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Thursday, November 16, 2006

what is to be done?

I was reading the chapter on Lenin in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like the State a couple of days ago. In that chapter, Scott compares Lenin to other modernist figures, and in particular Le Corbusier. Scott takes Lenin’s text, What is to be Done, as his starting point for discussing the organization of the Communist party as a classic modernist project: the use of military metaphors, a planning structure based on an elite command center, the distrust of spontaneity, the whole nine yards. But more than that, Scott compares Lenin’s notion, in 1903, that a party such as he envisions it, and only a party such as he envisions it, can really bring about a revolution, with what happened in 1917, when the spontaneity that Lenin believed to be doomed by its lack of goals and viable mechanisms actually did the task that the Bolsheviks couldn’t do in fifteen years – overthrew the Czar. Revolution, it turned out, was very different from Lenin had envisioned it.

Now what struck LI is that Lenin’s theory of the party is so closely associated with the Communist party that we don’t see how it actually is about… any party. Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Fascist, Menshevik, Bolshevik – LI’s hunch is that the curiously little investigated thing, the party form, and its role in the twentieth century, should start with Lenin.

Anyway, we thought it would be good for a coupla posts. But first, we will begin with another figure, an associate of Weber’s, Robert Michels, who wrote the text book on the nature of the party in 1910, formulating the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’

Michels is an interesting figure. He was a political activist in the Social Democratic party – near the anarchic edge – as well as a sociologist. Later, after WWI, he moved towards fascism, teaching in Italy. But we are concerned with jut a few of his notions.

Robert Michels contrasted two ways of comparing democracies and monarchies/aristocracies. One was to compare the frequency of elections as the index of popular participation – and by this criteria, democracies were clearly more ‘democratic’. But the other way – comparing length of tenure of the officials – gave a more paradoxical result. In Germany, an official – in the legislature, in the party, as a minister – had much greater chance of having a longer tenure, or at least a more frequent one, then they did during the aristocratic/monarchical time.

Michels came up with certain psychological reasons for this unezpected datum. For instance, the democratic representative often is the recipient of gratitude for what he has done. An appointed official or an aristocrat, on the other hand, does what he does evidently for – his king or his family, thus arresting the impulse of gratitude. LI would actually institutionalize gratitude in terms of favors. In general, the frequency of election actually puts a greater stress on those factors that lead to the successful longevity of the representative – in other words, cost of entry goes up, the longer the representative endures in office, the more the gratitude/favors logic works to ensure the closeness of supporters and the officeholder.

There are also, according to Michels, external reasons that help ensure length of tenure. For instance, “…the party that changes its leaders too often runs the risk of fining itself unable to contract useful alliances at an opportune moment. The two gravest defects of genuine democracy, its lack of stability (perpetuum mobile democraticum) and its difficulty of mobilization, are dependent on the recognized right of the sovereign masses to take part in the management of their own affairs.”

The idea of an alliance is very important. Because the party is so often considered as an instrument, as something that is designed completely to accomplish a purpose, it is hard to see it standing for itself. It must stand for an idea, represent a class, an ethnic group, etc.

Which will get us to Lenin, in my next post, or some post soon.

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