Consider the states we're in

An Introduction to Political Thought - Living Political Ideas. First edition - Political Theorists in Context. First edition - Political Ideologies - Liberalism. First edition
December 2, 2005

The world may be at what Matthew Festenstein and Michael Kenny call "a moment of ideological shift and uncertainty" in their edited volume on Political Ideologies , but all the editors and authors of these five books agree that ideologies have not come to an end. This argument, first raised in the 1960s, has surfaced again as new Labour politicians see "conviction politics" and "doctrinaire" positions as something that only their opponents embrace.

A rather more ticklish point - on which the editors and authors of these books do not agree - is the relation of (academic) political theory and ideology. Festenstein and Kenny come close to the old orthodoxy in saying that ideologies are evaluative, the implication being that political theory or philosophy is not. They argue that ideologies alone are "essentially contested", but even the most elegant and rigorous argument involves positions that can be contested. To say that ideology is not a branch of study but an object of study is too absolutist a position and raises the old image of the theorist as a Martian who is not part of the world that he or she studies.

Peri Roberts and Peter Sutch, in their An Introduction to Political Thought , are much more plausible when they argue that political theory is normative. The problem is that they make a sharp distinction between political theory and political science. Thus we are told that the statement that it is wrong to eat babies is not empirically verifiable. It is true that questions of context have to be taken into account, but the idea that some statements are purely evaluative while others are purely factual is highly problematic. If it is a fact that eating someone does not help to develop or emancipate them, then surely this is a fact with an inherent evaluative significance.

Geoff Andrews and Michael Saward put the matter much more satisfactorily in the book they edit, Living Political Ideas . They say that political theory is concerned with the "ought" as well as the "is". This implies that political theory cannot do without both the normative and the empirical, and that ideologies overlap with normative political theories. Just as ideology overlaps with theory, so political theory overlaps with political science. How can a political scientist write an account of the Iraq War without revealing some kind of normative and (dare we say it) ideological position?

I rather like Andrews and Saward's argument that if political theory provides the toolbox, ideologies provide the workbench. One without the other is unconvincing. They put the matter memorably when they say that conservatives see ideology as a virus: trust your instincts three times a day, and if you think too hard or in abstract ways, come back for a second appointment! It is true that this applies to conservatives of the traditional Edward Heath/Ian Gilmour variety rather than to Thatcherite politicians.

Chris Sparks and Stuart Isaacs complain that the traditional role of the political theorist has been lost due to the professionalisation of the theorist and the safe and sanitised academic environment that most theorists now inhabit. Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke commented that it is an ill-governed country that resorts to political theory, but this national concern about avoiding political argument has been compounded by academic tendencies to use political theory as a way of avoiding rather than engaging with everyday political issues.

As Sparks and Isaacs point out, a very different view of ideas prevails during periods of upheaval such as the English Civil War, and students today are conscious of the fact that there are major issues "out there" - terrorism, poverty, inequality - that political theory should address.

The question is how. Sparks and Isaacs make the point that there is a tension between being outside the political world and acting in this world, and the fact that there is an overlap and interpenetration between practical ideologists and academic political theorists does not mean that there are no differences. Publicists and politicians seek to persuade readers of their point of view in a directly partisan way, whereas academics quite rightly see their task as one of encouraging students to think for themselves. We would expect emotion and rhetoric to feature much more prominently in overtly partisan tracts, but good academic theory can and does strengthen partisan debate, while politicians provide positions that academics need to take account of. Otherwise political theory will seem boring and irrelevant to students - a kind of scholasticism that ignores rather than engages with issues that concern them.

The four of these books that cover political theory/ideology in general do so in ways that are engaging and accessible. They contain devices to help students, such as Roberts and Sutch's "Critical glossary". Sparks and Isaacs have boxes that invite the reader to "fast forward" or "rewind" to later or earlier pages (a valuable device for the video/ DVD generation), and the works bristle with advice about further reading, summaries of the argument and discussion points.

Some of the content could be more adventurous. For example, Festenstein and Kenny place feminism, ecologism and multiculturalism among the "new forms"

of ideology they examine, but nowhere in the books does fundamentalism receive the attention it surely deserves. Roberts and Sutch have a concluding chapter on the "anti-foundationalism" of postmodernists such as Richard Rorty, and Festenstein and Kenny have an excerpt from the free-market fundamentalism of Kenneth Ohmae.

But fundamentalism itself receives no mention, which is a pity. How can one get to grips with contemporary terrorism, religious dogmatism and what might be seen as the new forms of fascism unless fundamentalism itself is analysed?

There are one or two howlers that ought to have been eliminated. Roberts and Sutch see Carole Pateman as a "liberal" feminist although she has devoted her academic life to criticising liberalism, and behaviouralists should not be presented as "behaviourists". Festenstein and Kenny come close to a howler when they speak of Mao's rectification of the Stalinist "error" that class distinction and struggle are absent from socialism.

Surely the grisly Moscow trials were justified by Stalin as a response to the intensification of class struggle instigated by a global bourgeoisie. A number of judgments are highly contestable. I would not say that Marxism has no theory of human nature simply because it argues that human nature changes (Roberts and Sutch), nor would I regard (as these two writers do) that Aristotle's views on women and slaves were mere "cultural baggage"

extraneous to the "philosophically vital core" of his position.

Which brings me to the state. All these works take the state for granted, and this is an issue that Paul Kelly raises in his elegant and crisp defence of liberalism. Kelly argues that it is equality rather than liberty that lies at the heart of liberalism, and the task of liberal political theory is to specify the conditions under which the exercise of state power is compatible with the prior obligation to respect the equal status of the person.

Kelly insists that even in the age of globalisation, the concept of the liberal state provides a very useful way of thinking about global politics, and he fears that those who see international political institutions as supplanting the state underestimate the problems of "displacing decision-making to new sites that exercise sovereign power at too great a remove from popular accountability". But nowhere does he get to grips with the contradictory nature of the state. How can there be equality of respect for individuals if force is used against law-breakers?

Most liberals see, quite rightly, a clash between force and freedom and yet never really inquire as to why an institution that monopolises legitimate force is necessary. It may be that force is necessary to tackle conflicts when there is no common interest between the contending parties, and negotiation and moral pressures would not work, but why does this come about? Given the increasing ease with which violence can be resorted to, surely this problem deserves the attention of political theory.

Kelly's defence of universalism is well done, but respecting difference and diversity requires the reconceptualisation of political processes, a new notion of sovereignty, and a critique of the institution that has sought to normalise force as a method of tackling conflicts of interest. There is a tension between politics that resolves conflicts of interest through negotiation and social pressures, and the state that tackles these conflicts through force. Liberalism needs to look beyond the state if its stress on equal respect and concern is to appear meaningful in the modern world.

John Hoffman is emeritus professor of political theory, Leicester University.

An Introduction to Political Thought: A Conceptual Toolkit. First edition

Author - Peri Roberts and Peter Sutch
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 307
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7486 1679 9 and 1680 2

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