Project 3: The birth of mass political parties

The PhD candidate Anne Heyer MSc studies the initial phase of the mass political parties at the end of the 19th century. The meaning of the words ‘political party’ changed in this period. Until then they had referred to an ideology, a political ‘current’ or an at best loosely connected parliamentary group. Now the words meant a well-organized political group based on an ideology, putting up candidates at elections, and with a mass following outside of parliament. It could be argued that ‘political party’ now referred to a party in the old sense in combination with a modern voluntary association (public, transparent, democratically managed, national instead of local, accessible and ideologically homogeneous). This new combination changed politics for good and the new parties were accordingly dubbed ‘machines’, ‘caucuses’ (referring to the alleged American origin of the new phenomenon), and ‘oligarchies’. Much has been written about the emergence of political parties, but more often than not only in a single national context. Moreover, their history has mostly been written teleologically, with an eye to their 20th-century role, not with reference to 19th-century voluntary associations (whose history for that matter has often been written as the history of ‘proto-parties’).


This project will study the modern political party as a new phenomenon, but also as a subdivision of the species voluntary association. Much of the criticism that famous commentators such as Moseï Ostrogorski or Robert Michels directed at political parties could have been (and had been) addressed to earlier forms of voluntary organizations. Perhaps the initiators of political parties did not differ that much from the initiators of older voluntary organizations. In this project the same questions will be asked as in the other projects in order to determine to what extent the new political party fitted in with the category of the voluntary organization. What differences did exist between the older single-issue movements, and the new party based on an ideology that pretended to have something to say about all important societal issues? Three cases have been selected:

  1. the National Liberal Federation or Birmingham Caucus of Joseph Chamberlain and Francis Schnadhorst (1877; the main object of Ostrogorski’s criticism) in the United Kingdom
  2. the orthodox Protestant Antirevolutionaire Partij of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands (1879)
  3. the socialist party of August Bebel and Friedrich Liebknecht and its direct forerunners in Germany: Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (1869), Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (1875), and the ensuing SPD (1890). This was the epitome of the modern mass party, the main object of Michels’ criticism, and for our purposes more important than the more loosely organized forerunner party of Ferdinand Lassalle Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (1863).
By studying the first modern parties of three different political currents in three different countries the effects of the emergence of the modern political party for the development of politics and the development of the modern voluntary organization will become clear.

Aims of the project and sources

The object is not to study ideology or political maneuvering, but the process of creating modern organizations and the debates about their advantages and in particular their disadvantages. Much has been written about these three cases, and the purpose of this project will be:

  1. to study the ambitions and organizational purposes of the leaders, with a focus on their management skills, ideas about organization, quest for recognition and pride; on the basis of secondary literature the first steps in the process of organization will be mapped out.
  2. to study the aversion and criticism their projects aroused.
The research will start in familiar territory. Scholarly biographies are available about the most important leaders of these parties and the emergence of the new organizations has also been studied repeatedly (though from other angles). Ostrogorski and Michels belong to the classics of political science and will be the point of departure for the study of the criticism of the new organizations. To a large extent Ostrogorski’s work, in particular, can be regarded as a summary of the criticism of the late 1870s and in the 1880s on the caucus. Both built also on older literature concerning the ‘americanization’ and excessive ‘professionalization’ of political parties. Research will then focus on the practical and theoretical importance the leaders attached to modern organizational structures (which they often described in terms of ‘armies’ who were waging ‘battles’ etc.) and to the debates about the new phenomenon of national political organizations on the occasion of their foundation, important meetings and conferences, and apparent successes in the first years of their existence. The study will be based on the existing literature, the sources concerning the organizations that already have been excavated and correspondence and systematic newspaper research from the initial period of the parties.

Last Modified: 11-01-2011