Oligarchy, Iron Law of
Oligarchy, Iron Law of
Coined by the German sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 monograph Political Parties, the Iron Law of Oligarchy refers to the inbuilt tendency of all complex social organizations to turn bureaucratic and highly undemocratic. According to Michels, even the left-wing parties of Western Europe in the pre–World War I era, which were programmatically committed to mass democracy, popular participation, and equality within their ranks, tended to become de facto oligarchies. In spite of their revolutionary manifestos and formally democratic constitutions, the labor parties of his day were dominated by demagogic ruling cliques with an interest in the perpetuation and growth of the organization itself rather than in its proclaimed ideological aims. As an especially ironic example, he noted that in a fundamentally democratic organization such as his own German Social-Democratic Party (SPD)—just as in the traditional conservative parties—only a few people in executive positions actually held power and made all the important decisions. The SPD leaders, Michels argued, came to value their own prominent status and social-mobility rewards more than any commitment to the official goal of emancipating Germany’s “industrial proletariat.” Inevitably, their actual policies became more conservative and accommodationist seeking parliamentary compromise with the imperial authorities of Wilhelminian Germany in order to preserve the party, rather than endanger it by any confrontation in the streets. Eventually, the SPD leaders gained real legislative power and public prestige, but instead of serving the collective will of the mass membership, they were in fact dominating and directing it. For the numerically small party elite, the SPD as an organization became an end in itself, rather than a means to a revolutionary end: “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” (Michels  1968, p. 365).
Michels based his fatalistic theory on empirical observation. First of all, the day-to-day administration of any large-scale, differentiated bureaucratic organization such as the SPD by the rank-and-file majority was impossible. Given the “incompetence of the masses,” there was a need for full-time professional leadership and top-down guidance. In theory, the SPD leaders were subject to control by the rank-and-file through delegate conferences and membership voting, but in reality they were firmly in command. The simple organizational need for division of labor, hierarchy, and specialized leadership roles meant that control over the top functionaries from below was “purely fictitious.” The elected leaders had the experience, skills, and superior knowledge necessary for running the party and controlling all formal means of communication with the membership, including the party press. While proclaiming their devotion to the party program of social democracy, they soon became part of the German political establishment. The mass membership was unable to provide an effective counterweight to this entrenched minority of self-serving party officials, who were more committed to internal organizational goals and their own personal interests than to radical social change. Michels also felt that these inevitable oligarchic tendencies were reinforced by a mass predisposition for depending upon and even glorifying the party oligarchs, because the rank-and-file had a basic psychological need for hero-worship: “Though it grumbles occasionally, the majority is really delighted to find persons who will take the trouble to look after its affairs. In the mass, and even in the organized mass of the labor parties, there is an immense need for direction and guidance. This need is accompanied by a genuine cult for the leaders, who are regarded as heroes” (Michels  1968, p. 88).
The Iron Law of Oligarchy was thus a product of Michels’s own personal experiences as a frustrated idealist and a disillusioned social-democrat. His Political Parties was based upon an empirical study of the SPD and a number of affiliated German trade unions. He observed firsthand that the ordinary members of these working-class organizations were practically excluded from the decision-making process, which was effectively in the hands of the more experienced and skilled leadership cadres. This sociological analysis made Michels increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of mass democracy, until he eventually embraced the “elite theory” of his Italian contemporaries Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941). In a total break with the past, he also adopted Italy as his new homeland and Italian fascism as his political ideal, becoming one of Benito Mussolini’s academic acolytes and favored ideologues.
Democratic theorists have ever since questioned whether the oligarchic tendencies described by Michels’s overdeterministic model are indeed so universal, inevitable, and immutable to be labeled an “iron law.” Michels’s theory has been applied to modern-day labor unions, trying to demonstrate how, as bureaucratic organizations, they have become ends in themselves rather than a means to an end. Critics, however, have rejected Michels’s message that “organizational parties” destroy democracy and turn it into oligarchy. The eminent Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori, for one, argues that Michels may well have formulated an iron law of bureaucracy, but only a “bronze law” of oligarchy, mistakenly seeking “democracy in structures, not in interactions,” and ignoring the real difference between democracies and nondemocracies (Sartori 1987, pp. 149–151). In contrast, students of post-Communist politics have noted that too many respondents in public-opinion surveys claim to have the same or even less influence on government today than under Communist rule. In this empirical sense, the Iron Law of Oligarchy is difficult either to confirm or to refute decisively.
SEE ALSO Bureaucracy; Bureaucrat; Communism; Democracy; Elite Theory; Elites; Fascism; Left Wing; Michels, Robert; Mussolini, Benito; Oligarchy; Organizations; Pareto, Vilfredo; Political Parties; Power Elite
Beetham, David. 1977. From Socialism to Fascism: The Relation Between Theory and Practice in the Work of Robert Michels. Political Studies 25: 3–24, 161–181.
Beetham, David. 1981. Michels and His Critics. Archives of European Sociology 22: 81–99.
May, John D. 1965. Democracy, Organization, Michels. American Political Science Review 59: 417–429.
Michels, Robert.  1968. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.
Sartori, Giovanni. 1987. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.