Politics: the isms and isn'ts

Political Thought - Political Theory

February 18, 2000

Andrew Heywood's Political Theory: An Introduction first appeared as Political Ideas and Concepts (1994). Heywood has maintained the basic structure and general coverage of the original book, but has revised, amended and updated the work to serve better as a primer in political theory. He has produced an impressively comprehensive and clearly written volume.

Heywood has organised his text thematically. His introductory chapter addresses language and politics, and the relations among

political science, theory and philosophy. His ensuing 11 chapters survey political thinking and debate on: human nature; politics and government; nationalism and supranationalism; power, law and justice; rights and citizenship; democracy and the public interest; freedom and toleration; equality and social justice; property and the market; and reaction, reform and revolution.

He writes cleanly and smartly (indeed, I will bet he is a great classroom lecturer). He treats political theory as an ongoing argument rather than merely as a series of important figures and their ideas. And, although he has not written a history of political thought, he discusses theoretical developments in historical terms and with continual reference to real politics. At the same time, Heywood does advance something of a narrative.

In the course of the text, he provides 17 helpful "boxes" wherein he highlights important theoretical traditions and their foremost thinkers, for example, conservatism, liberalism, Marxism, feminism and postmodernism. I was disappointed, however, to discover no box for fascism - ignoring it will not make it go away.

Although Heywood's text is intended for political theory courses, it is so well written that I could easily see it being used in British first-year politics courses and, with tremendous effort, in first-year United States political science classes.

I would also suggest that the publisher commission Heywood to prepare a collection of readings for use in conjunction with his text.

In the meantime, Michael Rosen and Jonathan Wolff's anthology, Political Thought , might serve the purpose, though their volume involves much more political philosophy than political theory.

Rosen and Wolff admit to three biases in their selection and arrangement of the 140 pieces included: continuity, argument and contemporary relevance. They want their volume to reflect the continuity of concerns from ancient to modern (and postmodern?) times. They want the selected pieces to offer not just significant statements but also powerful arguments, that is, positions backed up with "evidence and reasoning". And they want their collection to be not only representative of political thinking through the ages, but also to speak to contemporary debates about subjects such as gender, minority rights, and free expression. Though Marx himself is well represented, I would fault them for ignoring many a recent Marxist thinker.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

Political Thought: An Oxford Reader

Editor - Michael Rosen and Jonathan Wolff
ISBN - 0 19 2898 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.00
Pages - 442

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