Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Theories of Power

A Critique of Marxism

by G. William Domhoff

NOTE: This document is a supplement to the more general overview of the rival theories of power that exist in sociology today.

Historical Materialism

From a Four Networks point of view, Marxism's emphasis on historical materialism is too narrow a base for understanding the complexity and variety of power structures across time and places. The idea that all power is rooted ultimately in the ownership and control of the means of production, with the ensuing class struggle providing the motor of history, does not fit the origins of civilization in the years from 3000 to 2300 B.C.E., when most property was held by the state and there was no class conflict; nor the 2500 years of empires of domination, when military networks were in the ascendancy; nor the 900 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the ideology network called "Christendom" combined with the independent armies of the nobility to create the framework within which a class-ridden capitalism and a closely intertwined system of nation-states began to rise to the fore.

In short, there have been great stretches of history when economic forces, no matter how broadly conceived to accommodate the Marxian claim about the primacy of the "mode of production," were not primary in either the first or last instance. Moreover, there were other epochs where the activities of the ruling class were far more important in understanding new developments than any "class struggle" with direct producers, who were far too localized and lacking in organizational infrastructure to challenge the dominant class, let alone to be considered a class themselves.

The Origin and Function of the State

For Marxists, the state is a structure of domination that protects private property, even though they argue among themselves about the way in which this state domination takes place. Marx's general view of the state followed logically from the fact of human productivity. As already stated, the surplus created by this productivity led to inevitable conflict between the forces and relations of production, an increasing division of labor, inevitable class conflict, and then the creation of the political state as the defender of property.

There are several problems with this theory of the state. First, archaeological and historical evidence do not support the claim that the state has its origins in class struggle and the rise of private property. Early states were a mix of religious and political institutions that had functions for small societies as a whole in terms of the need for a common way to store grain and other foodstuffs. These states also had other regulatory functions as city life became more crowded and complicated compared to what faced small groups of hunters and gatherers.

Second, changes in the nature of the state are not usually a product of changes in society due to conflict between social classes. One of the biggest impacts on the nature of the state was the need for a common defense against nomadic groups, and later, rival states.

Third, even in later times states are not always involved in subjugating the producing classes. Sometimes dominant classes do the subjugating directly, as during the Middle Ages (Mann, 1986, pp. 391-392, 411).

Fourth, by conceiving of the state so narrowly, and not seeing its political and religious dimensions, Marxists minimize the potential for patriotic and religious feelings in shaping how groups and classes act. They therefore underestimate the strong possibility that common social bonds also can exist between the social classes in a country.

Fifth, the Marxist analysis of the state, with its emphasis on its alleged original role in protecting private property, led to a false homology between the state and the economic system that creates a tendency to downplay the importance of representative democracy. Not all Marxists accept the argument that follows, but many do. For this large subset, representative democracy is an illusion that grows out of the same type of mystification that is created by the marketplace. Just as the capitalists appropriate surplus value "behind the backs" of the workers through the seemingly fair mechanism of the market, when the real story is in ownership and control of the forces of production, so too does representative democracy appropriate the political power of the workers through the seemingly fair mechanism of elections, when the major action is over in a state bureaucracy that responds to the interests of the owners of private property.

This view is best summarized in Stanley Moore's A Critique of Capitalist Democracy (1957), a book based on an extremely close reading and synthesis of everything that Marx, Engels, and Lenin wrote on the subject of the state. It is so crucial to understanding how some Marxists view representative democracy, and thus to understanding the politics of those Marxists, that it needs to be quoted at length:

These distinctive features of the bourgeois democratic state correspond to distinctive features of the capitalist economy. The capitalist economy appears to be controlled through a series of competitive exchanges, in which all members of the society participate voluntarily under conditions of universal freedom and equality. Similarly, the bourgeois democratic state appears to be controlled through a series of competitive elections, in which all members of the society participate voluntarily under conditions of universal freedom and equality. But beneath the formal freedom and equality of capitalist exchange lie the material bondage and exploitation of capitalist production, resulting from the monopoly over the means of production exercised by members of the capitalist class. And beneath the formal freedom and equality of bourgeois democratic elections lie the material bondage and oppression of bureaucratic administration, resulting from the monopoly over the means of coercion exercised by agents of the capitalist class. The democratic republic is the optimum political shell for capitalism because the relation between bureaucratic administration and universal suffrage is the optimum political counterpart for the relation between capitalist exploitation and commodity exchange. (Moore, 1957:87-88.)

The ongoing importance of this analysis can be seen in the work of the Marxist economist James O'Connor, who had a major impact on the thinking of the generation of Marxists who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. He is still carefully read by radical environmentalists and many members of the global justice movement. O'Connor had the following to say about these matters in Accumulation Crisis (1984):

In Marxist theory, the "liberal democratic state" is still another capitalist weapon in the class struggle. This is so because the democratic form of the state conceals undemocratic contents. Democracy in the parliamentary shell hides its absence in the state bureaucratic kernel; parliamentary freedom is regarded as the political counterpart of the freedom in the marketplace, and the hierarchical bureaucracy as the counterpart of the capitalist division of labor in the factory. (O'Connor, 1984, p. 188.)

There are some Marxists who would say that this is really the Marxist-Leninist view of representative democracy, not of Marxists in general. Be that as it may, the point for now is that this analysis is often accepted as "the" Marxist view by new Marxists, and is identified as such by O'Connor in the passage quoted above. I think it is a crucial point to consider because the idea that liberal freedoms are really a thin veil for the repression of the working class, when combined with the idea that the market is inherently exploitative, generates a contempt for liberal values and democracy that leads to crucial misunderstandings of the United States. It says that representative democracy is all a sham. I think this may be one of the root problems of Marxist politics in the United States, a problem that makes it difficult for Marxists to join into coalitions with liberals.

For those Marxists who see representative democracy as a sham, the solution is "direct democracy," meaning small face-to-face groups in which the people themselves, not elected representatives, make decisions. This is in fact the meaning of the term "soviet." But historical experience shows that such groups came to be controlled by the members of the Communist Party within them.

Problems also developed within direct democracy groups, often called "participatory democracy groups," in the New Left and women's movements in the 1960s. Although they tried to foster open participation among equals, they developed informal power structures led by charismatic or unbending members. There came to be a "tyranny of structurelessness" that shaped the group's decisions, often to the growing frustration of the more powerless members (Ellis, 1998, Chapter 6; Freeman, 1972). Based on this experience, it seems that selection of leaders through elections is necessary to avoid worse problems.

Rather than downplaying the elected legislature, as some Marxists do, the Four Networks theory suggests that the creation of legislatures was a key factor in breaking down the unity of the monarchical state and thereby limiting its potential autonomy. Put another way, representative democracy and legislatures are one of the few counterpoints to the great potential power of an autocratic state. They should not be dismissed as inevitable mystifications of class rule, even if empirical investigations show that legislatures in capitalist societies are often dominated by capitalists, as is generally the case in the United States. The idea that Marxists and liberals should agree on is to extend the openness of legislatures in ways discussed in the Social Change section of this Web site.

The Problems of Socialism

The planned economy envisioned by classical Marxists has not proved to be workable either in terms of productivity or democratic responsiveness. There are several reasons for these failures. The productivity problem is rooted in the fact that the range and depth of information needed to run a complex consumer economy is too great for any planning bureaucracy. Moreover, no planning agency currently has the capability to analyze the information that does exist in a timely enough fashion to deal with sudden shifts in the availability of raw materials or changes in consumer preferences. The result is an unproductive economy. As the planners and plant managers come under criticism, they start to cut corners and cheat in ways that can allow them to meet their quotas. The result is hoarding of raw materials that other plants need, and shoddy goods.

In other words, all the potential problems with large-scale bureaucracies come into play. Power accrues at the top. Then corruption ensues, such as placing friends and relatives of questionable competence in positions of responsibility, withholding important information from rival agencies, and skimming off resources for the personal benefit of the top officials. All this adds to the morale problems generated by the failures of the economy and multiplies the large economic inefficiencies.

The disappointing conclusion that emerges from the social sciences and history is that non-market planning cannot work, even in democratic societies. Thus, progressives and other egalitarians have to develop methods of planning through the market in order to realize their egalitarian goals. For all its potential weaknesses, a planned market system within the context of a representative democracy can be both productive and more equal than present-day societies because it relies on many different people with small pieces of information to make small and limited decisions.

Many contemporary Marxists are rethinking these issues as well. There are interesting arguments about "market socialism" (Elson, 1998; Ollman, 1998).

Marxist Politics

Marxist politics, whether of the Social Democratic or Marxist-Leninist variety, have not been successful for a number of reasons. The first two were discussed earlier in this critique. To repeat:

  • Non-market planning, as the method to reach the key goal of Marxist politics, which is an end to economic exploitation, has proven to be unworkable in complex economies in large countries.
  • The disregard for representative democracy on the part of some Marxists (at the least, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists) leads to a disruptive and extra-parliamentary approach to politics that alienates most citizens in democratic capitalist countries.

Beyond these two serious issues, there are three further problems:

  • The firm conviction that Marx is right about (a) the false consciousness caused by capitalism and (b) the inevitable failure of capitalism due to its internal contradictions can breed a form of elitist thinking that can become very manipulative.
  • The overwhelming emphasis on the nature of capitalism in classical Marxism as the key to politics made it difficult to take the differences in electoral systems from country to country seriously. The idea that the structural realities of the American electoral system militate against third parties of the left or right was therefore taken as a theoretical challenge to the primacy classical Marxists afforded to the economic system.
  • The general leftist preference for a third party is reinforced by the general nature of dialectical thinking, which insists that the opposing class forces within capitalism inevitably come to the fore as it develops, thereby increasing the tensions and "contradictions" built into the underlying social structure. It therefore makes sense to create a third party that might fracture the Democratic Party in order to "heighten the contradictions." By this reasoning, "the worse things are, the better," because crises hasten the fall of capitalism. That is exactly what the Marxist-Leninists who controlled the Communist movement inside and outside the United States from 1917 to 1990 believed.

The most extreme expression of this last point was the slogan of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, "After Hitler comes us," which they used when they refused to enter into a coalition with the Social Democrats to stop the rise of Hitler. As subsequent German history sadly proved, the "worse is better" theory drastically underestimates the power of political repression to destroy a left-wing movement.

Much closer to home, the Communists in the United States played a central role in creating the Progressive Party in 1948, even though they had insisted they were going to stay close to the labor unions within the Democratic Party. But when Moscow decreed in October, 1947, that all Communist parties must find ways to oppose the imperialistic Marshall Plan (massive financial aid for Western European countries), the American Communists decided that aiding a third party would be the best approach. Since they knew such a party could not win, and might cost the Democrats the election, it is likely that they were out to help the Republicans, whom they believed might reject the Marshall Plan because of their strong isolationist wing.

Return to the conclusion of "Alternative Theoretical Views."


Ellis, R. J. (1998). The dark side of the left: Illiberal egalitarianism in America. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Elson, D. (1998). Socializing markets, not market socialism. In L. Panitch & C. Lay (Eds.), The social register 1999. London: Merlin.

Freeman, J. (1972). The tyranny of structurelessness. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 17, 151-164.

Mann, M. (1986). The sources of social power: A history of power from the beginning to A.D. 1760 (Vol. 1). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, S. W. (1957). The critique of capitalist democracy: An introduction to the theory of the state in Marx, Engels, and Lenin. New York,: Paine-Whitman.

O'Connor, J. (1984). Accumulation crisis. New York, N.Y.: B. Blackwell.

Ollman, B. (Ed.). (1998). Market socialism: The debate among socialists. New York: Routledge.

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