Democracy inside out - Fedor Kapelusz

Ostrogorsky Democracy and the organization of political parties

'Demokratija naiznanku', Bolshevik 1927, No. 21: 96–102. Review of the Russian translation of Ostrogorski, Moisei 1902, Democracy and the organization of political parties Volume I: England, New York: Macmillan.

Острогорский М. Демократия и политические партии, т. 1, Англия (перевод с французского). Под ред. и с предисловием Пашуканиса Е. Б., М., Издательство Коммунистической Ака­демии, 1927, 280 с.

Let us say right away: this is a wonderful, exciting book. This is a classical work, which stands on par with the works of Bryce and Tocqueville. And quite rightly comrade Pashukanis expressed in his preface the guess why this book, published in French already in 1903,1 still had not been translated into Russian: Ostrogorski gives in it a murderous picture of bourgeois democracy, parliamentarism and party cliques. The [url=]second volume[/url], dealing with America, is even more murderous than the first.2

To Rousseau belongs the phrase that the English people is free only during elections. Ostrogorski shows the behind-the-scenes also of this 'freedom'. The reader learns to his surprise that in the practice of English political life on the first place stands the 'Whip', yes, the Whip, this is not a typo, in English whip, a term taken from fox-hunting and properly meaning the driver of the pack of hounds. The word Whip you find in Ostrogorski almost repeatedly... The 'Whip', appointed by the party leader and in charge of the secret fund of the party, is behind the scenes the real manager of the party, without him there comes not any candidate into the parliament, he stage-manages all. In concert with him head-quarters commands the so called wire-pullers. These terms so current in British political life speak for themselves, they are extremely significant! Ostrogorski paints a colourful picture of 'hunting' for voters, that is canvassing: the candidate and his agents go from house to house and try to affect indifferent voters in every way, an illustrious Lord inquires the wife of cobbler Dick about her children, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire even kissed a voter-butcher for the promise of his vote for Fox... Of course, these techniques in essence contradict the law on secret ballot! According to the rules the hunting agents of both parties share with each other a street, one goes by the houses on one side, the other – meanwhile goes by houses from the other side. The law against voter corruption (prudently published after the Reform Bill) prohibits the candidate and the party of paying voters a means of transport; nevertheless, via transportation freely provided by rich party members agitators haul voters to the polls 'like a herd'... the Conservative party even got the nickname motor car party. The party apparatus assumes also the registration of voters, challenging and 'pettifogging' (nit-picking) in relation to voters of the opposite camp; this is much promoted by the extreme complexity and intricacy of English electoral law: sometimes it is enough to move to an adjoining building, to lose this right,3 sometimes it plays a role, whether there is in a house's room a resident or not – in Ostrogorski is given a whole collection of such curiosities. Note: all of this is not only a feature of English 'democracy'; in pre-war Austria, the writer of these lines observed these election campaign techniques even in the Social Democratic Party! But most importantly, of course, is bribery; if in the past one bought separate voters by 1–10 shillings a vote, then now, with a mass of voters, this is replaced in England by bribery, so to speak, of the collective: the candidate donates to the local chapel, hospital, etc., and this completely disarms the voters. The law against corruption restricts electoral expenses of the party and the candidate to a certain maximum; but this law is easily circumvented. By the way, it already happened that the home of a candidate is besieged from all sides by requests for money: not only all sorts of Societies of the veterans and so on, but even a peasant-voter, whose cow fell. Only very rich people can stand their candidature; is it not because of this – let us remark – that among the deputies of the 'labour' party now appear different majors and colonels (the unions are pleased to get rid of the cost of elections).4 To complete the picture we must mention the luring balagan at elections, for example, the candidate is accompanied by his performing wife, she is a cabaret singer before the voters, or the public is shown the grandchildren of an illustrious candidate and so on. The elections of 1910 in London were described (by reactionaries – does not matter), as a 'riotous celebration of crazies'...

However, this latter should not be interpreted in the sense of activity of the voting mass. It is extremely apathetic. On this a representative picture is given by the party régime, which Ostrogorski describes, not sparing colours. This is a 'machine for voting resolutions', here everything is fashioned in advance by 'whips' and 'wire-pullers', meetings occur before the already converted, this is a 'grand deception', 'ceremonies of party worship and piety', there is no debate, on the annual congresses of parties also are heard only speeches of the leaders, at the congress of the liberal party in Newcastle the President said: 'It is not a meeting for the discussion of subjects', the delegates barely are given five minutes. In the country, too, everything is operated by the 'machinists' of the party, a core of 20–30 people in each urban district; even in the hearth of liberal agitation, Birmingham only eight to ten per cent of electors was affiliated to the party Organisations, nevertheless 'the party machine wholesale supplies public opinion'. 'The multitude's taste for political reports has been perverted', propaganda pamphlets are little read, newspaper editorials are no longer credible, everyone knows that they 'consist of crying up the doings of the party in question'; even the supposedly spontaneous outbursts and demonstrations of public opinion are ordered from the centre by the 'whips' and 'wire-pullers', wherewith throughout one and the same slogan is upheld; moreover, the centre fabricates also the so called heckling, those questions, by which some audience member dumbfounds the enemy candidate... The situation is no better in parliament: the MPs are only mannequins, that 'perform a religious rite in the fixed dogmas of the party creed', only 'anointed by the party', in them reigns the spirit of 'superstitious obedience to leaders', 'the party ignominiously follows the leaders', in particular the Conservative party, 'the leaders of the party do not consider themselves bound by decisions, taken at party congresses (meetings of the delegates)', the parliamentary majority 'blindly follows the Ministry, in order to prolong its existence', 'sincerity has disappeared from the parliament'.

Such is the cheerless, scathing picture of that bourgeois 'democracy', of that fetish which the reactionaries of all camps juxtapose with our council system. This picture was sketched a quarter century ago. Since then, the situation has not become better. In the middle class, – Ostrogorski says, – there is no longer trust in Parliament; only the workers, – he emphasises, – nota bene: for his time – 'thank Parliament for the regulation of the labour laws and expect still more';5 however, the 'labour party' took over all the tricks of bourgeois parties, even worse, this is a party entirely without program, without its credo. 'The urban masses became fed up with the voting right'. The English party seized on the extra-parliamentary mass organisations, in order to 'take the fortress of universal suffrage', but as a result there came general disappointment of the masses in these latter. Even the elections, to which in the final analysis comes down the whole 'democracy' under the bourgeois system (in this sense the phrase of Rousseau has not lost its power), even elections have become a fiction. Bourgeois democracy is an illusion not only socially, but also politically.

In his descriptive parts Ostrogorski is great. But theoretically he is entirely helpless and vulgar. He provides excellent factual material, but this is raw material, it is in need of Marxist light and treatment. Ostrogorski never even mentions the Marxist theory of class struggle, it does not exists for him. His theoretical line may be indicated by the following argument of his: 'Classes, – he says, – can be wrong (!), but not the people'. Just as an illiterate as a sensitive sentence. Whence all the failures in the book of Ostrogorski. He puts the blame on others. Indignant of the ugly manifestations of the bourgeois party régime in England with its 'hunt for men', Ostrogorski simultaneously condemns also the régime of political parties in general and shows herewith the typical for a liberal-individualist misunderstanding of the class background and the historical conditionality and necessity of parties. He resents the words of one workman: 'We now think in battalions', he is indignant that 'party discipline does not allow the deputy to convince himself of arguments of the opponent'. He does not see that here it is not about argumentative formal logic, not about absolute, 'factual' or logical 'arguments' and errors, but about class factors. Hence his attack on the 'party collar', that is, that 'the party is always right'.

Ostrogorski describes not only the mechanism of English parties, he also gives the history of these parties, and in particular their extra-parliamentary organisations, so called 'Caucuses' (contemptuously, a nickname taken from American practice, that Disraeli gave the first mass organisation of the English liberals, that arose in 1867 in Birmingham; this word denotes 'caulker' and hints at a régime of corruption, – let us note by the way, that the creator and inspirer of this first 'caucus' was Joseph Chamberlain, father of the current Conservative). In this, historical part is especially felt the absence in Ostrogorski of a Marxist analysis. Mentioning, that 'parties already in 1846 exhausted the them dividing big questions', the author, however, does not go further, from his field of vision escapes the basic fact of English political life, that between the Whigs and the Tories, the Liberals and the Conservatives the them dividing earlier economic, class partitions have disappeared. This economic evolution, determined already during the glorious revolution of 1688, is the reason, that the 'two party system' in England works in vain, proves to be purely-formal, devoid of an economic foundation.6 Ostrogorski nowhere says this. He refers to the 'omnibus' of the Newcastle liberal program, a 'program under the old umbrella' and explains the varied character of this program by the need to 'artificially ensure the unity of the party'. This is correct, but not a sufficient explanation; Ostrogorski loses sight of the main thing, that the two party system does not find more bases in the class composition of English society. Large landowners, industrialists, money-capital since a long time merged in England into one propertied class, and only because of this here it is possible, that one party carries out the demands of the other. For example, in July 1867 the universal suffrage Act, which was demanded by the Whigs, was carried out by a Tory Ministry.7 In essence the two party system, the system of the 'pendulum's swing', that ever continues in these so idle motions, is the same 'game', as the old nobility's parliament, when politics was an 'aristocratic sport'. The one-after-each-other party retains a semblance of democracy, but when it comes to the decisive clashes with the class enemy, the proletariat, this 'democracy' is smashed to pieces.

Ostrogorski is right, stating, that 'the Caucus is only the form, but not the essence of democracy', but he is not right in thinking that this formal democracy can transform under the capitalist system into 'true democracy'. Ostrogorski himself sums up: 'the Caucus has by no means ousted the plutocratic element from Parliament nor from the counsels of the party'. Alas, this 'plutocratic element' – is not the form, but the very essence of bourgeois, formal democracy.

In the presentation of Ostrogorski the victory of one party, the defeat of the other often is entirely unexplainable, he has to speak in such cases of 'pure chance'. Here also is felt the by him ignored factor of class. The struggle of Disraeli and Gladstone around the Irish and church question was not a struggle on an economic basis, but precisely because of this was possible a complete confusion in the parties on these questions, migrations from one party to the other, the blind following of leaders, the idle motion of the 'two party system'. Ostrogorski observes the complete decrepitude of the English bourgeois parties, puts a cross over them, in particular he emphasises, that the Conservative party was 'completely reduced to the sovereignty of the leaders'. Since then 25 years have passed, and reality has shown that in the class struggle with the proletariat, the English bourgeoisie is able to rally its forces and throw overboard the fiction of 'two parties'. The by Ostrogorski observed decrepitude of English bourgeois parties – this is the decrepitude of their 'democracy', but not of the parties themselves, as instruments of struggle with the class enemy. In Ostrogorski we find the opposite statement: he buries the party and hopes to resurrect bourgeois 'democracy'.

Legislative power of parliament increasingly erodes and moves to the government, the House is not even master of its own order of the day, not one bill, proposed by a member of the House, can pass, if the government did not provide it relief in the debate or did not allow it to pass in its own name, even the use of the right of interpellation is only possible by lot and with the consent of the cabinet. Through the head of Parliament the cabinet, the party, being in power, appeals to its party masses.

Pronouncing the requiescat of the English parties, Ostrogorski, however, does not despair in 'democracy'. He believes in its revival under the capitalist order. In his 'conclusion' [in the second volume] he offers a panacea for the recovery of British political life, a simply ridiculous panacea. Against the 'régime of party corruption' Ostrogorski found a means in proportional representation and in the abolition of the 'system of single-member lists'. This is a very meagre 'conclusion'. Questions of electoral technique and 'electoral geometry', at best, can only provide weak palliatives. They do not solve the cardinal question about bourgeois 'democracy' and parliamentarism. Proportional representation does not possess the magical powers to heal the régime of bourgeois parties and restore the masses' old faith in parliament. When Ostrogorski wrote his book, in France was much in vogue the movement in favour of proportional representation, headed by Charles Benoît and Jaurès, and in Germany one wrote about an 'economic' (or 'business') parliament; obviously, these trends reflected on Ostrogorski. Even the formation of the first Caucus in 1867 Ostrogorski explains [as a] struggle of Liberals against the principle of minority representation, passed in very abbreviated form by the Tory government. This is a one-sided depiction; actually the Caucus signified an appeal of the party to the masses, to the extra-parliamentary organisations. Interestingly, in the whole history of the Third Republic in France one can trace the struggle of supporters of elections by multi-member lists and supporters of elections by single-member lists (or 'by list' vs. 'by district'); already Gambetta with extreme passion associated himself with elections by list, for this he waged a fight with Jules Grévy, this was essentially his entire platform. In general this is close to the panacea, recommended by Ostrogorski. The French law of 12 July 1919, which concluded, finally, the electoral reform, being in line for ten years, proclaims elections by departmental lists and in essence also proportional representation (Article 10, where the mandates received in excess of an absolute majority of votes shall be distributed by 'electoral quotient'). Well, does Ostrogorski find that in modern France the régime of bourgeois parties is free from the evils, that he observed in England? No, he would get out of the frying pan into the fire. If J.S. Mill saw in a pure majority representation 'an arithmetic justice', then proportional representation also is only such 'arithmetic' justice, although more refined. This justice – is an illusion under the class system. And no matter how 'fair' the elections are hold, this does not heal the essence of bourgeois 'democracy', which reduces elections to the [party] machine. Ostrogorski himself condemns in the 'whips' of the English parties, that 'their horizon does not extend beyond the next election'. Let us repeat: he believes, that the trouble is only in certain forms of democracy, but in fact the trouble is, that bourgeois democracy by its very essence carries a formal character.

In conclusion let us point to a recent speech of Hilferding at the party congress of German social democracy in Kiel. While Ostrogorski believes in the improvement of democracy under the capitalist system, Hilferding in general considers that democracy is not a cause of the bourgeoisie.

Historically, – he said, – democracy has always been a cause of the proletariat. I am always amazed by the statement that democracy was a cause of the bourgeoisie. This – is an intellectual fashion, it takes the history of democracy from the works of one or other theorists. In fact, there is no more brutal political struggle, than the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie for democracy. It is historically not true and [also] mistaken to speak of bourgeois democracy. Democracy was our cause. We had to win it from the bourgeoisie in a hard struggle. Let me remind you about the battle for the right to vote. How much proletarian blood was shed for the conquest of equal suffrage!

Hilferding further states that there is no sense in speaking of 'bourgeois' and 'formal' democracy.8 All this would have been very good, if in the end Hilferding did not nevertheless howl after formal, bourgeois democracy; because [the fact is that] he speaks only about universal suffrage, and this – is bourgeois democracy, although it was won by workers' blood. To see in the latter circumstance a negation of the bourgeois nature of this democracy, means to not understand Marx. Without that fire of self-activity, which only the council system can ignite in the masses, without liberation from the class oppression of the bourgeoisie, universal suffrage will inevitably be condemned to be a caricature in the hands of the 'whips' of capitalism.

  • 1. La démocratie et l'organisation des partis politiques. The English translation was published before the original French it seems. (Note by NR).
  • 2. The Russian translation of this second volume appeared in 1930. (Note by NR).
  • 3. Electoral qualification (for the franchise) was defined by the one's condition of property and residence. (Note by NR).
  • 4. In the upcoming elections, this money aspect of the matter will be a sore spot to the 'labour' party, especially after the law against the use of union dues for political purposes. In the press this troubling issue already is debated. This law is somewhat relaxed by the proviso, that the fees can go for political purposes, if the worker gave their definitive consent to this.
  • 5. Sometimes, like here, I could not find the precise quotations in English, so I give my own translations of them. (Note by NR).
  • 6. In contemporary England one speaks already about three parties: there was added the 'labour party'. But one has to expect that they sooner or later will be reduced again to two parties (the consolidated bourgeoisie and on the other side – the proletariat), wherewith however this will already not be the idle, formal mechanism of the 'two party system', as it grew up on the soil of British 'democracy'.
  • 7. On this very clearly wrote in his time Louis Blanc, who admired the fact that this reform 'marks the beginning of the kingdom of democracy in England'. We give this eloquent quote [Kapelusz unfortunately does not give the source - note by NR.]:

    'Each played here a role, that is not its role. Each had occasion to applaud his defeat, and to weep for his victory'.
    'The timid played a bold game'.
    'The bold suddenly became frightened'.
    'The Tories suddenly turned into revolutionaries (partisans de révolutions)'.
    'Disraeli began to implement the ideas of John Bright'.
    'Power remained in the hands of those, whose principles suffered defeat; it went out of the hands of those, who received much more, than demanded'.
    'The vanquished declare themselves winners. The winners enter in the ranks of the vanquished'.
    'The House of Commons almost unanimously voted the Reform Bill, that same House, three-quarters of which are afraid of this Bill like the plague'.
    'Disraeli congratulates himself that he silenced his opponents, after stepping in front of them up to the brink. He brags, that he deftly coped with the situation, whereas he was a toy in its hands. He rolls on an inclined plane, which leads to sovereignty of the people, and yet he declares that aristocracy won the case'.

    These words of Louis Blanc are not a bad illustration and complement to the book of Ostrogorski. 'Democracy' has won in England under very strange circumstances. One can, of course, put forward the view, that both parties had to reckon with the demands of the mass. But later it showed, that the Conservatives more than once made capital on this 'democracy'. Disraeli was not so mistaken in stating that 'aristocracy won the case' with his reform. Mistaken was rather the incorrigible optimist Louis Blanc. At the cradle of the latest 'democracy' in England stood the same Disraeli, the 'father of British imperialism', who still at the very beginning of his political career, in the open letter to Lord Lyndhurst (1835, A vindication of the English constitution), preached the union of Tories and Liberals, a union of the throne with the working classes, his kind of Zubatovism, the same Disraeli, who called liberals 'democratic aristocrats, usurpers of the power of the monarch'. Very curious this contradistinction of aristocratic democracy to democratic aristocrats! 'Democracy' – this is a porridge, which obscures all holes...

    Let us give one more historical reference. The two party system, 'the pendulum's swing', partly has a precedent in those 'rotating elections', which were preached by James Harrington in his utopia 'Oceana', that appeared in 1656 (Harrington was one of the finest minds of his time, he was very close to historical materialism, arguing, that 'dominion is property'; he successfully argued against Hobbes). In 1669 Harrington established a club for the propaganda of his views; this club, to which belonged the most progressive democrats of the time, was named The Rota according to the principle of alternate elections, which play an important role in the ideal state of Harrington. Rotating elections consist of the fact that each year part of the elected leave, in their place are elected new ones. This was practiced already since the seventh century Adriatic governments, precursors of Venice, and old-fashioned historians see in this still now a 'pure democracy'. The idea of Harrington inspired Sieyès, writing the original draft of the Constitution of the year VIII (after the 18th of Brumaire) in that sense; the contemporary French Senate also is chosen by one-third at different times. In Bernstein ('Socialism and democracy in the great English revolution', p. 220, footnote.) we find the following reference to Milton:

    'Milton himself was no friend of the rotation principle. He considered it unpractical and dubious for the times. ... he wrote: “This ‘wheel’ might prove a ‘wheel’ of principles.” Men who were indispensable at the moment might perhaps be replaced by incapable men'.

    As one can see, Milton turned out to be a good prophet: the 'rotating' alternation of liberals and conservatives at the helm in contemporary England – this is precisely a 'wheel of principles'! From the above quotation of Louis Blanc this emerges with sufficient clarity.

    Let us repeat; this 'two party' system is only possible thanks to the blurring of economic partitions between individual layers of the ruling classes. The apologists of the system emphasise, that it makes it possible for one party to correct the errors of the other. Here again one refers to 'mistakes' against logic and absolute justice, the possibility to correct each other on that basis. But there, where classes face each other, this, of course, is an illusion, and each class has its own logic, its own justice. That democracy, which Ostrogorski dreams of, is impossible under a class order, it appears under this order a fiction, a game, a deception.

  • 8. Thus Hilferding broke with those, who speak about a 'degeneration' of bourgeois democracy. He is in general an opponent of any adjectives to the word democracy. By the way, let us give the following phrase about the renowned 'pure' democracy: Voltaire said: 'Pure democracy is the despotism of the mob'. Ламенж (?), on the contrary, finds, that 'the more we approximate pure democracy, the less grounds there will be with us for riots and revolution'.

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Noa Rodman
Jan 4 2017 14:44


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