There’s No Substitute for Mass Working-Class Parties

Robert Michels developed his “iron law of oligarchy” after seeing the bureaucratization of the early socialist movement. His warnings are relevant today — but the path to social transformation still runs through building mass, working-class political parties.

Social Democratic Party of Germany leader August Bebel speaks at the 1907 conference of the Second International in Stuttgart, Germany. (Ullstein Bild / Getty Images)

Political parties aren’t what they used to be. Whether of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, the days when what Frankfurt School disciple Otto Kirchheimer called “mass-class” parties galvanized millions with bold visions of a better future are long past. The powerful sense of community once attached to party politics has given way to a sterile ritual, its mass organizations reduced to patronage networks and social clubs for a dwindling cohort of true believers.

This development was a long time coming. In the 1960s, Kirchheimer watched with apprehension as the mass-class parties of the early twentieth century gave way to “catchall” parties whose only mission was to maximize votes by any means necessary. While the old parties’ ties to coherent social milieus and competing worldviews had ensured a degree of democratic accountability, in the postwar welfare states they threatened to become little more than ideologically malleable “consensus purveyors.” Rather than empower the masses, political agency would be reduced to the isolated act of casting a ballot every few years for campaign machines with little to offer in the way of concrete alternatives.

His prognosis wasn’t far from the truth. Fifty years on, mainstream parties are more indistinguishable than ever. In democracies both old and new, they are overwhelmingly the domain of political operators who regard the involvement of “the masses” as a nuisance to be avoided. Party membership has dropped precipitously, while voter turnout is reaching all-time lows in many parts of the world. The Left, whose political strength rested on mass-class parties for decades, has been particularly hard hit by their decline, creating a deepening “crisis of representation” in which avenues for working people to influence government policy grow restricted and public disillusionment proliferates.

A number of alternative political forms have emerged in the mass-class party’s wake, beginning with the “new social movements” of the 1960s and 1970s and followed, two generations later, by “leaderless” movements like Occupy Wall Street in the United States and the Indignados in Spain. Some succeeded in shifting public attitudes and pressuring governments, but none have proven capable of developing the enduring mass institutions that made the old workers’ parties a social force to be reckoned with.

Recognizing the limitations of this kind of activism, in the last few years a new left has begun to take up the question of party building with renewed urgency. Yet whether we’re trying to reclaim the old parties for socialism or build new ones from scratch, it’s worth asking: What caused their decline in the first place? And can we prevent it from happening again?

Oligarchical Tendencies

A half-century before Kirchheimer, German-Italian sociologist and freshly minted ex-socialist Robert Michels published one of the most influential attempts to theorize how political parties develop. First printed in 1911, his book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy set out to identify and explain the structural obstacles to democracy that, as he wrote in the preface to the 1915 English translation, were “not merely imposed from without, but spontaneously surgent from within.” Above all, he was concerned with creeping oligarchy.

A collaborator of Max Weber, Michels conducted his research at a time when the social sciences were still in their infancy. Some of his terminology sounds out of place today, and as a scholar he tended to play fast and loose with the facts. Much of his evidence is anecdotal. He tended to generalize every observation that supported his hypothesis into a “sociological law,” an objective reality “beyond good and evil.” Nevertheless, Political Parties remains a foundational work of modern sociology, and its core argument — that large organizations fall victim to an innate “iron law of oligarchy” that inexorably empowers a corrupt, manipulative elite — continues to inform how many people think about how politics works in general.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Michels’s object of observation was none other than the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the largest and most powerful workers’ party of its era and the role model for socialists around the world. Unlike the other parties, German Social Democracy ostensibly fought for “democratization au lendemain du socialisme.” Yet it had become rigid and complacent since its founding in the 1860s, exhibiting a strict division between leaders and led. If he could prove that an iron law of oligarchy operated here, he reasoned, then surely it must apply to other areas of “social life” even more.

The bedrock of Michels’s analysis was largely drawn from the revolutionary Marxism of his youth, when he belonged to the SPD’s syndicalist wing and decried the party center’s moderation, advocating instead spontaneous, radical action from below. The first chapters of Political Parties reflected this influence, explaining the necessity of a technical division of labor to manage the affairs of an increasingly complex mass organization. The more sophisticated production, communication, and administration grew, the more direct democracy became unfeasible: The sheer number of decisions needed to keep things running required that they be delegated to small groups of experts.

The delegational model of representation had found its form in the parliamentary democracies emerging across Western Europe at the time. Representative democracy, Michels argued, was convenient for the old aristocracy, as it allowed elites to use the trappings of parliament to reinforce their social position while invoking lofty principles. Social Democracy, on the other hand, had adopted representation only out of necessity. So, why was this grand mass movement for universal emancipation weighed down by a sclerotic bureaucracy?

The New Class

Michels’s explanation was not particularly original and partially echoed other left-wing Social Democrats such as Rosa Luxemburg. Michels proceeded from what he called the “embourgeoisement” of the SPD, by which he meant the party’s attempts to form a tactical alliance with sections of the middle class, as well as — and more crucially — the emergence of a new ruling strata in the party leadership that was increasingly “withdrawn from the proletarian class and raised to bourgeois dignity.”

The leadership controlled the SPD’s sprawling apparatus and party press, a result of the movement’s explosive growth in the preceding decades. The SPD was now a party in which most day-to-day operations were conducted not by volunteers but by salaried party workers. Though their lifestyles were by no means luxurious, the “practice of paying for the services rendered to the party by its employees creates a bond which many of the comrades hesitate to break.” Their material dependence both instilled discipline and robbed the party of much of its dynamism: “Elsewhere than in Germany, socialist activity is based upon individual enthusiasm, individual initiative, and individual devotion; but in Germany it reposes upon loyalty, discipline, and the sentiment of duty, encouraged by pecuniary remuneration.”

Deploying a line of argument that would be repeated by generations of anarchists, Trotskyists, and other critics, Michels railed against the “proletarian elite” at the party’s helm, which increasingly saw politics not as a vehicle for socialist revolution but a “chance . . . to secure a rise in the social scale.” As this elite consolidated its position and grew accustomed to the privileges of life at the top, utopian political aims receded into the background: “What interest for them has now the dogma of the social revolution? Their own social revolution has already been effected. At bottom, all the thoughts of these leaders are concentrated upon the single hope that there shall long continue to exist a proletariat to choose them as its delegates and to provide them with a livelihood.”

Prussian Exceptionalism and International Socialism

Michels likely would have been forgotten had his argument stopped there, overshadowed by the more trenchant critiques of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and other contemporaries. But what gave Political Parties its status as a classic was its insistence that Social Democracy’s bureaucratization was just as much the fault of the masses themselves, who accepted or even welcomed the new elite.

To explain the workers’ “blind confidence” in their leaders, Michels shifted from the terrain of classical Marxism to human psychology, adopting many ideas from French psychologist Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 treatise, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. A decidedly reactionary thinker, Le Bon believed large groups of people were incapable of rational thinking and prone to impulsivity and manipulation. Michels, who left the SPD bitterly disappointed that his syndicalist ideas had failed to gain mass support, discovered in Le Bon’s theories an explanation for both the party’s bureaucratization and his own political frustrations — the masses had not rejected his ideas per se, but rather were not able to comprehend them in the first place.

SPD leader Wilhelm Liebknecht. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his view, the proletarian masses exhibited a deep, almost primordial urge to raise a select few from their ranks and establish a “cult of veneration” around them. Uneducated and incapable of acting on their own, the workers instinctively gravitated towards charismatic leaders who provided them with guidance and psychological reassurance. They named their children after their leaders and hung portraits of Karl Marx and SPD luminary Wilhelm Liebknecht where the crucifix once stood. The “cult” was mutually reinforcing: The masses increasingly identified the party with their leaders, and the leaders, buoyed by their enthusiastic reception, conflated their own interests with those of the organization as a whole.

Though visible across Europe, Michels believed this tendency was particularly pronounced among Germans, whose “racial psychology” naturally inclined them to such an arrangement. A people that “exhibits to an extreme degree the need for someone to point out the way and to issue orders,” he wrote, “furnishes a psychological soil upon which a powerful directive hegemony can flourish luxuriantly.” Moreover, German culture’s deep reverence for old age and centuries of Prussian socialization had passed down an instinctual respect for authority that even the most passionate democrats failed to shake off.

Strasserism al Dente

Banned from teaching in Germany due to his brief career as an SPD militant, Michels handed in his party card in 1907 and accepted a position at the University of Turin. Here, he gravitated towards the school of elite theory emerging around the Italian sociologists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca.

Pareto and Mosca’s ideas — particularly their emphasis on the masses’ inability to govern themselves and the centrality of a “political class” in advancing or impeding social development — dovetailed well with Michels’s growing cynicism toward the European working class. Germans may have been especially prone to oligarchy, but elite theory proved that culture could at best slow, not prevent, the rise of a new ruling strata within Social Democracy. He responded to one of his French critics in 1912 by stating that the French socialists would “have more difficulty submitting … than the Prussians,” but “for good or ill, they will submit to [the iron law of oligarchy] all the same.”

Workers during a miner’s strike in Germany in 1905.

His analysis had devastating implications not only for socialism, but for democracy itself. Against his old Marxist belief that “in a future more or less remote it will be possible to attain a genuinely democratic order,” Michels now postulated that “democracy has an inherent preference for the authoritarian solution of important questions.” Any new social order would throw up a new ruling elite, which would inevitably seek to assert its own interests against the masses. “The socialists might conquer,” he admitted, “but not socialism, which would perish in the moment of its adherents’ triumph.”

Michels’s pessimism would lead him to become an enthusiastic member of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in 1924, two years after the Italian dictator seized power and imprisoned most of his former comrades. Convinced that charismatic strongmen were more or less inevitable, he saw in Mussolini a chance to establish, if not a socialist, then at least a “social” government that could harness the masses’ devotion to their leader to strike a compromise between capital and labor, incorporating Italian workers’ interests into a powerful fascist state. He died in 1936, not long before European fascism brought the country — and the continent — to the brink of utter annihilation.

Two Tendencies Don’t Make an Iron Law

It has now been over a century since Robert Michels published his dour take on the future of socialism. Just as he predicted, in the decades that followed Social Democracy ingratiated itself with the capitalist state, supported imperialist wars, and ultimately abandoned any pretenses to being socialist — reformist or otherwise. The communist movement that split off in 1917, swearing to uphold Social Democracy’s revolutionary vision, ended up producing its own — oftentimes more brutal — oligarchy.

It is thus unsurprising that Political Parties continues to resonate today, given that it was one of the first analyses of the challenges that confront anyone trying to build a powerful social movement. Running in elections and building mass organizations were crucial stepping stones on the path to building working-class power one hundred years ago. They brought the movement prominence, influence, and, at least for a while, millions of devoted followers who could back up the movement’s demands with mass protests and strike action. At the same time, they undeniably laid the groundwork for its incorporation into the capitalist system. Was Michels right after all?

Like any mass movement, classical Social Democracy was host to a wide variety of currents and opinions over which the leadership had only limited control. As the exceedingly moderate Max Weber pointed out in a critique of Michels, workers in large cities were often decidedly more radical and willing to engage in direct confrontations — a fact made dramatically clear by the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe toward the end of World War I, when workers from Belfast to Bialystok engaged in mass actions to stop the senseless killing and overthrow the governments responsible for it. The emergence of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in 1917 and the formation of the Communist International two years later demonstrated that Michels’s notion of a docile working class may have been true in some cases, but certainly not all.

Indeed, it was only after the postwar revolutions failed or were defeated that a broadly “reformist” outlook became the Social Democratic consensus. It’s tempting to denounce this shift as a betrayal by the party leadership — after all, history is full of social democrats collaborating with their respective ruling classes — but the reality is a bit more complicated. Ultimately, none of the revolutionary movements outside of Russia managed to win over a majority of the working class and hold onto power for more than a few months. Even in Germany, where the revolutionaries were particularly strong and took years to defeat, they found themselves consistently outnumbered. Social Democracy’s leaders may have had no interest in Michels’s “social revolution,” but ultimately most workers also seemed to prefer reformism’s modest gains over a leap into the revolutionary unknown.

And who could blame them? Even in the interwar period, European social democracy pushed forward bold plans for social housing, public health insurance, and other components of what we now call the welfare state. These reforms were always limited and faced harsh opposition from the Right, but they bettered the lives of millions through improved working conditions, higher wages, access to education, and a degree of social security that allowed them to participate in society in a way previous generations could not.

In doing so they also raised up generations of local activists and leaders who understood their class interests and were committed to defending them by joining the labor unions and socialist parties. Even after fascism decimated their ranks, the continued strength of social democratic (and sometimes communist) parties laid the basis for the shared prosperity of the postwar compromise — an era that, notwithstanding its many problems, seems almost utopian today. Social democracy failed to overthrow capitalism, but life had never been better for the workers who labored under it — thanks to the movement.

Building Back Better

If social science has learned anything since Michels’s day, it’s that social developments do not proceed in straight lines or adhere to universal laws. History is full of struggles for power between different social groups, some of which do a better job of organizing themselves and emerge on top. But their rule rarely goes unopposed, even if it may appear so after decades of defeat. Sooner or later, political actors try to cohere that opposition into an organized form. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail.

The most recent example of this fact is the reemergence of a small, but nevertheless remarkable socialist movement that, in a little over a decade, has managed to influence public discourse and establish political footholds in countries around the world. Though much has changed since socialism’s first trial run, many of its organizational dilemmas remain the same.

The pitfalls that come with any democratic socialist organization are real, but the political frustration that shaped Political Parties does not offer a particularly useful guide for thinking about how to overcome them. For all his invective against historical materialism and the “dogma of socialism,” Michels merely inverted what he claimed to oppose: Socialism, once inevitable, was now impossible.

Whether socialism is possible can only be answered when society gets there, but until then, capitalism could definitely use some major social democratic reforms. And for all their flaws, political parties have proven to be the most effective vehicles for organizing large groups of people to fight for those kinds of reforms. To use this tool effectively, socialists must be sensitive to their weaknesses as well as their advantages.

While delegational representation is far from perfect, mechanisms can be set up within organizations to ensure accountability and give members the opportunity to overturn unpopular decisions, along with forums, publications, and other channels to express opinions. Charismatic leaders can have a pacifying effect on the membership, but can also serve as powerful rallying points for people who otherwise might not have taken notice. In the best-case scenario, parties can harness a leader’s popularity to attract new supporters into their ranks, where they potentially become leaders themselves. Running for elections may open the door to compromise, but it also carries socialist ideas into the political mainstream and, potentially, government policy.

In today’s world, where politics has been boxed into the confines of what Angela Merkel once called “market-conforming” democracy, the question of democracy is of utter importance — not only to ensure accountability among socialists, but also to respond to the widespread feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement among the working class. It is here that today’s socialists must succeed where the young Michels failed: Following the disappointment of his revolutionary ambitions, he saw no other way out than to fall back into reactionary pessimism.

Bearing that ill-fated trajectory in mind, we must move beyond a romanticized notion of social transformation carried out purely by a mass movement “from below” to a realistic assessment of what organizational forms we need to reach our goals. Regardless of how unappealing the political parties of today might be, there’s no way around it: We need mass parties of the working class.