This is Chapter 3 of the web-publication, European Proponents of Sociology Prior To World War I. 
Copyright © 1993 Hans L Zetterberg. 
Swedish version available in  Sociologins följeslagare, (Ratio, Stockholm 1993).

Hans L Zetterberg


Oligarchy in organizations:

Robert Michels



Robert Michels was active at the beginning of our century, and succeeded in defining a problem that was to become highly topical in its latter half: the trend of democratic interest organizations towards oligarchy.  The book issued in 1911 in which he did this is what the English call "a minor classic".


     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, we find the theme of the book: all organizations, regardless of whether they have a democratic constitution or agenda, in practice develop into oligarchies.  Michels wrote 30 books and more than 700 articles, but this work on the democracy of organizations is the alpine peak among them the only one to which present-day students of sociology and government are forced to return.  Before we examine its ideas in more depth, it may be worth recalling the upper-middle-class community in which Michels grew up and the general processes behind the intellectual and political choices of his career.



A leading family is one (a) that develops, retains and renews its wealth over a number of generations; (b) in which some children in each generation secure good positions in the various elites of society; and (c) where the family holds together as a network for information on and influence over the development of a local community or in certain cases the country as a whole.  More than one thinks, the history of Europe and America in the past century has consisted of the history of the leading families.


     Robert Michels was born into a prominent family of this kind in 1876.


     The Michels clan was a leading middle-class family in Cologne that, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, had been successful owners of textile factories.  In

various ways, the family was established in several countries, not only through business,



1  Michels, 1983.

but also by marriage.  The most cosmopolitan member, perhaps, was Robert's paternal grandmother, who was descended from French Huguenots.  Nevertheless, the parents became converted to Catholicism and settled in Limburg.  As part of the Catholic minority in The Netherlands, they identified themselves mainly with Belgium.


     As for a typical industrial family of Central Europe, business for the Michels family was a platform for entering distinct elites.  It sufficed if one or a couple of the children continued with the family companies.  Among Robert's siblings, uncles and first and second cousins there were mayors, prelates, members of parliament, scientists, doctors and (by marriage) aristocrats.  There was even a general who wrote poetry and a doctoral thesis in Latin.  The women of the family pursued culture and charity, mostly Catholic.  But the family was not so Catholic as to preclude two of Robert's siblings marrying Protestants.


     This type of prominent family has had great importance in the building of the European nations.  It integrated itself into various social elites economic, political, religious, military and scientific.  At the Michels' family dinners, young Robert was able to learn how various parts of society worked.  Here, one could also, of course, express one's resentment of Prussia and Bismarck's cultural struggle.  The family was keen on French culture, and Robert was sent to the French lycée in Cologne.


     Like each and every one of his seven siblings, Robert Michels received around 900,000 marks in the form of an advance inheritance, and without doubt also solemn, formal exhortations to make his mark for the benefit of the family and society.



Socialist intellectual from the bourgeoisie


In keeping with the customs of the time, Robert Michels 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.  It was about preparations for Louis XIV's attack on the Low Countries in 1680.  Michels had also briefly tried officer training, and the military subject of his thesis came naturally to him.


     Michels' period of studies and early activities had a radicalising influence on him and resulted in a breach with the family's political and religious traditions.  He became a socialist.  He represents a kind of personal development that was to be fairly common in the twentieth century: a student from the bourgeoisie who becomes a socialist intellectual.  Two features of his process of conversion are also typical.


     First, he refused to believe that the future belonged to the leading middle-class families: it belonged to the working class.  As far as one can determine, Michels made no studies of his own to support this thesis; he was convinced by and absorbed Marx's arguments.  In Michels, as so often in the scions of prominent families, there was a sense that the masses may overwhelm the resources and etiquette of the elites.  (When, much later, he saw Mussolini inciting a mass movement, he also became full of admiration.) In Michels, this sense of the power of the masses was not a fear but a desire and a cornerstone of the social scene.  He conformed to the usual pattern.  Fear that the masses will take over, dissipate the upper class's resources and undermine its lifestyle usually hits upper-class children during their first few years as adults when they are still uncertain whether they have the capacity to take over the responsibilities of their parents' generation.  And if they develop an actual distaste or reluctance to take over, it seems plausible to believe that such a takeover is pointless since the masses will, in due course, get their way in any case.  The fear of the masses taking over is then reshaped into a wish that this will happen.


     Secondly, Michels wanted, if not to lead, at least to inform the masses to make them aware of their inherent power and their historical mission.  He became a journalist for socialist publications and took an active part in the debate in the socialist party.  In this sense, he fulfilled his upbringing for leadership.  His early focus was on the leadership problems of the working class.  His book on organizations and democracy is one on the conditions of being a leader in the labor movement.  The social democracy and trade-union movement that Michels engaged himself in, reported on and wrote for was intellectually vital and, in organizational terms, functioned well.  With more than three million members, the German Social Democratic Party was pre-eminent among Europe's working-class parties in the decades before the first world war.


     The left wing of contemporary social democracy and this was the period before the Bolsheviks' revolution was composed of syndicalists.  Michels was close to them and became close friends with their French source of inspiration, Georges Sorel.


     Lively internal debates took place in the labour movement of imperial Germany debates now forgotten by all except the historians.  Several of them are mentioned as background material in Michels' work on the party system, and this feature makes it a trifle difficult to read nowadays.


     It is important to remember that the labour movement in the empire, despite its numerical strength and organization, never gained the place and the role that one now associates with social democracy in social development.  The Germany social democracy of the nineteenth century had been republican and democratic, but became increasingly Marxist during the conflict with Bismarck's Germany.  The government allowed an independent labour movement to emerge, but at the same time adamantly refused to give the movement any form of political acknowledgement as a negotiating partner.  The result was a deep class division: an isolated working class with its own culture.  Many people found fellowship and self-fulfilment in this screened-off world, and gained there the recognition that official society refused to give them.  Here, there were meetings, associations, lectures, publications, poems, songs and plays that all helped to enhance identification with the working class.


     The big and ever more powerful nation-state also, of course, exercised influence and inspired loyalty.  There came to be a certain ambivalence in both standing up for the working class and standing up for the emperor's realm: in 1914, the latter loyalty took the upper hand.  But before this date the labour movement was a permitted protest movement with no part in the machinery of power, accepted from the national viewpoint since it controlled expressions of hatred and criticism against the social order and converted them into a less dangerous, introverted class culture.


     For readers of Michels' book, it is important to remember that, in contrast to present-day social democracy, that of the empire had no representatives in official commissions, boards of public enterprises, business bodies or cultural institutions.  The leaders of the labor movement had no second career outside the movement: all other positions were blocked.  This presumably made oligarchic tendencies strong, but the temptation for labour leaders to be corrupted through integration with the government and mixing daily with other elites was far smaller in Michels' day than in our own, when rank-and-file social democrats can resemble non-socialists in every respect except the way they vote on election day.





In those days, the German universities were at the height of their influence and renown. But they were prejudiced institutions that rejected women, Jews and socialists from their faculties.  By becoming an active socialist, Michels was cut off from an academic career in Germany.  Max Weber took up Michels' cause and wrote letters to newspapers about the justice of his being reinstated (declared competent).  But it helped no more on this occasion than when Weber advocated a professorship for Georg Simmel, who had been excluded owing to his Jewish descent.  Michels had to apply abroad.  He became an assistant professor at Turin in 1907 and a professor at Basel in 1913.  After a brief guest performance at Chicago University, he moved back to Italy, which became his home country: the University of Perugia gave him a professorship in 1928.  His teaching chairs were formally within the subject of economics, but in practice he transformed them into chairs of sociology.  He is counted among the four greatest in political sociology in the Latin school, the other three being Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel and Vilfredo Pareto.2


     In many ways, Michels stands out as the first cosmopolitan sociologist.  The contemporary suns of the new science Émile Durkheim in France, Max Weber in Germany, Vilfredo Pareto in Italy and W.I. Thomas in the United States never met, did not correspond and hardly ever quoted one another, although they were aware of one another's existence.  Michels knew them all, and also numerous other stars of the social sciences of his time.  He sketched friendly portraits of some of them in his book Berühmte Männer.


     Max Weber played a major role in linking Michels' career from journalism to social science.  He admitted him to his famous "salon" of informal seminars in Heidelberg. Weber made Michels his co-editor for Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, which was one of Europe's three leading sociological journals.3  Michels made use of the extensive knowledge of the labour movement that he had accumulated as a journalist for his major overview articles in Archiv.


     The book on organizations and democracy was the culmination of this process of converting labour journalism into science.  In 1932, a few years before his death, Michels wrote the following in his autobiography about himself and the book: "Without ambition, an idealist of the first water, and more as a work of scientific analysis of politics than for its practical application, he attained in the work on the party system, through a slow, almost unconscious process, a vivisection of the party, a painful dissection of something living."  The book was far from being as coldly analytical as he subsequently appears to have thought: the disappointed democrat shines through in every chapter.


     In his later writings, Michels is prepared to give up on democracy and leave free scope for elitism and charisma.  The disappointed democrat also showed himself to be a disappointed revolutionary.  Abandoning the left wing, he joined the right and availed himself of the iron law of oligarchy to describe and defend fascism.


     We can, of course, appreciate the analysis of the transformation of organizations from democracy to oligarchy without on that account following the elderly Michels to the outer reaches of Fascism in the Italy he adopted as his homeland.  Likewise, we must disregard other objections typical of our own time.  Michels' description of the role of the Jewish intelligentsia, for example, should not be assessed by present-day standards.



2  Readers unfamiliar with this interesting school are recommended to read Burnham's The Machiavellians.

3  The other two were L'année sociologique and Rivista italiana di sociologia.

Theory of oligarchy


The theses that compose Michels' theory of oligarchy are the real message of the book, and social democracy and the trade-union movement in imperial Germany are merely illustrations of that message.  This means that Michels' work is also relevant for organizations outside the labor movement and trade unions, such as non-socialist popular movements, business organizations, learned societies, sports clubs, religious and non-profit-making associations with democratic constitutions.


     If a community in the physical sense is houses and streets between the houses, a community in the sociological sense is, according to Robert Michels, organizations and networks between the organizations.  He attempts to understand and explain social trends by developing a theory of organizations and their interaction.


     Michels' theory is based on a 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 specialist 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).  The elite upholds networks connecting the organization with others; it negotiates with other organizations as opposite parties.  More or less consciously, these perspectives will be slightly colored by the opposite party's perception of reality.  There is a risk of the elite betraying the members, in small steps, in negotiations.


     An overview of some of Michels' theses has been carried out by Ottar Hellevik, the Norwegian political scientist, in the form of a diagram, which is reproduced below.  It is based on Michels' own summary in the section entitled "Intellectual factors" in Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens.4


"But the level of instruction among the leaders of working-class origin is no longer the same as that of their former workmates.  The party mechanism, which, through the


4  Michels..., pp. ... et seq.



1 Democratic rights are extended and spread to include low-status groups as well

2 Expanding organizations mass organizations for the working class

3 Professionalisation of the leadership (recruitment based on qualifications, salaried full-time jobs, low staff turnover)

4 Resource gap between leadership and members

5 Protectionism for the position of leader; attractive career path

6 Integration of the leadership in the established elite of society

7 Freedom of action for the leadership vis-à-vis the members

8 Contempt for the masses the leadership perceives the members as incompetent

9 Control of internal opposition that may threaten the leader's position

10 Goal displacement for the leadership: the organization becomes not a means but an end in itself

11 Identification displacement from the members to other elites

12 Capacity for power the leadership can prevail in conflicts

13 Desire for power the leadership regards domination as important

14 Defensive attitude the leadership avoids confrontation with established centres of power

15 Mass appeal attempts to broaden the social basis of recruitment

16 Assimilation the leadership takes over the elite's values

17 Leadership dominance in conflicts, the leadership's attitude emerges as the victor

18 Increasingly bourgeois nature of the leadership, which acquires conservative interests in conflict with those of the members

19 Organizational oligarchy the leadership constantly acts in opposition to the members' interests

20 Political democracy in society as a whole

abundance of paid and honorary posts at its disposal, offers a career to the workers, and which consequently exercises a powerful attractive force, determines the transformation of a number of proletarians with considerable intellectual gifts into employees whose mode of life becomes that of the petty bourgeois.  This change of condition at once creates the need and provides the opportunity for the acquisition, at the expense of the mass, of more elaborate instruction and a clearer view of existing social relationships.  Whilst their occupation and the needs of daily life render it impossible for the masses to attain to a profound knowledge of the social machinery, and above all of the working of the political machine, the leader of working-class origin is enabled, thanks to his new situation, to make himself intimately familiar with all the technical details of public life, and thus to increase his superiority over the rank and file.  In proportion as the profession of politician becomes a more complicated one, and in proportion as the rules of social legislation become more numerous, it is necessary for one who would understand politics to possess wider experience and more extensive knowledge.  Thus the gulf between the leaders and the rest of the party becomes ever wider, until the moment arrives in which the leaders lose all true sense of solidarity with the class from which they have sprung, and there ensues a new class-division between ex-proletarian captains and proletarian common soldiers.  When the workers choose leaders for themselves, they are with their own hands creating new masters whose principal means of dominion is found in their better instructed minds."


     The strength of Michels' analysis lies in his compilation of the factors affecting the power structure in an organization.  He focuses throughout on what the sociologists call "structural factors", which according to Michels are in all essentials attributes of the organizational structure, not personality traits in members and leaders, that push the democratic organizations parties, trade unions, popular movements, interest groups towards oligarchy.  He rejects 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 (see pp. XX et seq.).


     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.


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