The last one hundred fifty years till the Second World War have witnessed a steady decline, decay, and death of political theory. On account of several factors, it could not remain an innovative, integrative and invigorating enterprise. It stood as a passive or spineless spectator to the two world wars and failed to save humanity from senseless devastation.
These crises did not create any flutter in the hearts and minds of traditional political thinkers. Perhaps they were unable to react because of their old and anachronistic ideas or love of philosophic virtues to be realised in cloistered seclusion. It even did not cry against large-scale fratricide and senseless killings. They are still simply witnessing the events leading to a global war by nuclear weapons.
(1) Easton has fervently analysed the causes behind this sad state of affairs and has subsumed them under the concept of’ historicism’. The latter term means a tendency to show that values and ideas are by-product of their milieu or prevailing circumstances. The writers adopt the role of historians and trace out history of values or institutions still surviving.
They vividly describe the conditions which produced a particular set of ideas. A ‘historicist’ political writer is little concerned with the problems of his times or finding out solutions or suggesting formulation of new values. He is, in brief, a prisoner of past, unable to peep into present or opine for a better future.
As described by Easton, the contemporary writers were:
(i) Living parasitically on century-old ideas, and
(ii) Remained unable to develop a new political synthesis.
They loved and believed in speculation which again was found to a be product of history. They concentrated their minds in analysing the meaning, logical consistency, and historical development of prevailing ideas. Easton puts them into four groups:
(c) Materialists, and
Institutionalists, like Mclllwain, go into the history of ideas for past rationalisation or justification of particular political interests and institutions. Interactionists, like Allen and sometimes Carlyle, analyse the interaction between ideas and institutions, and its impact on the process of social change. The materialists, such as Easton, Sabine and others look into cultural and historical milieu which produced the particular political thinking. The last group represented by Lindsay, take up specific values, say, democracy, nationalism or justice and trace out their genesis so as to provide a strong support.
(2) In fact, Easton wants a political theory containing also reformulation of values suitable to the present age; and theorisation about political behaviour and institutions. Apart from historicism, forces of moral relativism, hyper-factualism and lack of renovation have frustrated this goal. Moral relativism indicates one’s faith in the absence of universal principles of morality and believing in morality related to prevailing milieu. Hume, Max Weber, Comte, Marx and others had advocated its tenets. They detached values from facts, and regarded them merely as individual or group preferences.
These preferences were related, not with certain metaphysical or moral realities, but to one’s own life experiences. Europe had evolved a common set of values like, capitalism, nationalism, and democracy, during the period of 1848-1918, and could afford ‘moral relativism’. It continued to bask in the dreamland oblivious of the rise of a new value system in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany.
The concept of ‘sociology of knowledge’ also brought forward the view that ideas in man are products of his social milieu, and related to his times. In this manner knowledge could not have a purpose or goal. The question of ‘knowledge for what?’ was raised, but remained futile in view of prevailing notion of value-free Political Science. Few cared for the problems of society, still less led knowledge to political goals or values. Lack of a proper value theory, historicism, and neglect of causal or empirical theory led to this decline. Excessive concentration on the Study of facts, structures, processes, motives, attitudes etc., increased knowledge of is but not of ought, that is, destination and goals. Hyper-factualism or crude empiricism led to an avalanche of facts which was swaying away the whole discipline.
(3) Alfred Cobban found the contemporary conditions similar to those prevailed during the Roman Empire. He looked at expansion of state power, bureaucracy, and huge military establishments as danger to the growth of political theory. The Communist world suffered from concentration of power and the party-machine, whereas the western world failed to reform its democracy as ‘a living tool’. Abstraction of state as an engine of power keeps moral values away from politics. All this has resulted in the consequential decline of political theory.
(4) From the internal view of the discipline, Cobban opines that political thinking itself has become directionless, and lacks purpose. In the past, all great thinkers were passionately worried about the fate of society, and seriously wanted to reform it through their creative ideas. They had full conviction in what they wrote or said. Now that passionate commitment, he complains, has been substituted by the teaching of historical approach and the scientific attitude. Historical approach led to power as standard of success. Blind adoption of scientific method, borrowed from natural sciences, resulted in the loss of criteria of judgement, and merely produced cold-blooded passionless scholars.
(5) Dante Germino discovers ‘ideological reductionism’ as the cause of decline of political theory. By this he means reducing political theory to merely an ideology, such as, Marxism. The intellectual and political movements during the last one hundred and fifty years have contributed to its eclipse. Positivisation of social science or a mad rat-race to become ‘science’ and political upheavals of democracy, nationalism, imperialism etc., have destroyed the environment necessary for the growth of political theory.
Destutt de Tracy the inventor of the term ‘ideology’, propounded it as ‘science of determining the origin of ideas’. As usual, sense experience was the basis of his ‘ideology” or ‘science of ideas’. Positivism of Auguste Comte gave birth to a ‘science of society’ or sociology by discovering laws governing human behaviour. It was patterned on natural sciences. Marx went a step further. He claimed that he had discovered the laws of human development. With such laws in hand or with Marxist ideology of society, the existing class could be transformed into a classless and stateless society. There is no other alternative. Theory, to him, is but a weapon in the hands of the working class. All that evaporated with the collapses of Soviet Union in 1990.
(6) Another cause of decline found by Germino in the separation of is and ought or fact and value or being (reality) and meaning, brought about by Linguistic Philosophy and Logical Positivism. The trend is best represented by Max Weber who made a sharp distinction between empirical knowledge and value judgements. On the basis of this separation, he challenged the Marxian view.
Although, he accepted the role and importance of values but put it beyond the purview of scientific treatment. As a social scientist, he stood for ethical neutrality which makes a political (value) theory difficult to grow. Therefore, Germino is convinced that, ‘a full recovery of critical political theory within the positivist universe of discourse cannot be achieved’. He regards Easton, Cobban and Waldo as axiological positivists who unsuccessfully tried to unite values with factual studies, and visualise the making of political theory.
(7) Consensus of opinion regarding values and objectives of society in the West and success in achieving them in practice have also weakened the desire to have any new political theory. People have got everything. Patridge observes, ‘If classical political theory has died, perhaps it has been killed by the triumph of democracy’.
People in USA, UK and France, after settling down everything about ends are concerned mainly with means which is again a technical and scientific problem. Now, the West defends the status quo and is conservative, interested only in ‘incrementalism’, or ‘piecemeal engineering’ or accommodation and adjustment. Lipset, Dahl, Schumpeter and Berlin find little controversy over the goals.
Still, there is another view that political theory even in the traditional sense was never dead and continuity can be traced out. Plamenatz, Weldon and others do not accept that it has even declined or dwindled.’ It has merely changed its form. Even speculative theories, except spurious or Utopian ones, are important as they have effected thinking, events and happenings. Formerly, political theories were embedded in philosophy, ethics or religion. Now, they are carving out their own fields, rather looking at the whole array of problems from their own perspective.
Germino finds resurgence of traditional political theory, particularly, in the writings of Michael Oakeshott, Hannah Arendt, Bertrand de Jouvenal, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and others. Similarly, Isaiah Berun observes that without some general outlook or philosophy, there can be no human activity: political theory of some kind is never dead. It is flourishing in newer forms with newer engagements.
With the advancement of society, they say, people will need more theory to organise, justify and rationalise their actions. If there is no theory, they will invent it: beg, borrow or even steal. Man will always advocate some theory for himself and others. Apart from these views, there are some passionate ancients who claim that Plato and Aristotle are enough, for them. The world of theory has not gone beyond.
Revival of traditional theory has appeared in many forms. There are classical political theorists like Leo Strauss, Michael Oakshott, Hannah Arendt Bertrand de Jouvenel and Eric Voegelin. John Rawls in his Theory of Justice (1971) revolutionised political thinking in the United States and outside. Besides liberals like Karl R. Popper arid Isaiah Berlin, there are libertarians like F.A. Hayek, Miltan Friedman, Robert Nozic.
On the other side stand communitarian political thinkers such as, Alasdair Maclntyre, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Benjamin Barber and Michael Sandel. Neo-Marxism has appeared in form of postmodernism or critical theory. Originating from Frankfurt School (1923), it appears in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, George Lukacs, Jheodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Louis Althusser, Eric Fromm, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara, Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Hebarmas. Most of these political philosophers are rather concerned with philosophical issues than political crises and problems of today. One can regard their theories as non-political, even anti-political. They appear to reject basic and applied aspects of modern political theory.
Critical theory often challenges our common sense assumptions about the world and poses controversial questions. It is a way of thinking that encourages us to critically approach our assumptions about ourselves and the world. The Frankfurt School version of critical theory from the beginning focused on the role of false consciousness and ideology in the perpetuation of capitalism, and analysed works of culture, including literature, music, art, both ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ or ‘mass culture’.
In the late 1960s Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School, redefined critical theory in a way that freed it from a tie in with Marxism or the prior work of the School. In Habermas’ epistemology, critical knowledge was conceptualised as knowledge that enabled human beings to emancipate themselves from forms of domination through self-reflection and took psychoanalysis as the paradigm of critical knowledge. Within social sciences, it included such approaches as world systems theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and queer theory, social ecology, the theory of communicative action, structuration theory, and neo-Marxian theory.