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Volume 2

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. The Concept of Field
3. Reality and the Intentional Field
4. Freedom and Intentional Humanism
5. Perceiving Another
6. Intentions, Attitudes, and Interests
7. Perceiving and Behaving
8. Behavior
9. Social Behavior and Interaction
10. Types of Social Interaction
11. The Equation of Social Behavior
12. The Transition to a Sociocultural Field
13. The Sociocultural Space
14. The Field of Social Forces
15. The Sociocultural Field
16. Distances
17. Status Distance
18. Status Distance and Behavior
19. The Fundamental Nature of Power
20. Social Power
21. The Family of Power
22. Social Fields and Antifields
23. Groups and Antifields
24. Class
25. Social Class And the Class-Literature
26. Conflict
27. Conflict in the Sociocultural Field
28. The Elements of Social Conflict
29. The Process of Conflict
30. Social Fields and Types of Societies
32. Societies, Politics, and Conflict
33. Societies in Empirical Perspective
34. Testing for the Existence of Exchange, Authoritative, and Coercive Societies
35. Is Conflict Manifest as Theorized?

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 31


By R.J. Rummel

Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.
---- David Hume, First Principles of Government


Three types of societies manifesting three forms of power comprise three general social structures of expectations. My special concern is with such societies in the form of states. A state is a formal group (Section 23.2 of Chapter 23) that is sovereign over its members and occupies a well defined territory. It is the formal apparatus of authoritative roles and law norms through which that sovereignty is exercised.

The state, however, should not be confused with a specific balance of powers a particular status quo, a government. Governments may effect massive change in laws and roles while the state remains the same. Changed are the civil order, the polity, the particular law norms and authoritative roles through which the elite manifest their interest.

At the outset, then, the political system of a state must be distinguished from the state itself. A political system consists of the formal and informal structures which manifest the state's sovereignty over a territory and people. It is the civil aspect of statehood. But a state through its lifetime may have many different political systems, as have China, Russia, and France. As the political elite exercise more or less coercive power, we can call a state more or less powerful. As ideologies grant a political system more or less power, we can call these ideologies more or less statist. But this is not to confuse the state as a sovereign group with the particular balance through which this sovereignty is manifest.1

With this in mind, let us focus on the types of political systems. Although there is a tendency in modern American political science to treat the political system as an abstract one of inputs and outputs, or of functions and institutions (Easton, 1965), we should not forget that a political system constitutes a balance among competing interests, capabilities, and wills, a specific status quo. And this is a balance among individuals. A specific political system is a particular definition of authoritative roles and law norms and an allocation of rights and duties historically determined through conflict, a balancing of powers. Those who fill these roles, who have the right to command others, are the political elite.

Clearly, many different balances can be struck, as manifested by such varied polities as the United States, Japan, France, China, India, Spain, and Jordan. But these balances of power governing the state share some communalities and vary on certain significant characteristics.2

One characteristic is the openness of the authoritative roles to change in incumbency and the law norms to change in substance. That is, does the status quo itself grant members of the state the right to compete for elite status and to change the fundamental laws governing the state? Are there freedom of political opposition and competition for power? For an open system such freedom is statewide. A closed system, however, legally or customarily3 insulates authoritative roles and law norms from change by the nonelite.

The open-closed characteristic is used broadly to distinguish political systems, as between liberal democracies or polyarchies on the one hand, and dictatorships, autocracies, or totalitarian systems on the other. But this is a characteristic and not a dichotomy. The right of involvement of the people in changing the system is a spectrum. For some states this right may involve full representation through the power to initiate or directly approve laws, as in Switzerland. Or, as in the United States, the mass may have the power to control the elite through the right to elect or reject their incumbency and by opposition to elite-policies, as through interest groups. In some states, such as Spain, the people can only produce change or opposition through communal groups like the church, which are participants in the political system.

A second characteristic distinguishes the degree to which the political system intervenes in the society. A measure of this group-autonomy characteristic is the freedom from elite commands and law norms that diverse groups have in their activities. Does the political system control or intervene in the church, family, university, and private employment? At one end are ideal political systems which exercise a regulative-procedural control over society, leaving the activities of groups largely free from political intervention. At the other end are political systems which leave no group immune from control by the state's elite.

A third characteristic involves the bases of the law norms. These may be traditional, adhering to custom and consensual norms and mores, or they may be positivistic, determined to satisfy a particular need or demand or plan. This is the normative characteristic.

The final characteristic defines the interests of the elite. Elite goals generally can be classified as three: maintenance of traditions or backward-looking; representing popular interests or present goals; or reconstructing society, or future oriented. This is the goal characteristic.

These open-closed, group-autonomy, normative, and goal characteristics provide us with a way of discriminating among pure political types in terms of their profiles. One type is the libertarian political system, which is an open system, with virtually complete group autonomy, customary law, and present goals. Laws are limited to a few (by virtue of group autonomy and openness) customary principles and rights, with the judiciary limited to matching these principles to concrete cases. The goals of the elite are representational, fixed to present popular interests and needs insofar as they do not conflict with traditional rights and principles (e.g., sanctity of private property and contracts, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and so on).

A second pure type is the authoritarian political system. It is closed, with authoritative political positions open to only a few by virtue of birth or other ascribed status, and based on customary law. Groups are autonomous so long as they do not try to alter the traditional status quo, and the elite's goals are concerned with conserving traditions.

A third pure type is the totalitarian political system. It is closed and customary law is permitted only insofar as it does not interfere with the elite's interests. Law is generally positivist, constructed to satisfy the elite's future oriented goals, and laws are seen as a measure to achieve some reconstruction of society. Groups have no autonomy.

Most political systems are a mixture of these types.4 The United States comprises more a libertarian system, but increasingly is oriented in the totalitarian direction as the modern welfare state and the political elites, with their mixed present and future goals, intervene in the activities of all groups. England, in which loss of group autonomy and the reconstruction of society in some futurist's image has gone much further, reflects even more of a libertarian-totalitarian mixture. Then there is totalitarian-authoritarian Syria or Egypt, and libertarian-authoritarian Brazil or Lebanon. Recognizing that all contemporary empirical political systems reflect such mixtures, some nonetheless closely approximate the pure types. Thus, we can exemplify the libertarian type by Switzerland and West Germany, the traditional by Saudi Arabia and Emperor Selassie's Ethiopia, and the totalitarian by Communist China and the Soviet Union.


The open-closed, normative, group-autonomy, and goal characteristics of political systems are not independent. An open system and group autonomy are closely related, although not necessarily so (a majoritarian system could impose tight controls over all groups, as in wartime). Moreover, a traditional law system and group autonomy severely limit the ability of an elite to implement future goals. In fact, empirically we should find that these four characteristics define three points--libertarian, authoritarian, and totalitarian-of a political triangle in a two-dimensional political space, as shown in Figure 31.1.

Figure 31.1

Theoretically, no political system is both totalitarian and authoritarian. As the elite become more future oriented (as in many contemporary states undergoing forced modernization or development) and allow less freedom of group autonomy, traditions are increasingly ignored. Precedent, custom, and informal norms often are hindrances to reconstruction and are ignored or altered through mass campaigns, as in the vast enforced cultural changes in China and the anti-Confucian crusade.

This political triangle also represents the major political ideologies or formulas. Often ideologies are placed on a single left-right dimension, ranging from communism, democratic socialism (leftism), liberalism (welfare), libertarianism (nineteenth-century liberalism), conservatism (rightism), and fascism. Capitalism is always difficult to place on such a popular continuum, since it is conceived variously as nineteenth-century liberalism (competitive capitalism), as encompassing both kinds of liberalism, or as involving everything to the right of democratic socialism. This ideological spectrum is misleading, for it separates formulas with similar characteristics (both conservatives and liberals are for civil rights; communism and fascism at the antipodes have more in common with each other than with the center formulas). Moreover, where would anarchism fit?

Figure 31.2

Figure 31.2 reorders these formulas according to the space defined by the political triangle, which has now been rotated to sit on its base. libertarianism is the political formula for those opposed to state power. Libertarians want to be free to do as they please; if a political system has any function it is the minimal one of preventing people from hurting each other and of maintaining basic civil freedoms. They range from the anarchists who feel all government can be eliminated,5 to the conservative libertarians or classical liberals who argue that government needs to deal with so-called externalities or neighborhood effects, such as pollution, flood control, national defense, or crime.

The welfare or new deal liberal marks the division between libertarianism and socialism. While fearing too much government and desiring to maintain group autonomy, he believes that government has an essential role in regulating the economic marketplace and promoting social justice or equality. Thus, he recommends massive government health and welfare programs as the best way to help the poor, the deprived, and the disadvantaged, and promotes large-scale regulation of business activity to ensure the best (most just) operation of society. Welfare liberals stand at the threshold of socialism. Their programs are socialist in goals (social reconstruction) and norms (positivist), without involving government nationalization.

Socialism is the complete management of the economy and public ownership of large economic organizations for some future goal, usually development, equality, and social reconstruction. To achieve this goal, society is in effect turned into a hierarchical coercive organization. Democratic socialists believe that socialism and an open political system with representational mechanisms and political competition are compatible. Nonetheless, democratic socialism severely limits or extinguishes group autonomy (such as through nationalization) and tightly regulates individual freedom (as the freedom to contract or exchange).6

The natural limit of socialism is communism. Whether in its applied Marxist-Leninist, Titoist or Maoist variety, it is the totalitarian imposition of socialist ideals over all groups and activities. Communists believe that by proper education, by reconstructing society in the socialist framework, by emphasizing community work and values, justice is promoted and a truly new person is created.

Fascism, the belief in the nation, the state, lies at the threshold between socialism and authoritarianism.7 The emphasis is on the state above all, and its actualization through the leader who will manifest the will of the nation, its traditions, its blood, its volk. Society is managed and all groups are controlled for the ends of the state. The future goal is state power, and justice lies in the manifestation of the true nation. In this sense fascism is traditional, emphasizing a will-to-power of cultural values and ideals over an competitors.

The dynastic formula is the belief that a political system should adhere to traditions and custom and that the central power should lie in the hands of a family or blood line endowed with the responsibility for maintaining such tradition. Government ought to be authoritarian, in that elite positions are limited to those with certain ascribed characteristics and elite policies, but outside these limits people and groups are free to pursue their interests.

Finally, the conservative lies at the threshold between libertarian and traditional formulas. The conservative wishes an open political system with group autonomy, but he also desires to imbed that system in traditional values. The job of government is to maintain such traditional norms and values while refraining from intervening in society to pursue social justice or reconstruction.

The conservative and welfare liberal both share a belief in civil rights and a regulative, interventive role for government. They disagree on the purposes of such a role. Welfare liberals want government to intervene at the group level to assure proper or best functioning of society (read economy). Thus, farm subsidies, independent regulatory commissions, and antitrust laws. But individual or private relationships, such as gambling, prostitution, or dope, should be relatively free from political interference. However, these are precisely the areas in which the conservatives want government to intervene to maintain decency and morality (read traditions). The moral law should be maintained, but insofar as the behavior of groups, the realm of contracts and exchange, government has no right to intervene outside of assuring private property and contractual rights.

The welfare liberal favors intervention in the marketplace but not in private morality, while the conservative favors intervention in private morality but not the marketplace. The libertarian opposes intervention in either case, except perhaps for preserving basic rights (even this function is denied by the anarchist). The communist favors intervention in both cases in order to create a new society. The fascist believes in intervention in both cases in order to aggrandize state power and enhance true national virtues and traditions. And the authoritarian favors intervention in both cases if necessary to maintain tradition, but in practice will leave both spheres alone as long as customary norms and values are not violated.

Such are the major contemporary formulas that compete for our dedication and aim at our sense of justice. The formulas are congruent with the political systems we have discussed, as shown in Figure 31.2. Anarchism (anarcho-libertarianism) is an anti-political system formula that is consistent with the distrust of government and attempts to keep government limited through checks and balances and civil rights. Indeed, the founders of the American Constitution can properly be classed as conservative libertarians. Liberal democracies, with the emphasis on classical liberalism, openness, and group autonomy, with the belief in the maximum freedom of the individual from government control, are libertarian. Totalitarian systems, in their total control over a society in pursuit of future goals and their subordination of individual and group autonomy to those ends, are appropriately at the socialist corner. Finally, authoritarian systems with their emphases on maintaining traditions surely reflect a dynastic formula.


Three societies--exchange, authoritative and coercive--have been discussed as pure types which reflect the major forms of power underlying the structures of expectations encompassing society. I have also discussed three kinds of political systems which constitute the balance of powers governing the state. The state is a particular kind of society, a group sovereign over a specific territory, and the balance of powers manifesting this sovereignty is the political system.

The political system may not encompass all of society, and indeed may be restricted to a limited sphere. Nonetheless, the type of political system and type of society are congruent. The political system is an aspect of the social field and as that field (or antifield) manifests a particular form of power, the political system will be its image. Consequently, we can overlay the ideal societies shown in Figure 30.1 by the political triangle and formulas displayed in Figure 31.2. This is done in Figure 31.3.

Figure 31.3

The intermediary points on the triangle's sides reflect the overlap between the three types of societies, and the pure types themselves are manifested in the three major types of political systems. A communist system comprises an antifield: a coercive society organized to achieve a future goal.8 A dynastic system is part of an authoritative field, wherein reigns authoritative power based on a fundamental cultural legitimacy. And a libertarian system comprises an exchange field in which people are free to adjust their positive interests.


In summary, I have continued to emphasize power as the basis for social relations and, particularly in dealing with individuals in their structures of expectations at the societal level, three kinds of power balances: exchange, authoritative, and coercive. Then I examined one kind of society, that formal social group we call a state, and the specific types of political systems--structures of expectations--that authoritatively govern it.

I argued that political systems can be characterized as open or closed, as allowing or controlling group autonomy, as normatively based, or as past, present, or future oriented. These characteristics define a two-dimensional political space in which three types of political systems form a triangular relation ship: libertarian systems, authoritarian systems, and totalitarian systems. We can further refine this triangle according to contemporary political formulas and locate on it anarchism, welfare liberalism, conservatism, communism, fascism, and dynasticism.

This triangle represents the political systems of states. But as a balance of powers general to society, each also reflects the over-all structures of expectations constituting different societies. Thus, the different types of political systems are congruent with the different types of social systems.

So much has been groundwork. Now to turn to societal conflict and violence. 


* Scanned from Chapter 31 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. In treating the state in terms of a balance of powers, where a particular balance constitutes the political system, I am in line with the conflict of interests view in political science. For Plato, Rousseau, and Locke the state had an end; for Hegel, a destiny. It had a public interest beyond the particularistic concerns of its citizens. But beginning with Machiavelli, the state was also analyzed as a power structure, as a problem of power and order without regard to any ultimate ends of the state. Some, such as Hobbes and Bentham, combined the two approaches and saw the purpose of state power as regulating the conflict of diverse interests.

But to Marx, Engels, and such modern political theorists as Harold Lasswell and Robert Dahl, the state is simply a balancing of interests, a conflict of interests, a political process. The state has no public interest as such. It has only particularistic interests associated with a particular balance of powers.

2. Of the many works on comparative political systems, I have found Finer (1971) most helpful. My discrimination of political characteristics reflects his survey, without following it in detail.

3. A political system may formally be open, but customarily closed in the control exercised by the elite. For example, the powers granted the republics and representatives by the Soviet federal constitution are considerable, but in practice the coercive power of the central state apparatus over the republics has been absolute.

4. As to which types constitute the mixture and the degree of overlap, many different subtypes of political systems can be specified. For example, and utilizing Finer's (1971) classification, we could define direct or indirect military, dynastic, facade-democratic, quasi-democratic, totalitarian, stable liberal-democratic, or unstable liberal-democratic systems. Or an alternative classification could be Coleman's (1960), which discriminates among systems that are political, tutelary, terminal, or colonial democracies; modernizing, colonial and racial, conservative, or traditional oligarchies.

Such detailed classifications are beyond my purpose here, which is to seek that level of classification best enabling me to discriminate and understand types of societal conflict.

5. There are contemporary libertarians who argue that individual interests and justice will be better served by eliminating government altogether. See Rothbard (1962, 1970), who is a professional economist, and Tuccille (1970).

I am concerned here only with anarcho-libertarians. Anarcho-communists who wish to eliminate all government and private property are either libertarians, if they want to do this through communal living, or totalitarians, if they see a dictatorship of the people or proletariat as the means. See LeFevre (1965), who discusses the confusing meanings of anarchism, and proposes autarkisin as the term to cover anarcho-libertariardsm.

6. "What the foregoing argument suggests, perhaps, is that socialist egalitarianism is not readily compatible with a pluralist political order of the classic western type. Egalitarianism seems to require a political system in which the state is able continually to hold in check those social and occupational groups which, by virtue of their skills or education or personal attributes, might otherwise attempt to stake claims to a disproportionate share of society's rewards" (Parkin, 1971, p. 183).

7. I am using the term generically to cover a type of formula. It would include Mussolini's fascism, Hitler's national socialism, and Peronism, for example.

8. Note the identical definition of a coercive organization given in Section 23.2 of Chapter 23.

For citations see the Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix REFERENCES

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