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Political Parties (book)

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Title: Political Parties (book)  
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Political Parties (book)

Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (German: Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie; Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens) is a book by sociologist Robert Michels, published in 1911 and first introducing the concept of iron law of oligarchy. It is considered one of the classics of social sciences, in particular sociology and political science.[1][2] It was translated to Italian as Sociologia del partito politico nella democrazia moderna: studi sulle tendenze oligarchiche degli aggregati politici by Alfredo Polledro in 1912, and then translated from the Italian to English by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul for Hearst's International Library Co. in 1915.

This work analyzes the socialist political parties - are in fact oligarchical, and dominated by a small group of leadership. The book also provides a first systematic analysis of how a radical political party loses its radical goals under the dynamics of electoral participation. The origins of moderation theory can be found in this analysis.


  • Synopsis 1
  • Significance 2
  • Criticism 3
  • Quotes 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Michels put forward a thesis about incompatibility of democracy and large-scale social organizations. He observed that contrary to democratic and egalitarian principles, both society in general, and specific organizations in particular are dominated by the leadership - the iron law of oligarchy.[3]

The iron law of oligarchy is based on the following logic. First, any large scale organization will necessitate the development of bureaucracy for efficient administration.[4] Such leaders will amass resources (superior knowledge control over the formal means of communication with the membership, and the skill in the art of politics) given them power at the expense of rank and file members.[4]

Second, Michels expressed doubts about whether the rank and file possess the skills necessary to compete with the leaders, a concept he phrased as the "incompetence of the masses". In order to prevent the development of an oligarchy, the regular members must be involved in various activities of the organizations; however, reality of time constrains due to work, family and leisure will reduce the amount of time that most such members are willing to dedicate to active involvement in organizational activities and politics. This is compounded by the rank and file lack of education, and corresponding sophistication of the leadership.[5]

In his case study of his contemporary

  • Political Parties, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library – machine-readable version of the text, in HTML form
  • Robert Michels index – machine-readable version of the text, in PDF form

External links

  • Gordon Hands, "Roberto Michels and the Study of Political Parties", British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1971), pp. 155–172, JSTOR
  • For a powerful critique of Michels see Colin Barker, "Robert Michels and the 'Cruel Game'", in Colin Barker et al. (eds.) Leadership and Social Movements (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)

Further reading


  1. ^ a b Hughes, Sharrock, Martin, Understanding Classical Sociology, p. 127
  2. ^ a b Lipset, "Introduction", pp. 20–21, in Michels, Political Parties
  3. ^ a b c d e Lipset, "Introduction", p. 15, in Michels, Political Parties
  4. ^ a b c Lipset, "Introduction", p. 16, in Michels, Political Parties
  5. ^ Lipset, "Introduction", p. 17, in Michels, Political Parties
  6. ^ Lipset, "Introduction", p. 18, in Michels, Political Parties
  7. ^ Lipset, "Introduction", pp. 19–20, in Michels, Political Parties
  8. ^ a b Lipset, "Introduction", p. 21, in Michels, Political Parties
  9. ^ a b Lipset, "Introduction", p. 22, in Michels, Political Parties
  10. ^ a b Lipset, "Introduction", p. 24, in Michels, Political Parties
  11. ^ Lipset, "Introduction", p. 27, in Michels, Political Parties


See also

  • "A party of the landed gentry which should appeal only to the members of its own class and to those of identical economic interests, would not win a single seat, would not send a single representative to parliament. A conservative candidate who should present himself to his electors by declaring to them that he did not regard them as capable of playing an active part in influencing the destinies of the country, and should tell them that for this reason they ought to be deprived of the suffrage, would be a man of incomparable sincerity, but politically insane."


Michels argument has been criticized for being over-deterministic and overly critical of bureaucracy.[11]


[10] Beyond political parties, Michels work was used to explain the functioning of numerous other voluntary organizations from

Sigmund Neumann said that "the study of sociology of political parties have been completely dominated by Robert Michels' iron law of [oligarchy]."[8] Michels work significantly influenced the views on political party theory by his friend and one of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber.[8] A number of other theorists of political parties acknowledged that this work was a major influence on theirs, including James Bryce, Maurice Duverger and Robert McKenzie, among others.[9]

Michels book quickly became a classic of proletariat against bourgeoisie".[7]



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