One-party systems

The term one-party system is misleading since ‘system’ implies interaction amongst a number of entities. The term is, nevertheless, helpful in distinguishing between political systems in which a single party enjoys a monopoly of power through the exclusion of all other parties (by political or constitutional means) and those systems characterized by a competitive struggle amongst a number of parties. Because monopolistic parties effectively function as permanent governments, with no mechanism (short of a coup or revolution) through which they can be removed from power, they invariably develop an entrenched relationship with the state machine. This allows such states to be classified as ‘one-party states’, their machinery being seen as a fused ‘party–state’ apparatus.

Two different types of one-party system can be identified. The first type has been found in state socialist regimes where ‘ruling’ communist parties have directed and controlled virtually all the institutions and aspects of society. Such parties are subject to strict ideological discipline, traditionally linked tenets of Marxism–Leninism, and they have highly-structured internal organizations in line with the principles of democratic centralism. These are cadre parties, in the sense that membership is restricted on political and ideological grounds. Almost 6 per cent of the Chinese population are members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and around 9 per cent of the Soviet population belonged to the CPSU. In this type of party, the party core consists of well-paid full-time officials, the apparatchiki, who run the party apparat, or apparatus, and exercise supervision over both the state machine and social institutions. A central device through which communist parties control the state, economy, and society, and ensure the subordination of ‘lower’ organs to ‘higher’ ones, is the nomenklatura system. This is a system of vetted appointments in which, effectively, all senior posts are filled by party-approved candidates. The justification for both the party’s monopoly of power, and its supervision of state and social institutions, lies in the Leninist claim that the party acts as the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ in providing the working masses with the ideological leadership and guidance needed to ensure that they fulfil their revolutionary destiny. Vanguardism has, however, been criticized for being deeply elitist and providing the seed from which Stalinism later grew. Trotsky (1937), on the other hand, offered an alternative interpretation by suggesting that, far from the ‘ruling’ party dominating Soviet development, its formal monopoly of power merely concealed the burgeoning influence of the state bureaucracy.

The second type of one-party system is associated with anticolonial nationalism and state consolidation in the developing world. In Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, for example, the ‘ruling’ party developed out of an independence movement that proclaimed the overriding need for nation-building and economic development. In Zimbabwe, a one-party rule developed only in 1986 (six years after independence) through the merger of the two major parties, ZANU and ZAPU, both former guerrilla groups. In other cases, such parties have developed as little more than vehicles through which a national leader has tried to consolidate power, as with General Ershad’s People’s Party in Bangladesh in the 1980s and President Mobutu’s Popular Movement of the Revolution in Zaire, 1965–97. One-party systems in Africa and Asia have usually been built around the dominant role of a charismatic leader and drawn whatever ideological identity they have possessed from the views of that leader. Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in Ghana until his overthrow in 1966, is often seen as the model of such a leader, but other examples have been Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Not uncommonly, these parties are weakly organized (very different from the tight discipline found in communist one-party states), and they play, at best, only a peripheral role in the process of policy-making. Their monopolistic position, nevertheless, helps to entrench authoritarianism and to keep alive the danger of corruption.

Kwame Nkrumah, (born September 1909, Nkroful, Gold Coast [now Ghana]—died April 27, 1972, Bucharest, Romania), Ghanaian nationalist leader who led the Gold Coast’s drive for independence from Britain and presided over its emergence as the new nation of Ghana. He headed the country from independence in 1957 until he was overthrown by a coup in 1966.