THE REFERENDUM: Excerpts from Robert Michels’ Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) PART FIVE: ATTEMPTS TO RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE LEADERS


Robert Michels (1876-1936)

In the domain of public law, democracy attains its culminating point in that complex of institutions that exists in Switzerland, where the people possesses the right of the referendum and that of the initiative. The use of the referendum is compulsory in Switzerland upon a number of questions that are statutorily determined. The legislative measures drawn up by the representative body must then be submitted to a popular vote, for acceptance or rejection. In addition, the burghers exercise the power of direct legislation. “When a certain number of voters demand the repeal of an existing law or the introduction of a new one, the matter must be submitted to popular vote. These important popular rights are supplemented by the direct popular election of the supreme executive authorities, as in the United States. Although these democratic ordinances have often in actual practice proved but little democratic in their results (the referendum, above all, having frequently shown that the democratic masses possess less democratic understanding than the representative government), and although leading socialists have therefore with good reason sharply criticised these manifestations of democracy, – other socialists look to these institutions for the definitive solution of all questions of public law, and for the practical contradiction of the opinion that oligarchy arises by natural necessity, contending that by the referendum and by the initiative the decisive influence in legislative matters is transferred from the representative assembly to the totality of the citizens.

Now the democratic parties, as far as their internal organisation is concerned, have either failed to adopt the principles of direct popular sovereignty, or else have accepted application of these only after prolonged hesitation and in exceptional cases. From the democratic point of view they are therefore inferior to many of the Swiss cantons. For example, the German social democracy does not submit the deliberations of its congresses to ratification by the party as a whole. Moreover, and here the German arrangements differ from those that obtain among the socialists of Italy, France, and England (where the vote is based upon the number of the adherents in the local branches which the delegates respectively represent), in Germany the decisions at the congress are determined by the simple majority of the delegates. Thus we have parliamentarism in place of democracy. It is true that every member of the socialist party has the right of submitting any motion he pleases to the annual congress. But the initiative thus secured is purely nominal. The motions sent in by individuals are hardly ever considered, and they are never passed, and the consequence is that none but a few cranks avail themselves of this right. When the congress is actually sitting, if a new resolution is to be submitted at least ten delegates must demand it. The only institution in the modern socialist parties which corresponds to the right of initiative is that in virtue of which the executive is compelled to summon an extraordinary congress upon the demand of a certain number of the members: in Germany, fifteen sections; in Italy, not less than one-tenth of all the members; in Belgium, two provincial federations or twenty sections.

In the Italian socialist party the referendum was practised for a certain time, especially as regards questions upon which a preceding congress had not come to a decision, or where this decision had been insufficiently clear. From 1904 to 1906 the executive council had recourse to this means on four occasions. In one of these the question submitted was whether in the local branches the minority had the right of secession to form autonomous branches. Of the 1,458 sections consulted, 778 replied (166 for, 612 against). On another occasion it was necessary to consult the party upon the compatibility of freemasonry with socialism, and to ask whether members of the party could continue to be members of lodges. The participation of the members in this referendum was insignificant, but of the replies received, the majority were adverse to freemasonry. In the two other cases in which the referendum was employed, one related to a local Milanese question and the other to the choice of seat for a congress. Thus the use made in Italy of the referendum has been extremely restricted and the results have been mediocre. In England, many of the trade unions, after having for long made use of the referendum, have now discontinued the practice, on the ground that it led to a loss of tactical stability and was prejudicial to the finances and to the work of administration. In Germany, where, notwithstanding the hesitation of the majority, the referendum was introduced in certain districts for the election of the delegates to the congress, it was soon perceived that those comrades alone had sufficient knowledge to participate in the election of delegates who had taken part in the meetings upon party questions and were familiar with the attitude assumed upon these by the various candidates. Consequently the application of the referendum to the election of delegates came to be regarded as a dangerous measure, tending to withdraw the electoral act from the sovereignty of the assembly. In Holland, where the referendum is obligatory for the election of the executive committee of the socialist party, in 1909 the participation of the rank and file in the election was so small that (notwithstanding the violent internal struggles then agitating the higher centres of the party) not more than one-half of the members exercised their right to vote.

The history of the referendum as a democratic expedient utilised by the socialist parties may be summed up by saying that its application has been rare, and that its results have been unfortunate. The results have been bad owing to the confused manner in which the questions have been formulated and owing to the inadequate participation of the masses. The rare application within the socialist party of this direct appeal to the members is in remarkable contrast with the frequent use made of the referendum by the bourgeois national organism of Switzerland, and it is in flagrant contradiction with the demand which all socialists make of the state for direct legislation by the people through the initiative and right of popular veto. Where party life is concerned, the socialists for the most part reject these practical applications of democracy, using against them conservative arguments such as we are otherwise accustomed to hear only from the opponents of socialism. In articles written by socialist leaders it is ironically asked whether it would be a good thing to hand over the leadership of the party to the ignorant masses simply for love of an abstract democratic principle. “The conservative has views which harmonise perfectly with the thought here expressed, but he will speak of the “state” instead of the ”party.”

The referendum is open to criticism to the same extent and for the same reasons as is every other form of direct popular government. The two principal objections are the incompetence of the masses and the lack of time. Bernstein has said with good reason that even if none but the most important political and administrative questions are to be submitted to the popular vote, the happy citizen of the future will find every Sunday upon his desk such a number of interrogatories that he will soon lose all enthusiasm for the referendum. It is, however, especially in respect of questions demanding a prompt decision that the referendum proves impracticable; it conflicts with the militant character of the party, interfering with easy mobilisation. Moreover, in all the more important cases, as when it is necessary to determine the attitude of the Socialist Party towards an imminent war, the use of a referendum would be rendered impossible by the forcible opposition of the state. It may be added that it is easy for the chiefs to lead the masses astray by clever phrasing of the questions1 and by reserving to themselves the right of interpretation in the case of replies that are ambiguous precisely because the questions have been ambiguously posed. The referendum, through its absolute character and its withdrawal from all criticism, favours the dominion of adroit adventurers. George Sand describes the plebiscite, if not counterpoised by the intelligence of the masses, as an attack upon the liberty of the people.2 The power of Bonapartism was, in fact, based on the referendum.3 The institution of the referendum demands for its just working a perfectly conscientious bureaucracy, for the history of this electoral system shows with what ease its results are falsified.4 Even if the operation should be effected strictly according to rule, the result of a referendum can never have a truly demonstrative value, for it always lacks the vivifying influence of discussion. To conclude, it may be said that it can exercise no substantial influence upon the executive.

                                                         Votes.                  Favourable.  Unfavourable.

Constitution of the year 1791 (not submitted to popular vote)

Constitution of the year 1793                                       1,801,018                 11,600

Constitution of the year III                                          1,057,390                 49,977

Election as Consul (year VIII)      3,012,569             3,011,007                 01,562

Consul for life (1802)                      3,577,259            3,568,888                08,371

Emperor (1804)                               3,524,253             3,521,675                02,578

Plebiscites of Napoleon III

Election to the presidency (1848)                             5,500,000             1,590,000

(for Cavaignac)

Ee-elected president for 10 years (1851)                  7,500,000

Emperor (1852)                                                             7,800,000

  1. In 1860, when the unification of Italy was effected by a plebiscite, the Italian petty states being swept away, the alternative proposed in the referendum was between the retention of the ancient and detested petty princedoms and the acceptance of the kingship of Victor Emanuel. In this manner the numerous Italians who desired the unification of Italy in republican form were deprived of the possibility of expressing their true views. (Cf. supra, pp. 91 and 229 note 3.)
  2. G. Sand, Journal d’un Voyageur, etc., ed. cit., p. 306.
  3. Result of the plebiscitary elections of Napoleon I (Idées Napoléoniennes, ed. cit., p. 19, by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte).
  4. Celebrated is the reproach hurled by Victor Hugo at Napoleon III on account of the plebiscite of the year 1851: “Who made the report? Baroche. Who investigated? Roucher. Who was in control? Pietri. Who made the count? Maupas. Who verified it? Troplong. Who announced it? You. This is to say that the villain reported, the hypocrite investigated, the rogue controlled, the false counted, the venal; verified, the liar proclaimed.”” (Victor Hugo, Napoleon le Petit, ed. cit., p. 313).