The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Obama says:

“I will seize any opportunity I can find to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security, but where Congress is unwilling to act, I will take whatever administrative steps that I can in order to do right by the American people.”

You have to wonder if one of Mussolini’s favorite economists, Robert Michels, was right:

The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalistsociologist and fascistRobert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties.
It claims that rule by an elite, or “oligarchy“, is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organization as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization. Michels used anecdotes from political parties and trade unions, who supported democratic reforms to build his argument in 1911. Michels particularly addressed the application of this law to representative democracy, and stated: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

In 1911, Michels argued 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.”


  • Organizing into large groups make actions of the group based on individual decisions too inefficient and therefore equal to no decision and no action.
  • Groups must make decisions to survive and will select individuals to make decisions by proxy for the group in an effort to correct the inefficiency.
  • Then bureaucracy happens.
  • When bureaucracy happens, power is centralized and increases.
  • Power corrupts and the worst get on top.

Michels stated that the official goal of representative democracy of eliminating elite rule was impossible and that representative democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule is inevitable. He went on to state that:

“Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy.”

Are there truly no measures to stop oligarchy? This is one thing that Marx counted on to keep the bourgeois and the proletariat in constant tension – but paradoxically there is no better example of this Iron Law than a government organized in communist fashion. History records that oligarchy is synonymous with any form of collectivism – whether it be socialism, Marxism or communism.

It seems that there are “prophylactic” measures that are available.

The governments and organizations that are successful in resisting this tendency seem to be relegated to those with the most decentralized structures, not the most. The United States government was designed to avoid this very thing with the checks and balances that were built in the three branches of government. In America, this “iron law” seems only to apply when one branch seeks to usurp power over the others and when the federal government takes power that rightly belongs to the states.

Our government was designed as a “bottom up” power structure with the power resting in the hands of the individual citizen, not in the hands of a small group of “elites”…or an imperial president.

There is a significant example of how this Iron Law can be broken. Written by Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow and James S. Coleman and published in 1956, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union, analyses how the ITU organized as an international union and successfully avoided the pitfalls of centralization and oligarchical control.

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.

How did they do it?

Bottom up. Power in the hands of the local units. The locals have the right and power to override the national.

Sounds a lot like our constitutional organization and the Tenth Amendment, doesn’t it?

20 thoughts on “The Iron Law of Oligarchy

  1. “Bottom up. Power in the hands of the local units. The locals have the right and power to override the national.”

    sounds like “All power to the Soviets!” Soviets being the local worker’s council.

    The cultural revolution launched by Mao Zedong was all about attacking the bureaucrats and the communist party, with emphasis on democracy. The slogan of the Cultural Revolution was “bombard the headquarters” referring to the communist party headquarters.

    The un-revolutionary americans politicians think “throw the bums out. Term limits” are the solution to their political disfunction. but this is an excuse for how uninvolved American voters are supposed to be. Voting for someone to make decisions for you is not democracy. But all of you don’t want democracy, you want a representative republic. Like Utah said the antidote to oligarchy and corruption is democracy.

      • Joe: you forget the Iron Law of Karl – there is no truth but revolutionary truth and revolutionary truth is only the “truth” that advances the revolution.

        Workers of the World – Unite!

        • Yeah, I know. But, unfortunately for Karl, this time there is FACT to back us up. Karl can spin ‘Truth” any way he wants, but he doesn’t get to change the factual events as they really happened. And, in this case, the facts of what happened do not support his “Truth.” Heck, we even have the word of Lenin to support us in this statement of FACT (which sort of undermines Karl’s “Truth,” but don’t tell him — he’ll blow a gasket) 😉

        • Utah and Joe,

          Local….Decentralized and motivated citizen “Structures” as the best defence against the ever present grasp of the Statist CENTRALIZERS. Sounds a bit like Levin’s new Book in a way HUH..???…. And the TEA Party movement.

          Unfortunately we have seen with the IRS…Federal Election Committe ( FEC), and even perhaps the NSA, how the Centralized Washington Gov’t can undermine and destroy Genuine Citizen democratic Participation, by Profiling then Targeting individuals and Local Groups….And True Citizen Participation is the Backbone of a Constitutional Republic. The Centralized Gov’t is trying to BREAK that Backbone.
          THAT is what has to be fought, also at the Grass roots level….since the example of the Rubios and Ryans show us their complicity in undermining Citizen Participation with Both their Silence and Legislation.

          Within the Socialist Slogan….”workers of the World…Unite”….. lies the Germ of the Destruction of Citizen Participation…..because it is Advocating for Outside Authority over Local authority …….. and because it is Framed as an Imperative, we can say that even more than Advocating fot it it is DEMANDING over-reaching Top-down outside authority.

          • “worker’s of the world unite” is about internationalism and cooperation. All the workers in the world face the same circumstances. The capitalist system is not a regional or national concern, but a global one.

            • Karl,

              No, they do NOT all face the same circumstance. If you think a worker in China faces the same problems as he does in America, you are demonstrating your foolishness. Since when can the worker in China quit to go start his or her own company? And neither can compare to the worker in Europe, who can just take off 3 months out of the year and not have to worry about losing his/her job.

              • Chinese start new businesses all the time. They are many rags to riches stories in China.

                All the workers are in class struggle with capitalist. Capitalist trying to lower wages, and workers trying to get higher wages.

                • Ah, excuse me, Karl, but I do business with the Chinese and – unless they live in Hong Kong, and/or get government permission — then NO, they don’t start new businesses all the time. China is a State-run economy and you do not ‘succeed’ without the blessing of the govt.

                  • Joe, many people Have started businesses in China, and many were from the hinterlands, born, brought up poor.

                    but it is true, they are celebrated for their rarity

                    Hong Kong, however does produce the vast majority of entrepreneurs who seek an international customer base. Ask your friends, Joe, how the free enterprise system has fared under Chinese rule. I wonder if the British are staying in or emigrating from Hong Kong.

                    Sure, capitalists in China aren’t the same as ours, they have different challenges much as the workers of china vis a vis american laborers, but they are there. You are correct Joe, as to the “co-operation” with the government necessary to survive, much less thrive

                    • Greg,

                      I know exactly how it works over there. One of my friends is a British citizen, but ethnic Chinese. He is constantly complaining about how the government meddles in business. For example: he runs a resin company — and they get fined for keeping resin on the premises. It’s just a form of extortion, but they call it a “fine.” Funny, if you bribe people, the fines stop — until they get mad at you. Then you disappear for bribing govt. officials.

                      Yeah, it’s “free” over there. But then, it’s getting just as “free” here. After all, “State Capitalism” is the new wave of the future (State Capitalism = Fascism, and that according to the man who coined the term, no less)

                    • as we once did, China is riding a boom sustainable only with masses of raw materials. Any system of govt can look economically smart, given a few years of mineral exploitation.

                    • Not just that, Greg. In fact, not even that. China is riding the export boom. When the West — mostly the US — stops buying their cheap goods, they will collapse — because they cannot afford to turn inward to find new markets. If they do so, this will result in a growing middle class, and a middle class has ALWAYS been the mortal threat to all oligarchies. So you see, they can’t allow that. Instead, like all good Statists, they will turn to military expansion — starting with Taiwan and the other Pacific Emeralds.

                    • It’s a complicated issue, how the economic forces influence military decisions. I think you have the scenario pretty well pegged, though.

  2. That’s almost word for word what Theodore Roosevelt said in his, “The Presidency: Making An Old Party Progressive,” back in 1913.

    What we have in government today are two Progressive political parties. That’s why there is practically no push-back against President Obama.

    The GOP is just pining for the day when they get to control all that government.

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