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In the former Soviet Union satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe, apart from the ruling Communist Party, there were bloc parties, to give a façade of democracy. I can understand the interest of the regime in having such parties, and I can understand why people would join the ruling Communist Party, but why would people become a member of a bloc party that's neither an actual opposition party, nor providing the benefits that being in the ruling party brings? Their membership was much smaller than the membership of the ruling party, but not completely negligible.

I've tagged this question because it's the country I'm most familiar with, but I'm interested in answers in general. Such parties seem to still exist today in other countries, such as the China Democratic League in the People's Republic of China.

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    In Hussein's Iraq, Ba'ath Party membership was a key to employment, especially for any of the good jobs. IIRC, all school teachers were party members.
    – Smith
    Sep 27, 2023 at 13:36
  • I can understand the interest of the regime in having such parties The regime then also has an interest in having people in these parties and so will incentivize people to join them.
    – user103496
    Sep 29, 2023 at 7:11
  • "I can understand the interest of the regime in having such parties" – the regime also wants these parties to remain small and insignificant, so there being no real incentive to join them is what you should expect. In a country of any size (the so-called "German Democratic Republic" had around 17 million), a few cranks will show up anyway. Sep 29, 2023 at 20:57
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    @SebastianKoppehel In 1987, the SED had 2.2 million members, and the bloc parties 470,000. That is not small and insignificant.
    – ccprog
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:26

3 Answers 3

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In the 1990s, the German Bundestag organised a long-running investigative commission, the Enquete-Kommissionen zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. In its voluminous report at the end of the 12. parlamentary period in 1994, there is a segment concerning the role of the bloc parties and mass organisations. In volume I, page 238, the following resumé about reasons for membership is given:

[Im Kontrast zu den Massenorganisationen] war der Eintritt in eine Blockpartei in der Regel ein überlegter bzw. zweckorientierter Schritt, mit dem der einzelne eine bewußte politische Entscheidung traf und sich von anderen deutlich absetzte...Durch die Mitgliedschaft in einer Blockpartei konnte man auf lokaler Ebene gewisse eigene – wenn auch oft nur geringfügige – Akzente setzen und die Schutzfunktion der Blockparteien als „politische Nischen“ nutzen. Der überwiegende Teil der Mitglieder von CDU und LDPD entwickelte in vieler Hinsicht routinierte Ausweichmechanismen gegenüber den permanenten ideologischen Indoktrinationsversuchen. Insofern darf der formelle Nachweis von Staatsloyalität durch den Beitritt zu einer Blockpartei nicht undifferenziert mit einem Nachweis wirklicher Loyalität zum System des „real existierenden Sozialismus“ gleichgesetzt werden.

Vielmehr kann man zu Recht von Systemdistanz bei vielen Mitgliedern in den Blockparteien sprechen. Wichtige Gründe für den Parteibeitritt waren z. B. bei Handwerkern und Gewerbetreibenden der Austausch mit Gleichgesinnten sowie praktische Lebens- und Berufshilfe vor Ort; mancherorts setzte die Erteilung einer Gewerbeerlaubnis die Mitgliedschaft in einer Blockpartei (vor allem der LDPD) voraus. Die Blockparteien fungierten somit als eine Art Meinungsforum und berufliche Interessenvertretung bei konkreten Einzelproblemen. Ausschlaggebend war für viele Mitglieder, daß sie durch ihren Eintritt das von der SED für bestimmte berufliche Ziele geforderte politische Engagement nachweisen konnten, ohne der SED selbst beitreten zu müssen. Der Aufstieg in politische Spitzenämter und hohe Leitungspositionen in Wirtschaft, Staat und Gesellschaft war ihnen damit allerdings meist verwehrt. Zudem sind Mitglieder von Blockparteien in der Regel von einer Beschäftigung in sicherheitsempfindlichen Bereichen (z. B. Offiziersränge in der NVA; Tätigkeit bei der SDAG Wismut) ausgeschlossen gewesen. Auch eine Mitgliedschaft in den Betriebskampfgruppen war bis in die späten achtziger Jahren nicht möglich.

(Translation by DeepL)

In contrast [to the mass organisations], joining a bloc party was usually a deliberate or purposeful step by which the individual made a conscious political decision and clearly set himself apart from others...By becoming a member of a bloc party, one was able to set certain accents of one's own - even if often only minor ones - at the local level and to use the protective function of the bloc parties as "political niches". The majority of CDU and LDPD members developed in many respects routine evasion mechanisms in the face of permanent ideological indoctrination attempts. In this respect, formal proof of loyalty to the state by joining a bloc party must not be equated indiscriminately with proof of real loyalty to the system of "real existing socialism".

Rather, one can rightly speak of system distance among many members of the bloc parties. Important reasons for joining the party for craftsmen and tradesmen, for example, were the exchange with like-minded people as well as practical life and professional help on the spot; in some places the granting of a business licence required membership in a block party (especially the LDPD). The block parties thus functioned as a kind of opinion forum and professional interest group for concrete individual problems. The decisive factor for many members was that by joining they could demonstrate the political commitment required by the SED for certain professional goals without having to join the SED itself. However, this usually prevented them from rising to top political offices and high management positions in the economy, state and society. In addition, members of block parties were generally excluded from employment in security-sensitive areas (e.g. officer ranks in the NVA; employment at SDAG Wismut). Even membership in the Betriebskampfgruppen was not possible until the late 1980s.

More details were discussed in a public hearing on 11.12.1992, the issue of membership was the topic of a presentation by Peter Joachim Lapp, Die Blockparteien und ihre Mitglieder.


It was asked in the comments whether this is a somewhat biased source, given that the majority parties in the Bundestag at that time had absorbed three of the four bloc parties?

Yes, but the work of the commission is generally held in higher regard than a good proportion of what has been published since. A lot of studies were financed by the Parteinahe Stiftungen of FDP and CDU. A bibliographical overview was published by the scientific services of the Bundestag in 2017. None of the central works listed there were available to me, so I rely on the quoted evaluation by Christoph Wunnicke:

Die Geschichte der Blockparteien ist nur unzureichend erforscht...Neben einigen Erinnerungsbänden ehemaliger Blockparteipolitiker sind Handbücher oder die Studien der Enquete-Kommission geeignete Werke, ein Grundverständnis für die Blockparteien zu entwickeln.

The history of the bloc parties has been insufficiently researched...Apart from a few volumes of memoirs by former block party politicians, handbooks or the studies of the Enquete Commission are suitable works for developing a basic understanding of the block parties.

Wunnicke also seems to be the best current source:

  • Die Blockparteien der DDR : Kontinuitäten und Transformation 1945 - 1990 / Christoph Wunnicke. Der Berliner Landesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der Ehemaligen DDR - Berlin, 2014 - 157 S.
    (Schriftenreihe des Berliner Landesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der Ehemaligen DDR ; 34) - ISBN 978-3-934085-39-8
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  • the granting of a business licence required membership in a block party - was business legal in the Communist DDR or is the meaning of the original German term less economic/capitalist?
    – Roger V.
    Sep 28, 2023 at 19:04
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    @RogerVadim Small businesses with less than 10 employees were possible, especially crafts like a bakery or services like a hairdresser. I think lawyers and what is called "freie Berufe" in Germany (professions that give counsel in a wide sense of the word) might also have been included. Note that for most of these businesses there was a certain pressure to organise themselves into cooperatives, but the stance on the usefullness of those changed over time.
    – ccprog
    Sep 28, 2023 at 22:36
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    ...The greatest hardship these businesses were under was that were outside the scope of the Planning Commission, which meant they were not allocated resources and raw materials in the Five Year Plans.
    – ccprog
    Sep 28, 2023 at 22:44
  • Might be a somewhat biased source though, given that the majority parties in the Bundestag at that time had absorbed three of the four bloc parties?
    – Jan
    Sep 29, 2023 at 10:00
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    @Jan See the edit for some remarks.
    – ccprog
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:49
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For practical matters and in East Germany, the benefits from being a member of a bloc party were actually not so different from being a member of the real ruling party.

Party membership (either in the ruling party or in a bloc party) was mainly seen as a way to show loyalty to the state and political system, and as such was useful if you wanted to pursue a career in areas such as administration, security, teaching, journalism, or law. Being a "good citizen" was important for a number of positions, and being in a party was one way of showing that you were such a citizen.

One such example is Stanislaw Tillich. head of the federal state Saxony from 2008 to 2017, who was mainly accused of opportunism when it turned out that he had been a bloc party member in the late 1980s.

An additional factor (which Tillich also hinted at) is that some people felt that being in a bloc party was not quite as bad as being in the actual ruling party. Per the article linked above: "In die Blockpartei CDU bin ich eingetreten, damit ich Ruhe vor der SED hatte"/"I joined the CDU bloc party so that the SED [i.e. the ruling party] would leave me alone."

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  • I'm not sure I understand. Your first paragraph suggests that being a member of a the ruling party had similar benefits/incentives to being a member of a bloc party. But the second paragraph suggests that being a member of a bloc party demonstrated subservience. That's.... counter intuitive, and the example you cite in the third and fourth paragraph seems to suggest a different outcome. Can you explain?
    – MCW
    Sep 27, 2023 at 12:14
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    @MCW the benefit is that it was easier to get into certain jobs that were deemed sensitive. Because you had shown your loyalty to the political system.
    – Jan
    Sep 27, 2023 at 12:21
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    @MCW If you fell out of favor with the party, you were an outcast. As a member of the party you were required to show consitant enthusiasm 24/7. Failure to do so had consequences. Since the bloc parties, in theory, were slightly different those with lesser acting capabilities joined the bloc parties where 110% loyality was not expected (98% was sufficient). That is the meaning of the last paragraph. Since the party controlled every aspect of society (jobs, accommodations, free time activities, vacation opportunities etc.) avoiding becoming an outcast was priority #1. Sep 27, 2023 at 14:54
  • @MCW Those deemed disloyal to the system (Klassenfeind) were prevented from benefiting from the system. Sep 27, 2023 at 14:55
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    Might there be a misunderstanding re. "ruling party" here? Officially, those bloc parties were part of a ruling coalition, but in practice it was the SED that was calling the shots. That is different from e.g. Russia or Iran today, where the different parties at least give the appearence of having different political opinions.
    – Jan
    Sep 28, 2023 at 12:56
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Perhaps not a complete answer, but to provide several considerations:

  • people simply could be ordered or paid to join the bloc party, the leaders of such a party could be even undercover members of secret services.
  • people could see it as a legal way to air their grievances and divergences with the governing party, and even obtain some concessions - without directly coming to power
  • people could be simply naïve

All these typically imply that the government (or the ruling party) does not have the full control and/or knowledge of possible opposition among the population, and tries to either let the people let the steam out, render the oppositional forces less powerful, harness them into collaboration or at least discover them. Indeed, compared to the iron fist with which the Soviet population was ruled, the Communist oppression in the rest of eastern Europe was relatively mild (I stress the world relatively, and I am not sure this applies to East Germany, whose government Gorbachev characterized as Stalinists just before the fall of the wall.)

One famous example is Zubatovschina - creation of police-sponsored trade-unions in Russia in the early XX-th century. Up to then the Czar's government treated any kind of assembly, association, organization, etc. as a political threat and used repressive measures to prohibit them (arrests, exiles, censorship, etc.) However, it was well understood that such measures did not reduce the underlying grievances, which could have eventually led to a spontaneous revolt - in fact the situation in Russia was rather similar to that in France a century earlier, in the years just before the French revolution. It was in this conditions that the government sanctioned police-sponsored trade unions - their activities were supposed to be limited to the economic disputes with the employers, that is not involving any political demands (like universal suffrage, transforming absolute monarchy into a constitutional one, etc.) Their open collaboration with police guaranteed that no such subversive activities would take place. (Some referred to this as "police socialism", since in a sense the government was supporting the workers in the disputes with the employers.)

In practice the idea didn't work as well as expected, due to a Charismatic union leader Father Georgy Gapon organizing a many-thousands-strong procession towards the Winter Palace (Czar's residence) with petition of mild but political nature (the petition followed a series of strikes). There exist contradictory accounts of what exactly happened: either poorly prepared police "accidentally" fired at the peaceful demonstrators or the crowd was too big and became uncontrolled, but several hundreds people were killed and the Russian revolution of 1905 had began. It would end about a year later, after thousands more deaths and major concessions by the Autocracy - notably the creation of the first Russian parliament, Duma - although mainly with consultative functions:

The October Manifesto, aside from granting the population the freedom of speech and assembly, proclaimed that no law would be passed without examination and approval by the Imperial Duma. The Manifesto also extended the suffrage to universal proportions, allowing for greater participation in the Duma, though the electoral law in 11 December still excluded women. Nevertheless, the tsar retained the power of veto.

In the photo: Father Gapon and General Fullon, the prefect of St. Petersbourg police, in a union meeting (image source.) enter image description here

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  • "accidentally fired"?
    – gerrit
    Sep 27, 2023 at 9:19
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    @gerrit without being ordered. When thousands of people are pressing against a row of soldiers such "accidents" do happen - it is sufficient for one soldier to get scared for their life. Note that in those times "deliberately" shooting at demonstrations was considered a normal practice and not only in Russia (at least in the period around 1848 revolutions and Paris Commune)
    – Roger V.
    Sep 27, 2023 at 9:32

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