A brief account of post 1945 political theory

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A brief account of post 1945 political theory

During the 1950s, it seemed like there was a degree of political consensus.

The dominant theory in sociology (functionalism) argued that class struggle was on the wane and that the worst excesses of capitalism had been overcome by the mixed economy and the welfare state.

In economics, this consensus was expressed through the dominance of Keynesian theory - the emphasis being on the positive role governments could play in regulating market economies.

In politics, the popularity of this view was expressed through the liberal - democratic theory of pluralism.

The attack on pluralism came from elite theorists. The key figure being C. R. Mills (The Power Elite, 1956). However, the theoretical position that attracted most support throughout the 1970s was Marxism. The Marxist analysis was first established with Ralph Miliband's, The State in Capitalist Society, 1969. Criticism of Miliband then followed from others on the left such as Nicos Poulantzas (1975) who considered that Miliband put too much emphasis on the power of individuals to change capitalist society.

Increasingly political theory came to mirror the widening gap in British politics between left and right, and from both sides came a critique of liberal democracy:

  1. Marxists claimed (by and large) that liberal democracy was a sham.
  2. The New Right claimed liberal democracy was harmful to capitalism. It was argued that adversarial politics meant that policies were constantly being changed or reversed and that the need to secure votes meant that parties made unrealistic promises. In addition, writers such as Brittan (1983) believe that pressure group politics has overloaded government, and that this leads to economic inefficiency.

At this point, it must be clear, that fundamental to any understanding of the distribution and use of power in British society is a clear view of the role of the state.

So what do sociologists mean when they identify an institution called the state?

Of particular importance for an analysis of state power, there is a need to go beyond the democratic perspective on politics. This perspective views the state and the government as being one and the same. There is the idea that the party that wins a general election and forms a government also wins for itself control of state power. Government is seen as being in control of the state. The state itself is seen as neutral, disinterested, unbiased and available simply to be used by a government.

However, beneath the democratic and visible public face of elected politicians, there is the secret state. These are the state institutions which are non-elected, but which enjoy substantial autonomy, and which tend to be closed and secretive. These secret parts of the state are held to lack power because they are controlled by the government and responsible for parliament, or were constrained by law.

Among the most important parts of the secret state are:

  • The civil service.
  • The nationalised industries.
  • The Bank of England.
  • The judiciary.
  • The police.
  • The security services.
  • The military.


Liberal democratic orthodoxy on the role of the state is only of limited use in explaining the workings of the non-elected parts of the state machine, and in some cases, are either misleading or just plain wrong.

What is missing from the orthodox account is any consideration that the state may:

  • Be a source of independent power.
  • That the secret state may control democratic government.
  • That the secret state may have unaccountable power.

A number of points can be made:

  1. A distinction needs to be made between a government and the state. The government is only a part of the state.
  2. The non-elected parts of the state are largely or wholly immune from direct political pressure from below because they are not subject to popular election.
  3. The government is not as firmly in control of the non-elected side of the state as liberal-democratic theory tends to assert.
  4. Because they are not directly controlled, a number of institutions enjoy real power.
  5. Information about the workings of the non-elected side of the state is restricted.
  6. More information needs to be obtained on the background and socialisation of those influential in the institutions of the secret state (part of Miliband's approach).
  7. Those influential in the state are not representative of the population at large in terms of social background, education or income (an establishment?). More than this, those influential in the economy and society are often similar in background to those influential within the state and polity and may constitute a power elite or even a ruling class.
  8. The institutions of the secret state are organised on bureaucratic and authoritarian lines. New recruits are expected to 'fit in', this inhibits change in favour of continuity and stability.
  9. Given the above, it is not surprising that most of the institutions of the secret state assume a conservative, or even reactionary role in society.

All of the above, disturbs the simple view that argues that Britain enjoys a truly democratic system of government, and there are serious civil liberty issues caught up in the powers of the police, the judiciary and the security services. These concerns have become an issue. Since the late 1970s, a lobby has emerged to press for more open government and to increase the accountability of the secret state to democratic institutions. These proposals have met with opposition from the state.

Louis Althusser

Marxists extend the definition of the state even wider to include any institutions through which the dominance of the ruling class is perpetuated. For example, the mass media, the law and education, which have been termed by Althusser (1969), as 'Ideological state apparatus'.