Robert Michels was a German sociologist and political theorist with seminal contributions to the studies of oligarchy, democracy and elites. Born in 1876 in Cologne, Michels studied in England and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He also studied at universities in Munich, Leipzig (1897) and Halle (1898), where he obtained his PhD.
In 1903, Michels joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but was highly critical of its leadership. Michels defended a syndicalist viewpoint, arguing that participation in Parliamentary politics will not result in socialism. He claimed that elections required too much compromise and instead advocated the view that the best way towards socialism is trade union action, leading to a general strike - seizing the means of production by the workers. Michels criticized the SPD as thinking too much about winning seats in the Reichstag and to act in accordance with the law, and for not being militant enough in its opposition to the virtual military dictatorship of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Michels left the SPD in 1907, but his involvement with socialism meant that he could not run for an academic job in Germany. The government then controlled academic appointments and discriminated against socialists, Catholics and Jews. Even the fact that Michels was supported by Max Weber (1864 - 1920), a liberal and a professor, could not secure him an academic job. However Weber managed to arrange a job for Michels in Turin, Italy, where the sociologist met Gaetano Mosca (1858 -1941). Michels taught economics, political science and sociology at the University of Turin until 1914, when he moved to Switzerland to become professor of economics at the University of Basel. He held that position until 1926.
In 1928, Michels returned to Italy at the invitation of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) and accepted a chair of politics promoting Fascism. Michels spent the last years of his life in Italy as professor of economics and the history of doctrines at the University of Perugia. He died in Rome on May 3, 1936.
Michels's most seminal contribution is the so-called iron law of oligarchy, which he formulated in his book Political Parties (1911). The law states that any organization implies the tendency to oligarchy. According to Michels, in every organization, be it a political party or a professional union, the mechanism of the organization induces profound changes in the organized mass. Oligarchy, he says, may develop out of the simple desire of an organization to be more effective. Thus members of an organization may look for organizers and leaders for good reasons - the division of labor. But then these people become specialized at various things and form the so-called expert leadership, that is a leadership with unique skills that make it indispensable. As a result of the organization mechanism, every party or a professional union becomes divided into a minority of leaders and a majority of led.
Michels took a view that elites would always exist, but a mechanism should be found so that they are forced to change once in a while. However, he warned that the leaders, once attaining maximum power, are unlikely to cede it, as this would indicate their weakness. Michels's views of oligarchy were heavily influenced by Marxism, the works of Max Weber on bureaucracy, and his own personal background. Political Parties, in fact, represents a generalization of Michels's criticism of the leadership mechanisms at the SPD, applied to all parties and organizations. His main argument for such a generalization is that if a party which seeks democracy cannot avoid becoming an oligarchy, then all other organizations are also facing the same threat.
Political Parties has been criticized for lacking precise definitions of organization and oligarchy. This has been seen as one of the reasons for there being so few systematic studies of oligarchy after Michels's seminal work. Up to now, sociologists and political theorists have failed to provide a common definition of the term oligarchy. Most scholars agree on the etymological definition that says oligarchy is a rule by the few, but there are no other universally accepted characteristics of the term. This lack of clarity has paved the way for comparative studies of oligarchy, such as The Logic of Political Survival (2004) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James Morrow, Randolph Siverson, and Alistair Smith.