“Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

Elite theory is the conception of politics which asserts that elites will always rule in any society, no matter how democratic nominally. The most famous elite theorists are the Italians Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, and the German Robert Michels. The purpose of this writeup is to explain Michels's contribution to elite theory as presented in his classic, Political Parties. This work, first published in 1911, analyzes the power structures of socialist parties and trade unions. Michels’s main argument in Political Parties is that like all organizations, even socialist parties which are in theory fundamentally committed to democracy, are oligarchical. Michels's analysis has profound implications for socialism, and it helps explain why socialist states have failed. The argument of Political Parties also challenges our ideas of democracy, and is therefore entirely relevant today.

Organization and oligarchy
Any group needs to be organized in order to be effective.

A class which unfurls in the face of society the banner of certain definite claims, and which aspires to the realization of a complex of ideal aims deriving from the economic functions which that class fulfils, needs an organization. Be the claims economic or be they political, organization appears the only means for the creation of a collective will. Organization … is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong. (p. 61; all references by page number are to Political Parties)

Organization is especially crucial for the proletariat, since it is the weakest class in society. The only chance of success for the proletariat in improving its conditions is in building effective organizations.

Organizations require leadership. Michels argues that the masses can never directly control a political party. This is the case because of mere logistics. The average person does not have the time nor the financial resources to devote himself to working for the party. Regular mass meetings of thousands of participants are virtually impossible to arrange.

Hence the need for delegation … Even in groups sincerely animated with the democratic spirit, current business, the preparation and the carrying out of the most important actions, is necessarily left in the hands of individuals. (p. 66)

Thus, any political party or trade union will have a rudimentary oligarchy from the beginning. But at first, the oligarchy is closely controlled by the masses. Most oligarchies in democratic parties and democratic states uphold an image of such control even in later stages of their history. But Michels argues that this is merely an illusion. In reality, the oligarchy, the small elite at the top, has the power. Why?

The most important reason is the technical superiority of the leadership. Even though the leadership is originally recruited from among the rank and file of a party, being in power gives it a much more intimate knowledge of the workings of the party than the masses have. As the party grows, so does the bureaucracy of the party mushroom. Party officials take over ever more specialized tasks, for which technical knowledge is required. The average member of the party simply could not perform the necessary tasks in the party bureaucracy and leadership. The party elite has made itself indispensable. The technical specialization that inevitably results from all extensive organization renders necessary what is called expert leadership. Consequently the power of determination comes to be considered one of the specific attributes of leadership, and is gradually withdrawn from the masses to be concentrated in the hands of the leaders alone. Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective will, soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control. (p. 70)

Furthermore, the masses want leadership. An average person, even an average party member, does not have a significant interest in politics, especially the day-to-day operation of parties. The man on the street is willing to be lead.

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. (p. 88)

The leadership is most often considered legitimate by the followers. Those who are in power believe that it is their right to rule, and the masses do not protest. The masses both need leadership and want it. Hence, the Iron Law of Oligarchy holds in any organization: an elite always rules.

Michels and syndicalism
Michels started out his intellectual life as a Marxist, and his political life as a syndicalist. Syndicalism was a socialist movement whose adherents argued that the fundamental problem in the socialist parties of the day was one of leadership. Socialist parties had become influenced by parliamentarianism, because they had admitted bourgeois members. Syndicalists argued that the way forward for socialist parties was to get rid of the bourgeois influence, and create a pure, radical working class party.

In Political Parties, Michels turns the syndicalist analysis on its head. Firstly, he asserts that bourgeois intellectuals are fundamentally important for socialist parties. More importantly, he argues that the syndicalist goal is inherently contradictory. Even a pure proletarian party would soon become impure, because proletarians recruited to the party leadership became petty bourgeois.

The proletarian leader has ceased to be a manual worker, not solely in the material sense, but psychologically and economically as well. ... he has become an intermediary just as much as his colleagues in leadership, the lawyer and the doctor. ... the leader of proletarian origin is subject to exactly the same oligarchical tendencies as is the bourgeois refugee who has become a labor leader. (279)

The worker who becomes a party or union official gains a much better social position than that of his former colleagues. He may still uphold his socialist sympathies; he may continue to sincerely believe in the righteousness of the cause. But in material terms, he has become part of another social class. If he is high up in the leadership of a major working class party such as the SPD, he may even become a part of the bourgeoisie. His sons will go to private schools and elite universities. They will most probably be hostile to the socialist ideology that enabled their social rise in the first place.

The syndicalist movement was thus doomed to failure. It correctly identified leadership as a fundamental problem of socialist parties, but failed to recognized that it was an unsolvable problem. It might be possible to purge the bourgeoisie from the proletarian parties, but this would amount to little since proletarian leaders would become bourgeois themselves.

Michels's analysis of socialism
By the time Michels wrote Political Parties, he had abandoned his socialist politics, though in his thinking he was profoundly influenced by Marx. One of the most fascinating aspects of Political Parties is Michels's penetrating, sometimes even prophetic analysis of socialism. He writes:

The problem of socialism is not merely a problem in economics. In other words, socialism does not seek merely to determine to what extent it is possible to realize a distribution of wealth which shall be at once just and economically productive. Socialism is also an administrative problem, a problem of democracy ... (p. 350)

The collectivization of the means of production and the end of bourgeois property are insufficient for the establishment of a truly socialist society. Such a society still needs to be administered. And the ones who administer such a society will have a great deal of power.

Firstly, Michels attacks Marx's conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx thought such a dictatorship was necessary in the first phases of the socialist revolution, before a truly communist society could be established. Michels thought it made no sense to advocate dictatorship in order to eventually achieve a socialist utopia.

... it is manifest that the concept dictatorship is the direct antithesis of the concept democracy. The attempt to make dictatorship serve the ends of democracy is tantamount to the endeavor to utilize war as the most efficient means for the defense of peace, or to employ alcohol in the struggle against alcoholism. It is extremely probable that a social group which had secured control of the instruments of collective power would do all that was possible to retain that control (my italics). (p. 349)

The foremost practitioner of the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat was Lenin. As soon as he got into power, he unleashed an unprecedented campaign of state terror. The Bolshevik party retained control of power until the demise of the Soviet Union. It requires only a rudimentary knowledge of history to realize that Michels's analysis of the dictatorship of the proletariat was correct.

Furthermore, once a socialist state is established, it will have leaders, like any organization. In a socialist state all property is collective - it is, in effect, state property. By virtue of administering that property, whoever is in charge of the state will have immense power.

The administration of an immeasurably large capital, above all when this capital is collective property, confers upon the administrator influence at least equal to that possessed by the private owner of capital. (p. 348)

The rulers of a socialist state, no matter how ideologically devoted to communism, will not want to give up this power.

Consequently the critics in advance of the Marxist social order ask whether the instinct which today leads the members of the possessing classes to transmit to their children the wealth which they (the parents) have amassed, will not exist also in the administrators of the public wealth of the socialist state, and whether these administrators will not utilize their immense influence in order to secure for their children the succession to the offices which they themselves hold. (p. 348)

Michels, writing in 1911, understood that any so-called socialist society is a priori oligarchical and has great potential for dictatorship and oppression. It is obvious that twentieth century history has vindicated him. Lenin achieved what Michels thought socialist revolutionaries could at best achieve:

The socialists might conquer, but not socialism, which would perish in the moment of its adherents' triumph. (p. 355)

The Iron Law of Oligarchy and democracy
Michels's theory poses a serious challenge to democracy. If all political parties, trade unions, and states - even the most democratic ones - are fundamentally and a priori oligarchic, what chance is there of ever even approaching the ideal of democracy? Italian elitist writers such as Mosca and Pareto had presented similar arguments against the possibility of democracy, and they had relished the implications. Later, Michels was to renounce democracy altogether and placed his faith in strong, charismatic leadership. Sadly, this took the form of Benito Mussolini. Michels accepted a university professorship offered him by Mussolini personally. But when Michels was writing Political Parties, he was definitely no fascist. His verdict on democracy is harsh, but ultimately positive.

Michels accepts the logical conclusion of his argument - perfect democracy is impossible. Leadership is indispensable. Leaders will always have a degree of independence from the led, since they possess skills and have access to resources that the masses cannot have. This fact will not go away if the masses are sufficiently educated, for instance. It is a law of social organization, "The Iron Law of Oligarchy". The people will never rule.

However, Michels considers democracy to be the ideal. His whole purpose in Political Parties is to point out how far so-called democratic parties are from this ideal. It is also possible to limit the power of the oligarchs. Michels believes that although education of the masses will never repudiate the Iron Law, it does foster free inquiry and the questioning of authority.

A wider education involves an increasing capacity for exercising control ... It is ... the great task of social education to raise the intellectual level of the masses, so that they may be enabled, within the limits of what is possible, to counteract the oligarchical tendencies ... (p. 369)

Winston Churchill once said that "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others." Michels concurs. Although democracy has inherently aristocratic elements, it is preferable to aristocracy. And indeed to the most extreme form of aristocracy, absolute monarchy.

... the more humanity comes to recognize the advantages which democracy, however imperfect, presents over aristocracy, even at its best, the less likely is it that a recognition of the defects of democracy will provoke a return to aristocracy. (p. 370)

Finally, Michels affirms that even though democracy may be unattainable, it is worth pursuing.

The peasant in the fable, when on his death-bed, tells his sons that a treasure is buried in the field. After the old man's death the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative well-being. The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy. Democracy is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense. (p. 368)

Howell, D. (2004) Lecture and seminar on Political Parties (York, University of York)
Michels, R. (1962) Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York, The Free Press)