Thursday, February 17, 2022

Robert Michels and the Social Democratic Parties.

 The social democratic parties started out in the late 19th century as socialist, by which they meant public ownership and democratic control of the major industries. In time their, actual practice devolved into one of gradual social reform and the socialist goal was restricted to an indefinite future. In the 1950s, even this “Sunday sermon socialism” was dropped, as well as the notion of class struggle, and the Marxist analysis of capitalism. Social democracy was reduced to liberal reformism. In the 1990s reformism was tossed aside, and most social democratic parties became centrist parties with neoliberal economics combined with a touch of social progressivism. (Sort of “We support feminism, but are cutting funding to your Woman's Centre.”) The socialists who all along the way resisted these developments, had a difficult time of it, being marginalized, purged, or in the case of Rosa Luxemburg, murdered.

Here in Canada there was a similar trajectory. (Except for the part about murder.) The CCF started out as a socialist party, but the right wing soon isolated the socialists. In 1956 they dropped all reference to socialism. Workers education and any concept of class had gone by the board earlier. The CCF relaunched itself as the liberal reformist NDP. Troublesome socialists were isolated or driven out, the most infamous example being the purge of the Waffle Group. While the NDP never took power federally, it had a number of provincial governments and important reforms were enacted. During the 1990s these same NDP governments went neoliberal and turned on their supporters, cutting back social services, privatizing, and even stooping to mass arrests of environmental protestors.

How do you explain this sad story? The inevitable corruption of leaders or some innate tendency toward moderation are superficial explanations. The problem must be structural. The social scientist who closely examined the structure of the social democratic parties and how this effected their political evolution is found in Robert Michels and his ground breaking 1911 study, POLITICAL PARTIES.(Hearst International Library, NYC, 1915)

While POLITICAL PARTIES was aimed at social democracy, it also applies to trade unions and any other organization with similar internal structures. What is most remarkable for me about his study is the lack of effect upon the internal policies of these organizations. They have continued to stumble on, blithely unaware it seems, of any need to counter-act this “iron law of oligarchy.” And they wonder why they have lost support...

Michels begins with the rather obvious observation that a workers movement requires organization, since workers are defenseless in isolation. But organization brings “dangers in its train.” p. 22 “Political organization leads to power, and this power is always conservative.” 366 “Where delegated authority is of brief duration, representation is possible. But permanent representation will always be the exercise of dominion... over the represented.” 40

The embourgeoisification of social democracy is not, as many claimed back in 1910, the result of bourgeois joining the party, but rather the changes that take place within the working class leadership, due to the nature of the party structure. 270

As the party grows, bureaucracy is needed and this involves become paid positions. Such positions separate the working class militants who take on these roles from the class itself. They are now secure party functionaries and not “dirt-beneath-their nails” workers subject to the whims of the capitalists. Bureaucracy leads to further centralization and the formation of a conservative bureaucratic grouping. 116

The bigger the organization, the more specialization. The more specialization, the less ability to see the “big picture” and the less desire to study the underlying problems of society. Specialization leads to philistinism, anti-intellectualism, and a renunciation of the movement's final goals. 188 As bureaucracy increases, the cultural and internationalist aspects of socialism declines. As a result [the] “mechanism becomes an end in itself.” 187

This need for technical experts, creates an elite. Party leaders begin to make decisions on their own without consulting the rank and file which is indicative of a decline in democracy. Pps. 32, 34 Leaders tend to have oratorical ability. Educated people who do not possess these skills are thus side-lined. 70. A mediocre intellect who is a good speaker or has charm and charisma takes precedence in the party and this adds to its intellectual decline. Such leaders tend to have a low opinion of the masses. The masses supposed incompetence is then used to justify further exclusion from party business. 151

MPs soon become leaders of the party and this leads to further erosion of rank and file control, as MPs are elected for long terms and by electors and not party members. 136 Elected representatives often become “lifelong incumbents” thus increasing their control. 43. Party members and supporters tend to believe that the parliamentary way the only way and thus do not wish to make life difficult for MPs by challenging them to any extent. 138 The MPs think they are superior to the Party Congress and claim increasing autonomy. They then restrict what can be voted on at the Congress, out of fear for their own positions. Threats of resignation of office are also used as hammer to force one's position upon the party. 43 The leadership is in danger of becoming “a closed corporation cut off from the party.” 140-141

Development of profession politicians and party leaders increases over time, and “all sense of solidarity lost” toward the working class. 81. The parliamentary experience in manipulative politics is used within the party against dissidents. p. 84 Leaders become a major source of power and make sure of this by making themselves indispensable. 86 A very strong loyalty to leaders develops which is stronger than the loyalty felt toward to government officials among the masses. Inertia plays a role as well, since the leadership is “already constituted.” Leadership comes less from election by the masses, not to mention individuals rising from them, and more one of cooptation from a narrow group acceptable to the party leaders. 98-104

Radically changing policies within a party is a difficult and disruptive process, that almost always fails. Eliminating a leader unpopular with the ranks is considered a crime by the party bosses, and if forced to step down, this unpopular person is given a new post by the leadership. 158 Wherever opposition arises within a party, it is attacked as a result of intrigue, and slandered as an attempt to destroy the party. The leaders claim to be under attack and demand the confidence of the members. Criticism of leaders seen as an attack on the party. This is similar to governments claiming that demonstrators are attacking constituted authority, when all they seek are reforms. 224 “Every autonomous movement... signifies a profound discordance with the... leaders... Apart from such transient interruptions the.. normal development... will impress... an indelible stamp of conservatism.” 162

Party members do become aware of the oligarchical nature of their organization. But “far from recognizing the real fount of oligarchical evil in the centralization of power... they often consider that the best means of counteracting [it] is to intensify this very centralization.” 15 This is seen in Marxist Leninist organizations especially.

Michels confuses “representation” with “delegation” throughout his study, and the real problem lies with the former. The representative is elected for a given term, cannot be easily removed and as a group they are quite autonomous in their decision making. Such a situation combined with the party bureaucracy can only give rise to a self-perpetuating clique that can only be removed from power with a great deal of effort which is usually highly damaging to the party.

Numbers in the text refer to the page numbers of POLITICAL PARTIES

PART TWO will examine the flaws in Michel's analysis and discuss ways of overcoming the “iron law of oligarchy.”


Blogger MikeAdamson said...

Very much looking forward to part two.

1:12 PM  

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