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Mosca, Gaetano

Mosca, Gaetano

The theory of the ruling class

Reception of Mosca’s work



Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), Italian political scientist, was born in Palermo, Sicily. He took his law degree there in 1881 with the thesis I fattori della nazionalità. The thesis foreshadows some of the characteristics of Mosca’s later writings: his detachment from the ideological climate of the risorgimento and his lively sense of history, which acted as a corrective to his strongly positivistic approach.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which Mosca’s conceptual approach was influenced by the Sicilian environment of his youth. Sicily was, both socially and politically, the most backward region of Italy, and the introduction of representative government had, if anything, aggravated the political problems of the South. Hence, such diverse scholars as Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, and William Salomone, an American historian, have attributed to Mosca’s Sicilian background his hostility toward democratic ideology and the parliamentary system, which was so evident in his first major work, the Teorica del governi e governo parlamentare (1884; “On the Theory of Governments and Parliamentary Government”). The book is an outburst against contemporary Italian political life, which, Mosca alleged, had become arbitrary and corrupt as a necessary consequence of popular sovereignty. Such antiparliamentary polemics were common in Europe at the time; in Italy, however, feelings on this score were particularly intense because the difficulties of an enfeebled regime were exacerbated by problems created by the risorgimento. Mosca’s criticism is, in part, simply an instance of the then prevailing antiparliamentarianism; but it stands apart because of its clear-cut distinction between the ideal of liberty on the one hand and the evils to the democratic “myth” on the other hand.

As an old man, Mosca used to blame certain failures in his early academic career on his denial of the principles of popular sovereignty and political representation. The fact is that he qualified to teach constitutional law very early—in 1885—but had no success in various competitions for fellowships for study abroad and for a chair of constitutional law. His writings during this period—e.g., his essay Le costituzioni moderne (1887; “Modern Constitutions”)—were entirely in the field of public law; in the absence of chairs of political science in Italy at the time, this was the discipline closest to his interests and the one in which he hoped to make his career. In 1887 Mosca’s setbacks at the universities led him to accept a position as editor of the proceedings of the Chamber of Deputies, a position he kept for ten years. It was, as he later said, an ideal observation post for a young man eager to understand the realities of politics. For most of that period he published little, but it must have been a time of intense study and meditation, decisive for the elaboration and ordering of his thought.

Basic to Mosca’s thought was the conviction that only the substitution of scientific truth (such as the doctrine of “ruling class”) for “metaphysical abstractions” (such as the democratic myth) would make it possible to purify and to heal political practice. His faith in the redeeming power of political science appears to have been fostered by the prevailing cultural atmosphere of his youth. At that time, in Italy as elsewhere, positivist philosophy was dominant, and Mosca believed he could transfer its inductive method from the study of nature to the study of human society.

The theory of the ruling class

Mosca’s ideas were first systematically presented in The Ruling Class (1896), the work that may be said to mark the birth of political science in Italy. Mosca was never to change basically the theory he presented at that time, although by 1923, when the second edition of the work appeared, his doctrine had been in many respects deepened and elaborated. The main outlines of the second edition of The Ruling Class may be summarized as follows.

Whatever the form of government, power is always in the hands of an organized minority, the “ruling class,” which has authority over the majority by virtue both of certain characteristics that vary according to the epoch and the situation and of the power derived from organization per se. In accordance with human nature, however, this ruling class always tries to justify its rule by a moral or legal principle, the “political formula,” which, however abstract, must be consonant with the conception of life of the community that is governed. The concept of the political formula not only makes Mosca’s theory a powerful tool for interpreting historical reality, in that the formula presumably reveals that reality, but also constitutes a reaffirmation of the value of consensus in the organization of the state.

As indicated by the title of Mosca’s programmatic lecture “II principio aristocratico ed il democratico nel passato e nell’avvenire” (1903; “The Aristocratic Principle and the Democratic One, in the Past and the Future”), he held that two opposite tendencies are inherent in society: the aristocratic tendency toward keeping power in the hands of the descendants of those who govern and the democratic tendency toward renewal by means of elements derived from the governed. (Mosca became involved in an acrimonious dispute with Pareto over the priority of the discovery of the concept of the circulation of elites; Mosca’s priority is now generally acknowledged.) Paralleling these tendencies are two principles, likewise opposed to each other: the “autocratic,” according to which authority is transmitted downward, and the “liberal,” by which authority is delegated from below. The two antitheses are independent and may coexist.

The theory acquires a tighter articulation by its distinction between two levels within the ruling class, with government proper being at one level, and at the other, lower level all the existing political forces. Finally, the theory is crowned by the concept of “juridical defense,” possible only when there exists a “balance of social forces” and therefore a government of law dispensing “relative justice” (Meisel 1958, p. 12). Juridical defense, that is, can be realized only when there is a plurality of forces, independent of and checking each other and sharing in the power of government [seeConstitutional Law].

Mosca’s use of the concept of juridical defense clearly warrants his being classified as a liberal (in the European sense of the term), for it introduces a value judgment on political systems: those political systems are better which guarantee greater respect for the “moral sense.” According to Meisel, what mattered to Mosca was less the substance of this moral sense than the existence of social mechanisms that allow it to flourish. These mechanisms are more likely to exist under conditions of political liberty. Moreover, a value judgment is also implied in the statement that an “open” ruling class is preferable to a “closed” one. By 1923 Mosca had in fact changed his position with regard to representative government, which he distinguished sharply from the parliamentary system (a degenerate form); he attributed to the representative system the highest degree of juridical defense ever attained in history [seeRepresentation].

It is not too clear how Mosca arrived at his theory of the ruling class and the political formula. It is known that from his boyhood he was an avid reader of history, and among historians there are, of course, some who more or less consciously realize that in human societies there is always a small group that does the actual governing. More specifically, it was Taine who influenced the development of Mosca’s thinking, by his antiegalitarianism and his concept of a bienfaisante aristocracy in particular and in general by the pessimistic view of humanity to which his interpretation of history and politics is closely linked.

When Mosca first presented it, the theory of the ruling class had no influence whatever, either as an instrument of historical interpretation or as a lever for a new discussion of the nature of politics; only later, as a result of Pareto’s writings, did the concept of a ruling minority take hold. Instead, Mosca’s trenchant criticism of the parliamentary system did have wide repercussions, and it has not unfairly been charged that, although he was a liberal, his attack on the institutions that represent historically the attempt to realize the liberal ideal actually helped to undermine liberty.

Reception of Mosca’s work

The Ruling Class did win for Mosca the chair of constitutional law at the University of Turin, where he remained until 1923. It is hard to say whether and to what extent the new environment influenced his subsequent political thinking. The intellectual atmosphere of Turin, more cosmopolitan than that of Rome, let alone Sicily, must surely have had an impact on him. Also, he came to know such outstanding men as the economist Luigi Einaudi, the ecclesiologist Francesco Ruffini, and the jurist and philosopher Gioele Solari, all of whom were then teaching at Turin and with whom he shared membership in the Liberal party. It was during the first part of his Turin period that Mosca seems to have become aware of the appeal that the doctrine of the political class had vis-à-vis the Marxist theory of the economic class.

Having reached high academic standing, Mosca went into active politics. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1908 and took his seat among the conservatives (in 1912 he voted against extension of the suffrage). From 1914 to 1916 he was undersecretary for the colonies, and in 1919 he became a senator. In his attitude toward fascism he was typical of many of the most prominent Italian liberals of the time: he moved from an initial position of benevolently suspended judgment, and even outspoken hope, to one of open opposition. The fascists, for their part, never claimed that their ideology was related to Mosca’s theories—as they did in the case of Pareto’s— although around 1930 some young fascist intellectuals did maintain that Mosca’s criticism of the majority principle and his vehement antiparliamentarianism entitled him to a prominent place among the ideological ancestors of fascism. They were, however, taking a one-sided view of Mosca’s theory, which, as has been noted, ultimately led to a liberal position, mainly via the conception of juridical defense but also via the acknowledgment of the value of an “open” ruling class. It should be remembered, however, that although the events of the time had some influence on Mosca’s formulation of a liberal position, he reached this position primarily by theoretical reasoning.

The new edition of The Ruling Class won for Mosca a call to the University of Rome in 1923, and there, from 1925 to 1933 (when he reached the mandatory retirement age), he occupied Italy’s first chair of the history of political institutions and doctrines. The lectures he delivered in Rome were published as the well-known Storia delle dottrine politiche (1932a), remembered especially for its affirmation of the interdependence of political practice and political ideas.

Although the 1923 edition of The Ruling Class was well received, Mosca’s doctrine continued to have little influence. In the case of Italy, at least, the reason for this was the predominance of the philosophy of idealism, which rejected the “generalizations” of the social sciences; although Mosca’s work had won the approval of Benedetto Croce, the leader of Italian idealism, this did not move others to penetrate the positivist surface of his thought. Michels was the only one who used Mosca’s theory of the ruling class, chiefly in his studies of the oligarchical structure of political parties. Not until after World War II did Mosca’s doctrine have some success, in part because enlarged cultural contacts required notice of the Marxist doctrine of classes. Special mention should be made of the revision of Mosca’s theories by Guide Dorso in Dittatura, classe politica e classe dirigente (1949), which evaluates the role of the masses in a new way. But it is especially in the United States, with its rich and deep-rooted tradition of research into the phenomena of association, that Mosca has received the attention he merits, from J. Burnham, J. H. Meisel, and others. Today in Europe as well, Mosca’s central idea is considered a basic concept and has become common intellectual property.

Mario Delle Piane

[See alsoElitesandOligarchyand the biographies ofMichels; Ostrogorskii; Pareto.]


1882 I fattori della nazionalità. Rivista europea 13, fasc. 4:703-720.

(1884) 1958 Teorica dei govern! e governo parlamentare. Pages 15–328 in Gaetano Mosca, Ciò che la storia potrebbe insegnare: Scritti di scienza politica. Milan: Giuffrè.

(1884-1941) 1958 Ciò che la storia potrebbe insegnare: Scritti di scienza politica. Milan: Giuffrè. → A commemorative volume.

(1887) 1958 Le costituzioni moderne. Pages 445–549 in Gaetano Mosca, Ciò che la storia potrebbe insegnare: Scritti di scienza politica. Milan: Giuffrè.

(1896) 1939 The Ruling Class (Elementi di scienza politica). New York: McGraw-Hill. → An abridged edition, entitled La classe politica, was published by Laterza in 1966.

(1903) 1949 II principio aristocratico ed il democratico nel passato e nell’avvenire. Pages 1-36 in Gaetano Mosca, Partiti e sindacati nella crisi del regime parlamentare. Bari: Laterza.

(1924) 1949 Lo stato-citté antico e lo stato rappresentativo moderno. Pages 37–60 in Gaetano Mosca, Partiti e sindacati nella crisi del regime parlamentare. Bari: Laterza.

(1932a) 1962 Storia delle dottrine politiche. 8th ed. Bari: Laterza. → First published as Lezioni di storia delle istituzioni e delle dottrine politiche.

(1932b) 1958 The Final Version of the Theory of the Ruling Class. Pages 382-391 in James H. Meisel, The Myth of the Ruling Class: Gaetano Mosca and the “Elite.” Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → First published as Chapter 40 of Lezioni di storia delle istituzioni e delle dottrine politiche.

Partiti e sindacati nella crisi del regime parlamentare. Bari: Laterza, 1949. → A posthumous volume, containing a large number of minor writings first published between 1897 and 1925.


Bobbio, Norberto 1960 Gaetano Mosca e la scienza politica. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Bobbio, Norberto 1962 Gaetano Mosca and the Theory of the Ruling Class. Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Rome, Quarterly Review 60:3-23.

Burnham, James 1943 Mosca: The Theory of the Ruling Class. Pages 79-115 in James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. New York: Day.

Caprariis, Vittorio de 1954 Profile di Gaetano Mosca. Mulino 3:343-364.

Cook, Thomas I. 1939 Gaetano Mosca’s The Ruling Class. Political Science Quarterly 54:442–447.

Croce, Benedetto (1923) 1947 Premessa. In volume 1 of Gaetano Mosca, Elementi di scienza politica. 4th ed. Bari: Laterza. → A book review of the 1923 edition of Mosca’s Elementi di scienza politica.

De Pietri-Tonelli, Alfonso 1935 Mosca e Pareto. Rivista internazionale di scienze sociali 43:468-493.

Delle Piane, Mario 1949 Bibliografia di Gaetano Mosca. Florence: La Nuova Italia. → A comprehensive and annotated list of Gaetano Mosca’s writings.

Delle Piane, Mario 1952 Gaetano Mosca: Classe politica e liberalismo. Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane. → Contains a large and up-to-date list of Mosca’s writings on pages 377-382.

Dorso, Guido 1949 Dittatura, classe politica e classe dirigente. Turin: Einaudi. → See especially pages 121-184 on “Classe politica e classe dirigente.”

Gramsci, Antonio 1949 Il risorgimento. Turin: Einaudi. → See especially page 59.

Hughes, H. Stuart 1954 Gaetano Mosca and the Political Lessons of History. Pages 146-167 in H. Stuart Hughes (editor), Teachers of History: Essays in Honor of Laurence Bradford Packard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Hughes, H. Stuart 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. New York: Knopf. → See especially pages 252-259.

Luciolli, Mario 1959 G. Mosca y el pensamento liberal. Santiago (Chile): Universidad de Chile, Institute de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas.

Malagodi, Giovanni F. 1928 Le ideologic politiche. Bari: Laterza. → See especially Chapter 6.

Meisel, James H. 1958 The Myth of the Ruling Class: Gaetano Mosca and the “Elite.” Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Meisel, James H. 1964 Mosca “transatlantico.” Cahiers Vilfredo Pareto 4:109-117.

Passerin D’EntrÈves, Alessandro 1959 Gaetano Mosca e la libertè. Politico 24:579-593.

Piovani, Pietro 1951 Momenti della filosofia giuridicopolitica italiana. Milan: Giuffrè. → See especially pages 97–143.

Runciman, W. G. 1963 Social Science and Political Theory. Cambridge Univ. Press. → See especially Chapter 4.

Salomons, Arcangelo William 1945 Italian Democracy in the Making: The Political Scene in the Giolittian Era, 1900-1914. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. → See especially Chapter 2.

Spitz, David (1949) 1965 Patterns of Anti-democratic Thought: An Analysis and a Criticism, With Special Reference to the American Political Mind in Recent Times. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press.

Vecchini, F. 1965 La pensée politique de Gaetano Mosca et ses différentes adaptations au cours du XXe siècle en Italic. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Dijon.

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Mosca, Gaetano

Mosca, Gaetano (1858–1941) An Italian political theorist and proponent of the theory of élite domination. In his most famous book The Ruling Class (1896), he argued that there are inevitably two classes of people, the rulers and the ruled. The former is a highly stable, privileged stratum, which enjoys wealth, power, and honour. In other words, he criticized Marxists who failed to explain the persistence of dominance, and liberals who assumed that the transition to industrial society would lead to the demise of rule by an élite separated from the masses.

While the ruling class may become heterogeneous as a result of increased social mobility and élite circulation, nevertheless, for Mosca it remains oligarchical. Even in communist societies, there is an organizational need for leadership, and in consequence élite dominance. Like Robert Michels, Mosca believed that liberal democracy was a sham, and its ideals could not be realized. It merely hides the inevitability of domination by the ruling élite. Mosca was particularly critical of the symbolic role of political leaders who convinced the masses to support them by means of various ‘political formulae’. Such self-justification perpetuates élite dominance. That said, he later acknowledged that industrial society consists of multiple social forces, at least some of which the ruling class must try to assimilate. These societies are not entirely closed where a range of interests must be accommodated: this hinders the development of an overly centralized bureaucracy. Mosca's theory has been difficult to substantiate—not least because his definition of the ruling class is rather vague (see J. H. Meisel ( ed.) , Pareto and Mosca, 1965
). See also ÉLITE THEORY.

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