Robert Michels

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Michels, Robert


Born Jan. 9, 1876, in Cologne; died May 3, 1936, in Rome. Historian, economist, and sociologist. German by birth; became an Italian citizen in 1926. Taught history, economics, and sociology at the Universities of Brussels, Basel, Rome, Turin, and Perugia from 1903.

Michels was influenced by the ideas of V. Pareto and G. Mosca. He studied social classes in bourgeois society and the political role of the intelligentsia. In his principal work, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchic Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911), he proposed his “iron law of oligarchy” in bourgeois democracy. The law states that democracy is restricted by the need for organization based on an “active minority,” or elite, since “the direct rule of the masses is technically impossible” and leads to the destruction of democracy. Michels also warned against the dangers of “bossism” in democratic organizations.

On the eve of World War I, Michels broke with the German and Italian socialist movements, in which he had worked for several years, and sharply criticized Marxism. Toward the end of his life he praised fascism. Lenin noted Michels’ superficiality but acknowledged that he had collected valuable information in his book on Italian imperialism (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, pp. 14—15). Michels’ reactionary views were criticized by Italian Communists, especially Gramsci (Izbr. proizv., vol. 2, 1957, p. 63; vol. 3, 1959, pp. 137–38).


Proletariat und Bourgeoisie in der sozialistischen Bewegung Italiens, vols. 1–2. Tübingen, 1905–06.
Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Berlin, 1911.
Probleme der Sozialphilosophie. Leipzig-Berlin, 1914.
Problemi di sociologia applicata. Turin, 1919.
Corso di sociologia politico. Milan, 1927.
Studi sulla democrazia e sulVautorita. Florence, 1933.
Nuovi studi sulla classe politico. Rome, 1936.
In Russian translation:
Chto takoe patriotizm. Kiev, 1906.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The formlessness of the mass, Robert Michels insisted in his study of Germany's Social Democratic Party, buttressed by its psychological need for leadership, leads it inevitably to eternal tutelage, content to constitute its pedestal-the iron law of oligarchy.
Robert Michels said at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
The problem of elites at the level of the working class was especially approached by Robert Michels. Fine connoisseur of the German and Italian social-democratic movement, Robert Michels has tried to apply Vilfedo Pareto and especially Gaetano Mosca's elite theory to the capitalist working class.
(18.) Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1966 [1910]).
Justice of the Peace Robert Michels fined the city $50,000 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, while the supervisor was fined $2,000
"Who says organization, says oligarchy," wrote German sociologist Robert Michels in a treatise called Iron Law of Oligarchies.
While Mosca is a classic source for the elitist school in political sociology (which also includes Vilfredo Pareto and Robert Michels), Gramsci is the originator of a cultural version of Marxism (sometimes labeled Gramscism) that proved to be immune to the intellectual criticism and economic failures that have rendered other versions obsolete.