7 Theorists of Political Elites and their Approaches



The study of the Elites came into being in the early nineteenth century and early twentieth century due to the writings of two sociologists of Italy — Vilfred Pareto and Gaetano Mosca. Besides that Burnham and Wright Mills have made their own contributions.

Though there are differences of opinion amongst them, the common theme of all of them is that every society "is ruled by a minority that possesses the qualities necessary for it s succession to full social and political power.

Those who get on top are always the best. They are known as the elites. The elites consist of those successful persons who rise to the top in every occupation and stratum of society: there is an elite of lawyers, an elite of mechanics and even an elite of thieves and an elite of prostitutes".

1. Pareto (1848-1923) and his circulation Theory:

Pareto held the opinion that in every society there are "people who possess in a marked degree the qualities of intelligence, character, skill, capacity, of whatever kind". According to him there m every civilised community an artistic, a sporting, scientific elite, and also a relatively small group of persons who dominate the political and economic forces of the country. He argues that elite possesses certain qualities on the basis of which come at the top. He calls these qualities as 'residues'. By residue he means those qualities owing to which one can come at the top.

He has given six kinds of residues:

(i) Persistence of aggregates,

(ii) Sociability

(iii) Activity,

(iv) Integrity,

(v) Sex, and

(vi) Instinct of combinations.

Of these Pareto attaches the greatest importance to the first and the last. Pareto says that there are two kinds of elites, one ruling force; the second ruling by cunningness. They clearly bear a close resemblance to Machiavelli's characterisation of governing cliques as "foxes" and "lions".

Pareto conceded t he necessity of the circulation of elites taking place from time to time, as he was interested in the maintenance of social equilibrium. "Revolutions", he wrote, "come about through the accumulations in the higher strata of society either because of a slowing down in class circulation, or from other causes of decadent elements no longer possessing the residue suitable for keeping them in power, or shrinking from use of force; while in the meantime in the lower strata of society elements of superior quality are coming to the fore, possessing residues suitable for exercising the functions of governing and willing enough to use force".

2. Mosca (1858-1941), the organisational approach:

While Pareto was basically a sociologist and a psychologist, Gaetano masca (1858-1941) who further developed the theory of political elites and the concept regarding their circulation of elites, was basically a political scientist. He strongly refused the classification of the governments of Aristotle which divided the governments into monarchy, aristocracy, oligrachy and democracy and favoured only oligarchy.

To quote his own words:

"In all societies from societies that are meagerly developed and have barely attained the dawning’s of civilization, down to the most advanced and powerful societies - two classes of people appear a class that rules and a class that is ruled.

The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first, in a manner that is now more or less legal, now more arbitrary and violent and supplies the first, in appearance at least, with the instrumentalities that are essential to the vitality of the political organism".

"The larger the political community," he adds later, "the smaller will be the proportion of the governing minority to be governed by, and the more difficult it will be for the majority to organise for reaction against the minority".

Like Pareto, Mosca also believed in the theory of the circulation of elite. The distinguishing characteristic of the elite "being the aptitude to command and to exercise political control", once the ruling class loses this aptitude and the people outside the ruling class cultivate it in large numbers, there is every possibility that the old ruling class will be replaced by the new one.

Mosca asserts that new interests and ideals are formulated in society, new problems arise and the process of circulation of elites is accelerated. He also advises the governing elite to bring about gradual alterations in the political system in order to make it confirm to changes in the public opinion.

3. Robert Michels (1876-1936), (The Organisational approach):

Robert Michels like his teacher Mosca repeats an organisational approach to the question of elite control in his well known work 'Political parties' although his treatment is much different from Mosca. While Mosca believes that the elite manages to main­tain its control by virtue of its organisational ability that flows from the very fact of its being a minority, Michels contends that the very structure of modern organised society gives birth to elite rule.

His name is associated with what is known as the "Iron law of oligarchy", which he declares as "one of the iron laws of history, from which the most democratic modern societies and within those societies, the most advanced parties, have been unable to escape"'. The primary factor supporting this law is the element of organisation. No movement or party can succeed without organisation in modern times. According to him, "Organisation" is simply another way of spelling "oligarchy".

It becomes necessary in every organisation to vest the powers into the leadership. This leadership cannot be checked and held accountable for everything. Due to the technical knowledge, the control ultimately passes into the hands of the bureaucracy and other leading politicians of the party.

This forms the central principle of eliticism. In short, the party hierarchy becomes an established career, offering a rise in social status and income. This power of the elite is sustained because of the carelessness, apathy, ineptitude and political neutrality of the masses.

Roberto Michels further says that once the leaders reach the pinnacle of power, nothing can bring them down. “If laws are passed to control the domination of leaders, it is the laws which gradually weaken, and not the leaders.”

4. Harold Laswell:

Harold Laswell divided the people into elite and masses. He said, "The few who get the most of any value are the elite, the rest, and the rank and file". However, it depends upon the ability and tactics of the elite to maintain its power. In his own words, "The fate of elite is profoundly affected by the ways it manipulates the environment. This is to say by the use of violence, goods, symbols, and practices."

However, he changed his position subsequently and based his eliticism on the concept of power. So he said, the elite are those with most power in a group; mid-elite, those with less power; the mass, least power". By power Laswell meant the decision-making power. Consequently, elite are those who make decisions and hold the highest position of power in the political system.

Though decisions taken by the elite are authoritative and backed by force, yet they have to get the support of the masses in order to be effective. In case the people do not obey, the elite lose power. Then the counter-elite backed by the people get power.

5. Ortega Y. Gasset (1883-1955):

In order to further highlight the theory of political elite, Oretega Y. Gasset evolved the theory of the masses. He says that the people choose their leaders upon whom they pour out their vast store of vital enthusiasm. These leaders are men of outstanding ability and always lead the masses.

He says, "A nation is an organised human mass, given structure by a minority of select individuals, the legal from which a nation may adopt can be as democratic or as communistic as you choose, but its living and extra legal constitution will always consist in the dynamic influence of minority acting on the mass. This is a natural law, and as important in the biology of social bodies as the law of densities in physics".

"The primary social fact, “he writes further, "is the organisation of a human heap in leaders and the lead. This supposes in some a certain capacity of lead, in other a certain capacity to be lead”. He asserts that the masses revolt when the aristocracy becomes corrupt and inefficient, and the motive being the revolt is not that they have objection to being ruled by aristocracy but would like to be ruled by a more competent aristocracy.

6. Burnham: Economic Approach:

In explaining the theory of the elite, Burnham adopts the economic approach, which looks similar to the approach of Marx but it is not really so. According to him, the power of elite depends upon the degree of control he has over the principal means of production and distribution. Because of this control, the elite manage to get preferential treatment in the society and is able to prevent the rest of others to enjoy the same position in the society. Thus the easiest way "to discover what the ruling group is in any society, is usually to see that the group gets the biggest income".

However, Burnham is not a Marxist on account of this reason but is to justify and defend the present capitalist system. He takes only the importance of the control of means of production from Marx but where Marx vests it in the hands of the labour class, he vests it in the hands of an elite.

7. C Write Mills:

C. Wright Mills refuses to share Burnham's belief that political power of the elite results from economic power. Power, according to Mills tends to be institutionalised. He used the term 'power elite’ instead of the term ruling class since to him the word ruling class smack of economic determinism.

Power is thus an attribute of classes or persons but of institutions. He was opposed to the concept of class. He laid special emphasis 6n the history making decisions by the power-elite. According to him, the power-elite then consists of those, "in position of major hierarchies and organisations of modern society".

He has asserted that the history-making power of the elite "is sufficient to over-turn the Status quo, call into question the existing social relationship and establish a new structure. The inner core of the elite is able, potentially, to determine the roles that others will play in society". He has also cited the example of bombing Hiroshima (Japan) in the 2nd World War in August 1945 by American elite.