ruling class

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ruling class

or

dominant class

  1. (MARXISM) within any society or social formation, that class which enjoys cultural, political as well as economic ascendancy (class domination) by virtue of its ownership and control over the MEANS OF PRODUCTION.
  2. (non-Marxist POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY) ruling class – the minority which, in any society, always forms the political governing class – MOSCA The Ruling Class (1869) (see also ÉLITE AND ÉLITE THEORY).
In most Marxist usages but not all, the two terms ‘ruling class’ and ‘dominant class’ are virtually synonymous. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels did write that in the modern representative state ‘the bourgeoisie’will often hold ‘exclusive political sway’, that the state would be ‘the executive committee of the bourgeoisie’. For most Marxists, however, even where such a ‘ruling’ or ‘dominant class’ does not govern directly (e.g. where, as in modern liberal democracies, government is in the hands of persons drawn from several different classes), this does not mean that the economically ‘dominant class’ is not the ‘ruling class’, since it may still ‘rule’ by virtue of its control over IDEOLOGIES, over dominant ideas, etc., stemming from its economic influence. As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas; i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force’. Thus, in this sense a ‘ruling’ or ‘dominant’ class may ‘rule’ even though it does not ‘govern’. In some political circumstances, it is argued that it is to the clear advantage of an economically ‘dominant class’ that it does not rule or govern directly, for example when a sharing of central political power with other groups allows control to be exerted over diverse forces which are seen as ‘condensed’ at the political centre – See BONAPARTISM. In such circumstances, however, it can also be argued that the lack of class capacity preventing any one class from ruling directly can reflect a state of affairs in which there exists no economically and politically dominant class.

There are today many Marxists (e.g. see Poulantzas, 1973) who also emphasize that a tendency always exists for the state to possess a RELATIVE AUTONOMY – or even on occasions an absolute autonomy – from underlying economic forces. In this context, a distinction between the political ‘ruling ÉLITE (S)’ and the economically dominant class is one that usually needs to be made. A final problem for Marx ism is that empirically there often exist many difficulties in any actual identification of the ruling or the dominant class, especially in the study of historical forms of society, e.g. in ABSOLUTISM or ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION OR ASIATIC SOCIETY.

For the users of the term ‘ruling class’ in sense 2 , the predominant concern has been different from that of most Marxists. Their goal has been to expose the pretensions of most modern claims to DEMOCRACY, including the claims of Marxists that true democracy might one day be achieved. According to Mosca the rulers will always be drawn from an ‘organized minority’. Using abstract political justifications -which Mosca called political formulae - rulers everywhere seek to legitimize their political rule. In some cases the ‘principles’ which operate in the selection of political leaders and the social origins of such leaders may merit the ‘empirical’ use of such terms as ‘representative democracy’. But even in these circumstances the ‘ruling class’will always consist of, and be drawn from, a cultural and psychological minority of the population equipped to rule. See also PARETO, MILLS, POWER ÉLITE, GRAMSCI, HEGEMONY, DOMINANT IDEOLOGY THESIS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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