Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy

By Robert Michels; Cedar Paul et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Referendum

IN THE domain of public law, democracy attains it culminating point in that complex of institutions which exists in Switzerland, where the people possess the right of the referendum and that of the initiative. The use of the referendum is compulsory in Switzerland upon a number of questions which are statutorily determined. The legislative measures drawn up by the representative body must then be submitted to a popular vote, for acceptance or rejection. In addition, the burghers exercise the power of direct legislation. When a certain number of voters demand the repeal of an existing law or the introduction of a new one, the matter must be submitted to popular vote. These important popular rights are supplemented by the direct popular election of the supreme executive authorities, as in the United States. Although these democratic ordinances have often in actual practice proved but little democratic in their results (the referendum, above all, having frequently shown that the democratic masses possess less democratic understanding than the representative government), and although leading socialists have therefore with good reason sharply criticized these manifestations of democracy, other socialists look to these institutions for the definitive solution of all questions of public law, and for the practical contradiction of the opinion that oligarchy arises by natural necessity, contending that by the referendum and by the initiative the decisive influence in legislative matters is transferred from the representative assembly to the totality of the citizens.

Now the democratic parties, as far as their internal organization is concerned, have either failed to adopt the principles of direct popular sovereignty, or else have accepted application of these only after prolonged hesitation and in exceptional cases. From the democratic point of view they are therefore inferior to many of the Swiss cantons. For example, German social democracy does not submit the deliberations of its congresses to ratification by the party as a whole. Moreover, and here the German arrangements differ from those which obtain among the socialists of Italy, France, and England

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