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Rock Street, San Francisco

The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ was a phrase first used by the German sociologist Roberto Michels in his book Political Parties, published in 1916. From historic insight and studies of both the German SPD and the Italian Socialist parties, Michels concluded that all parties, whatever their initial intensions, would be controlled by a political elite or oligarchy, who separated themselves, by the control of the bureaucracy, from the masses of their own party ranks.

The reasons for this tendency towards oligarchy were the natural necessity for society to have a ruling class, the self fuelling desire for party officials to gain and retain power, and the effectiveness that centralised parties had in a political environment. Since 1916 Michels’ work has gained a huge amount of support, particularly as the pressures of parties to centralise power is becoming more important in an increasingly competitive political world, but it is not without its critics.

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Opponents claim that Michels and his followers paint too black and white a picture and while there does seem to be a strong tendency for oligarchy to form, it can not be said to be an ‘iron rule’, as there are a number of examples where political parties have not taken on such a form. Much of Michels ‘iron rule’ theory was influenced heavily by Karl Marx’ philosophy on class rivalries, believing that in any capitalist society there would always be a ruling class of bureaucrats who controlled the state’s resources, as he wrote ‘the ‘dominant’ or ‘political’ class …..consists the only factor of sufficiently durable efficacy in the history of human development. ‘ 1 (Michels)

This was an accepted fact up to the turn of the twentieth century; when ideals of aristocratic dominance were exchanged for ones of open democracy and the end of political inequalities. But Michels believed that this new social phenomenon had done little to change the basic structure of society, as the empowering of new party leaders into the political arena just produced a ‘new social elite……. pursuing its ends under the cloak of inequality’2 (Michels).

Michels give a number of reasons for these tendencies which has since been expanded on by the 1950’s French writer Maurice Duverger, who, in his analysis, made a distinction between parties that are ‘direct’ being formed by a number of notable individuals seeking power for themselves, and ‘indirect’ parties, that were formed on a federal bases. It was his belief that while many parties would start off as ‘indirect’ parties, political competition would always force them to take on a more autocratic stance, as the autocratic model was far more effective in the political arena, with strong leadership able to steer the party to electoral success.

William Wright described this as the transformation from a ‘Natural’ party to a ‘Efficient’ party3, while Panebiancos made the same distinction between the Natural and Rational models4, but the analysis is just the same. The British Labour Party is a prime example of this; it was created as an ‘indirect party’ by a federation of trade unions, at the beginning of the twentieth century, but as the century has progressed the Parliamentarians have become increasingly centralised power, as they tried to compete with the centralised Conservative Party.

5 Another example is de Gaulle’s French People’s Rally party who, while retaining an apparently democratic structure, had to centralise actual power in a body of politicians not directly elected by its members, to be able to react quickly enough to policy changes. 6 Another sociologist Joseph Schlesinger emphasised this point by comparing political organisations to large business firms. Political parties have to be able to respond to the market conditions of the electorate, as they are not just offering a service in nonmarket conditions of public funding.

So leaders are required to be able to adopt policy to the suit the market. Also the collective good of a financial / electoral success shared equally will never be greater than the opportunity cost of the effort of that individual. Thus for a firm / party to succeed there must be those that are willing to relinquish authority to others and others who are willing to accept it. 7 Once these political organisation gain power the system become self perpetuating, due to two main factors; firstly the parties’ political aims change with the preservation of the power becoming the primal goal above all others.

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