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–Written By Amisha Dubey

In the 1930s, political theory began studying the history of ideas with the purpose of defending liberal democratic theory in opposition to the totalitarian tenets of communism, fascism and nazism. Lasswell tried to establish a scientific political theory with the eventual purpose of controlling human behaviour, furthering the aims and direction given by Merriam. Unlike the classical tradition, scientific political theory describes rather than prescribes. Political theory in the traditional sense was alive in the works of Arendt, Theodore Adorno, Marcuse, and Leo Strauss. Their views diametrically differed from the broad ideas within American political science for they believed in liberal democracy, science and historical progress. All of them reject political messianism and utopianism in politics. Arendt focused mainly on the uniqueness and responsibility of the human being, with which she initiates her criticism in behaviouralism. She contended that the behavioral search for uniformities in human nature has only contributed towards stereotyping the human being. 

Strauss reaffirms the importance of classical political theory to remedy the crisis of the modern times. He does not agree with the proposition that all political theory is ideological in nature mirroring a given socio-economic interest, for most political thinkers are motivated by the possibility of discerning the principles of the right order in social existence. A political philosopher has to be primarily interested in truth. Past philosophies are studied with an eye on coherence and consistency. The authors of the classics in political theory are superior because they were geniuses and measured in their writings. Strauss scrutinizes the methods and purposes of the ‘new’ political science and concludes that it was defective when compared with classical political theory, particularly that of Aristotle. For Aristotle, a political philosopher or a political scientist has to be impartial, for he possesses a more comprehensive and clearer understanding of human ends. Political science and political philosophy are identical, because science consisting of theoretical and practical aspects is identical with philosophy. Aristotle’s political science also evaluates political things, defends autonomy of prudence in practical matters and views political action as essentially ethical. These premises Behaviouralism denies, for it separates political philosophy from political science and substitutes the distinction between theoretical and practical sciences. It perceives applied sciences to be derived from theoretical sciences, but not in the same manner as the classical tradition visualizes. Behaviouralism like positivism is disastrous, for it denies knowledge regarding ultimate principles. Their bankruptcy is evident, for they seem helpless, unable to distinguish the right from the wrong, the just from the unjust in view of the rise of totalitarianism. Strauss counters Easton’s charge of historicism by alleging that the new science is responsible for the decline in political theory, for it pointed to and abetted the general political crisis of the West because of its overall neglect of normative issues. 

Vogelin regards political science and political theory as inseparable and that one is not possible without the other. Political theory is not ideology, utopia or scientific methodology, but an experiential science of the right order in both the individual and society. It has to dissect critically and empirically the problem of order.

Theory is not just any opining about human existence in society, it rather is an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definitive class of experiences. Its argument is not arbitrary, but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.

Since the Seventies, political theory has revived largely due to the efforts of Habermas, Nozick and Rawls. The themes that figure prominently since its revival are broadly social justice and welfare rights theory within a deontological perspective, utilitarianism, democratic theory and pluralism, feminism, post-modernism, new social movements and civil society, and the liberalism-communitarian debate. In fact, communitarianism has tried to fill the void left by the declining popularity of Marxism. However, this unprecedented lease of life that political theory has received is restricted to the academia and as a result, it is ‘a kind of alienated politics, an enterprise carried on at some distance from the activities to which it refers’. This resurgence suggests that earlier pronouncements about its decline and/or demise are premature and academically shortsighted. However, one has to be careful in distinguishing contemporary political theory from the classical tradition, as the former derives its inspiration from the latter and in this sense, they are attempts to refine rather than being original, adjusting the broad frameworks of the classical tradition to the contemporary complexities. 

This new found enthusiasm has been confined to liberal political discourse, mainly due to the seminal work of Rawls fulfilling Germino’s wish of a need to strengthen the open society. Recent liberal theory, in its revived sense, focuses on the idea of impartiality and fairness in the belief that ‘discrimination must be grounded on relevant differences’. It is no coincidence that a well formulated and detailed analysis of the concept of justice, long overdue since the time of Plato, emerges in Rawls for whom justice means fairness. Rawls in the classical tradition deals with what ought to be, for he confronted the vexed problem of distribution of liberties, opportunities, income, wealth and the bases of self-respect. Among the competing ideologies which ushers in the twentieth century, only liberalism, unlike fascism and communism, permits free exchange of ideas. It synchronizes, and adapts if necessary, theory in light of practice and identifies the elements that constitute a just political and social order without being doctrinaire and dogmatic. However, much of this new liberal political theory has been in the nature of refining and clarifying the earlier theoretical postures. Moreover, the loss of challenge by both fascism and communism, the first, because of its defeat in the second world war, and the second, which collapsed due to its own internal contradictions, also prove that utopian and radical schemes are no longer theoretically and practically desirable and feasible alternatives. Nonetheless, liberalism faces challenges in recent times from communitarianism, post-modernism and feminism.

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