Law of Oligarchy

Iron law of oligarchy

The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalist sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies. The reasons behind the oligarchization process are: the indispensability of leadership; the tendency of all groups, including the organization leadership, to defend their interests; and the passivity of the led individuals more often than not taking the form of actual gratitude towards the leaders.


Robert Michels found that, paradoxically, the socialist parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass participation, seemed to be dominated by their leaders, just like traditional conservative parties.

Michels' conclusion was that the problem lay in the very nature of organizations. The more liberal and democratic modern era allowed the formation of organizations with innovative and revolutionary goals, but as such organizations become more complex, they became less and less democratic and revolutionary. Michels formulated the "Iron Law of Oligarchy": "Who says organization, says oligarchy."

At the time Michels formulated his Law, he was an anarcho-syndicalist. He later gave up his socialist convictions and became an important ideologue of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy, teaching economics at the University of Perugia.


Michels stressed several factors that underlie the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Darcy K. Leach summarized them briefly as: "Bureaucracy happens. If bureaucracy happens, power rises. Power corrupts." Any large organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger—many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few—the oligarchy—will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.

This process is further compounded, as delegation is necessary in any large organization, as thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of members cannot make decisions via participatory democracy. This has been dictated by the lack of technological means for large numbers of people to meet and debate, and also by matters related to crowd psychology, as Michels argued that people feel a need to be led. Delegation, however, leads to specialization—to the development of knowledge bases, skills and resources among a leadership—which further alienates the leadership from the rank and file and entrenches the leadership in office.

Bureaucratization and specialization are the driving processes behind the Iron Law. They result in the rise of a group of professional administrators in a hierarchical organization, which in turn leads to the rationalization and routinization of authority and decision making, a process described first and perhaps best by Max Weber, later by John Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser and more cynical extent by the Peter Principle.

Bureaucracy by design leads to centralization of power by the leaders. Leaders also have control over sanctions and rewards. They tend to promote those who share their opinions, which inevitably leads to self-perpetuating oligarchy. People achieve leadership positions because they have above-average political skill (see charismatic authority). As they advance in their careers, their power and prestige increases. Leaders control the information that flows down the channels of communication, censoring what they do not want the rank-and-file to know. Leaders will also dedicate significant resources to persuade the rank-and-file of the rightness of their views. This is compatible with most societies: people are taught to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore the rank and file show little initiative, and wait for the leaders to exercise their judgment and issue directives to follow.


The "iron law of oligarchy" states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations. The relative structural fluidity in a small-scale democracy succumbs to "social viscosity" in a large-scale organization. According to the "iron law," democracy and large-scale organization are incompatible.

Examples and exceptions

An example that Michels used in his book was Germany's Social Democratic Party.

The size and complexity of a group or organization is important to the Iron Law as well. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Green Party of Germany made a conscious effort to break the Iron Law. Anyone could be or could remove a party official. There were no permanent offices or officers. Even the smallest, most routine decisions could be put up for discussion and to a vote. When the party was small, these anti-oligarchic measures enjoyed some success. But as the organization grew larger and the party became more successful, the need to effectively compete in elections, raise funds, run large rallies and demonstrations and work with other political parties once elected, led the Greens to adapt more conventional structures and practices.

One of the best known exceptions to the iron law of oligarchy was the now defunct International Typographical Union, described by Seymour Martin Lipset in his 1956 book, Union Democracy.

Lipset suggests a number of factors that existed in the ITU that are allegedly responsible for countering this tendency toward bureaucratic oligarchy. The first and perhaps most important has to do with the way the union was founded. Unlike many other unions (e.g., the CIO's United Steel Workers of America, USWA, and numerous other craft unions) which were organized from the top down, the ITU had a number of large, strong, local unions who valued their autonomy, which existed long before the international was formed. This local autonomy was strengthened by the economy of the printing industry which operated in largely local and regional markets, with little competition from other geographical areas. Large locals continued to jealously guard this autonomy against encroachments by international officers. Second, the existence of factions helped place a check on the oligarchic tendencies that existed at the national headquarters. Leaders that are unchecked tend to develop larger salaries and more sumptuous lifestyles, making them unwilling to go back to their previous jobs. But with a powerful out faction ready to expose profligacy, no leaders dared take overly generous personal remuneration. These two factors were compelling in the ITU case.

Lipset and his collaborators also cite a number of other factors which are specific to craft unions in general and the printing crafts in particular, including the homogeneity of the membership, with respect to their work and lifestyles, their identification with their craft, their more middle class lifestyle and pay. For this latter point he draws upon Aristotle who argued that a democratic polity was most likely where there was a large, stable middle class, and the extremes of wealth and poverty were not great. Finally, the authors note the irregular work hours which led shopmates to spend more of their leisure time together. These latter factors are less persuasive, since they do not apply to many industrial forms of organization, where the greatest amount of trade union democracy has developed in recent times.

See also



  • Robert Michels und das eherne Gesetz der Oligarchie by Gustav Wagner in "Wer wählt, hat seine Stimme abgegeben" Graswurzel Revolution pp. 28

Further reading

External links

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