The dominance of neoliberal policies in Anglo-American countries during the past two decades has not only had a profound impact on the character and programmes of major parties, but has also led to dramatic changes within the ranks of former Marxists and critical theorists.footnote1 These former radicals now either believe that the old categories of Left and Right are irrelevant, or argue that the political concepts used by these historical movements have been largely rendered obsolete by contemporary conditions.footnote2 Here, I would like to specifically focus upon the quite different, contextually driven responses to neoliberal regimes by two post-Marxist schools of thought that are expressed in the American journal Telos and British journals, especially Economy and Society. These new exponents of an anti-Marxist Realpolitik not only oppose the universal values of the radical Left, but draw upon a mixture of traditions and theories that continue to be associated with anti-class and anti-Marxist elite theory. Moreover, the recent upsurge of right-wing populist movements in oecd countries has been complemented by Telos’ theoretical cultivation of ‘postmodern populism’. These anti-socialist analyses should not be ignored for they raise a number of pertinent questions to do with the possibility and the form of a viable alternative politics given the impact of neoliberalism, globalization and postmodern cultural processes on contemporary societies.

Before discussing these post-Marxist theorists, it is important to recall that in the decades preceding the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, a body of classical elite theory emerged that also claimed to understand the workings of Realpolitik. Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto directed much of their critique against the optimism of socialists who believed in education and the goal of equality. They dismissed Marxism as a metaphysical theory that ignored the real workings of politics. In this respect, there are certain similarities between classical elite theories and recent post-modern critiques of class analysis and grand narratives. Max Weber, who ended up a quasi-liberal democrat, warned against the illusions of advocates of direct democracy. Not only would the experts replace the revolutionaries once the barricades came down but, he argued, each step towards greater equality would only lead to further bureaucratization. Likewise, Robert Michels’s disillusioning critique of the gap between leaders and rank-and-file members in the pre-1915 German Social Democratic Party ultimately ended, as we know, in the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ which he applied to all organizations.

In his book The Destruction of Reason, published in 1952, Lukács argued that the preoccupation of the elite theorists, of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and of other philosophical tendencies with irrationality, tragic exist-entialism, vitalism and cynicism all culminated in their support for fascism.footnote3 While there is a certain degree of truth in Lukács’ polemical thesis—for example, Pareto and Michels’s admiration of Mussolini, or Heidegger and Schmitt’s embrace of Nazism—we also know that elite theory led to a redefinition of liberal democratic theory in the form of Schumpeterian and American pluralist notions of a circulation of elites.footnote4

These pluralist notions of power became, and largely remain, the foundation of middle-class conceptions of citizenship in the twentieth century. Despite serious flaws in Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and Michels’s iron law of oligarchy, no radical democrat can afford to ignore the fundamental issues raised by these theorists. Similarly, one does not have to agree with Mosca and Pareto’s ahistorical and stereotypical divisions of people into lions and foxes, or the supposed inherent genetic differences between the elite and the masses, to recognize the necessity of understanding back-room political machinations, the irrational aspects of voting behaviour and other forms of undemocratic practice in contemporary societies.

Over eighty years ago Michels warned that: ‘The problem of socialism is not merely a problem in economics. . .Socialism is also an administrative problem, a problem of democracy, and this not in the technical and administrative sphere alone, but also in the sphere of psychology.’footnote5 For three decades, the New Left, the counter-culture and new social movements have struggled to develop democratic alternatives to Stalinist dictatorships, command planning, bureaucratic social democratic welfare states and ‘correct line’ revolutionary sects. Just as Lenin found Pareto’s critique of Marxism much more difficult to deal with than conventional bourgeois criticisms so, too, the new post-Marxist practitioners of Realpolitik theory challenge views and objectives widely held by socialists and new social movements.