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Two Fundamentally Different Types of Political Parties

Chinese scholar’s analysis of the Communist Party’s nature done 50 years ago is still applicable today.

[Editor’s note: The article below was written by the famous Chinese philosopher and essayist Hu Shih (1891-1962) in 1947 before the Communist Party took over in mainland China. The article analyzes the fundamental differences between the two different types of political parties. The Kuomintang, the ruling party in China before losing the battle with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 during the civil war, has completed the transition of giving up one-party control after settling down in Taiwan. Although more than half a century has passed, the nature of the Communist Party has remained the same. At a time when the Taiwan Kuomintang leaders are trying to sit down with the Chinese Communist Party again, this article may be useful in helping people understand what might be expected from the talks between the two parties across the straits.

Hu Shih studied in the United States at Cornell University and later at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1917 and returned to China to lecture at Beijing University. During his tenure there, he began to write for the New Youth Journal, quickly gaining much attention and influence. Hu soon became one of the leading and influential intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement and later the New Culture Movement.

He was China’s ambassador to the United States (1938-1942), chancellor of Beijing University (1946-1948), and later (1958) became president of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, where he remained until his death.]

In any discussion about constitutional governance, democracy, the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang, ending one-party politics, and the conflict between two worldviews embodied by the United States and the Soviet Union, we should first clearly recognize that there are two fundamentally distinct types of political parties in the world.

Thirty years ago, people who discussed politics were only familiar with one kind of political party the kind of party in Great Britain, the United States and Western Europe. In the past thirty years, however, another kind of political organization has emerged. Even though it has also labeled itself a "political party," this type of party has fundamentally different characteristics from those in America and Western Europe. Russia’s Communist Party, Italy’s Fascist Party, and Germany’s Nazi Party all belong to the latter kind, because they have similar party disciplines at the organizational level, in spite of the differences in their goals.

For convenience, let me call the political parties in Britain, the United States, and Western Europe Type I parties and designate the later-emerging political parties in the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany as Type II parties.
The characteristics of the Type I parties can be described as follows:

1. Type I parties have no fixed number of members nor are membership records even kept. Everyone can register as a member of the party or withdraw from it at will. For example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to be a member of the Freedom Party but later became a member of the Conservative Party. Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat in the United States but later became the Republican Presidential candidate.

2. The votes in a Type I party are anonymous and their membership is confidential. Every party member is free to speak; there is no party discipline to constrain the votes of its party members; there are no spies or detectives to interfere with the speeches and actions of its members. As a good example, in the United States, Henry Wallace, a Democrat, criticized the policies of his own party. In Great Britain, it is common for the MPs of the Labour Party to criticize, often harshly, the policies of their own party. Regarding such criticism, there is simply no policy in place to punish a party member. In fact, society accepts critics of the party and calls them "independent," "non-partisan" or "unbiased."

3. The strategy of the Type I party is to contend with one or more other parties for the majority status in order to attain its goals. For that reason, every political party strives to become the majority. Once a party attains majority status, it must tolerate and respect the rights of the minority parties, because today’s minority party may become the majority next year. Likewise, this year’s majority could lose next year’s election and become the minority. People’s votes are the final determination of who is the majority. Before the election, no political party knows the nation’s final decision, and no party can control the people’s votes. For instance, in the 1928 presidential election in the United States, Republican Herbert Hoover won the Presidential election with 21 million popular votes. Four years later, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won 21 million popular votes and became President. Each became President as the result of the American people’s freedom of choice.

4. Once the election result is finalized, on the official day, the winning party takes over the government and power from the losing party. The losing party cannot and dares not use the police or army to maintain its power by violence, or to destroy the winning party. This is because the countries with Type I parties know that, in a few years, they will have another opportunity to win. They understand that "victory is certainly joyful, but loss is also acceptable with pleasure." It is interesting to look back at the 1945 British election, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill was highly anticipated as the winner. Nevertheless, the election resulted in the Conservative Party losing badly, and Mr. Churchill had no choice but to turn over power to the winning party and become the minority leader.
Described above are the styles of any Type I party as an organization. Type II parties are totally different and can be characterized as follows:

1. The Type II parties are well-organized, have an exact number of members, and have a detailed and precise membership. Before a person is admitted to party membership, he is closely investigated and scrutinized. After admission, a member can be punished or expelled but cannot freely withdraw from the party.

2. The members of the Type II parties must obey the party’s discipline. Party members do not have freedom or privacy. Well-organized spy and detective organizations not only investigate and guard against non-members, they also keep watch on the speech, thoughts, and actions of the party’s own members. The party members must follow the party’s orders, and even their thoughts and speeches must follow the party’s line.

3. The goal of the Type II parties is to achieve a one-party dictatorship. Before gaining power, they use any means to fight for it. Once they gain power, they use any means to consolidate and maintain it. They use any means because they cannot rely on the electorate to freely choose them. Type II parties are themselves minority parties. Because of the means they use and their tightly controlled organizational structure, they often can control the entire nation by suppressing the majority.

4. Type II parties absolutely do not recognize any opposition parties and do not allow them to exist. Any opposition forces are regarded as a threat, and thus must be thoroughly suppressed and eradicated in order to maintain and strengthen their one-party dictatorship.

The characteristics of the two kinds of political parties summarized above are merely my common sense understanding of politics, which political scholars might very well ridicule.

When people and even scholars have a shallow understanding of the differences between these two types of "parties," they often ignore them. For example, in a recent debate of the differences between the two conflicting worldviews exemplified by the United States and the Soviet Union, some people said, "America gives its people one vote per person, while Russia gives one piece of bread to every one of its people." This is certainly an unfair and inappropriate comparison. The American people do not necessarily lack bread, while the Russian people do have votes. Yet the fundamental difference between these two worlds lies in how each vote is used. In 1936, because there was no opposition party, under the new constitution, Russia witnessed a unanimous or over 99% vote for the Communist Party. In contrast, with free competition from opposition parties in the United States, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won 60% of the vote in the 1936 election, it was considered a great victory. In the 1932 and 1940 elections, he won 57% and 54% respectively. The great victory of 60% represented free politics. It represented independent thought and action as well as great tolerance for opposition parties. What differentiates the "two worlds" are the differences between freedom and no freedom, independence or dependence, tolerance and intolerance.
Mr. Sun Yatsen, the founder of China’s Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), was a politician who embraced freedom and tolerance. During the most difficult time of his revolutionary cause, however, feeling the need for an "organized and powerful revolutionary party," he reorganized the Kuomintang and turned it from a Type I party into a Type II party. Nevertheless, since he embraced freedom and tolerance, Mr. Sun pictured the one-party dictatorship as a temporary, interim solution to the constitutional government, not the final solution.

Recently the Kuomintang has been preparing to end one-party politics and to begin governing by constitutional law. Such a move not only comes from the need to accommodate the current situation but is the inevitable result of Sun Yatsen’s political principles. It is very rare in China’s modern political history for a governing party to invite other political parties to participate in politics and give away some of its power. Therefore, members or non-members of the Kuomintang should think about the significance of such a change. In my own opinion, this is a move to turn a Type II party into a Type I party. It signifies a fundamental reform in the party’s content and style. It is not just a redistribution of the various votes among a few parties or the rebalancing of power between the central and local governments. If the end of Type II party politics leads to a new political style of embracing freedom, advocating independent thinking, and tolerating opposition, it certainly signifies the beginning of a great revolution in China’s politics.