Rawls along on uneven ground

European Journal of Political Theory
April 23, 2004

When launched in mid-2002, the European Journal of Political Theory declared a mandate that was carefully worded and capacious. In the inaugural statement, the editors Jeremy Jennings and Peter Lassman - both at Birmingham University - try to carve out a distinctive niche while also encouraging the broadest possible range of contributions. No doubt, this is a tension for any new academic journal. They aim to offer "a forum for the discussion of political theory with... reference to the resources of the community of European scholarship". The journal will reflect "concerns that have a European dimension" and "take a particular interest in those intellectual and political debates that have emerged in contemporary Europe".

This European focus is, however, softened by assurances that "contributions from all corners of the globe" are welcome and that articles about non-European political theory will be published to foster "dialogue between European and non-European scholars". Ultimately, the journal seeks "simply to publish first-rate work in political theory defined in the broadest sense", suggesting that nothing would be excluded on topical grounds alone. From this somewhat schizophrenic declaration of intent it would have been hard to predict what shape and character the journal would develop over time.

But a distinctive shape and character have evolved as the journal approaches its second birthday. With articles about the Dutch origins of modern democratic republicanism by Jonathan Israel, the debate between democrats and republicans in Restoration France (Richard Whatmore), Condorcet on representative government (Nadia Urbinati) and Wittgenstein's contribution to political theory (John Gunnell), the latest general issue seems to be the most distinctly European in its concerns so far.

I specify "general" because the journal's two previous special issues also make a substantial contribution to fulfilling the "market niche" side of the mandate. The first special issue, edited and introduced by Cecile Laborde, is subtitled "Rawls in Europe". Seven European contributors look at the thinker dominant in Anglo-American political theory through the lens of national or regional contexts - Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, Italy, and the Nordic countries. The general conclusion is that Rawls' impact across Europe has been different in different countries and decidedly uneven. The chapter by John Horton on Rawls in Britain is a nice touch, avoiding the assimilation of British scholarship into that of North America simply because of their shared language. Horton concludes, nonetheless, that there are only minor particularities in British reactions to Rawls.

The second special edition examined "Raymond Aron and French liberalism". With three authors from the UK, three from the US and one from France, this draws on fewer contributors from continental Europe. It includes an interview with Aron and discussion of the influences on his thinking and his relationship to Marxism. Jennings' introduction cautions against taking claims about the revival of French liberalism at face value.

Both special issues clearly demonstrate the rewards and challenges of fostering a genuinely European dialogue about political theory.

In its general and special issues, the European Journal of Political Theory has made an impressive start, realising its ambition of attracting high-calibre contributions covering an array of interesting and important topics in political theory and the history of political thought. Most articles are refreshingly free of jargon, so it is also attractive to non-theorists and students. And with four issues at £39.00 a year, it is excellent value.

Ruth Abbey is senior lecturer in politics, Kent University.

European Journal of Political Theory

Editor - Jeremy Jennings and Peter Lassman
Publisher - Sage, quarterly
Price - Institutions £283.00 Individuals £39.00
ISSN - 1474 8851

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