political party

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party, political

party, political, organization whose aim is to gain control of the government apparatus, usually through the election of its candidates to public office. Political parties take many forms, but their main functions are similar: to supply personnel for government positions; to organize these personnel around the formation and implementation of public policy; and to serve in a mediating role between individuals and their government. Political parties are as old as organized political systems. For example, many of the ancient Greek city-states had organized, competitive parties. Political parties have been organized for various reasons: to support a particular political figure, to advance a particular policy or a general ideological stand, to aid politically certain groups or sections of society, or merely to combine for short-term political advantage. Political parties have also been organized in various ways; in some, control is exercised by a small central elite, either elected or self-perpetuating, while in others, power is decentralized, with candidate picking and decision making spread among local party units. The modern mass political party has taken shape in the last century, along with the rise of democratic ideology, universal suffrage, nationalism, and more effective means of communication. Such a party is commonly categorized by the type of party system in which it operates. In a noncompetitive or one-party system, the party is often employed as part of the governing apparatus, with the functions of maintaining public support for the regime, encouraging popular participation in government programs, and alerting the government to changes in public opinion. In competitive systems, a distinction may be made between two-party systems, which seem to encourage a party strategy of moderation and compromise aimed at obtaining a majority vote, and multiparty systems, where there is less compromise and where a party's strategy emphasizes retaining the support of its core voters. In general, however, the structure and behavior of a particular country's political parties depends most heavily on the country's political and cultural history.


See V. O. Key, Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups (5th ed. 1964); S. M. Lipset and S. Rokkan, ed., Party Systems and Voter Alignments (1967); R. S. Katz, A Theory of Parties and Electoral Systems (1981); R. L. McCormick, ed., Political Parties and the Modern State (1984); K. Von Beyme, Political Parties in Western Democracies (1985).

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political party

any association set up with the objective of gaining political power, usually but not always by electoral means. In contrast with PRESSURE GROUPS, which seek to influence political events by acting on governments and public opinion, parties can be distinguished as seeking to wield governmental power directly. The operation of political parties is central in the government and politics of modern industrial societies.

The early sociological study of political parties engaged with a series of questions raised by MICHELS, notably his argument that, what ever the differences in their political programmes and philosophy, political parties tend always to be dominated by ÉLITES. In reality, notwithstanding a general tendency for parties to be dominated by their leadership, with leaders drawn from socially advantaged backgrounds, empirical evidence suggests that parties vary greatly in the extent or permanence of such domination (see also IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY). See also POLITICAL PARTICIPATION, ÉLITE THEORY.

Apart from Michels, a useful contribution to the study of the internal organization of political parties is provided by Duverger (1964), who identifies four basic types of grass-roots organization:

  1. the caucus, e.g. a small group of political insiders acting either on their own behalf or on behalf of wider social groups they claim to represent;
  2. the branch, a local grouping established as part of a wider permanently organized democratic and bureaucratic structure;
  3. the cell, a carefully selected, highly and ideologically motivated group (e.g. within Communist parties), perhaps set up to operate covertly with the aim of fostering unrest or preparing for revolution;
  4. militia (as utilized by Fascist parties), political groupings organized on military lines and engaging in violence and political intimidation.

A further overall distinction of importance is that drawn by Sigmund Neumann (1956) between parties of integration, in which the lives of members are ‘encased within ideologically linked activities’, and parties of representation, which view their function as primarily one of securing votes in elections, without seeking to achieve ideological closure, seeing themselves as contestants in a ‘give-and take’ political game (Lipset, 1960). According to Lipset, parties of the latter type are an essential requirement for stable forms of liberal democracy, and the presence of major parties of the former type a significant barrier to this form of government (see STABLE DEMOCRACY).

A further important element in the sociological study of political parties is discussion of the origins and implications of different types of party system, e.g. differences between one-party systems (a feature mainly of communist and developing societies), two-party systems (associated mainly with first-past-the-post electoral systems as in the US or, for the most part, UK), and multiparty systems. This last form of party system occurs when elections are based on proportional representation and where political parties based on religious or ethnic divisions continue alongside parties based on class. In contrast, in two-party systems class is usually the predominant basis of political alignment, notwithstanding the fact that many voters vote across class lines (see also CLASS DEALIGNMENT).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Party, Political


a political organization that expresses the interests of a social class or its strata, uniting its most active representatives and directing them toward the attainment of certain goals and ideals. A political party is the highest form of class organization.

The emergence and development of political parties are associated with the division of society into classes and with the history of the class struggle, especially the struggle for political power. “In a society based upon class divisions, the struggle between the hostile classes is bound, at a certain stage of its development, to become a political struggle. The most purposeful, most comprehensive and specific expression of the political struggle of classes is the struggle of parties” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 12, p. 137).

In contrast to the spontaneous process of class formation, the emergence of political parties is possible only when the ideologists of a particular class become aware of its fundamental common interests and express them in the form of definite conceptions and political programs. The political party educates and organizes the class or social group and lends an organized, purposeful character to its actions. Furthermore, the political party is the repository of a particular ideology. To a considerable degree, ideology determines the leading principles of the party’s policies, organizational structure, and practical activity, which are usually specified in the party’s programs and rules. As Lenin emphasized: “To see what is what in the fight between the parties, one must not take words at their face value but must study the actual history of the parties, must study not so much what they say about themselves as their deeds, the way in which they go about solving various political problems, and their behavior in matters affecting the vital interests of the various classes of society—landlords, capitalists, peasants, workers, etc.” (ibid., vol. 21, p. 276).

The demarcation of political parties, which corresponds to the arrangement of the basic class forces of society, can only take place under the conditions of mature capitalism. In slaveholding and feudal societies political groupings organized according to social estate expressed the interests of various strata of the ruling classes. Because they were economically fragmented and spiritually oppressed, the toiling classes could not form independent political parties during this historical period. To a certain degree, their interests were expressed by progressive political groupings of the propertied class (the Jacobins, for example), which were interested in obtaining popular support in the struggle against reactionary forces. Under mid-19th-century capitalism, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie began to use political parties in their struggle for political dominance. The party system became an organic component of the mechanism of bourgeois governmental power. In the final analysis, the character of this system depends on the balance of class forces, which predetermines the forms and methods by which the bourgeoisie implements its dictatorship.

According to the theory developed by the majority of bourgeois sociologists and political scientists, political parties express the will of the people and are an intermediate link between the people and the government. Bourgeois theorists consider the multiparty system to be the fundamental principle underlying a “free democratic society.” In fact, this bourgeois theory is refuted by several phenomena, including the dominant position of parties controlled by society’s monopolistic elite, as well as tendencies toward preventing the participation in politics of mass political organizations expressing the interests of the workers. These phenomena show that the bourgeois theory of the multiparty system is an apology for the rule of monopolies that permit the use of democratic forms. In reality, the existence of political parties is a lawlike, natural phenomenon in a bourgeois society divided into antagonistic classes and maintaining the elementary principles of bourgeois democracy (freedom of association and a parliamentary structure). A multiparty system reflects the contradictions between classes and the existence of various strata and groups within a single class.

The parties of monopoly capital hold the dominant position in the party systems of many modern bourgeois states. The existence in one state of several such parties and their struggle among themselves do not not affect the essence of the political power of the monopolies and the economic basis for their dominance. The social function of a bourgeois party is to express the interests of the ruling class and to make the masses ideologically and organizationally subordinate to that class. This is the impetus for creating not only parties that openly defend the bourgeois system (for example, Great Britain’s Conservative Party) but also parties that carry out the policies of the monopolies but have a broader social base (for example, the Christian Democratic and Christian Social parties in a number of Western European countries). Neofascist parties and organizations are the political reserves of the monopolies.

Social Democratic parties are an important political force in many bourgeois states, including Great Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries, where they lead the majority of the working class and dominate the trade unions and other mass organizations. The right wing of the Social Democrats is far from scientific socialism in its understanding of socialist goals, the methods of attaining them, and the speed with which they can be achieved. In essence, they transfer to the working-class movement the ideas and political and organizational principles of the liberal bourgeois parties. Openly disavowing Marxism in their programs, many Social Democratic parties preach a movement toward socialism through reforms alone, the reconciliation of class contradictions, and adherence to bourgeois democracy. The Social Democrats have been in power several times in a number of countries, where they have formed governments independently or entered into coalition governments. However, they have never shaken the foundations of capitalism. The influence of leftist elements has grown stronger in a number of Social Democratic parties. The unity of the fundamental interests of all the toiling people necessitates the establishment of contacts and cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats in the struggle against monopolistic forces.

The acuteness of the contradictions between the monopolistic elite and the rest of society leads to the founding of anti-imperialist parties in advanced bourgeois countries. These parties, which have a broad social base, make general democratic demands. In states that have liberated themselves from colonial dependence, anti-imperialist parties often represent the broad masses of the population, united under the slogans of national liberation.

The basic trend in the development of party systems in modern bourgeois society is adaptation to the needs of the dictatorship of the monopolies. This is accomplished by decreasing the total number of parties, by forcing the smaller bourgeois parties out of participation in parliament and the government and replacing them with larger parties, and by excluding democratic parties from political activity by methods ranging from electoral reforms to outright prohibition.

Bourgeois parties perform a number of tasks in the government machinery. By nominating candidates and campaigning for votes, they form parliaments that support the system of bourgeois rule. The parties’ leadership bodies help the monopolies to control the activity of the parliament. Moreover, the bourgeois parties form governments and support their contacts with the ruling social forces.

As a rule, the programmatic documents drawn up by bourgeois parties in an effort to attract the mass of voters reflect the class character of the parties and their true goals in veiled terms —for example, the ideas of “economic liberalism” and a “free market economy.” Programmatic documents make extensive use of bourgeois nationalism and religious ideology and proclaim adherence to democracy, freedom, and the defense of inalienable human rights. In order to guarantee themselves room to maneuver, many parties refuse to work out programs, restricting themselves to publishing preelection platforms and proclamations.

Bureaucratic centralism is characteristic of the organizational structure of bourgeois parties. The independence of the reactionary party leadership from the party’s rank and file and the virtual absence of control over the leadership are ensured by limiting the rights of the elected and collegial party bodies and concentrating the most important functions in a ruling “staff” of narrow composition. As a rule, the staff consists of the party leadership, with an even more exclusive group of party leaders at the core. The party elite also holds the most important government posts.

If the working class is to fulfill its historical mission of creating a communist society, it must be organized into an independent political party that differs fundamentally in character, ideology, organization, and methods from the political parties of all other classes. The ideology, program, and tactics of the independent political party of the working class are based on the scientific world view of Marxism-Leninism. The independent working-class party acts as a vanguard, uniting and organizing the working class in the struggle for the interests of the entire class and giving it unity of goals, will, and actions. The historical role, tasks, and principles of building a political party of the working class are defined by K. Marx and F. Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848).

In the preimperialist epoch, working-class parties were formed in a number of countries primarily to provide the proletariat with political representation within the framework of bourgeois democracy. These parties gave most of their attention to parliamentary activity. The first international association of working-class parties—the First International—played an important role by laying the foundation for an international organization of workers to prepare a revolutionary offensive against capital. The Second International played a positive role in the period when the proletarian movement grew broader. However, this broadening took place at the cost of “a temporary strengthening of opportunism, which in the end led to the disgraceful collapse of this International” (V. I. Lenin, ibid., vol. 38, p. 302).

In the new historical period, when the socialist revolution became the immediate task, it became necessary to form a new kind of working-class party, radically different from the parties of the Second International. Creatively developing Marxism and adapting it to the epoch of imperialism, Lenin created an integral doctrine of the party as the highest form of revolutionary organization of the working class and elaborated the party’s theoretical and organizational foundations, the strategy and tactics of Bolshevism, and the standards of party life and principles of party leadership. The new type of party was established for the first time in 1903 by Russian Marxists under Lenin’s leadership. Subsequently, Communist parties were founded in most of the capitalist countries. The organization and activity of a Communist party rest on many principles, including loyalty to Marxism-Leninism and an uncompromising struggle against all attempts of right-wing or left-wing opportunists, revisionists, and dogmatists to distort the party’s programmatic, tactical, or organizational foundations. Other basic principles include loyalty to proletarian internationalism and a decisive struggle against all manifestations of nationalism; democratic centralism, the basis of party structure; an organic link with the masses, which entails considering their experience in working out tactics and educating them on the basis of this experience; and collective leadership. In addition, the fundamental principles of Communist parties include strict and universally applicable party discipline and continuous attention to the quality of party membership; firmness in carrying out basic principles, with maximal flexibility regarding tactical means and methods of struggle, taking into account specific internal and international conditions; and a self-critical attitude, an open admission of errors, and correction of them.

The international character of the revolutionary struggle of the working class makes it objectively imperative to coordinate the activities of Marxist-Leninist political parties in all countries. Furthermore, Marxist-Leninist parties must support each other, participate in a broad exchange of opinions and experience, and join in the development and propagandizing of Marxist-Leninist theory, strategy, and tactics. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Third, or Communist, International, in the founding of which Lenin had played a leading role, performed an important service by creating and educating leadership personnel and working out the program and tactical foundations of Communist parties. After the dissolution of the Communist International, Communist and working-class parties developed new forms of cooperation, including bilateral and regional leadership meetings, exchanges of delegations, joint activity in various democratic and progressive organizations, and international conferences.

Communist and Marxist-Leninist working-class political parties are the most consistent representatives of the interests of the toiling masses. They are the organizing and controlling force in the struggle for democracy, peace, national independence, and socialism. Maintaining the unity of their basic principles of action, Marxist-Leninist parties consider the concrete historical conditions of a particular country and the common interests of the international working-class and communist movement.

After the victory of a socialist revolution, Marxist-Leninist parties become the leading political force in government. The role and responsibility of the Communist Party as the embodiment of a conscious element in the creation of communism increase as the scale of building a new society broadens and as vital problems become more complex.

As society develops, the parties of the working class develop. Thus, as the result of the victory of socialism and the building of a developed socialist society in the USSR, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the expression of the communist ideals of the working class and its vanguard in the construction of a communist society—has become the party of the entire Soviet people.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. Uchreditel’nyi manifest Mezhdunarodnogo Tovarishchestva Rabochikh. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Proekt i ob”iasnenie programmy sotsial-demokraticheskoi partii.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2.
Lenin, V. I. Chto delat’? Ibid., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. Shag vpered, dva shaga nazad. Ibid., vol. 8.
Lenin, V. I. “O smeshenii politiki s pedagogikoi.” Ibid., vol. 10.
Lenin, V. I. “Sotsialisticheskaia partiia i bespartiinaia revoliutsionnost’.” Ibid, vol. 12.
Lenin, V. I. “Opyt klassifikatsii russkikh politicheskikh partii.” Ibid., vol. 14.
Lenin, V. I. “Politicheskie partii v Rossii.” Ibid., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii. Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. “Tretii Internatsional i ego mesto v istorii.” Ibid., vol. 38.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ “levizny” v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
Lenin, V. I. “Pervonachal’nyi proekt Rezoliutsii X s” ezda RKP o sindikalistskom i anarkhistskom uklone v nashei partii.” Ibid., vol. 43.
Programma KPSS. Moscow, 1961.
Programmnye dokumenty bor’by za mir, demokratiiu i sotsializm. Moscow, 1961.
Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii (Moskva, 5–17 iiunia 1969 g). Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1969.
K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia Vladimira Il’icha Lenina: Tezisy TsK KPSS. Moscow, 1970.
O podgotovke k 50-letiiu obrazovaniia SSSR: Postanovlenie TsK KPSS 21 fevralia 1972 g. Moscow, 1972.
”O 70-letii II s”ezda RSDRP.” Kommunist. 1973, no. 6.
Partii v sisteme diktatury monopolii. Moscow, 1964.
Problemy kommunisticheskogo dvizheniia: Nekotorye voprosy teorii i metodologii. Moscow, 1972.
Mezhdunarodnoe kommunisticheskoe dvizhenie: Ocherk strategii i taktiki, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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