The Caucus as an Anthropological Topos


Certain historical events may be driven by anthropological topoi surfacing from layers below culture and society, once the structures of society and culture allow for that to happen. Difficulties in finding a suitable term to describe a historical event may hint at such a situation. The events in autumn 1989 in the German Democratic Republic, often referred to as “peaceful revolution”, are analyzed in this regard and it is argued that in essence this was a spontaneous caucus.

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Rothe, H. (2014). The Caucus as an Anthropological Topos. Advances in Anthropology, 4, 38-40. doi: 10.4236/aa.2014.41005.

Received September 28th, 2013; revised October 27th, 2013; accepted November 25th, 2013

Figure 2.

Wall painting in a tomb from Hierakonpolis, Egypt, Negade II time 32,000/30,000 BC.

term “caucus” is most likely derived from an Algonquin word.

How could it be possible though, that such an ancient anth- ropological topos would suddenly break through all layers of modern society at the end of the 20th century, in the middle of Europe, without any precedent and indeed without any second example in almost 25 years afterwards? How come, that lots of demonstrations have taken place in Germany since then, with- out ever changing a lot, despite similar numbers of participants as in 1989?

Discourse Theory of Jürgen Habermas

The Ideal Speech Situation

The explanation may be found in the theory of discourse as it was analyzed by Jürgen Habermas, again many years before the actual events in autumn 1989: he gave four conditions for the ideal speech situation―

1) All who are potential participants of discourse, must have equal rights to use speech acts in such a way that discourse could be permanently open to claims and counter claims, questions and answers.

2) All who participate in the discourse must have equal chances to present interpretations, to make assertions, recommendations, explanations and corrections and also equal chances to problematize (problematisieren) or challenge the validity of these presentations, to make arguments for and against.

3) Participants express their attitudes, feelings and wishes equally by representative speech acts (repräsentative Sprechakte).

4) Participants have equal chances to order and resist orders, to promise and refuse, to be accountable for one’s conduct and to demand accountability from others.

Two issues seem to be important in this regard: the similarity between East German society in 1989 and proto-democratic Algonquin tribes or communities of European settlers of the early 18th century is the equality of participants in economic terms. Since the economy was based on public property (Volkseigentum), all participants of discourse were in fact equal and each vote had the same impact. This absolute equality was the reason why the ruling nomenclatura was so determined to prevent free discourse from ever happening, because of the irresistible power of ideal speech acts under such circumstances. The whole state was supposedly owned by “the people” and meant to serve “the people’s welfare”―as soon as “the people” would be able to agree on certain issues on their own all tools of repression were bound to just crumble and disappear. Common property was the defining economic character of both communist and tribal societies, that’s why a caucus as soon as it took place could gain such an elementary power―the caucus in US democracy, on the other hand, is based on the mere agreement that for this single event of choosing a candidate all participants should be assumed to be equal. As soon as the candidate is found, everybody will be aware again of their different status in society and indeed the different amounts of money on their bank accounts... However, living democracy means to remember those events and to continue and defend democratic traditions.

Back to the Roots

And this is the second important issue regarding the ideal speech situation and the East German autumn of 1989: apart from their economic equality the whole discourse boiled down to just this single phrase “we are the people”. All meaning had to be sacrificed in order to achieve the broadest possible coalition, to find a slogan that everybody of “the people” could identify with. That way the irresistible power of the tautology could be employed―however, tautology tends to come with a price, a certain feeling of hollowness on the day after… Nevertheless, the fact that ancient anthropological topoi like the caucus may break through any time, and change society in a way nobody would have dared to predict, proves that human nature can overcome even the most inhumane artificial constructions of society and culture.


I would like to thank Ludwig Morenz (2013), Professor of Egyptology in Bonn, for the permission to use Figures 1 and 2.


Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Baudrillard, J. (1976). Symbolic exchange and death (original: L’ échange symbolique et la mort. Paris.
[2] Habermas, J. (1981). Theory of communicative action (original: Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns). Frankfurt a.M.
[3] Morenz, L. D. (2013). Counting, imagining, picturing (original: Zahlen, Vorstellen, Darstellen). Berlin.

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