This monograph first saw the light of day in 1901 and has been understood as a somewhat famous attempt at a non race-based understanding of 'elitism'. The failure of this attempt to be either genuinely explanatory or entirely successful seems, by almost all accounts, to have been historically verified by fascisms repeated descent into racism. But, given the utter failure of the Fascist movements of the post World War II era to gain traction, one wonders if perhaps now Pareto can, at last, be given a fair hearing. One even wonders if Pareto is fairly characterized as a fascist.
Be that as it may, Pareto still might have much to teach us about the interactions of elites. According to Pareto, elites rise to power, maintain dominance, and then fall; but only if another elite is struggling to take its place. (One is here reminded of Lenin's remark against Trotsky, I believe, 'that no state ever fell without being pushed'.) History is, according to this text, a circulation of elites; and for Pareto, the ideologies that these elites represent are only of secondary importance. What one must always keep in mind while reading this book is that, for Pareto, Liberals and Socialists (that is, the leaders of these ideological positions) are equally elites. By the 'elite', I should point out, Pareto always means the leadership of a class.
Pareto distinguishes between subjective and objective factors; the latter being real objects while the former are psychological states. Thus belief and unbelief are, for Pareto, equally psychological states. In fact, according to our author, belief is often the sign of a rising elite. Note that by 'belief' he doesn't merely mean religious beliefs; according to Pareto socialism is a belief, that is, it is a psychological state. Indeed, for Pareto, perhaps somewhat surprisingly given his right-wing tendency and reputation, nationalism itself is also a belief. Now, he doesn't propose to ignore these beliefs; on the contrary, it is the skepticism of the rulers towards beliefs that weakens them in the face of the rising elite. These 'myths' are a part of history and need to be explained.
The 'religious sentiment' (i.e., belief) of the masses is what leads to revolt. This sentiment is exploited by the rising elite in its attempt to overthrow the ruling elite. (In this matter the 'skepticism' of the ruling elite is no small aid to the rising elite.) And what we also need to keep in mind is that logical argument almost always fails in these matters; people believe for non-rational reasons, sentiment must be met with sentiment, i.e. socialism must be countered with nationalism. In fact, in these pages Pareto, over a hundred years ago, by describing the similarity between Christian and Socialist behavior, seems to indicate the possibility of a convergence of Christianity and Socialism vis-à-vis the ruling bourgeois. This possibility is currently being explored, thanks to the collapse of 'really existing socialism' in the USSR, by the most au courant leftist continental theory.
Keep in mind that, for Pareto, it is the 'decadence' (i.e., it is 'less apt to defend its own power') and the unabated rapacity of the old elite that causes it to perish. Indeed, he says of this decadence and rapacity that the old elite "could prosper if one of them were absent." Scientifically, or so Pareto maintains, there really is nothing to choose between. Speaking of some historical examples of some crimes of new elites Pareto says, "The old elite, when it was in power, did even worse, so that one cannot conclude from these facts anything against one or the other regime..." Pareto simultaneously holds that reform is the most dangerous moment for the ruling elite, and that the waning of power is perfectly compatible with a rise in the use of violence. In fact, one comes away from this book feeling that the things that Pareto held in most contempt were inefficiency and incompetence and, indeed, some of his most contemptuous gestures in this matter are reserved for the capitalists.
In any case, the problem seems to be that the falling class, no longer believing in itself, can no longer attract the best young people to its cause. The rising class has 'belief' and hope, the falling one only has its privileges. Persecution seems to be no remedy for this. Indeed, thanks to persecutions, "many people of doubtful loyalty and unsteady character were eliminated and professional politicians kept away." ...Very amusing! But here, in 1901, Pareto sees the best of future generations going to socialism while all persecution does is prune the revolutionary plant.
In fact, if one carries away anything from this book it is that old elites must eventually fall. We learn here that socialism is the heir of Christian 'belief'. And since Christianity is dying, all the old elite can do is delay the inevitable 'homecoming' of the common people (and their 'religious sentiment') to socialism. Thus 'belief' replaces 'belief'. Again, there is little rationality in this process; Pareto is at pains to emphasize the 'subjective phenomenon'. This is why nationalism is the best answer to socialism; one counters one irrationality with another.
This book is really only a long essay, the hardcover edition before me has 75 pages of text, 18 pages of notes, and a 22 page introduction. The notes are quite good and should not be passed up. For example, while nicely playing off his understanding of socialism as but another belief, Pareto, after discussing some socialist 'sectarians', writes, "One day we will perhaps have the Holy Inquisition of the socialist faith. (Note 18)" The Soviet 'show trials' of the thirties were indeed this Inquisition. This really is a superb book, a worthy companion piece to all the great political realists of history - from Machiavelli to Gramsci.