Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This leading text provides a concise and broad-ranging introduction to the contemporary study of political theory. Each chapter discusses a cluster of interrelated concepts and examines how they have been used by different thinkers and traditions and explores related debates and controversies. The fourth edition of this highly successful and accessible book has been substantially revised and updated and includes extra attention throughout to non-Western approaches and international political theory.

Systematically covering the foundational concepts that have focused debate from Aristotle, Rousseau, Marx and Mill to the present day, this is essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate courses on political thought and political philosophy. With increased discussion of the global dimensions of political thought it will appeal to an international audience, as well as to those lecturers interested in broadening their students’ horizons.

Table of Contents

1. What is Political Theory?

Abstract
It would be misleading, indeed patently foolish, to suggest that political conflict reflects nothing more than confusion in the words we use. It is certainly true that enemies often argue, fight and even go to war, both claiming to be ‘defending liberty’ or ‘upholding democracy’, or that ‘justice is on our side’. The intervention of some Great Lexicographer descending from the skies to demand that the parties to the dispute define their terms before they proceed, stating precisely what each means by ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’, would surely be to no avail. The argument, fight or war would take place anyway. Politics, in other words, can never be reduced to mere semantics. And yet there is also a sense in which sloppiness in the use of language may help to protect ignorance and preserve misunderstanding. Language is both a tool with which we think and a means by which we communicate with others. If the language we use is confused or poorly understood, it is not only difficult to express our views and opinions with any degree of accuracy but it is also impossible to know the contents of our own minds. The least, and some would say the most, we can do is be clear about the words we use and the meanings we assign to them. The goal is the one George Orwell outlined in his seminal essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1957): language should be ‘an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought’. This book sets out to clarify and examine the major ideas, concepts and doctrines used in political analysis, and, in so doing, to provide an introduction to some of the most recurrent controversies in political theory.
Andrew Heywood

2. Human Nature, the Individual and Society

Abstract
Throughout this book, and indeed throughout political theory, there is a recurrent theme: the relationship between the individual and society. This is touched on by almost all political debates and controversies – the nature of justice, the proper realm of freedom, the desirability of equality, the value of politics, and so forth. At the heart of this issue lies the idea of human nature, that which makes human beings ‘human’. Almost all political doctrines and beliefs are based, at some level, on a theory of human nature, sometimes explicitly formulated but in many cases simply implied. To do otherwise would be to take the complex and perhaps unpredictable human element out of politics. However, the concept of human nature has also been a source of great difficulty for political theorists. Models of human nature have varied considerably, and each model has radically different implications for how social and political life should be organized. Are human beings, for instance, selfish or sociable, rational or irrational, essentially moral or basically corrupt? Are they, at heart, political animals or private beings? The answers to these and other such questions bear heavily on the relationship between the individual and society. In particular, how much of human behaviour is shaped by natural or innate forces, and how much is conditioned by the social environment? Are human beings ‘individuals’, independent from one another and possessed of separate and unique characters, or are they social beings, whose identity and behaviour are shaped by the groups to which they belong?
Andrew Heywood

3. Politics, Government and the State

Abstract
In the early stages of academic study, students are invariably encouraged to reflect on what the subject itself is about, usually by being asked questions such as ‘What is Physics?’, ‘What is History?’ or ‘What is Economics?’ Such reflections have the virtue of letting students know what they are in for: what they are about to study and what issues and topics are going to be raised. Unfortunately for the student of politics, however, the question ‘What is Politics?’ is more likely to generate confusion than bring comfort or reassurance. The problem with politics is that debate, controversy and disagreement lie at its very heart, and the definition of ‘the political’ is no exception. The debate about ‘What is Politics?’ exposes some of the deepest and most intractable conflicts in political thought. The attempt to define politics raises a series of difficult questions. For example, is politics a restricted activity confined to what goes on within government or the state, or does it occur in all areas of social life? Does politics, in other words, take place within families, schools, colleges and in the workplace? Similarly, is politics, as many believe, a corrupting and dishonest activity, or is it, rather, a healthy and ennobling one? Can politics be brought to an end? Should politics be brought to an end? A further range of arguments and debates are associated with the institution of government. Is government necessary or can societies be stable and successful in the absence of government? What form should government take, and how does government relate to broader political processes, usually called the political system?
Andrew Heywood

4. Sovereignty, the Nation and Transnationalism

Abstract
The state emerged in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe as a system of centralized rule that succeeded in subordinating all other groups and associations, temporal and spiritual. The claim that the state exercised absolute and unrestricted authority within its borders was expressed in a new language of sovereignty, specifically territorial sovereignty. Politics thus acquired a distinct spatial character; in short, borders and boundaries mattered. This especially applied in the case of the distinction between ‘domestic’ politics, which was concerned with the state’s role in maintaining order and carrying out regulation within its own borders, and ‘international’ politics, which was concerned with relations between and/or among states. The domestic/international divide effectively demarcated the extent of political rule. However, it was less clear what the proper or appropriate unit of political rule might be. In other words, over what population group and within what territorial boundaries should state power operate? For the last two hundred years the dominant answer to that question has been ‘the nation’. It has almost been taken for granted that the nation is the only legitimate political community and therefore that the nation-state is the highest form of political organization. Nevertheless, the model of a world composed of a collection of sovereign nation-states has come under pressure as a result of recent trends and developments, not least those associated with globalization. In particular, there has been a substantial growth in cross-border, or ‘transnational’, flows and movements – movements of goods, money, people, information and ideas.
Andrew Heywood

5. Power, Authority and Legitimacy

Abstract
All politics is about power. The practice of politics is often portrayed as little more than the exercise of power, and the academic subject as, in essence, the study of power. Without doubt, students of politics are students of power: they seek to know who has it, how it is used and on what basis it is exercised. Such concerns are particularly apparent in deep and recurrent disagreements about the distribution of power within modern society. Is power distributed widely and evenly dispersed, or is it concentrated in the hands of the few, a ‘power elite’ or ‘ruling class’? Is power essentially benign, enabling people to achieve their collective goals, or is it a form of oppression or domination? Such questions are, however, bedevilled by the difficult task of defining power. Perhaps because power is so central to the understanding of politics, fierce controversy has surrounded its meaning. Some have gone as far as to suggest that there is no single, agreed concept of power but rather a number of competing concepts or theories. Moreover, the notion that power is a form of domination or control that forces one person to obey another, runs into the problem that in political life power is very commonly exercised through the acceptance and willing obedience of the public. Those ‘in power’ do not merely possess the ability to enforce compliance, but are usually thought to have the right to do so as well.
Andrew Heywood

6. Democracy, Representation and the Public Interest

Abstract
Since the dawn of political thought the question ‘Who should rule?’ has been a recurrent issue for argument and debate. Since the twentieth century, however, the question has tended to elicit a single, almost universally accepted, response: the people should govern. Perhaps no other political ideal is accorded the unquestioning approval, even reverence, currently enjoyed by democracy. Whether they are liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists or even fascists, politicians everywhere are eager to proclaim their democratic credentials and to commit themselves to the democratic ideal. And yet it is its very popularity that makes democracy a difficult concept to understand. When a term means anything to anyone it is in danger of becoming entirely meaningless. Democracy may now be nothing more than a ‘hurrah word’, endlessly repeated by politicians, but denoting little of substance. In reality, a number of competing models of democracy have developed in different historical periods and in various parts of the world. These have included direct and indirect democracy, political and social democracy, pluralist and totalitarian democracy and so on. What forms of government can reasonably be described as ‘democratic’, and why? Moreover, why is democracy so widely valued, and can it be regarded as an unqualified good? Modern ideas of democracy are, however, rarely based on the classical idea of popular self-government. Rather, they are founded on the belief that politicians in some sense ‘represent’ the people and act on their behalf.
Andrew Heywood

7. Law, Order and Justice

Abstract
Law is found in all modern societies, and is usually regarded as the bedrock of civilized existence. Law commands citizens, telling them what they must do; it lays down prohibitions indicating what citizens cannot do; and it allocates entitlements defining what citizens have the right to do. Although it is widely accepted that law is a necessary feature of any healthy and stable society, there is considerable debate about the nature and role of law. Opinions, for instance, conflict about the origins and purpose of law. Does law liberate or oppress? Do laws exist to safeguard all individuals and promote the common good, or do they merely serve the interests of the propertied and privileged few? Moreover, there is controversy about the relationship between law and morality. Does law enforce moral standards; should it try to? How much freedom should the law allow the individual, and over what issues? Such questions also relate to the need for personal security and social order. Indeed, in the mouths of politicians, the concepts of order and law often appear to be fused into the composite notion of ‘law-and-order’. Rolling these two ideas together sees law as the principal device through which order is maintained, but raises a series of further problems. In particular, is order only secured through a system of rule enforcement and punishment, or can it emerge naturally through the influence of social solidarity and rational good sense? In other words, can order arise ‘from below’ or does it always have to be imposed ‘from above’?
Andrew Heywood

8. Rights, Obligations and Citizenship

Abstract
Since antiquity, political thinkers have debated the proper relationship between the individual and the state. In Ancient Greece, this relationship was embodied in the notion of the ‘citizen’, literally a member of the state. Within Greek city-states, citizenship was restricted to a small minority living in such states, in effect, free-born propertied males. The modern concept of citizenship is, by contrast, founded on the principle of universal rights and obligations. Its roots lie in seventeenth-century ideas about natural rights, elaborated in the twentieth century into the doctrine of human rights. However, it is less than clear what the term ‘rights’ refers to and how it should be used. For instance, what does it mean to say that somebody ‘has a right’? On what basis can they be said to enjoy it? And how far, and to whom, does this doctrine of rights extend? Citizens are not, however, merely bearers of rights; they also have duties and obligations towards the state that has protected, nurtured and cared for them. These obligations may include compulsory military service, entailing the duty to fight, kill and possibly die in defence of one’s state. Once again, however, this raises difficult questions. In particular, what are the origins of such obligations, and what kind of claim do they make on the citizen? Are these claims absolute, or can citizens, in certain circumstances, be released from them? All such questions are linked to the idea of citizenship, the notion of a proper balance between the rights and obligations of the citizen. However, the concept of citizenship invariably carries heavy ideological baggage.
Andrew Heywood

9. Freedom, Toleration and Identity

Abstract
The principle of freedom has customarily been treated by political thinkers with a degree of reverence that borders on religious devotion. Political literature is littered with proclamations that humankind should break free from some form of enslavement. Yet the popularity of freedom is often matched by confusion about what the term actually means, and why it is so widely respected. Is freedom, for instance, an unconditional good, or does it have costs or drawbacks? How much freedom should individuals and groups enjoy? At the heart of such questions, however, lies a debate about precisely what it means to be ‘free’. Does freedom mean being left alone to act as one chooses, or does it imply some kind of fulfilment, self-realization or personal development? Confusion is also caused by the fact that freedom is often associated with a range of other ideas, including toleration and identity. Toleration differs from freedom, but there is a sense in which it can also be thought of as a manifestation of freedom. As the willingness to put up with actions or opinions with which we may disagree, toleration broadens people’s opportunity to live as they wish or please. Nevertheless, is toleration a precondition for civic harmony, guaranteeing that we can live together without encroaching on one another’s rights and liberties, or may it go too far and encourage people to tolerate the intolerable? Since the late twentieth century, however, new thinking about freedom has emerged in association with what has been called ‘identity politics’.
Andrew Heywood

10. Equality, Social Justice and Welfare

Abstract
The idea of equality is perhaps the defining feature of modern political thought. Whereas classical and medieval thinkers took it for granted that hierarchy is natural or inevitable, modern ones have started out from the assumption that all human beings are, in some important sense, equal. Nevertheless, few political principles are as contentious as equality or polarize opinion so effectively. Many, for example, have seen the traditional left/right political spectrum as a reflection of differing attitudes towards equality. Yet so remorseless has been the advance of egalitarianism that few, if any, modern thinkers have not been prepared to subscribe to some form of it, be it in relation to legal rights, political participation, life chances or opportunities, or any other aspect of life. The modern battle about equality is therefore fought not between those who support the principle and those who reject it, but between those with different views about where, how and to what equality should be applied. The issue of equality has provoked particularly intense debate when it has been applied to the distribution of wealth or income in society, what is commonly referred to as ‘social justice’. How should the cake of society’s resources be cut? Whereas some insist that an equal, or at least more equal, distribution of material rewards and benefits is desirable, others argue that this risks ignoring significant natural differences among people. However, in almost all parts of the world, the cause of equality and social justice has been associated with calls for the growth of some kind of social welfare.
Andrew Heywood

11. Property, the Market and Planning

Abstract
At almost every level, politics is intertwined with economics. For instance, election results are widely thought to be determined by economic factors, and party politics is invariably dominated by economic issues: parties compete against each other by promising higher rates of economic growth, increased prosperity, lower inflation and so on. The influence of economics has been no less significant in political theory. For almost two hundred years, ideological debate revolved around a battle between capitalism and socialism, a clash between two rival economic philosophies. This struggle was regarded as fundamental to the political spectrum itself, right-wing ideas being sympathetic towards capitalism, left-wing ones being broadly socialist. In effect, this tendency reduced politics to a debate about the ownership of property and the desirability of one economic system over another. Should property be owned by private individuals and be used to satisfy personal interests? Or should it be owned collectively, by either the community or the state, and be harnessed to the common good? Questions about property are closely related to conflicting models of economic organization, notably the rival economic systems that dominated much of twentiethcentury history: market capitalism and central planning. At times, politics has been simplified to a choice between the market and the plan. The idea of the market has undoubtedly been in the ascendancy since the late twentieth century, being aligned to economic globalization and the spread of a worldwide market culture. What is it that has made market-based systems of economic organization so successful? But why, nevertheless, has there been a continual need for government to intervene in economic life to supplement or regulate the market?
Andrew Heywood

12. Security, War and World Order

Abstract
Upholding security is sometimes seen as the most basic task of politics, reflecting, as it does, the desire of people to live safe from (usually physical) harm or threats. It is a concern that has often been felt most acutely in relation to international politics. Whereas threats to security originating from within the domestic realm confront a state which, by definition, enjoys a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, no such supreme power exists in the international realm. An abiding concern of the academic discipline of international relations, which emerged in the aftermath of World War I, has therefore been to find ways of safeguarding people and states from the fear, intimidation and violence that are sometimes believed to be rooted in the international system itself. However, debate surrounds both the nature of security, and how it is best maintained. For instance, does ‘national’ security provide nation-states with vital protection, or is it essentially self-defeating? Under what conditions is ‘collective’ security effective? What are the implications of the notion of ‘human’ security? Debates about security are nevertheless commonly linked to questions about war. Military power is the traditional currency of international politics. States and other actors have exercised influence over each other through the threat or use of force, making war a ubiquitous feature of human history, found in all ages, all cultures and all societies. Nevertheless, has the nature of warfare changed in the contemporary period, traditional or ‘old’ wars having declined and been replaced by so-called ‘new’ wars?
Andrew Heywood

13. Tradition, Progress and Utopia

Abstract
Political debate and argument can never be confined to cloistered academics, because political theories are concerned ultimately with reshaping and remodelling the world itself. Change therefore lies at the very heart of politics. Many would sympathize, for instance, with Marx’s assertion in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ ([1845] 1968) that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’. This concluding chapter examines the difficult questions that arise from the issue of change, and from the inevitable linkage in politics between theory and practice. Yet the desire to change the world raises a number of difficult questions. In the first place, is change desirable? Does change involve growth or decline, progress or decay; should it be welcomed or resisted? Some have turned their faces firmly against change in the name of tradition and continuity. But this has meant anything from a simple wish to remain faithful to the past to an acceptance of ‘natural’ change or the desire to return to a kind of earlier ‘golden age’. Such traditionalist views, however, became increasingly unfashionable as the modern idea of progress took root. This implies that human history is marked by an advance in knowledge and the achievement of ever higher levels of civilization: all change is for the good. Nevertheless, even if change is to be welcomed, what form should it take? This has usually been posed as a choice between two contrasting notions of change: reform or revolution. Whether they are reformist or revolutionary, projects of social or political change have tended to be based on a model of a desired future society.
Andrew Heywood
Additional information