Robert Michels

The German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936) wrote on the political behavior of intellectual elites and on the problem of power and its abuse.

Robert Michels was born on Jan. 9, 1876, in Cologne. He studied in England, at the Sorbonne in Paris, and at universities in Munich, Leipzig (1897), Halle (1898), and Turin.

While teaching at the University of Marburg, Michels became a Socialist. He was active in the radical wing of the German Social Democratic party and attended its party congresses in 1903, 1904, and 1905. Although he left the party in 1907, government opposition to his activities limited his academic career in Germany. He went to the University of Turin, Italy, where he taught economics, political science, and sociology until 1914, when he became professor of economics at the University of Basel, Switzerland, a post he held until 1926. He spent his last years in Italy as professor of economics and the history of doctrines at the University of Perugia and occasionally lectured in Rome, where he died on May 3, 1936.

Michels's involvement in German revolutionary causes gave him insights into trade unions, party congresses, demagogues, and the role of the intellectual in politics. His widely translated book Political Parties (German ed. 1911; English ed. 1949) is an analysis of prewar socialism in Germany, with examples also drawn from political protest movements in France, Italy, England, and the United States. In this and other writings he developed the hypothesis that organizations formed to promote democratic values inevitably develop a strong oligarchic tendency. His view on the nature of leadership was that, despite the original commitment to democracy, the demands of the organization compel the leader to rely on a bureaucracy of paid professional staff and to centralize authority. This process causes displacement of the original democratic goals by a conservative tendency to retain power at all costs as well as an unwillingness to have that power challenged by free elections. Michels called this theory the "iron law of oligarchy," He is criticized for failing to define "oligarchy," which some of his adherents have equated with the term "ruling class."

Michels compared working-class societies in Germany, Italy, and France and wrote about the political culture of Italy. He analyzed the Tripolitan War of 1911-1912 in terms of the suffering it caused and the impact of war propaganda. Italian imperialism, he believed, resulted from demographic pressure and from the social and cultural loss caused by overseas migration. His writings in the 1920s and 1930s dealt with nationalism, Italian socialism and fascism, elites and social mobility, the role of intellectuals, and the history of the social sciences. He often returned to the problem of oligarchy and democracy. Some critics describe him as a disappointed democrat whose disillusionment led him to an elitist point of view and made him comfortable with Italian fascism.

Further Reading on Robert Michels

Seymour M. Lipset's introduction to Michels's Political Parties (1962) discusses the sociologist's work. Michels figures in general works on sociology, such as James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943), which contains a chapter on his work, and Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966).