Democracy and Parties

To read the first volume of this noteworthy work1is to be led through a long gallery whose walls are covered with paintings of historical subject and interest and of philosophical import, interspersed with striking portraits and sketches of British statesmen of the last century; is to be delightfully and informingly led through here, out into the great hall of a tumultuous party convention or the closely packed, dimly lighted, smoky room of a ward caucus. The approach gives to these scenes the only dignity they possess, and alone allows the hope that somehow these selfish, sordid, unpicturesque struggles of Democracy in the present may find themselves expressed on the morrow in something better than a “painted sign on a coarse board.” But the author of this work does not give us much hope.

The first chapters, the gallery in which these pictures of the past hang, show how the individual through the ideology of the poet, philosopher, and philanthropist, through the preaching of a new faith, and by the practical works of the inventor, came to his own in England; how Demos, free from the old social, religious, economic, and political bonds, started for the goal of the philosopher’s dreaming, of Wesley’s preaching, of the spinning jenny’s and steam engine’s whirring and thundering, and of his own vague longing; and how he got the electoral franchise which he expected would somehow make straight all crooked ways and open all gates to the delectable world. The succeeding chapters show this same Demos, in the body, feeding upon the husks of his own hopes and the philosopher’s delusions. He has received the portion which has fallen to him and has spent it foolishly if not riotously.

This prodigality of sovereignty Mr. Ostrogorski attributes not to Democracy’s own innate depravity, nor chiefly to its indifference to its fate, but to the seductions and selfish machinations of extra-legal and extra-parliamentary party organizations. These are gathered for purposes of convenience of examination and condemnation under the term “ caucus, ” a word borrowed from America and used by Disraeli in stigmatizing the activities of the Birmingham School (whose leader is now coördinating two civilizations in South Africa). The caucus, according to conclusions of this diligent and unsparing Gallicized Russian critic who has for fifteen years been studying Anglo-Saxon political ways, is the servant of English politics. Organized to persuade Democracy to make fullest and most intelligent use of its new prerogative, its franchise, — to eat of all the trees of the garden, — it has become responsible for the fall of Democracy, or at any rate for many of its sins of shortcoming. The sovereignty of Demos has become a shadow; his individuality has been erased ; government is a monopoly which has passed from his hands; the mechanical has succeeded to the functions of the personal. He no longer holds his head erect; he “skulks along; ” he has let his conscience, his intellect, and so his sovereignty, under indefinite lease, to Caucus, who is a motley, cowardly soul made up of innumerable pettinesses. “The more he [Demos] advances, the nearer he appears to draw to the starting point, ” to the time when he was completely bound by the old and more kindly tyrannies.

If Mr. Ostrogorski were allowed to speak in his own accurate words, instead of through these similes of mine, he would say that the caucus which aimed at hastening the democratic process in English political society “had succeeded in only a superficial, purely apparent fashion; ” that the popular form of party organization merely enables it “to penetrate deeper into the masses for the purpose of capturing them more easily and not for giving them independence.” And as to its influence on Parliament itself, with which the voter is no longer personally in touch (the caucus having put up intrenchments without, which the people must now storm and capture first, if they are to get Parliament to do their will), its springs have been weakened, it has been lowered in the public estimate, and its efficacy has deteriorated. So, not only has the voter lost his prided sovereignty, but Parliament has also been put under the suzerainty of party. Democracy is not excused of all blame for such a state of affairs, but the caucus is accused of having systematized and crystallized the elements which have resulted in the “long degradation of democratic government, ” of incorporating into pernicious efficiency all the evil tendencies of politics, and of preying upon the known weaknesses of the individuals who compose the state. All the problems which Democracy had to face in its innocence, “party formalism ” (which is to the author the political devil in the abstract) has “solved in the wrong way,” or has “increased the gradient of the incline down which these difficulties were pushing Democracy. ” So much for the caucus in England.

When the scene changes and we find ourselves presented as pouring the poison into the ear of Democracy, to whom we have perhaps too much protested our devotion, as the Queen in Hamlet’s play, we cannot sit in such complacency. But to “give o’er the play” were to confess to more than we are guilty of. Mr. Bryce, through whose hands his words (the most intelligent and informing in this field since his own American Commonwealth) have come to American readers, prepares those who read the preface first — and strengthens those who read it last — against an impression more unfavorable than the realities in English politics warrant. And while we must, on this side, admit (so far at any rate as my information goes) the accuracy of the concrete sordidness and political wantonness and official sinfulness which are here detailed and preserved against the days of our judgment; while we have been guilty of “voting for a yellow dog ” for the sake of “regularity, ” and have let our civic courage shrivel into inward protestations while we outwardly “conform,”—while all this may be and doubtless is true, in the particular items of its statement, yet it is not entirely clear that our human weaknesses and selfish desires are not deserving of a rather greater share of the blame than they get, and the machinery of their expression less, than Mr. Ostrogorski gives. But even if all these unselfish items be charged against party formalism, this at least is to be said, that adequate credit is not given for the corrective influences, which, if not sufficient in amount to show our parties solvent, may at least reveal that there is not a hopeless balance against them. One is half conscious, all through the reading of his conclusions, of a questioning as to what Democracy would have achieved without parties, without permanently organized and disciplined armies, which both subdue indifference and ignorance in the field and garrison a principle or policy once it has been achieved. Mr. Ostrogorski concedes the need of organization, but holds and urges by illustration that it is the permanence of the organization that is harmful. “By discarding the use of permanent parties with power as their end, and in restoring to party its essential character of a combination of citizens formed especially for a particular political issue, ” we shall be on the way to the solution of the problem which very seriously perplexes and menaces Democracy, namely, that of getting its will expressed and enacted. It is through ephemeral leagues and associations which will compete each with the others at the preliminary polls for the submission of its favorite principle or fad to the final public vote, that he sees the individual come back to his real sovereignty again, — these, and a responsible ministry (but responsible individually and not collectively).

We must all see that the moral remedy is not to be efficacious if it does not also reach the machinery through which the citizen acts; but the machinery is after all only the language and not the thought. The thought will in some way eventually get its accurate expression, and will break or alter the machinery to reach it. Thought, so far as it touches government, may have to use temporary leagues and associations, new words, but it is not likely to discard its old accumulated etymology. “Ephemeral parties, ” John Fiske says, “rise and fall over special questions of temporary importance, but this grand division (Tory and Liberal in their generic characteristics) endureth forever.”

Mr. Ostrogorski’s contribution, especially in its analysis and exposition of political phenomena, is a great one. His work is a thesaurus of fact and philosophy that should come into the hands of every serious student of politics in these two democracies where have been set up the stupendous mechanisms which convert raw opinion into votes that often so inaccurately and wastefully represent it, which transmutes votes into legislation that so seldom satisfies the voter, and which finally enacts the legislation into life that seems to mock the very purpose that gave it being.

J. H. F.

  1. Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. By M. OSTROGORSKI. Translated by FREDERICK CLARK. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1902.