Ostrogorskii, Moisei IA
Ostrogorskii, Moisei IA
Moisei Ostrogorskii (1854-1919), also transliterated as Ostrogorski or Ostrogorsky, was a Russian political scientist who studied the American and British party systems around the turn of the century. He is generally regarded as the first major modern student of comparative party organization, and much of what has since been done in the United States and Britain, as well as in other countries, stems from his work. In large measure Max Weber’s and Robert Michels’ analyses of parties followed directly from Ostrogorskii’s writings (Weber [1906-1924] 1946, esp. pp. 104-111; Michels 1911; Roth 1963, pp. 252 ff.). More recently, the works of such scholars as David Butler, George Catlin, Maurice Duverger, Robert McKenzie, Austin Ranney, and W. G. Runciman have attested to the continuing significance of Ostrogorskii’s work. As Butler has put it, Ostrogorskii was the first to point to “the possibility of separating description from analysis” (1958, p. 44).
Ostrogorskii was born in Grodno in Russia. He was educated in law at St. Petersburg and worked for some years in the ministry of justice. Subsequently, while in his late twenties, he went to Paris, where he studied at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques under Éimile Boutmy. His work there resulted in a volume on the rights of women in public law (1892), which won a prize from the Paris faculty of law in 1892. Then he turned to the study of parties in the United States and Britain, spending many years in both countries during the 1880s and 1890s and publishing a number of articles on American parties in French and American journals. His two-volume treatise on the subject, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties,was published in English in 1902 but, curiously, did not appear in French, the language in which it was written, until a year later (see Macmahon 1933).
Although Ostrogorskii lived for 17 years after the publication of these volumes, he did not follow them up with any other major scholarly works. He returned to Russia after the revolution of 1905 and was elected to the first Duma in 1906 as a representative of the liberal Constitutional Democratic party (Cadets). He played an important role in the party caucus during the first parliament but withdrew from active politics when it was dissolved. He returned briefly to the United States to revise and condense his volume on American politics. That version appeared in 1910. Just after World War i, he published some articles in Russia on British constitutional history. His role in, or reactions to, the Revolution of 1917 has not been recorded.
Ostrogorskii made several distinct contributions to political analysis. First and most important is the main theme of his two-volume work, the analysis of the general traits of democratic mass parties. Second, his work represents the first important attempt at systematic comparative analysis of political systems. He sought the causes of politicalparty behavior in the elements inherent in a democratic party with universal suffrage. The American party system was a crucial case for the political scientist to study in depth, precisely because the United States was the first masssuffrage democracy: the hypotheses suggested by such a case study could be tested in various other countries then undergoing democratization. In the course of his analysis, Ostrogorskii attempted to explain the various structural attributes that differentiated the two major English-speaking societies from each other. Third, in connection with his research he presented a detailed account of the party systems in the two countries; although modified by subsequent research, this account remains remarkably authoritative. Finally, his detailed reportage on parties and elections contains a large number of propositions concerning the determinants of voting behavior and public-opinion formation that are relevant to recent voting research. It is impressive to see how many of Ostrogorskii’s generalizations about the effect of a campaign on the participation and partisan choices of the electorate have been verified by publicopinion surveys of samples of electorates (Lipset 1964, pp. xxxix-xliii).
Structure and function of parties. The key aspect of modern mass-suffrage parties, from which all else follows, is their dual nature: although extraconstitutional and presumably created, in Edmund Burke’s words, to promote “the national interest upon some particular principle” on which the members agree, parties necessarily form permanent organizations staffed by professional politicians. The need to maintain the party apparatus inevitably leads parties to modify both the principles on which they are based and the activities that promote these principles, in such a way as to increase financial and electoral support for the organization. From being a means to an end, parties—that is, the perceived interests of the party elite—become ends in themselves. Starting as the organized spokesmen of a section of the electorate, they seek to transform that section into unwavering supporters, since mass-suffrage parties clearly could not exist if they had to re-form their ranks at every election. Since access to political office is the basic raison d’etre for a political party, parties will tend to subordinate any worthy ends that conflict with gaining or retaining power.
Much of Ostrogorskii’s analysis of American politics consists of a detailed specification of the behavior of politicians and organizations. He noted that at the heart of each political machine are a number of little machines which work through a system of mutual obligations. Since party unity is a precondition of electoral strength, those who want to participate in the party organization must exhibit strong loyalties, be “regular.” In an analysis that predated Michels’ comparable one (see Michels 1911), Ostrogorskii suggested that a party machine tends to be bureaucratized much like an army: as an organization perennially engaged in combat with an opposite number, it emphasizes obedience and chain-of-command logic.
Ostrogorskii showed how structural factors facilitate machine domination. In a mass democracy individuals, no matter how prominent, cannot fight those who control a party machine, without joining or forming another organization. The sheer problem of numbers makes any form of politics Utopian unless it is rooted in organization. Hence, an effort to revolt against a machine “must have recourse to the men of the Machine itself, must ’fight the devil with fire” by allying itself with the rival Machine or even with a section of the Machine of the predominant party which it sought to overthrow” (1902, vol. 2, p. 439). This means that the success of reformers almost invariably results in the triumph of yet another machine, not in a cleansing or democratizing of politics.
Among the factors which strengthen machine or bureaucratic domination is the indifference of the masses to the interests of collectivities. The typical citizen of an egalitarian and competitive society (which the United States already was and Britain was becoming) is motivated to press his personal concerns rather than collective interests. This indifference on the part of the electorate increases the need for parties effectively organized to win votes. Since such organizations serve primarily to mobilize votes, they necessarily minimize ideological differences. To win elections, machines seek to offend as few and to please as many as possible. [SeePolitical Machines.]
In his analysis of the machine, Ostrogorskii employed what has come to be known in sociology as the functional approach. He asked what the political needs are of different groups in a society and how they are met. The machine exists because it fulfills certain needs; it is clearly not prescribed by the formal political structure (see Merton  1957, pp. 72-83). The fact that party organization assumed rather similar forms in the two leading mass democracies suggests that a strong party apparatus is inherent in, and required by, a system of universal suffrage in a complex society. However, the decentralized government of the United States gives greater scope to party machines than the English system.
The machine also satisfies the need of private interests to deal with a small, stable group of leaders. For the masses the party machine acts as a go-between; it provides a more personal way of dealing with the impersonal bureaucratic structure of government.
Comparative party systems. Although Ostrogorskii stressed the similarity of the party systems of the United States and Britain, he was also concerned with the differences between them. American machines were much more corrupt and boss-ridden than the British; American politicians came from lower socioeconomic strata; British parties, unlike American ones, were disciplined at the national level. Seeking to explain these variations, he suggested a number of hypotheses about the two societies.
In analyzing the reasons underlying English middle-class participation in politics at the turn of the century, he repeatedly noted the importance of deference. The party associations depended on amateurs or zealots, but the presidents of the local associations were always men of great prestige in the local community who lent respectability and status to political activity. “The hierarchical spirit, the class spirit, still lives in English society, the English people has not yet ceased to be what Bagehot called ’a deferential nation” ’politically deferential’” (1902, vol. 1, p. 614). In the United States, on the other hand, the absence of deference, “the leveling spirit” militated against the formation of a political leadership stratum drawn from the “better element.” The populist anti-elitist values that emerged as an outgrowth of the Revolution, the absence of historical continuity with an earlier feudal-monarchical system, and the social conditions of the frontier all served to make elites the subject of ridicule in American political combat. As Ostrogorskii observed, the participation and influence of the intellectuals and upper strata that existed in the early days of the republic had disappeared with universal suffrage. The absence of a traditional aristocracy with its emphasis on noblesse oblige meant that the American upper class felt less pressure than the English to participate in politics. The American social elite was willing to leave the work of politics to men from relatively lowly backgrounds. Ostrogorskii noted that the word “politicians,” which originally denoted simply persons engaged in public affairs, became synonymous, as early as the 1820s, with self-interested men seeking to gain personally from political participation and power.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the American and the British party systems is the discipline of parliamentary parties in England, which precludes conflict between a parliamentary majority and the executive, as contrasted with the absence of party discipline in the United States, which allows for frequent conflict between the president and Congress, sometimes between the president and majorities formed in large part from members of his own party. This difference has often been explained, both before and after Ostrogorskii, as stemming from the varying constitutional structures of the two countries [seeParliamentary GovernmentandPresidential Government]. Ostrogorskii, however, tended to reject the effort to account in legal terms for the differences between the two types of government. Following his general sociological approach, he looked for the source of variation in other, more basic elements of the social structure of the two nations.
English society contained a less complex set of sources of party diversity than did American society, thus facilitating greater party unity on issues. The Conservative party, traditionally based on the aristocracy, the Church of England hierarchy, and their deferential followers, was strongest among the rural population but also important among urban workers. These groups were linked to the Tory party less by their concern with particular issues of self-interest than by their involvement in social relations that maintained traditional social values. The Liberal party drew its support from the new bourgeoisie, urban entrepreneurs, adherents of the dissenting churches, and the majority of the urban working classes. (The Labour party, in turn, was to take over much of the Liberal support.) Thus, the groups supporting the two parties tended to represent two quite separate strands of opinion.
The American parties divided along more varied class, ethnic, religious, and sectional lines. The Democrats tended to secure support from the less well-to-do, particularly in urban areas, from those of recent non-Anglo-Saxon, especially Roman Catholic, immigrant stock, and from the South; Republican strength reflected the opposite characteristics plus the vote of the Negroes and western farmers. Regional and urban-rural conflicts within given states added further complications. To fulfill a party’s prime purpose of winning elections locally, any effort at ideological or national policy discipline had to be abandoned.
Another fact which affected the character of the party system was the greater reliance of the British parties on amateurs. Agreement with the political views espoused by their party was an important element in uniting the amateurs who led the party organization. Members of Parliament, therefore, were under pressure to be loyal supporters of their party in Parliament if they were to maintain a strong party organization in their constituencies; a member of Parliament at odds with his national party would necessarily lose backing in his constituency.
In the United States, on the other hand, those who did the grass-roots work in the parties did not care as much what policies officeholders supported, since this was not relevant to electoral victory or to securing spoils. Since the organized interests and significant sections of the electorate in different parts of the country differed greatly in what they wanted from government, legislators might either be left free by the professional leaders of the machine to vote as they saw fit, or they might be urged to vote for some specific local interest in opposition to the policy favored by the president as leader of his party or by the dominant opinion in the Congressional party. There was no national machine in the United States, and the local parties were primarily concerned with winning elections in their area, even if they had to support policies elsewhere opposed by their party. Hence, although the varying constitutional arrangements in England and the United States may have played a part in affecting the patterns of discipline at the level of the national party, Ostrogorskii argued that the differences in social structure were more important.
Assessment. Much has happened in the politics of Britain and the United States since Ostrogorskii’s two volumes were published. While many of his insights about organization remain valid, some of his predictions have proved to be in error. To take only one example, his expectation that the considerable growth of the central government in the United States would be accompanied by a strengthening of the position of the machines has not been fulfilled. However, Ostrogorskii’s most significant generalization about the workings of suffrage democracy—that party organization is by nature self-aggrandizing—has not been challenged by events. As he noted in much detail, party organizations are not democratic reflections of popular will but powerful instruments for dominating the electorate and for imposing opinions, officials, and policies on the public. As he, and later Michels, noted, party functionaries and elected officeholders have interests of their own and use their positions to further them.
As a reformer, Ostrogorskii recommended replacing general parties by single-issue ones, but as he himself documented as a reporter and historian, the real solution lies in opposing one set of party bureaucrats with the organized power of other groups—an opposing party, organized factions within a party, other mass-based associations such as unions, farm groups, veterans’ leagues, and the like. It is evident from reading Ostrogorskii that there have been many situations in which power has restrained power, in which opposition groups have exposed or prevented malfeasance, or in which different groups have presented alternative policies to those fostered by incumbents. The structure of mass organizations may inevitably produce a propensity to self-aggrandizement in the leaders, but as long as clear differences exist among organizations, democracy also exists. The voters, or any given defined section of them, do have access to government decisions insofar as politicians worry about their reactions.
The debate as to whether suffrage regimes characterized by competition between organized parties and heavily influenced by “interest groups” are democratic or not is, in some part, a matter of definition. By defining democracy as the pure, unmediated rule of the people, both Ostrogorskii and Michels proved to their own satisfaction that such systems are not democratic. As Ranney has pointed out, “Democracy, for Ostrogorskii, was inconceivable save as a society of isolated individuals, all prepared to devote much of their time and energy to rational discussion of public affairs, all eager to form an association with others who hold identical views on a given issue, and all ready to dissolve the association as soon as the issue is settled” ( 1962, p. 130). Ostrogorskii’s solution to the problem of party domination is as unrealistic as his analysis of the operation of parties in his day was accurate.
The naiveté of Ostrogorskii’s solutions to the problems of political machines and oligarchy should not obscure his enormous contributions to political analysis. In large part his success in presenting sophisticated hypotheses about organizational behavior derived from the fact that he approached the study of parties in a comparative context. He did not ask, What are American parties like? or How does the English political system work? but rather, What are the general attributes of political parties under conditions of universal suffrage? He was, in other words, seeking to formulate a systematic theory of party organization, and it was this effort at systematic theory that so attracted Max Weber to his work. As political science joins the other social sciences in relating substantive concerns to the formation of general theory, we may expect increased interest in Ostrogorskii.
Seymour M. Lipset
(1892) 1893 The Rights of Women: A Comparative Study in History and Legislation. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Scribner. → First published in French.
1902 Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan. → Volume 1: England. Volume 2: The United States. An abridged edition was published in 1964 by Quadrangle Books.
1910 Democracy and the Party System in the United States: A Study in Extra-constitutional Government. New York: Macmillan. → A condensed, thoroughly revised version based on Volume 2 of Ostrogorskii’sDemocracy and the Organization of Political Parties.
Bell, Daniel (editor) (1955) 1963 The Radical Right:
The New American Right Expanded and Updated.Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.
Butler, David 1958 The Study of Political Behaviour. London: Hutchinson.
Duverger, Maurice (1951) 1962 Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. 2d English ed., rev. New York: Wiley; London: Methuen. → First published in French.
Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.
Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 Introduction: Ostrogorski and the Analytical Approach to the Comparative Study of Political Parties. Volume 1, pages ix-lxv in Moisei la. Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. Edited and abridged by Seymour M. Lipset. Chicago: Quadrangle.
Mcclosky, Herbert; Hoffman, Paul; and O’Hara, Rosemary 1960 Issue Conflict and Consensus Among Party Leaders and Followers. American Political Science Review 54:406-427.
Mckenzie, Robert T. (1955) 1963 British Political Parties: The Distribution of Power Within the Conservative and Labour Parties. 2d ed. London: Heine-mann; New York: St. Martins. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Praeger.
Macmahon, Arthur W. 1933 Ostrogorsky, Moisey Yakovlevich. Volume 11, pages 503-504 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.
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Michels, Robert (1911) 1959 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Dover. → First published as Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. A paperback edition was published in 1966 by Collier.
Ranney, Austin (1954) 1962 The Doctrine of Responsible Party Government: Its Origins and Present State.Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Roth, Guenther 1963 The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany: A Study in Working-class Isolation and National Integration. Totowa, N.J.: Bedminster Press.
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