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

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

Chapter 3
Identification of the Party with the Leader ("Le Parti c'est Moi")

WE HAVE shown that in their struggle against their enemies within the party the leaders of the labor movement pursue a tactic and adopt an attitude differing very little from those of the "bourgeois" government in its struggle with "subversive" elements. The terminology which the powers-that-be employ is, mutatis mutandis, identical in the two cases. The same accusations are launched against the rebels, and the same arguments are utilized in defense of the established order: in one case an appeal is made for the preservation of the state; in the other, for that of the party. In both cases, also, there is the same confusion of ideas when the attempt is made to define the relationships between thing and person, individual and collectivity. The authoritarian spirit of the official representatives of the German Socialist Party (a spirit which necessarily characterizes every strong organization) exhibits several striking analogies with the authoritarian spirit of the official representatives of the German empire. On the one side we have William II, who advises the "malcontents," that is to say those of his subjects who do not consider that all is for the best in the best of all possible empires, to shake the dust off their feet and go elsewhere. On the other side we have Bebel, exclaiming that it is time to have done once for all with the eternal discontents and sowings of discord within the party, and expressing the opinion that the opposition, if it is unable to express itself as satisfied with the conduct of affairs by the executive, had better "clear out."1 Between these two attitudes, can we find any difference other than that which separates a voluntary organization (the party), to which one is free to adhere or not as one pleases, from a coercive organization (the state), to which all must belong by the fact of birth?2

____________________
1
August Bebel, speech to the Dresden congress, Protokoll, p. 308.
2
In the text, the writer has repeatedly mentioned the name of Bebel when he has wished to illustrate by typical examples the conduct of the leaders towards the masses. Yet it would be erroneous to regard Bebel as a typical leader. He was raised above the average of leaders, not only by his great intellectual gifts, but also by his profound sincerity, the outcome of a strong and healthy temperament, which often led him to say things openly which others would have left unsaid and to do things openly which others would have left concealed. It was for this reason that "Kaiser Bebel" was frequently exposed to the suspicion of being exceptionally autocratic in his conduct and undemocratic in his sentiments. Nevertheless, a thorough analysis of Bebel's character and of his conduct on various memorable occasions would establish that, side by side with a marked tendency to self-assertion and a taste for the intrinsic forms of rule, he exhibited strong democratic leanings, which distinguished him from the average of his colleagues, just as much as he was distinguished from them by the frankness with which he always displayed his dictatorial temperament. This is not the place for such an analysis, but the writer felt it was necessary to guard against a false interpretation of his references to Bebel by a brief allusion to the complexity of character of this remarkable man. In ultimate analysis, Bebel was no more than a representative of his party, but he was one in whom the individual note was never suppressed by the exigencies of leadership or of demagogy.

-220-

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