Robert Michels on the Portland Divide

C’est dommage qu’aucun, ou presque, ne lit pas l’oeuvre de Robert Michels.

Few people nowadays read the work of Robert Michels, unfortunately. “In this study”[Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchal Tendencies of Modern Democracy], says Wikipedia

he demonstrated that political parties, including those considered socialist, cannot be democratic because they quickly transform themselves into bureaucratic oligarchies.

“As the Party bureaucracy increases,” Michels says on p. 190 of the 1999 paperback edition of the 1915 English translation — Eden and Cedar Paul are the translators credited on the reverse of the title page, a topic of interest to which we shall return —

two elements which constitute the essential pillars of every socialist conception undergo an inevitable weakening: an understanding of the wider and more ideal cultural aims of socialism, and an understanding of the international multiplicity of its manifestations.

The Portland leaders of the the Pacific Green Party are split in large measure along just those lines. The further details offered by the long-departed Swiss academic reward study.

Mechanism becomes an end in itself. The capacity for an accurate grasp of the peculiarities and the conditions of existence of the labor movement in other countries diminishes in proportion as the individual national organizations are fully developed. . . . In the days of the so-called “socialism of the émigrés” [please note from the context that no pejorative nuance is assigned to the term ‘so-called’ — MM], the socialists devoted themselves to an elevated policy of principles, inspired by the classical criteria of internationalism. Almost every one of them was, if the term be used, a specialist in this more general and comprehensive domain.

Socialists of broad education and variegated background differed profoundly from the technicians of the next generation.

The whole course of their lives, the brisk exchange of ideas on unoccupied evenings, the continued rubbing of shoulders between men of the most different tongues, the enforced isolation from the bourgeois world of their respective countries, and the utter impossibility of any “practical” [the quotes here do so indicate pejoration — MM] action, all contributed to this result. But in proportion as, in their own country, paths of activity were opened for the socialists, at first for agitation and soon afterwards for positive and constructive work, the more did a recognition of the demands of everyday life of the Party divert their attention from immortal principles. Their vision gained in precision but lost in extent.

The leaders of the Portland Green Party split asunder from what had been the Metropolitan Chapter of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon on the issue of the mechanism of canvassing. The folks who split the group spoke of a more “professional” organization, spent what appeared to the Bipartisan Café crowd as inordinate lengths of time in writing up regulations for canvassers and almost no time at all on the framing of the campaign to be conducted by the canvassers (indeed the frame was dictated by one person). Such attention to the mechanics of Party affairs, in Michels’ presentation of the Continental European situation around the year 1910, led to a falsified image of international political events.

The more cotton-spinners, boot and shoe operatives, or brush makers the leader could gain each month for his union, the better versed he was in the tedious subleties of insurance against accident and illness, the greater the industry he could display in the specialized questions of factory inspection and of arbitration in trade disputes, the better acquainted he might be with the system of checking the amounts of individual purchases in cooperative stores and with the methods for the control of the consumption of municipal gas, the more difficult was it for him to retain a general interest in the labor movement, even in the narrowest sense of the term.

Michels in his next sentence characterizes the consequence as “falsification”:

As the outcome of inevitable psycho-physiological laws, he could find little time and was likely to have little inclination for the study of the great problems of the philosophy of history, and all the more falsified consequently would become his judgment of international questions [emphasis added — MM]

One Portland leader proposed and won the override of a “block” placed by another leader of the Portland branch of the Party, who asked for as little as a week’s delay if the Party was unwilling to condemn the bombing of Libya.

“At the same time,” Michels continues in the immediately following sentence, continuing to articulate the viewpoint of the technician,

he would incline more and more to regard every one as an “incompetent,” and “unprofessional,” who might wish to judge questions from some higher outlook than the purely technical; he would incline to deny the good sense and even the socialism of all who might desire to fight upon another ground and by other means than those familiar to him . . . This tendency . . . is a gneral characteristic of modern evolution.

— where the reader living in 2014 has to make the adjustment for the meaning of the phrase “modern evolution” in a strictly 19th-century sense, before even the adoption of Mendelian genetics.

The charges of lack of professionalism, the impatience with historical analogy, the question of tactics versus strategy, all find echoes in the Portland tensions of the last four years. Another passage of Michels, by its use of a farmyard analogy, both captures the situation in common language and throws some doubt on the quality of the English translation.

“The differences which lead to the struggles between the leaders [of socialist parties] arise in various ways,” says Michels, and then he enumerates eight different varieties. “In most cases, however,” he finally gets around to saying more than a page of small print later,

the differences between the various groups of leaders depend upon two other categories of motives. Above all there are objective differences and differences of principle in general philosophical views, or at least in the mode in which the proximate social evolution is conceived, and consequent divergences of opinion as to the most desirable tactics: this leads to the manifestation of the various tendencies known as reformist and Marxist,

— the reader may recall that V.I. Lenin, most of his biographers agree, first rose to prominence within the Russian Social Democratic Party by his vivid, eloquent denunciation of the “Reformism” of Eduard Bernstein from deep in Siberian exile (I think he was in Irkutsk at the time).

syndicalist and political socialist, and so on. In the second place, we have the struggles that depend upon personal reasons: antipathy, envy jealousy, a reckless attempt to grasp the first positions. Enrico Ferri said of his opponent Filippo Turati, “He hates me because he thinks there is not room for two cocks in the same foul-house.”

That last word is not in the English dictionary; the writer, one presumes, spoke of “chicken-coop”. Not only that, but the word “cock” is eschewed in polite discussion in favor of the euphemism “rooster” in the United States at least, and perhaps all Anglophone countries, for the last century or so. My computer software substituted “cooks” for “cocks” when I first wrote it, for example. Even after we revise the passage to read, as a rendering of a speech made on 27 December 1909 and reported in the Italian newspaper Stampa, vol. 47, No. 358, “. . . there is no room for two roosters in the same chicken-coop” [a succinct description of the Portland circumstance], we are still left with wondering what to make of the phrase “reckless attempt to grasp the first position,” perhaps referring to first-past-the-post races but evidently unclear.

And so we leave Robert Michels mindful of the treacherousness of translation even while thanking him for indicating a host of similarities between leadership struggles among French, German, and Italian socialists prior to World War One and the present-day tension in Portland Oregon, in the year 2014.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Education, Empire, Free Speech, Global, Marxism, Pacific Green Party, Seth Woolley, Spiritual life, Uncategorized, War, Woody Broadnax. Bookmark the permalink.

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