http://whorulesamerica.net/theory/alternative_theories.html (retrieved July 18, 2024)


• Pluralism

• State Autonomy

• Elite Theory

• Marxism

• A Detailed Critique of Marxism

Alternative Theoretical Views

by G. William Domhoff

There are five rival theories that attempt to explain the power structure in the United States. The class-domination theory developed in my books and discussed on this Web site is most compatible with Four Networks theory of power developed by sociologist Michael Mann.

The other four views on power in America are explained and critiqued from the perspective of the Four Networks theory. I will comment on both their general theory of power in Western civilization and their claims about the nature of the power structure in the United States.

The first and most prominent of the rival views is called pluralism, which is rooted in the general theory of society developed by classical liberal theorists of the past three centuries; in the case of the United States, the liberalism-based theorists conclude there are multiple centers of power (and thus the term pluralism).

The second alternative is state autonomy theory. It is a general theory of recent Western civilization which stresses that government is always an independent force, thanks in part to its control of the military. It therefore says that the government in the United States is the most important power center. Third, there is a more recent theory, elite theory, which says that the leaders of big organizations inevitably dominate all large-scale societies, including the United States.

Finally, there is Marxism, which says that property owners have ruled throughout Western history; proponents of the theory naturally conclude that there is class domination in the United States.

Before discussing these theories, with an emphasis on their differences and shortcomings, it should be clearly understood that they do have overlaps on some issues, especially at the more empirical level of analysis. For example, pluralists talk of several "interest groups" that clash over government policies. That seems very different from the Marxist emphasis on the conflict between two rival social classes, the capitalist class and the working class. However, Marxists go on to say that the capitalist class has "fractions" or "segments" that can have disagreements with each other, and they stress that the working class is multi-layered and internally divided politically.

In the pluralist view, interest groups form coalitions around various issues. For the Marxists, coalitions are primarily class segments coming together on issues basic to capitalism. Many of them would agree that the capitalist class is rarely united in its political focus, except on very major issues, and that the working class becomes cohesive and opposed to the capitalists even less often. Most of them would agree that sometimes, but not very often, there are alliances between one or another segment of the capitalist class and one or another segment of the working class. Thus, pluralists and Marxists might well agree about who is doing battle with whom on a given issue.

Or take elite theory's emphasis on the "interdependence" between elites and non-elites, which is said to set limits on what one side can do to the other. Most pluralists could agree to that claim. On the other hand, Marxists could not agree about interdependence because they see the conflict between the two rival classes as more basic than any temporary interdependence. Obviously, the Marxists would say, capitalists need workers to make profits, and workers need jobs in order to survive, but such a harsh set of conditions for workers does not seem like interdependence.


Pluralism is the theory that most closely corresponds to claims made in high school textbooks and the mass media, and to what many Americans believe. Its most general point is that there is not a dominant class or a set of institutionally based elites that has predominant power. There are great inequalities in power and wealth, but they are disbursed among several groups. This means there is "polyarchy," not a hierarchy. Different groups have power on different issues.

Pluralism is based on the image of a free-market economy. Politicians compete for the support of voters in the electoral arena in the same way capitalists compete for buyers in the marketplace. Just as the market system gives consumers freedom and sovereignty, so too does the political system give voters sovereignty. Due to this relationship between voters and elected officials, government is neutral in disputes among groups, that is, it has no inherent interests of its own, and therefore can arbitrate among the competing interests. It is like an umpire or a judge.

From this perspective, power bubbles up from the grassroots. Citizens in democratic capitalist societies form voluntary groups that try to influence public opinion, lobby elected officials, and back sympathetic political candidates in the electoral process. Pluralists cite studies showing correlations between public opinion and government decisions as evidence for the validity of this analysis.

Some voluntary groups harden into well-organized interest groups that are often based in economic interests (e.g., industrialists, bankers, and labor unions), but also in other interests as well (e.g., environmental, consumer, and civil rights groups). These interest groups join together in different coalitions depending on the specific issues. Here pluralists point to the successes of non-business interest groups, such as labor unions from the 1930s to the 1960s, or environmentalists and consumer advocates in the 1970s, as evidence for their theory.

Most pluralists also believe that corporate leaders are too divided among themselves to dominate government. They claim there are divisions between owners and managers of large corporations, and that corporations are only organized into narrow interest groups that often argue among themselves.

From the Four Networks perspective, pluralism is most generally found wanting because the historical record does not sustain its view, based in liberal theory, that all of history is essentially "capitalism writ large" (Mann, 1986, p. 534). Human societies did not begin with self-maximizing individuals looking out for themselves, which is the basic pluralist assumption about human nature, but with small cooperative bands who shared meat in a totally egalitarian fashion (Boehm, 1999). Individuals did not scratch out private property and create markets, and then decide to develop the state as umpire and regulator, as in the myth of the social contract.

Nor have markets been the only avenue to new economic developments, as liberals claim; military empires of the past were not merely parasitic hindrances to economic growth. They sometimes stimulated such growth. Moreover, the general theory, based as it is in the economic theory of the market, fails to understand that a framework of normative regulation is required before markets can develop. It was religious and political organizations that provided the regulatory context for markets to develop. As Mann puts it:

Regulated competition is not "natural." If competition is not to degenerate into mutual suspicion and aggression and so result in anarchy, it requires elaborate, delicate social arrangements that respect the essential humanity, the powers, and the property fights of the various decentralized power actors. (Mann, 1986, p. 534.)

Mann is also highly critical of liberalism concerning its view on the relationship between social classes and the state because it has a tendency to see states and social classes as inherently in opposition:

Liberalism views property rights as originating in the struggles of individuals to exploit nature, to acquire its surplus, and to transmit it to family and descendants. In this view public power is essentially external to private property rights. The state may be brought in to institutionalize property rights, or it may be viewed as a dangerous threat to them; but the state is not a part of the creation of private property. Yet we have seen repeatedly that this is not historical fact. Private property emerged in the first place, and has usually been subsequently enhanced, through the struggles and fragmenting tendencies of public power organizations (Mann, 1986, p. 536.)

Although liberalism fails as a general framework for understanding power structures across time and places, many social scientists of the 1950s and early 1960s thought it made sense -- in the form of pluralism -- for the specific case of the United States, which does have a market economy and a democratic electoral system. However, events of the 1960s and 1970s, in combination with power structure research, raised serious questions about the theory that caused it to lose some of its appeal for a decade or two. At that point it seemed to a growing number of social scientists that corporations did have predominant power and that the government was not responsive to the interests of the general public. Since that time pluralism has made a comeback by focusing on the seeming successes of various liberal interest groups, such as the environmental and consumer movements in the 1970s.

There were indeed some genuine victories for new interest groups through the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and other movements for group and individual rights and freedoms, but the victories in relation to issues concerning corporate and class power have been few and far between. It can't be stressed enough that individual rights are one thing, but the power of groups or classes on policy issues quite another. Nor are the successes of the environmental and consumer movements evidence for pluralism, as will be shown shortly.

The most detailed statement of a revised pluralist view, called neo-pluralism, suggests a "new liberalism" has arisen in the form of citizen's lobbies (Berry, 1999). This view puts great emphasis on the battles between liberal interest groups and the Christian Right over cultural values, noting that the liberal interest groups often win, but this is irrelevant in analyzing corporate power. The neo-pluralists grant that major foundations, especially the Ford Foundation, funded many of the new citizen interest groups at their outset, which makes them creatures of moderates within the corporate community, not independent interest groups. However, these theorists reply that such groups are now independent due to money raised through direct mailings and other outreach efforts.

In fact, many of these interest groups remain heavily dependent on foundations, including, ironically, corporate foundations. In particular, environmental groups and advocacy groups for low-income minority groups are still very dependent on money from foundations within the moderate-conservative camp of the corporate community. Minimizing the role of foundation grants as an influence on these organizations also ignores the importance of discretionary money in the functioning of any organization.

All environmental groups are counted as part of this new pluralism, but the key groups as far as policy formulation are funded by large foundations and are part of the moderate-conservative wing of the policy-planning network (Domhoff, 2005, Chapter 4; Robinson, 1993). True enough, liberal and left environmentalists have sensitized public opinion on environmental issues, created watchdog groups whose reports receive attention in the mass media, and developed new ideas and technologies for controlling pollution that have been grudgingly accepted by the corporate community. But since 1975 they have not been able to pass any legislation that is opposed by the Business Roundtable, the most important policy group in the corporate community. The environmental movement as a whole, and the liberal wing in particular, is more marginal in a power sense than its public reputation would suggest.

The consumer movement that developed out of the movements of the 1960s was able to pass many new consumer protection laws between 1967 and 1974 (Vogel, 1989). However, there is less evidence of interest-group power in this story than meets the eye, because the relevant business groups either agreed with the legislation or forced modifications to make it acceptable. Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce registered its usual ideological protestations, there was little or no business opposition to any of the consumer protection legislation of the 1960s, which means that the corporate community was not defeated on these issues by any rival interest groups (Domhoff, 1990, chapter 10). The important exception is the automobile industry's objections to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a successful effort to force them to make safer cars (Luger, 2000).

The profound weakness of the consumer movement was exposed as long ago as 1978 when its mild proposal for an Agency for Consumer Advocacy was strongly opposed the by the Business Roundtable and other corporate policy-planning groups through the Consumers Issues Working Group. Despite support from President Jimmy Carter, the bill was rejected by the conservative voting bloc in the House. The consumer movement also failed on every other piece of legislation it put forward in that time period. Surveying the successes and failures of consumer activists from the vantage point of the 1990s, the most detailed study of this movement concludes pluralists are wrong to claim that the "new" regulation starting in the 1970s is different from earlier forms of regulation, even though it usually covers a wider array of industries (Maney & Bykerk, 1994). More generally, its authors conclude that business is the dominant force in the interest-group community despite the increase in non-business interest groups in the 1970s.

In fact, contrary to the claims by neo-pluralists, the only significant defeat for a united corporate community since the 1960s is the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, which was strongly opposed by corporate leaders as both a possible precedent for enlarging government regulation and as a potential stronghold for unions. Even here, the ensuing history of this new agency is instructive in terms of corporate power through lobbying and legislative in-fighting: By the 1980s, as detailed studies show, the corporation community had turned the agency into a "political prisoner" through delays in providing information, legislative amendments limiting its power, legal victories that further reduce its power, and budget cuts that make inspections fewer and more superficial. As if to make this case even more difficult for pluralists, these changes occurred despite strong public sentiment in favor of enforcing workplace safety laws (Noble, 1986; Szasz, 1984).

Nor are correlations between public opinion and legislative outcomes necessarily evidence for the pluralist view. Such a claim overlooks the fact that the corporate community spends enormous sums of money to influence public opinion through an opinion-shaping network that ranges from public relations departments in large corporations to big companies that specialize in public relations to numerous nonprofit organizations that focus on influencing public opinion on just one specific issue, such as foreign policy or beliefs about the economy or trade unions (Domhoff, 2002). It also ignores the fact that the public's liberal preferences on a wide range of economic programs -- government employment of the unemployed, government-supported health insurance, a higher minimum wage -- never have been fulfilled.

State Autonomy Theory

Because the federal government in Washington and the military were relatively unimportant in American history until World War II and after, most analysts of power in the United States have started with the premise that the private groups or social classes of "civil society" dominate the state. Thus, their main focus has been on the relative power of various interest groups or social classes.

Most of these "society-centric" analysts have been pluralists. That means the control of the state by private interests was not to be deplored because many different groups were involved. The few dissenting analysts within the academic community -- Floyd Hunter, C. Wright Mills, Marxists, and non-Marxist class-domination theorists like me -- contested the general pluralist vision only in the sense of saying that power was in the hands of the few: an institutional elite for Mills, the rich capitalists for the plain Marxists, a combination of the two for Hunter and me. That is, the dissidents were as society-centric as the pluralists and put no special emphasis on the state.

Contrary to that general starting point, state autonomy theorists assert that predominant power is located in government, not in the general citizenry or a dominant social class. Following European usage, advocates of this theory, who now sometimes call themselves historical institutionalists, employ the phrase "the state" rather than "government" to emphasize the government's independence from the rest of society. This state independence, usually called "autonomy," is said to be due to several intertwined factors: (1) its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within the country; (2) its unique role in defending the country from foreign rivals and (3) its regulatory and taxing powers. Thanks to these powers, government officials can enter into coalitions with groups in society, whether business, labor, or political parties, if they share the same goals as the state. State autonomy theorists also believe that independent experts can be powerful because they have information that is valuable to state officials.

For the state autonomy theorists, then, the state can and does act in its own interests, which are stability and expansion. In a capitalist world, the state's leaders do their best to keep capitalism healthy because that is in their own interests in terms of state revenues and a happy civilian population, not because they are first and foremost concerned with capitalism and capitalists.

State autonomy theorists pride themselves for allegedly establishing for the first time how "the logics of state-building and the international states system are not reducible to an economic or class logic" (Orloff, 1993, p. 85). Actually, this idea was news to very few theorists. It is basic to the Four Networks theory, for example.

State autonomy theorists do not insist that the state is everywhere and always strong and independent. It can be captured or dominated in some instances. At the most abstract level, they therefore assert that the state is "potentially autonomous" (Skocpol, 1979, p. 29; Skocpol, 1980). The problem here is that they claim they came up with the idea all by themselves, completely ignoring the fact that Mills, who is never cited by them, made this important point long ago (Mills, 1956, pp. 170, 277; Mills, 1962, p. 119) . They thus created a straw man to make themselves seemingly unique and innovative.

Even with the idea of potential autonomy available as a way to concede that there is corporate dominance in the United States, they insist on giving the American state considerable autonomy. However, there are many reasons why this potential does not manifest itself in the United States. State autonomy is only possible when a state is unified and relatively impermeable to the employees and representatives of private organizations. But the American government is neither. For historical reasons -- see the discussion of American history in the document on Four Networks theory -- it is a fragmented government completely open to outside agents, and therefore vulnerable to domination through the electoral process and through appointments from the corporate community and policy-planning network. The movement by members of the corporate leadership group between the private sector and government blurs the line between the corporate community and the state, which does not fit with the idea of state autonomy.

Moreover, the historic lack of large planning staffs in most executive departments made it possible for a private policy-planning network to flourish. Then, too, the division of American government into national, state, and local levels helps to explain why growth coalitions can be so powerful in most cities.

At the empirical level, state autonomy theorists use a growing budget and an increasing number of employees as indicators of the power of an agency or department within government. More generally, the alleged continued expansion of the federal government is sometimes said to be good evidence for the power of state officials. But the state autonomy theorists are wrong for three reasons when they use increases in federal budgets and number of agency employees as power indicators. First, the size of a government does not necessarily say anything about how it is controlled. The government could grow and still be controlled by the corporate community. For that reason, there is no substitute for historical studies using one or more indicators of power.

Second, the growth of government from the 1960s through the 1990s was at the state and local levels, which does not fit with the image of an independently powerful federal government that aggrandizes more resources to itself. Third, as the most detailed and sophisticated study of federal government budgets reveals, budgets actually declined in size from 1950 to 1977 by 8.8 percent as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product when various biasing factors such as inflation are taken into account (Berry & Lowery, 1987). That decline continued from 1980, when federal spending was 21.6 percent of Gross Domestic product, to 2000, when the figure was 18.7 percent. The percentage started up again in the first four years of the 21st century, in good part due to the massive increases in defense spending that began even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also due to increased costs for Medicare and subsidies for agribusinesses. But no one would claim that the Bush Administration is evidence for state autonomy theory.

Information on trends in the number of federal government employees also contradict the expectations of state autonomy theory. The number of federal civilian and military employees declined in the 1990s, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the nation's total population. Furthermore, most government employees are related to the military and its functioning. The main finding that emerges from a comparison of the departments in the executive branch is that the Department of Defense dwarfs all others, employing over half of all federal employees when military personnel are included. When only civilian employees are counted, that department is still three to seven times bigger than its nearest rivals. And if the Veterans Administration is counted as part of the military, as it should be, then the civilian part of the government is an even smaller part of the overall picture.

The claim by state autonomy theorists that experts have an independent role in developing new public policies in the United States is refuted by the fact that these experts are part of the corporation- and foundation-financed policy-planning network. State autonomy theorists are right that experts provide many of the new policy ideas, but they do not see that the most important experts are selected and sponsored by one or more of the organizations within the policy network, and that their ideas are discussed and criticized by corporate leaders before appearing in reports and proposals.

When state autonomy theorists turn their attention to political parties and group differences over specific policy issues, they become similar to the pluralists. This is clearly seen in the most successful state autonomy book on American society, Skocpol's (1992) Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, which dealt with the Progressive Era. I have critiqued this book at great length, showing how state autonomy theory, when applied to the United States, morphs into pluralism, all the while ignoring the class conflicts that are staring it in the face.

The American state is most assuredly very powerful. The question is, who controls that state? Is it elected officials, appointed officials, and career employees (as the state autonomy theorists claim) or the corporate community that finances the elected officials and supplies many of the appointees (as class-dominance theorists claim), or the American public through political parties, elections, interest groups, lobbying, and the force of public opinion (as pluralists claim)?

Elite Theory

Present-day elite theory intersects with the Four Networks theory on some points, but disagrees on others. The starting point for present-day elite theorists is that all modern societies are dominated by the leaders (called elites) of large bureaucratically structured organizations, whether those organizations are corporate, nonprofit, or governmental. And elite theorists, like other power theorists, emphasize that average citizens sometimes have the ability to set limits on the actions of elites, especially when the elites are in conflict among themselves.

But elite theory puts far less emphasis on classes or class conflict than is necessary to fully understand power in the United States. It therefore does not fully appreciate the degree to which corporate-based owners and managers dominate other institutionally based elites in the United States. For example, most elected officials within the political elite are dependent upon wealthy families and corporate leaders for their initial financial support, and military leaders are appointed by the civilians who win control of the executive branch. Nor does elite theory emphasize the class bias that is built into the policy-planning network and other non-profit organizations in the United States, which makes the leaders and experts within those organizations secondary to the leaders in the corporate community.

The lack of attention to class conflict leads elite theory to underestimate the differences between corporate-dominated organizations and organizations based in the working class, especially unions. The capitalists and the working class are interdependent, as elite theory stresses, which does set outer limits on what they can do to each other. Moreover, the leaders of unions do work with the leaders of corporate-oriented organizations once their unions are established, as elite theory emphasizes.

However, many of the union leaders' objectives remain class-based. There is major conflict between them and the corporate leaders, who see unions as deadly enemies and do everything they can to eradicate them. Moreover, the union leaders have been defeated again and again by the corporate community since the late 1930s, making them a secondary elite at best. Unlike many European countries, where union leaders have more power because the capitalists were constrained by aristocratic and state elites in their efforts to eliminate unions, there are no restraints on corporate attacks on unions in the United States (Mann, 1993; Voss, 1993). Thus, there are differences between the United States and most European countries that make elite theory more applicable to those countries than to the United States .

More generally, it is the combination of insights from organizational and class theories that explains the strength of the American corporate community. This is where the Four Networks theory has greater applicability because of its synthesis of the theories giving rise to organizational and class concepts. Capitalism creates an ownership class that has immense economic resources and the potential for political power. It also generates ongoing class conflict over wages, profits, work rules, taxes, and government regulation. In response, corporate owners in the United States have been able to create a wide range of organizations that give them institutional resources through which they incorporate and legitimate their class resources, making it possible for them to contain class conflict. It is the interaction of class and organizational imperatives at the top of all American organizations, including government institutions, that leads to class domination in the United States.


Like the Four Networks theory, Marxism is a comprehensive theory of Western history as well as the starting point for a theory of power in the United States. In that regard, the two theories are more general than pluralism, state autonomy theory, and elite theory. Marxism was created by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederich Engels (1820-1895). At the least, it has five aspects, each of which has generated a huge literature. It contains:

The focus of this section will be on the theory of class domination and the politics of replacing capitalism with socialism for two reasons. First, the dialectical theory of history, with its insistence on certain inevitable outcomes, is no longer considered credible in the light of events in the 20th century, even by most Marxists. Second, many of the claims about the internal workings of capitalism, such as the labor theory of value and the falling rate of profit, have fallen by the wayside. The emphasis on the lengths to which capitalists must and will go to make profits, and on class conflict, remain highly relevant, but they can be included within the sociological theory of class domination that is discussed here.

Shorn to its barest essentials, the theory states that history begins when the creative aspects of human beings act upon nature to serve human needs. This starting point highlights the Marxist emphasis on the productive and progressive nature of human beings.

The creation of tools and machinery ("forces of production") leads to more goods being produced than can be individually consumed, and hence to the potential for conflict over how to distribute the surplus. As the forces of production develop, there is an increasing division of labor as well as increasing conflict over the ownership and control of the machinery ("relations of production"). As people divide into owners and non-owners, there is both greater overall productivity and increasing exploitation of the non-owners (who are at different stages of history in the roles of slaves, serfs, peasants, and most recently "workers"). This is what Marx means when he says that history is a history of class struggle. Class struggle is the driving force of Western civilization.

This framework, known as "historical materialism," assumes that the level of development of the "forces of production" shapes the basic structure of the "relations of production." The relations of production, in turn, shape political institutions, customs, and ideas about the world. Some later Marxists spoke of the "base" and the "superstructure" in discussing the relation between the "mode of production" (the combination of the forces and relations of production) and political and ideological institutions. Others said that "relations of production" implied political relations, so there was no need for such a distinction.

Either way, historical materialism states that the historically specific way in which people create goods and services is the basis for their political, religious, and philosophic systems, thereby giving primacy to the "economic" and material aspects of human existence. But it is not "economic determinism" in the narrow sense of the capitalist mentality projected backwards in time by free-market economists and pluralists, i.e., maximizing individual self-interest or working to be the richest person. Marx saw human beings as far more cooperative and sharing than the free-market liberals and pluralists, who are the real economic determinists.

Within the context of this exploitative and volatile economic structure, a "state" is developed by the owners to protect themselves and their private ownership of the means of production. When the socioeconomic system reaches the highly productive stage of development called capitalism, the economic surplus is "appropriated" from workers as "profits" through the seemingly fair social institution known as the "market," which replaces the direct and coercive forms of appropriation used in earlier social systems. However, the market system is not really fair because it has a strong tendency to push wages to a subsistence level due to the fact that there are always more workers than are necessary. In other words, the powerlessness of workers, which forces them to sell their labor power in order to survive, underlies what most economists celebrate as a "free" market and makes profits possible.

The fact that workers have to be propertyless and powerless for capitalists to make profits from human labor is one of the major sticking points, both theoretically and morally, between liberals/pluralists and Marxists. Pluralists deny or ignore this claim, which is morally offensive to Marxists because of their concern with equality and social justice.

For all the market's usefulness as a method of organizing a highly productive and flexible economy, classical Marxism asserts that its exploitative nature generates increasing discontent in workers, both in terms of psychological alienation (due to having their creative energies controlled by owners) and sociological despair (due to low wages and poor working conditions). As workers come to realize their common plight, they join together to form unions and political parties. In the context of more and more economic crises, such as depressions or runaway inflation, they also realize they have the knowledge and experience to organize a fairer and more humane social system. They struggle to replace the capitalist system with a cooperative one called "socialism," in which the means of production are owned by everyone through cooperatives and government. In addition, the market is replaced by democratic planning through democratically elected governments. Citizens also would have input to the plan through local meetings with planners.

Although workers do not understand the fact at first, socialism -- and then communism, a more advanced stage of socialism -- is inevitable according to classical Marxists, because the economic problems and social conflicts that develop within a fully mature capitalist system are unsolvable. Capitalism thus contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, but the apparent fairness of the market and the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology mask this fact from workers. It creates in them a "false consciousness" about their best interests that is only gradually overcome. The aim of Marxist political parties is to help workers overcome their false consciousness and replace capitalism, which is the task that has been assigned to workers by the historical process.

(Here it should be noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turn towards a market economy by the Chinese Communists has called the inevitability assumption into question for contemporary Marxists. Many are rethinking this issue.)

Two strands of Marxism developed in the effort to replace capitalism with socialism. One strand thought that it was possible to work within the electoral system and become a majority in parliament, making it feasible to legislate socialism. Advocates of this approach, unable to win over a majority of voters, had to soften their platform to win more support and eventually made compromises with capitalism. They became known as Social Democrats. They tried to use high taxes to provide universal health care, good pensions, and other collective benefits to workers.

The other political strand thought that parliaments were rigged and that the capitalists would use violence to stay in power, just as feudal landlords and kings had done. A violent clash would occur sooner or later. Proponents of this view advocated revolutionary parties that would prepare to overthrow the government, seize power, and abolish capitalism by force. Their main standard-bearer in the 20th century, the person who succeeded in this task, was Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia during World War I.

Those Marxists who favor the revolutionary road became known as Marxist-Leninists. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, they and the Social Democrats became bitter enemies for many reasons.

There is much more to say about the shortcomings of Marxism. I've prepared a detailed critique as a supplement to this document.


Viewed from the vantage point of the Four Networks theory, state autonomy theory and Marxist theory are too narrowly focused on a single organizational basis of power (the political network for the autonomy theorists, the economy for the Marxists). The state autonomy theorists are right that the state is potentially autonomous, and the Marxists are right that there is class dominance and class conflict in the capitalist era, but those important insights are readily encompassed within the Four Networks theory.

Four Networks theory is also a better home for a class-domination theory than Marxism because it takes the potential independent power of the state more seriously, and recognizes that religious organizations often play an important role in politics. More generally, a class domination theory of the United States within the context of the Four Networks theory makes it possible to have a more flexible and nuanced theory of the American power structure. There is no tendency to assume that everything can be seen through the lens of the class struggle. The Four Networks theory also can provide a much better basis for political action in the United States than Marxism, which has been highly counterproductive in the political arena

Elite theory is right to focus on organizationally based elites, which gives it a wider canvas than either state autonomy or Marxist theory, but it does not specify the four primary organizational bases pointed out by the Four Networks theory as a general starting point. Nor does it give the emphasis that is necessary to the capitalist class in the United States. It does not readily enough incorporate the importance of class conflict because of its emphasis on interdependence between elites and non-elites.

Pluralist theory is first of all a statement that advanced capitalist countries are not monarchies or dictatorships, which is not really necessary. It also emphasizes that there are freedoms and electoral possibilities in democratic capitalist countries that are not present in most societies. In that sense, it is mostly a defense of the American system. American capitalist democracy is not perfect, pluralists say, but it is about as good as can be done by human beings. Pluralists like the old saw about democracy having great inadequacies, except when you compare it to all the alternatives.

Although democracy is always preferable to the alternatives, and the United States has freedom of assembly and expression, pluralism fails as a general theory because it is really based on a projection of the institutions and attitudes within a market system to the historical past. It fails in the case of the United States because there is class domination and class conflict even though everyday citizens have the right to speak out and vote. It further fails because it celebrates the pluralism of the United States in a context where people in Canada and Western Europe have far more electoral power, and the benefits thereof, than they do in the United States. It ignores the wealth and income distributions, and emphasizes the many political conflicts on specific short-run issues, highlighting the relatively few cases where the corporate community does not get exactly what it wants.


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First posted April 2005

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