This post is a reading of Robert Michels' discussion of the iron law of oligarchy. Two questions underlie the reading: what is his critique of the party and what is the relation of his idea of the crowd to this critique? At this point, I only sketch some of the components of the latter idea rather than provide much of an analysis.
Robert Michels' Political Parties (1911) is the classic critique of not just the revolutionary party (or the 'modern party as a fighting organization') but the party form in general. His basic claim is well known. Parties tend to oligarchy -- it's an iron law. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that Michels' argument applies to democracy (or any kind of mass or collective governance) overall: democracy, of any kind, tends to oligarchy. What might work for a small group can't be carried out by masses directly, so they have to divide the tasks, delegate, specialize, report, and assign. Because leadership is technically indispensable, democracy leads to oligarchy.
The problem for socialists is that socialism, too, tends to oligarchy (Michels was a member of the SPD and then the PSI; Lenin refers to him as 'the garrulous Michels'). Even those parties one might most expect to remain in tune with and accountable to the workers, even those organizations animated by ideals of democratic participation, even those championing the cause of the proletariat ultimately take on a whole slew of oligarchical characteristics. It's a sad but true fact of modern political life
Consider some of the specific criticisms of the socialist party: the party as an entity is not identifiable with the totality of its members. It is created as a means to an end, but quickly becomes an end in itself, with interests of its own, detached from the class it ostensibly represents. It can well be, then, that the interests of the party do not coincide with those of the masses at all. A problem with the socialist party, then, is that a party is a program (here I think Michels is mistaken, as will become clearer below; Michels describes multiple ways in which the party is more than a program; his larger argument, then, undercuts this claim). The party is not a social or economic unity. The socialist party might have a program based on the working class but its members can be from any class; class struggle reappears within the party. (The idea that class struggle will appear in the party seems right to me.)
Michels notes as well that the socialist party (which he understands to be a parliamentary party) 'gives a life to certain strata of the working class,' raising them up out of their proletarian position. In effect, the socialist party removes from the proletariat some of its best members. This may be involuntary, but in happens insofar as these members come to hold office in the party. The effect is that the 'involuntary task' of the socialist party is to deproletarianize the proletariat (which could perhaps even be thought of as prefiguring the abolition of the proletariat as a class; in practice, though, it is a form of embourgeoisement).
According to Michels, 'who says organization, says oligarchy.' Or, more specifically, once there are paid officials, a distinction between electors and elected, a division of labor, and the necessity of leadership, all which seem necessary components of an organized party, union, association, or state, then we are deep in the midst of oligarchy.
Most broadly conceived, Michel's argument is that to be effective in a complex society, a fighting party no less than a mass parliamentary party has to be structured in terms of a division of labor. This structuring, this organization, 'induces serious changes in the organized mass' (26). Not everyone can do everything at the same time; different skills correlate with different tasks and this specialization leads to hierarchies and bottlenecks. Another way to put his argument: democracy (or self-steering) doesn't scale--and it really doesn't scale if we are talking about an organization that wants to grow. As an organization gets bigger, either its bureaucracy expands or the distance between those who are active (leaders) and those who are just members (rank and file) increases.
We can see his argument here as relying implicitly on the understand of the distribution of authority in complex networks; free choice and preferential attachment produce hubs. It's not that greedy leaders try to seize power for themselves (although they might). It's that any kind of complex structure ends up manifesting the 80/20 rule (this fits with Michels' affiliation with Pareto and Mosca). So, if 20 percent of the people end up doing most of the work, this will structure the mass, resulting in a differentiation between leaders and led (in this vein Michels observes that the most important resolutions taken in the socialist party result from a handful of members, 36).
Michels writes that 'oligarchy depends upon ... the psychology of organization itself,' 241). More than simply an attribute of psychological changes in leaders as they lead (a zeal for power or a sense of invincibility or entitlement), organization itself results in tactical and technical necessities. There is a reflexivity here, itself that is inseparable from the becoming-organization.
For example, a party oriented toward socialist ends (whether via elections or the revolutionary overthrow of the state) will end up treating itself as an end, shifting its efforts away from its goal and back onto itself as that which must be secured and maintained (as I write this I am thinking about questions that have come up at some of my talks this last year--several people have asked me about communist drive--since I always talk about communist desire; this turning back in on itself would be, I think, a way to start thinking about communist drive; so, communist drive would refer to those tendencies in parties to wallow in proceduralism, small details and issue, and lose sight of the horizon of struggle).
As he sums it up, Michel's iron law results from two tendencies:
1. the tendency of democracy towards criticism and control;
2. the effective counter-tendency to create ever more complex and differentiated parties, parties, that are increasingly based upon the competence of the few.
The first tendency refers to the way political participation (democracy, action in the labor movement), enhances capacities. It stimulates people's critical abilities. The labor movement, Michels says, "brings into existence (in opposition to the will of the leaders) a certain number of free spirits who, moved by principle, by instinct, or by both, desire to revise the base upon which authority is established. Urged on by conviction or by temperament, they are never weary of asking an eternal 'Why?' about every human institution." The more the economic position of workers increases, the more educational opportunities that are available, the greater their capacity to exercise control. Michels is saying that workers acquire the skills they need to question and to govern themselves.
Yet as the organization grows, details elude the grasp of individuals. Officials, delegates, issue summary reports. They make decisions on their own, carry out tasks at their own discretion: 'democratic control undergoes a progressive diminution, and is ultimately reduced to an infinitesimal minimum.' By reasons of 'technical and practical necessity' the party becomes a bureaucracy.
And, the more it seeks to win elections, to grow, and to expand, the more it compromises itself, becoming a 'political organization' rather than a party. Michels writes, "The term 'party' presupposes that among the individual components of the party there should exist a harmonious direction of wills towards identical objective and practical aims' (224). He overstates his case here. Parties are always collections of disagreement over a host of matters; rather than harmonious, they are often dissonant. Yet this dissonance and disagreement can nonetheless inspire aims that are similar enough, close together enough, to constitute a collective will. Another way to put this, a collective will can be split, internally divided, without shedding its collectivity.
The laudable tendencies of critique and control, then, are also present in an inverted form, as countertendencies. These may manifest themselves bureaucratically, through various sorts of rules and checks, as in, for example, rules disaggregating authority, subjecting officials to recall, establishing procedures for the exercise of power, etc. They also manifest themselves in mechanisms like the referendum as well as in the political responses of anarchism, syndicalism, and the urging of various sorts of renunciation and sacrifice onto leaders. For example, he praises French syndicalism for the acuity of its critique of the party, but finds it too limited:
French syndicalists have frequently insisted with a certain violence upon what they speak of as 'direct action' as the only means of bringing the working class into effective operation as an autonomous mass not represented by third persons, and of excluding a priori all representation 'which could only be betrayal, deviation, and bourgeois corruption.' But they arbitrarily restrict their one-sided theory to the political party alone, as if it were not inevitable that like causes should produce like effects when their action is displayed upon the field of the syndicalist movement.
His discussions of anarchism is similar in that he praises its critique of party structures for their oligarchical tendencies but notes that anarchists aren't immune from oligarchy any more than anyone else is--as soon as activities begin, forms of leadership and authoritarianism arise.
Michel's critique, thus far, isn't damning. There are at least two answers to the problem of oligarchy already available to the Greeks: first, the lottery, used in practice in Athens (German political theorist Hubertus Buchstein has been making a strong case for lotteries in his recent publications); second, the principle (discussed by Aristotle) of ruling and being ruled in turn (how the turns are taken, the mechanism for moving folks in and out is less significant than the idea). So whether one emphasizes the method of selection or the principle of taking turns, there are solutions to problems associated with oligarchy. The most basic way to state my point: oligarchy refers to not just the existence of leaders but to leaders who become separated out from the mass rather than cycling back into it. Leaders are necessary and unavoidable; the permanence of specific people in leadership positions is not.
Michels, though, presumes a kind of permanence of position. One advances into a leadership position and doesn't return to one's prior position. We don't need to make this assumption -- people change jobs all the time. Yet Michels thinks that the inertia of tradition as well as a kind of gratitude to leaders pushes toward re-election or reselection of the same people. So even if there are mechanisms for recall, in practice they don't work. And, as I just mentioned, a primary reason that they don't work stems from the nature of the crowd or masses.
Michels has a view of the masses very much like that of the notorious reactionary Gustave LeBon, whose famous work, The Crowd, he cites. What, then, are the attributes of the crowd or masses and what are the implications for Michel's thinking about the party?
1. Michels viewed the masses as basically indifferent to ordinary political life. Because they are accustomed to being ruled, it takes a 'considerable work of preparation' to set the rank and file in motion. This aspect of his view is essentially the 80/20 rule: as a matter of course, the majority anywhere doesn't do very much; a small percent of the people do most everything.
The impact on the party of this indifference is that the masses are an obstacle to the extension of party influence. The apathy of the masses 'renders nugatory' socialist attempts to arouse general agitation. Their 'calm indifference' makes 'serious agitation' altogether impossible. And this 'overwhelms' the leaders (Central Committee and district with 'disgust'). Michel's example is that the crowd may abandon leaders at the very moment they are preparing for energetic action.
2. Michels also makes several arguments very nearly the opposite of this one.
a. He says that the crowd is always subject to suggestion (a major Le Bon point). It can be influenced by the eloquence of great, popular orators (people will only show up if there will be a famous speaker). Once these suggestions have taken effect, the crowd won't easily tolerate contradictions from a small minority. Somewhat mysteriously, he says, "The adhesion of the crowd is tumltuous, summary and unconditional." The crowd, particular when a 'great multitude' is 'assembled within a small area' is subject to panic as well as unreflective enthusiasm.
b. He says that the crowd is delighted to find people who look after things; there is a 'immense need' for direction and 'genuine cult for the leaders who are regarded as heroes.' The adoration of the led for the leaders is 'commonly latent,' revealed by 'barely perceptible signs' such as a hushed tone of voice when uttering the leader's name as well as docile obedience. He attends to the intensity of Germans' love for their party (which suggests another place to connect with Freud, although in a different register insofar as Freud's account focuses too much on the specific figure of the individual leader; with respect to transference and the parallel with the analyst, the fact that Michels mentions that Germans pay for services rendered to the party should be linked to the practice of paying for analysis). Yet he also claims that "A party is neither a social unity nor an economic unity. It is based upon its program." The oddness here is that this description ill correlates with the Party as an object of intense love and devotion.
One effect of this idolatry is meglomania on the part of the leaders, who start to exude an 'overwheening self-esteem' that feeds back into the crowd as it 'diffuses a powerful suggestive influence, whereby the masses are confirmed in their admiration.'
Powerful orators acquire great 'prestige' (Freud, also influenced by Le Bon, will take up prestige in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego). Michels notes that the 'fascination' they exert has nothing to do with the content of what they are saying; it's a matter of oratorical abilities. He writes:
In most cases, however, the masses, intoxicated by the speaker's power, are hypnotized to such a degree that for long periods to come they see in him a magnified image of their own ego.Their admiration and ethusiasm for the orator are, in ultimate analysis, no more than admiration and ethusiasm for their own personalities, and these sentiments are fostered by the orator in that he undertakes to speak and to act in the name of the mass, in the name, that is, of every individual. In responding to the appeal of the great orator, the mass is unconsciously influenced by its own egoism.
Yet more influential than oratorical prowess is 'the prestige of celebrity.' Here Michels quotes Tarde as he explains the 'suggestive influence' of celebrity:
Actually, when a mind acts upon our own thought, it is with the collaboration of many other minds through whom we see it, and whose opinion, without our knowledge, is reflected in our own. We muse vaguely on the esteem shown him ... on the admiration he inspires ... If he is a famous man, the number of his admirers impresses us, confusedly, en masse, and this influence takes on an air of objective solidarity, of impersonal reality, creating the prestige proper for great figures.
The great man can count on the people's applause and enthusiasm.
c. Michels notes that the masses revolt from time to time against their leaders; they undertake economic struggles against the will of their leaders (so, even the indifferent mass acts).
3. Michels repeat Le Bon's claims regarding the particular pathology of the crowd: "the individual disappears in the multitude, and therewith disappears also personality and sense of responsibility." He faults bureaucracy on this count as well: it 'suppresses individuality' and 'engenders moral poverty.'
He also notes, though, the strength or prominence that acrues to collectivity. Discussing the party press, he refers to the German socialist practice of having the authorship of articles remain anonymous:
The editorial 'we,' uttered in the name of a huge party, has a much greater effect than even the most distinguished name. The 'party,' that is to say, the totality of the leaders, is thus endowed with a special sanctity, since the crowd forgets that behind an article which thus presents itself under a collection aspect there is concealed in the great majority of cases but one single individual.
4. The 'mass is sincerely grateful to its leaders, regarding gratitude as a sacred duty.'
5. The 'very composition of the mass' renders it unable to resist the power of an order of leaders. The mass needs leaders because as a mass it is incapable of looking after its own affairs. The masses are incompetent. "The objective immaturity of the mass ... derives from the nature of mass as mass, for this, even when organized suffers from an incurable incompetence for the solution of the diverse problems which present themselves for solution--because the mass per se is amorphous, and therefore needs division of labor, specialization, and guidance," 242-243.
6. 'The masses are not easily stirred." They often have a sense of fatalism and 'sad conviction of impotence,' which exert a 'paralyzing influence on social life.' As long as these prevail, the make the masses incapable of aspiring toward emancipation. "It is the not the simple existence of oppressive conditions, but it is the recognition of these conditions by the oppressed, which in the course of history has constituted the prime factor of class struggles."
7. Michels nonetheless concedes the real problem of the sovereignty of the masses is the technical and mechanical problem of doing business without representation, distribution of labor, etc.
8. "The problem of socialism is not merely a problem in economics. In other words, socialism does not seek merely to determine to what extent it is possible to realize a distribution of wealth which shall be at once just and economically productive. Socialism is also an administrative problem, a problem of democracy, and this not in the technical and administrative sphere alone, but also in the sphere of psychology. In the individualist problem is found the most difficult of all that complex of questions which socialism seeks to answer." Michels then cites Rudolf Goldshield, evoking the problem of individual rights, individual knowledge, and individual will.
But, the problem of the individual Michels identifies seems much more than the problem of socialism. It seems crucial to the overall issue of the crowd which also preoccupies him and which underlies his discussion of the party, its necessity, and its ultimately tragic fate (for, indeed, Michel's story is structured as a tragedy: trying to abolish capitalism, the socialist party ultimately forms itself so as to reinforce it). Michels writes, "Man as an individual is by nature predestined to be guided and all the more as the functions of life undergo division and subdivision" 243.