Robert Michels
Born(1876-01-09)9 January 1876
Died3 May 1936(1936-05-03) (aged 60)
Academic background
Academic work
School or traditionItalian school of elitism
Notable worksPolitical Parties (1911)
Notable ideasIron law of oligarchy
Moderation theory
Political partySocial Democratic Party of Germany (–1907)
National Fascist Party (1924–1936)

Robert Michels (German: [ˈmɪçəls]; 9 January 1876 – 3 May 1936) was a German-born Italian sociologist who contributed to elite theory by describing the political behavior of intellectual elites.

He belonged to the Italian school of elitism.[1][2] He is best known for his book Political Parties, published in 1911, which contains a description of the "iron law of oligarchy." He was a friend and disciple of Max Weber, Werner Sombart and Achille Loria.

Politically, he moved from the Social Democratic Party of Germany to the Italian Socialist Party, adhering to the Italian revolutionary syndicalist wing and later to Italian Fascism, which he saw as a more democratic form of socialism. His ideas provided the basis of moderation theory which delineates the processes through which radical political groups are incorporated into the existing political system.

Early life and education

Michels born to a wealthy German family, studied in England, Paris (at the Sorbonne), and at universities in Munich, Leipzig (1897), Halle (1898), and Turin. He became a socialist while teaching at the Protestant University of Marburg and became active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany for whom he was an unsuccessful candidate in the 1903 German federal election. In Italy, he associated with Italian revolutionary syndicalism, a leftist branch of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). He left both parties in 1907.[3]


He achieved international recognition for his historical and sociological study, Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens, which was published in 1911; its title in English is Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. In it, he presented his theory of the "iron law of oligarchy" that political parties, including those considered socialist, cannot be democratic because they quickly transform themselves into bureaucratic oligarchies.

Michels attended the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912 where he delivered a paper entitled "Eugenics in Party Organization".[4] Michels was considered a brilliant pupil of Max Weber, who began publishing his writings in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1906[5] and appointed him as co-editor in 1913, but they disagreed over Michels' opposition to World War I.[3]

Michels criticized what he perceived to be Karl Marx's materialistic determinism. Michels borrowed from Werner Sombart's historical methods. Because Michels admired Italian culture and was prominent in the social sciences, he was brought to the attention of Luigi Einaudi and Achille Loria. They succeeded in procuring for Michels a professorship at the University of Turin, where he taught economics, political science and socioeconomics until 1914. He then became professor of economics at the University of Basel, Switzerland, a post he held until 1928.[6]

In 1924, he joined the Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini, former director of the Italian Socialist Party's newspaper "Avanti!". Michels was convinced that the direct link between Benito Mussolini's charisma and the working class was in some way the best means to realize a real lower social class government without political bureaucratic mediation. In 1928, he became professor of economics and the history of doctrines at the University of Perugia[6] and occasionally lectured in Rome where he died on May 3, 1936.



  1. ^ Nye, Robert A. (1977). The Anti-Democratic Sources of Elite Theory: Pareto, Mosca, Michels. London: SAGE Publications. p. 30.
  2. ^ Chambliss, J. J., ed. (2013). Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia. London: Routledge. p. 179.
  3. ^ a b Cook, Philip (August 1971). "Robert Michels's Political Parties in Perspective". Journal of Politics. 33 (3): 777–778. doi:10.2307/2128281. JSTOR 2128281. S2CID 153934725.
  4. ^ Problems in Eugenics: Papers communicated to the First International Eugenics Congress Held at the University of London, July 24th to 30th, 1912. London: The Eugenics Education Society. 1913.
  5. ^ Scaff, Lawrence (May 1981). "Max Weber and Robert Michels". American Journal of Sociology. 86 (6): 1269–1286. doi:10.1086/227385. JSTOR 2778815. S2CID 144580976.
  6. ^ a b "Michels, Robert 1876–1936". Contemporary Authors. January 2004. Archived from the original on 2015-03-29. Retrieved 26 December 2014 – via HighBeam Research.
  7. ^ Speech by Robert Michels at international syndicalist conference (Paris, 3 April 1907). Analysis of the situation of the Left in Germany. Online here [1] (
  8. ^ German word Arbeitsverfassung from Arbeitsverfassung-Gesetz, which means: Federal law on labour relations