Essay on Political Theory

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He suggested that Political Thought is general and is the thinking of the whole community at a particular historical stage and is reflected in the writings of poets, statesmen, publicists, etc., whereas Political Theory is a “highly personal vision of an individual” of the political reality for which his theory seeks to offer an explanation.

This distinction is emphasised by Leo Strauss in his article: “What is Political Philosophy?” and while elaborating it he stressed the differing forms in which the two find expression. “Political Theory through a formal ‘treatise’, Political Thought, because of its general character, is diffused and is a conglomeration of current political ideas that govern the life of a society at a particular stage of its history, and is reflected through all the known means of communication including poetry, literature and art.”

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Three ingredients of Political Thought distinguish it from Political Theory. Firstly, Political thought is the thought .of the community relating to political life at a particular period of history. Secondly, it is most general, for it is the sum of political opinions or beliefs expressed either in defence or repudiation of a policy or programme or a political order.

Thirdly, the contents of the affirmation or repudiation are directly inspired or determined by the historical context. “While its primary thrust is in relation to ‘specific events’, its form is far from fixed, and in this collective participation not only politicians, Publicist (the political commentator of leading newspapers and semi-popular weekly).

The angry or committed poet, the philosopher who infrequently is tempted to comment (Marx did it all the time) or the letters to the editor, etc., each in his particular mode, contributes to the general fund of this ‘Thought’, which then reflects the spirit of a decade or an ‘age’.”

Political Thought, as Leo Strauss explained, is time-bound; rooted and conditioned by the historical context. It is commonly said that a thinker is the “Child of his age”, though it may not be neatly so.

The Thought may be Utopian. Some thinker, a Campenella, Harrington or Owen, deeply touched by the suffering and strife which plague the society may set an ideal model of a social order for man to live in. Such a model is the product of romantic idealization and is the thinking of an individual inspired by circumstances then prevailing no doubt, but a Utopia all the same; an imaginary state of ideal perfection.

The ideal social order is conceived as a panacea for all human ills and is acclaimed an idyllic state of justice—happiness and contentment all-round and no grievance to ventilate. It is bliss to live in such a society.

Some writers regard Plato’s Republic as Utopia “of a timeless and space less dimension a world of dream which cannot even act as a sedative to troublous times.” But these writers overlook the intensely realistic concern of Plato. Even Karl Popper, Plato’s bitterest critic of the twentieth century, concedes that he was the first social scientist and an ardent reformer.

The sharp rise in the ideological thinking between the two World Wars Communism in Russia, Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany and the aggressive dogmatism with which these ideologies were preached and practised, brought into focus the need to clearly distinguish Political Ideology from the Political Theory. The necessity of such a distinction was deemed all the more important in the light of Karl Marx’s challenge that all thinking is ideological.

Political Ideology means a system of ideas about life, society and government, which through long and intensive processes of propaganda and usage tend to become the characteristic belief or dogma of a particular group, party or nationality.

“It is a theory of social life,” says Roucek, “which approaches social realities from the point of view of a political ideal and interprets them consciously or unconsciously to prove the correctness of the analysis and to justify the ideal.”

It is intended to justify a particular system of power in society in order to realise a good and blissful life. The ideologist is committed to the ideology he professes and proclaims it vigorously urging others to accept it unquestionably. He tolerates neither criticism nor opposition and demands from others, too, total commitment to the ideology and the values it sustains.

Ideological politics, as Frank Thakurdas says, is “doctrinaire, didactic, dogmatic, transitory, prescriptive, polemical and propagandist, partisan, combative and destructive; whose appeal is in the nature of a religious belief, which would not suffer either doubt or criticism.”

Ideology, unlike Political Philosophy, is not a search for truth and for knowledge based on truth. The test of a political ideology lies in its application. Preston King writes, “Political Philosophy evokes reflection and understanding while ideology is more likely to imply commitment and action.

‘” He further contends that ideology is used “to convey both the notions of intended and actual application”. Ideology, therefore, must possess a political character, a guide to direct political action and getting things done in a predetermined direction.

The meaning of Political Theory now becomes sufficiently clear. It may embrace the entire system or so partial as to deal with only one or a few empirical generalisations. It is a self-conscious, systematic attempt of a single mind, which seeks to offer an analytical explanation of the phenomenon of politics.

In contrast with Political Thought, which reflects mere opinion or belief, Political Theory is largely an attempt to seek the truth as the thinker sees it. A political theorist shall have no personal interest in the political system of any one country or class or party. “His vision of reality and his image of good, ideally speaking, will not be clouded, nor will his theory be special pleading.”

Political theory has three ingredients which have been classified into three groups. The first is, its factual and descriptive component in the same manner as History has a purely chronological and descriptive component.

Secondly, it is made up of the generalizations which reduce to order the huge mass of political data and the complications of policy-making. “Such empirically based generalizations aspire to the neutrality, if not the precision of science and are sometimes called rules or principles.

It is these generalizations and hypotheses which seek to explain a political system by discovering its operating principles.” And, the third component is the moral component. As a rule, the older the theory the more broadly ethical it is, and the more subordinate is the purely descriptive and neutral.

In order to clearly understand the writings of a theorist, it is necessary to consider and weigh the general context of ideas within which he was working and also see them as a response to more immediate circumstances. “It might well be said,” remarks Derek Crabtree, “that political theory only arises in times of political crisis; when all is well within the body-politic then the incentive to theorise is lacking.”

Both Aristotle and Plato wrote at a time when the polis, institutionally, was on the brink of decline, and the political theory of both these writers can be seen as essentially aiming at a means of preventing the decay which they already sensed.

Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to the crisis of the English society at the time of the civil war and the Federalist Papers, of Hamilton, Madison and Jay, were based on the need to secure the adoption of the new American federal constitution. But it does not mean that all these theorists were concerned in solving the contemporary problems and that their writings had no significance once those problems had been resolved.

The important fact is that in each case, “while advocating solutions or policies appropriate to the situation of their day, they sought to secure the acceptance of those recommendations by appealing to a general view of politics. If only we will accept the analysis of politics which they offer us we shall be led to accept the practical advice they offer.”

Taking the example of Madison, the analysis of American society and government that he offered in his contribution to the Federalist Papers still eminently merits the detailed and critical scrutiny which Robert Dahl has given it in his Preface to Democratic Theory, for it represents a cogent analysis of the nature of limited government in a plural society, and not merely a piece of special pleading for the adoption of a particular decision in 1787.

The two broad varieties of Political Theory are the classical and the contemporary. The former by tradition refers to the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel or even Laski which deal with politics from a broadly moral point of view.

Plato examined a number of points which have continued to exercise philosophers to the present time: what is the nature of the good or goodness at which man should aim? How can it be known? Given that we know the good, what is the political order that embodies it? What are the right relations between the man and the State?

And, lastly, why ought men to obey the State? Plato dealt with these questions via the literary form of the dialogue, whereas his celebrated pupil Aristotle treated them in much more formal systematic manner and his Nichomachean Ethics and Politics set the pattern of political speculation for many centuries. The history of Political Theory is the history of varying answers to these questions which have been given by subsequent philosophers and thinkers.

Up until the twentieth century Political Theory was a normative “enterprise” and its focus of attention was the moral criterion of political conduct and it sought to answer questions, such as, the nature of the State and what was the end of the good at which it should aim, or sought to demonstrate that one set of institutional arrangements or form of government was the ideal which ought to be implemented, as embodying the true end. Such Political Theory is “heavily and curiously culture-bound” and its task is “to pass moral judgments.”

Assuming a moral ideal for all human institutions and the State being the greatest of such institutions, all political thinkers concentrated on “ideal models” rather than on “process models” and interpreted the State in terms of ethics and sought to determine its relation to the moral constitution and development of man. Its central idea was the “moral evaluation of the political power”, employing logical analysis and deductive reasoning in deriving conclusions.

But discontentment against the classical theory, in which ethical content was “writ large”, began simmering in the twenties of the present century and in the post-1945 period not only the ranks of its critics swelled, but they also vehemently challenged the legitimacy of the theoretical enterprise and some even proclaimed its “demise.

“Prominent among those who ushered in this “intellectual revolution” were Herbert Simon, David B. Truman, V.O. Key Jr., Robert A. Dahl, David Easton, Heinz Eulau, Charles Hyneman, Carl Friedrich, and Harold Lasswell.

Their analysis of the discipline of Political Science even penetrated the Oxford University which had till then been recognised the “home” of Political Theory or Philosophy among the English-speaking countries.

The term Political Theory as used in the contemporary sense may mean the scientific theory, the positivist theory or the behavioural theory. It is a quest for realism, precision, comprehensiveness, and detachment in order to obtain “neat and tidy” results to explain and generalise political phenomena.

This search for actuality has led to reorienting political theory to empirical research, strategies and techniques. The contemporary political scientists, accordingly, seek to stress “direct observation, objective measurement, systematic data collection, the operationalizing of concepts, quantification, a deliberate search for regularities and variations, and systematic comparison across groups and cultures in an effort to ascertain the limits of generalisations.”

They believe that a political scientist, like a physical scientist, should observe his data as a disinterested person and must not import his own point of view in his observations. His approach should be objective and in terms of the “observed and observable” and, consequently, value free.

They outright reject the assumption that theory is knowledge, and contend that it is only a tool on the road to knowledge. Viewed in this way, political theory is neither prescriptive nor oriented towards action.

“Rather it is explanatory and oriented towards understanding. It is, in itself, the tool of the seeker rather than the doer. It does not imply a set of values or a set of facts; but is a process by which sense is made out of facts by relating and ordering them.”

Four peculiarities of this approach, as R.L. Rathore points out, may be noted: “(i) the unit firstly is subjected to a theoretical and empirical analysis rather than to a simple study of structures, institutions and ideologies; (ii) this approach is carried on within the framework of other disciplines, namely, psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology; (iii) this approach is concerned with formulating hypotheses and definitions which can be verified; and (iv) it stresses the mutual inter-dependence of theory and research.”

In brief, political behaviour theories are nothing more than the application of precise scientific methods to the study of politics, sans metaphysical assumptions but with the insistence that all induction must rest on observation of facts.

The result is “a radical transformation”, as Easton calls it, “in conceptions of the tasks and functions of theory.” It has developed its own language and new concepts have been invented to make the study wholesome, matter of fact and meaningful.

The concept of the “State” has been discarded and in its place “political system” is used, as the former is limited by its legal and institutional meanings; instead of “powers”, which is again a legal concept in its connotation, the term “functions” is used; and instead of
“offices” (legal again) the concept of “role” is preferred.

Similarly, instead of “institutions”, which is a formal norm, “structure” is used and instead of “public opinion” and “citizenship training”, which are formal in meaning, “political culture” and “political socialisation” are used. The inter-connection among all these terms rests on the “action” or a “behavioural” base; one term suggests another and correlates the other components of the social process.

The advocates of the innovations claim, “we are not simply adding terms to new vocabulary, but rather are in the process of developing or adapting a new one…; this is not only a matter of conceptual vocabulary; it is an intimation of a major step in the nature of political science as science.”

Some of these concepts flow from the disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology in the study of political phenomenon removing the traditional barriers in the various sub-fields.

The importance of interdisciplinary approach, especially the influence of Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology and Statistics, as an aid to a complete knowledge of complex phenomenon of man’s organised political life can hardly be underestimated, though we may not entirely agree with the nature of Political Theory as enunciated by contemporary political scientists.


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