23 September 2003

The Russian bias against parties

After the end of the communist régime in the former Soviet Union, there was at first a pronounced bias against political parties. In fact, many of the early proto-democratic partisan formations assiduously avoided the term, instead styling themselves movements. This anti-party bias could not, of course, prevent the formation of political parties, but the post-Soviet Russian presidents, Boris Yelstin and Vladimir Putin, attempted to remain aloof from the parties. Until now.

Back in 1990, just before the end of the Union, the famed Russian novellist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, published from his exile in Vermont a tract proposing the shape of a future "Russian Union." This was subsequently translated into English and published as Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals. Here is a particularly intriguing passage from this book:

Parties, together with any other independent groups, have the right to nominate candidates for election to public office and to campaign on their behalf, but without drawing up party tickets: the vote must be for specific individuals, not parties. And an elected candidate must suspend any party membership for the duration of his term in office, assuming personal responsibility for his acts before his constituents. Power is a call to service, and it cannot be the subject of interparty competition.

Consequently, the formation of party groups is prohibited at all levels of government. And it goes without saying that the concept of a "ruling party" then ceases to exist (pp. 81-82).

One could, of course, dismiss this as the reflections of someone who does not understand very well how real-world democracy functions. Indeed it is difficult for us to imagine how government as we have come to know it would function without organized political parties.

In many respects Solzhenitsyn's fear of parties echoes James Madison's fear of factions as expressed in his famous Federalist number 10. However, Madison appeared more realistic in acknowledging the inevitability of factions and sought simply for a way to dilute their influence. The notion that parties can be excluded from the corridors of political power seems tantamount to demanding that alternative visions of political life be banished from government, which is clearly impossible.

Yet, given the experience of three generations of Russians with a monopolistic Communist Party, it is understandable that some would shrink from permitting parties in general to become too close to power. Nevertheless, what Russia needs now is, not a political process free from parties, but a small number of stable, responsible parties able to represent the diverse visions of ordinary Russian citizens and willing to co-operate in exercising political authority.

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