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Michels, Robert

Michels, Robert

“Political Parties”

Other works

Assessment of Michel’s contributions

Studies inspired by Michels



Robert Michels (1876-1936) belongs to that generation of European sociologists which tried to apply the insights of the founders of sociology to the understanding of twentieth-century Western society. Michel’s standing in sociology is assured by his brilliant monograph Political Parties (1911 a), in which he formulated the problem of oligarchical tendencies in organizations. Like Schumpeter, Geiger, Mannheim, Lukacs, de Man, and Ortega, he grappled with the problems of democracy, socialism, revolution, class conflict, trade unionism, mass society, nationalism, and imperialism, and with the role of intellectuals and of elites. He dealt more extensively than did these contemporaries of his with the politics of the working class, and he studied some topics that interested them little, such as eugenics, feminism, sex, and morality. More passionately committed than they were, he found himself deeply involved in the ideological and national conflicts of his time, and his work probably suffered from this involvement.

Michel’s background was cosmopolitan: he was born in Cologne, into a bourgeois-patrician family with a German-French-Belgian background. He attended the Gymnasium in Berlin and, after serving in the army, studied in England and at the Sorbonne. He then went to Munich, where he attended lectures by the economist Lujo Brentano, and in 1897 he studied in Leipzig with Erich Brandenburg, Karl Lamprecht, and others. The following year he went to the University of Halle, studying with Michael Conrad and Hans Vaihinger and with Theodor Lindner, whose daughter he later married; in 1900 he completed his dissertation in history. Until World War i he was in close touch with the intellectual and political worlds of Belgium and France. Although he studied in England and taught in the United States, his interest in and understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world remained limited; his outlook was that of a continental European.

As a young Dozent at the University of Marburg, he became a socialist and participated in the Social Democratic party congresses of 1903, 1904, and 1905. He left the party in 1907 but attended the Stuttgart congress of that year as a delegate of the Italian Socialist party (he had become a libero docente at the University of Turin). A few months later he also resigned from the Italian Socialist party. Because of his socialist views, it was impossible for Michels to qualify for a position at a German university. Max Weber strongly deplored this stand on the part of the German universities and showed a great deal of personal interest in the young Michels. He admitted him to what he called the salon des refuses in Heidelberg, and in 1913 he asked Michels to become coeditor of the Archiv fèr Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitih. Weber surely made a profound impression on Michels. It was partly Weber’s influence and partly the security gained from his academic position at Turin that led Michels to shift from short and somewhat journalistic writings to more substantial publications in scholarly journals.

Michels described his own political evolution in an autobiographical essay, “Eine syndikalistisch gerichtete Unterstromung im deutschen Sozialismus” (1932a); he also recorded his perception of the external events of the first ten years of the twentieth century, in the introduction to the Italian edition of Political Parties. His political views were influenced by Arturo Labriola and Enrico Leoni, whom he met in 1902, and by the French syndicalists Georges Sorel, Hubert Lagardelle, Edouard Berth, Paul Delesalle, and Victor Griffuelhes, with whom he became increasingly friendly after 1904. Disturbed by the state of the labor movement, Michels was attracted to the idea of revitalizing it by fusing the ideas of Marx, Proudhon, and Pareto. In particular he deplored the way calculations of parliamentary advantage dominated party life and led to the abandonment of every vigorous idea and every energetic course of action. The contrast between the revolutionary statements that were made by the Social Democratic party in general and by August Bebel in particular and the cautious policy they actually pursued was brought home to him by the failure of the Ruhr strike in 1905 (Weber was also disturbed by this contrast). In a long and well-documented article (1907) Michels analyzed the socialist ideological position, particularly with respect to pacifism and the general strike to avert war; by a neat juxtaposing of texts, he made plain the extent to which radical statements and actual policy diverged.

Michels’ involvement in German politics provided him with insights for his critique of the Social Democratic party and of the trade unions. It is clear from his autobiography that his descriptions of the demagogic orator, of party congresses, of the characteristics required for leadership, and, especially, of the intellectual in politics and of the class renegade are largely based on his own experiences. But his involvement was not motivated solely by intellectual concerns; it was related to his love for passion, for action, for youth, for principle irrespective of consequences, and for symbolic gestures. Indeed, his early political stance—his intellectual evolution toward a voluntaristic outlook—was the basis of his later affinity with fascism. His political life seems discontinuous and inconsistent if Political Parties is read only as the work of a disappointed democrat or a disillusioned regular member of the Social Democratic party. In fact, the life of a syndicalist Michels makes more sense than that of a purely Marxist-socialist Michels.

Michels refused to support Germany in World War i, and this led to what must have been a painful break with Weber. In 1914 he moved to Basel, where he became professor of economics. In 1926 he taught a course in political sociology at the University of Rome. The following year he was a visiting professor in the United States, and after that he became professor of economics at the University of Perugia. He died in 1936 in Rome. His life was that of a romantic, a frustrated politician, a patriot of an adopted country, and a scholar; it reflected as have few others the conflicts of loyalty and the intellectual ambivalences of the first decades of the twentieth century.

“Political Parties”

In the years between 1906, when he first published in Weber’s Archiv, and 1910, when Political Parties was completed, Michels’ life contained elements that have often produced classic works: a deeply felt and probably painful personal experience—his involvement with the revolutionary cause and its interference with his academic career—and the impact of major intellectual figures, particularly Max Weber and Mosca. (Michels had become friendly with Mosca in Turin.)

The starting point of Michels’ classic study of political parties is the hypothesis that in organizations committed to the realization of democratic values there inevitably arise strong oligarchic tendencies, which present a serious if not insuperable obstacle to the realization of those values. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy” ([1911a] 1962, p. 15). Thus Michels summed up his famous “iron law of oligarchy.”

The nature of leadership

Michels was dissatisfied with “psychological” (i.e., motivational) explanations of the oligarchic tendencies in organizations. His whole analysis emphasized the constraints derived from organizational needs—the growth of the organization, the need to make rapid decisions, the difficulties of communicating with the members, the growth and complexity of the tasks, the division of labor, the need for full-time activity—and from the consequent processes of selection of leadership and development of knowledge and skills. These processes, in turn, lead to the emergence of stable leaders, whose professionalization, combined with their consciousness of their own worth, leads to oligarchy. The important point is that the leader’s deviation from norms they themselves accept is not the result of their motivation. The fact that conformity to certain norms may indirectly lead to deviation from other norms accepted by the same person has, of course, been emphasized by social scientists since Marx. Michels studied the special case of men who, despite their commitment to democracy, often acted in ways not conforming to their values because of the demands of organization and other factors of political life. While Michels often referred to the “psychological predispositions” of both the masses and the leaders, he saw these predispositions as fundamentally serving to rein-force or, occasionally, to weaken the organizational factors, even though at times they also seemed to him to function independently. Significantly, when he presented his theory schematically in a chart (1911 a, p. 382), he did not stress the manipulative or illegitimate actions of the leaders (which he discussed at length elsewhere in Political Parties)but concentrated instead on the factors influencing the active and effective participation of the members in decision making.

Leaders and followers

In organizations with formally democratic constitutions—such as the German working-class parties, which Michels examined closely—elections (and to a lesser extent referenda) determine who shall act in the name of the members. Elections presumably also assure the accountability of the leaders to the members. Michel’s concern in a large part of Political Parties is with the way the leaders take advantage of the incompetence and emotionality of their followers to hold on to power and become a de facto oligarchy. When they establish such an oligarchy, they are no longer willing to submit their power to free electoral confirmation.

In his later writings (1927a; 1933a) Michels made a virtue of what initially he had seen only as an iron law; he was carried away by his preference for decisive leadership and an elite unhampered by the “numerical maximum, mortal enemy to all freedom of program and thought” (1927 a, p. 765). By this time he saw no difference between elected representatives and charismatic leaders to whom the mass voluntarily sacrifices its will in conscious admiration and veneration (1928a, p. 291). Furthermore, he believed that “leaders never give up their power to the ‘mass’ but only to other, new leaders” (“die Führer weichen niemals der ‘Masse’ sondern immer nur anderen, neuen, Führern”; 1928a, p. 291).

He did not seem to realize that it does make a difference whether leaders are displaced by elections, in which the majority decides who shall lead, or by death or violent revolution. Furthermore, de facto oligarchy is not necessarily identical with de jure oligarchy, or dictatorship. The fact that de facto oligarchs need to manipulate their followers in the ways that Michels, Mosca, and Pareto described certainly makes “oligarchic” or corrupt democracies like Italy in the Giolittian period, from 1900 to 1914 very different from dictatorships like Italy under Mussolini. The inability of Michels to work out in his later writings a clear conception of the new elitist parties—the Fascists and the Bolsheviks—and his tendency to see them only as manifestations of the same general tendency to oligarchy are partly a result of this confusion.

Michels was not satisfied with electoral account-ability as a criterion of democracy; in fact, he considered this de jure aspect insignificant compared to the de facto circumstances that affect the electoral process. He therefore constantly returned to another dimension: the degree of responsiveness of (stable) leadership to the expectations and desires of the constituency. Presumably, if democratic leaders do not respond to the expectations and desires of their constituents, they will be defeated at the polls. Also, according to democratic theory, the wishes of the constituency will coincide with its interests, and democracy is the best way of assuring the satisfaction of those interests. Much of Political Parties, however, argues that leaders are responsive, not to the desires or interests of their constituents, but to the interests of the organization or to their own interests. (Michels noted perceptively that this identification is often unconscious.) This lack of responsiveness does not result, according to Michels, from a divergence between the interests of the leaders and those of their constituents but from the apathy and ignorance of the constituents—demonstrating what he called the in-competence of the masses—and from the general unwillingness of the leaders to overcome this passivity. (Only when new leaders challenge the old, raising real or spurious issues, are any attempts made to mobilize and inform the constituency.)

In his discussion of the responsiveness of the leadership to its followers, Michels was only dimly aware of what Carl Friedrich has called the “rule of anticipated reactions”: when leaders have neither the time nor the technical means to ascertain the wishes of their constituency, or when those wishes have not crystallized, the leaders are generally guided by some sense of what their constituents’ desires might be. This capacity to anticipate is characteristic of any leadership, but especially of democratic leadership.

Another dimension constantly present in Michel’s analysis, as in all discussions of oligarchy and democracy, is the nature of the responsibility of the leaders to their followers: are leaders responsible only to their constituency, or are they responsible also to the larger whole of which their constituency is a part? are they responsible to the party membership or to the electorate? The problem of responsibility to a larger unit—the society as a whole—rather than to a particular constituency becomes especially acute when a party is in power, rather than in the opposition; this was a problem socialist leaders had not faced at the time Political Parties was written.

Party ideology and party policy

Michels was much concerned with two questions (which are somewhat confused in his brilliant chapter “The Conservative Basis of Organization”): can a revolutionary party follow a revolutionary policy? and can a democratic party follow a democratic policy? He felt that the answer to the first question is clearly negative if a revolutionary party hopes to achieve its goals by obtaining an electoral majority. To the question about democratic parties, his answer was less clear-cut. While he did assert that “within certain narrow limits, the Democratic Party, even when subject to oligarchic control, can doubtless act upon the state in the democratic sense” ([1911a] 1962, p. 333), he also tended to argue that if democratic parties are not internally democratic, then democracy is impossible. Lipset (1962) and Sartori (1960) have pointed out, however, that competition between parties makes the politically “organized” minority (within each party) dependent at times and to a degree on the “nonorganized” majority. This competition assures the citizen of a degree of participation and power.

Michels conceived of an ideal party as a purely ideological group, open only to those who share the goals of the founding members and identify their interests with the original conception of the interests of the group. According to Michels, the sole cause of deviation from party ideology is oligarchy. It is in the nature of oligarchy to sacrifice ideological purity to the methodical organization of the masses for electoral victory.

By such methods, not merely does the party sacrifice its political virginity, by entering into promiscuous relationships with the most heterogeneous political elements, relationships which in many cases have disastrous and enduring consequences, but it exposes itself in addition to the risk of losing its essential character as a party. The term “party” presupposes that among the individual components of the party there should exist a harmonious direction of wills towards identical objectives and practical aims. Where this is lacking, the party becomes mere “organization.” ([1911a] 1962, p. 341)

The contrast between the party as an ideologically pure expression of interests (Michels had in mind primarily class interests) and the reality of modern mass parties is in many ways similar to that between sect and church in the sociology of religion of Ernst Troeltsch. Just as Troeltsch identified primitive Christianity with a sectlike conception, so did Michels identify the early socialist party with an ideal party.

Michel’s ideal party is elitist—a group sharing a commitment to an ideological understanding of class interest. His conception did not encompass either organizations with specific substantive goals or modern mass parties. Lipset and Sartori have noted that the more specific the substantive goal of an organization, the more difficult it may be to find commitment to a procedural goal, such as democracy. The narrower the substantive goals, the less likely it is that the members have either the need or the time to participate and influence policy. This would explain why there is less democracy in trade unions than in parties. As for mass democratic parties, Michels believed that since these are “open” and do not require a declaration of faith in party principles, they cannot be “true” parties. He accurately pinpointed the open quality of modern parties as one of their basic characteristics, but his indignation at some of the consequences of this phenomenon prevented him from analyzing it and seeing that it is inevitable, given a society that has moved from closed and established status groups to voluntary, open organizations that compete for power in a system of universal suffrage.

Characteristics of oligarchy

Michels used the term “oligarchy” or “oligarchic tendency” to cover several aspects of political behavior that are conceptually quite distinct and that may or may not coexist in organizations, parties, or trade unions: (1) the emergence of leadership; (2) the emergence of professional leadership, and its stabilization; (3) the formation of a bureaucracy, that is, an appointed, regularly paid staff with distinct duties; (4) the centralization of authority; (5) the displacement of goals, particularly the shift from ultimate goals (e.g., achieving a socialist society) to instrumental goals (i.e., perpetuating the organization ): with the growth of “conservative tendencies” in revolutionary parties, the survival of the organization takes precedence over the revolution itself, and increased emphasis is placed on satisfying the immediate needs of the members, through such activities as collective bargaining or participation in municipal government (“reformism”); and the addition of goals (e.g., ameliorating the condition of the working class); (6) increased ideological rigidity—conservatism, in the sense of adherence to policies and ideas that have been rendered obsolete by changed circumstances, and intolerance toward attempts to revise such policies or ideas; (7) the growing difference between the interests and/or points of view of the leaders and of the members, and the precedence of the leaders’ interests over those of the members; (8) the decrease in the members’ opportunities to participate in policy decisions, even when they are willing to participate; (9) the co-optation of emergent opposition leaders by the existing leadership; (10) the “omnibus” tendency of parties, the shift from appeals to the membership to appeals to the electorate and from appeals to a class electorate to appeals to a broader electorate—such shifts may produce a more moderate program, while opposition as a matter of principle is replaced by competition with other parties, and disloyal opposition to the social and political system is replaced by loyal opposition and even by participation in governing.

While the first nine of these characteristics may be found in very different types of organizations, the tenth is valid only for revolutionary parties or for organizations in a “democratically competitive political system” (and perhaps particularly in its parliamentary variety).

If, as the list suggests, the label “oligarchic tendencies” is used to cover so many different things, it becomes quite meaningless. Such critics as Cassinelli (1953) and Dahl (1958) therefore have tried to define the meaning of “oligarchy”—or of related concepts, like “ruling class”— in more precise and operational terms. They have also endeavored to show that some of the processes may be independent, rather than closely linked. Finally, they feel it is essential to clarify which of these tendencies are inherently incompatible with democracy and which can coexist with it.

Many factors favoring oligarchy seem to be especially characteristic of working-class organizations. In such organizations it is difficult for leaders to return to manual work in the factory after assuming leadership that implies a middle-class position; also, the workers’ lack of education, their limited access to information, their frequent apathy, together with their predisposition to authoritarian attitudes, all contribute to the development of oligarchy. Evidence of such “oligarchic” tendencies in organizations with equalitarian, democratic, even revolutionary, ideology is nevertheless not proof of the validity of the iron law of oligarchy in all organizations.

Other works

In 1908 Michels published II proletariato e la borghesia nel movimento socialista italiano (1908a), a work which he hoped would contribute to what is today called political sociology. Its content is similar to that of recent books in this field: discussions of the social composition of the Socialist party in parliament, of delegates to party congresses, of candidates in municipal elections, and of local party organizations, followed by an ecological analysis of electoral participation and of Socialist strength in the electorate. Michels was particularly original in his attempt to sketch what we would now call the “political culture” of Italy in general and, specifically, that of the working class, making constant comparisons between Italian and German society. His combination of structural and psychological perspectives in this part of the book still stands as an example to sociologists who analyze the relationships between classes and the political manifestations of these relationships. The last part of the book is devoted to syndicalist currents and to comparisons between Italy and France. The discussion of the role of intellectuals in political parties, particularly in working-class parties, is linked with an analysis of the Italian occupational and academic structure.

In the same year that Political Parties was published, there also appeared Michel’s Die Grenzen der Geschlechtsmoral (1911b). Such subjects as feminism, the female worker, sexual morality in different societies, and birth control had always interested him; many years later, in 1928, he published a book, Sittlichkeit in Ziffern? (1928b), presenting the available statistical data on various aspects of sex and family life and social deviance.

L’imperialismo italiano (1912) is concerned with the violent upheavals the Tripoli war of 1911–1912 (in which Italy took several coastal cities and towns from the Turks) produced in Italian values. (The war led to a crisis in Michel’s life, which he described in the introduction.) In the book, he dealt with the suffering caused by war, the moral impact of war propaganda, and the sacrifice of long-held values to rhetorical appeals, as well as with the failure to see the similarity between the motives of the Arabs defending their homeland and those of the fighters for the Risorgimento. He interpreted Italian imperialism partly in politico-psychological terms but mainly as resulting from demographic pressure and from the social and cultural loss due to overseas migration. Thus, he asserted that the imperialismo della povera gente was qualitatively different from the imperialism of other nations.

In the 1920s and early 1930s he produced a number of books and many articles, dealing with nationalism, Italian socialism and fascism, elites and social mobility, the role of intellectuals, the history of the social sciences, and other subjects not so closely related to his central interests. “Psychologic der antikapitalistischen Massenbewegungen” (1925a) remains one of the most interesting and well-documented systematic treatments of working-class protest. He often returned to the problem of oligarchy and democracy (1927a; 1928a; 1933a) but added little to the original formulation of 1911; his writings merely became more antidemocratic in tone as a result of his tendency to see the new totalitarian parties as confirmation of his iron law of oligarchy.

Assessment of Michel’s contributions

The chief basis of Michel’s work, in addition to his personal experience, was secondary sources and contemporary accounts from magazines and news-papers. In many cases he did not analyze these secondary materials in a systematic way, and he never made an effort to develop a new methodology. His lack of sustained effort in the collecting of data and his reliance on scattered, piecemeal information gathered by others deprive his works of the unity characteristic of good monographs and of great books based on a single theme, although they often contain much valuable information.


At the time that he wrote, Michel’s work was not unique; a number of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors had formulated some of the same ideas and expressed similar sentiments. In footnotes, dedications, and later writings, he acknowledged the influence of, and intellectual affinity with, Mosca, Ostrogorskii, and Bryce; these men, in turn, acknowledged the coincidence of views.

Like his immediate predecessors—Sorel, Pareto, Mosca, and Weber—Michels challenged the prevalent democratic and socialist climate of opinion. But his basic confrontation was with Marx. Thus, he wrote:

. . . the defects of Marxism are patent directly as we enter the practical domains of administration and public law, without speaking of errors in the psychological field and even in more elementary spheres. . . . The problem of socialism is not merely a problem in economics. In other words, socialism does not seek merely to determine to what extent it is possible to realize a distribution of wealth which shall be at once just and economically productive. Socialism is also an administrative problem, a problem of democracy, and this not in the technical and administrative sphere alone, but also in the sphere of psychology. [1911a] 1962, pp. 349, 350)

In underlining the sociopsychological aspects of political behavior—the problem of power and its abuse; the susceptibility of the masses, particularly of the lower classes, to charismatic appeals; and the importance of organization and its constraints in fostering oligarchic and dictatorial tendencies—Michels was trying to break away from the vulgarMarxists, who saw the economic structure (of capitalism) only as a restriction of freedom.

Viability of democracy

Michels—views on democracy have been the subject of much discussion. Mosca (1912) presented Michels as an ademocratic theorist; others have gone further, arguing that his later writings and his attitude toward fascism provide evidence that he was actually anti-democratic; and finally, some have attributed to him a positive appraisal of the compatibility of organization and democracy.

Such very different interpretations suggest two possibilities that are not mutually exclusive. First, Michels had, in fact, no clear-cut assessment of the viability of democracy, although his more ambitious formulations of the iron law of oligarchy suggest that his view was predominantly negative. Second, the commentators do not have in mind the same problems Michels did. In common with many intellectuals, Michels tended to define democracy in terms of what he considered favorable to the interests of the people, and he concluded that if the people express preferences for, support, or acquiesce in policies not compatible with their interests, this must be the result of oligarchic manipulations. To some he has therefore appeared as a disappointed democrat whose disillusionment ultimately led him to adopt an ademocratic and even antidemocratic elitist stance (see May 1965).

Studies inspired by Michels

Michel’s theories have inspired considerable empirical research intended to support, specify, or challenge them. Much of that research has been done in Anglo-Saxon countries or by scholars trained there. The recent interest in general theories of organization, concerned with such processes as bureaucratization, goal displacement, and cooptation—as distinct from a concern with specific groups, like parties, unions, pressure groups, government agencies, and corporations—has also contributed to a renewed interest in Michels.

In this theoretical development Union Democracy, a study of the International Typographical Union (I.T.U.) by Lipset, Trow, and Coleman (1956), has had a central place. Alone among American unions the I.T.U. has had, for over fifty years, a functioning two-party system at the national level. Its history seems to show that Michel’s iron law of oligarchy is not, after all, universal: if even one exception can be found, there may be others. The study seeks to explain how the I.T.U. has maintained a system of democratic self-government. By examining the processes that have maintained democracy in a small society, the authors hoped to illuminate the relevant processes in the larger society.

Although Union Democracy represents an important challenge to Michel’s ideas, a large number of studies of secular and religious organizations have confirmed Michel’s theories, discovering processes similar to those he described. Thus, Harrison has shown (1959) that the American Baptist Convention, which is committed to the independence of its local churches and to the advisory nature of its larger organization, clearly manifests oligarchic tendencies. The growth of the organization and the increased complexity of tasks, the lack of means to ascertain the sentiments of the members on issues not directly relevant to them, specialization in pastoral work, the indifference of many of those concerned with organizational goals—all strengthen the leadership and increase its independence.

The recent literature on political parties has also been influenced by Michels— early classic. The basic books by Maurice Duverger (1951) and Sigmund Neumann (1956) have summarized and taken issue with it, while stressing its pathbreaking character. Monographic studies by Robert T. McKenzie (1955), Renate Mayntz (1959), and Samuel J. Eldersveld (1964) have been explicitly directed to the questions Michels raised. Although Eldersveld, on the basis of careful research, challenged Michels—thesis, research on political parties generally confirms Michels—observation that they are less oligarchic than single-purpose organizations concerned with more technical problems.


[See alsoDemocracy; Elites; Oligarchy; Parties, Political.Other relevant material may be found in Leadership; Organizations; Political Sociology; Social Movements; Voluntary Associations; and in the biographies of Bryce; Mosca; Ostrogorskii; Pareto; Sorel; Weber, Max.]


1905–1906 Proletariat und Bourgeoisie in der sozialistischen Bewegung Italiens: Studien zu einer Klassenund Berufsanalyse des Sozialismus in Italien. Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 21:347–416; 22:80–125, 424–466, 664–726.

1906 Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie: I. Parteimitgliedschaft und soziale Zusammensetzung. Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 23:471–556.

1907 Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie im internationalen Verbande: Eine kritische Untersuchung. Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 25:148–231.

1908a II proletariate e la borghesia nel movimento socialista italiano: Saggiodi scienza sociografico-politica. Turin: Bocca.

1908b Die oligarchischen Tendenzen der Gesellschaft: Ein Beitrag zum Problem der Demokratie. Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 27:73–135.

1908c Le syndicalisme et le socialisme en Allemagne. Pages 21–28 in Syndicalisme et socialisme. Edited by Hubert Lagardelle. Paris: Riviére.

(1911a) 1962 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. With an introduction by Seymour M. Lipset. New York: Free Press. → First published as Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. The 1911 German edition and the Italian translations include a graphic schema of Michel’s theory, not included in the English editions.

1911b Die Grenzen der Geschlechtsmoral: Prolegomena, Gedanken und Untersuchung en. Grünwald: Frauenverlag.

(1912) 1914 L’imperialismo italiano: Studi politicodemografici. Rev. … enl. ed. Milan: Societa Editrice Libraria. First published in German.

1914 Probleme der Sozialphilosophie. Leipzig: Teubner. 1922 La teoria di C. Marx sulla miseria crescente e le sue origini: Contributo alla storia delle dottrine economiche. Turin: Bocca.

1924a Elemente zur Soziologie in Italien. Kolner Vierteljahrshefte fur Soziologie 3:219–249.

1924b Lavoro e razza. Milan: Vallardi.

1925a Psychologie der antikapitalistischen Massenbewegungen. Section 9, part 1, pages 241–359 in Grundriss der Sozialokonomik. Tübingen: Mohr.

1925b; Nachtrag zu Robert Michel’s Aufsatz: Elemente zur Soziologie in Italien. Kolner Vierteljahrshefte fur Soziologie 4:331 only.

1925c Sozialismus in Italien: Intellektuelle Stromungen. Munich: Meyer … Jessen.

1925d Sozialismus und Fascismus in Italien. Munich: Meyer … Jessen.

1926 Soziologie als Gesellschaftswissenschaft. Lebendige Wissenschaft, Vol. 4. Leipzig: Körner.

(1927a) 1949 The Sociological Character of Political Parties. Pages 134–155 in Robert Michels, First Lectures in Political Sociology. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. → First published in Volume 21 of the American Political Science Review.

1927b; Bedeutende Manner: Charakterologische Studien.

Leipzig: Quelle … Meyer. → Biographical studies of Bebel, de Amicis, Lombroso, Schmoller, Max Weber, Pareto, Sombart, W. Miiller—seven of whom Michels knew personally.

(1927–1936) 1949 First Lectures in Political Sociology. Translated with an introduction by Alfred de Grazia. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. → Includes a translation of Corso di sociologia politica.

1928a Grundsatzliches zum Problem der Demokratie. Zeitschrift fur Politik 17:289–295.

1928b Sittlichkeit in Ziffern? Kritik der Moralstatistik. Munich: Duncker … Humblot.

1928c Die Verelendungs-theorie: Studien und Untersuchungen zur internationalen Dogmengeschichte der Volkswirtschaft. Leipzig: Kroner. → An excellent scholarly study of the historical development of the idea of immiserization.

1929 Der Patriotismus: Prolegomena zu seiner soziologischen Analyse. Munich: Duncker → Humblot.

1930a Authority. Volume 2, pages 319–321 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1930b Italien von heute: Politische und wirtschaftliche Kulturgeschichte von 1860 bis 1930. Zurich: Fiissli.

(1931) 1949 Patriotism. Pages 156–166 in Robert Michels, First Lectures in Political Sociology. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. → First published in Handworterbuch der Soziologie.

1932a Eine syndikalistisch gerichtete Unterstromung im deutschen Sozialismus (1903–1907). Pages 343– 364 in Festschrift für Carl Grünberg zum 70. Geburtstag. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

1932b Intellectuals. Volume 8, pages 118–126 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1933a Studi sulla democrazia e sull’autoritd. Perugia, Universita, Facolta Fascista di Scienze Politiche, Collana di Studi Fascisti, 24–25. Florence: “La Nuova Italia.”

1933b Historisch-kritische Untersuchungen zum politischen Verhalten der Intellektuellen. Schmollers Jahrbuch fur Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reiche 57:807–884.

1934 Umschichtungen in den herrschenden Klassen nach dem Kriege. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.


Bukharin, Nikolai I. (1921) 1965 Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. Translated from the 3d Russian edition. New York: Russell. → First published as Teoriia istoricheskogo materializma.

Burnham, James (1943) 1963 The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom. Chicago: Regnery.

Cassinelli, C. W. 1953 The Law of Oligarchy. American Political Science Review 47:773–784.

Dahl, Robert A. 1958 Critique of the Ruling Elite

Model. American Political Science Review 52:463–469.

Duverger, Maurice (1951) 1962 Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. 2d English ed., rev. New York: Wiley; London: M thuen. → First published in French.

Eldersveld, Samuel J. 1964 Political Parties: A Behavioral Analysis. Chicago: Rand McNally. GOULDNER, ALVIN W. 1955 Metaphysical Pathos and the Theory of Bureaucracy. American Political Science Review 49:496–507.

Harrison, Paul M. 1959 Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition: A Social Case Study of the American Baptist Convention. Princeton Univ. Press.

Linz, Juan J. 1966 Michels eil suo contributo alia sociologia politica. Pages vii-cxiii in Robert Michels, La sociologia del partito politico nella democrazia moderna. Bologna: Carlino.

Lipset, Seymour M. (1954) 1960 The Political Process in Trade-unions. Pages 357–397 in Seymour M. Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1962 Introduction. Pages 15–39 in Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Free Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 The Biography of a Research Project: Union Democracy. Pages 96–120 in Phillip E. Hammond (editor), Sociologists at Work: Essays on the Craft of Social Research. New York: Basic Books.

Lipset, Seymour M.; Trow, Martin A.; and Coleman,

James S. 1956 Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union. Glencoe, III.; Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Doubleday.

Mckenzie, Robert T. (1955) 1963 British Political Parties: The Distribution of Power Within the Conservative and Labour Parties. 2d ed. New York: St. Martins.

May, John D. 1965 Democracy, Organization, Michels. American Political Science Review 59:417–429. → One of the most important studies of Michel’s work.

Mayntz, Renate 1959 Parteigruppen in der Grossstadt: Untersuchungen in einem Berliner Kreisverband der CDU. Cologne: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Mommsen, Wolfgang 1959 Max Weber und die deutsche Politik, 1890–1920. Tubingen: Mohr.

Mosca, Gaetano (1912) 1949 La sociologia del partito politica nella democrazia moderna. Pages 26–36 in Gaetano Mosca, Partiti e sindicati nella crisi del regime parlamentaro. Bari: Laterza. → A review of Michel’s Political Parties. First published in Volume 1 of II pensiero moderno.

Neumann, Sigmund (editor) 1956 Modern Political Parties: Approaches to Comparative Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Nipperdey, Thomas 1961 Die Organisation der deutschen Parteien vor 1918. Diisseldorf: Droste. Perugia, Universita, Facolta DI Giurisprudenza 1937 Studi in memoria di Roberto Michels. Annali, Vol. 49. Padua: CEDAM. → Contains a bibliography of Michel’s writings on pages 37–76.

Ritter, Gerhard A. 1959 Die Arbeiterbewegung im Wilhelminischen Reich: Die Sozialdemokratische Partei und die freien Gewerkschaften, 1890–1900. Berlin (West Berlin) Freie Universitat, Friedrich Meinecke Institut, Studien zur Europaischen Geschichte, No. 3. Berlin-Dahlem: Colloquium Verlag.

Roth, Guenther 1963 The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany: A Study in Working-class Isolation and National Integration. Totowa, N.J.: Bedminster Press.

Sartori, Giovanni 1960 Democrazia, burocrazia e oligarchia nei partiti. Rassegna di sociologia 1:119–136. Sartori, Giovanni (1962) 1965 Democratic Theory.

New York: Praeger. → Based on the author’s translation of his Democrazia e definizione (1957).

Schorske, Carl E. 1955 German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism. Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. 65. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1942) 1950 Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 3d ed. New York: Harper; London: Allen … Unwin. → A paperback edition was published by Harper in 1962.

Weber, Max 1905 Bemerkungen im Anschluss an den vorstehenden Aufsatz. Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 20:550–553. → Comments on the article “Die soziale Zusammensetzung der sozialdemokratischen Wahlerschaft Deutschlands,” by R. Blank.

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Michels, Robert

Michels, Robert 1876-1936


Robert Michels was a German sociologist born in Cologne. His major work was Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie (1911), published in 1915 in the United States under the name Political Parties. While Michels wrote hundreds more works (most of which are obscure articles published by various socialist groups during the early 1900s), only Political Parties is still highly regarded today. In this book, Michels formulated his famous iron law of oligarchy.

During his early life, Michels came under the influence of French culture, which later seems to have had an impact on his writings. He was educated in Paris, Munich, Leipzig, and Halle, where he received his PhD. Around this time, he became involved with the German Social Democratic Party, which he joined in 1903. Because of his socialist activities, he was not allowed to teach history in German universities when he first began his career. Michels wrote close to two hundred articles between 1901 and 1907, many of which criticize the socialist parties to which he belonged. Michels argued that these parties were failing to accomplish the goals of socialism, and, while he was an active member at various points in his life, he felt that these shortcomings kept socialists from achieving any real change in society. Michels is characterized (as were most of his writings) as a syndicalist. In other words, he subscribed to the revolutionary idea that workers could seize both the economy and the government in order to further their interests. His beliefs were heavily influenced by Marxism, but also by Max Weber (18641920), with whom he corresponded regularly.

Near the end of his life, Michels became disillusioned with socialist politics and many of the foundational ideas upon which his works were written. Having resigned from both the German and Italian socialist parties by 1907, he continued to teach at the university level until 1928. Then, at the invitation of Benito Mussolini (18831945), he moved to Italy where he became an apologist for fascism. He died in 1936, after receiving chairs at the universities of Perugia and Rome.

Political Parties was first published in German in 1911. Within four years, it had been translated into French, Italian, and English. Michelss major theory in the book, the iron law of oligarchy, caused considerable scholarly debate because Michels failed to provide an exact definition of either the theory or the terms oligarchy or organization. On the most basic level, the theory holds that as groups begin to formally organize, they move toward oligarchy as a result of a number of technical and psychological factors. Oligarchy develops because organization prevents the masses from participating in decision making, and creates a need for specialized positions that not everyone is able to fill, as well as a leadership whose will and desires are easily fulfilled by the organization without input from others. Michels contends that this situation leads to a paradox because, although organization is necessary to achieve democracy, the organization that is essential to democracy also creates its antitype, oligarchy.

Political Parties had a significant impact on the research of social scientists, especially in the United States during the mid-1900s when Michelss book experienced a revival among political scientists. At the same time, however, this renewed interest outside the context of the original writing led to much debate over the books original intent. Michelss writings cannot be divorced from his experiences with the socialist parties of Italy and Germany and his desire for them to achieve democracy in those two countries, as well as his eventual disillusionment with them.

SEE ALSO Fascism; Mussolini, Benito; Oligarchy; Oligarchy, Iron Law of; Sociology, Political; Syndicalism


Cassinelli, C. W. 1953. The Law of Oligarchy. The American Political Science Review 47 (3): 773784.

Cook, Philip J. 1971. Robert Michelss Political Parties in Perspective. The Journal of Politics 33 (3): 773796.

May, John D. 1965. Democracy, Organization, Michels. The American Political Science Review 59 (2): 417429.

Michels, Robert. [1915] 1968. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. 2nd ed. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.

Mitzman, Arthur. 1973. Sociology and Estrangement: Three Sociologists of Imperial Germany. New York: Knopf.

Thomas K. Bias

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Robert Michels

Robert Michels

The German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936) wrote on the political behavior of intellectual elites and on the problem of power and its abuse.

Robert Michels was born on Jan. 9, 1876, in Cologne. He studied in England, at the Sorbonne in Paris, and at universities in Munich, Leipzig (1897), Halle (1898), and Turin.

While teaching at the University of Marburg, Michels became a Socialist. He was active in the radical wing of the German Social Democratic party and attended its party congresses in 1903, 1904, and 1905. Although he left the party in 1907, government opposition to his activities limited his academic career in Germany. He went to the University of Turin, Italy, where he taught economics, political science, and sociology until 1914, when he became professor of economics at the University of Basel, Switzerland, a post he held until 1926. He spent his last years in Italy as professor of economics and the history of doctrines at the University of Perugia and occasionally lectured in Rome, where he died on May 3, 1936.

Michels's involvement in German revolutionary causes gave him insights into trade unions, party congresses, demagogues, and the role of the intellectual in politics. His widely translated book Political Parties (German ed. 1911; English ed. 1949) is an analysis of prewar socialism in Germany, with examples also drawn from political protest movements in France, Italy, England, and the United States. In this and other writings he developed the hypothesis that organizations formed to promote democratic values inevitably develop a strong oligarchic tendency. His view on the nature of leadership was that, despite the original commitment to democracy, the demands of the organization compel the leader to rely on a bureaucracy of paid professional staff and to centralize authority. This process causes displacement of the original democratic goals by a conservative tendency to retain power at all costs as well as an unwillingness to have that power challenged by free elections. Michels called this theory the "iron law of oligarchy," He is criticized for failing to define "oligarchy," which some of his adherents have equated with the term "ruling class."

Michels compared working-class societies in Germany, Italy, and France and wrote about the political culture of Italy. He analyzed the Tripolitan War of 1911-1912 in terms of the suffering it caused and the impact of war propaganda. Italian imperialism, he believed, resulted from demographic pressure and from the social and cultural loss caused by overseas migration. His writings in the 1920s and 1930s dealt with nationalism, Italian socialism and fascism, elites and social mobility, the role of intellectuals, and the history of the social sciences. He often returned to the problem of oligarchy and democracy. Some critics describe him as a disappointed democrat whose disillusionment led him to an elitist point of view and made him comfortable with Italian fascism.

Further Reading

Seymour M. Lipset's introduction to Michels's Political Parties (1962) discusses the sociologist's work. Michels figures in general works on sociology, such as James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943), which contains a chapter on his work, and Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966). □

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Michels, Robert

Michels, Robert (1876–1936) A German sociologist and economist who wrote on a wide range of issues including nationalism, fascism, secularism, power, élites, intellectuals, and social mobility. His is most famous for the study of the leadership of left-wing democratic parties to be found in Political Parties (1911).

With particular reference to the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Michels explored the role of political leaders in shaping demands and aspirations, and in mobilizing popular support for Party initiatives. He was particularly interested in the ways in which organizational dynamics inhibit the realization of radical objectives. He concluded that all organizations have oligarchical tendencies, a proposition which he formulated as an ‘iron law of oligarchy’, which states that ‘it is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organizations says oligarchy.’ According to Michels, as a political party grows and becomes more bureaucratic, it is increasingly dominated by officials who are committed to internal organizational goals rather than social change, and by middle-class intellectuals who pursue their own personal objectives which are usually different from those of the party rank-and-file. He also noted the process of embourgeoisement within parties, as working-class leaders become more middle-class as a result of social mobility, and so less committed to radical objectives. As a consequence, even in democratically governed organizations, a schism develops between the rulers and the ruled. Organizational procedures are often employed to stifle popular initiatives. Michels championed more heroic, principled forms of leadership, which would withstand incorporation. He was highly critical of political compromise.

Empirical researchers of Michels's iron law have found it difficult to demonstrate that the institutionalization of radical parties is in fact the product of the embourgeoisement of their leaders. It has also been argued that Michels's theory may have been valid for the early period of the development of socialist parties in Europe, and as a description of the élitist tendencies of the Bolshevik Party which sponsored a form of bureaucratic domination in Russia, but that the theory has since been undermined by widespread awareness of the dangers of oligarchy itself. A host of other processes have also intervened to create revisionist rather than revolutionary left-wing parties. Michels's theory has also been applied to trade unions, and used to explore the way in which, as organizations, they have become ends in themselves rather than a means to an end. Much of this secondary literature is summarized in Seymour Martin Lipset 's ‘Introduction’ to the English-language translation of Political Parties (1962)

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