George Walford: The Iron Law

Robert Michels’ book, Political Parties, a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy [1], first appeared in 1911, and quickly became famous [2]. The English translation has been available since 1915 (there were also Italian, German, French and Japanese versions) and in those seventy-five years nobody, so far as I have been able to find out, has shown him to be wrong. Reformers and revolutionaries have little to say about him, carrying on as if he had never written, but his results have been ignored rather than disproved.

His thesis derives from the observation that each party, trade union and co-operative society remains firmly under the control of a few leaders. This holds good even for those professing a commitment to democracy, the only exceptions being some of the very small ones. For two centuries and more reformers and revolutionaries have been working to promote the rule of the many against the rule of the few, but with no great success; even a successful revolution does little more, in this respect, than replace one set of rulers by another. Resistance to rule by the many comes from within the democratic movement as well as from without it, for every organisation that grows breeds its own clique of leaders; the political future holds no wider prospect than replacement of one oligarchy by another.

Reduced to its most concise expression, the fundamental law of political parties may be formulated in the following terms: 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. [3]

Since few (Michels not among them) seriously propose that human beings should try to live without organisation it follows that domination by the few must be expected to continue; it is built in, even to the parties which democrats form in the hope of ending it. “Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy. If laws are passed to control the domination of the leaders, it is the laws which gradually weaken, and not the leaders.” [4] He has the courage to follow through, ending his book with the sentence: “It is probable that this cruel game will continue without end.”

Michels found himself, much to his dismay, driven to recognise an “iron law” of oligarchy. From the bare fact that they, and not others, perform a given function, the delegates acquire special abilities which make them hard to displace, and in practice they enjoy an even stronger position, for in complex modern societies effective performance of delegated functions requires special training, knowledge and understanding not shared by the general body of members. “The technical specialization that inevitably results from all extensive organization renders necessary what is called expert leadership”. [5] German and Italian socialist parties have found it necessary to set up training colleges for their administrators, while in England the co-operative societies and trade unions use Ruskin College for the purpose.

Election of delegates does not secure control by the majority, for only the qualified few are eligible and, in any case, “directly the election is finished, the power of the mass of electors over the delegate comes to an end. The deputy regards himself as authorized arbiter of the situation, and really is such.” [6] In addition to all this, the delegate comes to believe he possesses a moral right to the office and enforces his claim by the threat of resignation. [7] Michels cites, among other instances, that of Lassalle when President of the General Association of German Workers in 1864. Faced with criticism he threatened to resign and it was the critic who got expelled.

The tendency for domination to fall into the hands of small groups of leaders has not gone unremarked or unopposed, but it has overridden all attempts to restrain it. In the USA the supreme leader is chosen by popular election, but the people do not exercise noticeably more control over the government there than elsewhere. Switzerland has tried to maintain direct popular sovereignty by means of the referendum, and several of the European socialist parties have sought to control their leaders in this way. Results have been disappointing. The time taken by this process rules it out for any urgent question, and seldom do more than half of those entitled to vote take the trouble to do so [8]. Syndicalism and anarchism have also been proposed as solutions, but neither has proved satisfactory: “From the ranks of the French syndicalists, leaders have already sprung whose insensitiveness towards the criticisms of their followers can be equalled only by that of an English trade-union leader,” and Sorel himself has recognised the movement’s inability to control oligarchy within its ranks. Anarchism avoids the danger so long as it refrains from formal organisation, but this condition bars anarchists from participation, as a united body, in practical politics. No less an anarchist than Malatesta, at the Amsterdam conference of 1907, declared that in order to combat the power of the rich the poor would need to form a powerful organization themselves – a step, Michels’ evidence goes to show, that would inescapably bring oligarchy.

There is more in the book than I have tried to indicate, not all of it valuable. Michels has the academic’s tendency to bring the argument to a crux and then slide away into an account of what this or that writer has said on the issue. His willingness to adapt theory to fit raw observation sometimes threatens to render it so flexible as to be useless, for example when he says that a trade unionist becoming a salaried official is thereby “lifted out of the working class into a new class, that of the salaried employees.” [9] (The equivalent, in physical science, would be to add to the law of gravitation a special paragraph to account for the behaviour of hydrogen balloons). Michels has this one great merit, that he draws attention to the consistency with which political organisations, even those professing a commitment to popular sovereignty, come under the domination of small groups of leaders. Further, that he establishes his theme with a body of evidence that compels people thinking seriously about social affairs to take it into account.

Writing when he did, and being at least sympathetic to socialism, Marxish if not Marxist, Michels could hardly avoid the belief in some special connection between oligarchy and the capitalist class, but he makes little attempt to establish any link, much less to demonstrate a causal connection. Noting that professional administrators in proletarian organisations, such as trade unions and co-operative societies, enjoy an education higher than that of the general body of members, he argues that this links them with the exploiters against the exploited. Here he commits a confusion of categories, for advanced or specialised education and attachment to the capitalist class do not have to go together. An old story about the Duke of Wellington makes the point: asked to support Mechanics’ Institutes he questioned the value of education: “Look at the Veres, the Cecils, the Stanleys; they’re doing well enough, and not one of them can read or write.” Capitalists, even petty ones, are not defined by their knowledge or understanding, but by the wealth which enables them to hire these abilities. We can bypass Michels’ attempts to ascribe the events he studies to class divisions and concentrate upon the political relations which form his main theme, upon the tendency for large movements, even those claiming to be socialist or communist, to come under the control of small minorities, ruling groups which neither win nor hold their position by virtue of membership of, or support from, the capitalist class.

Michels ends by throwing up his hands in despair, resigning himself to continuing oligarchy and retaining only the hope that in future it will be kept to the minimum. Are there any useful comments to be made?

There are indeed, the first being that although this widespread tendency towards oligarchy contravenes socialist expectations, it fits well with the predictions derived from systematic ideology. If the majority are inclined, by their conditions of life, towards socialistic equality, political freedom and democracy, then general acceptance of oligarchy is incomprehensible. If, on the other hand, the great ideological groups, those comprising the bulk of the population, are inclined towards acceptance or support of domination / submission, then it is just what has to be expected.

In non-socialist organisations oligarchy comes as a matter of course, and Michels has little to say about these. His concern lies with socialist movements (and with those, like trade unions and co-operative societies, that he assumes to be socialistic because they are proletarian). So long as these remain small they remain free of infection; the trouble appears as they grow: “It may be enunciated as a general rule that the increase in the power of the leaders is directly proportional with the extension of the organization.” [10]

The historical record offers a great deal of confirmation, two of the clearer instances (the distance between them indicates the near-universality of the tendency) being the Christian church (which Michels does not mention) and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As the influence of the early Christians grew with their numbers, so groups of enthusiasts grew to become a great organisation with a powerful hierarchy. The CPSU maintained a high level of intra-party democracy until and after the Revolution, but then what had been a small group of professional revolutionaries developed into an organisation capable of ruling a mighty state, and as this happened the party became monolithic and oligarchic.

One feature common to all the movements discussed, a feature so familiar that it tends to escape notice, is that oligarchy has not been imposed against majority opposition; not even in affairs of state, where the minority has coercive force at disposal. When decision has been formally placed in the hands of the general body of citizens, their choice has consistently been for rule by the few or the one rather than the many. Napoleon was elected by plebiscite first as Consul, then as Consul for Life and finally as Emperor, [11] and more recently the Nazis were voted into power. In modern Britain, with virtually universal franchise and relatively free elections, the voters have three times chosen, of the two main parties, the one overtly committed to oligarchy and have never supported, in any considerable numbers, a party rejecting it. This has not been for lack of opportunity; although the anarchists who call themselves by that name do not take part in elections the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who also repudiate the authoritarian state, proposing to use Parliament only to get rid of capitalism and government with it; have repeatedly put up parliamentary candidates but have never yet managed to avoid losing their deposit. Every state, including those formally committed to democracy, has a Head of State supported by a small Cabinet, Politburo, Central Committee or the equivalent – in short, an oligarchy – which exercises supreme power over the state machinery. The personnel and the rhetoric may change as one party replaces another, but the structure persists, and this holds even for the states professing commitment to popular sovereignty.

Similarly with voluntary movements. When Michels wrote there were 350,000 trade unionists enrolled in the Confederation Generale du Travail, of whom no more than 7,000 subscribed to the Voix du Peuple, official organ of the Confederation; reports of attendance at British trade union branches suggest a similar lack of interest in scrutinising and controlling the leaders’ activities, a similar willingness to comply with oligarchy.

Movements growing to become powerful today follow a similar trajectory, the greens for example developing from a pressure group towards a hierarchical party structure, and on socialist assumptions this remains inexplicable. As a socialist and (near-)Marxist, Michels expects movements composed mainly of people who work for a living to incline towards democracy. Finding that trade unions, co-operatives, and even parties professing socialism (except the smallest of them) accept oligarchy, he feels it necessary to posit particular reasons for this, influences counteracting the presumed democratic inclinations of the membership; he suggests that the training required for administration, or the practice of that craft, enable administrators to dominate the organisation. But in the democratically-constituted bodies of which he speaks that does not provide an adequate explanation, it does not of itself exclude effective supervision by the majority, and in fact he recognises also another influence at work. The crucial sentence of his book, the one which does most to account for near-universal oligarchy, reads:

Though it grumbles occasionally, the majority is really delighted to find persons who will take the trouble to look after its affairs. [12]

On socialist assumptions this ought not be happening, but when we see society as the expression in practice of the ideological pyramid, with the critical thinking, the enthusiasm for mental independence and political freedom at the top and the great numbers inclined to political compliance at the bottom, then it all falls into place. For it is only from those inclined to compliance, the eidostatics, that there can be obtained the numbers required to make up an organisation large enough to exert substantial political influence. When rule by the few is found in organisations in which coercive force plays little part and the members are free to vote with their feet, its presence clearly has to be ascribed to the followers at least as much as to the leaders. Oligarchy makes its appearance as the membership extends beyond the small socialistic ideological groups to take in the large numbers that are either identified with domination / submission or inclined to accept it as a matter of expediency.

The compliance accorded by these followers is not, of course, unconditional; if it were, revolutions would be unknown. It is forthcoming only so long as the organisation moves in a direction they approve, and this means the leaders can operate only within limits set by what the followers are willing to accept. It is the leaders who bulk large in the public eye, their actions which fill the headlines and the screens, their combats which provide the drama. Watching them, it is easy to forget that they are puppets. Puppets with slack strings, their own motive power and considerable freedom of action, but none the less puppets who get jerked into line or discarded if they seriously misbehave. Whatever powers the leaders may formally dispose of, any who overstep the limits of what their members are willing to accept, pacifists who lead their movements towards war, trade union officials who advocate unpaid overtime, generals who agitate for disarmament or conservatives who propagate socialism, these quickly lose their position.

For each state, organisation or movement the main line of action is set by the general body of the citizens, the members, the followers, and it makes little difference whether formal democracy be present or not. Only so long as their principal requirements are met do they continue to provide the compliance which enables the oligarchs to function. These lead their movements in the way a small child leads a big dog, watching where it wants to go and keeping in front.

Occasionally, however, a misjudgement is made (usually under the influence of a pressure group), and the leadership finds itself confronting some demand or resistance enjoying widespread support; when this happens its official powers prove to be empty forms, and when it happens to the state even coercive force is of little effect. The government of the USA could no more enforce Prohibition than that of the USSR could enforce communism. The British were able to put down the Indian Mutiny because most inhabitants of the subcontinent did not support it, but when the general body of the people began to turn against them they had to leave. More recently the unsuccessful attempt to impose Poll Tax has shown that when the rulers come up against any large part of the people, it is the rulers that give way. Governments are hardly better able than non-governmental leaders to stand against the big numbers; oligarchs depend upon compliance, and compliance in political affairs is a feature of the ideological groups which comprise the greater part of the population, those of expediency, of principle / domination and (to a smaller extent) also that of precision.

Underlying Michels’ book is the unspoken assumption that oligarchy works against the interests of the majority. But – since he nowhere shows it to have been imposed against resistance from the majority – this can be so only if the majority are incapable of recognising where their interests lie, and to assert that would be to throw away all justification for democracy. Majority rule is commonly opposed to oligarchy, but this dichotomy collapses when the many prefer to be ruled by the few, and I have already quoted Michels: “Though it grumbles occasionally, the majority is really delighted to find persons who will take the trouble to look after its affairs.” It is not the oligarchs but he and his egalitarian colleagues who set themselves against the majority.

Michels speaks of the iron law of oligarchy but the belief, that final power resides with the minority, rests on superficial appearances. The rule of the few, almost universal as it is, results from the preferences of the many, from their tendency, once their main requirements have been met, either to choose domination / submission as a way of settling the smaller issues or at least to refrain from resisting it. Oligarchy is fully consonant with the assumptions of the general body of the people, it constitutes a problem only for Michels and the other members of the socialistic, egalitarian, independent-minded, eidodynamic minority. If there be any iron law in social and political affairs, it is that final power lies with the great numbers.

[1] Michels R. 1915 Political Parties, a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy New York: Hearst’s International Library Co.
[2] Kaesler D., 1988 Max Weber, an introduction to his life and work London: Polity 207
[3] Michels 401
[4] ibid 406
[5] ibid 31
[6] ibid 39
[7] ibid 45-46
[8] ibid 333
[9] ibid 299
[10] ibid 33
[11] ibid 337
[12] ibid 53

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991.