Gaetano Mosca Essay - Critical Essays

Mosca, Gaetano


Gaetano Mosca 1858-1941

Italian political scientist.

Mosca is most often credited with bringing modern political science to Italy with the publication of his Elementi di scienza politica (The Ruling Class) and for developing the theory of democratic elitism. Along with the writings of such other notable Italian political thinkers as Vilfredo Pareto and Benedetto Croce, Mosca's works are considered to have been a major impetus to Italian fascism, although this result was both unforeseen and unintended on his part.

Biographical Information

Mosca was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1858. During his childhood, Italy, and the region of Sicily in particular, experienced one of the most turbulent periods in its political history, and some critics speculate that Mosca's later repudiation of parliamentary governments may have been a reaction against the unrest he witnessed as a young man. Mosca earned his law degree at the University of Palermo in 1881, where he went on to lecture beginning in 1885. Despite his work at the university, Mosca experienced little success in academia, which he blamed on his rejection of the popular political ideologies of the time. In response to what he considered his academic failure, Mosca accepted the position of editor of the proceedings of the Chamber of Deputies in 1887, where he remained for ten years. The publication of his Elementi di scienza politica (The Ruling Class) in 1896 won him the chair of constitutional law at the University of Turin. In 1908 Mosca became active in politics for the first time, with his election to the Chamber of Deputies. In 1914 he served as undersecretary for the colonies, and in 1919 he became a senator. During this time, fascism was gaining popularity in Italy, and Mosca initially took a distant but tolerant position on it. Eventually his stand changed to one of unqualified rejection. In 1923 Mosca published an updated edition of The Ruling Class, which earned him a position at the University of Rome, where he assumed Italy's first chair of the history of political institutions and doctrines. Mosca remained at the University of Rome until he reached Italy's mandatory retirement age in 1933. He died in 1941.

Major Works

Mosca's first publication, Teorica dei governi e governo parlamentare (1884) was an antiparliamentary polemic aimed against the Italian politics of Mosca's time. In this work he began to formulate his differentiation between what he considered democratic "myths" and genuine liberty, which would become an integral part of the development of his later theories on democratic elitism and the myth of the ruling class. In 1896 Mosca published the first edition of The Ruling Class, his most important work; the second, expanded, edition appeared in 1923. In The Ruling Class Mosca delineated his contention that in all forms of government the organized minority is always in a position of power over the majority. This ruling class justifies its power by developing for itself a "political formula," which is a guiding principle that follows the common ideals of the community. The majority, or those being ruled, are thus implicitly in compliance with their rulers, and order is maintained. The political formula propagated in any given society is the "myth of democracy" according to Mosca, wherein the image of rulers and ruled working together toward a common moral or legal goal is offered as democratic freedom. Mosca also posited that two opposing social forces are always in action in any governmental situation: the desire to keep power within a particular, aristocratic group who inherited it by virtue of their ancestors, and the desire to bring new leaders up from the majority class to renew the political process (the latter was known as the "circulation of the elites"); Mosca favored a balance between the two political courses.

Critical Reception

Mosca's work did not generally receive much attention during his lifetime. Although many fascist intellectuals at the time credited him as one of the seminal ideological fathers of the movement, critics today believe that this was due to a misunderstanding of Mosca's theories, which are now considered to lean toward classical European liberalism because of his emphasis on representative rather than parliamentary governments, and his preference for the circulation of the elites. After World War II, Mosca's theories took on new life as Marxism moved to the world political forefront and class awareness became a major intellectual issue.

Principal Works

Sulla teorica dei governi e sul governo parlamentare: Studi storici e socialia (political theory) 1884; also published as Teorica dei governi e governo parlamentare, 1925

Questioni costituzionali (political theory) 1885

Sulla libertàdi stampa: Appunti (political theory) 1885

Elementi di scienza politica (political theory) 1896; revised edition, 1923; published as The Ruling Class [edited by Arthur Livingston], 1939; published as La classe politica [edited by Norberto Bobbio], 1966

Questioni pratiche di diretto costituzionale (political theory) 1898

"Il principio aristocratico ed it democratico nel passato e nell'avvenire" (lecture) 1903

Appunti di diritto costituzionale (political theory) 1908

Sui provvedimenti per l'istruzione superiore (political theory) 1909

Italia e Libia: Considerazioni politiche (political theory) 1912

Sulla riforma elettorale politica (political theory) 1912

Sul Tratto di Losanna (political theory) 1912

Sulla riforma della legge elettorale politica (political theory) 1919

Per l'assetto della Tripolitania (political theory) 1920

Sulle cause degli ultimi fatti avvenuti in Tripolitania (political theory) 1920

Sulle comunicazioni del governo (political theory) 1920

Sui disegno di legge relativo alle "Attribuzioni del Capo Governo" (political theory) 1925

Sul dilancio delle colonie (political theory) 1926

Saggi di storia della scienca politica (political theory) 1927

Lezioni di storia della istituzioni e delle dottrine politiche (political theory) 1933; revised and published as Storia delle dottrine politiche, 1937; revised and published as A Short History of Political Philosophy, 1972

Histoire des doctrines politiques depuis l'antiquit jusq'à non jours (political theory) 1936; revised edition, 1966

Partiti e sindacati nella crisi del regime parlamentare (political theory) 1949

Ciò che la storia proebbe insegnare: Scritti di scienza politica (political theory) 1958

Il tramonto della stato liberale (political theory) 1971

Scritti sui sindacati (political theory) 1974


Sidney Hook (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "The Fetishism of Power," in The Nation, Vol. 148, No. 20, May 13, 1939, pp. 562-3.

[In the following essay, Hook reviews the English translation of The Ruling Class.]

Not so many years ago the conquest of power was the central theme of all left-wing social theory oriented to political activity. Today, in the light of the consequences of totalitarian rule, concern with power is primarily with its abuses, its destruction of life and corruption of the spirit. The naivete of the messianic reformer has given way to weary skepticism. The Young Davids of radicalism seem to have laid aside their slings for the Book of Ecclesiastes—or for a safe berth with the New Deal. For most of the disillusioned the main political task is conceived as preventing fascism from coming to power, not by winning power for socialism, but by strengthening liberal capitalism. Suspicion of the excesses of all power makes easier the acceptance of the customary abuses of existing power.

This new attitude toward power is revealed more in moods than in explicit argument, though theoretical formulations have not been lacking. But it is to books of an earlier day that we must turn to find the weightiest critiques of political power. Mosca, Pareto, Michels, writing in an age when optimism was as general as pessimism is today, raised all the crucial problems which have now come to the fore. They fortified their conclusions on the nature of political power with a mass of historical material and a nicety of analysis which commands respect even when it does not elicit agreement.

The translation into English of Gaetano Mosca's The Ruling Classes offers an opportunity to evaluate both the strength and the weakness of this recurrent philosophy of political power. Like most doctrines that catch hold easily, the basic thesis is simple and recommends itself with a high initial plausibility to anyone who has had some political experience. It asserts that political power never rests upon the consent of the majority, that irrespective of ideologies or leading personalities all political rule is a process, now peaceful now coercive, by which a minority gratifies its own interests in a situation where not all interests can receive equal consideration. As Mosca him-self puts it: "Political power always has been, and always will be, exercised by organized minorities, which have had, and will have, the means, varying as the times vary, to impose their supremacy on the multitudes." In peaceful times, the means are public myths and secret frauds; in crisis—force. Whichever side wins, the masses who have fought, bled, and starved are made the goat. Their saviors become their rulers under the prestige of new myths. The forms change, but the essential content remains. This is put forth as a "law" of all social life which can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone except the dull, the pious, and candidates for political leadership. It is a law accepted by every political partisan as obviously true for other organizations but as a slander when applied to his own.

The reactions to this position in recent discussion have been astonishing. They tend to confirm some corollaries Mosca has drawn from his thesis about the distribution of political intelligence. One group does not argue the truth of the theory on the evidence but asserts that since its acceptance makes for defeatism it must be wrong. Another group applauds Mosca's theory or some variant of it and deduces therefrom the comforting view that revolutions are never justified; this despite Mosca's contention that revolutions do not depend upon any theory of political power. Some contest the truth of his findings on the nature of political power because on some other unrelated points he is clearly mistaken. The most sophisticated opponents of the thesis first state it in such a way as to suggest that according to it all power is necessarily evil and should never be employed. They then have little difficulty in showing that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum, for men must act, and this involves a choice between alternatives all of which demand implementation by some power.

In the interests of clear analysis we must distinguish between Mosca's descriptive generalizations of the actual uses and abuses of political power in the...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

Thomas I. Cook (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Gaetano Mosca's The Ruling Class," in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3, September, 1939, pp. 442-7.

[In the following essay, Cook reviews The Ruling Class, disputing the common interpretation of Mosca as a supporter of totalitarian rule.]

The prime task of a reviewer is normally to discuss the contents and viewpoint of an author's work. In the present instance, however, it is perhaps not less important, as a preliminary thereto, to insist on what the work is not, particularly in view of the title given to this translation and edition [The Ruling Class (Elementi di Scienza Politica)], the nationality of the author, and a...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)

Arthur Livingston (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Ruling Class: Elementi d Scienza Politica by Gaetano Mosca, translated by Hannah D. Kahn, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1939, pp. ix-xxxvi.

[In the following introduction to Mosca's The Ruling Class, Livingston provides an overview of Mosca's theory of elites.]


Gaetano Mosca's theory of the ruling class was evolved in its first form during the years 1878-1881, while Mosca was a student under Angelo Messedaglia at the University of Palermo. It occurred to him at that time to generalize the method which Taine had used in the Ancien régime. There, it will be...

(The entire section is 10660 words.)

James Burnham (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "The Machiavellian Tradition, The Ruling Class, Composition and Character of the Ruling Class, and Tendencies in the Ruling Class," in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, The John Day Company, Inc., 1943, pp. 81-115.

[In the following essay, Burnham analyzes Mosca as a neo-Machiavellian.]


Machiavelli livied and wrote during a great social revolution, through which feudal society, its economy, political arrangement, and culture, were being replaced by the first stage of capitalist society. This revolution occupied a long period of time, and its boundaries cannot be given exact dates. Nevertheless, we...

(The entire section is 10313 words.)

H. Stuart Hughes (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Gaetano Mosca and the Political Lessons of History," in Teachers of History: Essays in Honor of Laurence Bradford Packard, edited by H. Stuart Hughes with the collaboration of Myron P. Gilmore and Edwin C. Rozwenc, Cornell University Press, 1954, pp. 146-62.

[In the following essay, Hughes contrasts the theories of Mosca and Pareto, arguing that their differences stemmed from Mosca's view of history as an "experienced reality."]

Among American students of political science and history, Gaetano Mosca is usually considered as a kind of second-class Pareto. The leading ideas ascribed to the two thinkers are similar—the theory of elites, of the role of force and...

(The entire section is 8291 words.)

Ferdinand Kolegar (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Elite and the Ruling Class: Pareto and Mosca Re-examined," in The Review of Politics, Vol. 29, No. 3, July, 1967, pp. 354-69.

[In the following essay, originally presented at the fiftieth annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal, Canada, in 1964, Kolegar argues against the prevailing view of Mosca and Pareto as anti-democratic, claiming instead that their theories ushered in a significant modern sociological concept.]

Mosca's and Pareto's elite conceptions have had a curious fate. Mosca's work, in many ways an anticipation of Pareto's, has been overshadowed by his more brilliant and renowned antagonist from the very...

(The entire section is 5296 words.)

Norberto Bobbio (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Gaetano Mosca and the Theory of the Ruling Class," in On Mosca and Pareto, Librairie Droz, 1972, pp. 11-31.

[In the following essay, Bobbio attempts to create a systematic "exposé" of Mosca' s theory of elites in order to explain the contemporary relevance of the theory.]

1. Gaetano Mosca's fame is based on his theory of the ruling class. This fame is certainly not on the wane, to judge from the attention paid to this concept by a distinguished American scholar, James H. Meisel, in a recent work which, next to the book by the Italian writer Delle Piane, is the most complete survey of the question.

Mosca remained true to the theory of the...

(The entire section is 6878 words.)

Dante Germino (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: A review of The Ruling Class: Elementi di scienza politica, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, March, 1974, pp. 261-2.

[In the following essay, Germino reviews the paperback edition of The Ruling Class, noting that even the book's publishers erroneously claim Mosca to have provided the "theoretical foundation" for fascism in Italy.]

Gaetano Mosca's classic, Elementi di scienza politica, originally published in 1896, with successive revisions until 1923, is here reprinted in paperback from the hard-back translation first published by McGraw Hill in 1939. While the decision to make available a less expensive...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Robert A. Nye (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Mosca," in The Anti-Democratic Sources of Elite Theory: Pareto, Mosca, Michels, SAGE Publications, 1977, pp. 14-20.

[In the following essay, Nye discusses the evolution of elite theory in Italy, focusing on Mosca 's understanding and interpretation of Italian political thought.]

The Italian postrisorgimento provided fertile soil for the nurturing of elite theory. For Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto the melancholy years following Italy's unification were the context for the characteristic personal disillusionment that invariably figures in the biographies of the men who contributed to elite thought. By the mid-1860s the words and deeds of the...

(The entire section is 2677 words.)

Edward C. Hansen and Timothy C. Parrish (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Elites versus the State," in Elites: Ethno-graphic Issues, edited by George E. Marcus, University of New Mexico Press, 1983, pp. 257-76.

[In the following essay, Hansen and Parrish examine the anthropological organization of elites in modern capitalist societies using the theories of Mosca and Pareto.]

This essay is concerned with retooling an old concept—that of elite—with a view toward making an anthropological contribution to the eternal debate over who rules in capitalist societies. To this end, we hope to revive and recast those of Pareto's and Mosca's original ideas about the nature of elites and society that we feel have been stripped of...

(The entire section is 7527 words.)

Richard Bellamy (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Gaetano Mosca," in Modern Italian Social Theory: Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present, Polity Press, 1987, pp. 34-53.

[In the following essay, Bellamy contends that Mosca's and Vilfredo Pareto's respective theories of elites were based on differing "personal political preferences"Mosca's on moderate conservatism, and Pareto's on classical liberalism.]

Mosca is habitually obscured behind the shadow of Pareto. Both are lumped together as the founding fathers of elite theory, and Pareto praised for his more rigorous and 'scientific' approach. This characterization misleads in several respects. Mosca developed his concept of the 'political...

(The entire section is 8251 words.)

Further Reading


Bachrach, Peter. "The Precursors: Mosca and Schumpeter." In The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique, pp. 10-25. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.

Explores the place of Mosca and economist Joseph Schumpeter in the theoretical question of the problem of democracy, and their subsequent development of democratic elitism.

Bobbio, Norberto. "Liberalism Old and New." Confluence 5, (Fall 1956): 239-51.

Examines the major figures, including Mosca, in the social and political shift away from classical European liberalism in the early twentieth century.

Hoover, Calvin B. Review of The Ruling...

(The entire section is 239 words.)