THE CONSERVATIVE BASIS OF ORGANISATION. Excerpts from Robert Michels’ Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) PART SIX: SYNTHESIS: THE OLIGARCHICAL TENDENCIES OF ORGANISATION


At this point in our inquiry two decisive questions present themselves. One of these is whether the oligarchical disease of the democratic parties is incurable. This will be considered in the next chapter. The other question may be formulated in the following terms. Is it impossible for a democratic party to practise a democratic policy, for a revolutionary party to pursue a revolutionary policy? Must we say that not socialism alone, but even a socialistic policy, is Utopian? The present chapter will attempt a brief answer to this inquiry.

Within certain narrow limits, the democratic party, even when subjected to oligarchical control, can doubtless act upon the state in the democratic sense. The old political caste of society, and above all the “state” itself, are forced to undertake the revaluation of a considerable number of values — a revaluation both ideal and practical. The importance attributed to the masses increases, even when the leaders are demagogues. The legislature and the executive become accustomed to yield, not only to claims proceeding from above, but also to those proceeding from below. This may give rise, in practice, to great inconveniences, such as we recognize in the recent history of all the states under a parliamentary regime; in theory, however, this new order of things signifies an incalculable progress in respect of public rights, which thus come to conform better with the principles of social justice. This evolution will, however, be arrested from the moment when the governing classes succeed in attracting within the governmental orbit their enemies of the extreme left, in order to convert them into collaborators. Political organisation leads to power. But power is always conservative. In any case, the influence exercised upon the governmental machine by an energetic opposition party is necessarily slow, is subject to frequent interruptions, and is always restricted by the nature of oligarchy.

The recognition of this consideration does not exhaust our problem, for we have further to examine whether the oligarchical nature of organisation be not responsible for the creation of the external manifestations of oligarchical activity, whether it be not responsible for the production of an oligarchical policy. The analysis here made shows clearly that the internal policy of the party organisations is today absolutely conservative, or is on the way to become such. Yet it might happen that the external policy of these conservative organisms would be bold and revolutionary; that the anti-democratic centralization of power in the hands of a few leaders is no more than a tactical method adopted to effect the speedier overthrow of the adversary; that the oligarchs fulfil the purely provisional function of educating the masses for the revolution, and that organisation is after all no more than a means employed in the service of an amplified Blanquist conception.

This development would conflict with the nature of party, with the endeavour to organize the masses upon the vastest scale imaginable. As the organisation increases in size, the struggle for great principles becomes impossible. It may be noticed that in the democratic parties of to-day the great conflicts of view are fought out to an ever-diminishing extent in the field of ideas and with the weapons of pure theory, that they therefore degenerate more and more into personal struggles and invectives, to be settled finally upon considerations of a purely superficial character. The efforts made to cover internal dissensions with a pious veil are the inevitable outcome of organisation based upon bureaucratic principles, for, since the chief aim of such an organisation is to enrol the greatest possible number of members, every struggle on behalf of ideas within the limits of the organisation is necessarily regarded as an obstacle to the realization of its ends, an obstacle, therefore, which must be avoided in every possible way. This tendency is reinforced by the parliamentary character of the political party. “Party organisation” signifies the aspiration for the greatest number of members. “Parliamentarism” signifies the aspiration for the greatest number of votes. The principal fields of party activity are electoral agitation and direct agitation to secure new members. What, in fact, is the modern political party? It is the methodical organisation of the electoral masses. The socialist party, as a political aggregate endeavouring simultaneously to recruit members and to recruit votes, finds here its vital interests, for every decline in membership and every loss in voting strength diminishes its political prestige. Consequently great respect must be paid, not only to new members, but also to possible adherents, to those who in Germany are termed mitläufer, in Italy simpatizzanti, in Holland geestverwanten, and in England sympathisers. To avoid alarming these individuals, who are still outside the ideal worlds of socialism or democracy, the pursuit of a policy based on strict principle is shunned, while the consideration is ignored whether the numerical increase of the organisation thus effected is not likely to be gained at the expense of its quality.

The last link in the long chain of phenomena which confer a profoundly conservative character upon the intimate essence of the political party (even upon that party which boasts itself revolutionary) is found in the relationships between party and state. Generated to overthrow the centralised power of the state, starting from the idea that the working class need merely secure a sufficiently vast and solid organisation m order to triumph over the organisation of the state, the party of the workers has ended by acquiring a vigorous centralisation of its own, based upon the same cardinal principles of authority and discipline which characterize the organisation of the state. It thus becomes a governmental party, that is to say, a party, which, organised itself like a government on the small scale, hopes some day to assume the reins of government upon the large scale. The revolutionary political party is a state within the state, pursuing the avowed aim of destroying the existing state in order to substitute for it a social order of a fundamentally different character. To attain this essentially political end, the party avails itself of the socialist organisation, whose sole justification is found precisely in its patient but systematic preparation for the destruction of the organisation of the state in its existing form. The subversive party organizes the framework of the social revolution. For this reason it continually endeavours to strengthen its positions, to extend its bureaucratic mechanism, to store up its energies and its funds.

Every new official, every new secretary, engaged by the party is in theory a new agent of the revolution; in the same way every new section is a new battalion; and every additional thousand francs furnished by the members’ subscriptions, by the profits of the socialist press, or by the generous donations of sympathetic benefactors, constitute fresh additions to the war-chest for the struggle against the enemy. In the long run, however, the directors of this revolutionary body existing within the authoritarian state, sustained by the same means as that state and inspired by the like spirit of discipline, cannot fail to perceive that the party organisation, whatever advances it may make in the future, will never succeed in becoming more than an ineffective and miniature copy of the state organisation. For this reason, in all ordinary circumstances, and as far as prevision is humanly possible, every attempt of the party to measure its forces with those of its antagonists is foredoomed to disastrous failure. The logical consequence of these considerations is in direct conflict with the hopes entertained by the founders of the party. Instead of gaining revolutionary energy as the force and solidity of its structure has increased, the precise opposite has occurred; there has resulted, pari passu with its growth, a continued increase in the prudence, the timidity even, which inspires its policy. The party, continually threatened by the state upon which its existence depends, carefully avoids (once it has attained to maturity) everything that is the fallacy of Marxism (E. Friedeberg, Historische Materiulismus und Klassenkampf, “Polis,” a review published at Zurich, 1907, i, No. 5). But this reasoning is erroneous, for in the class situation of the proletariat, a situation clearly recognized by Marxism, there exist all the elements that combine to make the proletariat the natural enemy (in the intellectual sphere) of the bourgeoisie, and thus lead to the “class struggle.” Ideologically to remove the members of the working class from the world of their material sphere of production could not mean anything else than to impose upon them an essentially strange mentality, to embourgeoiser them. In actual fact this process occurs today upon a large scale, not as a consequence, however, of historical materialism, but in opposition to it, being due above all to the suggestive influence exercised upon the masses by leaders who have themselves become embourgeoised. It is true that the process of embourgeoisement can itself be explained in conformity with the doctrine of historical materialism, on the ground that it depends upon the changed mode of life and changed position in life of the leaders, upon the organisation that is necessary for the conduct of the class struggle, and upon the consequences inherent in this organisation which have been studied in the text might irritate the state to excess. The party doctrines are, whenever requisite, attenuated and deformed in accordance with the external needs of the organisation.1 Organisation becomes the vital essence of the party. During the first years of its existence, the party did not fail to make a parade of its revolutionary character, not only in respect of its ultimate ends, but also in respect of the means employed for their attainment — although not always in love with these means. But as soon as it attained to political maturity, the party did not hesitate to modify its original profession of faith and to affirm itself revolutionary only “in the best sense of the word,” that is to say, no longer on lines which interest the police, but only in theory and on paper. This same party, which at one time did not hesitate, when the triumphant guns of the bourgeois governors of Paris were still smoking, to proclaim with enthusiasm its solidarity with the communards, 2 now announces to the whole world that it repudiates anti-militarist propaganda in any form which may bring its adherents into conflict with the penal code, and that it will not assume any responsibility for the consequences that may result from such a conflict. A sense of responsibility is suddenly becoming active in the socialist party. Consequently it reacts with all the authority at its disposal against the revolutionary currents which exist within its own organisation, and which it has hitherto regarded with an indulgent eye. In the name of the grave responsibilities attaching to its position it now disavows anti-militarism, repudiates the general strike, and denies all the logical audacities of its past.

  1. A classical example of the extent to which the fear of injuring the socialist organisation will lead even the finest intelligences of the party to play tricks with socialist theory is afforded by the history of that celebrated preface which in 1895 Frederick Engels wrote for a posthumous edition of Marx’s book Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, 1848-9. This preface became the subject of great international discussions, and has been justly considered as the first vigorous manifestation of reformism in German socialism. For Engels here declares that socialist tactics will have more success through the use of legal than of illegal and revolutionary means, and thus expressly repudiates the Marxist conception of the socialist revolution. It was not till some years later that Kautsky published a letter from Engels in which the latter disavowed his preface, saying: “My text had to suffer from the timid legalism of our friends in Berlin, who dreaded a second edition of the anti-socialist laws — a dread to which I was forced to pay attention at the existing political juncture” (Karl Kautsky, Der Weg sur Macht, Buchhandlung “Vorwarts,” 1909, p. 42). From this it would appear that the theory (at that time brand-new) that socialism could attain to its ends by parliamentary methods — and this was the quintessence of Engels’ preface — came into existence from a fear lest the socialist party organisation (which should be a means, and not an end in itself) might suffer at the hands of the state. Thus Engels was feted, on the one hand, as a man of sound judgment and one willing to look facts in the face (cf. W. Sombart, Friedrich Engels, Ein Blatt sur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Sozialismus, Separat-Abdruck der “Zukunft, “ Berlin, 1895, p. 32), and was attacked, on the other hand, as a pacifist utopist (cf. Arturo Labriola, Riforme e Rivoluzione sociale, ed. cit., pp. 181 and 224); whereas in reality Engels would seem to have been the victim of an opportunist sacrifice of principles to the needs of organisation, a sacrifice made for love of the party and in opposition to his own theoretical convictions.
  2. As is well-known, in 1871 Bebel, in open Reichstag, declared himself opposed to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, an annexation which had already been completed, and, with the sole support of Liebknecht, pushed his theoretical opposition to war to the point of voting, in war-time, against the military credits, Bakunin cherished no affection either for the Marx- ists or for the Germans, but he was unable to refuse his admiration to the youthful Marxist party in Germany, which had had the sublime courage to proclaim “in Germany, in the country where freedom is least known, under the triumphant military regime of Bismarck, its ardent sympathies for the principles and heroes of the Commune” (M. Bakunin, II Socialismo e Mazzini, ed. cit., p. 9).

The history of the international labour movement furnishes innumerable examples of the manner in which the party becomes increasingly inert as the strength of its organisation grows; it loses its revolutionary impetus, becomes sluggish, not in respect of action alone, but also in the sphere of thought. More and more tenaciously does the party cling to what it calls the “ancient and glorious tactics,” the tactics that have led to an increase in membership. More and more invincible becomes its aversion to all aggressive action.

The dread of the reaction by which the socialist party is haunted paralyses all its activities, renders impossible all manifestation of force, and deprives it of all energy for the daily struggle. It attempts to justify its misoneism by the false pretence that it must reserve its strength for the final struggle. Thus we find that the conservative tendencies inherent in all forms of possession manifest themselves also in the socialist party. For half a century the socialists have been working in the sweat of their brow to create a model organisation. Now, when three million workers have been organized — a greater number than was supposed necessary to secure complete victory over the enemy — the party is endowed with a bureaucracy which, in respect of its consciousness of its duties, its zeal, and its submission to the hierarchy, rivals that of the state itself; the treasuries are full, 3 a complex ramification of financial and moral interests extends all over the country, A bold and enterprising tactic would endanger all this: the work of many decades, the social existence of thousands of leaders and sub-leaders, the entire party, would be compromised. For these reasons the idea of such a tactic becomes more and more distasteful. It conflicts equally with an unjustified sentimentalism and a justified egoism. It is opposed by the artist’s love of the work he has created with so much labour, and also by the personal interest of thousands of honest bread-winners whose economic life is so intimately associated with the life of the party and who tremble at the thought of losing their employment and the consequences they would have to endure if the government should proceed to dissolve the party, as might readily happen in case of war.

  1. In the year 1906 the total funds of the German trade unions amounted to about 16,000,000 marks. The richest union, that of the compositors, had accumulated funds amounting to 4,374,013 marks. Next came the bricklayers’ union, with 2,091,681 marks; the metalworkers’ union, with 1,543,353 marks; and the woodworkers’ union, with 1,452,215 marks (Karl Kautsky, Der neue Tarif der Buchdrucker, “Neue Zeit, ” anno xxv, vol. 1, No. 4, p. 129). Since then, notwithstanding the intervening years of crisis involving exceptionally high claims for out-of-work pay, the financial position of the unions has become yet stronger. In 1909 the compositors owned 7,929,257 marks; the bricklayers, 6,364,647 marks; the metalworkers, 6,248, – 251 marks; the woodworkers, 3,434,314 marks (Statistisches Jahrbuch fur das deutsche Reich, 1910, anno xxxi, pp. 376-7). These ample funds are of great importance for defensive purposes, but their value for offensive purposes is extremely restricted. It would be utterly absurd, for the union to pursue the policy of heaping up funds in the hope of thus overthrowing capitalism. In Germany there are hundreds of capitalists in whose private treasuries are available means exceeding those of all the unions put together. Moreover, on the present system of depositing savings with private banks, the earnings of this accumulated capital yield profit, not to the trade unionist, but to the enemies of the working class who are shareholders in these banks, so that the trade-union funds are “ultimately employed against the labour movement” (Bruno Buchwald, Die Gewerkschaftsbank, “Die neue Gesellschaft, ” anno iii, fasc. x). Hence the trade-union funds help to strengthen the opponents of the trade unions. For this reason a scheme has long been on foot among trade unionists to institute a bank of their own.

Thus, from a means, organisation becomes an end. To the institutions and qualities that at the outset were destined simply to ensure the good working of the party machine (sub- ordination, the harmonious cooperation of individual members, hierarchical relationships, discretion, propriety of conduct), a greater importance comes ultimately to be attached than to the productivity of the machine. Henceforward the sole preoccupation is to avoid anything that may clog the machinery. Should the party be attacked, it will abandon valuable positions previously conquered, and will renounce ancient rights rather than reply to the enemy’s offensive by methods which might “compromise” its position. Naumann writes sarcastically: “The war-cry ‘Proletarians of all countries unite!’ has had its due effect. The forces of the organised proletariat have gained a strength that no one believed possible when that war cry was first sounded. There is money in the treasuries. Is the signal for the final assault never to be given? … Is the work of preliminary organisation to go on forever?”4 As the party’s need for tranquillity increases, its revolutionary talons atrophy. We have now a finely conservative party which (since the effect survives the cause) continues to employ revolutionary terminology, but which in actual practice fulfils no other function than that of a constitutional opposition.

  1. Friedrich Naumann, Das Schicksal des Marxisimus, “Hilfe,” October 11, 1908, p. 657.

All this has deviated far from the ideas of Karl Marx, who, were he still alive, ought to be the first to revolt against such a degeneration of Marxism. Yet it is quite possible that, carried away by the spectacle of an army of three million men acting in his name, swearing on solemn occasions in verba magistri, he also would find nothing to say in reprobation of so grave a betrayal of his own principles. There were incidents in Marx’s life that render such a view possible. He certainly knew how to close his eyes, in public at any rate, to the serious faults committed by the German social democracy in 1876.5

5. Karl Kautsky, Preface to Karl Marx, Randglossen sum Programm der deutschen Arheiterpartei (1875), “Neue Zeit,” anno ix, vol. 1, pp. 508 et seq.

In our own day, which may be termed the age of the epigones of Marx, the character of the party as an organisation ever greedy for new members, ever seeking to obtain an absolute majority, cooperates with the condition of weakness in which it finds itself vis-a-vis the state, to effect a gradual replace- ment of the old aim, to demolish the existing state by the new aim, to permeate the state with the men and the ideas of the party. The struggle carried on by the socialists against the parties of the dominant classes is no longer one of principle, but simply one of competition. The revolutionary party has be- come a rival of the bourgeois parties for the conquest of power. It therefore opens its doors to all those persons who may assist in the attainment of this end, or who may simply swell its battalions for the struggle in which it is engaged. With the necessary modifications, we may well apply to the international socialist party the words which de Maupassant puts into the mouth of the Neveu de l‘Oncle Sosthène in order to describe the essence of French freemasonry: “Instead of destroying it, you organise competition; that lowers the prices, that’s all. And then again, if you did not admit freethinkers among you, I would understand. But you admit everyone. You have Catholics en masse; even leaders of the party. Pius IX was one of you before he became pope. If you call a society composed in this manner a citadel against clericalism, I find your citadel weak … Ah yes, you are rogues! If you tell me that French Masonry is an election factory, I will agree with you; that it serves as a machine for the election of candidates of all sorts I will not deny; that it has no other function than to make fools of good people, that it regiments in order to send them to the ballot box like soldiers to the front, I will agree; that it is useful because it changes each of its members into an electoral agent, I will cry out ‘It is as clear as day!’ But if you maintain that it serves to lessen the monarchic spirit, I will laugh in your face.”6

  1. Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi, Libr. Ollendorff, Paris, 1907, p. 69.

Thus the hatred of the party is directed, not in the first place against the opponents of its own view of the world order, but against the dreaded rivals in the political field, against those who are competing for the same end — power. It is above all in the electoral agitation carried on by the socialist parties when they have attained what is termed ” political maturity” that this characteristic is most plainly manifest. The party no longer seeks to fight its opponents, but simply to outbid them. For this reason we observe a continual recurrence in socialist speeches of a claim which harmonizes ill with socialist principles, and which is often untrue in fact. Not the nationalists, they say, but we, are the best patriots ; not the men of the government, but we, are the best friends of the minor civil servants [in Italy] or of the peasants [in Germany] ; and so on. Evidently among the trade unions of diverse political colouring, whose primary aim it is to gain the greatest possible number of new members, the note of competition will be emphasized yet more. This applies especially to the so-called “free unions” of Germany, neutrally tinted bodies which on principle hold in horror all definiteness in respect of political views or conceptions of the world order, and which are therefore distinguishable in name only (a few trifling terminological differences apart) from the Christian unions. If we study the speeches and polemic writings directed by the leaders of the free unions against the leaders of the Christian unions, we find that these speeches and writings contain no declarations of principle and no theoretical expositions, but merely personal criticisms and accusations, and above all accusations of treachery to the cause of labour. Now it is obvious that these are no more than the means vulgarly employed by competitors who wish to steal one an- other’s customers.

By such methods, not merely does the party sacrifice its political virginity, by entering into promiscuous relationships with the most heterogeneous political elements, relationships which in many cases have disastrous and enduring consequences, but it exposes itself in addition to the risk of losing its essential character as a party. The term ”party” presupposes that among the individual components of the party there should exist a harmonious direction of wills towards identical objective and practical aims.^^ Where this is lacking, the party becomes a mere “organisation.”