Michels, Robert

Michels, Robert
A German sociologist and economist who wrote on a wide range of issues including nationalism, fascism, secularism, power, élites, intellectuals, and social mobility. His is most famous for the study of the leadership of left-wing democratic parties to be found in Political Parties (1911).
With particular reference to the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Michels explored the role of political leaders in shaping demands and aspirations, and in mobilizing popular support for Party initiatives. He was particularly interested in the ways in which organizational dynamics inhibit the realization of radical objectives. He concluded that all organizations have oligarchical tendencies, a proposition which he formulated as an ‘iron law of oligarchy’, which states that ‘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 organizations says oligarchy.’ According to Michels, as a political party grows and becomes more bureaucratic, it is increasingly dominated by officials who are committed to internal organizational goals rather than social change, and by middle-class intellectuals who pursue their own personal objectives which are usually different from those of the party rank-and-file. He also noted the process of embourgeoisement within parties, as working-class leaders become more middle-class as a result of social mobility, and so less committed to radical objectives. As a consequence, even in democratically governed organizations, a schism develops between the rulers and the ruled. Organizational procedures are often employed to stifle popular initiatives. Michels championed more heroic, principled forms of leadership, which would withstand incorporation. He was highly critical of political compromise.
Empirical researchers of Michels's iron law have found it difficult to demonstrate that the institutionalization of radical parties is in fact the product of the embourgeoisement of their leaders. It has also been argued that Michels's theory may have been valid for the early period of the development of socialist parties in Europe, and as a description of the élitist tendencies of the Bolshevik Party which sponsored a form of bureaucratic domination in Russia, but that the theory has since been undermined by widespread awareness of the dangers of oligarchy itself. A host of other processes have also intervened to create revisionist rather than revolutionary left-wing parties. Michels's theory has also been applied to trade unions , and used to explore the way in which, as organizations, they have become ends in themselves rather than a means to an end. Much of this secondary literature is summarized in’s ‘Introduction’ to the English-language translation ofPolitical Parties (1962).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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