Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Robert Michels, trade unions and political parties

Michel's book "Political Parties and the Oligarchal Tendencies in Democracies" is not a purely negative take on political life. In fact it offers some very good insights as to how the political system can be made to work better. Although in later life he would become extremely disenchanted with democratic politics, moving to the far right, at the time Michels wrote "Political Parties" he was still sympathetic to revolutionary syndicalism.

One of the best suggestions he puts forward in the beginning of the book is the idea that political parties can retain influence and relevance through being directly accountable to unions. He uses the example of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the early 20th century, arguing that it had a great deal of support at least partially because folks could see tangible benefits through the action of the unions affiliated with it, instead of just through legislation alone. Michels hints that a political party started by unions or that is an outgrowth of direct political activity producing improvements in life, that also remains accountable to these organizations, can create a long lasting organization equipped to realistically fight for deeper change in the structure of society.

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