views updated May 23 2018


Oligarchy occupies a curious place in the political vocabulary. While oligarchies are largely predominant economic, social, and political life, few ruling groups would publicly use this word to describe themselves. Furthermore, unlike the word "democratic," few ruling groups would claim to be oligarchical as a way of justifying their rule as proper and legitimate. Conversely, if a political party, a political interest group, or a political regime is described as oligarchical, one invariably wants to refer to the fact that a small class or group is in charge and the vast majority of the party, group, or regime has been excluded from decision making.

The concept of oligarchy has its roots in Greek political vocabulary and literally means rule or political power of the few. The few, as the term was originally used, could be the wealthy, the powerful, or the nobility. In The Politics, Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) described oligarchy as one of those forms of political rule that does not aim to achieve justice or the public good as compared to monarchy, aristocracy, or a mixed republic, but in fact involves a small, cohesive political class ruling in its own interest. In contemporary society, oligarchy refers to any small, cohesive class or group that is in a position to make decisions or command others in either political or nonpolitical contexts. However, it also has a specifically political meaning, namely as a kind of constitutional arrangement or political regime in which political power is in the hands of a few individuals or a small class of rulers. Oligarchy also can be combined with other constitutional forms, such as democracy, monarchy, or aristocracy, in that all of these constitutions might contain an oligarchical element. Whatever the political arrangement, oligarchy always designates some cohesive group that rules a political community in its own interest, over and against democracy, the rule of the many or the common people.

Although oligarchies have existed in all civilizations, it was among the ancient Greeks that the term was first used explicitly to distinguish different kinds of political communities. From the eighth century b.c.e. on, most Greek city-states were oligarchies—ruled by well-connected, mostly aristocratic groups. The typical forms of political rule in ancient Greek city-states in were either oligarchies or democracies. For Aristotle oligarchies were notoriously unstable, tending to produce injustice and eventually revolutions of the lower classes that often led to tyranny. His proposed solution was a mixed constitution (a republic) that combined oligarchy with democracy. The great advantage of this solution was that each form of rule might balance the dangerous effects of the other.

During the later medieval period and through the renaissance (1400s–1500s), there was an ongoing debate among the Italian civic humanists over Aristotle's republican solution to the problem of oligarchy. Some sided with the model of the Venetian republic that was highly stable and ruled by an oligarchy based on birth. Others sided with the republic of Florence, which was far less stable, but incorporated the lower classes of craftspeople into the rule of the city. In 1513 Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) attacked the model of a republic based on oligarchy as its ruling principle. Oligarchical republics are static and cannot defend themselves from enemies because they cannot rely on the common people. His solution was to construct a republic that encourages a constant but controlled conflict between the ordinary people and the few who desired to rule. By having the common people actively resisting the tendency toward oligarchy through protests and indictments of power-hungry political leaders, laws leading to republican self-government would be introduced and the people could be mobilized to fight on behalf of the republic. Machiavelli was one of the first political thinkers to recognize that even though there was an inherent tendency in all republics for an oligarchical political class to arise, a constant tension between the many and the few would result in political freedom as popular self-government.

oligarchies and elites

In the twentieth century a number of political sociologists—who, ironically, were often called Machiavellians—made the bold claim that oligarchy was inevitable in all aspects of political life. Indeed, they suggested that a new science of politics could be constructed based on studying the behavior of "elites." Often substituting the term elite for oligarchy, they claimed that all significant political changes consisted of changes among elites and that there is an inexorable logic as to why the political domination of elites, or oligarchy, is the rule rather than the exception.

One of the most influential of these theorists, the Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), argued that in every society there is a "political class"—a small minority that exercises power and influence—that always rules over the majority. In representative democracies this political class is subject to the votes of the majority, but all policy is shaped by political elites. Proposing an idea central to later political science, he argued that all social change arises from the circulation of elites. New elites arise as social forces undermine the resources of older political elites.

Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) radicalized this theory by arguing that each governing class has a certain quota of psychological vitality that eventually runs out. This vitality can be renewed only by recruiting individuals from the lower non-governing classes who possess the appropriate qualities.

Rather than focus on social forces or psychological qualities, the German economist and sociologist Robert Michels (1876–1936) focused on organization. Though not endorsing this fact, he argued that in modern times, all organizations were governed by an "iron law of oligarchy." All large organizations must delegate decision making, and in modern organizations these full-time decision makers monopolize resources and divide up work according to specialized skill. This tendency toward oligarchy is especially pronounced in organizations claiming to be democratic like political parties, which mobilize large multitudes for political conflict.

These ideas were taken up by a large number of political scientists who argued that a realistic theory of democracy always involved the competition of political party elites for public office and the rule of political elites between elections. According to this account, the masses mainly were not interested in political participation. Further, these "realists" maintained that all interest groups, whatever their popular following, would essentially be led by a small oligarchy of full-time professionals. Thus, the concept of oligarchy became attached to democracy. The collapse of oligarchy into democracy could occur because oligarchy, according to this theory, was not viewed as a distinctive form of political rule but arose from the requirements of "organization" in general. As part of the sociology of organizations, the concept ceased to refer to a political regime or constitution in contrast to other political forms such as democracy, aristocracy, or authoritarian government. Instead, it became a fact of all political life in large, complex societies.

the communist bloc

Also known as the Soviet or Eastern bloc, the Communist bloc was the Cold War confederation of the Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellites. Soviet control was determined by the presence of the victorious Red Army in these areas at the end of World War II, recognized and ratified by the "zones of influence" agreement at the 1945 Yalta Conference. Besides the USSR, the bloc included Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Poland. Yugoslavia's communist government maintained its independence from the late 1940s, as did Romania's from the 1960s; Albania later came under the influence of Maoist China.

The countries of the Communist bloc were also associated in the Soviet-imposed Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance. More commonly known as the Warsaw Pact, the treaty was an agreement signed in 1955 in response to the NATO alliance threat, in which the bloc countries pledged allegiance to and assistance for each other if one should be attacked. The bloc was effectively dissolved after the revolutions of 1989, in which Communist regimes collapsed in the face of massive popular opposition, and the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev—whose policy of perestroika had done much to create the revolutionary situation to begin with—did nothing to save them. The Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

However, the distinctive political usage of the term "oligarchy" has not disappeared. In the field of comparative politics (the study of different kinds of states), political scientists often speak of states as being ruled by oligarchies. For example, they analyze military dictatorships or states with warlords as regimes ruled by military oligarchies. They also describe nation-states in which the wealthy classes hold most of the governmental offices through manipulated elections and support of the military either simply as oligarchies or as authoritarian states ruled by economic and military oligarchies. In analyzing the transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Eastern Europe or Latin America during the 1990s, political scientists (and commentators) often absorb the term oligarchy into the concept of authoritarian regime. They do this even though some authoritarian regimes were in fact ruled by oligarchies of wealthy families and the military, as in some Latin American countries, while others were ruled by a political party that generated an oligarchy out of its party hierarchy, as in the communist countries of the Eastern bloc. Thus, political scientists sometimes speak of oligarchy as one kind of authoritarian regime and sometimes they speak of authoritarian regimes as a substitute for speaking about oligarchy. In either case, the contrasting regime form is always democracy.

Political scientists' ambiguous use of the term has a peculiar result, reminiscent of the ancient Greek distinction between oligarchy and democracy. Specifically, by attributing rule by the few privileged and well-connected to authoritarian regimes, it appears that the transition to a democratic regime based on fundamental democratic rights—with free elections, civil rights, contested parties, and peaceful changes of governments after elections—is free of oligarchy. However, as previously stated, in democratic regimes oligarchical rule is manifest in large firms, in political parties, in representative institutions, in governmental administration, and in military institutions. Perhaps these various oligarchies are not all centralized and coordinated. Nonetheless, they pose a challenge to these regimes' democratic claims. If democratic regimes expect to be obeyed because they realize popular sovereignty through constitutional rights, particularly the right of citizens to equally influence governmental decisions, then it would seem that having oligarchy in most of their major economic and political institutions would raise profound questions about their legitimacy. To overcome this dilemma, one must either agree with the elite theorists that oligarchy in the form of political elites is simply an irrevocable fact of political life and modern organization, or recognize that within democracies based on constitutional rights, the "transition to democracy" is still ongoing. In the latter case, the conflict between oligarchical rule and democratic rule that so preoccupied the ancient Greeks in one way and Machiavelli in another is still fundamental to society's attempt to achieve democratic rights.

See also: Constitutional Monarchy; Constitutions and Constitutionalism; Democracy; Dictatorship; Republic.


Aristotle. The Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1998.

Bottomore, T.B. 1968. Elites and Society. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Burnham, James. The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom. New York: John Day, 1943.

Linz, Juan J., and Stepan Alfred. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-communist Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy, trans. Nathan Tarcov and Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Michels, Robert. Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Mosca, Gaetano. The Ruling Class, trans. Hannah D. Kahn. New York: McGraw Hill, 1939.

Pareto, Vilfredo. The Mind and Society, trans. Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur Livingston. New York: Dover Publishers, 1965.

Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People; a Realist's View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd ed. New York: Harper, 1950.

Sealey, Raphael. A History of the Greek City States, ca. 700–338 B.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Peter Breiner


views updated May 29 2018





The term oligarchy refers to a form of government in which political power is in the hands of a small minority. The word oligarchy derives from the Greek word oligarkhia (government of the few), which is composed of oligoi (few) and arkhein (to rule). This definition does not necessarily distinguish oligarchy from other forms of government. Autocracy, for example, can be viewed as a form of oligarchy in which the few refers to a single individual, though autocracies, especially when they take the form of dictatorships, have commonly been associated with greater use of coercion. Democracy, some argue, is also characterized by a rule of the few because most political decisions are made by a small section of society. The key factor differentiating oligarchy and democracy is the fact that in democracy political decisions are made by representatives who can be voted out of office by the citizens in regularly scheduled elections. Direct democracy, where the people decide on policies without the intermediation of representatives, is an exception. Therefore, it can be useful to think of the different types of government as being located along a continuum that runs from autocracy to direct democracy. Furthermore, oligarchies are not confined to national politics; oligarchies can also emerge in local government (e.g., Hunter 1953) or in other organizations, such as labor unions.


The most influential treatment of the politics of oligarchy is Political Parties (1911) by German social scientist Robert Michels (18761936). The focus of Michelss work was the German Social Democratic Party, but his analysis had clear references to other types of social institutions, including national government. Michelss conclusions were highly pessimistic from a democratic point of view. He argued that the necessity of organization for any large-scale social institution would sound the death knell for democratic governance. Famously, Michels went so far as to state, Who says organization, says oligarchy (1962, p. 365). The need for organization concentrated political power in the hands of a select few whose position at the apex of the organization served to solidify their standing. In Michelss view, the advantages conferred upon the leaders of the organization eliminated the possibility of democratic control through leadership elections. These advantages included greater access to information, greater ability to communicate with the organizations members, and the opportunity to develop political skills. Combined with the incompetence of the masses, evidenced by a lack of participation by ordinary members, which Michels saw as being due to the members lower degree of education, the division of labor, and organizational obstacles, the political power of the leadership was ensured.

Differences in knowledge and education also gave the appearance that the division between the leaders and the led was natural. If democratic government is defined as a form of government that serves the interests of its members, rather than being defined in procedural terms, nothing thus far suggests that democracy is impossible. However, the final component of Michelss theory was that the interests of the leaders and the members would inevitably diverge. As the heads of the organization, the leaders interests become identified with their institutional position rather than the interests of the organizations members. The leaders primary concern becomes protecting their position and serving their own ends using the organization as their means.

Despite Michelss pessimistic conclusion about the prospects of democracy, it appears that relatively few governments identified as oligarchic in the literature followed the route he described. Instead, oligarchies have appeared as a consequence of, for example, the devolution of monarchical rule (e.g., in England under King John in the thirteenth century) or the concentration of economic influence (e.g., in Florence around the turn of the fifteenth century and in Chile in the 1830s).


Since Michelss seminal contribution, there have been few systematic studies of the politics of oligarchy. There are several reasons for why this has been the case. First, many of the issues raised by Michels are not specific to oligarchy as such but have far wider applicability. Representative government has been analyzed extensively in the context of democratic governments. Similarly, whether ordinary members can control their leaders is taken up in the literature on principal-agent theory. Both issues are at the core of Michelss argument. Second, while the term oligarchy is commonly used, there exists no clear, universally accepted definition of oligarchy in the literature (Payne 1968; Leach 2005). Most scholars agree that oligarchy involves the concentration of political power in the hands of a minority, but this form of government has few other universally accepted defining characteristics. Third, because oligarchy is not necessarily seen as incompatible with (free) elections, the line between oligarchy and democracy becomes blurred. The most frequently cited factor distinguishing oligarchy from democracy is that admission into the class of oligarchs is restricted in some manner to a subset of the citizenry. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 BCE) classified oligarchies on the basis of types of restrictions on participation in government, where participation depended on property qualification or heredity (Whibley 1896). South Africa during the apartheid era, where the majority was disenfranchised on the basis of race, serves as an example of another possible type of restriction.

The failure to settle on a definition of oligarchy means that comparative studies, such as The Logic of Political Survival (2004) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James Morrow, Randolph Siverson, and Alistair Smith, provide perhaps the most general insights into the politics of oligarchies. Rather than classifying governments as autocratic, democratic, or oligarchic, Bueno de Mesquita and his coauthors instead focus on the size of the group that has a say in the selection of the government or leader and the size of the coalition that the government needs to stay in power. Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues find, for example, that the characteristics associated with oligarchies (i.e., smaller coalitions) tend to reduce economic growth and government expenditures but to increase corruption.

The issue of membership in the governing class also looms large in accounts of the decline of oligarchies. J. Mark Ramseyer and Frances Rosenbluths (1995) account of Japans Meiji oligarchy highlights two problems an oligarchy must solve to survive: it must prevent the membership from being expanded, and, at the same time, it must provide for rules of succession. Ramseyer and Rosenbluth show that oligarchies may be vulnerable to competition for political influence among the oligarchs, which may induce them to mobilize previously excluded sections of society. For the same reason, oligarchs may be unable to agree on institutions that govern succession within the oligarchy. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the Communist Party provided institutions that checked the actions of the oligarchs, although the rules guiding succession were somewhat ambiguous (Hammer 1990).

SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Aristotle; Democracy; Elites; Elitism; Power, Political; Republic


Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow. 2004. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hammer, Darrell P. 1990. The USSR: The Politics of Oligarchy. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Leach, Darcy K. 2005. The Iron Law of What Again? Conceptualizing Oligarchy across Organizational Forms. Sociological Theory 23 (3): 312337.

Michels, Robert. [1911] 1962. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Edan and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Payne, James L. 1968. The Oligarchy Muddle. World Politics 20 (3): 439453.

Ramseyer, J. Mark, and Frances M. Rosenbluth. 1995. The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Whibley, Leonard. 1896. Greek Oligarchies: Their Character and Organisation. London: Metheun.

Indridi H. Indridason


views updated May 29 2018



The word “oligarchy” and the concepts which it symbolizes originated in ancient Greece. In its basic use, the word identified one of the general forms of government recognized by the Greeks: that in which political government is conducted by a few persons or families. It was also used more narrowly, by Aristotle for example, to refer to the debased form of aristocracy, that is, to government by the few or by a faction. The term “oligarchy” was also used to refer to the small group of persons who enjoyed a monopoly of political control in oligarchic governments; the term usually had the added sense that the oligarchy ruled in its own rather than in the public interest. For Aristotle, classification of governments rested on two independent variables: the number of persons who ruled and the purposes served by their rule. Oligarchy was present when a few persons ruled for their own satisfaction.

Development of the concept. The original uses of the term were associated with particular social and political regimes and with intellectual modes of analyzing them. Typically, societies were small and traditional and rested on established classes, including a slave class. Within Greek cities citizenship status often identified a large but still minority class that could at least claim to participate in political decisions. Whatever the changes in political forms, this “upper class” was relatively stable by reason of property holding, authority relations with other classes, social position, and so on, and oligarchy could reasonably be expected to be succeeded by other known forms of government. Classical analysts found oligarchies to be endemic among ancient states, but they viewed them as unstable since they rested on military, economic, and leadership factors which were transitory as compared with the continuing forces which supported the relatively large upper classes in traditionalist societies.

In the modern view, these classical conceptions, including oligarchy and the ideas associated with it, are far too simple for effective analysis. Indeed, classical writing makes it clear that the conceptions based on the formal structure of governments were not adequate even then, in spite of the particular emphasis given to form. Greek analysts dealt with the phenomena of power, with the importance of procedures, and, of course, with the paramount role of values. These matters were merged with discussions of political form, but the elements were not clearly discriminated. The subtleties and complexities of Greek political thought do not appear to good advantage in this particular classificatory system.

To the extent that the word “oligarchy” was employed in the Roman and medieval periods, it appears to have been used in the Aristotelian sense of a perverted form of government. However, the emphasis on ideas and values of citizenship and law during the long period of Roman stability turned analytical attention away from forms of government as such. Even though the instabilities of feudalism did generate oligarchs, many of the writers of the early Middle Ages were more preoccupied with problems of legitimacy, since these problems had been given new urgency by the complexities of church-state relationships. Nevertheless, the word itself was coupled to its classical meaning and became an active term in political vocabularies following the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, political instability among renascent states and a revival of secular realism restored earlier classificatory tools in significant measure. Machiavelli, for example, stipulated and used the Aristotelian classification of the types of government, including that of oligarchy, even though his political analyses could not be contained by them.

Significant use of the term “oligarchy” by students of sociopolitical phenomena has lessened in recent centuries. This is not to say that the term has been wholly abandoned or that notable efforts have not been made to adapt the concept of oligarchy to modern circumstances. Indeed, until relatively recently, general treatises on government have usually given some degree of credence to the classification of governments which contains oligarchy as one form (see, for example, Sidgwick 1891, or Wilson 1889). Some more specialized treatments have also sought to adapt the classical formula to new analyses. In 1832 George C. Lewis, mindful of parliamentary claims, adapted the classical scheme, including its oligarchical component, to the new realities of political sovereignty in his Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms.

However, these adaptations were, at best, difficult to maintain in the context of the most important social phenomena among Western nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: industrialization and urbanization; the radical intensification of nationalism; the improvement and spread of representative parliamentarianism and of parliamentary democracy; warfare conducted as the total effort of national populations; autocracy redefined by twentieth-century totalitarianism; and political leadership vastly heightened by new technological and organizational resources.

In contrast to students of politics, spokesmen for ideological movements frequently used the concept of oligarchy to proclaim against degenerate oligarchs. Liberal and democratic reformers did the same thing in their works. Similarly, socialists discovered ruling coteries within the capitalist class. Their protests were in the language of opinion rather than systematic analysis. However, the scale of experience in which the classical concept of oligarchy was formulated could not produce, even for the socialist movements, ideas comprehensive enough to account for nationalism, or the complex semiegalitarianism of liberal societies, or the dynamism of historical necessity expressed through the warfare of classes.

One group of twentieth-century scholars, including Ostrogorskii, Michels, Pareto, and Mosca, was particularly concerned with a redefinition of oligarchy and its successes and failures. These writers sought an accommodation between forces of social class and of elitism and found it, to a large extent, in the idea of class oligarchies. Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” made the point most explicitly: elitist control within the party structures that are an implementing response to social conflict is as inevitable as class conflict itself. Michels, in company with others, provided a usable new definition of oligarchy, which was distinctive but had obvious kinship with the traditional form-of-government idea. But it is pertinent that these writings and their constituent ideas are now almost always indexed under a heading like “elitism” or “leadership “rather than under the word “oligarchy.”

Uses of the concept. The meanings associated with the word “oligarchy” have remained remarkably stable throughout the centuries. Dictionary definitions accord very closely with the classical uses of the word. As a matter of fact, Webster’s New International Dictionary does indeed recognize a wider range of meanings, including extrapolitical meanings, but “government by the few “remains the primary definition. Several concomitants to this unusual consistency are relevant. First, the word has retained its usefulness as a technical symbol for scholars whose interest in political phenomena is historical and descriptive rather than contemporary and analytical. Unlike many other key words, “oligarchy” does not require an elaborate etymology to establish historically prior uses. Second, the word and its associated ideas have not proved notably useful for nineteenth-century and twentieth-century analysis, and this period has witnessed its declining use by students of current societies. Among many illustrations, it may be noted that in Agger, Goldrich, and Swanson(1964), the authors do not find it necessary to mention oligarchy, although the book is concerned with the power of elites. Nor does the elaborate classification system of the annual International Bibliography of the Social Sciences find room for the word. Finally, the new uses for the term, especially in its application to nonpolitical phenomena(for example, “oligarchy” in school systems) have been largely promoted by lay users. The epithet “oligarch “ is more apt to be found in a novel than in a technical treatise on politics.

The political phenomena associated with what previously was labeled as oligarchy, that is, effective rule by a small and often irresponsible element in a society, have been given great attention by current analysts. However, data assembled for the analyses and the methods used make the inadequacy of the concept of oligarchy apparent almost at once. Some contrasts will make the point. First, traditional treatments of oligarchy tended to restrict the role of the oligarch to simple control relationships based on command. Current analyses of leadership by a minority define a plurality of roles and include conditional responses between leaders and followers. Second, the simple distinction between the few and the many is replaced by a continuum of relationships among members of a polity who display quite different responses at different times and under differing circumstances. Interrelations between different social strata, groups, and organizations, including their leaders, and political leaders are repetitive and contingent. Third, the concept of power runs through a range marked at one end by forced compliance backed by penalties and at the other by the gentleness of influence and persuasion. The formal classical specification of oligarchy as a class of government largely avoided the question of the techniques and other means by which this form of government was maintained. Finally, contemporary analysis of elite leadership is broadly social rather than narrowly political. Politically relevant leadership by “the few “is located at many points in the society and not in the halls of government alone. In conclusion, therefore, what has happened to the concept of oligarchy in recent decades may be taken as an index to what has happened in the social sciences.

Thomas P. Jenkin

[See alsoAutocracy; Dictatorship; Elites; Legitimacy; Monarchy; Totalitarianism; and the biographies ofAristotle; Michels; Mills; Mosca; Ostrogorskii; Pareto.]


Agger, Robert E.; Goldrich, Daniel; and Swanson, Bert 1964 The Rulers and the Ruled: Political Power and Impotence in American Communities. New York: Wiley.

American Academy OF Arts AND Sciences 1954 Totalitarianism. Edited with an introduction by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press. →Proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.

Barker, Ernest (1918) 1960 Greek Political Theory:Plato and His Predecessors. 5th ed. London: Methuen.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski,Zbigniew K. (1956) 1965 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Lewis,George C. (1832) 1877 Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms. New ed. Oxford: Thornton.

Michels, Robert (1911) 1959 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Dover. → First published as Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Sidgwick, Henry (1891) 1908 The Elements of Politics. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.

Wilson, Woodrow (1889) 1918 The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics. Boston: Heath.


views updated Jun 08 2018

ol·i·gar·chy / ˈäliˌgärkē; ˈōli-/ • n. (pl. -chies) a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution: the ruling oligarchy of military men around the president. ∎  a state governed by such a group: the English aristocratic oligarchy of the 19th century. ∎  government by such a group.DERIVATIVES: ol·i·gar·chic / ˌäliˈgärkik; ˌōli-/ adj.ol·i·gar·chi·cal / ˌäliˈgärkikəl; ˌōli-/ adj.ol·i·gar·chi·cal·ly / ˌäliˈgärkik(ə)lē; ˌōli-/ adv.


views updated May 18 2018

oligarchy Any form of government in which there is ‘rule by a few’; for example, by members of a self-regulating élite having domination over a larger society. See also MICHELS, ROBERT; POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY.


views updated May 23 2018

oligarchy XVII. — (O)F. oligarchie or medL. oligarchia — Gr. oligarkhíā, f. oligárkhēs (whence oligarch XVII), f. oligos few; see -ARCH.


views updated May 23 2018

oligarchy System of government in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who rule without the requirement of popular support and without external check on their authority. Oligarchs rule in their own interests.