The mass party arose historically in opposition to the established élite or caucus-party system of the 18th to 19th Centuries, representing the antithesis of the caucus party.

The élite caucus was the party form that existed before large-scale franchise, when the right to vote belonged to those that qualified on the basis of property. They were generally parliamentary groupings or committees with a loose structure of individuals who comprised both the state and the polity. There was no distinction in actual terms between the polity and its “civil society”, and the state.

With the extension of the vote to the working class and to women, it was no longer only the propertied men who constituted the polity. A distinction appeared within the polity, which could be characterised as between governed and governors. The mass party emerged with the new need to link the state and the polity. This need was linked with the growth of the working class as a political force and the demand of the masses of the people for empowerment.

The mass party, unlike the élite-caucus party, emerged outside of parliament. Out of the experience of the mass movements such as the Chartist movement, the socialist and workers’ parties were established in the broad polity based on a mass membership, organised on the basis of local branches mobilising for the election of representatives to parliament, such as the Labour party, which formed out of the movement for working class representation.

Richard Katz and Peter Mair describe the emergence and character of the mass party as follows:

The mass party, with its organized membership, formal structures and meetings, and so on is the characteristic form of this second stage in the relationships among parties, state and civil society [the first stage being the élite-caucus party]. The mass party arose primarily among the newly activated, and often disenfranchised, elements of civil society as part of their (ultimately successful) struggle to gain a voice in, and eventually control over, the ruling structures of the state. Where the old cadre parties had relied on quality of supporters, the new party relied on quantity of supporters, attempting to make up in many small membership subscriptions for what it lacked in large individual patronage; to make up in organized numbers and collective action for what it lacked in individual influence; and to make up through a party press and other party-related channels of communication for what it lacked in access to the commercial press …

… [Mass parties] were the first parties that explicitly claimed to represent the interests of only one segment of society. … The political party was the forum in which the political interest of the social group it represented was articulated. Thus it was not only experientially appropriate that the party be disciplined, but it was also normatively desirable.

In these terms, the rise of the mass party, and ultimately of universal suffrage, was associated with a redefinition of the politically appropriate. Not only was an oligarchic system made democratic by the extension of the suffrage to nearly all adult citizens, but there was also a changed conception of the proper relationship between citizens/voters, whether numerous or not, and the state. Elections became choices of delegates rather than trustees, and thus rather than vehicles by which the voters gave consent to be governed by those elected, they became instead devices by which the government was held accountable to the people. The political party was to be the mechanism that made all this possible … with the state and civil society clearly separated, and parties serving as a bridge or linkage between the two. … [1, pp. 99-100]

Another political scholar, André Krouwel, describes the mass party as the mirror image of the élite party, in that political power precedes the formation of the élite party, while the mass party formation precedes the acquisition of power. They are created outside of parliament and they “mobilize broad segments of the electorate previously excluded from the political process.” He writes:

… [The mass party] seeks to integrate these excluded social groups into the body politic. Since they aim at a radical redistribution of social, economic and political power, these parties demand a strong commitment from their members, encapsulating them into an extensive party organization that provides a wide range of services via a dense network of ancillary organizations. [2, p. 254]

On the central issue of what constitutes a member of a political party, Maurice Duverger examines the criteria of membership and has an extensive study of membership requirement, activities, and so on, particularly in the European parties. He concludes:

… only in the mass parties is there any formal machinery of enrolment, comprising the signing of a definitive undertaking and the payment of an annual subscription. Cadre [élite-caucus] parties know neither the one nor the other, admission is accompanied by no formalities, the periodic subscription is replaced by occasional donations; there are in consequence, no precise criteria of membership and only the adherent’s activity within the party can determine the degree of participation. [3, p. 71]

Duverger distinguishes the old caucus party and the mass parties in terms of their conceptions of membership, providing some statistics on the European parties. In terms of conception of membership, he writes:

For these two types of party, the term member has neither the same meaning nor the same importance. As a matter of fact, it has scarcely any meaning or importance for the first type. The concept of member is linked with a particular notion of political party that was born at the beginning of the twentieth century along with the Socialist parties and that has subsequently been imitated by others. It does not correspond to the old conception of a party which flourished in the nineteenth century in parliamentary systems with a franchise based on a property qualification. The concept of membership is a result of the evolution which led from the cadre party to the mass party.

The distinction between cadre and mass parties is not based upon their dimensions, upon the number of their members: the difference involved is not one of size but of structure. [3. p. 62]

On the overall impact of the development of mass parties on the oligarchic parties, Katz and Mair write:

Both the mass-party model of democracy and the mass party as an organizational form presented a challenge to the established parties, to which their organizations, such as they were had to respond. On the one hand, with electorates numbering in the millions rather than in the thousands, the informal networks of the caucus party were inadequate to canvass, mobilize and organize supporters. On the other hand, the growing acceptance of the mass-party model of democracy (popular control of government through choice among unified parties) undermined support, even among their own natural electoral base, for the more traditional organizational and government styles practised by the established parties.

That said, one response that clearly was not available to the leaders of the traditional parties was to adopt the mass-party ethos root and branch. In particular, they could not accept the idea that parties exist to represent well-defined segments of society, because the segments that would have been left to them (farmers, industrialists, etc.) were obviously and increasingly permanent minorities. Similarly, the idea that the extra-parliamentary organization ought to be dominant was unappealing to those already established in government. Further, while they needed to organize and mobilize electoral supporters, they were not so dependent on them for material resources: as the parties of the upper and middle classes, they could still draw on large individual contributions; as the parties in government, they could deploy many of the resources of the state for their own advantage; as the parties of the establishment, they had privileged and sympathetic access to the ‘non-partisan’ channels of communication.

As a result, the leaders of the traditional parties tended to establish organization that looked like mass parties in form (regular members, branches, a party congress, a party press) but which in practice often continued to emphasize the independence of the parliamentary party. Rather than emphasizing the role of the parliamentary party as the agent of the mass organization, they emphasized the role of the mass organization as supporters of the parliamentary party. Equally significant, while these parties recruited members, they did not, and in practical terms, could not, restrict their appeal to particular classes, but rather had to make broader appeals, trying to catch support from all classes, albeit with rates of success that varied markedly across class lines. In ideological terms, then, they could maintain the earlier commitment to an idea of a single national interest that cut across sectional boundaries. [1, pp. 100-101]

The adoption of the mass-party model as the new established system led to the conversion of that model to the catch-all party model and the development of a political cartel of major political parties as we have today.

By 1945, the Labour Party, with its manifesto “Let Us Face the Future: A Declaration of Labour Policy for the Consideration of the Nation” announcing Labour as a party of the nation, the whole people, had moved from a party formed in response to the demand that the working class should have a party of its own – a party to serve the interests of the working class and to represent its voice in Parliament – to a “catch-all party”: a party with a comprehensive series of policies judged from the viewpoint of their contribution to the efficiency of the entire social system, i.e. the existing status quo, rather than the interests of the working class.

Labour in that period, the beginnings of what is now called “Old Labour”, still used socialist-sounding language. However, the 1945 manifesto defined socialism in terms of “public ownership” and a country “free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.” The issue of the working class was left out, and barely mentioned in the manifesto. Its line of demarcation with the other parties was drawn along “the degree of control of private industry that is necessary to achieve the desired end.” Labour became the party of big government; the Conservatives, the party of liberalisation and ostensibly less state intervention in the economy.

Hence, once people had won the franchise, and the mass party was integrated into the status quo, parties began to manipulate the people in order to come to power themselves, the latest stage being the cartel-party system. This is a return to rule by a disconnected élite, the opposite of the mass-party model, though not a return to the earlier system. The current situation involves the annexation of sections of civil society into adjuncts of the state itself; a blurring of the separation of the state and civil society that accompanied the transition to the mass-party system. The parties themselves have this character; no longer do they rely on their membership dues, but on large donations, trade union support and an increasing dependence on direct state funding.

As the role of the cartel-parties in governance develops further, leading to a profound crisis of legitimacy and disaffection with representative democracy, the need arises afresh for a type of political party with a mass character; not as a return to the turn of the last century, but on a modern basis.

The need is to raise the level of politics of the population and develop new political mechanisms for empowerment; a new relationship between the state and the polity. What kind of party is it that can achieve this? This question is key to the content of a modern political party.

The issue of the aim of a political party is central is this respect. The aim of a party arises historically in that it is connected with the interests of the people within history, and how it stands in relation to the aim of society itself at a particular time.

A modern political party, in setting its aim, is presenting its aim for society. However, parties are also differentiated according to class interests they serve. Tony Blair attempted to present an aim for society as a “modernised social democracy” – the Third Way. This was to change the mode of party governance – a break with the parliamentary left/right division – to assist the further annexation of civil society into the direct service of the state as a means to get the working class and middle strata behind big business in its striving to dominate the global market in the conditions of globalisation and world disequilibrium following the end of the Cold War. The aim was for the whole of society to pay tribute to the rich, summed up as “Making Britain Great Again”. In other words, New Labour was explicitly created to serve the interests of the monopoly capitalist class, but dressed as being positioned above classes, for the whole people, and its aim could only be thoroughly reactionary.

Part of the current political crisis in Britain is that, while this aim is getting more discredited with each day, there is no other aim for Britain being presented by the big parties. Ask these parties “what is Britain for?” and no aim can be given other than to continue the neo-colonial “civilising” mission. In this situation, it is getting increasingly difficult for the rich to find their champion. The mainstream media has not thrown its lot behind David Cameron in the manner it did behind Blair in 1997. All three establishment parties are being very cautious in presenting their stands in the run-up to the coming election, while the prospect of a coalition government is touted along with open suggestions of war-cabinet forms of government.

In terms of the political process, the need of the people is to have those elected serve their interests. Rather than the right to vote, people are demanding a say in how the elections are run. There is a burning need for democratic renewal. A modern political party then at the very least must organise itself around this aim. Its work must at minimum be one that politicises the electorate to be able to raise its involvement in the political life of the country, to transform the electorate from simply being an “electorate”. Its existence must involve the politicisation of the people to realise this aim.

The present demands of the people have far surpassed the possibility of their satisfaction through the current political system. Solutions cannot be found within the existing archaic institutions and process based on sovereignty lying with the monarch-in-parliament. The role of modern political parties is to stand for a break with all that is old and to uphold the sovereignty of the people.

A political party consistent with the requirements of the present is a modern mass party whose role it is to politicise the masses and organise them for a definite aim. This is the political content of what it means to have a mass character. Such a party is a new mechanism for the empowerment of the polity, working to enable the people to set the agenda for discussion and encouraging the people to actively involve themselves in the selection of candidates for election, in the electoral process and in the entire political life of the country.


[1] P. Mair, Party system change: approaches and interpretations, Oxford University Press, 1998.

[2] R. S. Katz and W. J. Crotty, Handbook of party politics, Sage, 2006.

[3] M. Duverger, Political parties: their organisation and activity in the modern state, Methuen, 1962.

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  1. bilal badar says:

    What is mass party define?

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