Beyond the European Left: Ideology and Political Action in the Belgian Ecology

Beyond the European Left: Ideology and Political Action in the Belgian Ecology

by Herbert Kitschelt, Staf Hellemans

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Drawing on recent research on the internal politics of the Belgian ecology parties, Agalev and Ecolo, this work demonstrates how political careers in contemporary social movements lead to activism in left-libertarian politics and influence political ideology. Beyond the European Left is the first comprehensive survey of ecology parties in Europe that presents detailed empirical information on the careers, organizational practices, and political beliefs of the activists involved.
The authors employ a new research methodology—surveying party militants—that is better adapted to the study of micropolitics than are expert interviews. Herbert Kitschelt and Staf Hallemans show that European Green party activists express an egalitarian and libertarian vision of a desirable social order that builds on, but radically transforms, ideas of the traditional socialist European left. The authors then examine the debates and disagreements among militants on political objectives and the consequences of conflicting views for party organization and strategy. Their findings illuminate the unique dynamics of left-libertarian politics in a number of Western European countries with obvious relevance to current developments in Eastern Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399223
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

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Beyond the European Left

Ideology and Political Action in the Belgian Ecology Parties

By Herbert Kitschelt, Staf Hellemans

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9922-3


A Theory of Party Activism

Research on political parties as organizations with internal decisionmaking structures and research on parties as competitors in party systems have been by and large divorced from each other or linked through extremely simplifying and often misleading assumptions. With the intellectual hegemony of "realist" elite theories of democracy in the tradition of Michels (1911/1962), Weber (1920/1978), Schumpeter (1942), and Downs (1957), parties have been predominantly treated as vehicles in the electoral competition to convert votes into the control of legislative and executive office. According to this view, party organizations and activists must comply with the functional imperatives of vote and office maximization or are condemned to failure. Parties that survive the electoral competition choose efficient organizational forms.

The functional model of party competition leads to an equilibrium model of party organization and strategy. Given an exogenous voter demand for political positions, parties will seek the most efficient organization, strategy, and policy position to capture the greatest share of the vote and of political office. Since all parties compete for essentially the same pool of uncommitted voters, they will adopt similar organizational forms, strategies, and policy mixes that prove successful in the fight for these constituencies (Duverger 1954; Kirchheimer 1966).

Contrary to some conceptualizations (Wright 1971), however, it is unlikely that there is a single "rational-efficient" form of party organization. The institutional designs of political regimes—such as voting rules, constitutional relations between executive and legislature, and state centralization—lead to variations in the organizational forms that promise electoral efficiency (Harmel and Janda 1982). Moreover, declining party identification, changing voter demands, and new technological means of appealing to voters, primarily the mass media, may have changed what counts as efficient party organization over time. In fact, such trends have been held responsible for a general decline of party organization as the vehicle of electoral mobilization and democratic politics (Sjoeblom 1983; Mair 1983).

The major shortcoming of the functional explanations of party politics, however, is that they offer little guidance for understanding how parties translate functional imperatives and constraints into their actual internal organization and decisionmaking process. In other words, what is needed is a micrologic of political choice in parties which explains why and how political actors select efficient electoral strategies. This micrologic would provide a crucial linkage between the functional analysis of the party system and the structural analysis of party organization and decisionmaking.

Several rational choice theories have tried to build such a linkage between electoral competition and intraparty politics. These proposals start with the premise that parties consist of "leaders" and "followers." Leaders are party members who hold or compete for electoral office. Followers are all party members who support electoral campaigns and contribute to the party organization. Leaders and followers are driven by different incentives and psychological orientations. Leaders, in general, derive personal satisfaction from the income, status, and power that come with elected office. It is rational for them to endorse the party organization and strategy they expect to optimize winning political office. Followers, however, do not receive, and often do not even aspire to, the gratifications of political office. What keeps them committed to contribute to a political party? Three answers to this question stand out.

Selective incentive theory. Followers are not really interested in political influence and the party's collective purposes but in "side-payments" such as solidarity and community or the spoils of patronage. Hence, they will go along with the party leaders' political strategy, as long as selective rewards are forthcoming.

Uncertainty of choice. Since public policy change brought about by elected party leaders is a highly indirect, uncertain mode of compensating party activists for their efforts, activists cannot rationally calculate the balance between the cost and the benefits of their contributions to parties. Hence, militants are typically individuals for whom the opportunity costs of party activism are low, such as young people, students, retirees, or individuals in professions with high time sovereignty, such as lawyers and journalists (cf. Schlesinger, 1984).

Activists as ideological zealots. Party followers are driven by purposive commitments to the parties' overall goals, regardless of the consequences for the parties' electoral performance. Because activists value the parties' objectives so intensely, the cost of participation appears very low.

Selective incentives and uncertainty of choice explain how party leaders can pursue electoralist strategies, regardless of the political goals their followers endorse. In practice, however, many militants are highly intelligent, sophisticated political individuals who support parties for purposive reasons. The prominence of purposive commitments leads to the following puzzle: Why would ideological zealots support a pragmatic leadership driven by electoral success? Both Marxists and conservatives have cast the answer to this question in the same empirical terms but given it diametrically opposed normative evaluations. Party leaders are constrained in their pursuit of electoral success by the need of support from ideologically inspired party militants. This constraint can be held at bay only through oligarchical control of the rank and file. "Oligarchy," in this strong sense, is not only the rule of the few over the many, but also the imposition of the leaders' distinctive self- interest in political office on party activists motivated by policy objectives. For (disappointed) leftists from Michels and Luxemburg to the New Left critics of modern parties (cf. Agnoli and Brückner 1967; Greven 1977), leadership control is a scandalous suppression of democracy. For conservatives party oligarchy is a necessary instrument to make elected party leaders responsive to a broad national electorate rather than an unrepresentative, overly zealous, comparatively small band of party followers without democratic mandate (McKenzie 1982).

Rather than taking sides in this controversy, we will argue that the leader/follower dichotomy on which radicals and conservatives agree is analytically ill-conceived and provides little help for linking the internal dynamic of political parties to the overall competitive dynamic of party systems. Party activists are not simply dupes or zealots who can be coerced into following a policy or kept ignorant about the actions of their leaders. We must put politics and debates about political objectives back into the study of intraparty relations.

First, it is not useful to treat rank-and-file activists as a uniform mass committed to the same political objective. There is usually a significant spread of opinions among party activists, and "moderates" with electoralist preferences often outnumber "radicals" in intraparty struggles. Party activists may affiliate with parties not necessarily because they are "alienated" from mainstream society, but because they may wish to pull a party further into the mainstream. Especially in multiparty systems, it is not clear that purposive motivations to join parties must lead to greater radicalism. What needs to be explained, then, are the different viewpoints represented by intraparty groups and their ability to form coalitions that govern the party organization and strategy.

Second, the leader/follower dichotomy helps us little to explain the change of party strategies and intraparty coalitions over time and across parties. When activists are treated as a uniform mass, all changes of strategic posture must be attributed to electoral constraints. Parties are nothing but a passive medium of electoral constituencies. Third, it is not always true that party leaders are more oriented toward electoral efficiency than their followers. Party leaders often reflect the militants' positions, are not a unified group, and express varying commitments to electoralist strategies. The assumption of rational choice approaches that leaders try to maximize "private" goods (wealth, status, power), as, for instance, expressed in Downs's (1957: 34) work, requires reconsideration. It is dangerously close to Marxist-Leninist conspiracy theories, according to which a corrupt party leadership betrays the naturally revolutionary masses. Such arguments do no justice to the complexities of political choice in parties.

Fourth, the leader/follower dichotomy does not take into account that party leaders sometimes have good reasons to pursue a political strategy that maximizes not votes and elected office, but policy impact. In many contemporary democracies, parties have other tasks and ways to influence politics than to mobilize the vote. They recruit future political leaders, organize linkages to interest groups, control the civil service, and exercise power over policymaking through corporatist bargaining modes. The leader/follower dichotomy helps us little to understand how parties choose a position if they face trade-offs between office and policy.

Fifth, electoral competition theories assume that voters' electoral preferences are somehow independent from the parties' political choices. Although this may be the case in the short run, over time parties and party leaders may place new issues on the political agenda and refashion the electorate's views. Thus, while a party's policy positions may appear irrational from the perspective of short-term electoral success, they may or may not pay off in the long run, both in terms of electoral and policy gains.

Finally, organizational incentives theories in general and the leader/follower dichotomy in particular assume that activists have exogenously given preferences and aspirations. But involvement in parties is often a process of conflictual debate and consensus building in which the purposes and the cognitive frameworks that activists employ to assess the rationality of political strategies are at stake. In this sense party politics is a process of mutual influencing among activists in which the individuals' goals themselves are variable and shaped by the collective process.

The shortcomings of rational choice reconstructions of intraparty decisions should stimulate the search for alternative approaches. In the existing literature behavioral studies have constituted the most important contender. They emphasize the multiplicity of intraparty groups and political tendencies. They show empirically that parties are not tightly integrated, disciplined agencies, but loose sets of subcoalitions which cooperate in a minimally efficient way. The dominant political strategy of a party, then, results from the relative strength and interaction of multiple subgroups of activists. While the behavioral framework is rich at the descriptive level, it contributes little to a theoretical understanding of party dynamic or to explaining why certain party groups or tendencies dominate. It also does not provide a theory why some parties appear to be loosely coupled coalitions while others are hierarchically structured.

What we are looking for, then, is an approach which can preserve some of the theoretical parsimony of the rational choice literature while making more realistic and empirically plausible propositions. A theory which combines the important insights of both behavioral and rational choice theories should meet the following three criteria. (1) It should explicitly recognize different purposes and motivations for joining parties and theoretically reconstruct rank- and-file group pluralism within parties. (2) Yet it should avoid being overly descriptive and inductive. And (3), at the same time, it should specify conditions and processes under which the balance between groups of party activists and, as a consequence, the composition of a party's leadership, its organization, and its external strategy are likely to change.

In this study we will not attempt to present an encompassing, comprehensive theory but focus on three key elements of internal party dynamics. First, we will specify three groups of party activists with different political orientations that will be used to reconstruct intraparty decisionmaking. Second, we will determine different patterns of party activism that we expect to covary with adherence to each of the groups. Third, we will introduce one of several hypotheses explaining why the composition and coalition behavior of intraparty groups may vary across time and place.

Actors and Objectives

Party activists have different commitments and aspirations. They may be inspired by a party's collective goods, its commitment to broad changes in society affecting the life chances of most citizens (overall party program). Or they may value the provision of selective goods for specific, well- defined electoral clienteles and focus on strategic and tactical gains on behalf of these clienteles. Moreover, they may be concerned with the party's internal gratifications or private goods, primarily the symbolic reinforcement of purposive commitments and social solidarity that can be derived from a party organization which faithfully reflects the ideological beliefs of party activists. Depending on the content, the weight, and the rank-ordering of programmatic, strategic, and organizational concerns, we can construct three ideal types of party activists: ideologues, lobbyists, and pragmatists.

Ideologues emphasize collective goods, yet see little value in the provision of selective goods. For them piecemeal reforms diminish the chance of overall change. Ideologues also value the private good of a party organization that reinforces purposive commitments. If the party organization creates a microcosm of social institutions and a culture of solidarity that anticipates how, according to the party program, future society should be governed, the party offers a bridge between ideology and practice. Barred from realizing their vision of societal transformation immediately, ideologues will therefore spend considerable energy on maintaining the purity of the party's organizational form.

Lobbyists value the provision of selective goods and incremental, short-term changes benefiting specific external constituencies, such as class (segments), interest groups, and regional clienteles. To modify a statement by Eduard Bernstein, a revisionist German social democrat writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, for lobbyists the process of providing benefits for party constituencies is everything and the final goals of radically transforming existing society are (almost) nothing. Hence, lobbyists tend to choose strategies and tactics opportunistically. When a party is politically too weak to bring about incremental policy gains, lobbyists may appreciate the party organization as a source of internal gratification and a guarantee of the party's honest support of their aspirations. In general lobbyists attribute least importance to the party's comprehensive objectives for social change, but focus on organizational and policy matters relevant for their party's daily activities.

Pragmatists, finally, share with ideologues a concern for the party's universalistic program and reject the lobbyists' emphasis on special interests, but see a productive, mutually reinforcing relationship, rather than a trade- off, between a balanced policy of incremental change through selective goods and overall social transformation. Since pragmatists place high value on tangible policy accomplishments, they favor moderate political strategies and have no appreciation for the internal benefits of an ideologically pure party organization.

Pragmatists are oriented toward a "logic of party competition" designed to maximize voter support or the gain of political office as the only viable rationale of party politics. At the other end of the scale ideologues prefer a "logic of constituency representation" in which parties appeal only to their most committed and mobilized supporters and fashion the party organization in accordance with this objective. Between these poles we encounter lobbyists who choose between both logics opportunistically and, hence, are available for alliances with ideologues or pragmatists, depending on which group can offer them most in terms of satisfying special group interests.

Patterns of Party Activism

Ideologues, lobbyists, and pragmatists differ not only in their political beliefs, but also their political careers and involvement in party politics. Ideologues are often a party's "organic intellectuals" (Gramsci) and emerge from the radical mobilized subcultures associated with it. Lobbyists, on the other hand, tend to be recruited from the mass movements and voluntary associations in the orbit of a party, such as labor unions, churches, business associations, or environmental protection groups. Pragmatists, finally, tend to have fewer roots in the mass or elite subcultures that constitute a party's core constituency and often lack political experience outside their own party.

The three types of militants are also likely to engage in different patterns of intraparty activism. Ideologues, expressing much concern for organizational and programmatic questions, will be most interested in the national party organization where key issues of overall party policy and strategy are discussed. Yet pragmatists, with an inclination toward small-scale, incremental social change, will be more willing to work in the local party organization and local politics where almost imperceptible social reforms are the bread-and-butter issues of the day. Lobbyists will try to maintain their strong affiliation with political associations external to the party and devote more time to movement than party activism. They often act as spokespeople for external pressure groups inside the party.


Excerpted from Beyond the European Left by Herbert Kitschelt, Staf Hellemans. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 A Theory of Party Activism,
2 Belgian Ecology Parties: Setting and Background,
3 Ideologues, Lobbyists, and Pragmatists in Ecological Politics,
4 Activists' Policy Preferences and Party Strategy,
5 The Social Background of Left-Libertarian Activists,
6 Careers into Ecological Politics,
7 Participation and Power in the Party Organization,
8 Pathways to Political Leadership,
9 Conclusion: Beyond the Conventional European Left,
Appendix I: Glossary of the Key Variables,
Appendix II: Questionnaire,

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