aristocracy(redirected from aristocracies)
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See J. H. Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (1982).
- (in classical Greece) ‘the rule of the best’.
- a hereditary élite or noble class, e.g. the noble class in FEUDALISM. In most large-scale, premodern societies a tendency existed for the ruling or dominant classes to transform themselves into a hereditary noble class, but counter tendencies also existed in which such claims could be resisted. See also PATRIMONIALISM.
(1) A form of government under which state power is retained by a privileged noble minority. As a form of government, aristocracy stands in opposition to monarchy and democracy. “A monarchy is the power of a single person, a republic is the absence of any nonelected authority, an aristocracy is the power of a relatively small minority, and a democracy is the power of the people. . . . All these differences arose in the epoch of slavery. Despite these differences, the state of the slave-owning epoch was a slave-owning state, irrespective of whether it was a monarchy or a republic, aristocratic or democratic” (V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 479). In the history of political ideas, the concept of aristocracy as the designation of one form of state government originated with Plato and Aristotle; later Polybius, Spinoza, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Kant, and others favored the aristocratic form of government. As a rule, the justification for aristocracy propounded by its adherents comes down to the idea of the political inferiority of the majority of the people over whom the aristocratic elite is called to rule. In ancient times aristocratic republics included Sparta, Rome (from the sixth to first centuries B.C.), and Carthage; in medieval Europe, Venice and the Pskov and Novgorod feudal republics.
The composition and order of formation of the highest bodies of state power and the interrelation between them varied in different aristocracies. For example, in Sparta state power was in the hands of two hereditary kings, the gerusia (council of elders elected by the popular assembly), and the ephors. In Rome members of the senate were appointed by the censor from among former high officials and members of distinguished families; the elite provided “elected” magistrates (the consuls, praetors, censors, and aediles). In Carthage two elected suffetes and an elected council of elders held the real power. In Novgorod and Pskov the council of lords was made up of the town patriciate.
In aristocracies the power of the popular assemblies was curtailed and their role was slight. The populace did not participate actively in state life. Elections were largely for show, and officials were the henchmen of the elite (the Spartiatai in Sparta, the patricians in Rome, and the patriciate in the medieval republics). In the formation of the organs of state power in an aristocracy from a circumscribed elite, there was a very strong tendency toward the principle of hereditary rule.
(2) The nobility; the privileged part of any class (the patricians in Rome, the eupatridae in Athens, the dvorianstvo [nobility or gentry], and others); or a social group (for example, the financial aristocracy) which enjoys special rights and benefits. The political influence of the aristocracy and the circle of people belonging to it is determined by the concrete historical conditions and peculiarities of the country in question. For example, the Junker class in 19th-century Prussia included only individuals from the old nobility related to royal, ducal, and other such families. In France and Great Britain, where many powerful feudal lords perished during internecine wars or bourgeois revolutions or else were destroyed by the policy of absolutism, the aristocracy was composed of less high-born nobility.
V. S. NERSESIANTS