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Is Democratic Government a Utopian Ideal?

May 22, 2016

“Who says organization, says oligarchy.” So states Robert Michels, a German historian who produced one of the most scathing assessments of government ever written. He argues that bureaucracy and democracy don’t mix. Michels is best known for the ingenious Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, published in 1915. The book positively implores us to examine the maxim that power corrupts and to seriously consider if democracy is nothing more than an idealistic impossibility.

Oligarchy is defined as rule by an elite or privileged few. Today people often use the word oligarchy to refer to a leadership class of corporate plutocrats, but what is less understood is how oligarchies form. Oligarchy is rule by a few to be sure. However, the concept or oligarchy in Michels’ lexicon – the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” – is both an explanation for how oligarchies originate, as well as a compelling critique of the inherently flawed structure of all forms of democratic government itself.

Michels wrote Political Parties drawing on his personal experience as a Social Democrat in early 20th Century Germany. As a young man, he had planned a career in the Prussian Army. But after reading Rousseau around 1903, he had a sudden change of heart, quitting the army and rejecting his bourgeois upbringing. Michels joined the socialist movement, becoming deeply enmeshed in party politics between 1903 and 1907, even though his idealism didn’t exactly benefit him personally. Michels was unable to get a job as a historian in Germany because of his status as a Social Democrat, despite being highly recommended by his mentor, the eminent sociologist Max Weber.[1]

His intimate experience within the Social Democratic Party led Michels to conclude that although the movement’s ideals were egalitarian, the functioning of the party’s internal structure was distinctly undemocratic. Michels became increasingly doubtful about social democracy, resigning from the party in 1907. He felt that Revolutionary Marxism was purely powerful rhetoric designed to inspire the proletariat, but not at all representative of the party in actual practice. If an organization which outwardly claims to be democratic does not even function democratically, what must that mean for government generally, Michels wondered? He writes:

“The political forms in which the various social movements become crystallized also assume a philanthropic mask. There is not a single one among the young class-parties which fails, before starting on its march for the conquest of power, to declare solemnly to the world that its aim is to redeem, not so much itself as the whole of humanity, from the yoke of a tyrannical minority, and to substitute for the old and inequitable regime a new reign of justice. Democracies are always glib talkers. Their terminology is often comparable to a tissue of metaphors.” [2]

Disillusioned with what he witnessed, Michels conceptualized one of the great theories about mass organizations – the Iron Law of Oligarchy. C. L. King gives a good overview of the Iron Law in his book review of the first English translation of Political Parties in 1915:

“The major premises of his argument are that leaders are indispensable in democracy and in all democratic organizations and social life itself, and that the inevitable tendency of all leaders is to assert autocratic control. As a corollary of these main premises is the doctrine that ‘organization, based as it is upon the principle of least effort, that is to say on the greatest possible economy of energy, is the weapon of the strong.’ Organization means oligarchy, whether the oligarchy of popularly chosen leaders, or the oligarchy of a politically dominant minority. From out of this inevitable oligarchy come the decisions we erroneously refer to, according to the author, as the judgments of the masses, public opinion, or the will of the state.” [3]

The Iron Law specifically works in the following way. Even in formal organizations where the power is theoretically vested in the membership, or the people at large, there is always a small class of decision makers. The reason is purely pragmatic. It is impossible for everyone to have a direct say in the leadership of a large organization or in government – then nothing gets done and no consensus can be reached.

Leaders take on more power than members of the electorate who put them there in the first place, for both practical and sometimes personal reasons. Once in power, the leaders tend to want to stay in power, and they begin to eschew influence from below. The leadership class may enjoy various benefits and resources which they derive from the grassroots. New leaders are often co-opted by the old leaders, rather than just being selected because of their own merits.

The electorate rarely has the time and skill to effectively prevent this process of consolidation of power. Those most talented at leadership often rise to the top in full time positions, while constituent members meet infrequently, and are often hindered by work, family obligations, lack of resources and access to pertinent information. Disenfranchisement of the electorate leads to apathy, which produces the undemocratic need for a strong leader, since the people are incapable of taking part in decision making:

“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 labour 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.” [4]

Once in power, it is very difficult to get rid of plutocrats. The rank and file cannot easily compete with an entrenched ruling elite. Leaders are better organized and have more access to finances and information than the rank and file, who are at a distinct advantage. This is historically why many reforms were unsuccessful and change came in the form of bloody revolution, only to start the cycle of new leadership and new oligarchy all over again. Michel’s states:

“The government, or, … the state, cannot be anything other than the organization of a minority. It is the aim of this minority to impose upon the rest of society a ‘legal order’ which is the outcome of the exigencies of dominion and of the exploitation of the mass… Even when the discontent of the masses culminates in a successful attempt to deprive the bourgeoisie of power, this is… effected only in appearance; always and necessarily there springs from the masses a new organized minority which raises itself to the rank of a governing class.” [5]

It should be understood that Michels considers oligarchy an “Iron Law,” because it is the direct result of bureaucracy that all governments and formal organizations need in order to function in the first place. Michels is quite clear that the law applies not just to political parties, but to all formal, complex organizations, including trade unions, clubs, professional associations, corporations, government and so on. Even in what starts out as the most democratic or egalitarian movements and organizations, an undemocratic leadership class eventually emerges to control administration, knowledge, strategy, and finance:

“In all times, in all phases of development, in all branches of human activity, there have been leaders. It is true that certain socialists, above all the orthodox Marxists of Germany, seek to convince us that socialism knows nothing of ‘leaders,’ that the party has ‘employees’ merely, being a democratic party, and the existence of leaders being incompatible with democracy. But a false assertion such as this cannot override a sociological law. Its only result is, in fact, to strengthen the rule of the leaders, for it serves to conceal from the mass a danger which really threatens democracy.” [6]

This is not to say that the Iron Law proceeds with unhindered inevitability at every time and place, or that leaders are always corrupt. Certainly there are situational and interpersonal variables in each formal organization. But Michels offers a sociological generalization that has major implications for democratic theory and that when applied to history, it is easily understood and corroborated.

Consider the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks, also known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, started out claiming to be democratic and representative of the proletariat. Within a few years of assuming control, Lenin and Bolshevism itself had become entirely undemocratic – speaking your mind or questioning the party leadership could get you sent off to a special psychiatric hospital or gulag. The party leaders themselves benefited from the largess of the bureaucratic machine which they created at the expense of the rank and file.

We can derive four important conclusions from a reading of Robert Michels’ Political Parties.

First, we should remain somewhat skeptical of all mass organizations, including political party affiliations, and government itself. Unless we are directly involved in leadership, it is impossible to fully know what is going on inside an organization, or what the motivations of the leaders really are. Rhetoric often does not match up with how the organization actually functions in practice, or with the leadership’s true ideals. Leaders should never be viewed as heroes.

Second, there is some truth to Baron Acton’s old adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (This is perhaps ironic since democracies seek to share power among the people). It is not entirely clear whether Acton is correct because the power-hungry purposefully seek out positions which will allow them to exercise control, or because of some general flaw shared among most of humanity. Either way, this human tendency should be acknowledged, along with the fact that it takes a person of exceptional character to resist the various temptations of power.

Third, from Michels’ argument that the more bureaucracy, the more oligarchy, it would follow that governments generally become oligarchical in proportion to their size and complexity. If there are many issues under a government’s purview, the more the government needs a class of coordinators in charge, meaning that socialist governments (which regulate every facet of life), would form plutocracies more quickly than minarchist or limited governments (performing only the most essential functions such as national defense). “The socialists might conquer, but not socialism, which would perish in the moment of its adherents’ triumph,” Michels writes.[7]

Finally, it also follows from Michel’s Iron Law hypothesis that the more oligarchical organizations are those where the membership is the most spread out geographically and those which demand the least participation by the electorate (think democratic governments). Organizations which are more localized, cooperative, and demand more equal participation by members, tend to be the least oligarchical. So if we wish to prevent oligarchies from forming, or at least to stave off their formation temporarily, we should opt for more local, cooperative, and voluntary forms of organization.

Michels himself turned to anarchism around the time that he left the socialist party. Alfred de Grazia characterizes the evolution of Michels’ thought in the following way:

“Michels’ relationship with European democracy is complex. If one searched his life and writings for his hierarchy of values, I believe one would have to place extreme individualism, even anarchy, first and derive from that his succeeding values. An energetic anti-authoritarianism characterized his earliest life and one finds in his later writings pensive, regretful references to the unattainable ideal of a Jeffersonian or Rousseauian democrat.” [8]

Michel’s Iron Law theory definitely holds water, which is why it hasn’t gone away after a hundred years and is not going away any time soon. Political Parties is a difficult work to ignore, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in politics. Representative democracy is a Utopian ideal. It would be inconceivable for a democratic system to exist without bureaucracy, but bureaucracy can’t exist without eventually producing oligarchy.


1- Cook, P. J.. (1971). Robert Michels’s Political Parties in Perspective. The Journal of Politics, 33(3), 773–796. Retrieved from
2- Michels, R.(1915). Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York, Hearst’s International Library Company. 15.
3- King, C. L.. (1916). [Review of Political Parties] The Annals of the American Academy of Political and 4-Social Science, 66, 269–270. Retrieved from
4- Michels, R.(1915). Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York, Hearst’s International Library Company. 53
5- Ibid., 390
6- Ibid., 391
7- Ibid., 35
8- Cook, P. J.. (1971). Robert Michels’s Political Parties in Perspective. The Journal of Politics, 33(3), 773–796. (797.) Retrieved from

1 Comment

  1. Carian

    I have not known Michels’ thought before. It sounds like the ultimate truth, as what starts as quite revolutionary always ends up in corruption. Sometimes I think there is something wrong with our nature.

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