and services between their members. In this sense, both are all ‘political’.[10] Althusius was clearly not a modern feminist arguing for the politicisation of private life, nevertheless, he acknowledged that husband and wife form a consociational partnership, where each partner of the ‘contract’ shares his or hers particular resources for the benefit of a higher whole, i.e. the family. Althusius, although not dismissing the distinction between public and private as the distinction between limited and shared aims, rejects the modern limitation of the political to the public sphere. It is this communicative political element that is present in all consociations that allows the city, as the first public consociation Althusius considers in his work, to emerge as a consociation of private consociations in the first place.

When dealing with Althusius’s theory of social contract we have to furthermore distinguish it from the theories of other social contract thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes. As can be clearly seen from the discussion above, parties to the consociational contract of Althusius are not giving up all their political rights and freedoms to an all-powerful legislator (leviathan). The created consociation has clearly defined functions and purposes, which are decided by unanimity by its constituting members. The ‘politics’ of establishing of a consociation, and of renegotiation of its functional scope (i.e., what would be today constitutional amendment) is therefore distinguished from the administration or governance of that consociation. ‘True’ politics is the communication of goods, rights, and services between symbiotes: a permanent process of consociation building and renegotiation of its tasks. Administering the concluded common affairs comes only afterwards, as ‘second-order’ politics that has as its task the enactment and enforcement of communally agreed rights and duties. The government of a consociation has as its purpose the administration of the commonwealth commissioned by the people. In other words, the contract with the government, which by signing promises to uphold the consociations’ laws, is therefore only a part, although a crucial one, of the previously concluded social pact. As Thomas Hueglin remarks,

the sphere of governance and power is defined as part of the process of communication, and not a regulatory superstructure with an entirely different logic of social intervention. Political community, in other words, is a common social enterprise including all essential cultural, economic, and political activities.[11]

Maintaining the order and authority is an essential part of every social compact, but the government cannot wilfully decide on those issues, which were not explicitly delegated to its authority by the consociation as the organised body of the people as a whole. The sovereign is not absolute, he always rules according to law and his only ‘purpose is to co-ordinate and regulate that community’s process of communication. It is not to prescribe its goals and aspirations in any absolute or uncontrolled way.’[12] People never at any point give away their sovereign rights to the government—as the respect for their laws is always the source of the government’s legitimacy—they only delegate to the government the conditional authority required for the management and enforcement of the community’s laws.

Every consociation’s political representation therefore consists of two levels, which would be relatively close to the modern understanding of legislative and executive. The first level consists of elected representatives, who in the council represent the consociation as the organised body of the people as a whole, that is, as a consociation of smaller consociations, who united into that consociation for the common purpose. They enact new laws, to which the sovereign is bound, renegotiate the terms of the original consociational contract, and hold the executive accountable for his actions. In the worst of all cases, they can even depose the ruler from the office. In the majority of their decisions, they exercise their powers as a collegium, that is, collectively through the means of a majority vote. In this role, as Althusius notes, ‘the administrators and rectors of the universal symbiosis and realm represent the body of the universal association, or the whole people by whom they have been constituted.’[13] It is crucial not to misunderstand the point here as these representatives do not represent the ‘demos’ in the common way of understanding it (i.e., as a community of individuals), but only the organised body of the people. Althusius once again goes beyond mere individualism and collectivism when he underlines that the council of representatives neither embodies the general of the people une et indivisible (J.-J. Rousseau), nor a mere association of private wills (liberal democratic thinkers). They embody the common will, but this will is the product of plurality of communities, whose reason for participating in the consociation is the long-term desire to overcome individual differences. The purest manifestation of this consociational desire is the willingness to use a majority vote in those matters, on which individual consociations previously decided as being the common values and interests their consociation will share. Only when decisions would concern these constituent units individually, as in the case of constitutional amendment, the council would be once again required to decide unanimously or perhaps by a qualified majority vote.

The magistrate or a body of administrators elected by the council of representatives forms the second level of the political representation. They preside over the council’s meetings, enact and enforce its laws and have higher authority than any of the councillors taken individually, but are ultimately subject to the council’s will when taken collectively. The magistrates are responsible to the council and in turn, the council representatives are responsible to the constituent communities of the consociation. We will now proceed to further discuss this system of political representation in relation to Althusius’s proposals for the federal constitution of the polity.

Federalism – Federalising Consociations

In the previous two sections of this text, we have been trying to expose the ‘societal’ element of Althusius’s societal federalism. Politics was shown to be a process of consociation building as it establishes and renegotiates the terms of the communication of goods, rights, and services of a consociation. Consequently, governance is the administration and enforcement of the essential laws agreed by the lawful representatives of the consociation, as by the organised body of the people. Our following task will be to elaborate how Althusius’ theory of consociational politics enables him to develop a unique theory of ‘ascending’ (or ‘bottom-up’) federalism.

Firstly, let us highlight that for Althusius, consociations are not generally constituted by individuals—but by other communities. Perhaps only the family, as the basic social unit, might be said of consisting of individuals. Nevertheless, strictly speaking, even here we do not find socially alienated selves, but a husband and wife: persons with distinctive roles, who share their specific qualities for the benefit of their children and the family as a whole. The association of several families then forms more inclusive private consociations, such as kinship groups, colleges, or guilds. A public consociation (universitas) for Althusius for the first time emerges when several private consociations join to form an inclusive political order (politeuma).[14] It is the first organised body of people, assembling itself through the exercise of ‘natural’ symbiotic right (jus symbioticum). This inter-consociational compact gives rise to the legal order of the city (jus civitatis). It is an organised public body created by families, kinship groups, various collegia, and guilds (collegia artificum), that is, private consociations, all living in the same locality. By the virtue of this consociation, the formerly private persons become citizens. For Althusius, this first public consociation has the pre-eminent political nature – it is here where for the first time people gather not merely in order to pursue their private goals – but to pursue common good. By this consociation, Althusius has primarily in mind the city (civitas), but he also acknowledges that villages or countryside have similar status as the city’s rural counterparts. It is also at this point that we can fully appreciate the ‘societal’ element in Althusius federalism. It is by this element that we can distinguish it from modern federal models—since Althusius includes non-territorial private consociations into his federal framework. It is the consociation of these more ‘primordial’ social units that creates the city as the first public consociation.

If we tie this up to our discussion of the political representation, we find that in the city it is the prefect or consul (or a collective body of administrators) that serves as the city’s government. Likewise, the senate exercises the role of the council of representatives of the organised body of the people of the city, making the prefect subject to its laws. Thus, Hueglin remarks that ‘things done by the senatorial collegium are considered as done by the whole city that the collegium represents.’[15] On day-to-day laws, the senate decides by a majority vote, but a more far-reaching consensus, or even unanimity, is required in those matters that touch the constituent consociations of the city individually, not collectively.

The similar structure of the political representation is mirrored by higher levels of the federal polity. In this vein, Althusius discusses the province and the commonwealth. Let us just briefly remark that at the provincial level the provincial lord has the same role as the prefect in the city and the estates or orders (ecclesiastical, and secular, which themselves consist of nobility, burgers, and agrarians) fulfil the same duties as the senate. Again, it is the orders taken together that represent the organised body of the people of the province and the provincial head, although their superior in terms of political authority, is bound to the laws in his decision-making. The duties to be performed at the provincial level are to be first decided by the mutual consent of all the symbiotes, as they are represented in the provincial council gathering the provincial orders.[16] Exactly the same principles apply to the commonwealth, which unites several provinces, represented by the universal council of the realm and the commonwealth’s supreme magistrate.

We can see that at every level of the organised body of the people there is the same pattern of dual political representation. The councillors not only represent the common will of the consociation as such through the exercise of a majority vote, but they are also magistrates of lower communities that constitute the consociation. Their role is to be delegates of these lower consociations and as these delegates, they are bound to respect the common will of their own consociation and represent it in the higher council accordingly. Althusius’ federal polity is therefore

a kind of co-sovereignty shared among partially autonomous collectivities consenting to its exercise on their behalf and within the general confines of this consent requirement.[17]

Thus even the representatives remain ultimately ‘constrained by their oath of loyalty’ to the organised body of the community. Althusius explains this at some length in the Chapter XVIII of his book, it is worth to quote him at some length:

The people first associated themselves in a certain body with definite laws (leges), and established for itself the necessary and useful rights (jura) of this association. Then, because the people itself cannot manage the administration of these rights, it entrusted their administration to ministers and rectors elected by it. In so doing, the people transferred to them the authority and power necessary for the performance of this assignment, equipped them with the sword for this purpose, and put itself under their care and rule.

It is therefore difficult to speak of the division of powers between legislative and executive when dealing with Althusius’ societal federalism: a magistrate at every level of this federal polity might be at the same time a mandated legislator at the council one level higher. The universal council of the realm gathers provincial magistrates, who are in turn politically responsible to their provincial councillors. Nevertheless, taken collectively as the universal council, they form a ‘legislative’ body that promotes the interests of the organised body of the people as a whole and the supreme magistrate is for his actions accountable to this council.

A Model for the European Union?

Althusius’s societal federalism could be discussed at a much greater depth, but due to the constraints of available space, we have to move on to briefly consider the applicability of Althusius’s proposals to the EU. On the first sight, the EU to a certain extent already functions according to Althusius’s federal model. Both the EU Council and the Council of Ministers largely function on the principle of inter-governmental bargaining, with the requirement of unanimity on ‘constitutional’ principles and majority or qualified majority voting for the issues of collective interest. A crucial difference lies, however, in the fact that national governmental representatives can be only weakly controlled by their national parliaments. Furthermore, national parliaments themselves have not been federalised from below by towns, cities, and regions. The line of political accountability is therefore broken and citizens have limited means of holding their representatives accountable except for a certain amount of periodical elections. The reader might observe that Althusius’s concept has no place for a European parliament in the proper sense of the world. There would be no traditional ‘demos’ at the European level to be represented, but only an organised body of people, whose common will to consociation would be expressed by an assembly consisting of the representatives of European nations or regions. If applied to our present day conditions, some form of a European Assembly would have to be supplemented to represent the European people as a whole.


Althusius’s societal federalism gives us a picture of a dynamic federal polity that integrates society from bottom-up. It starts at the level of families and private non-territorial consociations, which constitute its societal or horizontal element, than continues through the city as its first locus of public power, and ends at the level of universal commonwealth. The consociations in this federation dynamically reorganise themselves, renegotiating their values and interests. Each level of the federal polity is constituted by a council of representatives constituted by the delegated magistrates of the next lower level together with an magistrate or magistrates, who in turn represent the interests of this consociation at the next higher level of the polity.[18] In the final analysis, the whole political order is legitimate, when it functions as a representative consociation of consociations. If this model would be applied to the European Union, it might be able to deliver more pluralised governance, normative commitment to social solidarity, which would be however first subject to the consent of consociated members, and finally, popular control over the decision-making that would spring from the lowest levels of society to the highest level of Europe.


[1] Quoted in Thomas O. Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999), 15. The original source is Heinz Antholz, Die politische Wirksamkeit des Johannes Althusius in Emden (Cologne: Leer, 1954).

[2] The right of resistance against unlawful decisions of government is also something that makes his work close to other early federalist thinkers, notably John C. Calhoun (1782–1850). Calhoun, in the so-called Nullification Crisis, got himself into a very similar situation as Althusius in Emden – he supported American states’ rights against their infringement by the US federal government. See J. K. Ford, Jr., ‘Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought’, The Journal of Southern History, 60 (1994), pp. 19-58.

[3] Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism, 86.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., 87.

[5] Quoted in Ibid.

[6] Indeed, even Adam Smith in his On the Wealth of Nations and Bernard Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees in the 18th century still justified their early free market economic theories by claiming that maximal economical freedom will ultimately be for the benefit of the community as a whole. See for example Emma Rothschild, ‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand’, The American Economic Review, 84 (1994), pp. 319-322.

[7] Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism, 94.

[8] Althusius for instance mentions that the city should have the oversight over the following range of public services: all public political buildings, security, temples, theatres, courtyards, roads, ports, bridges, granaries, water mills, public water systems, and ‘other public works’. See Johannes Althusius, The Politics of Johannes Althusius (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), chap. V-VI,

[9] Ibid., chap. 1.

[10] Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism.

[11] Ibid., 95.

[12] Ibid., 98.

[13] Althusius, The Politics of Johannes Althusius, chap. XVIII.

[14] Ibid., chap. V-VI.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Althusius suggests seven general areas of these duties, which may indeed be delegated to the level of commonwealth, if necessary: ‘(1) the executive functions and occupations necessary and useful to the provincial association; (2) the distribution of punishments and rewards by which discipline is preserved in the province; (3) the provision for provincial security; (4) the mutual defence of the provincials against force and violence, the avoidance of inconveniences, and the provision for support, help, and counsel; (5) the collection and distribution of monies for public needs and uses of the province; (6) the support of commercial activity; (7) the use of the same language and money; and (8) the care of public goods of the province’, Ibid., VII-VIII.

[17] Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism, 4.

[18] Ibid., 142.

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