History Of Political Parties Research Paper

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The definition of a political party requires a historical perspective. The idea of a party is multifaceted and developed over time, in the light of the prevailing political, social, economic, and (especially) legal realities in which it is formed. In current language— and in the specialized terminology of the social sciences—the term ‘party’ has been in use for longer than the term ‘social class’. Etymologically, the term derives from the verb partir, which, in archaic French, meant ‘partake,’ or ‘share.’ This research paper regards political parties as formal civil organizations that are active in public life, in which they represent specific class, professional, or ideological interests, within the framework of the modern constitutional State, and whose goal is to run for election and, upon winning, to take power as the government.

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1. Approaches And Definitions

In the past the expression ‘political party’ was also used to describe other political phenomena. Throughout the history of societies and of their political bodies, since antiquity, the expression to ‘be party to’ affairs of public life has been considered a common mode of human behavior. The translators of Aristotle use the term ‘party’ to designate opposing social groups in Athens. Specialists on ancient Rome have used the concepts of ‘Plebeian Party’ and ‘Patrician Party,’ and the famous Deviris illustribus Romae relates to the party disputes that dilacerated the Roman Republic. The supporters of the Crown and the defenders of the rights of the nobility were also parties. Critics of the theological hegemony of the church and of the clergy were parties within the context of the political order of Christian Europe. Noble families in opposition to the Crown were parties in the making; religious and political reformers were parties. These are broad meanings of the term that are frequently to be found in the literature. Also under the broad heading of ‘parties’ can be categorized all manner of social organizations that seek political ends, even if they never stand for (or win) elections, as is the case for the mini-parties or revolutionary organizations that have no constituency among the electorate and that do not accept the validity of the electoral system, or even the dominant groups in totalitarian states. Thus, the expression ‘political parties’ is also often applied to interest groups; propagators of ideologies, doctrines, and political positions; political model makers; and mediators between citizens and government, including a vast multiplicity of bodies that participate in public life.

There are three nuances of the term ‘party’ from the historical point of view: rival groups, orders, states, or dynasties; theological or ideological critics; and modern formal social organization. This third interpret-ation has, in part, inherited the historical characteristics of earlier forms, making it possible to make such distinctions as conservative and liberal parties; religious and lay groups; corporative interests and those of the masses; revolutionaries and reformers; left and right; center and radical; and progressive and reactionary. Such distinctions are not exclusive, are directly proportional to the degree of institutional solidity and of integration which the parties enjoy in political society, and always relate to the ideas that separate—or unite—individuals or groups. Such multiplicity is evident in the classification of parties, according to the ideological density of their manifestos, the form of internal structure, competitive or noncompetitive organization, and of party systems (single-party, two-party, or multiparty; unipolar, bipolar, or multi-polar) concerning the political and legal frame they are put in. Unlike political science, historical research does not treat these issues in isolation, but rather, seeks to reconstruct how all such aspects relate to each other.

Political parties—in the contemporary sense of the term—became common in the nineteenth century, alongside the development of representative institutions and the suffrage, becoming gradually universal, especially in Western Europe and the USA. In the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) political parties had not yet been formally recognized as civil associations. Any association, assembly, or grouping united by specific goal or political interest was regarded as a party. Conversely, the pursuit of private interests and the application of abusive pressures was regarded as a constraint upon political life, as the goal of winning elections and of influencing government and public policy became the established criteria for identifying a group of citizens as a political party. In the USA, by the 1830s, parties as such were fully active. In the Western European states, it was in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century that this development took place. Modern political parties are full players in the public life of democratic societies. In effect, only constitutional states formed and consolidated over the past two hundred years have the institutional framework necessary to ensure regular political participation on the part of their citizens. Such a framework determines the legal principles for party actions, articulates the position of the parties in relation the system of government and the electoral system, and places them within the framework of civil law. Their social origin and ideological orientation notwithstanding, it was the placing of parties within a legal framework that created the party system—understood both as a juridical and political frame of the participation of citizens in political life.

Parties began to elicit attention from philosophers and the interest of modern historians from the time of the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, on through the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, and up until the death of Marx in 1883. They were observed by Bolingbroke and Madison, Hume, Burke, Benjamin Constant and Bluntschli, and the German social-democratic thinkers. At the turn of the twentieth century, party-political phenomena began to be the object of serious scientific methodological analysis. The earliest works in this field were published after the consolidation of parliamentary forms of democratic government, which had been in place since the mid-nineteenth century. The pioneering works of Ostrogorski (1902) and Michels (1989) examined the functioning of parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the UK, France, and the USA. These authors sought to put forward a general theory, beginning with highly particular experiences and specific historical developments, such as the establishment of federative republicanism of the USA or the burgeoning power of Parliament in the Government of the UK. There are many descriptive and historical studies on political parties in specific countries and also comparative studies which seek to define possible models. Research trends generally give greater emphasis to the western model of representative democracy, in which formalized parliamentary, electoral, and political-party systems play an essential role in public life and the practices of Government (Epstein 1993; Budge and Keman 1990, Fenske 1994).

With Max Weber, who couches his remarks on parties from a sociological standpoint, modern political parties came to be understood as a product of democracy and of universal suffrage. Jean Charlot (1971), according to Lapalombara and Weiner (1966), provides a systematically historical view of parties. In order for a group to be regarded as a political party, it should fulfill four requisites. It must (a) possess a visible and stable organization, for the articulation of its local, regional, and national components; (b) ensure continuity of organization, independently of its current managers; (c) have the explicit goal of achieving and holding decision-making power, either alone or as part of a coalition with others, at all levels; and (d) have organizational efficiency, with a view to capturing the vote and harnessing popular support. It is, however, a work by Duverger (1951) that systematizes and compiles knowledge on political parties. Two of his research elements remain valid: one puts forward a theory of the origin and of the proliferation of political parties, from an institutional perspective, relating to the party phenomenon and the dynamics of institutions, whereas the other resides in a typology of parties based upon the nature of their organization. After World War II, the discredit and mistrust with which people regarded the traditional political parties of Europe—owing to their failure to avoid the emergence of fascism and totalitarian dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia—hampered the reintroduction of democracy, and parties were left fragmented and disunited. The understanding came up that healthy democratic life requires political parties within a system of government that establishes clear rules for the formation of governments to exercise the will of the majority, solely on the basis of the judgment expressed through the popular vote. The political instability of the Fourth Republic in France, and of the government of Italy, for example, provided Duverger with a rich vein of material upon which to base the most ambitious essay written on the theme of political parties in the mid-twentieth century. Duverger regards the parties of the masses as the inevitable product of universal suffrage and regards many of the residual parties as being archaic, especially in postwar France. His view is supported by the movements for ideological concentration in European public life at the onset of the Cold War and has as its inspiration the two-party systems—which he regarded as being successful—in the USA, UK, and West Germany.

Although there is still a lack broad-based comparative studies, the contributions of Robert Dahl (1966), Lipset and Rokkan (1967), and Epstein (1993), take steps in this direction. The ideological nature of parties is given an innovative treatment by Stein Rokkan, comparable with the contribution of Duverger on party organization. The analysis of party systems was advanced by Sartori (1976) and Blondel (1978), whereas electoral sociology—beginning with the pioneering work of Andre Siegfried on electoral statistics and geography (1913, 1927), by Richard Rose (1984), David Butler (1981), and Alain Lancelot (1988). More recently, Daalder and Mair (1983), Pierre Avril (1990), Klaus von Beyme (1985), and Daniel-Louis Seiler (1986) have sought to formulate studies from an institutional and systemic viewpoint.

2. Stages Of Development (Phases) Change Over Time

The first expressions of party life began with the defense of specific interests, although in different contexts and times, such as those of the aristocracy against the power of kings and governments, or of the working class against the political, economic, and social dominance of ruling groups or elites. Such defense was not passive. It was carried out by means of consistent and prolonged actions within the representative institutions, such as the estates, consultative assemblies and parliaments. It also comprised the revolutionary movements in which the respect for rights—both effectively held and merely claimed—was demanded of the political authorities, the governing establishment or the despot.

A party emerges when a political current within society finds expression through a specific (national or regional) organization. The first steps towards the organization of a political group can be observed through the ‘parties’ into which England polarized in the mid-seventeenth century. Although these parties were still characterized by the discipline and discourse of religion, the political effect of the change from one system of government to another imposed by those in opposition to the power of the throne, ushered in a new form of the exercise of power within society. It goes without saying that the great revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—in England, France, and the USA—also gave rise to factions which the majority of historians would call ‘parties.’

The typical action of parties in modern societies emerged out of the political consciousness that defined and established the notion of a universal citizenship, evolves in the new space for political protagonists (both for and against the State), the emergence of organized political parties during the nineteenth century and investiture of political parties as being the only protagonists capable of adopting practices, expressing ideas, and taking power and exercising public office within the State. The parties of the bourgeois in the early nineteenth century protagonized opposition between the aristocracy and the monarchy; a similar process can be observed among the emergent revolutionary or proletarian parties of the end of the same century. In revolutionary France there were embryonic experiences of political-party organization: the Girondes, Montagnards, and the Jacobins. The greater part of these ‘parties’ consisted of small groups, without formal organizational structures. It can thus be stated that no formal parties existed prior to 1820. Three phases in the development of party systems can be identified in the nineteenth century: the earliest phase between 1820 and 1830, an intermediate phase in the 1860s, and a final phase around 1880.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the British Tories and Whigs emerged and consolidated long-held positions. At the same time, in many countries of Western Europe, and notably in France, there was a movement towards a more constitutional state, expanding suffrage and consolidating the system through application the principle of majority rule in the formation of governments. It was in this phase that the earliest political parties emerged in Latin America, as in the case of the Partido Liberal in Colombia (1815) and the Colorado and Nacional parties in Uruguay (1836), which arose as an immediate consequence of the wars of independence against Spain and of the ideological influence of the USA. In the intermediate phase, there was a clear expansion of political parties: the Conservative (1840) and the Liberal (1860) parties in Brazil; the Liberal Party in Belgium (1846); the Christian-Democrat and Radical-Democrat parties in Switzerland (1848); the Democratic (1848) and Republican (1856) parties in the USA; the Liberal Party in Italy (1848); the Partido Radical in Chile (1863); and the Conservative (1854) and Liberal (1867) parties in Canada.

In Latin America, where most countries had thrown off colonial rule in the first decades of the nineteenth century, only gradually did political parties begin to gain importance. As of 1850, the national aspirations of countries of South America came under the spreading influence of North American two-party system. The first expression of political life was the affirmation of a national identity. The main banner of the ‘political parties’ up until the mid 1800s was nationalism, defended as the means whereby these new states could affirm their independence in face of their former colonial masters. The 1880s witnessed the emergence of ‘classical’ political parties, generally in twos, and of either conservative or liberal persuasion—but always nationalist—in the former Spanish colonies. It should be noted that the emergence of political parties did not necessarily mean that they assumed a decisive role in political life. Under the Brazilian Empire (1822–89), a two-party system existed as a means for the rural aristocracy to maintain its hold on power and, under the Republic proclaimed in 1889, this oligarchic system remained essentially unchanged.

In the mid-nineteenth century, growing social tensions and bitter social criticism led people with a political outlook to express their social and economic (and occasionally revolutionary) demands through formal political action, by means of the creation of political parties. Thus began the ‘socialist’ or ‘socialdemocrat’ phase, typified by formation of the Danish Social-Democratic Party (1871), the Spanish Socialist Party (1879), the German Social-Democratic Party (1863, 1869, 1875), the Swiss Socialist Party (1880), the Belgian Workers Party (1885), the Indian National Congress (1885), the Austrian Social-Democratic Party (1889), the Swedish Social-Democratic Party (1889), the Italian Socialist Party (1892), and many others.

World War I forced a pause for reflection and redefinition of the party systems in Europe. On the one hand, the victory (1917) of the Bolshevik party (1903), which upon seizing power set up a revolutionary and internationalist government in Russia, and, simultaneously, the conservative bias of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) on the other, mark the polarization of two separate and irreconcilable ideological currents. On one side, moderate, conservative democratic, and liberal parties, found themselves up against hard-line right or left-wing revolutionary opponents of a nationalist or internationalist persuasion, with scant respect for suffrage, democracy, or tolerance. The twentieth century opened with the founding of a series of communist parties (Russia 1903; Austria 1918; Greece 1918; USA 1919; UK 1920; Spain 1920; Italy 1921). These new protagonists on the political scene achieved varying degrees of importance in different places and their role was to become more prominent during the Cold War. Communist ideology and the proposals of revolutionary Marxist analyses were to assume the weight of a political mortgage at two moments: in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and throughout the world from 1945 to 1990. Social demands and economic crises deeply disturbed the political environment. The emergence of totalitarian and fascist dictatorships were to undermine political party structures throughout Europe until 1945. Nevertheless, these dictatorships organized political life by means of an imposed adherence to a single party. Only formally such a party was maintained as an element of legitimacy in the exercise of state power, despite the fact that authoritarian regimes could dispense this.

The success of the Western model of parliamentary democracy based upon a three-legged political system (representative and participative democracy, the electoral system, and the political-party system) is thus a recent phenomenon. During the Cold War, the ideals of representative democracy as being the end product of the modern liberal constitutionalism, with roots in the 1790s, appeared to be a heritage limited principally to Western Europe and the USA. A few other countries, notably former members of the British Empire—such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India—have practiced representative democracy since achieving their independence. In countries such as Brazil and India, where democratic pluralism exists under specific historical and cultural conditions, many political activities take place outside the formal political-party structure.

Between the world wars, growing social awareness of rights and of the need to manage an increasingly literate populace led to structural modifications among the political parties. Economic crises in Central Europe were accompanied by increasing mistrust of parliamentary institutions and the emergence of manipulative right-wing political parties. Fascism and communism radically changed the way in which political parties were regarded. Into the parties of the masses flowed all the social dissatisfaction and frustration, making them easy prey for manipulation by dictators of every stripe. In Europe, as also in other regions, the trend towards mass parties, which in principal appeared to be a sign of the triumph of democracy, in the end generally resulted in quite the opposite effect as authoritarian rulers assumed power. In many regions, however, expectations with respect to the freedom to participate in party activities was enhanced, especially after the experience of World War II.

The triumph of the Western model of liberal democracy with parliamentary representation was one of the consequences of the new international order that emerged after 1945, except in regions under the yoke of communism (Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba). Communist regimes, however, do not dispense with mass parties or even with formal parliaments, although the role of these institutions is merely figurative. After World War II, a new phase of political life began, with the restoration of the values of liberal democracy, universal suffrage, civil liberties, and parliamentary representation. The Western tradition of recording political events—at least since the Code Napoleon (1804) and the British Reform Act (1832)— has provided a framework for the organization of political life in such a manner that the formal and legal structuring of parties has advanced in parallel to the campaign for constitutional government. This has caused parties to organize and represent themselves as both defenders of an overall social vision and as pursuers of political goals. Thus, parties assume the posture of political businesses whereby they compete within a legal framework to advance the political convictions, opinions, and beliefs—and to defend the preferences and class interests—of their constituents. Diverse and intersecting interests find expression among groups, clubs, associations, and, above all, political parties. The social economic and ideological cut-lines present in the social structures were key factors throughout the nineteenth century. Conservatives and Liberals, labor parties and revolutionaries, opposed each other in Europe and also in Latin America. In the UK, the Conservatives and the Liberals succeeded the Tories and the Whigs and were in turn superseded by the Conservative and Labour parties of the twentieth century. In the USA in the period following the Civil War, the Democrats and the Republicans definitively consolidated their hegemony over the political scene (Katz and Mair 1992).

The history of political parties clearly demonstrates that the political opportunities in the social competition for power in the State has an effect upon the parties that, for their part, have an effect upon the structure of political opportunity, i.e., parties and institutions mutually affect each other. In democracies which work regularly, disciplined voters arise, as in the European Union, for example. These voters do respond to party activities, although they are increasingly critical of the means whereby parties pursue their ends. ‘Belonging’ to a party tends to be more a sociological identification with a political tendency, rather than involving formal party affiliation. This suggests a salutary clarification of the boundaries between parties and their environment. The process whereby a party is identified with its leader is an interesting historical phenomenon in the political organization of societies. For example, the Braybrooke’s Manuscript (1788) refers to the parties ‘of the Crown,’ ‘faithful to Mr. Pitt,’ and ‘of Mr. Fox.’ Another interesting and more contemporary example is of the emergence of a ‘Gaullist’ party in France, after 1946. The tradition of having a strong personal leader continues very much alive in Latin America, even in the late twentieth century. This tradition has influenced the social practices of parties in various ways. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI (1911) dominated the Mexican political scene single-handedly until 2000.

With the advance of democracy and of democratic negotiating practices, conducted with a view to making government of contemporary states feasible, all parties (including the new parties that emerged out of the former communist parties of Eastern Europe, and also certain parties in Western Europe) have had to become connected. The difficulty of winning elections based solely upon their different platforms and making their will prevail has, since the 1970s, obliged parties to emphasize their capacity to draw together to form and support coalitions. Finally, all modern parties are obliged to adopt business-like organizational structures or run the risk of failing to fulfill the demands of modern life, in terms of communication, social penetration, and funding.

Evidently, the aim of assuming the mantle of government remains the principal motivation of political parties. The historical trajectory of activities undertaken by political parties is closely associated with an awareness of the structure of political opportunities within a given political system. Revolutionary organizations that reject existing institutions, social clubs, debating societies, pressure or advocacy groups with independent objectives can be regarded as entities that discreetly play significant political roles without being formally political parties. Formal political parties must, as such, compete to control a political process whose agenda they do not establish by themselves, but which cannot function without their participation. This experience is deeply ingrained in the political parties of the late twentieth century.

3. Unanswered Questions And Issues For Debate

Some important questions remain unanswered. For example, the emergence of political participation—as an alternative to traditional representation in liberal democracies—is often treated both as an essential element for modernization and as its critical consequence. To assume the mantle of government and to perpetuate the values of parliamentary democracy, strong parliamentary institutions are necessary if modern political parties are to perform their roles. This is true even in countries such as the USA—and many others in Africa and Latin-America—in which the presidency is a strong and ‘personalized’ institution. This applies even in cases where presidents are elected by direct vote and are endowed with special powers, as occurs in France and in Portugal.

Although much is known with respect to the details of the emergence of specific party systems, the capacity to generalize as to the reasons why different types of parties emerge in the ways and forms in which they have done so, remains incipient. There are few works that examine or seek to explain the vast variety of different contexts, and comparative studies among regions with different levels of development are rare. In the 1980s, the political development of multinational regional institutions—which initially had a solely economic focus—such as the European Economic Community, ASEAN, and (in the 1990s) MERCOSUR, has unveiled a whole new field for research into the political life of such institutions, their relations with member states, and the entire theme of supranational integration. From a historical-research perspective, only now are the first comparative studies of the political parties being carried out. This applies not only to research on existing parties in specific countries or groups of countries (as is the case in the European Union), but also with respect to an examination of the historical roots of contemporary political parties.

Not only parties, but also party systems can be analyzed from the institutional standpoint. Both the parties and the party systems of the 1970s were little different from those of the 1920s. With the exception of the ecological movement, the majority of the party groupings, i.e., similar parties, can be presented according to their similarities. Practically all of the present parties—of the left, of the right, of the center; liberal and revolutionary parties—consolidated themselves in the 1920s, and some much earlier. Political parties are present at the heart of all activities of the state in liberal democracies. However, even under communist regimes the role of the political party is performed in a well-established manner. In the 1990s, however, it could not safely be predicted that political parties would face a future with development and prestige, similar to that they enjoyed in the recent past. At the present time, a new type of political culture is emerging. Political awareness and politics—as subject for discussion—open up a new avenue of research into general participation in political life on the threshold of the twenty-first century. Culture may help a understanding as to why certain social cleavages are successfully transposed by a stable party system, whereas others are not. Political culture and the manner in which it is created is responsible for some significant differences in the traditional organization of states, or of bodies associated to them. Political culture includes not only ideals, such as values, beliefs, attitudes, but also political practices and societal behavior.

There are certain themes in the study of political parties that still require further research from a historical point of view. Politics, with the constrained use of political power, and the politics of containment have been recurrent themes in political science since the 1970s. One of the most important contentions of political activity is the institutional framework of the state. Contemporary political research has made clear the importance of institutional factors in political life. Aside from this new institutional focus, the study of political parties has demonstrated a renewed appreciation of history, of events, of the rules and of political regimes as the active forces of political life. It is perhaps commonplace to state that ‘history matters.’ The ‘frozen cleavages’ of Lipset and Rokkan, the development models of communism, fascism and the parliamentary democracy of Moore (1968), the theories of ‘critical realignment’ of Burnham (1970), are good examples of historical reviews and models. The legacy of history is thus one of the limitations to which institutionalism is subject.

Socio–economic constraints are generally accepted without going into the mythical and overworked concepts that have been served up since the time of Marx. Rapid changes in international finances and economic scenarios have produced intriguing works. The exercise of social power is also constrained by cognitive means, in the use of pure reason (and more specifically, of the practical one). The knowledge society and information society will have to take into consideration non-rational features of political life, and the social and ideological factors that influence the belief systems of the masses (Meny 1989). The final two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a swift retreat in the positivist distinction between fact and value. Specialists recognized that political agents were also ethical players (Rawls 1993), who have their own values and act in accordance with them, and that occasionally they may be persuaded (by political philosophers, perhaps) to adopt other, better values. Any attempt to divorce facts and values from the mental processes and from the underlying political dynamics, would be doomed to failure. Similarly, political science increasingly seeks to develop studies that take into account the complexity of the structures, processes, and results that it investigates. In order to do this, one must have a theoretical framework within which the history of the processes and the prevailing political philosophy must occupy a space which formally would have drawn opposition from previous generations.


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