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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Meaning, nature, scope, and importance of political theory

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Political theory seeks to understand, explain and analyse the political phenomena and prescribe ways and means to rectify the shortcomings. Political theory is a complex subject. This is because in the Western tradition, it is at least 2300 years old and has been attended to by philosophers, theologians, kings, economists, sociologists, popes and others. 

The number of political theorists is very large, and the interests and commitments of those engaged in this field have been so different that we are faced with the difficult task of answering a simple question: What is political theory? Moreover, because of the diversity and changes in the socio-economic circumstances, there have been substantial changes in both the subject matter of political theory and the methods of studying it.

For the purpose of study, political theory is divided into distinct streams such as classical, modern, empirical etc. 

While the classical political theory was dominated by philosophy and dealt with the description, explanation, prescription and evaluation of the political phenomena; empirical political theory claimed to be a science and has been primarily concerned with the description and explanation of the political reality. Of late, contemporary political theory has tried to blend the theoretical and practical aspects. We shall talk in detail on this subject in the course of reading this post. 

The word theory is Greek; and in the Greek language it belongs to a short vocabulary of five words which is worth considering:

Thea: something seen, a ‘spectacle’, an occurrence.

Theorein: to look at, to observe what is going on.

Theoros: an intelligent observer; one who looks at what is going on, asks himself questions about it and tries to understand it.

Theoria: the act or procedure of seeking to understand what is going on: ‘theorizing’.

Theorema: what may emerge from ‘theorizing’.

A conclusion is reached by a theoros. This means ‘an understanding’ of what is going on. A ‘theorem’. Aristotle, at one point in the Politics, recognized or identified a polis as a collectivity of human beings, and he asks the question: What other collectivities is it like or unlike? Is it like the collectivity of a swarm of bees, or a colony of ants, or a ‘tribe’, or a ‘household’? He finds that there is something wrong with each of these comparisons, but by asking this sort of question he has tied himself to a specific identification of a polis, and the only conclusion he can reach is a better appreciation of a polis as a collectivity. In short, the conclusion to the enquiry is exactly tied to the ‘fact’, the recognition, the identification of polis with which he began. He has, no doubt, learned more about a polis, but only about a polis identified as a collectivity of human beings.

But it is enough, perhaps, to suggest some lines to go upon in thinking about the expression ‘political theory’ or ‘theory of politics’.

So let us move on to understand what is meant by political theory and what role it plays in our every day life…..

Should people be more equal?

Is the state more important than the individual?

Can a socialist society be free?

Is political violence ever justified?

Must we tolerate the intolerant?

Can the majority dictate to the minority?

Is it right that the rich should also be powerful?

Such questions are the concerns of political theory. Although they sound deceptively simple, susceptible to ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, when we try to answer them it becomes evident that each conceals a wealth of disputable assumptions and that the meaning of its key words is also disputable.

Furthermore, the answers inevitably express opinions on what ought to be the case, rather than describing what is the case. Political values and ideals are at stake here, and choices between ideals must be made. The practice of political theory helps us to set about answering such questions logically, and to criticize the answers which others give, by dealing with political matters at a more abstract and general level than does political science. 

Plato looked to absolute justice to justify his Guardians as rightful rulers, Christian theologians of the middle ages looked to God’s intentions to sanction the rule of kings, while contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke saw government as founded on the people’s rational choice. But Plato, Hobbes and Locke were also among the foremost critics of the politics of their own societies and voiced this opposition in their descriptions of government as it should be, ideal government. Naturally, there have also been theoretical apologists for most existing regimes, but propagandists are intrinsically less interesting except to the social historian, and rarely end up on political theory syllabuses. 

Political theory is a technique of analysis which can be used to overturn, as well as to uphold. 

Departing from fact and detail, it describes and explains politics in abstract and general terms, which allow scope for the critical imagination.

Political theory may therefore be defined as the discipline which aims to explain, justify or criticize the disposition of power in society. It delineates the balance of power between states, groups and individuals. 

At the most general level, political theory is ‘a body of knowledge related to the phenomenon of the state’. While ‘theory’ refers to ‘a systematic knowledge’, ‘political’ refers to ‘matters of public concern’. According to David Held, political theory is a ‘network of concepts and generalizations about political life involving ideas, assumptions and statements about the nature, purpose and key features of government, state and society, and about the political capabilities of human beings

Andrew Hacker defines it as ‘a combination of a disinterested search for the principles of good state and good society on the one hand, and a disinterested search for knowledge of political and social reality on the other’.

George Catlin expresses says, ‘political theory includes political science and political philosophy. While science refers to the phenomena of control in many forms over all the process of whole social field... It is concerned with means; political philosophy is concerned with the end or final value, when man asks ‘what is the national good’ or ‘what is good society.

We can sum up the meaning of political theory by referring to the comprehensive definition given by Gould and Kolb who say that it is ‘a sub-field of political science which includes:

i)                   political philosophy—a moral theory of politics and a historical study of political ideas,

ii)                 ii) a scientific criterion,

iii)              iii) a linguistic analysis of political ideas,

iv)               iv) the discovery and systematic development of generalizations about political behavior.

On the basis of the above definitions, we can conclude that political theory is concerned with the study of the phenomena of the state both in philosophical as well as empirical terms. It not only involves explanation, description and prescription regarding the state and political institutions but also evaluation of their moral philosophical purpose. It is not only concerned with what the state is but also what it ought to be. 

According to Weinstein, political theory can be viewed as an activity which involves posing questions, developing responses to those questions and creating imaginative perspectives on the public life of human beings. It has been probing into questions like: nature and purpose of the state; why one should prefer a kind of state than the other; what the political organization aims at; by what criteria its ends, its methods and its achievements should be judged; what is the relation between state and the individual. 

Political theory has been engaged in these age old questions from Plato onwards because it is concerned with the fate of man which depends upon his ability to create a kind of political community in which rulers and ruled are united in the pursuit of common good. It is not necessary that political theory can provide answers to all questions but it can at least tell us how one should go about the solution.


Distinction between political theory and political thought, political philosophy and political science.

Political theory is the study of the phenomena of the state both from philosophical as well as empirical points of view. In this context, certain similar terms are also used such as political thought, political philosophy, and political science. Although all of them are concerned with explaining the political phenomena, yet political theory is distinct from them. The distinction of political theory from other terms is as follows.

Political theory and political thought

It is generally believed that political thought is the general thought comprising of theories and values of all those persons or a section of the community who think and write on the day-do-day activities, policies and decisions of the state, and which has a bearing on our present living. These persons can be philosophers, writers, journalists, poets, political commentators etc. Political thought has no ‘fixed’ form and can be in the form of treatise, speeches, political commentaries etc. What is important about political thought is that it is ‘time bound’ since the policies and programmes of the governments change from time to time.

Thus we have Greek thought or Roman thought of ancient period or the political thought of the medieval ages. Political theory, on the other hand, is the systematic speculation of a particular writer who talks specifically about the phenomena of the state. This speculation is based on certain hypothesis which may or may not be valid and may be open to criticism.

Theory provides a model of explanation of political reality as is understood by the writer. As such there can be different political theories of the same period. Also, political theory is based on certain discipline-be it philosophy, history, economics or sociology. And lastly, since the task of theory is not only to explain the political reality but also to change it (or to resist change), political theory can be conservative, critical or revolutionary. According to Barker, while political thought is the immanent philosophy of a whole age, political theory is the speculation of a particular thinker. While political thought is implicit and immersed in the stream of vital action, political theory is explicit and may be detached from the political reality of a particular period.

Political theory and political philosophy

Philosophy is called ‘science of wisdom’—wisdom about this world, man or God. This wisdom is all-inclusive and tries to explain everything. When this wisdom is applied to the study of political phenomena or the state, it is called political philosophy. Political philosophy belongs to the category of normative political theory. It is concerned with not only explaining what ‘is’ but also what ‘ought’ to be. Political philosophy is not concerned with contemporary issues but with certain universal issues in the political life of man such as nature and purpose of the political organisation, basis of political authority, nature of rights, liberty, equality, justice etc. 

The distinction between political philosophy and political theory is explained by the fact that whereas a political philosopher is a political theorist, but a political theorist may not necessarily be a political philosopher. For example, David Easton is an eminent political theorist but is not considered a political philosopher. Though theory deals with the same issues as political philosophy, it can explain them both from philosophical as well as empirical points of view. In other words, while political philosophy is abstract or speculative, political theory can be both normative and empirical. 

A political theorist is as much interested in explaining the nature and purpose of the state as in describing the realities of political behaviour, the actual relations between state and citizens, and the role of power in the society. As has been pointed out by Arnold Bretch, philosophical explanations are theories too, but they are non-scientific. 

Political theory is concerned both with political institutions and the ideas and aspirations that form the basis of those institutions. However, we must not forget that though we can analytically distinguish between philosophy and theory, yet if political theory is separated from political philosophy, its meaning will appear distorted and it will prove barren and irrelevant. Theory must be supplemented by philosophy.

Political theory and political science

As a discipline, political science is much more comprehensive and includes different forms of speculation in politics such as political thought, political theory, political philosophy, political ideology, institutional or structural framework, comparative politics, public administration, international law and organizations etc. With the rise of political science as a separate discipline, political theory was made one of its subfields. However, when used specifically with emphasis on ‘science’ as distinct from ‘theory’, political science refers to the study of politics by the use of Scientific methods in contrast to political philosophy, which is free to follow intuition. 

Political theory when opposed to political philosophy is political science. Political science is concerned with describing and explaining the realities of political behaviour, generalizations about man and political institutions on empirical evidence, and the role of power in the society. Political theory, on the other hand, is not only concerned about the behavioural study of the political phenomena from empirical point of view but also prescribing the goals which states, governments, societies and citizens ought to pursue. Political theory also aims to generalize about the right conduct in the political life and about the legitimate use of power.
Thus, political theory is neither pure thought, nor philosophy, nor science. While it draws heavily from all of them, yet it is distinct from them. Contemporary political theory is trying to attempt a synthesis between political philosophy and political science.

Characteristics of political theory

Political theory is an intellectual and moral creation of man. Generally it is the speculation of a single individual who is attempting to offer us a theoretical explanation of the political reality i.e. the phenomena of the state. Every theory by its very nature is an explanation, built upon certain hypothesis which may be valid (or not) and which are always open to criticism.

Therefore, what we find in political theory is a number of attempts made by thinkers from Plato onwards to unravel the mysteries of man’s political life. They have given so many modes of explanations which may or may not convince us but to which we cannot pass any final judgment. Political theory is largely.

An attempt to seek the truth as the thinker sees it and it is usually expressed through a treatise such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Hobb’es’ Leviathan, or Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.

Secondly, political theory contains an explanation of man, society and history. It probes the nature of man and society: how a society is made up and how it works; what are the important elements; what are the sources of conflict in the society and how they can be resolved.

Thirdly, political theory is discipline based. It means that though the phenomena which the theorist seeks to explain remains the same i.e. the state, the writer may be a philosopher, historian, economist, theologian or a sociologist. Thus we are confronted by a variety of political theories, each distinguished by a discipline on which it is based.

Fourthly, political theory not only comprehends and explains the social and political reality but is also actively engaged in hastening the process of history. The task of political theory is not only to understand and explain but also to device ways and means to change the society. As Laski put it, the task is not merely one of description of what it is but also a prescription of what ought to be.

Thus, political theory recommends agencies of action as well as means of reform, revolution or conservation. It contains programmes that embody both ends and means. Political theory plays a double role: to understand society and to suggest how to remove the imperfections.

And lastly, political theory also includes political ideology. Ideology in simple language means a system of beliefs, values and ideals by which people allow themselves to be governed’. We find a number of ideologies in the modern world such as liberalism, Marxism, socialism etc. All political theories from Plato to date reflect a distinct ideology of the writer. 

Political theory in the form of political ideology includes a system of political values, institutions and practices, which a society has adopted as its ideal. For example, all political theories adopted by Western Europe and America have been dominated by liberalism and the theories accepted by China and erstwhile USSR were influenced by a particular brand of Marxism. Each brand of theory or ideology in this sense claims for itself the attributes of universality and compels others to accept it, leading to what is generally known as ‘ideological conflicts’.

In short, political theory is associated with the explanation and evaluation of the political phenomena and this phenomena can be examined as a statement of ideas and ideals, as an agent of socio-economic change, and as an ideology.

Issues in political theory

The nature of political theory can also be understood from the kind of issues it has been grappling with during the long span of more than 2300 years. Different political issues have been dominant in different epochs. Classical political theory was primarily concerned with the search for a perfect political order. As such it analysed the basic issues of political theory such as the nature and purpose of the state, basis of political authority, the problem of political obligation and political disobedience. It was more concerned with what the state ought to be i.e. the ideal state. 

The rise of modern nation-state and the industrial revolution gave birth to a new kind of society, economy and polity. Modern political theory starts from individualism and made liberty of the individual as the basic issue. Hence it was concerned with issues like rights, liberty, equality, property and justice for the individual, how to create a state based upon individual consent, and a right to change the government. At one time, it also became important to explain the interrelation between one concept and the other such as liberty and equality, justice and liberty, equality and property. 

The empirical political theory, particularly after the second world war, shifted the emphasis from concepts to the political behaviour of man. It invented a number new issues largely borrowed from other social sciences. Some of the important issue of empirical political theory were authority, legitimacy, elite, party, group, political system, political culture etc.

During the last twenty years, quite a number of different issues have come to dominate the scene of political theory. With the resurgence of value-based political theory, there is once again an emphasis on the issues of freedom, equality and justice. Apart from them, some new issues have come to dominate the scene such as feminism, environmentalism, ecology, community, issue concerning development, subalteranism etc. 

These are the issues, which have been engaging the attention of political theorists today. We shall touch upon these issues in the relevant chapters in this book. Moreover traditional picture of studying the issues from a single perspective i.e. either from liberal or Marxist point of view, is also changing. However, the method was not wrong but today it is found inadequate. To give an example, both liberalism and Marxism have viewed justice or freedom in the male dominated sphere of government and economy and ignored the freedom of the traditional female spheres of home and family. An adequate theory of sexual equality will involve considerations that simply are not addressed in the traditional right or left debates. Similarly, communitarians have also exposed the weakness of single perspective approach. Recent political theory is trying to redefine the issues of liberty, equality and justice in the context of ultimate values of common good.


The significance of political theory can be derived from the purpose it serves or supposed to serve and the task performed by it. Political theory is a form of all embracing system of values which a society adopts as its ideal with a view to understand the political reality and, if necessary, to change it. 

It involves speculation at higher level about the nature of good life, the political institutions appropriate for its realization, to what end the state is directed and how it should be constituted to achieve those ends. The significance of political theory lies in providing the moral criteria that ought to be used to judge the ethical worth of a political state and to propose alternative political arrangements and practices likely to meet the moral standards. The importance of political theory lies in providing

i) A description of the political phenomena,

ii) A non-scientific (based upon philosophy or religion) or a scientific (based upon empirical studies) explanation,

iii) Proposals for the selection of political goals and political action, and

iv) Moral judgment. Examples of such a political theory can be found in Plato’s Republic, or Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Nozic’s Anarchy, State and Utopia.

As mentioned earlier, the fundamental question facing human beings has been ‘how to live together’. Politics is an activity engaged with the management of the collective affairs of society. The significance of theory lies in evolving various doctrines and approaches regarding the nature and purpose of the state, the bases of political authority, vision of an ideal state, best form of government, relations between the state and the individual and basic issues such as rights, liberty, equality, property, justice etc. Again what has become important in our times is to explain the inter-relation between one concept and another such as the relationship between liberty and equality, equality and property, justice and property. This is as important as peace, order, harmony-stability and unity in the society. In fact peace and harmony in the society very much depends upon how we interpret and implement the values of liberty, equality and justice etc. 

Contemporary states face a number of problems such as poverty, over-population, corruption, racial and ethnic tensions, environment pollution etc., conflicts among individuals, groups as well as nations. The task of political theory is to study and analyse more profoundly than others, the immediate and potential problems of political life of the society and to supply the practical politician with an alternative course of action, the consequences of which have been fully thought of. 
According to David Held, the task of political theorist is really demanding because in the absence of systematic study, there is a danger that politics will be left to the ignorant and self-seeking people who only want to pursue it as ‘power. In short, the significance of political theory lies in the fact that it provides systematic thinking about the nature and purpose of state and government. It helps us to establish a correlation between ideals and the socio-political phenomena. It makes the individual aware of his rights and duties in the society. It helps us to understand the nature or’ the socio-economic system and its problems like poverty, violence, corruption, ethnicity etc. Since the task of political theory is not only to understand and explain the social reality but also to change it, political theory helps us to evolve ways and means to change society either through reform or revolution. When political theory performs its function well, it is one of the most important weapons of struggle for the advancement of humanity. To imbibe people with correct theories may make them choose their goals and means correctly so as to avoid the roads that end in disappointment.


As mentioned above, there is considerable diversity in political theory. Political theory in the western world is a continuous dialogue extended over time. Broadly speaking, although there is more or less a continuity regarding the subject matter of political theory, yet the approaches to its study have been changing during the past 2000 years. We shall now consider some major schools, which have helped in the development of certain key concepts of political theory. These are:

1. Classical Political Theory

 2. Liberal Political Theory

3. Marxist Political Theory

4. Empirical-Scientific Political Theory

5. Contemporary Political Theory

Classical political theory

Classical political theory starts from 6th century B.C. and covers the political ideas of a large number of Greek, Roman and Christian thinkers and philosophers. Plato and Aristotle are the two great giants of the classical period who had enormous influence in their own times and on later thinking. 

Classical political theory included i) politics, ii) the idea of theory, and iii) the practice of philosophy. 

Politics referred to participation in the public affairs, theory referred to the systematic knowledge gained through observation, and philosophy referred to the quest for reliable knowledge - knowledge that would enable men to become wiser in the conduct of collective life. Thus, political theory was a ‘systematic inquiry to acquire reliable knowledge about matters concerning public affairs’

Classical political theory has certain specific characteristics. Firstly, it was dominated by philosophy. The great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle were great because of the comprehensiveness and scope of their thought. They were more than political thinkers. The dimensions of political theory included description, explanation, prescription and evaluation. 

Secondly, there was no clear distinction between philosophical, theological and political issues. Political theory was not an autonomous subject as it is today. 

Thirdly, political theory was concerned with probing into issues, asking important questions and serving as a sort of conscience keeper of politics. 

Fourthly, classical tradition believed that political theory dealt with the political whole - the theory must be all-comprehensive and all-inclusive. It included ruling, warfare, religious practices, economic problems or relations between the classes and also beliefs such as God, justice, equality etc. The quest for an absolutely best form of government was also an important preoccupation of classical political theory. 

Fifthly, since classical tradition believed in the ultimate good, political good was a part of it. State was a part of the moral framework of man’s earthly living. State was considered as a natural institution and prior to the individual because ‘the individual when isolated is not self-sufficing and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole’. State was also an educational institution which made man a good citizen, sensitive to the recognition of law and virtue of civic obedience. The end of the state was the promotion of good life. Though there has been a debate about which comes first - the common good or the individual good, but the classical tradition believed that the common good was the good of the individuals as part and member of the society and sought by them precisely as members of society. The common good was more complete than the private good of the individual and it was this completeness ‘which determined the greater excellence of the common good’. 

And lastly, an important theme of classical political tradition was the search for an ideal state and the most stable system of government. Classical theorists repeatedly asked questions like: Who should rule and why; what is the best form of government? Theory was preoccupied with analysing the sources of conflict and to enunciate the principles of justice which might guide the political organization in discharging its distributive functions of assigning material and non-material goods. The search for an ideal state provided an invaluable means of practicing theory and of acquiring experience in its handling. The trend of an idealist state as set by classical political theory had clear reflection on later political thinking. The classical political tradition -a tradition usually considered to include eighteen or so centuries sandwiched between Plato and Machiavelli was considerably richer and more varied. However, even differences that are more important and variations were yet to come. With Renaissance, Reformation and industrial revolution, new ideas and events shook the foundation of Western world. During this period a new school of political theory was born, which was later known as liberalism.

Liberal political theory

The long spell of Plato, Aristotle, S. Augustine, Cicero and other thinkers of classical age was broken in a variety of ways after the twin revolutions of Renaissance and Reformation in Europe from 15th century onwards, coupled with the industrial revolution later on. Renaissance produced a new intellectual climate, which gave birth to modern science and modern philosophy and a new political theory known as liberalism. 

This new political theory found classical expression in the writings of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer and a host of other writers. Whereas classical political theory considered the moral development of individual and the evolution of the community as co-terminus, the liberal political theory developed the concept of sovereign individual. The central theme of this political theory was Individualism. It started with the belief in the absolute value of human personality and spiritual equality of all individuals and in the autonomy of individual will.

Secondly, it believed in individual freedom in all spheres of life - political, economic, social, intellectual, religious etc. Freedom meant as freedom from all authority that is capable of acting arbitrarily and freedom to act in accordance with the dictates of ‘right reason’. 

 Thirdly, it brought in the concept of individual rights - that man is ‘endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights’ commonly known as the natural rights of ‘life, liberty and property’. Since man and his rights exist prior to the establishment of state, these cannot be bargained away when the state is established.

Fourthly,-the new theory declared that state is not a natural institution but comes into existence by mutual consent for the sole purpose of preserving and protecting the individual rights, The relation between state and the individual is contractual and when the terms of the contract are violated, individuals not only the right but the responsibility to revolt and establish a new government. The state was not a natural institution as claimed by classical political theory but a machine devised by men for certain specific purposes such as law, order, protection, justice, and preservation of individual rights. The state is useful to man but he is the master. Social control is best secured by law rather than by command - the law which was conceived as being the product of individual will and the embodiment of reason. 

Fifthly, the new political theory dismissed the idea of common good and an organic community. Instead it gave the idea that ‘government that governs’ the least is the best’ and the only genuine entity is the Individual. Political theory during this period was not searching for an Ideal State or a Utopia but was preoccupied with freeing the individual from the social and economic restraints and from the tyrannical and non-representative governments. In this context, it redefined the concept of state, relations between the individual and the state, and developed the concepts of rights liberty, equality, property, justice and democracy for the individual’

Marxist political theory

Liberal-individualistic political theory was challenged by Marx, Engles and their subsequent followers in the later half nineteenth century by their ‘scientific socialism’. While socialism extends back far beyond Marx’s time, it was he who brought together many ideas about the ills of society and gave them a great sense of urgency and relevancy. No political theory can ignore the study of Marxist history, politics, society and economics. The knowledge of Marxism has put us in a better position to analyse the socio, economic developments. Marxism introduced a new concept of philosophy conceived as a way to the liberation of mankind. 

The task of knowledge, according to Marx, is not only to understand the world but also to change the material conditions of human life. He insisted that the salvation is to be found by man in this world itself and it laid in the revolutionary reconstitution of the present society and the establishment of a socialist society. His complaint against liberal capitalism was that it was a civilization of property, inequality and family fortune for a few and most degrading conditions for the vast number of people. Socialism was an attempt to secure the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the realization of emancipation of mankind. It is the establishment of a society on rational basis—a society in which ‘man shall not be exploited by man’, a society in which men will have the full opportunity to develop their potentialities and personality, a classless and stateless society in which ‘the free development of each shall be the condition for the free development of all’. 

Marxist political theory is a theory of social change and revolutionary reconstitution of society. In this context, Marxism consists of three inter-related elements: 

i)                   An examination and critique of the present and past societies. This is known as Dialectical materialism and historical materialism;

ii)                 ii) the notion of an alternative model against a society based upon exploitation and divided among classes. The new society is based on the common ownership of the means of production in which human potential will be allowed to freely develop its manifold facets. Such a society will be classless and stateless;

iii)              iii) how to being about such a society’. Though there was a general agreement that capitalist system was unstable and crisis-ridden but the advent of socialism required a revolutionary action by the proletariat, whose growing impoverishment will lead to revolution, and establishment of a socialist state and society.

The central themes of Marxist political theory are mode of production, class division, class struggle, property relations, revolution and state as an instrument of class domination. Marxism also examined the nature of rights, liberty, equality, justice and democracy but came to the conclusion that in a class divided society, they are the prerogatives of the propertied class. Real liberty and equality can be achieved only in a classless and stateless society. 

Thus whereas liberal political theory was associated with the establishment of modern liberal capitalist democratic state, Marxist political theory preoccupied itself with the establishment of a socialist state through revolutionary action. Marxism as the economic, social and political theory and practice originating in the works of Marx and Engles, has been enriched by a number of revolutionaries, philosophers, academicians and politicians. 

It has also been subject to a variety of interpretations. In the twentieth century, the prominent contributors to the Marxist thought have been Lenin, Bukharin, Stalin, Rose Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs, Austro- Marxists, the Frankfurt school, Herbert Marcuse, the New Left theorists, Euro-communists, Mao Tse Tung and host of others. Up to the first world war, Marxism was highly deterministic and represented a philosophy of socio-political changes which culminated in the Russian revolution. However, during the inter-war period and the post-second world war, Marxism developed more as a critique of present socio-economic and cultural conditions than a philosophy of revolutionary action. Known as contemporary Marxism, it has been more concerned with the problems of superstructure, culture, art, aesthetics, ideology, alienation etc.
Empirical-scientific political theory

There is another kind of political theory developed in America popularly known as the Empirical-Scientific political theory. The study of political theory through scientific method (instead of philosophical) and based upon facts (rather than on values) has long history but the credit for making significant developments in this connection goes to the American social scientists. 

In the early twentieth century, Max Weber, Graham Wallas and Bentley gave an empirical dimension to the study of political theory and advocated that its study should be based upon ‘facts’ only. Another writer George Catlin emphasized that the study of political theory should be integrated with other social sciences such as sociology, psychology, anthropology etc. However, it was during the inter-war period and after the second world war that a new theory was developed by the political scientists of Chicage University (known as the Chicago School) such as Charles Merrium, Harold Lasswell, Gosnell, and others like David Easton, Stuart Rice, V.O. Key and David Apter. The new political theory shifted emphasis from the study of political ideals, values and institutions to the examination of politics in the context of individual and group behaviour. The new approach advocated that the method of studying should be through the behaviour of human beings as members of political community. 

The task of political theory is to formulate and systemtize the concept of science of political behaviour in which emphasis is placed on empirical research than on political philosophy. A political theorist should clarify and criticize systems of concepts which have empirical relevance to political behaviour. According to Easton, ‘systematic theory corresponds at the level of thought to the concrete empirical political systems of daily life’. Empirical-Scientific theory is different from the classical tradition in many respects. Firstly, the scientific theory believes that the political theory is to order, explain and predict the phenomena and not to evaluate it. Nor is it concerned with the creation of grand political Utopias. What is worth noting is that the relation with philosophy is completely severed. 

Political theory is meaningful to the point or degree it is verifiable. Secondly, the study of political theory should be value free; it should concern itself with ‘facts’ only. The task of theory is to analyse the present political phenomena and not with the evaluation of what is happening and what should happen. The concern of political theory should not be with ‘who rules, should rule or why?’ but with only ‘who does rule and how’. It should focus attention on the study of political behavior of man, group and institutions irrespective of their good or bad character. Thirdly, practical theory is not only concerned with the study of the state but also with the political process. Fourthly, scientific theory does not believe in critical function, that is, it should not question the basis of the state but should be concerned with maintaining the status quo,stability, equilibrium and harmony in the society. Fifthly, it developed many new concepts borrowed from other social sciences such as power, elite, decision-making, policy-making, functioning of structures, political system, political culture etc. Because of too much stress on science, value-free politics, methods and its failure to study the pressing social and political issues, empirical political theory began to attract criticism after 1960s. 

The ‘Behavioural Revolution’ announced by David Easton laid less emphasis on scientific method and technique and showed greater concern for the public responsibilities of political theory, The debates in 1970s resulted in the frank admission that there are segments of human life relating to values or purposes embodied in any political structure that were either ignored or overlooked by the behavioural studies. The core issues of political theory such as liberty, equality, justice were taken up once again by John Rawls, Robert Nozic, Habermas and others which signalled once again the revival of normative political theory. This new revival is termed as contemporary political theory.

Contemporary political theory

Since 1970s, there has been a revival of interest in political theory in USA, Europe and other parts of the world. At the heart of this renaissance has been the emerging clash of values on the one hand and the changes in the humanities and social sciences, on the other. Moreover, the passing away of the shadows of second world war, reemergence of Europe, and crisis in the ideologies of socialism and Marxism brought about a new fluidity in political ideologies. 

Whether it is Marxism or socialism, liberalism or democracy - all stand challenged and new powerful social movements are seeking to redraw the issues in political theory. During the era of domination of behaviouralism, political theory was overpowered by political science. Theory was denied the status of a legitimate form of knowledge and inquiry. Though the hold of empiricism did not last long, yet it left an enduring legacy in the development of political and social sciences particularly in North America in the form of ‘scienticism’. The encouragement for the regeneration of political theory came from many sources. 

While a number of thinkers (such as Thomas Kuhn) challenged the whole model of what is science, there were others who felt that there are distinctive problems of understanding the social sciences and social issues which could not be grasped by the model of a unified science. This is because of\ two factors: Firstly, the object of social sciences is the self-interpreting social being and different thinkers interpret the social issues differently. Secondly, political theory cannot be limited to a systematic account of politics; it must also perform its critical role, i.e., its capacity to offer an account of politics which transcends those of lay men. As a result of the great debates, a number of important innovations in the study of political theory followed. Though it is not possible to give a detailed account of these developments, a few distinctive features of the contemporary political theory can be summerized as follows:

1An important feature of empirical theory was its break with history. Contemporary political theorists believe that political theory must not be disassociated from history. Political theory has Once again been renewed as history of political thought.

2. All knowledge about human activities involves interpretation and the interpretation can lead to different conclusions. Hence the idea of political theory being neutral and value-free is wrong.

3. Political understanding cannot escape the history of tradition. Knowledge is a part of the tradition and the process of understanding aspects of the world contributes to our selfunderstanding. However, the process of self-understanding is never complete. ‘History does not belong to us but we belong to History’. There is no final truth. As such there can be no such thing as ‘the only correct or the final’ understanding of the political phenomena. The meaning of  a text on political theory is always open to further interrelations from new perspectives.

4. Political theory is concerned with conceptual analysis. This involves seeing political theory as a systematic reflection upon the meaning of the key terms and concepts like sovereignty, democracy, right, liberty, justice etc.

5. There is a revival of normative element. Contemporary political theory is concerned with the systematic elaboration of the underlying structure of our moral and political activities, as well as examination and reconstruction of the principal political values such as justice, liberty, common good, community living etc.

6. Theory is concerned with both abstract theoretical questions and particular political issues. This is due to the belief that consideration of political concepts without detailed examination of the condition of their realization may not be able to bring out the actual meaning of the concept. Political theory should be problem-oriented and should probe issues like democracy, market, equal opportunities in such contexts. Political theory is a theoretical aspect of political science, trying to construct a theory on the basis of observation.

In short, according to David Held, contemporary political theory involves four distinct tasks: Firstly, it is philosophical, i.e. it is concerned with the normative and conceptual framework; secondly, it is empirical, i.e., it is concerned with the problem of understanding and explanation of the concepts; thirdly, it is historical, i.e., it is concerned with the examination of the key concepts of political theory in historical context; and finally, it is strategic, i.e. it is concerned with an assessment of the feasibility of moving from where we are to where we might likely to be. It is only through the combination of these elements that the central problems of political theory can be solved.


Political theory is a never ending dialogue. Speculation on politics will continue because it relates to the life and values by which men live and die. The goal of theory is to enhance our understanding of the social reality and create conditions for good life. In this context, both classical and empirical theories need to be synthesized. 

Political theory cannot be based purely either on philosophy or science. All issues raised by philosophy must be examined within modes of inquiry at empirical level. Conversely, the normative issues raised by political science cannot be evaded. For example, the meaning of justice, equality or freedom cannot be explained by science. Similarly, the problems of our times - whether they are racial and ethnic tensions and bigotry, overpopulation, unemployment, decaying cities, corruption, conflicts between the nations - are such that we need every available brain to work for their solution. 

While the political scientists produce more comprehensive explanation of how and why things happen in the world of politics, the task of political philosopher is to relate this knowledge with the big problems of mankind and to inquire into how these can help in enhancing liberty, equality, justice and fraternity in the society and among the peoples so as to create conditions for good life.

Lecture points prepared by Biju P R, Assistant Professor in Political Science, Govt. Brennen College, Thalassery


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