Michels, Robert 1876-1936

views updated

MICHELS, Robert 1876-1936

PERSONAL: Born January 9, 1876, in Cologne, Germany; died May 3, 1936, in Rome, Italy. Education: Studied in England, at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, and at universities in Munich, Leipzig, Halle, Germany, and Turin, Italy.

CAREER: Sociologist and economist. Taught at University of Marburg, Germany; University of Turin, Turin, Italy, professor of economics, political science, and sociology, until 1914; University of Basil, Switzerland, professor of economics, 1914-26; University of Perugia, Italy, professor of economics.


Il Proletariato e la Borghesia nel Movimento Socialista Italiano, Fratelli Bocca (Turin, Italy), 1908, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1975.

Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der moderneDemokratie, W. Klinkhardt (Leipzig, Germany), 1911, translation by Eden and Cedar Paul published as Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, Collier Books (New York, NY), 1962.

Probleme der Sozialphilosophie, B. G. Teubner (Leipzig, Germany), 1914.

Sexual Ethics: A Study of Borderland Questions, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY), 1914, reprinted, Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, NJ), 2002.

Sozialismus und Fascismus in Italien, Meyer & Jessen (Munich, Germany), 1925.

Storia Critica del Movimento Socialista Italiano: Dagli Iniszi Fino al 1911, Societa an. Editrice "la voce" (Florence, Italy), 1926.

Sittlichkeit in Ziffern? Kritik der Moralstatistik, Duncker & Humblot (Munich, Germany), 1928.

SIDELIGHTS: Widely regarded as a pioneer in sociology and political science, Robert Michels affiliated himself with socialist causes, a decision that hindered his academic career but put him in contact with a large variety of labor and leftist organizations. Eventually he broke with the German Social Democratic Party, drawing on his experiences to write his most well-known work, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. The thesis of the book is that every organization, no matter how democratic initially, eventually "becomes divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed," Michels' "iron law of oligarchy." After various stints in Germany and Switzerland, Michels settled at the Italian University of Perugia and in his later years became an admirer of Mussolini and a fascist sympathizer.

Michels' books received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, from contemporaries and also in later years. Issac Loos, reviewing Probleme der Sozialphilosophie in the American Journal of Sociology, wrote, "The reading of this book, which closes with a brief examination of the interactions of economics and politics, may be urged on both the economist and the sociologist on account of its clear-headed analysis of the problems which are, most of them, at any rate, economic and social." E. S. P. Haynes in the International Journal of Ethics found that Sexual Ethics: A Study of Borderland Questions "contains much that is interesting about sex but very little in regard to ethics" and felt that the "author does not seem to have grasped what I maintain to be the fact that the whole theory and practice (such as it is) of Christian sex-morality reposes on nothing but the compulsory virginity of unmarried women and this is the whole issue of the modern problem."

Above all, it is Michels' Political Parties that has attracted the attention of writers and academics. Delisle Burns wrote in the International Journal of Ethics that "Professor Michels appears to think that there is a tendency to elevate the few. We shall not quarrel about words. But democracy should not necessarily mean a dead level in the political or social value of all individuals." In The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, James Burnham devotes a section to Robert Michels, writing approvingly that like other Machiavellians, he "does not assume, without examination, the desirability of democracy or peace or even 'justice' or any other ideal goal. Before declaring his allegiance, he makes sure that he understands what is being talked about, together with the probable consequences for social welfare and well-being. Above all, no Machiavellian assumes without inquiry that the various goals are possible."

John D. May in the American Political Science Review found that "Michels actually provided a favorable account of the compatibility of organization and democracy." However, according to May, "Michel's solicitude for the welfare of the 'masses' evidently was linked with a profound disdain for the judgment of the 'masses.' In the light of his values and his beliefs, it seems understandable that Michels accommodated himself to Fascism." Writing in response to May, Peter Y. Medding registered his disagreement with Michels' theory in Political Studies. "In our view Michels' Political Parties has led to much misinterpretation of the nature of party leadership. In particular, the limitations on the power of party leaders, which derive from the structure of political party as an organization, have generally been ignored."



Burnham, James, The Machiavellians: Defenders ofFreedom, John Day Company, 1943, pp. 135-168.


American Journal of Sociology, January, 1915, Isaac Loos, review of Probleme der Sozialphosophie, pp. 548-549.

American Political Science Review, June, 1965, John. D. May, "Democracy, Organization, Michels," pp. 417-429.

International Journal of Ethics, April, 1915, E. S. P. Haynes, review of Sexual Ethics, pp. 417-419; January, 1917, Delisle Burns, review of Political Parties, pp. 259-260.

Political Studies, March, 1970, Peter Y. Medding, "A Framework for the Analysis of Power in 'Political Parties,'" pp. 1-17.*

About this article

Michels, Robert 1876-1936

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article