E. Belfort Bax

A Profound Work with a Bad Title

(28 September 1916)

E. Belfort Bax, A Profound Work With a Bad Title, Michel’s Political Parties, Justice, 28th September 1916, p.7. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

Political Parties by Professor Robert Michels. (Jarrold & Sons, 10 and 11, Warwick Lane, E.C.) 12s.6d

This thoughtful, well-documented, and, we do not hesitate to say, in many of its criticisms, profound study of the psychology of social organisation, labours under what we fear from the book-selling point of view is a most unfortunate title. If we are not mistaken, there are many readers who would be repelled by the idea of wading through a thick and closely printed volume devoted to the subject of “political parties” sans phrase. Should they, however, have the courage to brave the somewhat banal title of the book they will certainly be rewarded. For it undoubtedly affords the most important study in political science and practical sociology that has been published for some time.

The name of Professor Michels will not be unknown to members of the National Socialist party. By birth a German of the Germans, the tall, blonde, handsome, dolichocephalic German of the Tacitus type, Michels was originally designed for the military profession, but disgusted by the cruelties practised on recruits in the Prusso-German Army he threw up his officers commission and decided to devote himself to an academic career. His studies, combined with his hatred of Prussian militarism, before long led him to join the Social-Democratic Party. He was, however, no party man in the sense of leader worship and soon fell into disfavour enough through an admirable criticism of the chief men of the Reichstag fraction, not sparing Bebel himself, which he published in 1907. His criticism, it should be said, was more than justified by subsequent events. Nevertheless it is significant that this led to his being ostracised by many leading men of the German and Austrian Socialist organisations. Our author later on became Professor of Political Economy at the Turin University and shortly before the war was called to occupy the chair of Economics and Statistics at the University of Basel, which he still holds.

But to return from the personal history to the book of Professor Michels: its aim is to analyse the structure of all political parties, a structure based on certain laws of social organisation generally. Our author finds a universal tendency in all social organisation, and a fortiori in all political parties, to develop an oligarchy. The point thus sought to be proved empirically by an immense number of instances, it is endeavoured to establish as a sociological law, deriving from individual psychology, from mass-psychology, and from the inherent necessities of social and political organisation itself. The corollary to be drawn from this is naturally that a true democracy, a really democratic organisation, cannot permanently exist. From one point of view this conclusion might seem not to touch Socialism very closely. For, as Friedrich Engels long ago pointed out, a fully realised Socialist commonwealth will have relegated democracy to the limbo of other “ocracies” and “archies” – aristocracy, monarchy, etc. All these things imply the coercion, the government, of persons, whereas Socialism stands for the organisation, the regulation, of things and social processes.

But though the ideal Socialist community will have superseded democracy, we shall all agree that the way to it must lie through democracy in some form or shape. Hence any successful demonstration of the futility or impossibility of democracy cannot leave Socialists unmoved. It therefore behoves us to ponder carefully over the theme of Professor Michels’s book, and to consider without prejudice the arguments in his indictment of the efficiency of the democratic principle as hitherto understood and realised. Michels’s conclusion from the extensive evidence he is able to bring forward is frankly pessimistic. Democracy is, according to our author, a fraud, and a fraud by the inherent necessity of its constitution. The reason of this is that democracy, in so far as it develops an outward success, does so at the expense of its innermost principle. It may gain the whole world, but loses its own soul in the process. Democracy necessarily develops out of its own loins, so to say, an oligarchy which usurps all the functions properly belonging to it. This is, according to Michels, inevitable, and in the long run there is no evading it.

The theme itself is as old as Rousseau, but it has certainly never been worked out with the fulness of illustration and logical consistency that we find in the present work. The question which chiefly interests us is, Does the acute analysis of the conditions of social organisation in general, combined with the copious array of facts brought forward in these pages, justify, or indeed render inevitable, the note of pessimism with which the author concludes his treatise? Is there no way out of the “iron law” which it is contended, condemns all democratic communities and democratic organisations to make shipwreck on the shoal of oligarchy? In spite of the pessimism of the last paragraph of the book (p.425) we find three pages earlier (p.422) the habitually despairing outlook of the author brightens a little. He even seeks to explain away to some extent the gloom of his view by the excuse that “it seemed necessary to lay considerable stress upon the pessimistic aspect of democracy which is forced on us by historical study.” Again, he further defines his object as “the demolition of some of the facile and superficial democratic illusions which trouble science and lead the masses astray.” Further on, on the same page, he admits that every sincerely democratic movement may contribute “to the enfeeblement of oligarchic tendencies.” This last is certainly, considering the general tenour of Michels’s argument, a very important admission, and one which, even if we accept the author’s general position without reserve, lets in a broad enough ray light on to our hopes for progress.

As a matter of fact, however, Michels, in playing the part of advocatus diaboli, does certainly lay on the black colour with a liberal hand. Bad as things are and have been in the past in this respect, they are still not quite so hopeless as he paints them. The book is, without question, an advocate’s indictment of the past history (i.e., the recent past history) of democracy, whether political, industrial, or Socialistic. The logical and convincing style of Michels powerfully helps the statement of his case. By his work, in spite of the tendency to overstatement spoken of, excusable perhaps under the circumstances, he has performed a real service to Social-Democracy, and we can only hope that when the war is over and the International Socialist Party begins again to reconstitute itself, the book will receive the attention it deserves.

Indeed, the neglect of Robert Michels’s warning criticism would be nothing less than treason to the Socialist cause. The oligarchic danger exposed in the book under consideration is a matter of the very first importance. We have to recognise and combat excessive hero worship and subserviency to party discipline, of which we have had such a terrible example recently in Germany, but we have also to recognise the danger that lies in the necessary development and functions of organisation itself. The tendency recently shown by some of the English trade unions so adversely commented upon by the bourgeois Press, to ignore or throw overboard the decisions of their leaders is, up to a certain point, doubtless a healthy sign and, so far as it goes makes against the absoluteness of Michels’s thesis. That for all effective organisation of whatever kind, leadership, and a corresponding discipline or subordination, is necessary there is no doubt. But one of the chief dangers lies, as Michels points out, in the continuance of the delegated power in the same hands; and the predominance of personalities over principles. There is, of course, a gain in efficiency in continuity of leadership, but this gain is assuredly bought at too high a price, where it involves, as Michels has shown, the degeneration of leadership into oligarchy, with the inevitable corruption of personal character which follows it, within the organisation.

As a choice of two evils it may fairly be doubted whether it is not better to sacrifice to some extent the advantages gained by experience and the continuity of personal influence, and make all posts, certainly in a political party, not merely revocable at the will of its members, but compulsorily terminable without re election at the end of a given period of office. Of the evils of the influence of more or less permanent leadership and of exaggerated party discipline we have the recent and crucial example already referred to of the German Social-Democratic Party. Here, as in other similar cases, though in the latter perhaps in less extreme a form, we see the disastrous result of the party ceasing to be a means to an end, to wit, the realisation of certain ideal principles, and becoming an end in itself. The integrity and prosperity of the party organisation becomes henceforward the supreme object, for the sake of which mere principles when inconvenient may go by the board. The great lesson to be learnt in all Socialist parties is the subordination of the party organisation and its welfare, as such to the maintenance of Socialist principles in their integrity. In this we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the interested holders of party office in throwing the accusation of Anarchism against those for whom principle stands before party, or to their terrible warnings that by a too strict adhesion to principle the party will degenerate into a sect. Better a sect with principles and an ideal than a party without them. The fate of the German party is indeed a warning that, let us hope, will not pass unheeded.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 28.5.2007