Weber VII: Party History

The history of political parties in Early Modern Europe looks a lot like Bolshevism, Weber notes, in two different respects that might surprise contemporary readers:
If one considers various things about these medieval parties, one is reminded of Bolshevism and its Soviets. Consider the Statuta della perta Guelfa, the confiscations of the Nobili's estates - ­­which originally meant all those families who lived a chivalrous life and who thus qualified for fiefs - ­­consider the  exclusion from office­ holding and the denial of the right to vote, the inter­local party committees, the strictly military organizations and the premiums for informers. Then consider Bolshevism with its strictly sieved military and, in Russia especially, informer organizations, the disarmament and denial of the political rights of the 'bourgeois,' that is, of the entrepreneur, trader, rentier, clergyman, descendants of the dynasty, police agents, as well as the confiscation policy. 

This analogy is still more striking when one considers that, on the one hand, the military organization of the medieval party constituted a pure army of knights organized on the basis of the registered feudal estates and that nobles occupied almost all leading positions, and, on the other hand, that the Soviets have preserved, or rather reintroduced, the highly paid enterpriser, the group wage, the Taylor system, military and work­shop discipline, and a search for foreign capital. Hence, in a word, the Soviets have had to accept again absolutely all the things that Bolshevism had been fighting as bourgeois class institutions. They have had to do this in order to keep the state and the economy going at all. Moreover, the Soviets have reinstituted the agents of the former Ochrana [Tsarist Secret Police] as the main instrument of their state power.
Such revolutions can only depart so far from the means by which power has been successfully exercised in the past, at least at first. This is true even with the most aggressive means, common to those who wished to undo Feudalism in late Medieval Italy and those Communists who had the same aim in Russia. 

In a way this is a kind of confirmation of a point that Marx makes, which is that material conditions of economics heavily influence the power structure that is possible at a given time. It's not a complete confirmation: Marx would have said that the economics determine the power structure. Yet Marx also hopes for revolution, and thus for the possibility that change would be something one could at least begin even if one had to fall back on forms that fit the material mode of production. Great change did eventually follow from both the rise of political parties and from the rise of Soviet Communism. Neither could change everything at once, though, and had to circle back more than they wished to established forms.

Weber does not believe that party politics can change very much either, as long as they remain the mode of political power. Outside of rural areas, he says, we are basically doomed to machine politics. 
In all political associations which are somehow extensive, that is, associations going beyond the sphere and range of the tasks of small rural districts where power­holders are periodically elected, political organization is necessarily managed by men interested in the management of politics. This is to say that a relatively small number of men are primarily interested in political life and hence interested in sharing political power. They provide themselves with a following through free recruitment, present themselves or their proteges as candidates for election, collect the financial means, and go out for vote-­grabbing. It is unimaginable how in large associations elections could function at all without this managerial pattern.

Various schemes have been recommended for eliminating the scourge of political machines, but Weber thinks they are doomed to fail. 

In practice this means the division of the citizens with the right to vote into politically active and politically passive elements. This difference is based on voluntary attitudes, hence it cannot be abolished through measures like obligatory voting, or 'occupational-status group' representation, or similar measures that are expressly or actually directed against this state of affairs and the rule of professional politicians. The active leadership and their freely recruited following are the necessary elements in the life of any party. The following, and through it the passive electorate, are necessary for the election of the leader.

This, of course, means more corruption is a necessary feature of politics; and for broadly similar reasons, i.e., because it requires the constant attention of someone who must therefore find a way to make the politics pay. The success of the machine, which is separate from both the politicians it elects and the civil service that those politicians appoint, means that the machine itself ends up being more important than the elected leaders. Likewise, those elected officials -- who are supposed to represent their constituents -- end up being representatives of the machine. 

These modern forms are the children of democracy, of mass franchise, of the necessity to woo and organize the masses, and develop the utmost unity of direction and the strictest discipline. The rule of notables and guidance by members of parliament ceases. 'Professional' politicians outside the parliaments take the organization in hand. They do so either as 'entrepreneurs'­­ - the American boss and the English election agent are, in fact, such entrepreneurs - ­­or as officials with a fixed salary. Formally, a far-going democratization takes place. The parliamentary party no longer creates the authoritative programs, and the local notables no longer decide the selection of candidates. Rather assemblies of the organized party members select the candidates and delegate members to the assemblies of a higher order. Possibly there are several such conventions leading up to the national convention of the party. Naturally power actually rests in the hands of those who, within the organization, handle the work continuously. Otherwise, power rests in the hands of those on whom the organization in its processes depends financially or personally­ - ­for instance, on the Maecenases - or the directors of powerful political clubs of interested persons (Tammany Hall). It is decisive that this whole apparatus of people­­ characteristically called a 'machine' in Anglo­-Saxon countries or rather those who direct the machine, keep the members of the parliament in check. They are in a position to impose their will to a rather far- ­reaching extent, and that is of special significance for the selection of the party leader. The man whom the machine follows now becomes the leader, even over the head of the parliamentary party

At the current moment, it seems as if we are at a moment in which the machines have broken down. The Democrats for several elections have been divided between the Clinton and Obama machines, with Obama's being really the long-established Chicago machine. A new, socialist machine has been trying to form and exert itself, but without success so far thanks to the coordination of the other Democratic machines. Joe Biden was not elected by popular vote in the Democratic primary; he was well behind until it became clear that Bernie Sanders was going to win, at which point the other machines aligned behind Biden, forced out the other candidates, and unified the primary votes and caucuses to ensure a machine victory. 

The price was a candidate unfit for the office by age and mental capacity, and a vice president who was entirely detested by their own voters -- she had been polling in the single digits even among an exclusively Democratic audience, being morally unfit for office in a clear enough light for anyone to see. That is who they are stuck with, however, because their machines failed them. 

Likewise, the Democratic machinery has failed in the same way that the ancient king Beowulf is said to have failed: it has done nothing to ensure a smooth generational succession. In addition to Biden, the party leadership is composed of very old people with very limited futures. It is unclear who might rise to replace them. VP Harris is unlikely to be more popular, or to survive a re-election attempt unless the general elections are successfully corrupted to the same degree as the Democratic primary process. AOC and her 'squad' are too young, and from the socialist wing that the machines wish to use but not empower.  

The Republican machinery is in a complete wreckage, having been built on a fraud that was exposed by the Trump era. Possibly Trump himself could establish a new machine with himself in the role of Boss Tweed; possibly, though, he will not even attempt to do this, seeing himself as the proper center of attention rather than being able to envision himself as a the behind-the-scenes power. Right now the Cheneys and Bushes and Romneys who were long-dominant figures, and the machines that back them, scramble helplessly to try to regain a grip on the electoral machinery of the right. 

What that means is that, just as the legitimacy of the government of the United States is weaker than it has been in a long time, and the Napoleonic military means of power are more doubtful now than in generations, the political machinery is also weaker than it has been in a very long time. They continue to perform the black magical rites by which they long maintained power, but it is suddenly doubtful as to whether the magic will continue to work. 


J Melcher said...

Do we all understand what is meant by the term "Taylor System" ?

Grim said...

Perhaps it’s best just to explain, since no one here can speak for everyone.

David Foster said...

'Taylor System' refers to the management system developed by Frederick Taylor, which he called 'scientific management.' It has two basic aspects: the detailed analysis of work and the rigid separation of Thinking from Doing. Lenin envisaged that in the Soviet implementation, the Thinking part would eventually be done by committees of workers, or at least he *said* that that's what he thought.

Lenin goes on the envisage a higher-level Taylorism in the form of a completely planned economy, saying:

"What about the distribution of labour in society as a whole? What a vast amount of labour is wasted at present owing to the disorganised and chaotic character of capitalist production as a whole! How much time is wasted as the raw materials pass to the factory through the hands of hundreds of buyers and middlemen, while the requirements of the market are unknown!"

This kind of argument has been seductive, and continues to be seductive, to a lot of people. How it works out in practice can be seen in the memoirs of a Stalin-era deputy plant manager, Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov. This factory was a sawmill, and was plagued by perpetual shortages of lumber, the allocation decisions of which were arbitrary and very political. Gennady, whose father had been in the lumber trade before the revolution, was contemptuous of the chaos into which the industry had been reduced by the Soviets:

"The free and “unplanned” and therefore ostensibly chaotic character of lumber production before the revolution in reality possessed a definite order. As the season approached, hundreds of thousands of forest workers gathered in small artels of loggers, rafters, and floaters, hired themselves out to entrepreneurs through their foremen, and got all the work done. The Bolsheviks, concerned with “putting order” into life and organizing it according to their single scheme, destroyed that order and introduced their own–and arrived at complete chaos in lumbering."

As Gennady says:

"Such is the immutable law. The forceful subordination of life’s variety into a single mold will be avenged by that variety’s becoming nothing but chaos and disorder."