POLITICAL PARTIES. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies by Robert Michels

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First published in German in 1911, Robert Michels’ ‘Political Parties’ is a classic of political and social science; it analyses the evolution of oligarchical power structures within political parties and trade unions, particularly those, ostensibly, most committed to egalitarian and democratic ideals — socialist parties, organisations and trade unions — including anarcho-syndicalist labour unions. Clearly and succinctly the libertarian syndicalist (at the time) Michels explains the emergence of elites and the process and dynamic by which radical parties lose sight of their radical objectives within representative parliamentary and electoral systems. His starting point is the hypothesis that in organizations committed to the realization of democratic values there inevitably arise strong oligarchic tendencies, which present a serious if not insuperable obstacle to the realization of those values. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy”. Thus Michels summed up his famous “iron law of oligarchy.”

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PREFACE

I — DEMOCRATIC ARISTOCRACY AND ARISTOCRATIC DEMOCRACY

PART ONE — LEADERSHIP IN DEMOCRATIC ORGANIZATIONS

  1. TECHNICAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE CAUSES OF LEADERSHIP

I — INTRODUCTORY—THE NEED FOR ORGANIZATION

II — MECHANICAL AND TECHNICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF DIRECT GOVERNMENT BY THE MASSES

III —THE MODERN DEMOCRATIC PARTY AS A FIGHTING PARTY, DOMINATED BY MILITARIST IDEAS AND METHODS

  1. PSYCHOLOGICAL CAUSES OF LEADERSHIP

IV — THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A CUSTOMARY RIGHT TO THE OFFICE OF DELEGATE

V — THE NEED FOR LEADERSHIP FELT BY THE MASS

VI — THE POLITICAL GRATITUDE OF THE MASSES

VIII — ACCESSORY QUALITIES REQUISITE TO LEADERSHIP

IX — ACCESSORY PECULIARITIES OF THE MASSES

  1. INTELLECTUAL FACTORS

X — SUPERIORITY OF THE PROFESSIONAL LEADERS IN RESPECT OF CULTURE, AND THEIR INDISPENSABILITY; THE FORMAL AND REAL INCOMPETENCE OF THE MASS

PART TWO — AUTOCRATIC TENDENCIES OF LEADERS

I — THE STABILITY OF LEADERSHIP

II — THE FINANCIAL POWER OF THE LEADERS AND OF THE PARTY

III — THE LEADERS AND THE PRESS

IV — THE POSITION OF THE LEADERS IN RELATION TO THE MASSES IN ACTUAL PRACTICE

V — THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE LEADERS AND THE MASSES

VI — THE STRUGGLE AMONG THE LEADERS THEMSELVES

VII — BUREAUCRACY. CENTRALIZING AND DECENTRALIZING TENDENCIES.

PART THREE — THE EXERCISE OF POWER AND ITS PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTION UPON THE LEADERS

I — PSYCHOLOGICAL METAMORPHOSIS OF THE LEADERS

II — BONAPARTIST IDEOLOGY

III — IDENTIFICATION OF THE PARTY WITH THE LEADER (“LE PARTI C’EST MOI”)

PART FOUR — SOCIAL ANALYSIS OF LEADERSHIP

I — INTRODUCTORY. THE CLASS STRUGGLE AND ITS DISINTEGRATING INFLUENCE UPON THE BOURGEOISIE

II — ANALYSIS OF THE BOURGEOIS ELEMENTS IN THE SOCIALIST LEADERSHIP

III — SOCIAL CHANGES RESULTING FROM ORGANIZATION

V — LABOUR LEADERS OF PROLETARIAN ORIGIN

VI — INTELLECTUALS, AND THE NEED FOR THEM IN THE WORKING-CLASS PARTIES

PART FIVE — ATTEMPTS TO RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE LEADERS

I — THE REFERENDUM

II — THE POSTULATE OF RENUNCIATION

III — SYNDICALISM AS PROPHYLACTIC

IV — ANARCHISM AS PROPHYLACTIC

PART SIX — SYNTHESIS: THE OLIGARCHICAL TENDENCIES OF ORGANISATION

I — THE CONSERVATIVE BASIS OF ORGANISATION

II — DEMOCRACY AND THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY

III — PARTY-LIFE IN WARTIME

IV — FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

PREFACE

Many of the most important problems of social life, though their causes have from the first been inherent in human psychology, have originated during the last hundred and fifty years; and even in so far as they have been handed down to us from an earlier epoch, they have of late come to press more urgently, have acquired a more precise formulation, and have gained fresh significance. Many of our leading minds have gladly devoted the best energies of their lives to attempts towards solving these problems. The so-called principle of nationality was discovered for the solution of the racial and linguistic problem which, unsolved, has continually threatened Europe with war and the majority of individual states with revolution. In the economic sphere, the social problem threatens the peace of the world even more seriously than do questions of nationality, and here “the labourer’s right to the full produce of his labour” has become the rallying cry. Finally, the principle of self-government, the corner-stone of democracy, has come to be regarded as furnishing a solution of the problem of nationality, for the principle of nationality entails in practical working the acceptance of the idea of popular government. Now, experience has shown that not one of these solutions is as far-reaching in its effects as the respective discoverers imagined in the days of their first enthusiasm. The importance of the principle of nationality is undeniable, and most of the national questions of Western Europe can be and ought to be solved in accordance with this principle; but matters are complicated by geographical and strategical considerations, such as the difficulty of determining natural frontiers and the frequent need for the establishment of strategic frontiers; moreover, the principle of nationality cannot help us where nationalities can hardly be said to exist or where they are intertangled in inextricable confusion. As far as the economic problem is concerned, we have numerous solutions offered by the different schools of socialist thought, but the formula of the right to the whole produce of labour is one which can be comprehended more readily in the synthetic than in the analytic field; it is easy to formulate as a general principle and likely as such to command widespread sympathy, but it is exceedingly difficult to apply in actual practice. The present work aims at a critical discussion of the third question, the problem of democracy. It is the writer’s opinion that democracy, at once as an intellectual theory and as a practical movement, has to-day entered upon a critical phase from which it will be extremely difficult to discover an exit. Democracy has encountered obstacles, not merely imposed from without, but spontaneously surgent from within. Only to a certain degree, perhaps, can these obstacles be surpassed or removed.

The present study makes no attempt to offer a “new system.” It is not the principal aim of science to create systems, but rather to promote understanding. It is not the purpose of sociological science to discover, or rediscover, solutions, since numerous problems of the individual life and the life of social groups are not capable of “solution” at all, but must ever remain “open.” The sociologist should aim rather at the dispassionate exposition of tendencies and counter-operating forces, of reasons and opposing reasons, at the display, in a word, of the warp and the woof of social life. Precise diagnosis is the logical and indispensable preliminary to any possible prognosis. y The unravelment and the detailed formulation of the complex of tendencies which oppose the realization of democracy are matters of exceeding difficulty. A preliminary analysis of these tendencies may, however, be attempted. They will be found to be classifiable as tendencies dependent (1) upon the nature of the human individual; (2) upon the nature of the political struggle; and (3) upon the nature of organization. Democracy leads to oligarchy, and necessarily contains an oligarchical nucleus. In making this assertion it is far from the author’s intention to pass a moral judgment upon any political party or any system of government, to level an accusation of hypocrisy. The law that it is an essential characteristic of all human aggregates to constitute cliques and sub-classes is, like every other sociological law, beyond good and evil.

The study and analysis of political parties constitutes a new branch of science. It occupies an intermediate field between the social, the philosophico-psychological, and the historical disciplines, and may be termed a branch of applied sociology. In view of the present development of political parties, the historical aspect of this new branch of science has received considerable attention. “Works have been written upon the history of almost every political party in the Western world. But when we come to consider the analysis of the nature of party, we find that the field has hardly been touched. To fill this gap in sociological science is the aim of the present work.

The task has been by no means easy. So great was the extent of the material which had to be discussed that the difficulties of concise presentation might well seem almost insuperable. The author has had to renounce the attempt to deal with the problem in all its extension and all its complexity, and has confined himself to the consideration of salient features. In the execution of this design he has received the unwearied and invaluable help of his wife, Gisela Michels.

This English translation is from the Italian edition, in the preparation of which I had at my disposal the reviews of the earlier German version. Opportunities for further emendation of the present volume have also been afforded by the criticisms of the recently published French and Japanese translations. But the only event of outstanding importance in the political world since my Political Parties was first drafted has been the outbreak of the war which still rages. The author’s general conclusions as to the inevitability of oligarchy in party life, and as to the difficulties which the growth of this oligarchy imposes upon the realization of democracy, have been strikingly confirmed in the political life of all the leading belligerent nations immediately before the outbreak of the war and during the progress of the struggle. The penultimate chapter of the present volume, specially written for the English edition, deals with Party Life in Wartime. It will be obvious that the writer has been compelled, in this new chapter, to confine himself to the discussion of broad outlines, for we are still too near to the events under consideration for accurate judgment to be possible. Moreover, the flames of war, while throwing their sinister illumination upon the military and economic organization of the states concerned, leave political parties in the shadow. For the time being parties are eclipsed by nations. It need hardly be said, however, that as soon as the war is over party life will be resumed, and that the war will be found to have effected a reinforcement of the tendencies characteristic of party.

Robert Michels. Basle, 1915.