Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Birth of Political Mass Parties

How did parties as political organizations emerge?

2010 - 2017
Anne Heyer

Political Legitimacy Profile Area

Why did people decide to found political parties? What determined their organizational structure? This research project studies the ideas and practices of political activists who founded the first political mass parties in the second half of the 19 th century. It focuses on the expectations and experiences of party leaders when they tried to combine mass organization and parliamentary politics. The project analyses three case studies: the German Social Democratic Workers` Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, SDAP founded in 1869), the Dutch Antirevolutionary Party (ARP, Anti-Revolutionaire Partij, 1879) and the British National Liberal Federation (NLF, 1877).

The history of political mass parties has been studied from many different perspectives in historical as well as political science research. Yet, we know very little about the phenomenon of early party formation in the second half of the 19th century. The majority of studies either focused solely on individual parties without providing general conclusions or, following a more systematic approach, left original archival sources out. In order to study early party formation, my PhD project analyses three ideologically different parties in three different nation states: the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP), the British National Liberal Federation (NLF) and the Dutch Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP). With these three case studies, the dissertation focuses on ideas and practices that shaped the organization of early political parties.

In search for an organizational model that would combine participatory promises with efficient decision making, party activists regularly referred to traditional ideas of organization, spontaneously responded to external circumstances and often simply tried to solve organizational trouble on the spot. Without being able to foresee the future outline and its success, insiders and outsiders of the organizations fiercely discussed the new parties. Especially the combination of mass organization and parliamentary politics caused administrative problems and ideological discussions; and also raised the critical attention of many contemporaries. Through the analysis of three different case studies the dissertation pays tribute to the distinct features of national party histories. The project, however, also aims at providing insights into common organizational processes to draw a more general conclusion on the phenomenon of early party formation.

The historical sources primarily used for this research project are autobiographies, biographies, political brochures and other publications composed by party leaders, their supporters and critics. Also reports from party congresses and newspaper articles provide insights in how party members and critics perceived and influenced political organization. Emphasis will be placed on the comments and evaluation of organization, internal processes of party foundation and the role of individual leaders. In addition, theoretical approaches to the foundation of political parties by historians as well as social scientist are taken into consideration to allow the dissertation not only to contribute empirically, but also theoretically to the debate on political parties and their formation period.

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