The Iron Law of Oligarchy by Robert Michels

It’s time for some RealPolitik!

Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy is a book by the sociologist Robert Michels, published in 1911 and first introducing the concept of iron law of oligarchy.

This work analyses the power structures of organizations such as political parties and trade unions. Michels’s main argument is that all organizations, even those in theory most egalitarian and most committed to democracy – like socialist political parties – are in fact oligarchical, and dominated by a small group of leadership.

Let me share some of favorite parts:

Part 1: Leadership in Democratic Organizations

Democracy is inconceivable without organization. … Organization, based as it is upon the principle of least effort, that is to say, upon the greatest possible economy of energy, is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong.

The chances of success in any struggle will depend upon the degree to which this struggle is carried out upon a basis of solidarity between individuals whose interests are identical.

Pg. 61

It is undeniable that these educational institutions for the officials of the party and of the labor organizations tend, above all, towards the artificial creation of an élite of the working class, of a caste of cadets composed of persons who aspire to the command of the proletarian rank and file. Without wishing it, there is thus affected a continuous enlargement of the gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.

Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective will, soon emancipate themselves from the masses and become independent of its control.

Organization implies a tendency to oligarchy. In every organization, whether it be a political party, a professional union, or any other association of the kind, the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly. … As a result of organization, every party or professional union becomes divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed.

With the advance of organization, democracy tends to decline.

Pg. 70

Every party organization which has attained to a considerable degree of complication demands that there should be a certain number of persons who devote all their activities tot he work of the party.

For democracy, however, the first appearance of professional leadership marks the beginning of the end.

Pg. 73

Part 3: The Exercise of Power and its Psychological Reaction Upon the Leaders

The apathy of the masses and their need for guidance has as its counterpart in the leaders a natural greed for power. Thus the development of the democratic oligarchy is accelerated by the general characteristics of human nature. What was initiated by the need for organization, administration, and strategy is completed by psychological determinism.

Pg. 205

It was a tenet of the old aristocracy that to disobey the orders of the monarch was to sin against God. In modern democracy it is held that no one may disobey the orders of the oligarchs, for in so doing the people sin against themselves,

Pg. 216

Part 4: Social Analysis of Leadership

Moreover, a sense of fatalism and a sad conviction of impotence exercise a paralyzing influence in social life. As long as an oppressed class is influenced by this fatalistic spirit, as long as it has failed to develop an adequate sense of social injustices, it is incapable of aspiring towards emancipation. It is not the simple existence of oppressive conditions, but it is the recognition of these conditions by the oppressed, which in the course of history has constituted the prime factor of class struggles.

Pg. 228

Socialists leaders, considered in respect of their social origin, may be divided into two classes, those who belong primarily to the proletariat, and those derived from the bourgeoisie, or rather from the intellectual stratum of the bourgeoisie.

Pg. 238

When he abandons manual work for intellectual, the worker undergoes another transformation which involves his whole existence. He gradually leaves the proletariat to become a member of the petty bourgeois class.

Pg. 262

To sum up, it may be said that these former working-class people, considered as families and not as individuals, are absorbed sooner or later into the new bourgeois environment. The children receive a bourgeois education; they attend better schools than those to which their father had access; their interests are bourgeois and they very rarely recall the revolutionary and anti-bourgeois derivation of their own entrance into the bourgeoisie. The working-class families which have been raised by the revolutionary workers to a higher social position, for the purpose of a more effective struggle against bourgeoisie, thus come before long to be fused with the bourgeoisie.

Pg. 265

The workman’s ideal is to become a petty bourgeois.

Pg. 271

Part 6: Synthesis: The Oligarchical Tendencies of Organization

Political organization leads to power. But power is always conservative.

Pg. 333

no highly developed social order is possible without a “political class”, that is to say, a politically dominant class, the class of a minority. … all phrases representing the idea of the rule of the masses, such terms as state, civic rights, popular representation, nation, are descriptive merely of a legal principle, and do not correspond to any actually existing facts.

Pg. 342

Society cannot exist without a “dominant” or “political” class, and that the ruling class, while its elements are subjects to a frequent partial renewal, nevertheless constitutes the only of sufficiently durable efficacy in the history of human development. According to this view, the government, or, if the phrase be preferred, the state, cannot be anything other than the organization of a minority. It is the aim of this minority to impose upon the rest of society a “legal order”, which is the outcome of the exigencies of dominion and the exploration of the masses of helots effected by the ruling minority, and can never be truly representative of the majority. The majority is thus permanently incapable of self-government. … Thus the majority of human being, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined by tragic necessity to submit to the dominion of a small minority, and must be content to constitute the pedestal of an oligarchy.

Pgs. 353-354

Every system of leadership is incompatible with the most essential postulates of democracy … the principle cause of oligarchy in the democratic parties is to be found in the technical indispensability of leadership … It is organizations which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.

Pgs. 364-365

Things that make you go hmmm…

Thanks for reading,


Michels, Robert; Political Parties – A Socialogical Study of the Oligarchicahal Tendencies of Modern Democracies, Martino Fine Books, 2016. (Originally published 1911)

One response to “The Iron Law of Oligarchy by Robert Michels”

  1. Reblogged this on Apetivist.

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