Political Parties (book)

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Title page of Political Parties by Robert Michels.jpg

Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (German: Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie; Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens) is a book by sociologist Robert Michels, published in 1911 (translated to English in 1915), and first introducing the concept of iron law of oligarchy. It is considered one of the classics of sociology and political science.


This work analyzes the power structures of organizations such as political parties and trade unions. Michels's main argument is that like all organizations, even those in theory most egalitarian and most committed to democracy - like socialist political parties - are in fact oligarchical, and dominated by a small group of leadership. The book also provides a first systematic analysis of how a radical political party loses its radical goals under the dynamics of electoral participation. The origins of moderation theory can be found in this analysis.


  • "Who says organization, says oligarchy."
  • "A party of the landed gentry which should appeal only to the members of its own class and to those of identical economic interests, would not win a single seat, would not send a single representative to parliament. A conservative candidate who should present himself to his electors by declaring to them that he did not regard them as capable of playing an active part in influencing the destinies of the country, and should tell them that for this reason they ought to be deprived of the suffrage, would be a man of incomparable sincerity, but politically insane."

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Further reading[edit]

  • Gordon Hands, Roberto Michels and the Study of Political Parties , British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 155–172, JSTOR
  • For a powerful critique of Michels see Colin Barker 'Robert Michels and the "Cruel Game"’ in Colin Barker et al. eds. Leadership and Social Movements (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)

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