Paul G Lewis. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.
Idea and History of the Party State
The idea of party states—that is, of one-party regimes or of states with a single party—has always been a controversial one. It has long raised doubts of a conceptual nature amongst those concerned with the study of political parties, and in some views has represented a challenge to the very meaning of the term ‘party’. This is because the idea of party implies an absence of political wholeness, some element of pluralism and a necessary association with other organizations taking part in the political process, which thus also form part of the overall political regime. Analysis of the ‘single party’, or the one-party regime, has nevertheless occupied a central place in the field of study of modern parties and appeared as a prominent feature in discussion and interpretation of the key political developments of the 20th century. The single party was long recognized to be the central component of the Soviet system, as well as of the broader spectrum of communist and totalitarian regimes that played such an important role in the politics of the last century. In the early years of this century, it remains a wholly necessary part of the study of contemporary Chinese politics and is still relevant to the other surviving communist regimes (North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos) and one-party states. As such, it continues to deserve serious attention in any study of contemporary political parties.
On the face of it there certainly seems to be something strange about focusing attention on ‘the party without counterpart’ (Sartori, 1976: 42). Why not, after all, just talk of a no-party system in situations where the governing body and main structures of rule do not tolerate opposition or organized manifestations of dissent? The paradox associated with the idea of the one-party regime diminishes, however, when the existence and operation of such an arrangement is seen in terms of its relation to the development of the state and the form taken by regimes at specific historical conjunctures as modern societies became politicized. The single party did not emerge in an historical vacuum, but was formed and rose to power in contexts strongly marked by the recent extension of the suffrage and under conditions in which early party pluralism was thought to have failed or had so far developed little support. Such were the conditions in the Russia of 1917, where the Kerensky regime was faced with the impossible task of maintaining the country’s war effort on the basis of a barely established party pluralism and in the face of effective local power exercised by workers’ soviets (or councils); in Italy during 1922, where a newly unified nation was devastated by wartime losses for which it received little reward or recompense; or in the Germany of 1933, where the Weimar Republic crumbled under the burden of economic depression and unemployment. The seizure of power by Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler—albeit, in the latter case, with considerable support at the polls—thus gave birth to a novel kind of political institution in a new situation, one where ‘The one party in power kills the other parties but remains a party-like organizational weapon’ (Sartori, 1976: 40-2, 43). The single party—either Soviet communist, Italian fascist or German Nazi—is one that has taken power after it has defeated competing parties and eliminated them from the political arena, invariably by violent means, as well as annihilating or neutralizing all other major forms of social resistance.
The idea of the party state involves specific conceptions both of party and state. The state in which the single party has emerged has typically been one weakened by war or at an early stage of development, and one often struggling too with a devastated economy. These were the conditions that prevailed in Russia, Italy and Germany after World War I, as well as in China after 1945. They provided the single party with particular opportunities for leadership, control and purposive action and placed special responsibilities on it as an agency of political coordination and guidance. In this context the single party becomes a prime means of social integration. The early single parties that took this classic form were dynamic organizations and to a large extent institutions of mobilization intended to perform combined functions of political, social and economic construction. It is therefore important to pay due recognition to both sides of the equation—that we are essentially concerned here with strong parties in weak states. It is not difficult here to detect the contrast that emerges with countries like the United States and Great Britain at equivalent stages of party development—strong states that provided quite different conditions for the birth and steady growth of parties with more limited functions of political representation as agencies of democratic participation.
The single party is, therefore, a particular kind of political organization that arose in a specific historic context, one whose origins and early classic forms were confined to Europe during World War I and the following years. The single-party model was also adopted there during the inter-war period by Portugal (under Salazar) and Spain (under Franco), although it had considerable influence elsewhere during the years preceding World War II. After 1945 its influence spread globally. Between 1962 and 1968 thirty-three states, most of them communist, held elections that gave all seats in the legislature to one and the same party (Sartori, 1976: 221). One-party rule clearly had considerable political success and appeal (for rulers if not always their subjects), and seemed to satisfy a range of political demands. One thing it could not do, of course, was form the basis for an electoral democracy or a party system—for the simple reason that its actions left no other party for it to develop systematic relations with. If the idea of a polity in which party politics is restricted to one organization already raises doubts for a number of analysts, the suggestion of a ‘one-party system’ can indeed be rejected as a contradiction in terms.
The appropriate conceptualization here is that of the party-state system, where the single party broadly appears as a duplicate of the state. The single party invariably has official status as the supreme political organization in a monolithic state. All opposition parties were dissolved in Italy in 1926 and the right to form new ones removed. Independent parties in Nazi Germany were dissolved or proscribed in May 1933 and in December a law was passed to secure the unity of Party and Reich, thus establishing an official state party. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, it was not until the Stalin Constitution of 1936 appeared that the role of the Communist party was formally recognized and described there as the ‘leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state’.
But in any concrete manifestation of the model, the correspondence between party and state is never complete. Party and state necessarily remain different kinds of institutions so long as they do not completely merge their identities in a distinctive new form of organization. There is scope for differentiation between party and state in different ways: the proportion of those holding public office who are party members may be subject to considerable variation; party career systems can differ from those of the bureaucratic career system typical of state structures; there may well be conflict between the interests of party representatives and leaders and those of the technical intelligentsia concerned with state affairs; the different hierarchies that make up the state structure (including police forces and the army) can find it difficult to integrate with the apparatus of the party itself (Sartori, 1976: 45). There is also the strong likelihood of tension and conflict emerging between the two structures, or of one dominating the other. In view of the strong tendencies to centralization that permeate the party state, there is also the distinct possibility that a dominant leader may rise above both party and state and exercise a general dictatorship over both. Despite an apparently solid and monolithic character, the party state carries major elements of instability.
Dimensions of Single-Party Rule
While, not surprisingly, party-state relations are an important dimension of single-party operations and direct attention to features of the way in which one-party regimes operate, they also have other distinctive characteristics. Many but not all, single parties have adopted and placed great emphasis on promulgating a particular ideology. This has been particularly true of totalitarian regimes and the classic cases of one-party rule that developed in the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany before World War II. Sartori (1976: 222-4) indeed suggests that distinctions can be drawn between one-party totalitarian patterns, one-party authoritarianism and one-party pragmatic regimes. The latter, by definition, are less concerned with the ideological objectives and constraints of political rule and preoccupied with the politics of expediency. Examples offered here -from the early 1970s—were Portugal (under National Political Action), Liberia (dominated by the True Whigs), Tunisia (ruled by the Neo-Destour Party) and Spain during the latter years of Franco’s rule. It should be noted, however, that these are quite isolated and somewhat marginal examples of one-party rule.
By the time this observation was made in 1976—and indeed until the late 1980s—communist regimes provided by far the largest subcategory of one-party rule and embodied the most durable variant of the totalitarian model that emerged between the world wars. To an even greater extent than the Nazi or fascist regimes, it can be argued, communist regimes were driven by ideology and shaped by a distinctive vision of state development and socioeconomic growth. The prominence of communist ideology was linked with the greater scope and intensity of party input into the state under communist regimes, as well as a correspondingly stronger influence on state policy and its political output (Ware, 1996: 131). It was a characteristic that was associated with the greater staying power of communist regimes in contrast to those of a fascist nature, and to the continuing appeal of the communist single-party model in many parts of the world after 1945.
Single parties have also invariably been mass parties, firstly because party-state leaders are eager to maximize membership to reflect what can then be construed as popular support for the regime in a situation where elections (if they are held at all) are won unopposed and offer only a spurious political victory. It gives the party further chances to spread its message and promulgate the ideology, as well as providing a means for diffuse social and political control. From the point of view of actual and potential members, possession of a party card is attractive because it opens the way to appointment to public office within the state administration, career advancement within parallel or closely entwined party-state hierarchies and, yet more practically, various ways of improving an individual’s social and economic position. Under a one-party regime, membership is closely equivalent to joining a trade union within a closed shop, and anything up to a third of the working population might become party members on this basis. Such large memberships produce their own problems, however, and the material incentives for membership carry a strong likelihood of corruption and rapidly declining commitment to the party’s ideological goals. Not surprisingly, too, party organization is quite distinctive within a one-party regime. The wide-ranging tasks carried out by the single party and its large membership mean that the organization is highly developed and correspondingly complex. The concentration of power within a party-state system also leads to a high degree of centralization, a feature for which communist parties have been particularly well known.
Discussion of single parties and the analysis of one-party regimes are often linked with the concept of totalitarianism. The most influential elaboration of the concept relates it to six key factors, generally referred to as the ‘totalitarian syndrome’ (Friedrich and Brzezinski, 1965: 21-2). These include some of the characteristics already discussed, like that of the single mass party typically led by one man and closely linked with the state bureaucracy as well as the existence of an official ideology providing some vision of an ideal future society. Further characteristics making up the syndrome are a party-state monopoly both of weapons of combat and of the means of mass communication, combined with a system of terroristic police control. A slightly later addition to the original set of factors was the central control and direction of the economy, a feature more closely modelled on Soviet experience than on that of Nazism or fascist states. The concept of totalitarianism was clearly intended to be a distillation of the distinctive traits of Nazi, fascist and Soviet rule and was for this—as well as other reasons—roundly condemned by Soviet writers as well as being treated with reserve by considerable numbers of political scientists. It nevertheless had the merit of placing the theory and practice of Soviet rule, and of the other communist regimes established after 1945, in some kind of comparative context.
Whether all single parties fit the totalitarian model is a question about which there has been some disagreement. Sartori has not been the only one to differentiate between one-party regimes. Duverger (1964: 276-7) was also eager to argue the case that not all single parties are totalitarian either in ideas or in organization. He refers, in particular, to the People’s Republican Party (PRP) that ruled in Turkey from 1923 to 1946 and is defined as pragmatic and even democratic in orientation. In 1930, for example, Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk encouraged the formation of a Liberal Party to facilitate a transition to modern pluralism—but this was soon dissolved as it ‘became the rallying ground for all opponents of the regime’. In 1935, on the other hand, the election of a number of independents to parliament was organized to form an opposition in a move that similarly failed to impress many independent observers. These measures in fact did little to establish the democratic credentials of the PRP and tended to confirm the drive of the single party to maximize the centralization of power and impel it in an authoritarian direction. Similar tendencies have been seen elsewhere, sometimes going so far as to undermine the apparent dominance of the single party and subject it to the pervasive processes of personalized totalitarian dictatorship.
The role of the single party within the totalitarian model is indeed particularly open to question with respect to the position of the supreme leader, whose dominance is often associated both with the practice of one-party rule and the establishment of a totalitarian system. The classic cases of one-party rule have all produced notoriously brutal dictatorships. In each of these three cases of totalitarian one-party rule there was a common sequence of developments as revolutionary movements took power while their leaders then moved to entrench the dominance of the single party and also to consolidate their own position. Lenin and Mussolini both ruled within nominal coalitions for a period of time (although only for six months in Lenin’s case) before the influence of alternative organizations and potential competitors was eliminated. But, from certain points of view, the leader’s rise to uncontested dominance represented not so much a victory achieved through the single party as a victory over it. Thus Mussolini’s triumph was that of state leader rather than one of party chief, while the party that helped him gain power was increasingly assigned to a relatively low-level executive role. With the consolidation of fascist power, the job of the party was just ‘to conform, applaud and obey’ (Mack Smith, 1993: 149). Hitler’s Nazi party retained greater power but saw it divided between competing bureaucratic empires headed by figures such as Göring, Goebbels and Himmler. Party-state relations were an area of considerable juridical confusion and the party as an institution was never in a position to dominate the state apparatus, which it took over wholesale and (unlike the analogous Soviet experience) largely intact from the Weimar regime (Bracher, 1973: 297).
Party Leadership in Communist Systems
These observations raise several questions about the nature of the party state and the role of the single party, particularly as it existed in some of the major historical cases of the phenomenon:
- To what extent can the existence of one-party rule and the establishment of party states be associated with the development of totalitarian systems?
- How far is there a role for the single party within a totalitarian system; or should totalitarianism be seen rather as a form of no-party system?
- Does totalitarianism destroy the single party or can it reflect a stage in a sequence of political developments that change the nature of the single party but do not necessarily destroy it?
One problem in confronting such questions is that many one-party regimes have had a quite limited time-span. The extremism of the ideology that imbued the totalitarian party state and the political behaviour of its leaders—that was not just highly dynamic on the international stage but often downright aggressive -soon led to war and eventual defeat for Germany and Italy in hostilities they had themselves provoked. In the case of Spain and some other countries, on the other hand, one-party rule did not survive the death of its founder and sole leader. In all these variants the fate of the single party was inextricably -and fatally—bound up with that of its leader.
Soviet experience was somewhat different, as the communist party retained at least a semblance of institutional life under Lenin and only became fully subjugated to the leader some time later when Stalin had succeeded after the party founder’s death. The Soviet case was also a particularly important one as party-state relations and both the theory and practice of the leading role of the communist party were the subject of extensive debate and contrasting views throughout the life of the communist polity. The problematic role of the single party surfaced at various stages of party-state development. It was recognized at an early stage that its ‘leading role’ in organizing and spearheading a revolution in the name of and, indeed, with the participation of the working class was a very different thing from overseeing and exercising overall leadership of an extensive state administration. In the early years of the regime experienced party activists naturally moved to organize and direct the executive committees of the soviets (i.e. the new state administration). In one of his last pieces, written in 1923, Lenin (1967: 782) raised the question of whether a party institution could be amalgamated with a soviet institution and stated: ‘I see no obstacles to this. What is more, I think that such an amalgamation is the only guarantee of success in our work.’
Nevertheless in subsequent years, after the leader’s early death in 1924, a central component of the Leninist myth was that the party should lead but not substitute for the activities of the state administration. As virtually the whole of Soviet public life—political, social and economic—was rigorously controlled and managed by a totalitarian central leadership, the extent of this activity was indeed enormous, and yet more costly and wasteful if state administration was duplicated by that of the party hierarchy. But in practice the problem was largely side-stepped with the consolidation of Stalin’s personal power following the purges of 1936-8 which also saw the destruction of the party as an institution and the undermining of its monopolistic position (Schapiro, 1970: 621). No party congress was held between 1939 and 1952, and the Central Committee did not meet for years at a time (indeed, in 1937 around 70 percent of its existing members were physically eliminated). The conclusion of Schapiro (1972: 63) was the general one that ‘descriptions of Germany under Hitler and of Russia under Stalin as “one-party states” are completely misleading … the seeming “monopoly” of the party’s power is in fact nothing of the kind’. But a clear problem of party-state relations re-emerged under Khrushchev who eventually—after extensive intra-elite conflict—became party-state leader after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Under the post-Stalin leadership, the mass purges of Soviet society and regular elimination of large numbers of party members were brought to an end. During the period of Khrushchev’s dominance in particular, the institutional framework of the party was restored, a reinvigoration of party organs occurred and there was a resumption of party activities on a regular basis. Schapiro (1970: 624-5), on the other hand, points out that Khrushchev as party leader retained full control over the party apparatus and activities and that party officials had no autonomy in the conduct of their organizational duties. In effect Khrushchev retained a large measure of arbitrary power over party activities and the party-state regime as a whole, leaving the single party no real opportunity to act or develop as a ‘monopolistic’ party in its own right. Schapiro thus argues that Khrushchev’s ascendancy remained totalitarian in character and had no place for single-party activity in any autonomous sense even under a form of autocratic rule that was distinctively less arbitrary and considerably more institutionally circumscribed than that of Stalin.
But it is surely significant in this context that Khrushchev’s eventual removal in 1964 was engineered by leading party-state officials resolutely opposed to attempts at further institutional reform. This alone suggests that the party as an institution—or at least influential sectors within it—retained some capacity for autonomous activity and that the party had been not so much destroyed under Stalin as eclipsed and left with some capacity for revival. The puzzle of what party leadership really meant nevertheless remained and in the late 1980s party leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1988: 281)—with increasing desperation—was still calling for the clear delineation of the functions of party and government bodies in line with the ‘Leninist concept’.
The system of one-party rule effectively established by Lenin in 1921 clearly had considerable staying power, surviving its institutional eclipse under Stalin, the Hitlerite invasion of 1941, and roughly 40 years of cold war. Unlike other one-party regimes, neither dictatorial leadership nor a millenarian ideology led it into self-destructive wars, and it also weathered the political crisis that followed the death of a wholly dominant leader. In this sense the communist system proved to be capable of self-reproduction, unlike other forms of one-party or totalitarian regime. It was, partly on this basis, replicated in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe after 1945, followed by Chinese leaders in their revolutionary success of 1949, and emulated in other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. What should be recognized as an authentic Marxist-Leninist regime soon became a matter of uncertainty, and it was clear that the simple declaration by some Third World, anti-Western leader of his communist credentials was by no means the same thing as the replication of the Soviet-style one-party regime. The general Soviet view in the early 1980s was that the ‘socialist community’ (i.e., that composed of countries whose credentials it accepted) contained, apart from the USSR itself: Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Laos, Mongolia, Poland, Romania and Vietnam. Less friendly with the USSR but still regarded as having an authentic ‘socialist orientation’ were Albania, China, North Korea, Yugoslavia and (with some reservation) Cambodia.
All were regarded as party states run on Soviet lines with authentic ruling communist parties. A number of these countries also had subsidiary, satellite parties which did not in any sense exercise power or challenge communist authority but which were retained, generally as left-overs from independent parties of the former regime, as political supports or transmission belts for the ruling single party. Following some Polish political scientists, this situation has led several analysts to write of ‘hegemonic parties’, even though the countries that had them did not differ from the other communist party states in any politically significant way (Sartori, 1976: 23; Ware, 1996: 249). While Poland is often cited as the prime (and implicitly unique) communist example here, such quasi-parties also existed in China, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, North Korea and Vietnam without significantly qualifying the character of one-party rule.
Single Parties in Africa
Single parties—by no means all based on the communist model—also dominated much of Africa following the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s. The reason is not very difficult to identify. Just as the single party emerged in Europe after World War I in response to the problems of critically weakened and devastated societies, so it promised an equivalent solution to the further disintegration of already fragile communities under the pressure of the twin processes of modernization and colonial withdrawal: channels of communication were thus ‘opened up between otherwise hostile or non-communicating groups, bringing them into sets of relationships out of which the state is built. This, more than any other factor, is the basis of the success of the single-party state’ (Apter, 1967: 188-9).
As in Europe and other parts of the world, though, the one-party regimes in Africa were quite diverse. Emerson (1966: 274-87) clearly distinguished, for example, between single-party authoritarian regimes and those of a more pluralist character. Ghana, Guinea and Mali were notable left-wing examples of the former variety. The first two were led by eminent and highly articulate socialist politicians, Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré, who departed in various ways from major features of the communist model. Touré, for example, stressed the importance of national unity and proclaimed the classlessness of African society. In a somewhat more confusing manner, he also accepted the need for dictatorial methods but also emphasized their democratic character in that they were designed to safeguard and develop the rights of the people. Houphouet in the Ivory Coast, however, established a monopolistic Democratic Party with a bourgeois tendency that aimed to maintain close post-colonial links with France. Yet another single-party variant was seen in Tanganyika, where Nyere’s TANU placed particular emphasis on African nation building (Emerson, 1966: 284). But signs of a less stable path of African development could already be seen in a tribally divided and already violent Congo which, unusually at that time, lacked both a strong party and a charismatic leader. Doubts were already being raised about the social rifts that were opening up in the new African nations and the likelihood that it was only military force that would be able to secure national integration.
The single-party phase of post-independence African states was in fact quite short. In 1964 some two-thirds of African states had established one-party states and some, such as Algeria, Ghana and Tanzania, had written the single party into their constitutions. But soon after independence, the primacy of the single party rapidly declined, its leaders and main activists increasingly concerned with the work of government. More prosaically, party leaders had less reason to mobilize popular support in both political and material terms once independence was achieved and control of the state apparatus secured. It did not take long, argued Wallerstein (1966: 214), for the one-party state to become the no-party state. Many African states soon degenerated into various forms of personal dictatorship or outright despotism, often with a heavy reliance on military force. These were often linked with another form of party-state regime, that of Afro-Communism. By 1975 the People’s Republics of the Congo and Benin (formerly Dahomey), as well as a socialist Somali state, had been formed. They were followed by Ethiopia, Madagascar, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and the small Portuguese ex-colonies (Hughes, 1992). During the 1980s around a fifth of African states turned to some form of Marxism. This, however, was not always equivalent to one-party rule as power and effective control over the governing apparatus were often in the hands of the military.
As in the Soviet Union and other parts of the communist world, the relationship between party and state was an uncertain one. In many African states acceptance of the communist world did not go much further than the public pronouncements of a small group of power-holders. Former one-party regimes also moved towards another form of party government -that of dominant parties which placed the ruling organization in a more pluralist political framework that had the characteristics of a party system. In Senegal, President Senghor thus formally replaced one-party rule by a multi-party system but did not interrupt or endanger the governing party’s tenure of power. Reasonably fair elections were also held in Botswana and The Gambia after independence in 1966 and 1965 respectively, without challenging the position of the ruling party. In Zimbabwe, too, Mugabe did not carry out his early intention to install a one-party regime and continued to rule, as he had since independence, through the dominant ZANU organization (Clapham, 1993: 429).
Dominant Parties and Predominant-Party Systems
In distinction to a one-party regime rooted in a party-state system, it is also necessary to take some account of parties that are indeed dominant but maintain their position in the face of electoral competition from other parties. Despite superficial resemblances, the concept and political practice of such a dominant party is quite different from that of the single party located in a party-state system. Under the conditions of political fluidity seen in weak states or newly independent nations like those in Africa, though, the distinction between the two kinds of party is less clear and it is easier to change from one ill-defined form of regime to another. They clearly belong to different categories of political organization, however. In contrast to single parties which are not vulnerable to such competition and relate primarily to the state, dominant parties are situated within a broader universe of parties and form part of a predominant-party system (Sartori, 1976: 192-4). This is quite different from the single party that is the central component of a one-party regime (and whose unique position may well be enshrined in the constitution). To the extent that the dominance of such a party is achieved through some process of effective electoral competition, a certain adherence to democratic norms and the observation of basic political rights are necessary. Almond (1960: 41) thus speaks in this context of ‘dominant non-authoritarian party systems’ and relates them directly to states in which nationalist movements became dominant after securing independence.
Dominant parties may of course, and in practice do, exist in many parts of the world. The main problem lies in deciding whether the dominance of a party is indeed an electoral one or is achieved through political repression and the denial of civic rights to actual or potential competitors. Sartori (1976: 193) thus lists 21 dominant parties from the 1970s but casts doubt on the rectitude of electoral practices in some countries and disregards the dominance of the major party in six countries as being unlikely to have been secured by democratic means. Authentic dominant parties have indeed been a mixed bunch and range from India (under the Congress Party) to South Korea and Japan in Asia, Chile and Uruguay in Latin America, and from Israel to the Scandinavian social democracies of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Most such parties have more recently succumbed to the pressures of electoral competition and have now lost their dominant status. There are of course many other parties that appear to dominate as autonomous institutions but are in fact a front for various kinds of dictatorship or autocratic rule, as indeed many have argued was also the case with the totalitarian party. Both are nevertheless distinct from the dominant party that emerges in an electorally competitive predominant-party system and from the single party that retains institutional autonomy and operates within a functioning party-state system.
Communist Party States and Political Change
Despite their relative longevity and the capacity of the Marxist-Leninist party to survive its eclipse under Stalinist totalitarianism, the communist party state also showed its eventual vulnerability to pressures for political change. Pre-war fascist regimes, by virtue of their innate aggression and bellicosity, soon found themselves fighting wars from which they failed to emerge victorious and were thus destroyed. Communist party states on the other hand, despite their undoubted problems, were able to survive longer and in some cases have persisted into the 21st century. From 1978 (with the beginning of radical reform and the encouragement of free-market activities in China), nevertheless, it was possible to describe the communist world as being in a state of increasing turmoil—and passing after 1989 into open crisis (Ferdinand, 1991: ix). In some ways it was the sheer breadth of responsibility that helped bring about the collapse of the communist party state. In the early stages of regime development, the penetration of the single party into extensive areas of the state, society and economy was a source of strength and a prime means of amassing power. But these sectors soon began to produce different forms of negative feedback. The party found it impossible to run all parts of the state administration, and the demands of professionalism and specialist autonomy became a direct challenge to both practice and theory of party leadership.
If it was initially the state that began to take its revenge on the single party, though, it soon became the economy that threatened the party, state and entire system of centralized control, administration and planning (Ferdinand, 1991: 300). The Chinese leadership had begun to take preemptive measures in this area during 1978. During the 1980s demands in this area also grew in the Soviet Union and fed the growing pressure there for economic and political change. The Soviet party state was directly confronted with a range of problems connected with market-oriented reforms—or rather the general lack of them. One problem that flowed directly from the party’s assumption of a general, leading role and its increasingly administrative character was that the party as a political institution was unable to escape the consequences of failure within the administrative realm. This weakened one of the major bases of the party’s legitimacy and contributed significantly to the progressive erosion of its political authority (Gill, 1994: 11-12). Leaders since Khrushchev had resolutely turned their back on these problems and it fell to Gorbachev to confront them more squarely. Gorbachev, it seemed, had a genuine belief in the possibility of effective party rule and appeared to think that the Communist Party had a real capacity to mobilize the energies and support of the Soviet population while turning its back on direct administration. By abolishing the party’s monopoly, opening the way to a multi-party system and (in March 1990) removing references to the party’s leading role from the Soviet constitution he demonstrated his faith in the capacity of the party to achieve these tasks in the face of direct political competition.
But if no longer a single party (at least in formal terms), it soon became equally clear that the Soviet party’s aspiration to be a dominant one was also threatened. After a failed coup in August 1991 mounted by those aiming to preserve the traditional foundations of Soviet rule, the extent of the party’s failure was reflected in Gorbachev’s call for the Central Committee to dissolve itself and his personal resignation as General Secretary. In a matter of days communist party activity was banned throughout the Russian Republic, and four months later the Soviet Union was itself dissolved. Attempted reform, then, soon led to total failure and collapse of both components of the party state built up since 1917. Administrative supervision had indeed become the party’s prime task, and the reforms initiated by Gorbachev meant that it soon found itself without any role that fitted the organizational structures it had evolved over the decades. It had failed to take on board the demands of a wholly new culture and the new national—and indeed—global conditions under which it had to operate. The party was unable to effect such a transformation and it was, in particular, the ‘move from bureaucratic politics to the politics of the streets that outflanked the party’ (Gill, 1994: 178). The transformation from party-state leviathan to political party in any normal sense was, not surprisingly, a task the communist organization was just not equipped to accomplish.
The issue of party leadership was, as we have seen, hardly a new one and had its roots in the early years of the Soviet regime—as the continuing references to Lenin in this context clearly showed. As the Soviet regime—and communist regimes in general—‘matured’ and increasingly lost their dynamic force it became a central issue in the diagnosis of the problems that increasingly afflicted the communist system and the reform initiatives undertaken to correct them. The pressures for change were widespread and certainly not restricted to the Soviet Union. Such problems came to the fore with particular force in more developed countries such as Hungary and Poland—and had particular prominence there because of the weak roots of communism and the political instability this had caused on more than one occasion. Reform initiatives were thus undertaken there well before they came on to the Soviet agenda. In Poland during the 1970s, for example, party leader Edward Gierek launched wide-ranging policy and institutional changes under the slogan—dangerously devoid of content as it soon turned out—‘the party leads and the government governs’. In fact it led to much confusion among party cadres and growing political passivity at local level (Lewis, 1989: 63-6). Such projects could in fact be regarded as attempts to rationalize the irrational. They demonstrated not just the problems the communist party state faced in bringing about change but also showed, it was argued by Hungarian analysts, that the Leninist regimes represented an archaic political form and were rooted in pre-modern conceptions of rule that were just not susceptible to adaptation to contemporary conditions (Horváth and Szakolczai, 1992: 209).
Contemporary Party States
With the transformation of many communist regimes and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the single party as a distinctive form within the international family of political parties and the party state as a particular kind of contemporary political regime have become increasingly rare. It is difficult to be precise about how many one-party regimes there actually are or have been at any one time. Conceptual issues, as noted above, contribute to this uncertainty. Whether totalitarian regimes and personal dictatorships left much room for any kind of party as an effective political institution has been the subject of extensive debate. The status of the one-party regimes that sprang up in post-colonial countries during the early independence period also raises doubts, this time more on empirical grounds in terms of how far the political space was institutionalized at all with respect to any kind of party development. For the 1960s Sartori was able to point to 33 states that had single parties. The number of one-party regimes is unlikely to have declined in the decades that immediately followed. As a rough guide we may note that the series of volumes devoted to Marxist regimes published in the 1980s by Frances Pinter (in the UK) and Lynne Rienner (in the USA) listed 32 states with such regimes: ten of these were located in Africa, nine in Europe and six in Asia. This is considerably more than would have been identified as authentic members of the ‘socialist community’ by Soviet authorities, but it provides some indication of the number of regimes with such an idea of their political identity and of the number of single parties then in existence. These totals together suggest a fairly stable constellation of one-party regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Despite the beginnings of the third wave of democratization in the 1970s, then, the single-party category appeared for a time to be quite resilient, supported by the survival and spread of the communist regime in the Third World. This picture underwent rapid and extensive change, beginning with the transformation of the regimes in Hungary and Poland in 1989. Communist one-party regimes quickly began to go the way of their fascist predecessors. A global survey of regimes in 2000 showed eight single parties to be still in existence, most of them communist (Freedom House, 2001). The latter were: Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and China. They are a diverse group. Cuba, wholly dominated by Castro since the 1959 revolution, is as much personal dictatorship as one-party state, and the party as such never played quite the role there as it did in the communist model developed in the core European countries. The North Korean regime is yet more autocratic in nature, seeming to take the unusual form of a hereditary dictatorship set in a communist framework. Vietnam has liberalized its political system to a significant extent but remains dominated by a single party. Laos remains a relatively traditional communist state, although its party is split between pro-China and pro-Vietnam factions.
By far the largest and most significant member of this residual category, though, is the People’s Republic of China, which has interpreted and reformulated the principle of the leading role of the party in ways quite different from those seen in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The other single parties identified in 2000 were a mixed bunch. One was Eritrea, whose leaders had abandoned Marxism before the country achieved independence in 1993 and whose regime continued to have significant military underpinnings. With a socialist, rather than communist, background there was only Iraq—a country subject to decisive and externally engendered regime change in 2003. Finally, Libya has remained strongly dominated by Colonel Qadhafi who has ruled as much with the aid of a complex structure of revolutionary and people’s committees as through any single party.
The major remaining party state on a global scale and great exception, therefore, in terms of single-party survival is China—which took the alternative path to that followed by the Soviet Union by progressing cautiously with political change and pressing ahead with radical economic reform. It could be argued that China took the more orthodox Marxist route by concentrating on the economic basis while the Soviets retained a Leninist focus by leading the way with political change. When one-party rule in the Soviet Union was formally abandoned in 1990 (with dire consequences for the integrity of the state as a whole in 1991), China took care to maintain conditions that permitted the survival of the single party. Following a tradition that can be traced back several millennia, the approach of the Chinese leadership to political change has been cautious and carefully formulated in terms of the prevailing ideology. The primary change enunciated at the 16th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002 was to affirm the importance of private entrepreneurs and those active in China’s rapidly growing free market -but within the existing party-state system.
Party cadres themselves had begun to ‘jump into the sea’ of business around 1993, and links between party membership and entrepreneurial activity had been increasingly close since then. The 16th Congress, however, moved forward to adapt the party charter in line with former general secretary Jiang Zemin’s advocacy of the ‘three represents’, which portray the communist party not just as the vanguard of the Chinese working class but also as that of the Chinese people and of all the nationalities of China—that is, as something like a catch-all party capable of representing all sectors of a rapidly modernizing society (Fewsmith, 2003: 4, 13). One central feature of the communist regime that was not abandoned was the principle of the single party. Nevertheless, if Jiang’s commitment to quadrupling China’s GNP in 20 years is indeed achieved on the basis of capitalist development it is not at all clear what function a monopolistic communist party will actually be performing. Some indication of the path developments might take is given by the prevalent opinion that the political model that seems to underlie the path of change envisaged is that of Singapore.
If—with the signal exception of China—the party state has largely disappeared as a major political category, it is equally difficult to detect many dominant parties in the sense of those acting within a predominant party-system based on contested and reasonably free elections. The Freedom House (2001: 662-3) list of 120 electoral democracies—nearly two-thirds of the world’s regimes—thus only includes Djibouti as such a regime having any kind of dominant party. Former major examples of dominant parties have yielded to established processes of party alternation. This has been the case with India’s Congress Party, Japan’s Liberal Democrats and Italy’s Christian Democrats. Parties identified by Freedom House as playing a dominant role under less democratic regimes have been considerably more numerous, including 26 of those with the lowest democratic ranking (scoring 4 or more on the Freedom House political rights and civil liberties ranking). Seventeen of these were to be found in Africa, reflecting yet further instability in that continent following the earlier prominence of one-party and broadly communist regimes. Both single and dominant parties have thus become considerably less numerous than they were for much of the second half of the 20th century.
One obvious reason for the decline in the number of single parties has been the growing proportion of the world’s regimes classified as having some reasonably convincing form of democratic rule, a consequence of the high tide of such regimes associated with the third wave of democracy that began in 1974. There continue to exist, of course, various forms of standard dictatorship (presidential, monarchical, military, etc.) in which one or more official parties may play some public role, but the existence and nature of such façade parties have not been the focus of attention in this chapter. Contemporary dictatorships, it must be concluded, do not tend to be linked with the party-state form. There are likely to be different reasons for this. As noted at the beginning, the emergence and operation of the single party is closely linked with the nature of the state in which it is located. Fascist parties, for example, characteristically emerged in Europe between the world wars in weak or newly formed states devastated by war and economic depression at a time when strong parties and strong states were seen as the primary solution to collective problems. Some of these features could also be seen in revolutionary Russia, but the Communist Party and the party-state regime it created also developed distinctive strategies of economic growth and state-led socioeconomic development. This one-party model had considerable success and developed enormous appeal both in Europe and elsewhere, and was replicated in various parts of the world after 1945.
One major point to note, then, is that state-economy relations and the ways in which political parties can influence patterns of socioeconomic development have all changed greatly over recent decades. Since the 1970s, in particular, free-market capitalist processes have become increasingly dominant in patterns of socioeconomic development and the single party, like many other institutions, has been critically affected and to a large extent undermined by the complex of forces gathered under the conceptual umbrella of ‘globalization’. These are likely to be the major factors underlying both the rise and fall of the single party, although links can also be drawn with arguments relating to the overall decline of the party in sustaining a modern political order and the prevailing weakness of ideological alternatives to liberal democracy associated with influential views concerning the ‘end of history’. Such lines of inquiry cannot be elaborated on here. But in any case all such views should be judged in the light of ongoing Chinese developments.