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The Swiss who taught Americans about direct democracy

Karl Bürkli was born in Zurich in 1823.
Karl Bürkli was born in Zurich in 1823. The socialist campaigned in favour of direct democracy and shaped the cooperative movement in Switzerland. KEYSTONE/© KEYSTONE / IBA-ARCHIV

The movement for direct democracy in the United States began in Zurich. It is closely associated with the story of the Swiss socialist Karl Bürkli, who aspired to a utopian society but could still be a pragmatic and effective politician.

There is no direct democracy at the national level in the US. The last attempts to bring in a nationwide mechanism for people’s initiatives failed shortly after the turn of the millennium. Yet there are some states of the Union that have a well established direct-democracy system.

The movement to introduce direct democracy in the US at the end of the 19th century was shaped to a large extent by a forgotten Swiss social reformer: Karl Bürkli.

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Bürkli, born in Zurich in 1823, dreamed all his life of communities of people, free and equal, living in stately palaces.

He wasn’t just a dreamer. Bürkli made an important contribution to establishing the ideas of direct democracy in Switzerland itself. He was also a central figure in the Swiss cooperative movement. Even the founding of the Swiss cantonal banks, which give loans to small businesses, can be traced back to him.

On the road to utopia

Charles Fourier was one of the founders of utopian socialism. Fourier was born in Besançon, France, in 1772.
Charles Fourier was one of the founders of utopian socialism. Fourier was born in Besançon, France, in 1772. Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Bürkli wrote later in life that he had freely renounced the “apple of paradise”. He grew up on land belonging to the city beside Lake Zurich. His father was a well-to-do conservative who revered the nobility and espoused reactionary ideas. Democratic aspirations from revolutionary France should be suppressed, he thought. Karl came to espouse a completely different way of thinking.

His father set him up in a trade. Young Bürkli had to learn to skin animals and work the skins into leather. This was probably intended as a humiliation, to make Karl more aware of his own social status. But it had the opposite effect. Karl became an itinerant tradesman and left Zurich. Even in his later years he was proud to designate his profession as “tanner” when he signed documents.

As part of this nomadic existence, he reached Paris in 1845. Here he found a feast of ideas.

Bürkli became a follower of the early socialist Charles Fourier, who at one time believed that, when capitalism was overcome, the sea would turn to lemonade and sharks would volunteer to pull ships – he was eccentric, to say the least. Yet Fourier did have practical ideas he wanted to implement, one of which was the Phalanstery. This invented word meant a  monastery for the members of a phalanx, a term he used to designate an ideal community. Groups of 2,000 people would live in fine buildings where they would enjoy collective economic prosperity and be able to determine their own lives. These communities would be structured like a company with shares.

Fourier had a utopian vision where common work went hand in hand with common enjoyment, since all members of the community would enjoy the results.

It looks like the Palace of Versailles, but is intended for the people: a so-called Phalansterium. The idea of Charles Fourier was never built.
It looked like the Palace of Versailles, but was intended for the people: a so-called Phalansterium. The idea of Charles Fourier was never built. KEYSTONE/akg-images

Full of these new ideas, Bürkli went back to Zurich in 1848. He translated the work of Fourier into German – without much success, although Switzerland at the time was in social upheaval.

The workers here dreamed not of palaces organised as cooperatives, but first and foremost of a just wage.

So Bürkli turned to practical steps. He founded the Zurich Konsumverein, or consumers’ association, a cooperative that aimed to combat poverty by selling goods at fair prices. Its success eventually got him elected to the Zurich parliament.

Disappointment in the US

Bürkli, though, was still hankering after utopia. In 1855 he emigrated with a group of enthusiasts to America, so as to develop Fourier’s ideas over there – in a settlement called La Réunion in Texas.

But all that the hopeful emigrants found in the southern US state was a collection of squalid huts, along with slaveholders who thought precious little of socialist ideas. There were also internal tensions in the community. Fourier’s successor, Victor Considerant, who incidentally coined the term “direct democracy”, acted like a monarch. Meanwhile, there was no sign of any stately palaces.

After only two years, the project fell apart. The traces left by the Fourierists in the US are hardly worth speaking of. But there is one. Today’s tourists can view Dallas from Reunion Tower, named after the erstwhile community.

Reunion Tower, Dallas, Texas.
Reunion Tower, Dallas, Texas. KEYSTONE/Richard Cummins

A disappointed Bürkli returned to Switzerland before he had a chance to make a name for himself in the US.

Back home in Zurich, he became the butt of jokes. He rejoined the Konsumverein for a while, but was then given the boot by his successor at the helm. In 1861 he opened a bar.

Politicking at the Konsum

Bürkli called his small, gloomy-looking premises in the Zurich Niederdorf neighbourhood the “Konsum”. It became the meeting place for a new movement. In 1866, Bürkli was elected to the parliament of canton Zurich.

At the time, the local Zurich elite were able to use representative democracy for their own economic interests. In those days, peasants, factory workers and even tradespeople often lived in poverty.

Bürkli spoke out with verve against the “aristocracy of wealth”. A political ally of his, Friedrich Locher, attacked what then counted as representative democracy with an unprecedented campaign that verged somewhere between populism and slander.

In 1867 there was an outbreak of cholera in Zurich. The poorer classes were affected the most. But the democratic movement was growing. In December 1867 Bürkli presented a petition with 30,000 signatures to the head of government, calling for a radical overhaul of the constitution.

One measure that won adoption was the direct people’s initiative and the referendum – thought of as a means to get around the dominant forces in parliament.

Swiss Miss
The so-called “Swiss Miss” (standing on the stone and dressed in traditional costume) wants to convince her sister, the US, to vote in the referendum. The depiction dates from 1893. Real women were not able to vote at national level in the US until 1920. In Switzerland, women’s suffrage was introduced in 1971. Cosmopolitan Magazine

Bürkli himself would have liked to abolish the parliament altogether, but he didn’t have the support of the democrats in this, nor in his demand that the rich pay more taxes.

Dream of Switzerland as the core of a ‘United States’ of Europe

On April 18, 1869, canton Zurich adopted a progressive constitution which was, for its time, something of a sensation.

Bürkli was fully aware of the significance of this. He began thinking on a wider scale. Switzerland, he now said, should become the democratising core of a “United States of Europe”.

At one point he thought that Switzerland should actually join the US. For, he said, “America is the only republic from which we can learn something.”



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Some Americans were willing to reciprocate. Interest in a peaceful revolution in canton Zurich was considerable.

Democracy pioneer

After the success of 1869, Bürkli’s writings began to circulate in the English-speaking world. In 1888 the leader of the Typographical Union in Pennsylvania, James William Sullivan, paid a visit to Bürkli. Sullivan had been interested in Bürkli’s work since 1874.

Sullivan went on to publish a book called Direct Legislation by the Citizenship through the Initiative and Referendum (1892), which launched the ideas of voter participation in the US. Between 1891 and 1898, more than 70 publications about direct democracy in Switzerland appeared on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sullivan and Simon U’Ren, who was also in contact with Bürkli, and their associates managed to establish direct democratic participation mechanisms in 23 states of the Union by 1918. Sullivan autographed a copy of his book, which he sent to Bürkli with the words “To Karl Bürkli! Pioneer!” This book is now in the Zurich Central Library.

Bürkli, who died in canton Zurich in 1901, shaped the development of democracy both in Switzerland and the US. Yet his contributions have received little recognition. Today there are statues to his main opponents – like Alfred Escher, whose figure still looks down the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich from a plinth in front of the railway station. Escher would have preferred to stay with a representative democracy for the few, rather than having all people vote in referendums.

A new biography of Bürkli by historian Urs Hafner, marking the bicentenary of his birth, is in many ways a long-overdue memorial.

Urs Hafner, Karl Bürkli, Der Sozialist vom Paradeplatz (The Socialist of Paradeplatz), 2023.

Goran Seferovic, Volksinitiative zwischen Recht und Politik (People’s initiatives between law and politics), 2018.

Edited by Benjamin von Wyl/adapted from German by Terence MacNamee/gw

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