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New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964

Tom Nairn

The British Political Elite

Class-divided societies have almost always been governed politically by a small minority. In general, this chosen few is a small group even in relation to the ‘ruling class’ itself, in the Marxist sense, the class which possesses or controls the economic wealth of society through the institutions of property, and in whose collective interests society is governed. The characteristics of such governing groups, especially in capitalist societies, and the nature of the relationship between them and the class or classes they represent—the social forces giving their power its fundamental meaning—is one of the most fascinating of historical problems. All too often, talk of ‘the ruling class’—however polemically justified it may be in particular cases, in the face of antediluvian notions—tends by itself to obscure or at least leave aside such questions. Hence, argument remains on the level of the affirmation that there is a class which rules over the rest of society, and does not go on to describe how it does so. Or at best the idea of power is seen as indicating the obvious, universal instruments of power: the coercive State, the police and the army, deliberate propaganda for a way of life and certain sacred values.

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Tom Nairn, ‘The British Political Elite’, NLR I/23: £3

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