Critically assess Max Webers views on socialism, democracy and the role of political leadership

The study of politics is, for many sociologists, the study of power. Thus Dowse and Hughes (1972)  contend that, Politics is about power, (and) politics occurs when there are differentials in power. Differentials in power can occur in numbers of different social relationships, for example between parents and children or teachers and pupils, thus any relationship that involves power differentials might be considered to be political. Beginning with the emergence of elite theory in the late nineteenth century this paper will describe and assess Weber’s views on socialism, democracy, and the role of political leadership. 

Elite Theory

Within sociology a distinction is often made between two kinds of power, these are authority and coercion. Coercion is a form of power that does not have the consent of the people, such as the Roman invasion of other countries, and is therefore power that is obtained by force and not legitimate Authority is that form of power that has the consent of the people, as when society accepts that Parliament has the right to make certain laws. Authority is thus a legitimated form of power. (Harlambos, Holborn and Heald , 2000). Elite theory, as has been mentioned emerged in the late nineteenth century when economic power was fragmented and spread among numerous small businesses. Political power had become increasingly centralised and the threat of international conflict led to a huge increase in the power and size of the military. Tilley (1990) maintains that some thinkers believe that the military process is a key element in the foundation of modern democratic states and that war making was a critical factor in gaining power. The need for an increase in military power led to the centralisation of decision-making power which was in the hands of those in key posts of Government institutions who were drawn largely from the upper classes of society. Power in society was therefore in the hands of a minority. Thus, for elitists society is divided into two groups the majority who are ruled, and the minority who through the power of the state, rule over them. The western state therefore, came to be characterised by central power that coerced other powers through agencies and force, and power that was legitimated through the consent of society (King and Kendall, 2004).

Elite theory stems from the work of the Italian sociologists Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1858-1911). Both of these thinkers dismissed Marx’ and Engels’ ideas on revolution and the emergence of a communist society and viewed the rule of an elite group as inevitable. They argued that because of its inevitability there was no reason to end such a rule (Haralambos et al, 2003). Pareto and Mosca viewed Marx’s thinking as flawed because it did not give a sufficient explanation of the continuing domination of one set of people in society by another (Donleavy and O’Leary, 1987). Thus:

The history of all societies, past and future, is the history of its ruling classes…there will always be a ruling class and therefore exploitation. This is the anti-socialist, specifically anti-Marxist bent of the elitist theory as it unfolds in the last decade of the nineteenth century (Meisel, 1958:10).

Michels (1911) referred to the ‘iron law of oligarchy’, a ruling elite was needed because the mass of people were incapable of thinking for themselves and of taking complicated decisions (Donleavy and O’Leary, 1987). This was classical elitist thinking and failed to take into account those instances e.g. the French Revolution, where the masses had organised themselves and taken over from the elite (King and Kendall, 2004). Pareto was also critical of modern democracies and regarded them as another form of elitist domination. Mosca on the other hand, particularly in his later work, changed his views on democracy and believed that representative governing gave a greater number of people a voice in the way in which society was run. Elitists hoped to develop a systematic science of society and this view was also held by Weber, where he parted company with them was in the view that the methods of the physical sciences could give a full account of social behaviour and action (Donleavy and O’Leary, 1987). While he did not agree entirely with the classicists, a version of elite theory can be found in the work of Max Weber.


Weber, like Pareto and Mosca, critiqued Marx and rejected his claims that state relations derived primarily from the relationships between classes. For Weber the nation state originated in pre-capitalist conflicts between absolutist rulers.. Most of Weber’s work from the 1890s through to the 1920s (Donleavy and O’Leary, 1987) was the rational-legal type of authority that characterized modern society Two major elements of what Weber called the rationalisation  process were capitalism and science. As society progressed and became more rational then this became evident in social institutions. Economic activity, the law and the administration progress became more formal and rationalised, all of this is inherent in the structure of modern capitalism (Bilton et al, 1996).

Weber did not believe that socialism was a viable option or that state systems would be discarded with the end of capitalism. Because of the different interest groups that existed in society he believed that state institutions were necessary for maintaining order in complex societies. The growth of a socialist conscience and the inauguration of a socialist society would not bring an end to rationalization and the increasing bureaucratization of modern society. Neither would it overcome the need for such a society to be ordered. Rather he believed that the socialist commitment to equality would be more likely to lead to an increase and extension:

…of the universalistic, rational-legal criteriaassociated with state growth and bureaucratization. The dictatorship of capital would simply be exchanged for the dictatorship of the state bureaucracy (King and Kendall, 2004:75).

Weber believed that socialism would bring with it more legislation and less effective administration.The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917 may have seemed like a victory at the time but increasingly its politics were marked by a growth in bureaucracy. With the collapse of a number of these communist regimes since 1989, particularly that in the Soviet Union, it might be said that Weber’s work in this area could be said to be extremely prophetic. There was a growth in the hierarchy within the administration and in the qualifications required for employment. Private ownership was discarded in favour of national ownership of public services, while all of this was to be found in modern, capitalist and democratic societies, democracy was, in Weber’s eyes the preferred regime. Weber believed that a strong private sector was necessary to maintaining a balance in the amount of state authority (King and Kendall, 2004).

More and more the material fate of the masses depends upon the steady and correct functioning of the increasingly bureaucratic organisation of private capitalism. The idea of eliminating these organisations becomes more and more utopian ( Weber, 1978:988).

However, the increase in privatisation in Britain since 1979 might be said to have had the opposite effect whereby the majority of ordinary citizens have been subjected to increasing scrutiny and control of their lives. Socialism was, for Weber, a utopian doctrine that he regarded as illusory (Bilton et al, 1996).

Weber argued that within liberal democracies state bureaucracies were subject to governing elites. The way in which these bureaucracies are set up bear the image of past
conflicts between different governing elites. The way in which governments work reflects the interests of the governing elite. This is evident in the way in which UK politicians have repeatedly redrawn constituency boundaries to benefit their own party. State bureaucracies also operate under the influence of those who do not belong to the governing elite. Those with power in other spheres, the media for example, can bring pressure to bear on the governing elite, as happened in America when a huge media campaign was launched in an attempt to impeach President Clinton for his sexual behaviour (Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987). Weber believed that democracy would be adversely affected by increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation. Democracy is not compatible with bureaucracy, as it develops government can become increasingly influenced by the decisions resulting from bureaucratisation and are no longer governing responsibly. There is also a rise in economic interest groups who will manipulate power in society by lobbying government to represent their concerns. The public are consulted less and less when it comes to decision making which results in a loss of democracy (Morrison, 1995).

Much of Weber’s work concentrated on different aspects of power and authority, and these have been highly influential in political thinking. Drawing on Plato’s understanding that force is the basis of statesmanship and that power derives from the ability to exert one’s will over others (Donleavy and O’Leary, 1987) Weber’s definition of power was:

The chance of a man or a number of men to relaise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participatin in the action (Weber, in Gerth and Mills, 1948:180).

Thus Weber’s work on power implies that it is gained by some people at the expense of others. Those who hold power do so to further their own interests (Haralambos et al, 2000)). Weber had an interest in authority, he distinguished three different types of authority, that were in fact, what he called ‘ideal types (King and Kendall, 2004).. These were charismatic authority which depended on the personal qualities of a particular leader e.g. Hitler, traditional authority, authority which is inherited, for example a king, and rational-legal authority is that type of leadership selected through a process that is legally sanctioned, for example the democratic voting system. In modern democratic systems authority is hierarchical, there is a long chain of command where personal responsibility is limited to the confines of one’s place in the hierarchy. The system is impersonal and its rules are derived from the rational-legal model of legitimate authority (Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987). Government officials must be recruited on their merit and the authority of political leaders rests on rational grounds, officials are subject to the rules and their actions are dictated through impersonal order. Authority does not therefore lie in any one particular person (as it did in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany) but in a legal framework of rules (Morrison, 1995).

Weber believed that the bureaucratic organization was the most rational way of exercising authority over people. The fact that every link in the hierarchy was subject to a set of rules meant that there was less chance of authority being used on the basis of individual will or through the gain of power by physical force. Because some system of domination was seen to be inevitable Weber argued that the bureaucratic model should be preferred because of its rational basis. In a bureaucracy officials are appointed because they have the qualities necessary to do the job. Weber favoured presidential government, but believed that election was detrimental to democratic societies because it could result in what he termed a ‘ceasar’ concept where would be officials are elected through the patronage of special interest groups (as in the American system especially). This allowed for a monopoly of power that worked against democracy and the bureaucratic legal framework (Morrison, 1995).

Although Weber’s analysis of modern systems has had considerable influence it is criticized at a number of levels by different thinkers. He neglects, for example, the way in which officials within bureaucracies can use their expertise and local knowledge to work against central decision making. He also neglects the varying forms that democracy can take, for example the election process and the Ceasar complex has been less evident in the UK than in the United States. Weber does however, provide a framework from which we can gain considerable insights into the workings of modern politics and states (Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987)..


This assignment has taken a brief look at Weber’s work on socialism, democracy, and political leadership within a democratic state. While, as has been acknowledged, Weber’s work is useful and insightful, it does have some drawbacks. His concerns on socialism certainly appeared to be prophetic in terms of the fates of some communist states, there are however, forms of socialism that have been more effective, for example the Labour administration of the 1960s. His work on bureaucracy has been extremely useful in giving insight into how historical catastrophes such as the Holocaust can happen. His concept of ideal types, particularly in political leadership, is also problematic because it neglects the considerable differences that occur between countries such as the UK and France. Nevertheless Weber’s work does provide insights that have influence the development of modern political sociology. 2000 words


  • Bilton et al, 1996. Introductory Sociology 3rd ed. London, Macmillan.
  • Dunleavy and O’Leary, 1987. Theories of the State. London, Macmillan.
  • Harlambos, Holborn and Heald , 2000. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. London, Collins.
  • King, R. and Kendall, G. 2004. The State, Democracy and Globalization. New York, Palgrave.
  • Meisel, J.1958. The Myth of the Ruling Class: Gaetano Mosca and the Elite. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Michels, 1911 (1959) Political Parties. New York, Dover.
  • Tilley, C. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States, Cambridge, Blackwell.
  • Weber, 1978. Economy and Society. Berkley, University of California Press
  • Morrison, K.1995. Marx, Durkheim and Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought. London, Sage

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