POLITICAL PARTIES. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies by Robert Michels


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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.”

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