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Low Pressure

(spring 1960)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 1, Spring 1960, p. 30.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Pressure Group Politics
Harry Eckstein
Allan & Unwin. 16s.

This is not an exciting book. Excitement is a characteristic political scientists usually try to eradicate, and they frequently achieve a high degree of success. In addition, Professor Eckstein employs goodly lumps of modern American sociological jargon – which makes the discovery of his thoughts somewhat of an intellectual detective story.

However, what has he to say? His account of the British Medical Association is relatively straight-forward (a complementary volume to his history of the BMA, published earlier) and recounts the attempts of the BMA to achieve set ends through pressure on the administration. Rightly, he adjudges these attempts to have only minimal significance in the broad lines of government policy although on specific issues, concessions in detail have been achieved. It is in his wider treatment that difficulties arise – the BMA cannot be said to be a general prototype of the pressure group if such a thing could be thought of, nor is it of striking political significance in itself. Eckstein rejects the phony attempt (of Truman and Finer, more notably) to use a ‘value-free’ term instead of ‘pressure-group’ – but does not disentangle himself from the general mystique of ‘Science’ which is the smoke-screen behind which American sociology constructs the more elaborate ideological supports for the status quo. So, Eckstein ends his account on a more general plane which seeks to establish not merely the harmlessness of pressure groups in general, but their positive contribution to that old shibboleth, the ‘public interest’ viz. ‘the extent of politicalisation of groups is primarily a reflection of the degree of consensus among them. In that sense, the existence of a multiplicity of pressure groups is a sign of health in the political organism not, as the muckrakers thought, a symptom of disease’. The assumption is that pressure groups, the pursuit of particular interests, do not conflict with the ‘general interest’ but this is a feeble point when no-one knows whether the ‘general interest’ (as usually used) is much more than the escape route for frightened Defence Ministers etc.

Given that pressure groups arise and are strengthened where mass apathy exists (Eckstein’s point), there is no immutable law that they have equal rights and represent all representable interests (and what a contemptible level of politics this is) – is it not just possible that the Old Age Pensioners are in a slightly weaker position than, say, The Federation of British Industries, or does that old ghost The Harmony of Interests still carry out its task of achieving the greatest happiness etc.? Might not the highest electioneering bribe play just a small part in which demands are accepted in Whitehall and which not?

But there are other points of interest. ‘Consensus’ is Eckstein’s term for ‘apathy’ among members of the given pressure group or externally – and, the argument tends to say, apathy is an inevitable pre-condition of most politics – so ‘the influence of private groups is greatest when, from the standpoint of democratic values, it matters least whether it is great or small’.

Pace the Old Aged Pensioners. But, in any case, as rank-and-file control is a piece of political mythology anyway, pressure groups are both desirable and ‘an inevitable term in the syndrome of an effective democratic system’. Thus none of us need worry – all grievances will be redressed in time, and significantly, through pressure on the Ministers and departments, not the Commons. The Medieval corporate state is in embryo.

In its own terms, Eckstein’s analysis is shallow and incomplete; more positively, in the long term it is ahistorical and rigged in favour of the de facto. Of course, only a class analysis could reveal the really interesting aspects of the maintenance of group stratification – the doctrine of ‘sinister interests’ has rarely been much more than cheap campaigning slang. However, the growth of academic interest in pressure groups as well as the growth in those groups is a significant marginal note to contemporary political affairs as well as an insight into the torpid atmosphere of academic political science. Perhaps International Socialism should take up the approach and ‘make representations to HM Government on the realisation of socialism.’

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