PARTY-LIFE IN WARTIME. 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


Never is the power of the state greater, and never are the forces of political parties of opposition less effective, than at the outbreak of war. This deplorable war, comes like a storm in the night, when everyone, wearied with the labours of the day, was plunged in well-deserved slumber, rages all over the world with unprecedented violence, and with such a lack of respect for human life and of regard for the eternal creations of art as to endanger the very cornerstones of a civilization dating from more than a thousand years. One of the cornerstones of historical materialism is that the working classes all over the world are united as if by links of iron through the perfect community of economico-social interests which they possess in face of the bourgeoisie, this community of interests effecting a horizontal stratification of classes which runs athwart and supersedes the vertical stratification of nations and of races. The greatest difference, in fact, in the views taken of economico- social classes and of linguistico-ethical nationalities, as between the respective adherents of nationalistic theories and of the theories of historical materialism, consists in this, that the former propound the hypothesis that the concept “nation” is morally and positively predominant over the concept “class,” whilst the latter consider the concept and reality “nation” altogether subordinate to the concept “class.” The Marxists, in fact, believed that the consciousness of class had become impressed upon the entire mentality of the proletariat imbued with socialist theories.

The war has shattered this theory at one terrible blow. The German socialist party, the strongest, wealthiest, and best organised section of the working-class international, for thirty years past the leading spirit in that international, suddenly and emphatically declared its entire solidarity with the German Emperor. Throughout the proletarian mass there has not been reported a single instance of moral rebellion against the struggle which enlists socialists to fight on behalf of German imperialism and to contend with the comrades of other lands. Unquestionably, the tactics of the German socialists were largely due to the oligarchical tendencies which manifest themselves in modern political parties, because these parties, even if they pursue a revolutionary aim, and indeed precisely because they do so, that is to say because they make war against the existing state-system and desire to replace it by another, have need of a vast organisation whose central strength is found in a trusted and stable bureaucracy, the members of which are well paid, and which has at its disposal the powers of a journalistic system and of a well-filled treasury. 1 This organisation constitutes a state within the state. Now the forces of party, however well- developed, are altogether inferior and subordinate to the forces of the government, and this is especially true in such a country as Germany. Consequently one of the cardinal rules governing the policy of the socialist party is never to push its attacks upon the government beyond the limits imposed by the inequality between the respective forces of the combatants. In other words, the life of the party, whose preservation has gradually become the supreme objective of the parties of political action, must not be endangered. The result is that the external form of the party, its bureaucratic organisation, definitely gains the upper hand over its soul, its doctrinal and theoretic content, and the latter is sacrificed whenever it tends to involve an inopportune conflict with the enemy. The outcome of this regressive evolution is that the party is no longer regarded as a means for the attainment of an end, but gradually becomes an end-in-itself, and is therefore incapable of resisting the arbitrary exercise of power by the state when this power is inspired by a vigorous will.

  1. At the end of 1913 the central treasury of the German socialist trade unions owned property amounting to 88,069,295 marks (£4,400,000), whilst the local and independent unions owned 3,152,636 marks (£150,000). Now a rebellion against the government and its foreign policy would have endangered all these funds.

Inevitably such a party is unable to sustain so terrible a test as that of upholding its faith in principles when the state, determined upon war, and resolved to crush anyone who gets in the way, threatens the party in case of disobedience with the dissolution of its branches, the sequestration of its funds, and the slaughter of its best men. The party gives way, hastily sells its internationalist soul, and, impelled by the instinct of self-preservation, undergoes transformation into a patriotic party. The world- war of 1914 has afforded the most effective confirmation of what the author wrote in the first edition of this book concerning the future of socialist parties.

This natural tendency of the modern political party is reinforced, in the particular case under consideration, by the decision of the German socialists to support their government in all respects, owing to their fear and hatred of Czarism. This invincible aversion, upon which is dependent the general agreement with which the entire Germanic democracy has accepted the war, arises not solely from the foolish prejudice that the Slavs belong to an inferior race, but is also the outcome of a special historical theory held by Marx. Marx, in fact, regarded Russia as responsible for “the reaction” wherever this became manifest. More particularly, he considered that the militarist regime of the Prussian nobles, which he ardently abhorred, was merely the vanguard of the Russian autocracy. He added that the most infallible means for destroying the predominance of the German Junkers would be to crush Russia, without whose aid the rule of the Prussian reaction would be impossible. This Marxist conviction had become a party dogma, deep-rooted in the mind of every individual member and diffused in a hundred writings. The German socialists who enthusiastically obeyed the mobilisation order issued by the Emperor believed themselves to be fulfilling a sacred duty, not only from the patriotic point of view, but also from the democratic, considering that they were thus hastening the day of their own final deliverance. It was by such a state of mind that were inspired the principal speeches delivered and the most authoritative articles written by the German socialists when William II declared war against the Czar.

Moreover, an attitude that harmonised ill with the theoretical principle of historical materialism was defended by the socialists themselves as absolutely essential for the German proletariat. Substantially what the German socialists said was that, in the event of a defeat of the state to which they belonged, the proletarians would necessarily suffer greatly from unemployment and poverty; consequently it was their supreme interest, and must be the supreme aim of their representatives, to avoid this eventuality; hence it was their first and greatest duty to aid the German army by all the means at their disposal in its arduous task of defeating the enemy. Now, there is no lack of positive clearness about the view that underlies this reasoning. Since the proletariat is an integral part of the state, it cannot but suffer when the state falls upon evil days. Above all, the lot of the workers is dependent upon the degree to which manufacture and commerce flourish. No doubt the most prosperous condition of manufacturing industry does not afford the workers an absolute guarantee that they will receive good wages and be able to enjoy a high standard of life, since there is no proof that the curve of wages will always follow that of industrial profits; indeed, it is notorious that whilst after 1870 the development of German manufacture was rapid and extensive, the condition of the German workers remained stationary for nearly two decades. But if the lot of the workers and that of the manufacturers are not always on the same footing in the matter of good fortune, it cannot be doubted that when bad times come they have to share the same distresses; if manufacturing industry is stagnant, any rise of wages is excluded a priori. While, however, this view of a community of interests in the national sphere between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has a basis of reality, there can be no doubt that not only is it absolutely antagonistic to the idealism of class, that is to say, to the fraternal affection which denies national solidarity in order to affirm with enthusiasm the international solidarity of the proletariat, tending and aiming at speedy class-emancipation; but further that it undermines the very concept of class. In fact, the theoretical position assumed by the German socialists, and imitated more or less faithfully by their comrades in other lands, is dictated by a criterion altogether different from that which forms the basis of historical materialism. This latter doctrine presupposes the existence of a working class by nature one and indivisible, whereas in the nationalist view there exists only a national proletariat, included within a given state, living within definite geographical boundaries, and subject to all the influences of force or of destiny. Indeed, the social democratic concept of class (as manifested under stress of war by the majority of the German socialists) constitutes the negation of the Marxist concept, insofar as the former degrades the latter, and, instead of becoming the instrument of world liberation as it was conceived by the internationalist theorists, is made the instrument of patriotic, social, and military cooperation. Historical materialism aimed at securing the solidarity of the human race under the guidance of the revolutionary proletariat and through the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and of national governments. The social democratic concept of class aims at the aggrandisement of the fatherland and at the prosperity of the proletariat and of the bourgeoisie therein, through the ruin of the proletariat and of the bourgeoisie of other lands. Between these two conceptions there is, in fact, so great a gulf fixed, that the most learned attempts to bridge it over will inevitably prove futile. If the war has not demonstrated the fallacy of the theory that the working classes of various countries, considered as a whole, possess common interests in opposition to the interests of the various national bourgeoisies also considered as a whole, it has at least demonstrated the non-existence of the reaction which this supposed phenomenon ought to have exercised upon the mentality and consequently upon the activity of the proletariat which prolonged socialist propaganda had endeavoured to indoctrinate with Marxist principles.

But while the German socialists appealed to their right to be guided by strictly economic interests and to make common cause with those who had hitherto been their worst enemies, they had the bad taste to deny this right to their foreign comrades. Paul Lensch, socialist member of the Reichstag, editor of the ultra-Marxist “Leipziger Volkszeitung,” has, with a seriousness worthy of a better cause, sustained the following remarkable assertions: that the victory of Germany is necessary for the destruction of militarism, which will become superfluous as soon as the enemies of Germany have been definitely defeated, whilst the defeat of Germany will necessarily provide militarism with new aliment (since Germany will have to take her revenge); for the German proletariat, the defeat of Germany would be equivalent to an economic catastrophe, to the loss of the most essential means of subsistence, and to the ruin of the fruits of many years of labour; whereas for the English proletariat, the consequences of the defeat of England would unquestionably be extremely beneficial, by leading to the rapid diffusion of socialist ideas, to the distribution of monopolies, and to “the disappearance of the stupid pride which characterises the English race.”2 According to this profound thinker, the same causes would produce different effects in England and France, on the one hand, and in Germany on the other. For Germany a defeat must be avoided at all costs, for its results would be disastrous, whilst in the case of England and France they could not fail to be salutary!

2. Paul Lensch, Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie u. der Weltkrieg, Buchhandlung “Vorwarts,” Berlin, 1915, pp. 26, 42, 58. 398

Speaking generally, it may be said that the war has further accentuated the oligarchical character of party leadership. In no country (Italy, of course, excepted, for Italy has had ten months for mature deliberation) were the rank and file of the party active factors in the adoption of a policy for which every single member was accountable; in no country, except Italy, was the great question of the attitude of parties in relation to the problem of peace or war laid before the ordinary members; everywhere the supreme decision was in the hands of the leaders, and the masses had merely to accept an accomplished fact. In most cases the majority of the leaders established their absolute supremacy over the minority by means of the so-called party discipline that obliges the minority to accept the will of the majority. This explains the almost incredible unanimity with which, in the Reichstag, in the memorable August sitting, the German socialist parliamentary group voted the war credits. In the secret session of the group on the eve of the official session the opponents of the war were in the minority, and were therefore compelled on the following day, by the obligations of party discipline, to confound themselves publicly with the majority, and to give a vote which ran counter to their most sincere convictions. This amounts to saying that party life involves strange moral and intellectual sacrifices.

Moreover, not a few party leaders looked upon the war as a useful means of propaganda for the attraction of new recruits. This applies above all to the socialist party, eager to overthrow the barriers that separate from the party many sympathisers among the manual, operative, and shop keeping classes, who are loath to join a party professing internationalist views. In a great public meeting held at Stuttgart on February 22, 1915, Heymann, a deputy to the diet of Würtemberg and one of the best-known leaders of the socialist party in that state, triumphantly declared: “Many have ardently desired to join our party. But there was an obstacle. Well, that obstacle no longer exists!”3 Unquestionably principles are often a stumbling block to a party whose main desire is to increase its membership; and to disregard inconvenient principles may bring electoral advantage, if at the cost of honour. The leaders are the first to favour such a tendency, for the more widely extended the foundations of their party, the greater grows their own individual power. In fact, the individual power of the leaders undergoes an immeasurable increase at a time when the majority of the members of all parties are under arms, and for this reason may be considered as politically non-existent because they are unable to exercise any influence upon the executive of the party to which they belong. On the Continent, even those members who have not been summoned to the colours no longer possess any power of controlling their leaders, owing to the suppression of the freedom of the press and of the rights of public meeting and of combination. Wherever martial law prevails, the leader is omnipotent.

  1. Zwei Reden, by Hildebrand and W. Heine, Dietz, Stuttgart, 1915, p. 44.