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Origins, Motives, and Structures of Citizens' Initiatives (October 27, 1973)

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The problem that becomes obvious here suggests the question that keeps coming up in discussion on the citizens’ initiatives: whether some or even most of the actions are guided by pure self-interest. SPD member [Helmut] Bilstein described this “most significant negative potential”: “Because their members are often recruited exclusively from the upper social strata, citizens’ initiatives can take up issues that lie in the traditionally bourgeois interest sphere; their success serves only the group interests of the already privileged propertied class.”

The stance of the party caucuses to the activities of citizens in the lead-up to political or administrative decisions can generally be described as “reserved interest.” It is no coincidence that corresponding statements by the heads of the party caucuses of the CDU and SPD in Hamburg largely agree.

[ . . . ]

Political scientist Professor Udo Bermbach at the University of Hamburg views such actions as a necessary element of uneasiness and healthy questioning vis-à-vis the technocracy’s tendency toward rigidity and corruption. Bermbach himself was involved in the “Hamburg 13” citizens’ initiative. He judges the future and the overall political effectiveness of this citizens’ movement rather skeptically. Citizens’ initiatives, according to Bermbach, in the sense of the American single issue movements, are radically democratic groups, basically with a single purpose that a particular initiative could pass on to the parties or the public administration. Yet they lack the conceptual prerequisites for more far-reaching strategies. In the most recent issue of Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, the journal for parliamentary questions for which Bermbach is an editor, a research group at the Free University of Berlin came to similar, empirically sound results in an analysis of citizens’ initiatives in the Federal Republic and West Berlin.

They too confirm the officially weak participation in citizens’ initiatives by communists. Of the three party caucuses, the FDP has a disproportionately high share, as could also be observed in the Hamburg examples. The Free Democrats occasionally refer to themselves as the “party of the citizens’ initiatives,” which can in part be explained by their lack of a global program; this is an essential characteristic of citizens’ “single purpose movements,” and by the sociological constitution of many initiative groups. Here as well, the Berlin study offers some evidence on presumptions mentioned earlier that citizens’ initiatives often recruit their members exclusively from the upper middle class, with a large share of young families. “Most citizens’ initiatives are made up of 25- to 40-year-olds,” according to the study, whereby the almost 50 percent share of those in free professions is just as marked as the large share of educational professions (about one third). “There was not a single case of a blue-collar worker in the informal leadership circles.”

Source: “Die Bürger wehren sich. Partizipation oder: Die einzige Alternative? Bürgerinitiative am Beispiel Hamburgs” [“The Citizens Strike Back. Participation or: The only Alternative? Citizens’ Initiatives and the Hamburg Example”]. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 27, 1973.

Translation: Allison Brown

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