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The Transformation of the Bourgeois Theory of Authority into the Theory of the Totalitarian State (Sorel and Pareto)

Herbert Marcuse20 September 2016

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To celebrate the publication of Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School we'll be posting excerpts from works by Frankfurt School thinkers throughout the week, as part of our Frankfurt School Bookshelf. All books are 40% off until Friday September 23rd.

Here we present the final section of Herbert Marcuse's 1936 Study on Authority (translated by Joris de Bres), one of the books from the decade in which, Jeffries notes, "the Frankfurt scholars tried to work out why the German people desired their own domination."

Marcuse at the Free University of Berlin, 1967.

A good deal of the history of bourgeois society is reflected in the bourgeois theory of authority. When the bourgeoisie had won political and economic domination in Western and Central Europe the contradictions within the society it organized were obvious. As the ruling class the bourgeoisie could hardly retain its interest in the theory with which it had been linked as a rising class and which was in crying contradiction with the present. This is why the actual bourgeois theory of society is to be found only before the real domination of the bourgeoisie, and the theory of the dominant bourgeoisie is no longer bourgeois theory. Comte was the last man in France, Hegel was the last man in Germany to discuss the problems of social organization within a comprehensive theory as tasks for rational human praxis.

Problems of the organization of state and society, once they have broken away from the supporting foundation of the comprehensive theory, fall to the business of the specialist discipline of sociology. A brief survey will be given elsewhere of the forms assumed by the problem of authority in the various tendencies of bourgeois sociology 1. They are symptomatic of certain stages and streams within the development of society, but none offers a new interpretation of social domination and none consciously expresses a new overall social constellation 2. The real bourgeois theory continues in a weak and, as regards content, an increasingly thin line (the neo-Kantian philosophy of law); the more the liberal bourgeoisie transforms itself and goes over to anti-liberal forms of domination, the more abstract becomes the theory of the state (the theory of the formal legal state) which still clings to the liberalist foundations.

Only at the present time of preparation for world war do the elements of a new theory of social domination corresponding to a new overall situation come together. This theory has taken on a firm shape simultaneously with the abolition of democratic and parliamentarian forms of government in Central and Southern Europe. The bourgeoisie has retained its domination by retaining the leadership of the smallest, economically most powerful, groups. The total political apparatus is built up under the most severe economic crises. Social relationships of authority assume a new form. Theory as a whole attains a different significance: it is consciously 'politicized' and made into the weapon of the total authoritarian state.

The unity of bourgeois theory at this stage is negative: it rests exclusively on the united front against liberalism and Marxism. It is the enemy who prescribes the position of the theory. It has no ground of its own from which the totality of social phenomena could be understood. All its basic concepts are counter-concepts: it invents the 'organic' view of history in opposition to historical materialism, 'heroic realism' in opposition to liberal idealism, 'existentialist philosophy' in opposition to the rationalist social theory of the bourgeoisie, and the totally authoritarian ‘Führer-staat' in opposition to the rational state. The material social content of the theory, i.e. the particular form of the relations of production, for the maintenance of which it functions, is obscured.

This determines a basic characteristic of the theory: its formalism. This may seem strange, since it is precisely material contents (like race, people, blood, earth) which are brought into the field against the formal rationalism of the old theory of state and society. But where these concepts are not yet in the forefront (as in Pareto) or represent a later disguise (as in Carl Schmitt) the formal character of the theory becomes obvious. We will illustrate this directly with reference to the concept of authority.

Seen from the previous stage of its development, the relationship of authority and domination is defined in such a way that authority is not seen as a function of domination, a means of dominating, etc., but as the basis of domination. Authority as power over voluntary recognition and over the voluntary subordination to the will and insight of the bearer of authority, is a 'quality' which certain people have 'by birth'. This seems at first sight to be merely a revival of the charismatic justification of authority; but this is not the case, for the charisma of authority is itself in turn 'justified' (without direct recourse to God). Its prerequisite is that the bearer of authority should belong to a given 'people' (Volkstum) or a given 'race': his authority rests on the genuine 'identity of origin' of the leader and the led 3. This very broad biological basis makes it possible to extend charismatic authority at will to any number of people throughout all social groups. How can the hierarchy of authorities necessary for social domination within a total-authority system be built on such a formation, if social development has made every 'generally valid' rational and material criterion for the necessity of the required system of authority impossible?

After every possible rational and material content of authority has fallen away only its mere form remains: authority as such becomes the essential feature of the authoritarian state 4. The absolute activity and the absolute decision of the leading men obtain a value independent of the social content of their acts and decisions. The absolute acceptance of their decision, the 'heroic' sacrifice of the led, becomes a value independent of insight into its social purpose. According to this theory society is not divided into rich and poor, nor into happy and miserable, nor into progressive and reactionary, but with the cancellation of all these material contradictions, into leaders and led. And the specific hierarchy of such an authority system hangs (since the merely biological identity of origin on human society does not create any hierarchical gradations) in thin air: the leading 'elites' can be changed at will according to the requirements of the power groups standing behind them.

The formalism of the authoritarian theory of the state is the thin veil which reveals more than it conceals of the actual constellation of power. It shows the distance which separates the new theory from the genuine bourgeois philosophy of state and society. Quite unjustifiably it invokes Hegel's idea of the 'organic' state, to which its anti-rationalism is in utter contradiction. And not only that: Hegel's philosophy is entirely 'material' in these dimensions. It measures the rationality of the state by the material progress of society and is, as one can imagine, unsuited for the defence of the total-authoritarian state. And those of its defenders who make the struggle against German Idealism a heartfelt test of 'heroic realism' are here guided by a more accurate instinct 5.

We shall not go into the theory of the totally authoritarian state 6; we shall merely deal briefly with the theory of Sorel and Pareto as the transition to the present-day conception of authority.

A. Sorel

In Sorel's work (from 1898, the year in which L'avenir socialiste des syndicats appeared) the changed social situation, which necessitates changed tactics in the social struggle, is announced for the first time in sociological literature. Sorel's anarcho-syndicalism, his myth of the eschatological general strike, and of the proletarian violence which will 'unalterably' destroy the bourgeois order, seem a long way from the theory of the authoritarian state.

Sorel's position and influence is ambiguous 7; we shall not attempt a new categorization here. We shall merely seek to bring out a few features of his work which pave the way for the theory of the authoritarian state.

Sorel's work is a typical example of the transformation of an abstract anti-authoritarian attitude into reinforced authoritarianism. Sorel struggles against organized centralism under the guidance of the party leadership, against the political organization of the proletariat as a 'power formation'; he demands a 'loosened, federalized world of proletarian institutions and associations'; an 'acephalous' socialist movement. This anti-authoritarian anarchism is closely tied to the freeing of socialism from its economic basis: to its transformation into a 'metaphysics of morals'. Materialism is abandoned at one of its decisive points: 'Socialism as the promise of sensual happiness is destruction' — a sentence which is not made less significant even by Sorel's attacks on the Idealists.

The failure to recognize the meaning of authority as a condition of all (even socialist) 'organization' is only an expression of the removal of the socialist base just referred to. Proletarian 'violence', which along with the myth of the general strike is engaged in the final struggle with the bourgeois order, is separated from its economic and social purpose; it becomes an authority in itself. If its criterion no longer lies in material rationality and greater happiness in the social life-process towards which this force is directed, then there is no rational explanation whatsoever as to why proletarian should be 'better' than bourgeois violence. In its effect, Sorel's work, with its strong attacks on soggy liberalism, the degeneration of parliament, the cowardly willingness to compromise, the pre-eminence of intellectuals, etc., could just as easily be taken as a call to the bourgeoisie openly to use the power which it clearly factually possesses: 'It is here that the role of violence in history appears to us as singularly great, for it can, in an indirect manner, so operate on the middle class as to awaken them to a sense of their own class sentiment.' 8

In a decisive context Sorel himself emphasized the central importance of authority in the revolutionary movement: in connection with the question, on the basis of what authority the workers would be kept to increased labour-discipline in the production process after the struggle had been won. The authority problem here appears under the heading of revolutionary 'discipline': Sorel establishes a basic distinction between the 'discipline which imposes a general stoppage of work on the workers, and the discipline which can lead them to handle machinery with greater skill'. He separates this positive authority from any external coercion and seeks its basis in a new 'ethics of the producers', a free integration of the individual into the collective. The 'acephaly' of socialism is transformed into the theory of revolutionary 'elites': social revolution gives birth to new 'social authorities' which 'grow organically' out of social life and take over the disciplinary leadership of the production process. The elite as bearer of future 'social authority' is an elite of 'social merit': it consists of 'groups, which enjoy a moral hegemony, a correct feeling for tradition and in a rational manner care for the future'.

Direct lines of development have been drawn from Sorel's concept of social elites to both the proletarian 'avant-garde' of Leninism and to the elite 'leaders' of Fascism. Freed from the connection with a clear economic base and elevated into the 'moral' sphere, the conception of the elite tends towards formalistic authoritarianism. We shall now examine this tendency and briefly look at the form which the concept of the elite assumed in Pareto's sociology.

B. Pareto

Pareto's concept of the elite is part of a rationalist-positivist social theory which for the most part constructs the social 'equilibrium', especially the stability of domination and being dominated, on irrational factors: on the functioning of certain psychological mechanisms and their derivations. This sociology has achieved the ideal state of a complete 'freedom from values': with overt cynicism it dispenses with any 'moral' standpoint at all towards social processes. But it also dispenses with any standpoint towards their material content. The economic matter of social production and reproduction is of no interest to it: it only describes what is meant to have occurred on a given material base in all times and in all places. Nevertheless there is no doubt here as to the social groups in whose interest its formalism functions.

Society, which is necessarily and by nature heterogeneous, falls for Pareto into two strata: 'a lower stratum, the non-elite, and a higher stratum, the elite, which is divided into two: (a) a governing elite; (b) a non-governing elite9

The ruling elite is constituted on the basis of the degree of 'capacity' through which the individual distinguishes himself in his 'profession'. The 'profession' itself is not immediately relevant. The great courtesan and the great capitalist, the great confidence trickster and the great general, the great poet and the great gambler in this manner belong to the superior class, the elite, and, if they somehow succeed in obtaining influence on the ruling group, also the 'governing elite'. To get 'on top' and be able to stay 'on top' becomes the only criterion of the elite, where 'on top' is defined purely formally as opposed to 'below': as the power and disposal over other people and things (no matter in which areas and for which ends this power is used).

In this conception of the elite there are still strong liberal elements: the elbow-room of the aspiring bourgeoisie, the pure 'ideology of success', the individual possibility for everyone of rising from every social position. These are reinforced even more by the theory of the 'circulation of elites': new and refreshing streams from the lower class penetrate the higher class which in its constitution otherwise becomes increasingly rigid or flabby: 'The governing class is restored ... by families which rise from the lower classes and bring with them the vigour and the proportions of residues necessary to keep it in power.' Revolution, as a sudden and forceful replacement of one elite by another, is as it were only a disturbance in the normal circulation process. It is a decisive feature of this theory that it replaces the material division of society into classes by a formal division, which itself in turn fluctuates, going diagonally through classes according to 'abilities' (capacité) — it interprets social domination as a system 'open' on all sides, into which elements from all social groups can be admitted. This interpretation, obscuring the real state of affairs, has become a central part of the authoritarian theory.

Even in the year in which Pareto's sociology appeared, the concept of the open system of domination only applied to a thin upper layer of social reality. From the point of view of the economic base the system of domination had long ago become closed along class lines, and the circulation of elites as he described it was only a peripheral feature of the social mechanism. But this made it all the easier for the ruling groups to adopt the theory of elites: against the firm background of the class-hierarchy a gentle circulation of elites was quite permissible; the economic and political apparatus was strong enough to regulate it within certain limits. What Pareto gave to the political disciples of his theory was above all the ability to grasp the central importance of certain psychological constants and mechanisms and to see the value of irrational, 'non-logical' actions for the stabilization of social domination. 'Ruling classes, like other social groups, perform both logical and non-logical actions, and the chief element in what happens is in fact the order, or system, not the conscious will of individuals, who indeed may in certain cases be carried by the system to points where they would never have gone of deliberate choice.' Pareto is the first to grasp and deal with the psychological problem of class domination in the monopolistic phase of capitalism; he is also the first to introduce authority into this social context.

It is the 'residues' which detemine the organization of society; but the rationalized form of that organization is determined by the 'derivations' plus the 'appetites and interests' of which the 'residues' are the expression. ‘'Residues' are certain socially effective psychological constants, which 'correspond' to certain simple instincts (appetites, tastes, inclinations) and interests possessed by men and which constitute the real core of the 'non-logical actions' which are socially so relevant. The derivations can be described more or less as the rationalizations of the residues; they draw all their social strength from the residues which they transform into firm complexes of ideas. If the residues are a 'manifestation of the emotions', the derivations are a 'manifestation of the need to reason'. They function primarily for the maintenance of the 'social balance', or more concretely (as Pareto once says with regard to the social sciences): 'to persuade men to act in a certain manner considered useful to society.' 10

The decisive feature is that these psychological constants and their rationalizations are now built into a theory of social domination. The stability and continuity of domination depend on the existence and effect of the 'residues' and 'derivations', and the particular proportion existing between the two elements. It is true that all domination rests on force and on the rationalization of force, but these can never on their own guarantee the stability and continuity of domination: the more or less voluntary consent (consentement) of the dominated is required: 'everywhere there is a governing class which is small in numbers and which maintains itself in power partly by force, and partly with the consent of the governed class, which is much more numerous.' And this consent rests basically on the presence of the residues and the derivations in the right proportions and on the ability of the governing class to employ them as a 'means of government'. Pareto elaborated the ideological character of these means of domination, pointing out that their social value derives not from their truth content but from their 'social usefulness' in obscuring the real background to social organizations and evoking 'sentiments' which provide a psychological anchorage for and perpetually reproduce the existing structure of domination. 'To sum up, these derivatives express above all the feeling of those who are firmly in possession of power and wish to retain it, and also the much more general feeling of the usefulness of social stability.' They serve 'to calm' the governed: it is impressed upon them that all power comes from God, that any rebellion is a crime and that to achieve what is just only 'reason' and never 'force' may be used. 'This derivative has the main aim of preventing the governed from giving battle on a terrain which is favourable to them.' But all derivations are in turn dependent on the psychological constants which lie deeper down in the layer of the subconscious and the irrational : '. . . the policies of governments are the more effective, the more adept they are at utilizing existing residues.' Pareto recognizes that the relatively slow change in these psychological constants, and their resistance to the more rapid upheavals of social phenomena, are of decisive importance for the continuity of the social life-process: 'it is that also which assures continuity in the history of human societies, since the category (a) [the residues] varies slightly or slowly.'

This also gives us our definition of the authority problem. It appears firstly as derivation, in its rationalized, manifest shape, and secondly as residue: as the feeling which underlies this manifestation. Under the heading of derivation Pareto is really only describing various relationships of authority; he points to the particular 'pertinacity' of the phenomenon of authority: 'the residue of authority comes down across the centuries without losing any of its vigour.' More important are the residues of which the authority relationship is the derivation: as its psychological basis we must consider above all the class of sentiments grouped under the heading 'persistence of aggregates'. Once again those sentiments among them which have their roots in the family are in the foreground: relationships of family and kindred groups, relations between the living and the dead, relations between a dead person and the things that belonged to him in life, etc. Pareto saw the importance of the family in the preparation, maintenance and transmission of authority; on several occasions he emphasized that any weakening of this persistence of aggregates would directly threaten the stability of social domination. The second psychological anchorage of authority he sees in the sentiments of inferiors: subordination, affection, reverence, fear. 'The existence of these sentiments is an indispensable condition for the constitution of animal societies, for the domestication of animals, for the ordering of human societies.' Here too Pareto gives a 'value-free' description of the phenomena, but the social function of the phenomena described becomes clearly evident precisely though this open description, which foregoes any moral or intuitive concepts and focuses completely on the usefulness of the psychological constants and mechanisms as a means of government. Much more clearly, indeed, than in Sorel, who at some points preceded Pareto in the discovery of unconscious psychological realms as the ground for social stabilization.

Above all, Sorel drew attention to the role of the family in the realization of social 'valeurs de vertu'. The family is the 'mysterious region ... whose organization influences all social relations'; in it the values most prized by current society are realized, as for example, 'respect for the human person, sexual fidelity, and devotion to the weak'. But, in contrast to Pareto, Sorel gives the family a moral and sentimental consecration : he praises the monogamous family as the 'administrator of the morality of man-kind' without recognizing its connection with bourgeois society. Owing to his use of an intuitionist method, with its tendency towards making a general survey of the whole rather than dissecting it analytically, Sorel here completely misses the dialectical character of social objects. He sees the family statically, in the manner of either-or, and he has the same manner of viewing authority. His only way, beyond the alternatives of authority in the class state and lack of authority in anarchy, is to escape into metaphysical-moral dimensions.

Pareto's positivist analysis has a much greater affinity to the dialectics of social reality. It also allows him to reveal the double-edged character of the authority relationship which behind the backs of the bearers of authority, as it were, works also in the interests of those subject to authority. 'Nor can it be said that the subject class is necessarily harmed when a governing class works for a result that will be advantageous to itself regardless of whether it will be beneficial, or the reverse, to the former. In fact there are very numerous cases where a governing class working for its own exclusive advantage has further promoted the welfare of a subject class.'

Pareto did not investigate the dynamic of the double-edged character of this relationship any further; he mechanically placed the positive and the negative element side by side. However, it is this dynamic which characterizes history.


1. Cf. my essay Autoritat und Familie in der deutschen Soziologie bis 1933. Paris, 1936.

2. We omit here the theory of the 'Basel Circle', particularly of Nietzsche and Burckhardt, which contains decisive insights into the development of society. Their concrete social importance has not yet been recognized. They have had no effect up to the present: their current derivations stand in total contradiction to their actual content. Cf. references to this state of affairs in Zeitschrift fur Sozialforzung, IV (1935), pp. 15ff. 

3. Carl Schmitt, Staat, Bewegung, Volk. Hamburg, 1933, p. 42

4. Koellreutter, Allgemeine Staatslehre, Tübingen, 1933, p. 58.

5. e.g. Ernst Krieck, in his essays in the periodical Volk im Werden, 1933, and in his book Nationalpolitische Erziehung.

6.  Some of the connections between the total-authoritarian theory of the state and the problem discussed here are presented in Zeitschrift fur Sozialforzung, III (1934), pp. 161ff.; trans. J.J. Shapiro and printed in Marcuse, Negations, London, 1968, pp. 3-42.

7. M. Freund, Georges Sorel, Frankfurt (1932), contains a good compilation of the material.

8. Reflections on Violence, trans. T.E. Hulme and J. Roth, London, 1970. P. 90. Cf. the apology for the violent and cunning capitalists, op cit, pp. 86ff.

9. V. Pareto, The Mind and Society: A Treatise on General Sociology, trans. A. Bongiorno and A. Livingstone, New York, 1935·

10. For the sake of clarification, we shall quote the general division into residues and derivations in Pareto (paras 888, 1419).RESIDUES: (I) Instinct for combinations; (2) Persistence of aggregates (and particularly religious and family feelings); (3) Need to express sentiments by external acts; (4) Residues connected with sociality (particularly the need for uniformity; pity and cruelty and the sentiments of social rank); (5) Integrity of the individual and his appurtenances; (6) The sex residue. DERIVATIONS: (I) Assertion; (2) Authority; (3) Accords with sentiments or principles; (4) Verbal proofs.

Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is out now and 40% off (along with lots of other books on our Frankfurt School Bookshelf) until Friday September 23rd. 


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