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The Return of the Party

Why are mass parties back? Because they're still the best way to organize the powerless to take on the powerful.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges delegates following his keynote speech on day four of the party conference on September 26, 2018 in Liverpool, England. Christopher Furlong / Getty

It is commonplace to observe that the post-crash era is defined by the rise of populist movements on both the Left and the Right, amid a trend of growing political polarization. Yet rather less remarked upon is the return of the party as a central actor in the political arena.

Across the West, and in Europe in particular, we are witnessing a resurgence of the political party. Both old parties, like Labour in Britain, and new ones, like Podemos in Spain and France Insoumise, have experienced spectacular growth in recent years, while also undergoing important organizational innovations.

This revival of the party-form is remarkable given that for many years sociologists and political scientists almost unanimously predicted that the political party was losing its primacy in a globalized and highly diversified digital society.

In fact, the current left resurgence has itself belied such forecasts. For digital technology has not supplanted the party. Rather, activists have used its advances in order to develop innovative mechanisms for appealing to citizens, even as they assert the party-form anew as the main instrument of political struggle.

Botched Forecasts

That political parties are undergoing a revitalization is first of all evident in the growing number of party members, a clear turn from the long-falling memberships that many historical European parties experienced beginning in the 1980s.

In Britain, the Labour Party is on course to hit 600,000 members, after having touched a nadir of just 176,891 in 2007 at the end of Tony Blair’s leadership. In France, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise movement counts 580,000 supporters, making it the largest party in France, just a year and a half after its foundation. In Spain, Podemos, founded in 2014, stands at over 500,000 members, over double the figure for the Socialist Party. Even in the US, a country that for most of its history has lacked mass parties in the European sense of the term, we can see a somewhat similar trend, as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the country’s largest socialist formation, has grown to 50,000 members in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016.

This spectacular growth in the membership rolls of left-wing parties — many of which are new formations — strikingly contrasts with the forecasts that had until recently been made by many political scientists. Between the 1990s and the period just before the 2008 financial crisis, scholars concurred in predicting the ultimate demise of the political party. Amid growing voter apathy and declining memberships, the political party seemed to many an outmoded type of organization — a stubborn relic of a bygone past.

In 2000, famed political scientists Russell Dalton and Martin Wattenberg argued that “today mounting evidence points to a declining role for political parties in shaping the politics of advanced industrial democracies. Many established political parties have seen their membership rolls wane, and contemporary publics seem increasingly skeptical about partisan politics.” Irish scholar Peter Mair asserted that we were witnessing the passing of the “age of party democracy,” arguing that a number of phenomena, such as the volatility of the electorate and the rise of a widespread “anti-political sentiment” pointed to the decline of political parties.

Besides being a commentary on the decline of the membership of historical mass parties, such a diagnosis was often informed by postmodern theories about “the end of history”; a prophecy which for many also meant that the party — in most traditional Marxist theory, the decisive historical actor — had met its end.

Amidst the extreme differentiation and individualization of the “network society” described by sociologist Manuel Castells, with its increasing room for individual autonomy and flexibility, all organizations would approximate the horizontal morphology of the network, rather than the vertical structure of the pyramid that dominated industrial-era organizations. This did not seem to bode well for the future of the political party, which by its nature involves the presence of a centralized leadership structure, demanding discipline and submission of individual wills to a collective goal.

Added to this was the perception of a crisis of partisan identification. Class identities were seen as no longer capable of mobilizing voters, and parties were becoming “catch-all” organizations, opportunistically seeking votes wherever they could find a gap in the “electoral market.”

This sociology of extreme complexity, individualization, and class disintegration was accompanied by the argument that in a globalized world, the party would lose importance for the simple reason that the nation-state — the party’s traditional object of conquest and framework of operation — was losing power in favor of global governance institutions. Self-proclaimed “Marxian” maîtres à penser Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt celebrated the shift from nation-states to a global empire, not too dissimilarly from the way in which New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman waxed lyrical about the impending victory of globalization over nations.

The global condition seemed to favor other types of collective organization, operating transnationally and focusing on “single issues”: networked protests, social movements, charities, and NGOs. It is significant that the World Social Forum, the main gathering of the anti-globalization movement, explicitly excluded parties, as if they were not just outdated but also morally reproachable.

Anti-Party Suspicion

This strong anti-party sentiment that has shaped the political education of past generations of left-wing activists was informed the form’s authoritarian distortions over the twentieth century.

Nazism and Stalinism demonstrated the extent to which the party could be turned into a cruel machine bent on manipulating its members and commanding unswerving obedience. Film and literature have handed down vivid portrayals of the malign psychological and political effect of party obedience, such as the abomination of Hitler’s Nazi Party or the show trials and persecutions conducted by Communist parties in the Soviet bloc, as dramatized in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. More benign social-democratic “mass parties” also engendered widespread disappointment.

But what was problematic was the way in which this justified criticism became allied with a longstanding liberal resentment toward the political party, underpinned by an anti-democratic fear of the organized masses and their demands of democratic control and economic redistribution.

This liberal discourse has a very long history that harks back to the origins of modern democracy. Personalities as different as James Madison, Moisey Ostrogorski, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Simone Weil vocally criticized the political party. They attacked political parties for subjecting the individual to obedience and uniformity, and argued that rather than serving the general interests of society parties ended up defending the narrow interest of a faction.

Emerson, for example, famously argued that “a sect or a party is an elegant incognito, devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking,” while Christian anarchist Simone Weil wrote that political parties led to a situation in which “instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind.”

In neoliberal times, this preoccupation with individual freedom has found new currency in the frequently heard celebration of entrepreneurship and of the spontaneity of unregulated market forces, making all forms of collective organization look like an illegitimate impediment. In The Constitution of Liberty Friedrich Hayek, the most important philosopher of the neoliberal “pensée unique” (“single thought”) famously expressed his disbelief in the organized order (taxis) and trust in the spontaneous order (kosmos) of society, modeled on the supposedly “free exchanges” taking place in the market.

The political party, like the state, is thereby represented as a gray and bureaucratic Leviathan that undermines freedom, authentic expression, tolerance, and dialogue. Dispiritingly, this single thought came to be unwittingly absorbed by many anti-authoritarian movements emerging in the aftermath of the student protests of 1968, echoing neoliberals with their denunciation of collective organization and their bureaucracy, in the name of autonomy and personal self-expression.

Ironically, much of the distaste people nowadays feel towards political party is itself the product of neoliberal ideology, and of the way in which over the 1990s and 2000s this ideology facilitated the transformation of the old mass parties of the industrial era into new “liquid parties” styled after American “professional/electoral parties.” These parties, whose cynicism has been captured in the public imagination by TV series such as House of Cards and The Thick of It, have substituted the old apparatchiks with spin doctors, and party cadres with pollsters and communication consultants.

Thus, when people of different persuasions rail against political parties, they may well have very different sorts of parties in mind. However, they seem to think there is something inherently wrong in the party-form as such.

Organizing the Popular Masses

Why, then, is the political party making its return, despite all these criticisms?

This resurgence, noted in recent years by a number of authors such as Jodi Dean, is a reflection of the party-form’s fundamental political necessity, particularly in times of economic crisis and growing inequality. The political party is the organizational structure through which the popular classes can unite and challenge the concentrated power of the super-rich and of economic oligopolies; that is, challenge the same actors that have used the financial crisis to impose a spectacular transfer of wealth in their own favor.

Years of neoliberalism convinced many that their material needs could be satisfied through their own individual effort, entrepreneurship, and individual competition, via the supposed meritocracy of system. But financial capitalism’s failure to create economic wellbeing, has convinced many that the only way to advance their interest is to come together once again in an organized political association.

This almost instinctive reaction to economic hardship serves to demonstrate the continuing role of the party as the means through which a class unity can achieve a collective will and become a political force. Indeed, this understanding has long been discussed in the Marxist tradition; from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ analysis in The Communist Manifesto, to Lenin’s discussion of the vanguard party, Antonio Gramsci’s remarks on the “modern prince” in the Prison Notebooks, and indeed Nicos Poulantzas’ reflection in Political Power and Social Classes. The Leninist vanguard party and the social-democratic mass party provided different solutions for how to pursue this mission. Yet they both ultimately ended up erecting a vast bureaucracy to attend to the task of what Gramsci called “centralizing, organizing, and disciplining” the mass of supporters.

Robert Michels, one of the pioneers of the theory of the modern party, attacked this burgeoning bureaucracy as the root of the “iron law of oligarchy.” But even so, he argued that its emergence reflected a fundamental necessity of mass organization. “Organization, based as it is on the principle of least effort, that is to say upon the greatest possible economy of energy, is the weapon of the weak against the strong.” The party thereby acts as a “structural aggregate,” providing members with a way to amalgamate their forces and overcome that isolation — which, as Nicos Poulantzas noted, otherwise defines workers’ experience, constantly disorganized by the “divide and rule” policy advanced by capital and the state.

While the bourgeoisie is split across many lines (i.e. the divisions between commercial, industrial, and financial capital), it is far easier for it to come together, given its far smaller number, and its possession of key sites of social aggregation, such as marinas, golf resorts, Masonic lodges, and Rotary clubs, not to speak of its blood oaths celebrated through intermarriages. Faced with this dense opposition, political parties are fundamentally “weapons of the weak.”

As US sociologist Anson D. Morse has written, they are the means to “convert many into one,” uniting otherwise dispersed forces with the ultimate aim of posing a credible challenge against concentrated economic power. This is precisely why they have always been looked at with disdain by liberal elites, but also approached with suspicion by the petty-bourgeoisie, which, as French sociologist Maurice Duverger has argued, is afraid of encadrement [having structure imposed on it] and of losing its individual autonomy.

Today, we face a digital economy that is dividing and isolating workers through outsourcing, downsizing, and remote algorithmic supervision — visible, for instance, in companies such as Uber and Amazon. In this new context, the need for the party to act as a “structural aggregate,” bringing together the power of many isolated individuals, is as important as ever. This is especially true given that while parties are clearly again on the rise, as shown by their ballooning membership, the same can hardly be said of trade unions and other traditional forms of popular organization.

In the post-crash era, political parties of course have to attend to the tasks of political representation, the need for which is once again becoming evident. But it seems they also have to compensate for the comparative failure of other forms of social representation, to voice the interests of workers and exact concessions from employers.

All things considered, it should not be a surprise that in times marked by grotesque social inequality and rampant individualization, the political party is coming back with a vengeance. Clearly, the “hypermodern prince” (to distinguish it from the “modern prince” described by Gramsci) is very different from the bureaucratic party of the industrial era, despite its similar attempt to construct spaces of mass participation. As seen most clearly in new formations as Podemos and France Insoumise, emerging political organizations often have a very minimal and agile central directing structure, which make them resemble the “lean” operational model of start-up companies in the digital economy.

These formations may prefer to label themselves “movements,” due to the negative associations the political party still evokes on the Left. But political parties is what they ultimately are. They are best understood as efforts to innovate the party-form and adapt it to present circumstances, in which social experience and everyday life patterns are starkly different from the conditions of the industrial era in which the mass party emerged. They are emerging in a context in which the local branches, cadres, and the complex system of delegation typical of traditional socialist and Communist parties have become largely ineffective.

Activists are trying to address this challenge by using a variety of digital tools, including online participatory platforms, based on an OMOV (one man one vote) system, in which all registered members are called to participate in decisions taken on online participatory platforms. As I describe in The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy, there is a vociferous debate within and outside these formations about whether this shift from “delegate democracy” to online direct democracy is really an improvement. And indeed, some of these organizations are moving away from the “iron law of oligarchy” denounced by Michels, only to crash into an equally problematic digital “plebiscitarianism,” accompanied by charismatic leadership — a kind of “hyperleadership” at the top.

However, all in all, this organizational transformation should be welcomed as a bold attempt of reviving the party-form. This is particularly true in an age in which aggregating the popular classes in a common political actor is clearly needed to shake up a balance of forces that is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of economic elites. Addressing this strategic objective will raise thorny questions of power and internal organization that for too long left activists have evaded.

Contrary to what some said around the turn of the millennium, there is no way to “change the world without taking power.” And there is no way to take power and change the world without rebuilding and transforming political parties.