From Arendt to Zinoviev

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics
October 4, 1996

During the past three decades a new genre of writing has emerged. A kind of general reference aid, it aims to help university students, intelligent lay people and even specialists understand important concepts and intellectual movements in a specific discipline or human thought in general. The new genre is more erudite and elaborate than conventional dictionaries and less imposing than traditional encyclopedias. It is generally a one-volume survey of the field, written by a single individual or, more often, by a team. It is striking that it lacks a name of its own, and passes under the name of a dictionary of this or that discipline.

How should we judge these dictionaries? Given their objectives, five criteria seem relevant. The dictionary should be comprehensive, competently written, intellectually accessible to its intended audience, and balanced in the twofold sense of being objective and allocating space to various entries broadly proportionate to their importance. The dictionary should also avoid the danger of oversimplification and the concomitant illusion that the brief description of the entry tells one all that there is to know about it.

Iain McLean's book does very well on competence, intellectual accessibility and avoidance of oversimplification, but less well on the other two criteria.

Although it is fairly comprehensive and includes items often neglected in other dictionaries, there are strange omissions. For example, there are no entries on national identity, violence, coercion, humanitarian intervention, multiculturalism, social integration, assimilation and relativism. Nehru is in, but not Zhou Enlai and Nkrumah, an influential writer and politician in his day. Sartre is in but not Camus, Arendt but not other equally influential thinkers such as Eric Voegelin, R. G. Collingwood, George Santayana, Leo Strauss and C. B. Macpherson. There is an excellent entry on Chinese political thought, but none on Indian, Arab or Buddhist. Fundamentalism is discussed in its Christian and Islamic forms, but not as a concept or as a mode of thinking in its own right. Obscure European writers get mentioned, but not Kautilya and Confucius. The editor's strange reason for excluding living contemporaries means that John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin, Jurgen Habermas and Robert Nozick receive no attention. Race and politics, and religion and politics, are there, but not sports and politics or media and politics.

The dictionary scores highly on competence, but there are exceptions. In an extremely short and unsympathetic entry, Michael Oakeshott is misleadingly called a Burkean conservative, reduced to a mere critic of rationalisim; and what is considered to be his greatest book, On Human Conduct, receives no mention. The New Right is equated with neoliberalism, and its authoritarian moral and social thought is ignored. Liberal theology is treated as an exclusively Latin American phenomenon, and liberalism's complex relation to capitalism, nationalism and colonialism goes unexplored.

Although the dictionary is generally balanced, there are exceptions. Laski, here called "one of the most influential Marxist writers", gets a third of the space given to Tony Crosland and Malcolm X, and is discussed entirely in relation to the Labour party, with not a word said about his political thought. Karl Popper has no entry except under the falsifiability principle, and his influential political thought is ignored. Bertrand Russell's political causes are mentioned but not his moral, social and political ideas. The entry on nationalism is largely Eurocentric and has little to say about the often novel and ingenious forms of nationalist thought and movements thrown up by the nonwestern world.

It is to be hoped that a second edition - which the book amply deserves - will be a little more innovative.

Bhikhu Parekh is professor of political theory, University of Hull.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics

Editor - Iain McLean
ISBN - 0 19 285288 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £6.99
Pages - 559

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