Iron Law of Oligarchy Research Paper

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1. Robert Michels’ Sociology Of Political Leadership

Robert Michels’ classic (1959) can be read as an extended argument that continually returns in various forms to the following syllogism:

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(a) strong organization is necessary to achieve collective democratic goals,

(b) strong organization requires delegation of popular sovereignty to an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre, and,

(c) an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre is incompatible with true democracy.

The paradox in the syllogism is evident: organizations whose professed goals are democratic cannot themselves be democratic.

Michels’ argument was strongly influenced by his friend and mentor Max Weber’s perspective on bureaucracy (Weber 1978). Following Weber, Michels argued that the differentiation of an organizational elite from the rank-and-file was a product of the technical division of labor necessary in complex mass organizations. Weber’s pessimistic analysis of the ‘iron cage’ of modern rationality was reflected in Michels’ own pessimism about the dilemma faced by the party rank-and-file: the benefits of bureaucratic organization were manifold, but could only be realized by forsaking popular sovereignty. Weber also argued that the ‘routinization of charisma’ that led to modern bureaucratic organization was driven by the concerns of the administrative staff to secure and stabilize their position. In Michels’ argument, the conservative tendency of organizational elites stems from their concern to maintain their status and livelihood.

As in Weber, Michels’ argument about mass bureaucratic organization has two elements which coexist in some degree of tension. On the one hand, the rise of bureaucracy is driven by the demand for services provided by a stunningly efficient organizational machine; on the other hand, bureaucracy is a mechanism of elite domination (Kitschelt 1989, pp. 69–70 distinguishes between a ‘weak’ theory of oligarchy based on organizational efficiency and a ‘strong’ theory based on elite domination). Thus, Michels moves back and forth from arguing that oligarchy is explained by the masses’ adoration of and gratitude towards their leaders to arguing that it is explained by elites’ ability to co-opt dissent through control over patronage and the media. The tension can be highlighted as follows: despite the leaders’ subversion of the revolutionary goals and democratic aspirations of the masses, the masses remain grateful and obedient.

To explain this tension, Michels turned to another source of intellectual influence: a conservative view of the masses associated with the Italian elite theorists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca and the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon. Pareto and Mosca drew a sharp distinction between the elites and the masses and argued that the competence and energy of the elites made it possible for them to rule the unenterprising masses. Influenced by Le Bon’s study of the irrationality of crowds, Michels argued that the masses are weakly organized and hence politically immature and even incompetent. Unable to organize themselves, the masses have a strong need for leadership. The relatively strong emphasis on psychological factors in Political Parties—such as the argument that the masses have ‘a need to pay adoring worship’ to their leaders —seems to derive from Le Bon (though we cannot forget Weber’s analysis of charisma). The psychological distance between elites and masses leads the rank-and-file to behave in a deferential way towards their leaders.

While elite theory is often seen as a rejection of the Marxist analysis of class struggle—and Michels certainly used his analysis to deflate the optimism of Marxism—elements of a Marxian analysis can also be seen in Political Parties. At numerous points, Michels suggests that the organizational asymmetry between elites and masses is akin to a class struggle. With their monopoly over the means of production (organization), the elite is essentially able to extract surplus rents from the social movement. He analyzes the organizational differentiation of elites and masses as a process of embourgeoisement. Even (or especially) leaders of proletarian origin become culturally, educationally, and financially differentiated from their original social class and consequently lose all fraternal feeling towards the working class.

2. Parties, Social Movements, And Organizations

Michels’ articulation of the iron law of oligarchy has had a broad impact on subsequent studies of political parties, social movements, and organizations. Nevertheless, the basic thrust of this subsequent literature has been to qualify and nuance Michels’ portrait of the distribution of power in organizations.

One of the first important studies to follow up on Michels’ analysis in the political party literature was McKenzie’s (1963) study of the power structure of the British Conservative and Labour Parties. McKenzie found considerable evidence that a relatively small group of leaders in both parties wielded disproportionate power. But he also noted that revolts of the rank-and-file occasionally replaced unpopular leaders. ‘The ‘‘law of oligarchy,’’ he concluded, ‘is certainly not an ‘‘iron’’ law’ (McKenzie 1963, p. 644).

A major limitation of Michels’ analysis is that he underestimates the factionalism of many political parties. In a historical analysis of the German Social Democratic Party (Michels’ major example of the iron law), Schorske (1955) argues that the conservatism Michels attributed to bureaucratization really reflected the dominance of a faction representing a particular constituency. Indeed, as Ansell and Fish argue (1999), it may be factionalism rather than bureaucratization that is the structural basis for the indispensability of certain party leaders. In a comparison of factional politics in the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party, Koelble (1991) argues that Michels also errs in not accounting for the way different internal institutional structures shape the dynamics of intra-party democ- racy.

Party scholars have also sought to provide alternative descriptions of the nature of power in party organizations. Eldersveld (1964), for example, contrasted oligarchy with ‘stratarchy,’ an organization where political power was diffused across different levels of the party. In the most general and systematic treatment of party organization in the literature, Panebianco (1988) has described political power within parties in terms of a ‘dominant coalition,’ a term intended to avoid the unitary image Michels gave to the party elite. Like Eldersveld, Panebianco argues that power is often distributed across different institutional locations inside and outside the party.

In a study of two Belgian ecology parties, Kitschelt and Hellemans (1990) asked party activists how they explained deficiencies in intra-party democracy. They found that party activists primarily supported a view of party oligarchy based on the technical efficiency of leadership and rejected a more conspiratorial view of elite domination. They argue that these parties do exhibit internal stratification, but

resemble loosely coupled institutions with multiple countervailing power centers rather than tightly organized, centralist bureaucratic hierarchies (Kitschelt and Hellemans 1990, p. 164).

They also discover an interesting paradox: party activists in the party with the most plural power structure were more inclined to criticize elite domination. Kitshelt and Hellemans attribute this to the greater radicalism and participation of these activists, who are consequently more sensitive to elite domination.

Social movement theory has also been attentive to the implications of Michels’ iron law. Very much in the spirit of Michels, Piven and Cloward (1977) launched an important debate in the field when they argued that institutionalized protest largely stifles successful mobilization by ‘poor people’s movements.’ Paralleling the trend in political party studies, however, much of the social movement literature has sought to circumscribe the iron law. Zald and Garner (1987), for instance, argued that oligarchy is only one possible outcome that depends on the character of leadership, organizational structure, and membership participation. Kriesi (1996) has argued that only ‘instrumental movements’ (those not concerned with the collective identity of their constituency) are susceptible to oligarchy.

Finally, Michels has had an important influence in the field of organization theory. Notably, Selznick’s (1984) influential critique of the ‘myth of grassroots democracy’ in the Tennessee Valley Authority was inspired by Michels’ analysis. It is important to point out that for Selznick, Michels’ critical insight was not so much the phenomenon of elite domination, but the process of ‘goal displacement’—the tendency of organizations facing internal and external pressures to forget or compromise their original goals. Ideals may be displaced in the name of organizational imperatives even where elite domination does not hold true.

Otherwise, the trend in studies of organizations (and in organization theory) has also been to emphasize the contingent and plural nature of power in organization. While for the most part accepting the iron law, Lipset et al. (1956) analyzed internal democracy in the International Typographical Union (ITU) as a ‘deviant case.’ They found the requisites of internal democracy in the active participation of printers in organizational affairs, in the federal rather than unitary structure of organization, and in a history of factional in-fighting that led to an institutionalized two-party system within the ITU. Also stressing the importance of federal organization and factionalism as important conditions for internal democracy, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin (1996) found internal democracy prevalent in industrial unions where there was a history of insurgency ‘from below’ against craft unionism.

The thrust of the literature in each of these fields has been to downgrade the ‘iron law’ to a ‘tendency under certain conditions.’ Nevertheless, oligarchy remains a ‘tendency’ worth attending to, and this is Michels’ lasting contribution.


  1. Ansell C K, Fish M S 1999 The art of being indispensable: Noncharismatic personalism in contemporary political parties. Comparative Political Studies 32(3): pp. 283–312
  2. Eldersveld S J 1964 Political Parties: A Behavioral Analysis. Rand McNally, Chicago
  3. Kitschelt H 1989 The Logics of Party Formation: Ecological Politics in Belgium and West Germany. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  4. Kitschelt H, Hellemans S 1990 Beyond the European Left: Ideology and Political Action in the Belgian Ecology Parties. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
  5. Koelble T A 1991 The Left Unraveled: Social Democracy and the New Left Challenge in Britain and West Germany. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
  6. Kriesi H 1996 The organizational structure of new social movements in a political context. In: McAdam D, McCarthy J P, Zald M N (eds.) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 152–84
  7. Lipset S M, Trow M A, Coleman J S 1956 Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union. The Free Press, Glencoe, NY
  8. McKenzie R T 1963 British Political Parties: The Distribution of Power Within the Conservative and Labour Parties. St. Martin’s Press, New York
  9. Michels R 1959 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. Dover Publications, New York
  10. Panebianco A 1988 Political Parties: Organization and Power. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  11. Piven F F, Cloward R A 1977 Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. Pantheon, New York
  12. Schorske C E 1955 German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  13. Selznick P 1984 TVA and the Grass Roots. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  14. Stepan-Norris J, Zeitlin M 1996 Insurgency, radicalism, and democracy in America’s industrial unions. Social Forces 75: 1–32
  15. Weber M 1978 Economy and Society. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  16. Zald M N, Garner R A 1987 Social movement organizations: Growth, decay, and change. In: Zald M N, McCarthy J D (eds.) Social Movements in an Organizational Society. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 121–41


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