Book Review: On parties, party systems and democracy

Ingrid van Biezen (ed.), On parties, party systems and democracy. Selected writings of Peter Mair (Colchester, UK: ECPR Press, 2014). 666 pp., €62,30 (hardback), ISBN: 9781907301780.

This book is a very important contribution to the key aspects of political science and is not only an ostensible tribute to Peter Mair, who was and through his legacy still is, one of the most influential political scientists of the last several decades. It constitutes a unique and extremely representative anthology of his most important writings, selected with painstaking care and attention by Ingrid van Biezen, one of Peter Mair’s Ph. D. supervisees and an affirmed political scientist herself. Peter Mair’s untimely death in August 2011 deprived the international political science community of one of its most accomplished and original thinkers and one of the most active promoters of research on political parties and democracy. The ECPR Press initiative to publish a book of his selected writings represents not only a necessary testimony of how central Peter Mair’s figure was to the political science community, but also a fundamental resource for all political scientists worldwide, particularly those belonging to younger generations.

Through his direct involvement in major research projects, such as the ones on Party change, on the Future of party government, on Party organization, and, more recently, on Party patronage, to mention just a few, he was responsible with a few other colleagues for the rebirth of party politics studies from the 1990s. It is doubtful whether the journal “Party Politics” would exist if not for the favorable milieu for party studies Peter Mair’s influential work with that of Stefano Bartolini, Hans Daalder, and Rudolf Wildenmann at the European University Institute in the 1980s.It is at this institute that two of the journal’s original editors, David Farrell and Paul Webb, were Ph.D. candidates at the time Peter Mair was a young member of faculty. Peter Mair’s work, not only as a scholar but also as a teacher and Ph. D. supervisor, contributed to creating the journal.

The book is very well organized into six parts, each dedicated to one of the six most important aspects of Peter Mair’s vast academic production: Comparative politics, National politics, Party systems, Political parties, European Union, and (The future of) Party democracy. Ingrid van Biezen’s unparalleled knowledge of Peter Mair’s work is reflected in the appropriateness of the identification of the six thematic areas and of the choice of the essays and articles eventually included in each one of them. Moreover, the editor’s narrative of how the book was assembled provides a very perceptive description of the evolution of Peter Mair’s approach to the study of politics and of how it evolved and expanded from reflections on the politics of his native country, Ireland, and on parties of the Marxist left, through in-depth conceptualizations and empirical studies of party change and adaptation, party organization, systemic properties, and party system dynamics, to enlightening discussions of the very meaning of democracy in the increasingly complex multilevel structuring of contemporary political systems. Peter Mair’s reflections on this last aspect and on the changing role and ability of political parties to perform linkage functions in post-industrial societal settings has induced some observers to describe him as someone who had made a full transition from being an enthusiastic supporter of the view that parties are essential pillars in the construction of properly functioning democratic systems to becoming an explicit critic of their continuing ability to perform their functions or even of the persisting usefulness of those functions. Ingrid van Biezen’s introduction, coupled with the equally heart-felt and inspiring “Intellectual portrait” by Peter Mair’s mentor Hans Daalder, and Stefano Bartolini – who was arguably with Richard Katz. Peter Mair’s most important collaborator – reveals that his position on political parties even in his last, according to some commentators very pessimistic, works was much more nuanced than commonly believed.

The problem of party and party system change can be seen as the unifying concern of Peter’s intellectual contribution and the two sections dedicated by the editor to these themes give the reader a persuasive account of this. Peter Mair was a protagonist of the trend that witnessed a resurgence of theoretical reflection on parties, the starting point of which was probably his 1983 contribution, included in the book as Chapter 6. Peter Mair’s works on parties can cumulatively be described as the theory of party organizational change. Party adaptation to changing macro-economic and societal conditions was the central problem for the theory, which unfolded through many other works based on, or inspired by, the cartel party model, developed by Peter Mair with Richard Katz (1995–Chapt. 16). Coupled with the other Katz and Mair endeavor on the three faces of party organization (1993–Chapt. 14), the model inspired later works, also by other authors, on the internal diversification of party organization, and favored the replacement of the original hierarchical/monolithic model with that of the franchise party1 or with the hierarchy/stratarchy/federation organizational tripartition2 (Bolleyer 2012).

The centrality of party to Peter Mair’s work did not prevent him from making outstanding contributions to other theoretical and empirical aspects of political science, as demonstrated by his article on Concepts and Concept Formation (2008–Chapt. 2), where he admirably built his reflection on Sartori’s classic work, and by his studies on the Irish and Dutch political systems.

Finally, the last two sections of the book offer a number of fundamental examples of Peter Mair’s ability to identify and interpret, with profound and original views, new developments and directions of politics and democracy. To mention one of his more recent important contributions, Peter Mair’s discussion of Representative and Responsible Government (Chapt. 25) is one of the most perceptive and enlightening in the literature. As such, it initiated a new debate that is still ongoing and promises to leave an indelible mark in contemporary political science. This and all the other essays it includes make this book a necessary addition to any political science library.

Luciano Bardi, University of Pisa


1 Carty, R. Kenneth (2004), “Parties as Franchise Systems: The Stratarchical Organizational Imperative,”in Party Politics 10 (1), pp. 5-24.

2 Bolleyer N. (2012), “New Party Organization in Western Europe: of Party Hierarchies, Stratarchies and Federations”, in Party Politics18(3), pp. 315-336.

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