Essay on the Origins of Bureaucracy

While the concept as such existed at least from the early forms of nationhood in ancient times, the word “bureaucracy” itself stems from the word “bureau”, used from the early 18th century in Western Europe not just to refer to a writing desk, but to an office, i.e., a workplace, where officials worked.

The original French meaning of the word bureau was the baize used to cover desks. The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789 and from there rapidly spread to other countries. The Greek suffix -kratia or kratos – means “power” or “rule”.

Bureaucratisation could be said to encompass the processes both of the centralization and expansion and of the professionalization of all institutions; and this happens as much as in government as in the other principal structures of power like political parties, trade unions, corporations, the armed forces, and educational, religious, legal, and medical and other technical establishments, as also what has come to be known as the non-governmental organisations.

Thus, those at the top who ultimately rule reach that position through processes that are not bureaucratic; but they rule through instruments that are bureaucratic. Political Parties, like all else, tended to become bureaucratic structures as they transformed themselves into large mass organisations from the 1860s and 1870s especially in UK, the party used to be a loose association of groups engaged in local politics, with great variations on issues of concern and forms of functioning.

But then the following changes occurred: 1) From about 1867, the local party club network expanded enormously, with each party, Liberal and conservative (or Tory), organizing its own brass band, football clubs, benefit societies, and even building societies in a great wave of mobilisation that was apparently non-political, but was designed to foster political loyalties to the party that was promoting this range of action. 2) Each of them organized their own “Constituency Associations” consisting of local voluntary activists, who came to be known as the “caucus.

Nathan Hellman's Blog: August 2006

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“These associations were centralized in a national party body: for the Liberal Party it was the National Liberal Federation from 1877, and for the Conservatives it was the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations (NUCCA) from as early as 1867 but acquiring momentum in the 1880s

This structure allowed the central party leadership to impose strict discipline on the local party units, especially to decide electoral alliances, and so on. The typical party bureaucrat, known as the party agent, appointed by the central command, now supervised these associations.

His main job was to ensure that party supporters were entered on the voters’ lists, to provide intelligence to the centre on the public mood, and to .impose discipline locally.


The results were evident in the nineties for the Conservative Party which was better organized than the Liberals: in the 1850s, governments suffered 10 to 15 defeats in parliamentary votes in a year; from 1900, the average was just one per session.

By 1914 the party had become a centralized bureaucratic machine that overrode local, individual variations and preferences and headed toward becoming a mass party with a larger and larger electorate.

The local enthusiast, activist, or notable was overtaken by the party official from the centre, in the manner that royal bureaucracies subordinated the remnants of feudal aristocracies all over Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries; and independent members of parliament were increasingly a thing of the past.

This process continued throughout the twentieth century, with the Labour Party following suit when it replaced the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives from the twenties. In the Labour Party also, the candidate is formally selected by the constituency body, but this is subject to central control.


The sovereign body is the annual conference of the delegates and members, but its resolutions are never binding on the party whether in government or in opposition despite the many pious and ideological statements to the contrary.

The conduct of members in parliament is decided solely by the central party bureaucracy. This party makes loud claims to its being more democratic than others; but it is like any other, a mass organization run by an oligarchy through its paid bureaucracy.

These features changed after World War II, especially with the Communist Party (PCF) being such an excellent bureaucracy in typically Stalinist fashion, with its professional training and strict enforcement of the Party line from above, to the extent of its not allowing even direct communication between party cells at the base.

These cells were required to communicate only with their superior levels that are vertically. This, it should be noted is one of the typical features of the bureaucracy of state, where communications between departments must take place only with the permission of the head of the department and not between lower officials in the hierarchy.

The most obvious cases of party bureaucracies are those of the fascist and socialist states. The fascist bureaucracies formally submitted to the “leader-principle”, that is, a single charismatic leader controlled the entire movement, the party, and where appropriate, the state itself.

But in modern times a single leader cannot control personally such vast machines as those of industrial societies; and however charismatic, energetic, or able the leader or dictator, he could not be any more personal in his choice of officials than the American President is: he had to submit to the logic of bureaucratic structure to get things done.

These forms of leadership were chosen differently from those of the electoral systems of the democracies, they provided a different ideological direction, and they adopted a distinct style of their own; for the rest they ruled modern industrial or industrializing societies through familiar structures of bureaucracy.

In the case of single party states, there are ostensibly just two such bureaucracies, those of the party and of the state. But in fact there could be many of them, all hierarchies competing for the attention of the Leader and bases for maneuvering into the top position.

Thus, even in Hitler’s Third Reich, the following structures competed with each other, and each one of them could have provided the avenue to the top: the Nazi Party itself or the NSDAP; the SS, headed by Himmler, who thought of himself as the successor; the armed forces, which periodically conspired to overthrow Hitler and eventually provided the actual successor in 1945, Grand Admiral Doenitz; and the security services.

This feature was more pronounced in the fascist and conservative dictatorships that spread across Europe in the inter-war years. Such competition does not and did not take the form of elections, for which reason they are not called democratic.

The most extreme and lucid case is that of the Soviet Union in which a single bureaucracy ran the country, that of the Party itself; it provided the sole arena to aspire for power; and all competition to reach the top took place strictly within it.

All the other bureaucracies were strictly subordinate to it and never did challenge its monopoly, whether they were the planners, the managers, general administration, the armed forces, or the security services. As such, this single Party was, in itself, like the multiple party systems of the liberal democracies, for in each either the single

Party or the multiple parties was the sole avenue to power, not the military, the paramilitaries, the civil services, the religious hierarchies, the corporate structure, the legal establishment, or the academic system. As has been noted earlier, the manner in which leaders and rulers are chosen in modern bureaucratic societies is not bureaucratic, but the instruments with which they rule are uniformly bureaucratic across the ideological divides.

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