Max Nomad, Aspects of Revolt, 1959.

The Twilight of Myths


Throughout the nineteenth century two political myths reigned supreme over the minds of the progressive sections of the educated classes. One of them was the belief in the reality of what is commonly designated as "democracy." The other myth, dominating the various schools of anticapitalism, consisted in the no less fervent conviction that the elimination of the private employer would result in the establishment of a non-exploitative, "classless" society.

It was only at the turn of the century that both beliefs were seriously tested by a number of thinkers who strayed from the traditional path of both defenders and opponents of the status quo. Some of them were conservatives like Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, others were men with a radical background, like the Polish proto-"managerialist" Waclaw Machajski1 and the German ex-syndicalist Robert Michels.

The outstanding work embodying the two heresies, as it were, is and remains Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der Modernen Demokratie by Robert Michels, first published in 1911, which in the English version is entitled Political Parties. Its chief purpose, as stated on the very title page of the original German edition, was to demonstrate "the oligarchical tendencies of group life." The writer undertook to prove, on the basis of the experience of modern mass movements, that there was no such thing as democracy; that the masses are incompetent to manage their own organizational or community affairs; that with the growth of every large organization, and with the corresponding extension of its tasks, there appears the physical impossibility of self-administration; that tactical considerations, the need for a division of labor and specialization make for the indispensability of leading individuals who in time become professional leaders; and that the gratitude of the hero-worshiping masses raises those leaders to the position of a firmly entrenched oligarchical group enjoying all the privileges of power.

Michels' richly documented work came to the conclusion that in view of this "iron law of oligarchy" human society will always be divided into those who lead -- and they will be the masters -- and those who are led; and that while the Socialists may win, socialism will never be realized. (He used the word "socialism" in the sense of an equalitarian classless commonwealth, of course, and not in the purely economic sense of a socialized economy which, as we know from the Russian example, may be even more exploitative and more tyrannical than private capitalism).

In other words, according to Michels, every human collective, regardless of its professed humanitarian, democratic or libertarian principles, is always dominated by a minority composed of the most intelligent, the most energetic and the most unscrupulous. Sooner or later, that minority sets itself up as a tightly organized conspiracy of intermediaries, as it were, between the rank and file and the Cause -- Faith, Ideal, Country, Morality -- for the sake of which that collective body had been organized. To these "intermediaries" the maintenance of the organization, that is, their power over it, always becomes more important than the "Cause" which that organization was meant to serve. (The fact that many years after the publication of his book Michels, a naturalized Italian, was corralled into Mussolini's camp in no way invalidates his arguments.)

The "iron law" of oligarchy and corruption applies to political and religious movements alike. Is it necessary to speak about Buddhism which, starting as a protest against the corruption of Brahmanism, ended up with its incredible theocratic-monastic parasitism in Mongolia and Tibet? Of the evolution of the world's most powerful religion from the Sermon on the Mount to the inhumanity of the Inquisition and of the religious wars? Of the fate of Francis of Assisi, the preacher of poverty and humility, who was eventually buried in a marble grave provided by a rich and powerful order bearing his name? Of Hassidism, that mystical Jewish sect, founded by Baal Shem Tov, whose idealistic content was entirely choked up by his profiteering successors? Of the Dukhobors, that somewhat Quaker-like sect of Russian peasants, which transplanted to Canada, became within less than one generation the personal fief of the despotic scoundrel, Peter Verigin, himself once the heroic leader and martyr of that cult?

Have the political ideals of the past two centuries fared any better?

The liberal ideal of the rising middle class of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its political protest against feudal lords and priests, soon bogged down into a most inhuman apologia for economic exploitation, denying any protection to the workers. And the new liberalism of the New Deal that had made hash of its predecessor's laissez faire, was so anxious to maintain its leaders in power that it sacrificed the liberty of an entire people in order not to lose the support of the Catholic vote. For by declaring an embargo on arms to republican and democratic Spain, it delivered that country to the mercies of Communist and Fascist totalitarians.

The nationalism which, early in the nineteenth century, championed the self-determination of those peoples which were struggling for liberation or unification, invariably reneged on its principles as soon as the cause of the nation it championed had become victorious. Witness the attitudes of the Polish, the Czech, the Yugoslav-Serbian nationalists towards their own national minorities.

Democratic socialism, which, on the European Continent, origmally professed the Marxist ideal of the "emancipation of the working class" and of the "classless society," to be attained by an irreconcilable opposition to all capitalist regimes, has long since shelved its radicalism. The enormous bureaucratic apparatus which the Socialist and Labor Parties created in the course of their growth within the democratic or near-democratic countries, has gradually converted their leadership into a privileged middle class group which, for all its criticism of the status quo, opposes any serious conflicts with the powers that be. Hence the spectacle of the strongest socialist parties and of the trade unions controlled by them, such as those of Germany and Austria, supporting their governments' imperialist policies during World War I, or of those of France and England, endorsing the colonial policies of their respective countries or not opposing their leaders "elevation" to the House of of Lords. Hence also the explanation of the principled attitude of the smaller socialist parties during the first World War, given by the aged George Plekhanov, brilliant and cynical founder of Russian Marxism, to the effect that a girl of ten could easier resist temptation than one who was twenty.

(Non-political trade-unionism "pure and simple" which at the beginning of the industrial era was persecuted as a conspiracy against law and order, has since become the mainstay of conservatism, George Meany, President of the united A.F.L. and C.I.O., even trying to placate the National Association of Manufacturers in December, 1955 by the assurance that he never had anything to do with strikes or picket lines.)2

The extreme super-Leftism of such practically extinct movements as anarchism and syndicalism fizzled out either as a result of the political tolerance for the propaganda of their far-away ideal, which converted many anarchist champions into professional preachers of a terrestrial heaven, or as a consequence of their growth, with the resulting domestication of the syndicalist trade union leaders; while many of those Anarchists whose chief stock in trade was violence gradually veered in the direction of totalitarian Communism -- the very opposite of their original philosophies. (Tendencies aiming at the seizure of, or participation in, power appeared even among the hitherto irreconcilable Spanish Anarchists immediately upon the establishment of the democratic Republic in 1931.)

And is there any need of enlarging upon the difference between the promise of the "emancipation of the working class," one of the principal slogans of Marxism, and the hierarchical totalitarianism of the house built by Lenin, Marx's most famous disciple?


Ideas related to those of Robert Michels were expressed as far back as 1895 in the original edition of Gaetano Mosca's Elementi di Scienza Politico, published in English in 1939 under the title of The Ruling Class. Mosca took his material not merely from the fascinating though restricted domain of the modern mass movements, but from the whole wide field of human history. The main thesis developed in his book is that regardless of variations in the political or economic structure, human societies are always governed by minorities. He refers to the ruling minority as the "political class." One of its chief weapons -- according to Mosca -- outside of bare force, is what he calls the "political formula," that is, a system of illusions serving to justify the rule of the "political class" both in the eyes of the rulers and of the ruled.

A similar pessimistic outlook, as far as the emancipation of the underdog is concerned, can be found in the writings of Vilfredo Pareto, known chiefly for his concept of the "circulation of elites," a concept which views his-

ory as a succession of struggles for power and privilege between the "ins" and the "outs" and which at bottom is °nly another formulation of Mosca's theory of the "ruling class," or of Robert Michels' "iron law of oligarchy."

What Michels, Mosca and Pareto have in common is not merely the fact that they hold out no hope of salvation to the underdog who is doomed to constitute forever the ruled majority; they are also alike in the frankness, the realism, the complete absence of hypocrisy they display in their approach to the problem of politics, even if they don't put it as brutally as did Ludwig Gumplowicz, the Austrian-Polish sociologist, who had influenced Mosca, and who in his Rassenkampf declared that "the eternal urge to exploit and to dominate impelling those who are stronger" is "the driving principle, the motive power of history." Man's exploitation of his fellow men is apparently the concrete aspect of what has been called "man's natural desire to satisfy his needs with the least possible effort."

Michels, in referring to Mosca, Pareto, Gumplowicz and himself, uses the expression "representatives of pessimism in sociology." He called his concept "pessimism" because the idea of the permanent recurrence of ruling minorities lording it over the uneducaed or incompetent majority had been a heavy blow to the optimistic beliefs of his youth. At first a democratic Socialist and later a Syndicalist, he eventually gave up his belief in human perfectibility and the inevitable triumph of justice and equality.

There is a particularly depressing passage in Michels' book to the effect that "the majority of mankind, in a condition of eternal tutelage, is with tragic necessity destined to submit to the rule of a small minority, and must content itself with forming the pedestal for an oligarchy." No wonder, then, that Michels' "iron law of oligarchy," has been interpreted as a philosophy of resigned submission to fate on the part of the underdog.

However, there is a difference between submission to what is, sociologically speaking, inevitable, and the resigned acceptance of one's condition as imposed by a definite historical situation. No form of class rule is permanently accepted without protest by those excluded from its benefits. Sooner or later the latent, unconscious dissatisfaction of the uneducated, cowed masses is fanned into revolt, peaceful or violent, by what is sometimes called the "out-elite" -- the declasse stepsons, or poor relations, as it were, of the "in-elite."

What improvements of their lot the masses have obtained in the course of history are due to their struggles under the leadership of those "out-elites," or would-be oligarchies, which in the process would obtain or attempt to obtain, power for themselves. And whenever those "out-elites," having become "in-elites" or oligarchies, turned their back on the masses, a new "out-elite," hungry for power, takes up the cause of the masses, and so on, ad infinitum. The majority may be a "pedestal," but that pedestal is subject to ever recurring quakes, shaking or changing the oligarchs standing on top of it, and occasionally lightening the burden carried by the pedestal. Thus Michels' pessimistic "iron law of oligarchy" implies another "iron law" as well: that of permanent revolt against oligarchy, whether feudal, capitalist or bureaucratic-managerial.

A purely bureaucratic-managerial oligarchy, Soviet style, calling itself "socialist" or "communist," had not yet been in existence in concreto, at the time of the first appearance of Robert Michels' book. Its coming had, however, been predicted as far back as 1899 by the Polish revolutionary thinker Waclaw Machajski. It was he who, forty years before the appearance of Burnham's Managerial Revolution,3 had launched the idea -- then utterly paradoxical, but now almost a commonplace -- that the classless ideal of the various socialist schools of thought was merely a sham concealing the ambitions of the radical, impecunious section of the new middle class of intellectual workers to establish its own class rule.

Both Machajski and Michels presented an enormous array of material illustrating their point of view. Nearly half a century has passed since the appearance of their epoch-making works. The anticapitalist movement, then dominated in most countries by the ideas of Karl Marx, has since split into two hostile camps: (1) that of the gradualist democratic socialists who in practically all capitalist countries outside the United States play the part both of New-Dealish competitors of the outright "bourgeois" parties, and of law-abiding, democratic would-be inheritors of the capitalist system; and (2) that of the so-called Communists whose leading and active elements represent, outside the Soviet orbit, the more impecunious and hence more adventurous and more impatient section of the intellectual and semi-intellectual workers (including the self-educated ex-workers). These are now out to hasten the demise of the capitalist world by the most ruthless methods of political warfare, supported if need be by the military might of the Kremlin. In their quest for power both the Socialist and the Communist leaders have long since shelved all the humanitarian principles which they had proclaimed at the time when they were still minute sects whose members deluded and consoled themselves with the idea of being an elite of heroism, altruism, virtue and honor. They have become either hard-boiled politicians of the Mollet brand or mass murderers on the Moscow-Budapest model.

The oppositionist stirrings within the socialist and communist camps, which eventually may result in the emergence of new leaders who may or may not use different methods, lend support to the idea that the permanent turnover of masters and the accompanying striving of the masses for a greater share of the good things of life form the basic content of the historical process. That process knows of no millennium when full harmony and full equality will be achieved once and for all. There is no "happy ending," Just as there is no "final revolution" that will eliminate all further class struggles.

For the masses every "final victory" proclaimed by their victorious leaders, even if it is a real step forward, can be only another starting point in their endless, everlasting struggle for more and always more, to use the slogan coined by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor. That slogan is bound up with the realistic assumption that the chasm separating the underprivileged from those wielding the most efficient combination of knowledge, intelligence and ruthlessness will never be bridged completely. But neither will the poor, for all their servile submissiveness, always be deaf to the appeals of the disgruntled stepsons of the ruling classes who will protest against the idea that the ones were born with saddles on their backs and the others with spurs on their feet; and who will win their spurs in the wake of the revolts of those whom they had encouraged to throw off their saddles.

This process may be called the permanent revolution. Permanent not in the sense used by Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky who would put a stop to the permanency of the revolution as soon as they themselves have achieved power; but in the sense that revolutions -- violent or peaceful -- will always occur sooner or later not only against the old-established forms of tyranny and exploitation but also against any new forms of tyranny and exploitation that may be devised by the new elites of the victorious revolutionists.


1 See Chapter 5 of this volume.

2 New York Times, December 10, 1955.

This is how "Managerialism" was defined in Max Nomad's A Skeptic's Political Dictionary (New York, 1953):

"The theory that the office-holder and manager, and not the worker, is going to take over the inheritance of the doomed capitalist. First briefly hinted at by Michael Bakunin, later developed by the Polish revolutionist Waclaw Machajski, subsequently presented to the American public by this writer in his Rebels and Renegades (1932) and Apostles of Revolution (1939), it became the subject of a best-selling book by an author who gave no credit to his predecessors. He was a teacher of ethics."