Political Parties After 122 Years

In the tranquility of the times I live in, I found in the library an old book by the Belarusian author Moisey Ostrogorsky (1854-1921), Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (1902), volume 1 and volume 2.

The first thing that caught my attention was the topicality of his proposals and the similarity of his discourse and that of our present, 122 years later.

From the little that is known about his life, we know that he studied law in St. Petersburg; he worked in the Tsar’s Ministry of Justice; he then traveled to improve his knowledge in Paris, England and the United States, where the book was published for the first time; he was elected to the first Duma after the 1905 Revolution and left public life when it was dissolved. Nothing is known about the political upheavals of later Russia. He died in St. Petersburg, which was by then called Leningrad.

For his originality we can compare him with the great scholars of the political parties of the 20th century, like Robert Michels, Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora, Max Weber, Giuseppe Maranini, Maurice Duverger, Giovanni Sartori, Gianfranco Miglio or Dalmacio Negro Pavón. But Ostrogorsky’s book does not have the fame nor the expensive editions of some of these.

Its main idea is the so-called democratic paradox, according to which democracy is absent in one of its main subjects—political parties. This thesis has been reproduced in our days by many authors without mentioning Ostrogorsky’s book.

Right at the beginning of the study Ostrogorsky states: “A highly developed electoral system is nothing but a purely formal homage to democracy” (p. 26). This formal representation of political parties ends up producing a clique, caste or political oligarchy, profoundly antidemocratic.

Their fruit is the counter-production of what they claim to produce. In a word, those in charge of bringing democracy to fruition are profoundly antidemocratic: “To the types of vileness that the human race has produced, from Cain to Tartuffe, the century of democracy has added a new type—the political” (p. 47).

In political parties, it is not democratic reason that prevails, but the use of feelings to win followers. The political party is the perfect school under the mandate of servility and mediocrity.

What is interesting to note is that Ostrogorsky is not against political parties but against their distortion, denaturalization and falsification in modern democracy.

He proposes that political parties should cease to be rigid and bureaucratic structures that last forever. He proposes that political parties need not be permanent over time, since they are not an end in themselves but a means, like others, in the construction of a democratic society.

It should be noted that Ostrogorsky does not react to the existence of political parties as conservative thought usually does, invalidating them as oligarchic, but seeks their recovery through their temporary limitation.

They have to be open to the possibility of temporary parties around particular demands, which would create an ideological diversity that we do not have today.

As we can see, these are contemporary proposals made 122 years ago.

Alberto Buela is an Argentinian philosopher and professor at National Technological University and the University of Barcelona. He is the author of many books and articles. His website is here.

Featured: Keep Off the Grass, illustration published in Puck (October 1907).