Monday, 1 August 2011

Theory and Practice in Political Philosophy

There have been a number of scholarly studies dealing with the important issues of how there is lack of convergence in theory and practice in political philosophy. Such studies usually begin with Plato’s Republic and end with the works of Marx & Engels. Plato’s work is indeed a good starting point, insofar as it demonstrates that inherent limitations in human nature, flaws of human beings carried into their various endeavors and into societal institutions necessarily entails limits of politics. If indeed the Republic could never become reality, why then bother with political philosophy? The answer is the same for Plato as it was for Aristotle, for Machiavelli, for Hobbes, Locke, and of course Marx.

As any undergraduate philosophy major knows, political philosophy is as much about the study of human nature and assumptions that philosophers make about it in crafting a political theory as it is about arriving at a vision of utopia. Was the Republic designed to be actualized, did it reflect Plato’s views about Athenian politics and its citizens (adult male–no slaves, foreigners or women), was it intended as speculative or scientific thought, did it have any relevance to the realities of Athenian society? Was the ultimate goal of Plato to engage in an intellectual exercise or to strive for what he believed–conditioned by his own world of Athens and Eastern Mediterranean–the best society that would deliver social justice as he defined it?

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Hobbes’s The Leviathan, both the foundations of modern political philosophy, raise equally intriguing questions about human nature, based on the two thinkers’ largely Christian assumptions. Written during the Renaissance era during the rise of Absolutism that coincides with the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the Commercial Revolution, the works of Machiavelli and Hobbes reflect their contemporary epochs in Europe and are designed both as critiques of existing institutions and of human nature as well as alternatives to a status quo they perceived as implausible thus harmful to society. 
Were the ultimate goals of Machiavelli and Hobbes any different than those of Plato, namely to analyze what they believed were the traits of political institutions that reflected human nature and thus to provide for what they believed was an ideal model of society? Opposed to Hobbes’s assumptions that human beings are predisposed to chaos and destruction because of innate irrational traits, Locke assumed that human beings are rational and it is the environment that shapes them and their institutions.

Living in the later part of the 17th century with the benefit of the Glorious Revolution that finally brought compromise and stability to England, Locke’s political philosophy Treatises on Government reflects the experience and limitations of his era in his own country above all, but also developments in northwest Europe, especially Holland. Lockean Liberalism became the main philosophical foundation for Enlightenment thought and inspired both the French and American revolutions. Lockean Liberalism advocates political freedoms and rights of the people, an admirably humane political philosophy on which Western democracies are based ideologically. However, the reality is that regimes, including the US when it was founded, that based their constitutions on Lockean Liberalism excluded the vast majority of the people from the political process, thus proving the enormous gap between the theory of Liberalism and practice of government.

Regimes rooted in Lockean Liberalism, and varieties of that theory as it was embraced and modified by other thinkers, practiced: a) Slavery; b) excluded women from the institutional mainstream; c) excluded natives (Indians) and foreign laborers (Chinese for example) from the institutional mainstream; d) practiced Liberalism for the small propertied male elites at home, while denying the same to the people that they colonized in non-white lands.

In short, we see that there is an immense gap between the otherwise seemingly egalitarian and socially just theory of Liberalism and the reality of how it unfolded as regime. This brings us to Marx and Engels, whose works of course are vast in number, very difficult and complex to understand, and subject to varieties of interpretations by Marxists and non-Marxist alike. In a recent posting, Alain de Benoist made this point, something that those who have actually studied the works of Marx & Engels already know no matter whether they agree or not with Marxism, but Alain was unfortunately misunderstood by a few individuals hastily refusing to permit the merits of his arguments interfere with preexisting notions they entertain, preferring instead to circumvent scholarly discussion in favor of populist rhetoric befitting talk-radio show seeking higher ratings.

While the works of Marx and Engels may or may not have sold more copies than the Bible, the reality is that they are widely known globally and many people seem to have opinions about Marxism, without really having studied the voluminous works of these thinkers, or realizing that indeed there is the “Early Marx” who was closer to Rousseau and to the humanist spirit of the Age of Reason; or that Engels exerted considerable influence on Marx on social and economic issues.

Profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the era of European colonialism as a method of global economic integration, Marx and Engels cannot be understood any differently than Plato or Locke. In short, their works can only be understood in their own historical context properly placed in their environment. One reason I always advised my undergraduates to study the historical context of philosophers and not only their ideas in isolation, is so that they could gain greater appreciation of the ideas. Many scholars, Marxists and non-Marxists alike, appreciate the philosophical contributions that the two thinkers made in analyzing the dynamics of “Industrial capitalist society” that was in rapid transition amid social uprisings (1848) and military conflicts.

Where non-Marxist scholars have difficulty and categorically reject Marxism is with the atheism of Marx & Engels, with the political philosophy that became the foundation for revolutionary social change, with regimes that relied on Marxism to impose their own style of government, and with the Hegelian historicist goal that ultimately society will evolve into a classless system.

Unlike Plato, Hobbes, and Locke, Marx and Engels crafted an eclectic political philosophy that took into account social justice from the bottom up: working-class perspective. They were by no means the first to do this, nor the only ones during the 19th century, as Engels recognized in his writings. However, they were among the more articulate to craft a working-class political philosophy at a time that bourgeois society appeared to be omnipotent and its challenges came from disparate elements that lacked a coherent ideology. 
Any undergraduate who has studied the “intellectual history of Europe” knows that not just Marxism but no political philosophy was ever put into practice in the manner that it was conceived in theory; that there is indeed a sense of faith (religious aspect if you like) not only in Marxism but to some degree in any political philosophy, for it deals with assumptions about human nature, social institutions and above all ideal solutions of the future (visions of utopia, paradise on earth). This is especially the case in the modern era (since the French Revolution) when traditional religions are not at the core of societies because in secular society political ideology has essentially contributed to affording political philosophy a religious aura–people want to believe in a better future here on earth.

Political philosophers strive to uncover the essential elements for what could be the ideal society, the perfect solution that would best serve humanity; an endeavor indicative that human beings realize their own imperfection and strive for perfection through institutional means. Finally, each individual understands political theory, whether it is Liberalism, Marxism or any other, very differently and interprets it so. To a Liberal, Marxism is an anathema that only disturbed individuals advocate. 
Therefore, a Liberal finds no redeeming qualities in Marxism and seeks to simplify through one-dimensional interpretations and demonize not just the regimes that have claimed to rely on the theory but the theory itself, taking it out of its historical context. Similarly, a Marxist seeks to expose only blatant flaws and contradictions in Liberalism, deliberately omitting all other aspects that may both reflect and best serve the individual and secular society. These are reflections of the imperfections in people that necessarily takes us back to the old debate between Locke and Hobbes about the rational vs. irrational in human nature.

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