Sidney Hook (essay date 1939)
SOURCE: "The Fetishism of Power," in The Nation, Vol. 148, No. 20, May 13, 1939, pp. 562-3.
[In the following essay, Hook reviews the English translation of The Ruling Class.]
Not so many years ago the conquest of power was the central theme of all left-wing social theory oriented to political activity. Today, in the light of the consequences of totalitarian rule, concern with power is primarily with its abuses, its destruction of life and corruption of the spirit. The naivete of the messianic reformer has given way to weary skepticism. The Young Davids of radicalism seem to have laid aside their slings for the Book of Ecclesiastes—or for a safe berth with the New Deal. For most of the disillusioned the main political task is conceived as preventing fascism from coming to power, not by winning power for socialism, but by strengthening liberal capitalism. Suspicion of the excesses of all power makes easier the acceptance of the customary abuses of existing power.
This new attitude toward power is revealed more in moods than in explicit argument, though theoretical formulations have not been lacking. But it is to books of an earlier day that we must turn to find the weightiest critiques of political power. Mosca, Pareto, Michels, writing in an age when optimism was as general as pessimism is today, raised all the crucial problems which have now come to the fore. They fortified their conclusions on the nature of political power with a mass of historical material and a nicety of analysis which commands respect even when it does not elicit agreement.
The translation into English of Gaetano Mosca's The Ruling Classes offers an opportunity to evaluate both the strength and the weakness of this recurrent philosophy of political power. Like most doctrines that catch hold easily, the basic thesis is simple and recommends itself with a high initial plausibility to anyone who has had some political experience. It asserts that political power never rests upon the consent of the majority, that irrespective of ideologies or leading personalities all political rule is a process, now peaceful now coercive, by which a minority gratifies its own interests in a situation where not all interests can receive equal consideration. As Mosca him-self puts it: "Political power always has been, and always will be, exercised by organized minorities, which have had, and will have, the means, varying as the times vary, to impose their supremacy on the multitudes." In peaceful times, the means are public myths and secret frauds; in crisis—force. Whichever side wins, the masses who have fought, bled, and starved are made the goat. Their saviors become their rulers under the prestige of new myths. The forms change, but the essential content remains. This is put forth as a "law" of all social life which can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone except the dull, the pious, and candidates for political leadership. It is a law accepted by every political partisan as obviously true for other organizations but as a slander when applied to his own.
The reactions to this position in recent discussion have been astonishing. They tend to confirm some corollaries Mosca has drawn from his thesis about the distribution of political intelligence. One group does not argue the truth of the theory on the evidence but asserts that since its acceptance makes for defeatism it must be wrong. Another group applauds Mosca's theory or some variant of it and deduces therefrom the comforting view that revolutions are never justified; this despite Mosca's contention that revolutions do not depend upon any theory of political power. Some contest the truth of his findings on the nature of political power because on some other unrelated points he is clearly mistaken. The most sophisticated opponents of the thesis first state it in such a way as to suggest that according to it all power is necessarily evil and should never be employed. They then have little difficulty in showing that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum, for men must act, and this involves a choice between alternatives all of which demand implementation by some power.
In the interests of clear analysis we must distinguish between Mosca's descriptive generalizations of the actual uses and abuses of political power in the...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)