Gaetano Mosca Reference

Gaetano Mosca

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mosca was one of the founders of modern political science. His writings on the concept of elite rule were crucial contributions to a modern theory of government. Mosca combined a university position with an active political life, serving in the Italian parliament for fifteen years and eventually opposing Benito Mussolini and Fascism.

Early Life

Gaetano Mosca was born in Palermo, the capital city of the island of Sicily, on April 1, 1858. He was one of seven children in a middle-class family; his father was an administrator in the postal service. Mosca’s Sicilian background played a crucial role in his later intellectual development. Sicily entered the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 with hopes for the island’s resurgence as part of a newly unified country; however, the northern rulers proved to be every bit as harsh and corrupt, and as insensitive to Sicily’s needs, as their Bourbon predecessors. Indeed, for much of the 1860’s, and occasionally over the next two decades, Sicily rebelled against northern rule and was placed under martial law. Elections, when held, were fraudulent, results falsified, and coercion openly practiced.

All of this imbued the young Mosca, a bright and energetic student, with the strong distrust of politics common to most Sicilians. In the late 1870’s, Mosca entered the University of Palermo, where he studied law. His degree, awarded in 1881, was based on a thesis whose central theme was nationalism. Mosca argued that national identity was largely a political myth of less real importance than people’s regional or even local allegiances. This emphasis on the true rather than the apparent in politics remained with Mosca for the rest of his life.

In 1883, Mosca moved to Rome to take up advanced study in politics and government administration. The following year, he published a treatise on the theory of government, which was quite well-received and established something of a name for the young and clearly talented Mosca. Though he hoped for a position in the national university system, Mosca had to return home to Palermo for financial reasons and spent one year teaching history and geography in a local secondary school.

The call to the university, however, came soon afterward, and in 1885 Mosca became a lecturer in constitutional law in Palermo. He stayed two years, publishing monographs on constitutional issues while at the university. Disappointed at not receiving a full professorship, Mosca competed in a national civil service examination and won a position as editor of the official publications of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. He moved to Rome in 1887, took up his new duties, and embarked on further, direct study of the operation of government within the halls of parliament itself. This experience culminated in the publication of his first major work, Elementi di scienza politica (elements of political science), in 1896. In this book he outlined both a theory of government and a scientific methodology for the study of politics. These two issues would remain constant features in Mosca’s later writings.

Life’s Work

The most productive period of Mosca’s life coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of European history: 1895 to 1925, the years of la belle époque, its disintegration in World War I, and the rise of Fascism on the Continent. A single concept informed all of Mosca’s adult work—the existence and importance of minority rule in government and politics. Indeed, for the forty years of his active intellectual life, Mosca continued to elaborate and expand on this one idea.

Underlying his work was a simple and profoundly modern conception of the purpose of political science: to examine government, not as the state appears or according to what it claims to do but rather as it really operates. In particular, Mosca maintained that modern governments, behind the appearance of majority rule and representative democracy, were really the expression of the power of a small, well-organized minority.

Mosca embarked on a detailed historical investigation into government in the past to see if minority rule was a constant feature in human societies. He insisted on grounding all political theory in actual history rather than on subjective impressions. This approach marked the first serious effort to give the study of politics a real methodology akin to that of the natural sciences. Mosca, first in the 1896 Elementi di scienza politica and then as a university professor in Turin from 1898 to 1923, looked at government over a wide sweep of time, starting with the Greek city-states, and then studying the Roman Empire, European feudal societies, absolutist monarchies on the Continent, representative government in England, and finally ending with considerations on democracy in the United States. His conclusion was simple and profound: “Everywhere and in every time,” Mosca wrote in Elementi di scienza politica, “all that is called...

(The entire section is 2066 words.)