Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Mosca, Gaetano
from Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941) was a political scientist and jurist and a pioneer, along with the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, of elite theory. Mosca was born in Palermo in Sicily in 1858 and educated at Palermo University. He combined an academic with a political career, teaching constitutional law, public law, and political science in Palermo, Turin, and Rome, and he served starting in 1908 as a conservative-liberal deputy in parliament. From 1914 to 1916, he was undersecretary of state for the colonies, and in 1918, he was appointed a life senator. Mosca was also a regular contributor to newspapers, including the Corriere della Sera in Milan, but increasing governmental censorship in the later 1920s induced him to withdraw from journalism.

Although he was highly critical of democratic institutions in his early writings—sharing the disillusionment felt by many from the early 1880s at the way parliament operated in Italy, with its corrupt electoral practices and ill-defined and seemingly unprincipled parties—Mosca came to regard representative government as in fact the least defective of political systems. In 1925, after Mussolini had established his dictatorship, he was one of the signatories of the Manifesto of Antifascist Intellectuals drawn up by the liberal philosopher Benedetto Croce. However, Mosca refused subsequently to take any public stance against Mussolini's regime, confining his opposition to a few incidental remarks on the virtues of representative government in his writings on the history of political ideas, which constituted his only significant output in the fascist period. He remained a senator until his death in Rome in 1941.

Mosca's two most important studies were the Teoria dei governi e governo parlamentare (Theory of Governments and Parliamentary Government), published in 1884, and the 1896 work Elementi di scienza politica (The Ruling Class). In these works, he pursued a similar line of thought to Vilfredo Pareto—whose views on the distinction between elites and masses appear to have been arrived at independently and more or less simultaneously. Mosca argued that, throughout history, every society, irrespective of its character (whether it was bureaucratic, plutocratic, military, or religious) and of the fundamental myth or principle on which it sought to base its authority (the will of God, the will of the majority, or the dictatorship of the proletariat) was in fact ruled by organized minorities. Even in a representative system, he suggested, it was not so much the voters who chose the leaders but the leaders who imposed themselves—often unscrupulously—on the electorate. In the case of Italy, he maintained that the Chamber of Deputies in practice represented only the narrow economic interests of the propertied classes, and he advocated intervention by the state to curb the imbalances and injustices that derived from unbridled liberal individualism. He also sought a transformation of the ruling classes to ensure that talent and ability prevailed.

Mosca disliked the term “elite” on the grounds that it implied an often unwarranted moral superiority, and he preferred instead the more neutral concept of the “political class.” He accepted Karl Marx's idea about the ubiquity of class divisions and conflicts, but he rejected the notion that these might be eliminated: A ruling class could be overthrown, but it would necessarily, he maintained, be replaced by another.

Mosca saw the composition and the manner of ruling of political systems as oscillating between alternative poles or “principles.” A ruling class could be based on inheritance (the “aristocratic principle”) or be open to talented individuals from the lower classes (the “democratic principle”); rulers might heed the wishes of the ruled (the “liberal principle”) or disregard them (the “authoritarian principle”). In common with classical writers such as Aristotle, Mosca—who considered himself a liberal—was inclined to see the best political system as one in which none of these principles was pushed to an extreme. The liberal and authoritarian principles should be balanced, and although the hereditary principle could result in the ossification of the ruling class, a degree of closure might be beneficial, in that it could reduce the intensity of the struggle for power and allow for the transmission of valuable skills and traditions.

Mosca had no interest in methodology or philosophy, and he did not subject many of his generalizations to serious empirical scrutiny. Nevertheless, his main work, the Elementi di scienza politica, remains unsurpassed as a general treatise on politics.

See also Class; Italian Political Thought; Mass Society; Michels, Robert; Nineteenth-Century Political Thought; Pareto, Vilfredo; Political Sociology; Twentieth-Century Political Thought

Further Readings
  • Albertoni, E. 1987. Mosca and the Theory of Elitism. Blackwell New York.
  • Finocchiaro, M. A. 1999. Beyond Right and Left. Democratic Elitism in Mosca and Gramsci. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Meisel, J. H. 1958. The Myth of the Ruling Class. Gaetano Mosca and the “Elite.University of Michigan Press Ann Arbor.
  • Mosca, G. 1960. The Ruling Class. McGraw-Hill. New York.
  • Nye, R. A. 1977. The Anti-Democratic Sources of Elite Theory: Pareto, Mosca, Michels. Sage New York.
  • Christopher J.H. Duggan
    Copyright © 2013 CQ Press

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Mosca, Gaetano
    Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

    Italian, b: 1 April 1858, Palermo, Sicily, d: 8 November 1941, Rome. Cat: Political philosopher. Appts: Taught law at Turin, from 1896,...

    Full text Article Mosca, Gaetano (1858-1941)
    Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology

    An Italian jurist and political theorist, Mosca was active in politics and administration. With Vilfredo Pareto he contributed to the...

    Full text Article Mosca, Gaetano
    The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology

    (1858-1941) An Italian jurist and political theorist, he contributed to the sociology of elites. In The Ruling Class (1896), he contended...

    See more from Credo