Robert Michels

From New World Encyclopedia

Robert Michels (January 9, 1876 – May 3, 1936) was a German sociologist who wrote on the political behavior of intellectual elites. He was a student of Max Weber, and a spent time as a member of the German Socialist Party. As a result he was unable to work in Germany, and moved to Italy, where he became a revolutionary syndicalist. For a short time, he was also close to the Italian Fascists. Michels is best known for his book Political Parties, which contains a description of the "iron law of oligarchy." Michels based this concept on his research and personal experience with various social institutions. He found that, regardless of the vision and goals of the organization, and its quality of leadership initially, inevitably every organization developed an elite who took full control over all its affairs. Michels attributed the development of such oligarchies as due not to personal flaws in those who took positions of leadership, but rather due to the nature of the social structures themselves, which necessitated division of labor in order to be efficient and effective. Michels' suggestion to alleviate this problem was that organizations maintain a commitment to shared decision-making as well as open communication between the membership and the administration. However, a complete solution requires that those in leadership positions develop the heart and mind to live for the sake of others, adopting the attitude of a loving parent.


Robert Michels was born on January 9, 1876, in Cologne, Germany, into a wealthy bourgeois family. In keeping with the customs of the time, he spent terms at a number of universities: Munich, Leipzig, and Halle. He also spent part of his study years in London and Paris.

He wrote his thesis in Halle, on preparations for Louis XIV's attack on the Low Countries in 1680. Michels had previously tried officer training for a short time, so the military subject of his thesis came naturally to him.

As a young man, Michels was a member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). At that stage he was a radical critic of the SPD leadership from a syndicalist viewpoint. Michels criticized the SPD as "being too much concerned with winning seats in the Reichstag, too anxious to remain within the law, not militant enough in its opposition to the military dictatorship represented by the Kaiser." He left the party in 1907.

Michels was a protégé of Max Weber (his writings on oligarchy resemble Weber's work on bureaucracy. Weber was a liberal, not a socialist. However, due to Michels' previous socialist affiliation, even Weber could not obtain a job for Michels in Germany. Finally, though, he found him a job in Italy. There, at the University of Turin, Michels taught economics, political science, and sociology.

In 1914, he became the professor of economics at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he taught until 1926. His last years were spent in Italy teaching economics and the history of doctrines at the University of Perugia. He died in Rome in 1936.


Michels wrote 30 books and more than 700 articles. His work on democracy in organizations that eventually developed into “oligarchy in organizations” is the alpine peak among them and the one to which present-day students of sociology and government are forced to return.

Preambles to the "Iron Law of Oligarchy"

Michels lived at a time when mass democracy and the political party were new political and social phenomena. Early on in his adult career, Michels himself was an active socialist and a member of the German Social Democratic Party.

Michels' iron law of oligarchy can, in some senses, be seen as the product of his personal experiences as a socialist member of the German SDP. His "iron law" is based upon Michels' empirical study of the German SDP and a number of associated trade unions. He concluded from his studies that the German SDP, whilst proclaiming a "revolutionary" program and manifesto was quickly becoming part of the German "establishment."

The reasons for this were:

  • In mass democracies, the individual is powerless on his/her own to have their voice heard and their demands met.
  • Subsequently there is, in mass democracies, a basic need for organization. To get their voice heard and their demands met, individuals must organize themselves collectively.
  • In the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, trade unions, business corporations, and political parties were the form this organization took.
  • However, these organizations have an inbuilt tendency towards oligarchy—that is, rule by a few or rule by an elite.
  • This elite tends to look after their own personal interests.
  • This elite within the political party uses its own set of knowledge and expertise to influence the decision-making process within the organization.
  • Subsequently, "ordinary members" of the organization may be effectively excluded from the decision-making processes of the organization.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Robert Michels first developed the Iron Law of Oligarchy as a political theory in his 1911 Political Parties book. Michels gave his masterpiece the quite vapid title of Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie (1911) ("Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy"), but defined his subject more precisely in the subheading, Über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens ("On the Oligarchic Tendencies of Group Life").

Here, lies the theme of the book: all organizations, regardless of whether they have a democratic constitution or agenda, in practice develop into oligarchies.

Michels showed in detail how oligarchy develops out of a desire to be effective. For good reasons (the division of labor), the members look for leaders and organizers, these people specialize in various tasks, and their specialized knowledge and skill makes them indispensable—they can threaten resignation if the organization seems to be on the point of making a wrong decision.

The "rank and file" (a significant phrase) leaves it to the officials: they do not attend meetings; in fact supporters often do not bother to join the organization, being confident that it is good hands. Members and supporters develop attitudes of gratitude and loyalty to the leaders, especially those who have suffered for the cause.

Among the leaders, megalomania develops, and this reinforces their power:

This overwhelming self-esteem on the part of the leaders diffuses a powerful suggestive influence, whereby the masses are confirmed in their admiration for their leaders, and it thus proves a source of enhanced power (Michels 1911).

Once the organization becomes large enough to have income and accumulated funds, it appoints full-time officials and establishes newspapers, training schools, and so on. This means that the party leaders have patronage: the power to appoint people to paid jobs.

Michels attempted to address why power tends to fall in the hands of small groups of people in all organizations. He studied labor and socialist movements of his time, the early 1900s. As organizations expand in size and complexity, Michels concluded:

…the need for effective leadership becomes more and more essential…. Size eventually renders collective decision making impractical because of both the number of issues and the need for the organization to appear united (Michels 1911).

The "Iron Law of Oligarchy” suggests that organizations wishing to avoid oligarchy should take a number of precautionary steps:

They should make sure that the rank and file remain active in the organization and that the leaders not be granted absolute control of a centralized administration. As long as there are open lines of communication and shared decision making between the leaders and the rank and file, an oligarchy cannot easily develop (Michels 1911).

Clearly, the problems of oligarchy, of the bureaucratic depersonalization described by Weber, and of personal alienation are all interrelated. If individuals are deprived of the power to make decisions that affect their lives in many or even most of the areas that are important to them, withdrawal into narrow ritualism (over-conformity to rules) and apathy are likely responses.

Such withdrawals seemed to constitute a chronic condition in some of the highly centralized socialist countries. However, there are many signs of public apathy in the United States, too. For example, in 1964 about 70 percent of those eligible to vote in presidential elections did so. In succeeding elections this figure dropped, reaching only 50 percent in 1988.

Michels' theory is based on documented fact: no organization remains egalitarian in the long run. Every organization develops within itself an elite, comprising the leadership and executive staff. Only this elite has the specialized knowledge required to make the organization successful.

Organizations come to be dominated by their elites, not by their members. The elite determines the organization's meetings, subjects, and speakers; it has control over the members' address register and can determine the contents of the members' journal. It can also, in all essentials, control the agenda at annual meetings and also frequently dictate the alternatives in voting. The organizational elite's perspective on life becomes, in time, different from that of the members, even if the leaders have themselves once been ordinary members (e.g., workers).

Michels pointed out that any large organization is faced with coordination problems that can only be solved by creating a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is hierarchical in nature and therefore requires a concentration of much power in the hands of a few people. This led Michels to conclude that the "Iron Rule" is always true.

The strength of Michels' analysis lies in his compilation of the factors affecting the power structure in an organization. He focused throughout on what sociologists call "structural factors," which, according to Michels, are in all essential attributes of the organizational structure, not personality traits in members and leaders, that push democratic organizations—parties, trade unions, popular movements, interest groups—towards oligarchy. He rejected the argument that it is the leaders' personal lust for power that underlies the trend towards rule of the few.

They are good democrats running ever smaller democratic organizations. In other words, Michels cleanses the debate from the vulgar argument that trade union leaders and party politicians are driven by the desire for power. Accordingly, he effects the same kind of clean-up job that Max Weber did when he demonstrated that capitalism could not be explained by the personal greed of businessmen, and that bureaucracy cannot be deduced from the officiousness of civil servants (Michels 1911, XX).

Flirtation with Mussolini’s Fascism

In 1928, Michels accepted a chair of politics from Mussolini's government, specifically established to promote fascism. In his later writings, Michels sometimes underlined the advantages of such a regime:

By its nature, the rule of the elite will be frank, clear, concrete, direct. The elite does not exercise its function by means of tortuous intrigues and of "connections" dear to majoritarian and democratic regimes. Nor is it inevitably prey to lack of clarity, to vacillation, indecision, and to foolish and insipid compromises (Michels 1949, 121).

But his “true colors” came up in the following excerpt:

In democracy…various elites…struggle for power. From this derives…lack of stability…an expenditure of time, a slowing down of necessary training for those who intend to acquire governmental competence. But on the other hand the democratic system offers a certain guarantee to the members of the various elites of the repetition…of their turn at the helm of the state. But, be it said parenthetically, these manifold minor elites inevitably become bitter enemies of every government conquered and held by a single strong elite of anti-democratic tendencies. For the latter has an almost permanent character and is based on a principle which prolongs the usual expectation sine die, actually excluding the majority of the elites from political power. And without the least intention of harming anybody we will say, Hinc illae lacrimae ("Hence these tears") (Michels 1949, 119).

Michel’s legacy

Michels is counted among the four greatest in political sociology in the Latin school, the other three being Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, and Vilfredo Pareto. In many ways, Michels stands out as the first cosmopolitan sociologist among his contemporary shining stars of the new science: Émile Durkheim in France, Max Weber in Germany, Vilfredo Pareto in Italy and W. I. Thomas in the United States.

There is a kind of tragic despair about Michels' presentation. Freedom-loving socialists are inspired to seek social innovations that avoid the fate of oligarchy. Intellectuals in popular movements outside the socialist tradition are also called upon, after reading Michels' work, to search for mechanisms that ward off or mitigate the oligarchic tendencies in their organizations.

While Michels favored fascism for Italy he may have thought that in other circumstances democratic forms would reduce the evils of oligarchy. Similarly, Weber seems to have favored a combination of British and American institutions to secure good political leadership for Germany. The point made by Michels is not to secure genuine democracy (whatever that may be), but to achieve good leadership.

Michels showed that the problem of loss of good leadership lies not just in the self-centered nature of the leaders themselves, but in the very structures of social organization. He suggested that the inevitability of oligarchy might be curtailed by the maintenance of open communication between leaders and others, as well as commitment to shared decision-making. The complete solution to this problem, however, which Michels could not uncover, requires the involvement of leaders who truly live for the sake of others. Such leaders, with the attitude of a true parent toward all the members, would be able to develop social structures that support the continuation of good leadership.


  • Michels, Robert. 1911. Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens.
  • Michels, Robert. 1914. Grenzen der Geschlechtsmoral.
  • Michels, Robert. 1925. Sozialismus und fascismus in Italien.
  • Michels, Robert. 1927. Corso di sociologia politica.
  • Michels, Robert. 1949. First Lectures in Political Sociology. Trans. Alfred De Grazia. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Michels, Robert. 1970. Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie: Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hetscher, Joachim. 1993. Robert Michels: die Herausbildung der modernen politischen Soziologie im Kontext von Herausforderung und Defizit der Arbeiterbewegung.
  • Nye, Robert A. 1977. The Anti-democratic Sources of Elite Theory: Pareto, Mosca, Michels. Sage Publications. ISBN 0803998724
  • Pfetsch, Frank. 1965. Entwicklung zum faschistischen Führerstaat in der politischen philosophie von Robert Michels.
  • Röhrich, Wilfreid. 1971. Robert Michels; vom sozialistisch-syndikalistischen zum faschistischen Credo. Duncker & Humblot.
  • Volpe, G. 1972. Elite e/o democrazia.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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