Insight of Classics in Party Literature

A few months ago I had the pleasure to (re)read some of the classics in the literature on political parties – Robert Michels, Moisei Ostrogorski (and yes, I did not read his mammoth two volume masterpiece in full, I skimmed through most and read just the more important parts) and some of the texts that were collected by Susan Scarrow. Comparing to what people seem to have been thinking and writing about then, the party literature of the last half a century seems to have lost a lot of its critical insight and willingness to debate the nature and function of parties.

One of the more pressing questions then was whether and to what extent political parties are compatible with the ideal of democracy in the sense of a meaningful form of bottom-up self government. And the conclusions of both Michels and Ostrogorski (and many other authors at that time)  were that they are not and that to the contrary, political parties are an obstacle to a meaningful democratic government and a free, open society. Many of the arguments that were brought out (for example by Michels) are, not surprisingly one should add, relevant today as well, albeit they have almost completely fallen out of political (science) discourse. For example:

  • Hierarchical formal organization is incompatible with democracy
  • Top-down leadership is necessary especially in the case of the apathy of the masses
  • People have the tendency to admire and be grateful to leaders
  • Opportunism (personal status, money, power) eventually dominates over idealism (democracy and public interest)
  • Half-truths (or bullshit in the sense of Harry Frankfurt) and lies, as long as they promote party support and help to gain votes, dominate over truth and public welfare
  • Inter-party discourse resembles more a clash between religious dogmas than reasonable democratic deliberation
  • Parties as organizations establish a hegemony over all politics in a society
  • And so on…

I would like to see anybody today seriously arguing that these issues, with some variation of course across political systems, are not endemic problems of our current political systems, systems which inherit their basic structure from the time that these authors were writing. 

Unfortunately some time around the middle of the 20th century we in the Western political world agreed that the political institutions and structures which we have, together with all of their fundamentally anti-democratic tendencies, must be called democracies without much qualification. Or at least that their undemocratic tendencies must not be problematised. Thus, except for a few hints and whispers here and there, we have lost the ability to call what we see with the appropriate words. A detour to the debates of a century ago might help us regain what was lost already too long ago for anybody to remember.