Political Party, a group of persons organized to acquire and exercise political power. Political parties originated in their modern form in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, along with the electoral and parliamentary systems, whose development reflects the evolution of parties. The term party has since come to be applied to all organized groups seeking political power, whether by democratic elections or by revolution.
In earlier, pre revolutionary, aristocratic and monarchical regimes, the political process unfolded within restricted circles in which cliques and factions, grouped around particular noblemen or influential personalities, were opposed to one another. The establishment of parliamentary regimes and the appearance of parties at first scarcely changed this situation. To cliques formed around princes, dukes, counts, or marquesses there were added cliques formed around bankers, merchants, industrialists, and businessmen. Regimes supported by nobles were succeeded by regimes supported by other elites. These narrowly based parties were later transformed to a greater or lesser extent, for in the 19th century in Europe and America there emerged parties depending on mass support.
The 20th century saw the spread of political parties throughout the entire world. In Africa large parties have sometimes been formed in which a modern organization has a more traditional ethnic or tribal basis; in such cases the party leadership is frequently made up of tribal chiefs. In certain areas of Asia, membership in modern political parties is often determined largely by religious factors or by affiliation with ritual brotherhoods. Many political parties in the developing countries are partly political, partly military. Certain Socialist and Communist parties in Europe earlier experienced the same tendencies.
These last-mentioned European parties have demonstrated an equal aptitude for functioning within multiparty democracies and as the sole political party in a dictatorship. Developing originally within the framework of liberal democracy in the 19th century, political parties have been used in the 20th century by dictatorships for entirely undemocratic purposes.
Types of political party
A fundamental distinction can be made between cadre parties and mass-based parties. The two forms coexist in many countries, particularly in western Europe, where Communist and Socialist parties have emerged alongside the older conservative and liberal parties. Many parties do not fall exactly into either category but combine some characteristics of both.
Cadre parties—i.e., parties dominated by politically elite groups of activists—developed in Europe and America during the 19th century. Except in some of the states of the United States, France from 1848, and the German Empire from suffrage was largely restricted to taxpayers and property owners, and, even when the right to vote was given to larger numbers of people, political influence was essentially limited to a very small segment of the population. The mass of people were limited to the role of spectators rather than that of active participants.
The cadre parties of the 19th century reflected a fundamental conflict between two classes: the aristocracy on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other. The former, composed of landowners, depended upon rural estates on which a generally unlettered peasantry was held back by a traditionalist clergy. The bourgeoisie, made up of industrialists, merchants, tradesmen, bankers, financiers, and professional people, depended upon the lower classes of clerks and industrial workers in the cities. Both aristocracy and bourgeoisie evolved its own ideology. Bourgeois liberal ideology developed first, originating at the time of the English revolution of the 17th century in the writings of John Locke, an English philosopher. It was then developed by French philosophers of the 18th century. In its clamouring for formal legal equality and acceptance of the inequities of circumstance, liberal ideology reflected the interests of the bourgeoisie, who wished to destroy the privileges of the aristocracy and eliminate the lingering economic restraints of feudalism and mercantilism. But, insofar as it set forth an egalitarian ideal and a demand for liberty, bourgeois classical liberalism expressed aspirations common to all men. Conservative ideology, on the other hand, never succeeded in defining themes that would prove as attractive, for it appeared to be more closely allied to the interests of the aristocracy. For a considerable period, however, conservative sentiment did maintain a considerable impact among the people, since it was presented as the expression of the will of God. In Catholic countries, in which religion was based upon a hierarchically structured and authoritarian clergy, the conservative parties were often the clerical parties, as in France, Italy, and Belgium.
Conservative and liberal cadre parties dominated European politics in the 19th century. Developing during a period of great social and economic upheaval, they exercised power largely through electoral and parliamentary activity. Once in power, their leaders used the power of the army or of the police; the party itself was not generally organized for violent activity. Its local units were charged with assuring moral and financial backing to candidates at election time, as well as with maintaining continual contact between elected officials and the electorate. The national organization endeavoured to unify the party members who had been elected to the assemblies. In general, the local committees maintained a basic autonomy and each legislator a large measure of independence. The party discipline in voting established by the British parties—which were older because of the fact that the British Parliament was long established—was imitated on the Continent hardly at all.
The first United States political parties of the 19th century were not particularly different from European cadre parties, except that their confrontations were less violent and based less on ideology. The first United States form of the struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, between conservative and liberal, was carried out in the form of the Revolutionary War, in which Great Britain embodied the power of the king and the nobility, and the insurgents that of bourgeoisie and liberalism. Such an interpretation is, of course, simplified. There were some aristocrats in the South and, in particular, an aristocratic spirit based on the institutions of slaveholding and paternalistic ownership of land. In this sense, the Civil War could be considered as a second phase of violent conflict between the conservatives and the liberals. Nevertheless, the United States was from the beginning an essentially bourgeois civilization, based on a deep sense of equality and of individual freedom. Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Republicans and Democrats—all belonged to the liberal family since all shared the same basic ideology and the same system of fundamental values and differed only in the means by which they would realize their beliefs.
In terms of party structure, United States parties in the beginning differed little from their European counterparts. Like them, the United States parties were composed of local notables. The ties of a local committee to a national organization were even weaker than in Europe. At the state level there was some effective coordination of local party organizations, but at the national level such coordination did not exist. A more original structure was developed after the Civil War—in the South to exploit the vote of the blacks and along the East Coast to control the votes of immigrants. The extreme decentralization in the United States enabled a party to establish a local quasi-dictatorship in a city or county by capturing all of the key posts in an election. Not only the position of mayor but also the police finances, and the courts came under the control of the party machine, and the machine was thus a development of the original cadre parties. The local party committee came typically to be composed of adventurers or gangsters who wanted to control the distribution of wealth and to ensure the continuation of their control. These men were themselves controlled by the power of the boss, the political leader who controlled the machine at the city, county, or state levels. At the direction of the committee, each constituency was carefully divided, and every precinct was watched closely by an agent of the party, the captain, who was responsible for securing votes for the party. Various rewards were offered to voters in return for the promise of their votes. The machine could offer such inducements as union jobs, trader’s licences, immunity from the police, and the like. Operating in this manner, a party could frequently guarantee a majority in an election to the candidates of its choosing, and, once it was in control of local government, of the police, the courts, and public finances, etc., the machine and its clients were assured of impunity in illicit activities such as prostitution and gambling rings and of the granting of public contracts to favoured businessmen.
The degeneration of the party mechanism was not without benefits. The European immigrant who arrived in the United States lost and isolated in a huge and different world might find work and lodging in return for his commitment to the party. In a system of almost pure capitalism and at a time when social services were practically nonexistent, machines and bosses took upon themselves responsibilities that were indispensable to community life. But the moral and material cost of such a system was very high, and the machine was often purely exploitative, performing no services to the community.
By the end of the 19th century the excesses of the machines and the bosses and the closed character of the parties led to the development of primary elections, in which party nominees for office were selected. The primary movement deprived party leaders of the right to dictate candidates for election. A majority of the states adopted the primary system in one form or another between 1900 and 1920. The aim of the system was to make the parties more democratic by opening them up to the general public in the hope of counterbalancing the influence of the party committees. In practice, the aim was not realized, for the committees retained the upper hand in the selection of candidates for the primaries.
In its original form the British Labour Party constituted a new type of cadre party, forming an intermediate link with the mass-based parties. It was formed with the support of trade unions and left-wing intellectuals. At the base, each local organization sent representatives to a district labour committee, which was in turn represented at the national congress.
The early (pre-1918) Labour Party was thus structured of many local and regional organizations. It was not possible to join the party directly; membership came only through an affiliated body, such as a trade union. It thus represented a new type of party, depending not upon highly political individuals brought together as a result of their desire to acquire and wield power but upon the organized representatives of a broader interest—the working class. Certain Christian Democrat parties—the Belgian Social Christian Party between the two world wars and the Austrian Popular Party, for example—had an analogous structure: a federation of unions, agricultural organizations, middle class movements, employers’ associations, etc. After 1918, the Labour Party developed a policy of direct membership on the model of the continental Socialist parties, individual members being permitted to join local-constituency branches. The majority of its membership, however, continued to be affiliated rather than direct.
Cadre parties normally organize a relatively small number of party adherents. Mass-based parties, on the other hand, unite hundreds of thousands of followers, sometimes millions. But the number of members is not the only criterion of a mass-based party. The essential factor is that such a party attempts to base itself on an appeal to the masses. It attempts to organize not only those who are influential or well known or those who represent special interest groups but rather any citizen who is willing to join the party. If such a party succeeds in gathering only a few adherents, then it is mass based only in potential. It remains, nevertheless, different from the cadre-type parties.
At the end of the 19th century the Socialist parties of continental Europe organized themselves on a mass basis in order to educate and to organize the growing population of labourers and wage earners, which industrialization was making increasingly large and which was becoming more important politically because of extensions of the suffrage, and to gather the money necessary for propaganda by mobilizing in a regular fashion the resources of those who, although poor, were numerous. Membership campaigns were conducted, and each member paid party dues. If its members became sufficiently numerous, the party emerged as a powerful organization, managing large funds and diffusing its ideas among an important segment of the population. Such was the case with the German Social Democratic Party, which by 1913 had more than 1,000,000 members.
Such organizations were necessarily rigidly structured. The party required an exact registration of membership, treasurers to collect dues, secretaries to call and lead local meetings, and a hierarchical framework for the coordination of the thousands of local sections. A tradition of collective action and group discipline, more developed among workers as a result of their participation in strikes and other union activity, favoured the development and centralization of party organization.
A complex party organization tends to give a great deal of influence to those who have responsibility at various levels in the hierarchy, resulting in certain oligarchical tendencies. The Socialist parties made an effort to control this tendency by developing democratic procedures in the choice of leaders. At every level those in responsible positions were elected by members of the party. Every local party group would elect delegates to regional and national congresses, at which party candidates and party leaders would be chosen and party policy decided.
The type of mass-based party described above was imitated by many non-Socialist parties. Some cadre-type parties in Europe, both conservative and liberal, attempted to transform themselves along similar lines. The Christian Democrat parties often developed organizations copied even more directly from the mass-based model. But non-Socialist parties were generally less successful in establishing rigid and disciplined organizations.
The first Communist parties were splinter groups of existing Socialist parties and at first adopted the organization of these parties. After 1924, as a result of a decision of the Comintern (the Third International, or federation of working class parties), all Communist parties were transformed along the lines of the Soviet model, becoming mass parties based on the membership of the largest possible number of citizens, although membership was and is limited to those who embraced and espoused the ideology of Marxism–Leninism.
The Communist parties developed a new structural organization: whereas the local committees of cadre and Socialist parties focussed their organizing efforts and drew their support from a particular geographical area, Communist groups formed their cells in the place of work. The work-place cell was the first original element in Communist party organization. It grouped together all party members who depended upon the same firm, workshop, or store or the same professional institution (school or university, for example). Party members thus tended to be tightly organized, their solidarity, resulting from a common occupation, being stronger than that based upon residence.
The work-place-cell system proved to be effective, and other parties tried to imitate it, generally without success. Such an organization leads each cell to concern itself with problems of a corporate and professional nature rather than with those of a more political nature. These basic groups, however, smaller and, therefore, more numerous than the Socialist sections, tend to go their separate way. It is necessary to have a very strong party structure and for party leaders to have extensive authority if the groups are to resist such centrifugal pressure.
This has resulted in a second distinctive characteristic of the Communist parties: a high degree of centralization. Although all mass-based parties tend to be centralized, Communist parties are more so than others. There is, in principle, free discussion, which is supposedly developed at every level before a decision is made, but afterward all must adhere to the decision that has been made by the central body. The splintering that has from time to time divided or paralyzed the Socialist parties is forbidden in Communist parties, which have generally succeeded in maintaining their unity. A further distinctive characteristic of Communist parties is the importance given to ideology. All parties have a doctrine or at least a platform. The European Socialist parties, which were doctrinaire before 1914 and between the two wars, later became more pragmatic, not to say opportunistic. But, in Communist parties, ideology occupies a much more fundamental place, a primary concern of the party being to indoctrinate its members with Marxism.
The 1920s and ’30s saw the emergence of Fascist parties that attempted, as do the Communist and Socialist parties, to organize the maximum number of members but that did not claim to represent the great masses of people. Their teaching was authoritarian and elitist. They thought that societies should be directed by the most talented and capable people—by an elite. The party leadership, grouped under the absolute authority of a supreme head, constituted such an elite. Party structure had as its goal the assurance of the obedience of the elite.
This structure resembled that of armies, which are also organized in such a way as to ensure, by means of rigorous discipline, the obedience of a large number of men to an elite leadership. The party structure, therefore, made use of a military-type organization, consisting of a pyramid made up of units that at the base were very tiny but that, when joined with other units, formed groups that got larger and larger. Uniforms, ranks, orders, salutes, marches, and unquestioning obedience were all aspects of Fascist parties. This similarity rests upon another factor; namely, that Fascist doctrine taught that power must be seized by organized minorities making use of force. The party thus made use of a militia intended to assure victory in the struggle for control over the unorganized masses.
Large parties built upon the Fascist model developed between the two wars in Italy and Germany, where they actually came into power. Fascist parties appeared also in most other countries of western Europe during this period but were unable to achieve power. The less-developed nations of eastern Europe and Latin America were equally infected by the movement. The victory of the Allies in 1945, as well as the revelation of the horrors of Nazism, stopped the growth of the Fascists and provoked their decline, but Fascist-type party organization and doctrine remain a potent means of exercising power.
Parties and political power
Whether they are conservative or revolutionary, whether they are a union of notables or an organization of the masses, whether they function in a pluralistic democracy or in a monolithic dictatorship, parties have one function in common: they all participate to some extent in the exercise of political power, whether by forming a government or by exercising the function of opposition, a function that is often of crucial importance in the determination of national policy.
The struggle for power
It is possible in theory to distinguish revolutionary parties, which attempt to gain power by violence (conspiracies, guerrilla warfare, etc.), from those parties working within the legal framework of elections. But the distinction is not always easy to make, because the same parties may sometimes make use of both procedures, either simultaneously or successively, depending upon the circumstances. In the 1920s, for example, Communist parties sought power through elections at the same time that they were developing an underground activity of a revolutionary nature. In the 19th century, liberal parties were in the same situation, sometimes employing the techniques of conspiracy, as in Italy, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia, and sometimes confining their struggles to the ballot box, as in Great Britain and France.
Revolutionary methods vary greatly. Clandestine plots by which minority groups seize the centres of power presuppose monarchies or dictatorships in which the masses of people have little say in government. But terrorist and disruptive activity can serve to mobilize citizens and to demonstrate the powerlessness of any government. At the beginning of the 20th century leftist trade unionists extolled the revolutionary general strike, a total stoppage of all economic activity that would paralyze society completely and put the government at the revolutionaries’ mercy. Rural guerrilla activity has often been used in countries with a predominantly agrarian society; urban guerrilla warfare was effective in the European revolutions of the 19th century, but the development of techniques of police and military control has made such activity more difficult.
Revolutionary parties are less numerous than parties that work within the law: the contest at election time is the means normally used in the struggle for power. Such activity corresponds, morever, to the original nature of political parties and involves three factors: the organization of propaganda, the selection of candidates, and the financing of campaigns. The first function is the most visible. The party first of all gives the candidate a label that serves to introduce him to the voters and to identify his position. Because of this party label the voters are better able to distinguish the candidates. The promises and declarations of individuals are seldom taken with too much seriousness, and it means more to indicate that one candidate is a Communist, another a Socialist, a third a Fascist, and a fourth a liberal. Finally, the party also furnishes the candidate with workers to raise funds, put up his posters, distribute his literature, organize his meetings, and canvass from door to door.
The function of selecting candidates is exercised in three ways. In cadre parties, candidates are selected by committees of the party activists who make up the party—the caucus system, as it is known in the United States. In general, local committees play essential roles in this regard. In some countries, however, the selection is centralized by a national caucus, as, for example, by the Conservative Party in Britain and the Union of Democrats in France. In mass-based parties, selection is made by members of the regional and national congresses according to apparently democratic procedures; in actual practice, the governing committees play an essential role, the local constituency members generally ratifying their choice. Thirdly, in the United States the mechanism of primary elections has established a system for selecting candidates by means of the votes of all party members or all voters within a particular electoral district.
The various processes of selecting candidates do not, however, differ significantly in their results, for it is almost always the party leaders who play the essential role. This introduces an oligarchical tendency into party politics, a tendency that has not been overcome by the congresses of the mass-based parties or the United States primaries, which provide only a partial limitation on the power of the governing committees.
An important aspect of the struggle for power between political parties is the financing of campaigns. Cadre parties always have in their committees some key figure having connections with businessmen who is responsible for collecting gifts from them. In mass-based parties, rather than looking for large sums of money from a few people, leaders gather smaller sums from a large number of people who usually give on a monthly or annual basis. This method has been viewed as one of the distinguishing characteristics of mass-based parties. Sometimes the law intervenes in the financing of elections and of parties. Laws often limit campaign expenses and attempt to restrict the resources of the parties, but they are generally inoperative because it is quite easy to circumvent them. In some countries the state contributes public funds to the parties. At first, such financial participation was limited to expenses for campaigns and was based on the uniform treatment of candidates (as in France), but in Sweden and Finland the state contributes to the general finances of parties.
Participation in power
Only the functions of parties in democratic regimes will be considered at this time. The role of the single party in a dictatorship will be analyzed separately.
Once a political party has achieved electoral victory, the question arises of how much influence the party is to have on the government. The influence of the party on members in elective office is frequently quite weak. It defines the general lines of their activity, but these lines can be quite hazy, and few decisions are taken in the periodic meetings between officeholders and their party. Each member of the legislature retains personal freedom of action in his participation in debates, in his participation in government, and, especially, in his voting. The party may, of course, attempt to enforce the party line, but parliamentary or congressional members cannot be compelled to vote the way the party wants them to. Such is the situation in the United States, within most of the liberal and conservative European parties, and within cadre parties in general.
The question of how disciplined a party is, of the extent to which it will always present a united front, enables a distinction to be made between what may be termed rigid and flexible parties; that is, between those that attempt always to be united and disciplined, following what is most often an ideologically based party line, and those that, representing a broader range of interests and points of view, form legislatures that are assemblies of individuals rather than of parties.
Whether the parties operating within a particular system will be rigid or flexible depends largely on the constitutional provisions that determine the circumstances in which a government may continue in office. This is clearly illustrated by comparing the situation in the United States with that in Great Britain. In the United States the president and his government continue in office for the constitutionally defined period of four years, regardless of whether a majority in the legislature supports him or not. Since a united party is thus not crucial to the immediate survival of the government, both major parties are able to contain broad coalitions of interests, and votes on issues of major importance frequently split each party. In the United Kingdom the situation is quite different. There, government can continue in office only so long as it commands a majority in the legislature. A single adverse vote can result in the dissolution of Parliament and a general election. Party discipline and unity are thus of crucial importance, and this fact has far-reaching consequences for the composition, organization, and policies of each party. The consequences of party disunity within such a constitutional framework are well illustrated by the weakness and instability of the governments of the Third and Fourth French republics.
The distinction between flexible and rigid parties applies equally to parties in power and to those forming the opposition. Votes of censure or of lack of confidence, votes on proposed legislation or on the budget, questions put to ministers or challenges made to them—in short, all the functions of an opposition party—are worked out differently in flexible and rigid party systems.
In flexible party systems the absence of strong discipline is often of great consequence to the opposition party because only rigid parties can constitute an opposition force sufficiently strong to counterbalance the strength of the party in power. At the same time, party discipline permits the opposition to present the public with an alternative to the majority party; the logical consequence of such a situation is Britain’s “shadow cabinet,” which accustoms the electorate to the idea that a new group is ready to take over the reins of government.
Parties provide, moreover, a channel of communication between opposition legislators and the public. The governing party performs a similar service for the government, although it is less necessary, since the government has at its disposal numerous means of communicating with the public. Opposition parties thus provide a means of expressing negative reaction to decisions of government and proposing alternatives. This role justifies the official recognition given to opposition parties, as is the case in Great Britain and Scandinavia.
Power and representation
It is difficult to envisage how representative democracy could function in a large industrialized society without political parties. In order for citizens to be able to make an intelligent choice of representative or president, it is necessary for them to know the real political orientation of each candidate. Party membership provides the clearest indication of this. The programs and promises of each individual candidate are not too significant or informative, because most candidates, in their attempt to gain the most votes, try to avoid difficult subjects; they all tend to speak the same language; that is, to camouflage their real opinions. The fact that one is a Socialist, another a conservative, a third a liberal, and a fourth a Communist provides a far better clue as to how the candidate will perform when in office. In the legislature the discipline of the party limits the possibility that elected representatives will change their minds and their politics, and thus the party label acts as a sort of guarantee that there will be at least some correspondence between promise and performance. Parties make possible the representation of varying shades of opinion by synthesizing different positions into a stance that each representative adopts to a greater or lesser extent.
But parties, like all organizations, tend to manipulate their members to bring them under the control of an inner circle of leaders that often perpetuates itself by cooptation. In cadre parties, members are manipulated by powerful committees containing cliques of influential party leaders. In mass-based parties, leaders are chosen by the members, but incumbents are very often re-elected because they control the party apparatus, using it to ensure their continuation in power.
Democratic political systems, while performing the function of representation, thus rest more or less on the competition of rival oligarchies. But these oligarchies consist of political elites that are open to all with political ambition. No modern democracy could function without parties, the oligarchical tendencies of which are best regarded as a necessary evil.
Party systems may be broken down into three broad categories: two-party, multiparty, and single-party. Such a classification is based not merely on the number of parties operating within a particular country but on a variety of distinctive features that the three systems exhibit. Two-party and multiparty systems represent means of organizing political conflict within pluralistic societies and are thus part of the apparatus of democracy. Single parties usually operate in situations in which genuine political conflict is not tolerated. This broad statement is, however, subject to qualification, for, although single parties do not usually permit the expression of points of view that are fundamentally opposed to the party line or ideology, there may well be intense conflict within these limits over policy within the party itself. And even within a two-party or a multiparty system, debate may become so stymied and a particular coalition of interests so entrenched that the democratic process is seriously compromised.
The distinction between two-party and multiparty systems is not as easily made as it might appear. In any two-party system there are invariably some tiny parties in addition to the two major parties, and there is always the possibility that such small parties might prevent one of the two main parties from gaining a majority of seats in the legislature. This is the case with regard to the Liberal Party in Great Britain, for example. Other countries do not fall clearly into either category; thus, Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany only approximate the two-party system. It is not simply a question of the number of parties that determines the nature of the two-party system; many other elements are of importance, the extent of party discipline in particular.
In Anglo-Saxon countries there is a tendency to consider the two-party system as normal and the multiparty system as the exceptional case. But, in fact, the two-party system that operates in Great Britain, the United States, and New Zealand is much rarer than the multiparty system, which is found in almost all of western Europe.
In western Europe, three major categories of parties have developed since the beginning of the 19th century: conservative, liberal, and Socialist. Each reflects the interests of a particular social class and expounds a particular political ideology. After World War I other categories of parties developed that were partly the result of divisions or transformations of older parties. Communist parties began as splinter groups of Socialist parties, and Christian Democrat parties attempted to weld together moderate Socialists and conservatives and some liberals. Other distinctive types of party emerged in some countries. In Scandinavia, liberal rural parties developed in the 19th century, reflecting a long tradition of separate representation of the rural population. In many countries ethnic minorities formed the basis of nationalist parties, which then either joined existing parties or divided them.
The appearance of Socialism in the 19th century upset the earlier lines of battle between conservatives and liberals and tended to throw the latter two groups into a common defense of capitalism. Logically, this situation should have led to the fusion of conservatives and liberals into one bourgeois party that would have presented a united stand against Socialism. This is, in fact, what happened in Great Britain after World War I.
One of the most important factors determining the number of parties operating within a particular country is the electoral system. Proportional representation tends to favour the development of multiparty systems because it ensures representation in the legislature for even small parties. The majority, single-ballot system tends to produce a two-party system, because it excludes parties that may gain substantial numbers of votes but not the majority of votes necessary to elect a representative within a constituency. The majority system with a second ballot favours a multiparty system tempered by alliances between parties. Such a system is very rare, found only in the German Empire (1871–1914) and in the French Third (1870–1940) and Fifth (since 1958) republics. Voters choose between the parties that did best in a first ballot. This leaves small parties at a disadvantage but, nevertheless, gives them opportunity to strengthen their role during the second balloting as long as they are willing to enter into alliances with the leading parties.
Another factor producing multiparty systems is the intensity of political conflicts. If, within a given political movement, extremists are numerous, then it is difficult for the moderates in that party to join with them in a united front. Two rival parties are likely to be formed. Thus, the power of the Jacobins among 19th-century French liberals contributed to the inability of the moderates to form one great liberal party, as was successfully achieved in Great Britain. Likewise, the power of the extremists among the conservatives was an obstacle to the development of a strong conservative party.
The distinction between the multiparty system and the two-party system corresponds largely to a distinction between two types of Western political regime. In a two-party situation the administration has, in effect, an assurance of a majority in the legislature, deriving from the predominance of one party; it has, therefore, a guarantee of continuance and effectiveness. Such a system is often referred to as majority parliamentarianism. In a multiparty situation, on the other hand, it is quite rare for one party to have a majority in the legislature; governments must, therefore, be founded on coalitions, which are always more heterogeneous and more fragile than a single party. The result is less stability and less political power. Such systems may be referred to as nonmajority parliamentarianism.
In practice, majority and nonmajority parliamentary systems do not coincide exactly with two-party systems and multiparty systems. For, if each of the two parties is flexible and does not control the voting patterns of its members (as is the case in the United States), the numerical majority of one of the parties matters little. It can happen, moreover, that one party in a multiparty system will hold an absolute majority of seats in the legislature so that no coalition is required. Such a situation is unusual but did occur in West Germany, Italy, and Belgium at various times after 1945.
Ordinarily, however, a coalition will be the only means of attaining a parliamentary majority within the framework of the multiparty system. Coalitions are by nature more heterogeneous and more unstable than a grouping made up of one party, but their effectiveness varies greatly according to the discipline and organization of the parties involved. In the case of flexible parties that are undisciplined and that allow each legislator to vote on his own, the coalition will be weak and probably short-lived. The instability and weakness of governments is at its maximum in such situations, of which the Third French Republic provides a good example.
If, on the other hand, the parties involved in a coalition are rigid and disciplined, it is possible for a system quite similar to the two-party system to develop. This is often the case when two opposing alliances are formed, one on the left and one on the right, and when both are strong enough to endure through the legislative session. This type of coalition, referred to as bipolarized, introduces elements of the two-party system into a multiparty framework. A situation of this type has developed in Sweden, where conservative, liberal, and agrarian parties have been aligned against the Social Democrat Party, which eventually allied itself with the Communist Party (1970).
The system of bipolar alliances may be contrasted with the system of a centrist alliance. Rather than the parties on the right forming a centre–right coalition to oppose a centre–left coalition, there is the possibility that the centre–left and the centre–right will join forces and reject the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum. Such a situation occurred in Germany during the Weimar Republic, when the government rested on a majority formed of a coalition of Catholic Centrists and Social Democrats, with opposition coming from the Communists and the nationalists on the extreme left and right.
Centrist coalitions all tend to give the average citizen a sense of political alienation. In rejecting both extremes, coalitions may well be isolating the radical, unstable elements, but the governing coalition may tend to be unresponsive to new ideas, uninspiringly pragmatic, and too ready to compromise. This situation gives rise to a more or less permanent breach between practical politics and political ideals. An advantage of bipolarization or of the two-party system is that the moderates of both sides must collaborate with those who are more extreme in their views, and the extremists must be willing to work with those who are more moderate; the pressure from the extremists prevents the moderates from getting bogged down, while collaboration with the moderates lends a touch of realism to the policies of the extremists.
A fundamental distinction must be made between the two-party system as it is found in the United States and as it is found in Great Britain. Although two major parties dominate political life in the two countries, the system operates in quite different ways.
The American two-party system
The United States has always had a two-party system, first in the opposition between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, then in the competition between the Republicans and the Democrats. There have been frequent third-party movements in the history of the country, but they have always failed. Presidential elections seem to have played an important role in the formation of this type of two-party system. The mechanism of a national election in so large a country has necessitated very large political organizations and, at the same time, relatively simplified choices for the voter.
American parties are different from their counterparts in other Western countries. They are not tied in the same way to the great social and ideological movements that have so influenced the development of political life in Europe during the last two centuries. There have been Socialist parties at various times in the history of the United States, but they have never challenged the dominance of the two major parties. It can be argued that the main reason for the failure of Socialist parties in America has been the high degree of upward mobility permitted by a rich and continually expanding economy. The consequence of this mobility has been that class consciousness has never developed in the United States in a manner that would encourage the formation of large Socialist or Communist parties.
In comparison with European political movements, therefore, American parties have appeared as two varieties of one liberal party, and within each party can be found a wide range of opinion, going from the right to the left.
The American parties have a flexible and decentralized structure, marked by the absence of discipline and rigid hierarchy. This was the structure of most of the cadre-type parties of the 19th century, a structure that most liberal parties have retained. Federalism and a concern for local autonomy accentuate the lack of rigid structure and the weakness of lines of authority in the parties. Organization may be relatively strong and homogeneous at the local level, but such control is much weaker on the state level and practically nonexistent on the national level. There is some truth to the observation that the United States has not two parties but 100—that is, two in each state. But it is also true that each party develops a certain degree of national unity for the presidential election and that the leadership of the president within his party gives the victorious party some cohesion.
In voting, Republicans and Democrats are usually found on both sides. An alliance between liberal Republicans and Democrats against conservative Republicans and Democrats tends to develop. But neither bloc is stable, and the alignment varies from one vote to another. As a consequence, despite the existence of a two-party system, no stable legislative majority is possible. In order to have his budget adopted and his legislation passed, the president of the United States must carefully try to gather the necessary votes on every question, bearing the wearisome task of constantly forming alliances. The American two-party system is thus a pseudo-two-party system, because each party provides only a loose framework within which shifting coalitions are formed.
The British two-party system
Another form of the two-party system is operative in Great Britain and in New Zealand. The situation in Australia is affected somewhat by the presence of a third party, the Country Party. A tight alliance between the Australian Liberal Party and the Country Party introduces, however, a rather rigid bipolarization with the Labour Party. The system thus tends to operate on a two-party basis. Canada also possesses what is essentially a two-party system, Liberals or Conservatives usually being able to form a working majority without the help of the small, regionally based parties.
Great Britain has had two successive two-party alignments: Conservative and Liberal prior to 1914 and Conservative and Labour since 1935. The period from 1920 to 1935 constituted an intermediate phase between the two. Britain’s Conservative Party is actually a Conservative–Liberal Party, resulting from a fusion of the essential elements of the two great 19th-century parties. Despite the name Conservative, its ideology corresponds to political and economic liberalism. A similar observation could be made about the other major European conservative parties, such as the German Christian Democratic Party and the Belgian Social Christian Party.
The British two-party system depends on the existence of rigid parties; that is, parties in which there is effective discipline regarding parliamentary voting patterns. In every important vote, all party members are required to vote as a bloc and to follow to the letter the directives that they agreed upon collectively or that were decided for them by the party leaders. A relative flexibility may at times be tolerated, but only to the extent that such a policy does not compromise the action of the government. It may be admissible for some party members to abstain from voting if their abstention does not alter the results of the vote. Thus, the leader of the majority party (who is at the same time the prime minister) is likely to remain in power throughout the session of Parliament, and the legislation he or she proposes will likely be adopted. There is no longer any real separation of power between the executive and legislative branches, for the government and its parliamentary majority form a homogeneous and solid bloc before which the opposition has no power other than to make its criticisms known. During the four or five years for which a Parliament meets, the majority in power is completely in control, and only internal difficulties within the majority party can limit its power.
Since each party is made up of a disciplined group with a recognized leader who becomes prime minister if his or her party wins the legislative elections, these elections perform the function of selecting both the legislature and the government. In voting to make one of the party leaders the head of the government, the British assure the leader of a disciplined parliamentary majority. The result is a political system that is at once stable, democratic, and strong; and many would argue that it is more stable, more democratic, and stronger than systems anywhere else.
This situation presupposes that both parties are in agreement with regard to the fundamental rules of a democracy. If a Fascist party and a Communist party were opposed to one another in Great Britain, the two-party system would not last very long. The winner would zealously suppress the opponent and rule alone.
The system, of course, does have its weak points, especially insofar as it tends to frustrate the innovative elements within both parties. But it is possible that this situation is preferable to what would happen if the more extreme elements within the parties were permitted to engage in unrealistic policies. The risk of immobility is in fact a problem for any party in a modern industrial society, and not just for those in a two-party situation. The problem is related to the difficulties involved in creating new organizations capable of being taken seriously by an important segment of the population and in revitalizing long-standing organizations encumbered by established practices and entrenched interests.
There have been three historical forms of the single-party system: Communist, Fascist, and that found in the developing countries.
The Communist model
In Communist countries the party is considered to be the spearhead of the urban working class and of other workers united with it (peasants, intellectuals, etc.). Its role is to aid in the building of a Socialist regime during the transitory phase between capitalism and pure Socialism, called the dictatorship of the proletariat. An understanding of the exact role of the party requires an appreciation of the Marxist conception of the evolution of the state. In countries based on private ownership of the means of production, the power of the state, according to the Marxist point of view, is used to further the interests of the controlling capitalists. In the first stage of revolution the power of the state is broken. Power, however, still has to be wielded to prevent counterrevolution and to facilitate the transition to Communism, at which stage coercion will no longer be necessary. Thus, the party, in effect, assumes the coercive functions of the state during the dictatorship of the proletariat or, to be more accurate, during the dictatorship of the party in the name of the proletariat.
In all Communist countries, the structure of the party has been determined largely by the need for it to govern firmly while at the same time maintaining its contact with the masses of the people. Party members are a part of the general public, of which they are the most active and most politically conscious members. They remain in contact with the masses by means of a network of party cells that are present everywhere. Party leaders are thus always “listening in on the masses,” and the masses are always informed of decisions of party leaders, as long as the communication network is working in both directions.
The party is not only a permanent means of contact between the people and party leaders but also a propaganda instrument. Political indoctrination is essential to the survival of Communist parties, and many resources are devoted to it. Indoctrination is accomplished in training schools, by means of “education” campaigns, by censorship, and through the untiring efforts of militants, who play a role similar to that of the clergy in organized religion. The party is thus the guardian of orthodoxy and has the power to condemn and to excommunicate.
In the traditional Communist model, the party hierarchy, then, and not the official state hierarchy, has the real power. The first secretary of the party is the most important figure of the regime, and, whether the party leadership is in the hands of one man or several, the party remains the centre of political power.
Near the end of the 20th century, however, the Communist model began to change as the centre of power began shifting toward a popularly elected state hierarchy. A younger generation of Communist leaders, openly critical of the party’s inefficient, unresponsive, and domineering management of the government—particularly the economy—sought a return to Lenin’s original concepts of democratic centralism and socialism. In some countries, democratic concepts were emphasized, and constitutional amendments eliminated the party’s official control, clearing the way for a multiparty system.
The Fascist model
Fascist parties in a single-party state have never played as important a role as Communist parties in an analogous situation. In Italy, the Fascist party was never the single most important element in the regime, and its influence was often secondary. In Spain the Falange never played a crucial role, and in Portugal the National Union was a very weak organization even at the height of dictator António Salazar’s strength. Only in Germany did the National Socialist Party have a great influence on the state. But, in the end, Hitler’s dictatorship was dependent on his private army, the SS (Schutzstaffel), which formed a separate element within the party and which was closed to outside influences, and on the Gestapo, which was a state organization and not an organization of the party. The Fascist party in the single-party state has a policing or military function rather than an ideological one.
After their rise to power, the Fascist parties in both Germany and Italy gradually ceased to perform the function of maintaining contact between the people and the government, a function that is usually performed by the party in a single-party situation. It was possible to observe a tendency for the party to close in upon itself while suppressing its deviant members. The renewal of the party was then assured through recruitment from youth organizations, from which the most fanatical elements, the products of a gradual selection process starting at a very early age, entered the party. The party tended, therefore, to constitute a closed order.
The single party in the developing countries
Some of the Communist parties in power in developing countries do not differ significantly from their counterparts in industrialized countries. This is certainly true of the Communist Party of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Workers’ Party of North Korea. There have always been, however, countries in which the single party in power could not be characterized in terms of a traditional European counterpart. This observation applies to, for example, the former Arab Socialist Union in Egypt, the Neo-Destour Party in Tunisia (renamed the Destour Democratic Rally), and the National Liberation Front in Algeria, as well as many other parties in black Africa.
Most of these parties claimed to be more or less Socialist or at least progressive, while remaining far removed from Communism and, in some cases, ardent foes of Communism. President Nasser attempted to establish a moderate and nationalistic Socialism in Egypt. In Tunisia the Neo-Destour Party was more republican than Socialist and was inspired more by the example of the reforms in Turkey under Kemal Atatürk than by Nasserism. In black Africa, single parties have often claimed to be Socialist, but with few exceptions they rarely are in practice.
Single parties in developing countries are rarely as well organized as Communist parties. In Turkey the Republican People’s Party was more a cadre party than a mass-based party. In Egypt it has been necessary to organize a core of professional politicians within the framework of a pseudoparty of the masses. In sub-Saharan Africa the parties are most often genuinely mass based, but the membership appears to be motivated primarily by personal attachment to the leader or by tribal loyalties, and organization is not usually very strong. It is this weakness in organization that explains the secondary role played by such parties in government.
Some regimes, however, have endeavoured to develop the role of the party to the fullest extent possible. The politics of Atatürk in Turkey were an interesting case study in this regard. It was also Nasser’s goal to increase the influence of the Arab Socialist Union, thereby making it the backbone of the regime. This process is significant in that it represents an attempt to move away from the traditional dictatorship, supported by the army or based on tribal traditions or on charismatic leadership, toward a modern dictatorship, supported by one political party. Single-party systems can institutionalize dictatorships by making them survive the life of one dominant figure.
Future of political parties
It has often been said in the West that political parties are in a state of decline. Actually, this has been a long-standing opinion in certain conservative circles, arising largely out of a latent hostility to parties, which are viewed as a divisive force among citizens, a threat to national unity, and an enticement to corruption and demagoguery. In certain European countries—France, for example—right-wing political organizations have even refused to call themselves parties, using instead such terms as movement, union, federation, and centre. And it cannot be denied that to some extent the major European and American parties of the late 20th century do appear old and rigid in comparison with their condition at the turn of the century or immediately following World War I. Even relatively new parties, such as the Christian Democratic parties of Germany and Italy (founded in 1945), seem somewhat lifeless.
In terms of size and number, however, political parties are not declining but growing. At the turn of the century they were confined mainly to Europe and North America; elsewhere they were quite weak or nonexistent. In the late 20th century, parties are found practically everywhere in the world. And in Europe and North America there are generally far more people holding membership in parties than prior to 1914. Parties of the late 20th century are larger, stronger, and better organized than those of the late 19th century. In the industrialized nations, especially in western Europe, parties have become less revolutionary and innovative, and this factor may explain the rigid and worn-out image that they sometimes present. But even this phenomenon is found only in a limited area and may, perhaps, pass.
The growth of parties into very large organizations may be responsible for the feelings of powerlessness on the part of many individuals who are involved in them. This is a problem experienced by people who find themselves part of any large organization, whether it be a political party, business enterprise, corporation, or union. The difficulties involved in reforming or changing political parties that have become large and institutionalized, coupled with the next-to-impossible task of creating new parties likely to reach sufficient strength to be taken seriously by the electorate, have resulted in much frustration and impatience with the party system. But it is difficult to imagine how democracy could function in a large industrialized country without political parties. In the modern world, democracy and political parties are two facets of the same reality, the inside and outside of the same fabric.
Political parties are groups of people that work to be in charge of a government. The main way in which a political party gains power is through the election of its members to office. "Office" is a word for a government position-for example, the presidency or a seat in a legislature (lawmaking body). In many countries the party with the most members in the legislature has great control over the government.
Government policy is made by elected officials who are members of political parties. In the United States most elected officials are members of either the Democratic or Republican party, though occasionally members of smaller parties are also elected.