From the ruling class to power elite: As we know the concern that Mosca and Pareto initiated to portray was to create a new science of politics was due to their opposition to socialism and Marx’s social theory. This had given the labor movement in development a commendable intellectual energy and self-confidence. But the question that arises is, ‘is this theory of Machiavellian (as called by Burnham) superior to Marx’s theory of social class and class conflicts?’
Marx’s theory can be proposed by the following statements:
- In every society a clear distinction can be drawn between two categories of people, (a. The ruling class b. One or more subject class).
- The domination of the ruling class is defined by the power it holds on the economic instruments of production, but the political domination is explained by its hold over military instruments and over the production of ideas.
- There is a constant conflict between the ruling class and the subject class, the primary reason behind such conflict is the development of productive forces namely changes in technology.
- The lines of class conflict are most specifically drawn in the capitalist society since in this society the distinction in economic instruments is most clear as the concentration of wealth is at one extreme of the society and the of poverty at another.
- This class conflict in the capitalist society will stop by the victory of the working class which will eventually lead to the formation of a classless socialist society. There are a number of reasons for the expectation of the formulation of this kind of society:
- The tendency of the capitalist society is to create a homogeneous working class from which it expects that there is no scope of formation of new social divisions in future.
- The historical and revolutionary struggle of the working class itself establishes a sentiment of cooperation and community which is strengthened by the moral and social doctrines produced by the movement and which is included in Marx’s theory.
- Capitalism creates material and cultural preconditions for a classless society. Material conditions by immense productivity which makes it possible the satisfaction of the basic needs of all human beings and ignores the edge for the physical survival and the cultural condition by overcoming the idiocy of rural life, promoting literacy and engaging the mass of people in political life.
Marx’s theory is a compact and systematic one, because of which its influence on social thoughts and development of labor movement being so powerful cannot be denied. At the same time, the criticism it faced cannot be ignored. Mosca and Pareto, Max Weber as well, but in the course of their critical analysis, they extended the scope of Marx’s theory unjustifiably. Marx did not say that all the principal of social and cultural changes can be explained through economic instruments. What he intended to explain was that the principal type of society especially that area of European civilization can be could be distinguished in terms of their economic system, and the major social changes from one society to another can be explained through economic changes.
Another criticism drawn on Marx’s theory was that it showed a principal type of society which came into existence was maintained or declined due to the operation of non-economic factors.
Social structures are the type of coins which does not easily melt. Once it takes its form it continues to exist for a very long period. Consider the situation of the emergence of the feudal type of landlordism by the Franks in the sixth and seventh century. It had a great impact on the designing of the social structure then. But the simplest explanation lays in the function of military leadership whose families and leaders became the feudal landlords.
The development of feudal society in Europe and other places did create a problem for Marx’s theory since these societies emerged as a combination of military chieftainship with large land ownership. These societies were primarily formed due to political creation.
Another criticism laid upon Marx’s theory was the doubt on the economic interpretation of the origin of modern capitalism, which means the transition of one society to another which Marx examined precisely and thought had supporting evidence to prove it. The major criticism was laid by Max Weber, in his attempt to show that modern capitalism required a change in attitude towards work and accumulation of wealth in accordance with economic changes and formation of the new class. The theory laid by Max Weber is also criticized on various platforms, which are, it is historically inaccurate in its portrayal of the Protestant ethic, on account of connexion between Protestantism and capitalism and it does not provide an explanation to the rise of capitalism. In recent years the values of Weber’s thesis is more assessed than Marx’s theory though.
The value of Marx’s theory depends upon the general social theory. If it is not universally valid, a ruling class is also required to have military power or in modern times the political power for originating. But this lays a bigger question, ‘is it the case in every society this concentration of power occurs a ruling class is formed?’ It is quite evident in Marx’s theory that in every society, there is a distinction drawn between the ruling class and subject class. This is well explained in European feudalism.
Another case which explains the Marx theory is the bourgeoisie of early capitalism. Its development as a social class is well explained through the acquisition of power in different spheres – political, administration armed forces and educational system.
The acquisition of power is a long complex process and Marx’s theory brings together the Revolution of France and the industrial revolution in England.
In this case, the bourgeoisie is in several aspects less cohesive ruling than the feudal nobility. It does not really combine the various powers which thus lead to conflict between the different classes.
One important element of this development is the attainment of universal adult suffrage which produces a difference between economic and political power. Marx acknowledged that this attainment will be a revolutionary step which will help transfer political power to the working class.
Another important factor was the development of postwar welfare state and the extreme intervention by the Democratic state in economic life through progressive taxation, extending public ownership and some economic planning.
These are, therefore, principal dispute raised by Marx conception of the ruling class. Mosca and Pareto said governing elite are those who occupy recognized position of political power in the society. The difficulties in understanding the concept of ‘governing elite’ is well explained in the Mill’s study, which shows the influence of Marx on one side and that of Mosca and Pareto on the other. He explains his preference for calling it ‘ power elite’ rather ‘ruling class’ by:
Ruling class is a mistaken phrase, here class means economy and rule means politically, which therefore means economic class rules politically.
Mills defined his ‘power elite’ in the same way as Pareto defined ‘governing elite’ by saying power elite comprises of those which occupy posts at a higher degree. Firstly, Mills distinguished the three major elites in the USA, which are the corporation head, political leader and the military chiefs and further inquiries whether these three collectively forms a single elite group, and if it does what binds them together. One possible answer to this is, that they are from all recognized upper class, hence, the ruling class forming a single elite. However, this question has never been seriously discussed, this was meant to criticize the Marxian theory and therefore the explanations provided are vague and unconvincing.
The view of the elites in modern democracy has been widely held and is explained in the conclusion of the study of the upper strata of British society. The rulers are not close-knit or closely held. They only touch each other at one edge. No one ruler can stand at the center for there is no center.
Mills rejected this fashionable minded doctrine which he explained as follows,
Far from being omnipotent are thought to be scattered as to lack of force of cohesion historically. He says those who occupy higher positions are also pressurized by other elites. They are also checkmated.
The real theme of his book is, first the transformation of a society in which numerous small and autonomous group had effective say in political decision into a mass society where only the power elite takes the political decision. Secondly, the corruption of the power elite itself. Like Pareto and Mosca, Mills said that if we look in future at the modern democracy, however democratic, they are in fact ruled by a power elite.
The concepts of ruling class and power elites are used in description and explanation of political happening and therefore, their value must be judged upon the reasonable answers it provides to questions on the political system.
The concepts are alike in emphasizing division between rulers and ruled ones. The ‘ governing elites’ contrasts the ruling minority with the unorganized masses whereas the ‘ruling class’ contrasts dominant class with subject class. In the Marxist theory, the conflict between the classes is the principal force driving the changes in the social structure but the elite theories, the relation between the organized minority and unorganized majority is more passive and which raises the problem of the rise and fall of the elites.
Another difference drawn is, the governing elite ate those who occupy a powerful position in the society and are merely assumed as cohesive groups unless other consideration. The ruling class which occupies various economic producing instruments are cohesive social groups.
The superiority of the Marxist theory is in its greater fertility and construction of theories. However, there are a few drawbacks which we need to see if we can overcome. One major step in this direction is, to avoid the fact that it is a real phenomenon and can be applied in all societies and consider it ‘ideal type’. It is then possible that we can improvise it as per the need and form a conclusion as per the observation and investigation.
There are two situations where we can see the divergence of the ideal type of ruling class. The first situation is although there is an upper class in a democratic area, it receives a powerful position and a large share of national income does not enjoy undisputed political power for being able to enjoy political rights and transferring them from generation to generation. In such a case to examine whether there is a ruling class or not it is necessary to know whether the upper class is successful in maintaining its property. We must note on one side, there have been restrictions on the private property and on the other side, it must be noted that there are also restrictions laid on the private wealth.
The second situation in which the divergence in the ruling class – subject class model is drawn is in which the ruling group is not a class in Marx’s sense. One such instance is that in which a group of intelligent people and bureaucrats are holding the supreme power as in China the rule of Literati and in India the rule of Brahmins.
There is another element in the ruling class which needs to be very subtly examined, especially in those cases where the existence of such class is doubtful.
As we know, ruling class comprises of power over property and it can be transferred from generation to generation, the class has a non-ending character. Only when there is a rapid change in the system of production and ownership of property there arises the replacement of one ruling class with another. In any kind of society or any particular society where the ruling class movement is continuous then we shall conclude there was no ruling class in such a society.
It is, therefore, social mobility and circulation of elites which has been recognized by several writers the second most important character of modern industrial society, the first being universal suffrage. Karl Mannheim, in his opinion, said that development of industrial societies can properly be depicted from movement from a class system to system of elites. There is a clear distinction between the two with the help of which we can understand whether in a society there was a ruling class or power of elites.
Bottomore, T.B. 1993, Elites, and Society, 2nd Edition, Routledge, pp. 15-34