The Abolition Of Political Parties

Michael Doherty, a member of the Spirit of Freedom, 1916 Society, Derry, with a piece favouring the abolition of political parties.

In assessing what passes for politics in the North of Ireland, I often find myself in almost complete agreement (no mean feat) with Patrick Murphy’s weekly column in The Irish News. On 22nd April he opened with this:

Since the Troubles began in 1969, voters here have gone to the polls over 60 times. We have had European elections, Westminster elections, Stormont elections, local government elections, by-elections and referendums. [I think I counted 61, but I lost interest after about 30.] In 1969 our highest unemployment areas were Derry/Strabane and West Belfast. Last week Foyle and West and North Belfast still sat near the top of UK unemployment black-spots. So what did our 61 elections achieve and does anyone really believe that a 62nd election will make any difference?

Electoral outcomes on this island and elsewhere remind me of Oscar Wilde’s observation that when it comes to politics: “The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence.”  In every election, it would appear, the majority of us revert to the party that most inflames our emotions rather than what appeals to reason, regardless of what they have actually done (or not done) with our votes the last time, or the time before….or the time before that! 

Simone Weil’s  1943  essay  On the abolition of all political parties provides a sharp, if retro,  critique of  the whole political party system.  She aligns herself with Rousseau’s  Social Contract which regards politics as a forked road between reason and passion. Reason, Rousseau argued, lends itself to justice whereas passion tends to its opposite – injustice – just as surely as absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Weil first makes a rationalist argument for democracy based on the premise that if every individual considers an issue separately and if, afterwards, we compare all their opinions, we should find that the opinions expressed coincide inasmuch as they are just, reasonable, and true whereas they diverge inasmuch as they are unjust, unreasonable, and untrue. Truth is one but lies are many. This idea of democracy is called a Republican doctrine that regards politics as governed by “the general will”. Written in 1762, it excluded the idea of political parties. At that point, continental revolutionaries regarded political parties as a corrupt British phenomenon.

Weil’s essay was written during WWII, in a world controlled by political parties and engaged in mass slaughter in pursuit of party-political objectives.  

Weil identifies three key characteristics of political parties: 

“1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions. 

2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members. 

3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of all political parties is its own growth without limit.” 

Take, for example, being a supporter of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, born out of opposing sides and enflamed passions of the Civil War. What’s the ideological or policy difference between them today? Hardly a cigarette paper. And yet there is still a deeply ingrained need to vote for ‘our’ side and keep the ‘other’ side out. At election time every party goes out of its way to enflame the passions of its support base to “Get the vote out”.

In the recent Stormont election, Sinn Fein expertly turned Paul Givan’s LĂ­ofa grant cut into a crusading call for an Irish Language Act. The fact that during the previous ten years Sinn Fein never once included or demanded an Irish Language Act in any Programme for Government, and a Sinn Fein Minister imposed more cuts on the Irish Language in 2014 than the DUP ever did ... none of that mattered, ‘Our’ rights are denied, ‘We’ must vote for those demanding these rights! 

The party’s policy manifesto receives the loyal support of the members, usually whether they’ve read it or not. Weil sees this as a form of lying on which the whole system of party politics is based. In most cases, people tend to agree with one or two broad ideas of a party (their own interpretation from the woolly language of party literature) and tolerate, ignore, or simply don’t know about the rest. Engineering absolute party loyalty demands multiple lies: 

lies to yourself that you agree with the whole manifesto; 
lies to the party that you agree to the whole manifesto; 
lies to the public that you agree with the whole manifesto. 

The party regards itself as more important than any other factor, more important than free or rational thought, it is an end in itself with an almost messianic message that if only it can secure enough power, all will be right with the world. The party’s growth is the only measure of political goodness. Loyalty to the party is the measure of every member’s worth. Of course, the party’s appetite for power is infinite, a black hole that can never be satisfied. There can never be too many donations, members, or votes. Add to this that parties combine this need for growth and power with elitism. The very broad base is like the bottom of a pyramid leading to a pinpoint at the top where the real power is held and exercised. Seemingly justified by universal suffrage (one person, one vote), the expression of the general will, parties seek to centralise this power for a small circle of elites: ‘The Leadership’.  In short, it is in the nature of political parties to be totalitarian.

The party then exercises fairly rigorous discipline aimed at making people comply and think ‘rightly’ or, in other words, agree with the leadership. Weil offers the example of taking 100 mathematicians who carry out complex calculations. If those who arrive at an odd number get a nasty electric shock, how long would it be before all their calculations are tweaked in order to arrive at an even number? 

An obvious example of this is the Ard Fheis or Party Conference. 99% of motions put to the floor are only there because the leadership has already decided the policy and wants the rubber stamp of ‘democracy’. The party faithful are told how the leadership wants the vote to go, and so it’s very difficult to step away from the comfort and warmth of the herd.

And what happens if ‘The Leadership’ decides policy on the basis of a brown paper envelope or wire transfer to their offshore account? In fact the whole system of parties makes it easier to corrupt politics. Multinational and corporate interests just have to buy off elements of the leadership; the party structure makes this a convenient and efficient transaction. The party whip will do the rest assisted by a compliant media and some creative spin doctoring. Doesn’t the party always have your best interests at heart?

Simone Weil reaches the obvious conclusion about political parties:  

“The mere fact that they exist today is not in itself sufficient reason for us to preserve them. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness.”


  1. Micheal

    A good article. But I am wondering if you are suggesting stepping away from democracy or just organised party politics? As you know a democratic society is made up of myriad mix of interest groups. The most rudimentary entry level for citizen partition is their freedom to express their opinion, especially by way of lobbying on any issue they like. Then we have collectives of individuals who may lobby on a single issue, ie, a new school, speed ramps, etc. Political parties are essentially super lobby groups pursuing multiple issues. It is not so much that individuals must lie to themselves to be part of the party, or that they are driven by emotion rather than reason. They may actually be very rational and are prepared to trade off on issues they are not keen on through give and take within the party to ensure that the party can lobby with a stronger united voice. The individual voter unaligned with any party can often be faced with a single option of voting for the lesser evil as a rational choice and not an emotive plea. In the six counties people can be very rational and emotive at the same time and can just as often vote to keep somebody out than they really wanted who they put in.

  2. Interesting reading for sure. However the essence of a political party that Mr. Doherty highlights through the writings of Mr. Weils is that the political parties are flawed by their hunger for power and that if that in itself is true, then a political party would do absolutely anything to quench this thirst for power and lying or spinning choice words to the electorate is just the easiest way to attain and hold power, as it is often said that people are sheep in need of a shepard but on the other hand a lot of free thinking intellect that flows through forums such as this shows that there are shepards without a flock and the desire to stimulate political conversation although not limited too, is something that should be addressed to an apathetic electorate and the best places in which to engage with people is in the communities or community centres but the established parties have control of them and therefore no political discussions to address any free thinking concerns can take place in them for the fear of potentially losing council or other funding. In other words and to use cowboy parlance the political system has the wagons perpetually circled as to make it difficult for anyone or any risen peoples to challenge their way.

    The party political system is stacked in the way that makes elected party members answerable to the party whip this is well known and would be undisputable, although it would be incumbent upon some to try. Forgive me for giving an example. If an elected party member steps out of line or maybe act in a lonewolf kind of way that person is answerable to the party and the consequences of such action might result in the marginalisation/suspension or sacking of the individual, so that individual is answerable to the party system and the party remains elected and relatively untarnished.
    The future may prove better with electing independents as an independent will be answerable directly to the electorate and if they stop acting in the better interests of their constituents then its 'goodnight Irene'... Although with our current system independents can be guilty of creating their own little fiefdoms, and that won't do either, but the more independents that a political system has then we have the lessen the chance of fiefdoms being created as all independents will have to work together in order to deliver for the whole of society.

    With all the political parties in existence today on this island, and I speak of this island outside of the context of the constitutional question as I would believe more in a united people of Ireland rather than the false dogmatic stance of other parties but that's a different subject for another time. The biggest cheer from the electorate is for People Before Profit but their mask has slipped fleetingly to reveal that they are controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and it's only a matter of time before they are outed on that. The broad left consensus that PBP is meant to have is actually false and its mere lip service that they espouse on the broad left in order to gain votes from the moderate left all the while behind the scenes at co-ordinateing committee level a continual far left agenda is being perpetuated by members that have dual membership to both parties. Question: How many of People Before Profits elected representation in both jurisdictions are NOT members of the SWP. I only mention this to give credence to the initial point of this discussion that all political parties lie and a new party like PBP has lied from the get go.

  3. Hoffman Fisher

    Even the PBP/SWP are entitled to just 1 lie; after all they would take politics more seriously if they got into power. Wouldn't they?

  4. In fairness Christy, a lie is a lie is a lie and if a party lies or indeed deceives to any degree doesn't bode well for the future. If you tell one lie and it gets believed it's then a foundation for telling many.

  5. Hoffman Fisher

    I don't agree, look at SF for example, they might have told their followers a few necessary lies starting out but they would never do such a thing now.

  6. Sinn Fein have been telling people that they want openness and transparency in the executive. However! A private members bill was tabled in August/September last year and all Sinn Fein members voted against it along with the DUP. You can check it out on the assemblies website. And it's not the only thing they voted down that was of benefit and interest of the people. When I questioned them on it they said that it was because of who tabled it, (Green Party). But that's not the point. If they really wanted it they would have backed it regardless. But to quote Padraig Pearce - the fools, the fools, the fools. All they've really done is left us our fenian dead.

  7. Hoffman

    That sort of thing is probably more common than realised -they preferred a unionist justice minister in David Ford than vote for a Nationalists one in the SDLP.