Compare and Contrast Marxist, Elite and Democratic Pluralist Theories of Power

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Compare and Contrast Marxist, Elite and Democratic Pluralist Theories of Power.


Marxist theories of power were originally developed by Marx but have been updated and refined by modern Marxists such as Miliband and Poulantzas. Classical Elite theories were developed by Pareto and Mosca, to some extent as a critical response to Marxism, but have also been very significantly modified by theorists such as C.W. Mills. Theories of Democratic Pluralism attracted considerable support in the 1950s and 1960s but they have also been subject to much criticism subsequently.

Marx’s theory of the ruling class states that, basically, the Bourgeoisie are an economically dominant class in that their ownership of the means of production in capitalist society gives them power over decisions affecting production, investment and employment, but they are also a ruling class in that they indirectly exercise considerable control over the capitalist state which may be seen as an interlocking set of political institutions including, in the case of the UK., the PM. and Cabinet, Parliament, the Monarchy, the Judiciary, the Civil Service, the Police and Military, Local Government, Nationalised Industries, (if any) and the BBC.

Many would accept Marx’s theory for the 19th Century, when politics was dominated by the aristocracy and adult suffrage was limited and when trade unions were weak and the Labour Party was non-existent, thus restricting the political influence of the working class. However, it has been claimed that Marx’s theory had lost much of its relevance by the middle to late 20th Century in conditions of universal suffrage and given the growing strength of trade unions and of the Labour Party. Now it was argued that the managerial revolution or the divorce of ownership from control had weakened the economic power of the capitalist class and that the distribution of political power could be more accurately described by the theory of Democratic Pluralism to be discussed later.

Yet by the late 1960s, Marxist ideas experienced something of a revival and writers such as Ralph Miliband aimed to rehabilitate the Marxist theory of the ruling class. According to Miliband, capitalism had not undergone very significant changes since the 19th Century and theories of post-capitalism and democratic pluralism were themselves not accurate. Miliband recognised that the Bourgeoisie or the capitalist class did not have total control over the State but argued that its control was much greater than the influence of any other social grouping or organisation such as the trade unions or the Labour Party.

According to Miliband, the State was run by a series of interconnected state elites, (the political elite, the civil service elite, the judicial elite and the military elite), but these elites were , in turn, extremely likely to be influenced by the Bourgeoisie and to make policy decisions accordingly. The Bourgeoisie according to Miliband remained a ruling class. It exercised its influence through the following mechanisms:

  1. because some senior politicians were also senior business persons and might therefore take decisions in the interests of business. However, Miliband recognised that this applied only to a minority of those in state elite positions.
  2. because other members of state elites were drawn disproportionately from the upper and upper middle classes and may well have been educated at private schools and Oxbridge universities and this was assumed to bring a pro-capitalist bias to their decisions. Also, although some people were upwardly mobile from the working class into elite positions, this would be possible only if they were prepared to jettison any radical views if they ever had any.
  3. pro-capitalist Conservative parties are especially well funded and this increases their chances of winning General Elections.
  4. a capitalist socialisation process operates via family, school and media to reduce the likelihood of criticism of the capitalist status quo.

The power of the capitalist class can then be demonstrated by the existence of great inequalities of income and wealth. Here, it is argued that such inequalities continue to exist only because the capitalist class has the power to maintain them. “Power”, it is said, “is visible in its consequences”.


While also writing from a Marxist stance, Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s was rather critical of Miliband’s approach. According to Poulantzas, the capitalist state had some relative autonomy. That is, it had some flexibility to take decisions on its own behalf that some sections of the capitalist class (which according to Poulantzas, was itself divided into different fractions) would not wish to accept. Such relative autonomy was necessary if the State was to resolve conflicts within the capitalist class and to grant concessions to the working class which might sometimes be necessary to defuse protest but which the capitalist class would not readily accept. However, Poulantzas believes that there are limits to the State’s autonomy in that it can only grant concessions which still maintain the structure of capitalism. Its autonomy is only relative. The other key difference between Miliband and Poulantzas is that whereas Miliband stressed the importance of social background of those in elite positions as factors influencing decisions, Poulantzas considered this largely irrelevant and claimed that decisions are much more influenced by the need of the state elites to operate within a basically capitalist structure such that, for example, taxes cannot be raised for fear of adverse electoral consequences or of sparking off an economic crisis caused by a flight of capital abroad. It is in this sense that Poulantzas is described as a structuralist Marxist.


Classical elite theorists were critical of Marxism in that they argued that although societies can be divided into ruling elite and ruled non-elite or masses, they also argued that the basis of elite power need not be economic. The political elite might be powerful in its own right because of its political skills or organisation; because it is a military dictatorship; or because it is based on religious leadership. There is no necessary reason why the capitalist class should be able to dominate these different kinds of elite, which, according to classical elite theorists, discredits the Marxist theory. Also, according to elite theorists, it is highly unlikely that so-called socialist revolutions will increase the power of the working class because all that will happen is the replacement of one elite by another with no improvement in the overall situation of the working class who, in any case, were considered incapable of exercising any kind of leadership. Note that Marxists and classical elite theorists have optimistic and pessimistic views respectively of the potential of the working class.

Elite theory might also, to some extent, be linked to the work of Max Weber who argued that in modern industrial societies, senior bureaucrats in both industry and government would wield considerable power. Also, senior government bureaucrats might use this power in their own interests, for example, to expand the scope of their own departments and, hence, expand their own career prospects, rather than in the interests of the capitalist class. Political scientists have often argued that senior civil servants actually have more power than the government ministers that they are supposed to serve, although this is actually a complex debate with some factors increasing the power of civil servants and other factors increasing the power of ministers. However Weber hoped also that in the newly emerging liberal democratic regimes of the early twentieth century  the powers of the state bureaucracy could to some extent be restrained via effective parliamentary scrutiny  of their activities  and via the existence of competing political parties and pressure groups. Weber, therefore, could be seen as an early contributor to theories of the state based upon the ideas of pluralism although it has been suggested that the overall state which he favoured was most likely to develop in the direction of elite pluralism rather than classical pluralism given the extent to which political parties and pressure groups each seemed highly likely to be dominated by their leaders rather than their rank and file members.

Radical democrats have argued that Weber's approach to politics saw a very limited role for the active involvement of individual citizens in the political process and that Weber saw them as essentially incapable of playing such a role: Weber was clearly a believer in representative democracy rather than radical participatory democracy although he did also recognise some of the limitations of the former. He was in some respects " a liberal in despair" believing that liberal democracy offered the best prospects for human happiness but that the hopes of liberal democracy might be disappointed in practice.

The theory of democratic pluralism is significantly different both from Marxist theory and Elite theories. In the theory of Democratic pluralism, it is argued that power is widely distributed among several political parties, many pressure groups and among citizens who have votes in regular general elections. Within this system, the State is seen as neutral, not systematically favouring one particular interest (e.g. the capitalist class) at the expense of all other interests. There are important studies by Dahl, Hewitt and Grant and Marsh which are summarised in M.Haralambos textbook Sociology: Themes and Perspectives which give some support to the Pluralist theory but it has also attracted several criticisms. It is argued that members of pressure groups and political parties actually have little control over the leaders so that it would be more accurate to describe the system as one of elite pluralism rather than democratic pluralism but defenders of elite pluralism claim that at least the different elites represent members of their respective organisations so that this is consistent with a form of democracy.

However, there are other criticisms both of the theory of democratic pluralism and of elite pluralism. It is argued that democratic pluralists work with a narrow one-dimensional concept of power rather than the broader 2 and 3 dimensional concepts which were developed by S. Lukes and may be used in modern Marxist theories. For further information on S. Lukes’ theories of power click here. It is argued also that leadership of pressure groups [other than some  trade unions] and political parties tend to be dominated by the middle classes so that the working class are poorly represented; the poor and disadvantaged remain marginalised by the political process; the uneven distribution of wealth and income suggests also that power is unevenly distributed; the pluralist theory might be seen as little more than an ideology  designed to give an impression of democracy at work whereas in practice, little real democracy exists

Even experts disagree as to the relative accuracy of these different theories not less because the concept of power itself has been described as an essentially contested concept. However, it may be fair to say that an economically dominant class continues to exist in the UK as part of a transnational capitalist class which wields considerable economic and political power. This may mean that although political elites do exercise some independent power within the state, they are often forced to take decisions which are sympathetic to capitalist interests. For example, they may feel that they are forced to limit taxation increases for the high paid and/or corporation taxes and to impose only moderate environmental restrictions on capitalist enterprises for fear that these enterprises will relocate to other countries thereby reducing taxation revenues, employment prospects and government popularity in the UK.

There are very important elements of democratic pluralism in the UK political system. There are competing political parties and free elections; there is a high degree of freedom of speech and of assembly; there is a wide range of pressure groups and new radical pressure groups have emerged, for example to protest against world poverty and the dangers of climate change. It is questionable, however whether these pluralistic elements are sufficient to challenge the overall dominance of the transnational capitalist class whose powers may, if anything, have increased in the era of near global neoliberalism. For further information on neoliberalism  click here.