Revolution and Counterrevolution: Change and Persistence in Social Structures

By Seymour Martin Lipset | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Robert Michels and the "Iron Law of Oligarchy"

In Political Parties, first published in 1911, Robert Michels, then a young German sociologist, laid down what has come to be the major political argument against Rousseau's concept of direct popular democracy which underlay much of the traditional democratic and socialist theory. For Michels argued that the malfunctioning of existing democracy, in particular the domination by the leadership over the society and popular organizations, was not primarily a phenomenon which resulted from a low level of social and economic development, inadequate education, or capitalist control of the opinion- forming media and other power resources, but rather was characteristic of any complex social system. Oligarchy, the control of a society or an organization by those at the top, is an intrinsic part of bureaucracy or large-scale organization. Modern man, according to him, is faced with an insoluble dilemma: he cannot have large institutions such as nation-states, trade unions, political parties, or churches, without turning over effective power to the few who are at the summit of these institutions.

To demonstrate his thesis that democracy and large-scale social organization are incompatible, Michels examined the behavior of the Socialist parties in Germany and elsewhere, those which appeared to be, at that time, the most committed to the extension of democracy. Long active personally in the German socialist movement, he presented an intensive analysis of the oligarchic structure of the German Social Democratic party, then the largest Socialist party in the world. An argument that centered on showing the more conservative parties to

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