First published in German in 1911, Robert Michels’ ‘Political Parties’ is a classic of political and social science; it analyses the evolution of oligarchical power structures within political parties and trade unions, particularly those, ostensibly, most committed to egalitarian and democratic ideals — socialist parties, organisations and trade unions — including anarcho-syndicalist labour unions. Clearly and succinctly the libertarian syndicalist (at the time) Michels explains the emergence of elites and the process and dynamic by which radical parties lose sight of their radical objectives within representative parliamentary and electoral systems. His starting point is the hypothesis that in organizations committed to the realization of democratic values there inevitably arise strong oligarchic tendencies, which present a serious if not insuperable obstacle to the realization of those values. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy”. Thus Michels summed up his famous “iron law of oligarchy.”
“A prendre le terme dans la rigueur de I’acception il n’a jamais existé de veritable democratie, et il n’en existera jamais. II est contre I’ordre naturel que le grand nombre gouverne, et que le petit soit gouverné. ” — J. J. Rousseau, Contrat Social.
Leadership is a necessary phenomenon in every form of social life. Consequently it is not the task of science to inquire whether this phenomenon is good or evil, or predominantly one or the other. But there is great scientific value in the demonstration that every system of leadership is incompatible with the most essential postulates of democracy. We are now aware that the law of the historic necessity of oligarchy is primarily based upon a series of facts of experience. Like all other scientific laws, sociological laws are derived from empirical observation. In order, however, to deprive our axiom of its purely descriptive character, and to confer upon it that status of analytical explanation which can alone transform a formula into a law, it does not suffice to contemplate from a unitary outlook those phenomena which may be empirically established; we must also study the determining causes of these phenomena. Such has been our task.
Never is the power of the state greater, and never are the forces of political parties of opposition less effective, than at the outbreak of war. This deplorable war, comes like a storm in the night, when everyone, wearied with the labours of the day, was plunged in well-deserved slumber, rages all over the world with unprecedented violence, and with such a lack of respect for human life and of regard for the eternal creations of art as to endanger the very cornerstones of a civilization dating from more than a thousand years. One of the cornerstones of historical materialism is that the working classes all over the world are united as if by links of iron through the perfect community of economico-social interests which they possess in face of the bourgeoisie, this community of interests effecting a horizontal stratification of classes which runs athwart and supersedes the vertical stratification of nations and of races. The greatest difference, in fact, in the views taken of economico- social classes and of linguistico-ethical nationalities, as between the respective adherents of nationalistic theories and of the theories of historical materialism, consists in this, that the former propound the hypothesis that the concept “nation” is morally and positively predominant over the concept “class,” whilst the latter consider the concept and reality “nation” altogether subordinate to the concept “class.” The Marxists, in fact, believed that the consciousness of class had become impressed upon the entire mentality of the proletariat imbued with socialist theories.
CHAPTER II: DEMOCRACY AND THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY
Reduced to its most concise expression, the fundamental sociological law of political parties (the term “political” being here used in its most comprehensive significance) may be formulated in the following terms: “It is organisation which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organisation, says oligarchy.”
Whilst the majority of the socialist schools believe that in a future more or less remote it will be possible to attain to a genuinely democratic order, and whilst the greater number of those who adhere to aristocratic political views consider that democracy, however dangerous to society, is at least realizable, we find in the scientific world a conservative tendency voiced by those who deny resolutely and once for all that there is any such possibility. As was shown in an earlier chapter, 1 this tendency is particularly strong in Italy, where it is led by a man of weight, Gaetano Mosca, who declares that no highly developed social order is possible without a “political class,” that is to say, a politically dominant class, the class of a minority. Those who do not believe in the god of democracy are never weary of affirming that this god is the creation of a childlike mythopoeic faculty, and they contend that all phrases representing the idea of the rule of the masses, such terms as state, civic rights, popular representation, nation, are descriptive merely of a legal principle, and do not correspond to any actually existing facts. They contend that the eternal struggles between aristocracy and democracy of which we read in history have never been anything more than struggles between an old minority, defending its actual predominance, and a new and ambitious minority, intent upon the conquest of power, desiring either to fuse with the former or to dethrone and replace it. On this theory, these class struggles consist merely of struggles between successively dominant minorities. The social classes which under our eyes engage in gigantic battles upon the scene of history, battles whose ultimate causes are to be found in economic antagonism, may thus be compared to two groups of dancers executing a chassé croisé in a quadrille.
At this point in our inquiry two decisive questions present themselves. One of these is whether the oligarchical disease of the democratic parties is incurable. This will be considered in the next chapter. The other question may be formulated in the following terms. Is it impossible for a democratic party to practise a democratic policy, for a revolutionary party to pursue a revolutionary policy? Must we say that not socialism alone, but even a socialistic policy, is Utopian? The present chapter will attempt a brief answer to this inquiry.