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Is there a humanist theory of power?

By David Warden

David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists and humanist adviser to the Faith & Reflection Team at Bournemouth University and Arts University Bournemouth. In this article, he suggests that there is a humanist theory of power.

Our writers and contributors have again, this month, provided a varied and stimulating humanist analysis of our chosen theme. Initially, I thought 'Power People' or 'People Power' was a bit abstract, but our team of thinkers has succeeded in making it more concrete, human and real.

Thatcher was 'done in' by the European Union Question

Aaron has written about the power of the UK's three female prime ministers. Each of them wielded very different amounts of power. Thatcher had a shaky start but she consolidated her power after the Falklands War and her second election victory in 1983. She went on to transform Britain and, arguably, helped to bring about the end of the Soviet Union, but she was ultimately 'done in' by her stubborn resistance to the creeping centralisation of power in the European Commission. Her power drained away in 1990 by the withdrawal of cabinet support, following the deadly 'assassination speech' in the House of Commons by former Chancellor and Europhile Geoffrey Howe. In 2016, Theresa May inherited David Cameron's Commons majority but when she sought a fresh mandate from the electorate in 2017 she was given a bloody nose by the voters and lost her Commons majority. Liz Truss became Prime Minister in September 2022 but had to step down after just 50 days in office after the power of the financial markets plunged her administration into chaos.

The fates of these three women provide fascinating insights into the nature of power. Each one of them had risen to the top job in the UK, and they should have been able to enjoy the great power which comes with the role, but they were weakened and overpowered, respectively, by cabinet colleagues, by the electorate, and by financial markets. And it's got little to do with their sex. David Cameron was also 'done in' by the European Question and the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit, and Boris Johnson was 'done in' by scandal, falling opinion poll ratings, and the determination of cabinet colleagues to remove him from office.

A humanist theory of power

Is there a humanist theory of power? I think there is, and here are some thoughts on what this might be. The first humanist principle of power is to wrest power from the gods and from priests, popes, and kings. In pre-modern times, human beings were shackled to the 'Great Chain of Being' - a pyramid of power with God at the top and followed, in descending order of authority, by popes and bishops, kings, lords, men in general, and with women, children, and animals at the bottom of the heap. Over the past 300 years, we have disrupted this social order by the demand for democracy, republicanism (or, at least, constitutional monarchy), free trade, free thought and a free press, the liberation of women and other oppressed groups, and the secularisation of society in general.

This humanist liberation dynamic is playing out in real time in the current war in Ukraine. The people of Ukraine have decided they like democracy and modernity and they want to join the European West. Vladimir Putin, mentally stuck in the 19th century, is trying to snuff out this national liberation movement and return Ukraine to the fold of Russian conservatism and Orthodox Christianity. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, to me, is a humanist hero but I get the feeling that many humanists in the west are ambivalent about Ukrainian nationalism. Personally, I don't have a problem with democratic nationalism when it is pitted against authoritarian imperialism. It's what defeated Adolf Hitler and other 20th century fascists.

Personal empowerment

A second humanist principle of power is personal empowerment. People who lack the power and resources to get their needs met can succumb to depression, despair, and addiction. People can find themselves in abusive and controlling relationships with a parent, a partner, or a church. Or they can somehow 'fall through the cracks' of society and end up homeless and virtually destitute. We do have a welfare state and a safety net, but sometimes our fellow human beings lack the resilience and social capital to survive and thrive.

A humanist group can provide an additional social safety net for marginalised people, which is one reason why we need a thriving humanist group in every town and city. Humanism is partly about individual fulfilment and enjoying your life, but it should also be about creating community hubs which do what what churches do - but without religious beliefs. If you are a humanist reading this then I sincerely hope that you will get behind your local humanist group. Volunteer, join the committee, donate cash, and create a thriving humanist community in your town or local area. Or if there isn't one, then start one from scratch. I'm sure that Humanists UK will help or you can contact me for ideas.

Revolting peasants and populism

Maggie has written brilliantly about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and more recent struggles for basic democratic rights such as the Chartist movement in the mid 19th century. It seems all too easy, however, for modern day liberals and humanists to frame modern day peasants' revolts as deplorable outbreaks of 'populism'. Since the Second World War, there has been a strand of liberal thinking which is suspicious of democracy on the grounds that voters are so often deemed to be ignorant and easily led astray by demagogues. The elites have attempted, and often succeeded, in de-politicising the business of government and placing it in the hands of wise technocrats or quangocrats who can ignore democratic revolts with impunity. This is the genius of the European Union - arguably a pseudo-democracy which has safely insulated itself from the possibility of electorates giving the 'wrong' answer in elections and referendums. It sails on regardless with its 'rules-based order'. And many liberals and humanists have cheered to the rafters, when not bewailing the idiocy of the British in voting to leave this enlightened imperium.

Personally speaking, I have more faith in democracy and national self-determination, although even in post-Brexit Britain we are in a situation where many powers have been outsourced to 'independent' and unelected bodies such as the Bank of England. As humanists, part of our mission needs to be the restoration of democracy and our faith in democracy. If we allow an elite class to govern with little effective accountability to the wider electorate, we will not only condemn millions of ordinary working class people to a poorer future, we will also create the conditions for much worse outbreaks of demagogic populism.


Power is a given in the human world. In the modern West, we have been moderately successful in dismantling the 'Great Chain of Being' and dispersing power down to ordinary people. We are content to vest power in those who manage and govern, as long as they manage and govern with fairness and responsibility. But we need to be eternally vigilant. Power has an anti-gravitational momentum. It tends to flow upwards and it can easily become concentrated in the wrong hands. We must always work hard to disperse power and to ensure that it is exercised for the common good.

Suggested further reading

Democracy Under Siege: Don't Let Them Lock It Down! (2020) by Frank Furedi

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Apr 02, 2023

An interesting article by Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker on Adam Smith, which concludes:-

Smith, at least, lived to have high hopes for the new country. He thought that it was normal for human beings to want to live in a prosperous society, but that it was also normal for them to live in a broadly just society. Their desire for self-improvement was in many ways mysterious, but in the end it was inherently social, rooted not only in the love of acquiring but in the love of haggling, bargaining, interacting—the whole work of building worlds out of wishes. What moved men to make markets was ultimately their love of pleasure and happiness, and who, Smith wondered, could live…


Apr 01, 2023

What evidence supports your claim that 'the European Union ... has safely insulated itself from the possibility of electorates giving the 'wrong' answer in elections and referendums'? Are you accusing the EU to be a dictatorship? Does the outcome of the Brexit referendum prove that your claim is false?

David Warden
David Warden
Apr 01, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for your comment. No, it's not a dictatorship, more like an oligarchy. National elections have almost no effect on the way the EU operates and referendums which go against what the EU wants are often re-run or ignored. The European Parliament has very little democratic legitimacy, as shown by the little interest which electorates have in it. Brexit has been fought tooth and nail by those who would seek to overturn it.


Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
Apr 01, 2023

David uses the word 'democracy' many times in this article. This Greek-based word gets translated as 'rule by the people'. 'The people' - an amorphous group with no proper identity. He also writes of 'populism' - again to do with 'the people', but often said to be negative in nature - the 'wrong' sort of democracy. "Whenever two or three are gathered together" appears in the New Testament to suggest a strength of some sort; the beginning of Christian 'people power'? And we know what certain people (that word again) think of Christian - or any other religion's - power over people.

Alas, humans are tribal, and that is the reason for wanting power - even the power to respond…

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