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Instrumental Marxism, or elite model, is a theory which reasons that policy makers in government and positions of power tend to "share a common business or class background, and that their decisions will reflect their business or class interests". It tends to view the state and law as ultimately an instrument or tool for individuals of the economically dominant class to use for their own purposes, particularly maintaining economic exploitation while winning ideological assent to their hegemony. This view is contrasted with structural Marxism, which views the class background of policymakers and so on as purely incidental to the "bourgeois" nature of the modern state, which is seen instead as a result of the position of the state and law in the objective structure of capitalist society and their objective (i.e. consciousness-independent) function of reproducing the relations of production and private property regardless of the class background of the individuals involved in the administration thereof. For example, whereas for instrumentalist Marxists the formal equality of contract law in capitalist societies is a kind of ideological shell or mystification used by the elite to conceal the real kernel of exploitation, for structural Marxists that formal legal equality is itself the real normative basis for properly capitalist exploitation, whether or not elites understand it as such as it allows labor-power to be traded at its real exchange-value (though not the value of its product), thus making regularity and rational allocation in labor markets possible.
In the framework of the structure and agency debate in sociology, instrumental Marxism is an agent-centered view emphasizing the decisions of policymakers, where the relevant agents are either individual elites, a section of the ruling class, or the class as a whole whereas structural Marxism is a structural view in which individuals are no more than the bearers of certain objective structural relations.
The British sociologist and Marxist author Ralph Miliband was the main proponent of this theory.