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International Socialism, Autumn 1965


Leonora Massey



From International Socialism, No.22, Autumn 1965, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Elites and Society
T.B. Bottomore
Watts, 15s

One might have expected more from Bottomore, an independent Marxist thinker, than this lightweight book. It does not deal with ‘Elites and Society’, but with the standard theories that have been developed about them. The book could be a fairly useful and intelligent introduction to the ‘classics’ for a sociology student just beginning – and in fact it probably consists of a series of first year lectures, strung together without much more thought. In the latter part of the book he does put down some observations on the current world – but this is done very casually and suffers from surprising gaps. Thus he can discuss the role and characteristics of ‘intellectuals’ in underdeveloped countries without dealing with the rate of unemployment amongst graduates.

His own contribution consists essentially in distinguishing the useful and the less useful elements in the theories he describes, and trying to create a somewhat superficial synthesis of the ‘useful’ elements. Elite theory in general he considers to be of limited usefulness since it

‘says little about the bases of the power which the elite possesses, except insofar as it incorporates elements from the Marxist theory of classes ... (Since) in elite theories ... the relation between the organised minority and the unorganised majority are necessarily represented as more passive, the resulting problem of how to explain the rise and fall of elites has to be dealt with either by postulating a recurrent decadence in the elite or by introducing the idea of the rise of new "social forces" among the masses, which brings the theory close to Marxism.’

On the other hand he thinks class theory is inadequate, for he suggests a number of cases where it would not apply.

Unfortunately, he demolishes all the non-conforming cases himself. All but one – the Russian Bloc.

‘The political system of the Communist Countries seems to me to approach the pure type of a "power elite", that is, a group which having come to power with the support or acquiescence of particular classes maintains itself in power chiefly by virtue of being an organised minority confronting the unorganised majority.’

(This a kind of Trotskyist interpretation, but minus the ‘workers’ state’ bit).

On this basis, it would seem, rests his whole thesis – that both class and elite theories are useful ‘models’ or ‘ideal types’, with varying relevance to different societies, one or the other being the more appropriate. Yet he deals with the communist regimes (whose exemption from class theory forms his foundation) in only a couple of pages, and neglects in their respect those same questions he accused the traditional elite theorists of ignoring – why is the majority unorganised? What economic role does this ‘elite’ play? Along what lines is their relationship to the masses (and the relatonship of the masses to them) likely to change?

He dismisses the suggestion that the Russian elite is a class with two brief statements of obscure meaning:

‘the leading party members are not bureaucrats ... they are political leaders who rise to power in the party by the exercise of political abilities, not by passing examinations in Marxism Leninism ... It is a mistake to suppose that the party rules because it controls the means of production; on the contrary, it controls the means of production because it has political power.’

He never manages to reconcile his approaches – elite theory as a more partial and less illuminating way of looking at the same data as a class approach; and elite theory as applicable to different societies (i.e. communist ones) or sections and periods of societies, from class analysis.

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