Elite, Theory of the

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Elite, Theory of the


any of the various sociophilosophical conceptions according to which the necessary constituent parts of the social structure of any society are (1) the elite—that is, the privileged higher stratum or strata, which fulfill managerial functions as well as the function of scientific and cultural development—and (2) the rest of the population. Views similar to these were expressed by Plato, Machiavelli, and T. Carlyle; but it was in the 20th century that such theories of the elite were formulated as a system by the Italians V. Pareto and G. Mosca.

Before World War II, elite theories were most common in Italy, Germany, and France; after the war, they gained currency primarily in the USA. The major versions of elite theory are the “Machiavellian” theory (J. Burnham, USA), the “value” theory (La Vallette, France), the structural-functional theory (R. Dahl and S. Keller, USA), and “neo-elitism” (T. Dye and H. Zeigler, USA). What the various elite theories have in common is their denial of historical progress (history being viewed as an aggregate of social cycles, each characterized by the dominance of a particular type of elite); their critical view of the people’s sovereignty, which is considered a romantic Utopian myth; and their assertion that inequality is the basis of social life.

The basic postulate of elite theories is the absolutizing of political relations. Political power is regarded as the major component of social relations, and dominance and subordination are viewed as the most significant types of these relations.

Originally the elite theories were openly hostile even toward bourgeois democracy. In the late 1930’s and in the 1940’s, J. Schumpeter and K. Mannheim (Germany) revised these theories to make them compatible with bourgeois-democratic institutions. Mannheim asserted that what distinguishes democracy is the competition for power on the part of relatively open elites and the attempt to reach a “democratic optimum of the elite-mass relationship” (Essays on the Sociology of Culture, London, 1956, p. 200). In the 1960’s and 1970’s these ideas were used as the basis for the theory of the “pluralism” of elites (Dahl) and for the concept of the elites’ consensus with respect to the existing political system (Dye and Zeigler).

The class roots of the elite theories lie in the division of the antagonistic society into an exploiting minority and an exploited majority. The specific stage of historical development that is associated with the insufficient development of productive forces—the stage representing the prehistory of mankind—is interpreted by the elite theorists as a universal law; it is viewed as a consequence of “human nature” and of the technological requirements of complex production.

Marxist sociology reveals the unscientific nature of the elite theories, which are adverse to the Marxist theory of classes and class struggle and the demand for the social equality of all members of society.


Mills, C. W. Vlastvuiushchaia elita. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Ashin, G. K. Mifob elite i “massovom obshchestve.” Moscow, 1966.
Burlatskii, F. M., and A. A. Galkin. Sotsiologiia, Politika, Mezhdu-narodnye otnosheniia. Moscow, 1974.
Mosca, G. Elementi di scienza politico, 6th ed. [Milan] 1953.
Dye, T. R., and L. H. Zeigler. The Iron of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, 2nd ed. Belmont, 1972.
Dahl, R. A. Polyarchy. New Haven, 1971.
Prewitt, K., and A. Stone. The Ruling Elites. New York, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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