Saturday, September 17, 2005

Final Exam for Political Science Class

[This is a final exam for a political science class.  We had a choice of questions to answer, and each I selected 1, 3, and 4.  Unfortunately I didn't save the actual questions themselves, so these answers now lack context.  But perhaps the questions can be inferred from the answers.]

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Joel Swagman
Political Science 240
May 15, 2000

Final Exam

1.  Whenever one is in a course like this, certain questions arise as to the usefulness of it.  One might ask what the purpose of reading dead political theorists is?
To be honest this is not a question which I frequently ask myself.  After making my way through middle school, high school, and college, I have had to read dead theorists my whole schooling career.  It has not been anything I really questioned.  I just took it as a given that in school one would read dead political theorists.  I have had very few people challenge me on this, so the concept has rarely been examined in my mind.
Therefore, in order to better answer this question, I would like to imagine what possible reasons a person might give for the political theorist being a waste of time.  I will then proceed to offer my own explanation for why these reasons are wrong.  However, in order to fully answer the question I must show why reading dead political theorists is useful, not just why it is not not useful.  The final part of this essay will be geared toward this end.
One objection someone could have is that the dead political theorists are hard to access.  This is true of many of the theorists we have read, especially I believe Karl Marx.  Karl Marx’s ideas have captured millions (no pun intended), but I have come to suspect many Marxists may never have made it through Marx’s works.  After all, a sentence like,
However, the privileged position of our capitalist is not of long duration; other competing capitalists introduce the same machines, the same division of labour, introduce them on the same or on a larger scale, and this introduction will become so general that the price of linen is reduced not only below its old, but below its new cost of production [WLC 213]

is not exactly easy reading.  Perhaps this would produce charges that it is somewhat elitist to study these authors when the majority of people have never read them.  Charges could also be leveled that since the readings are not mainstream, they don’t affect events and therefore are not worth reading.
Of course just because something is difficult does not mean it is not worth looking at.  In fact, perhaps the most intelligent ideas can not be expressed in a simple, easy to understand way.  Perhaps these ideas are worth struggling through what seems like the mumbo jumbo of the author’s words.  For instance, on page 186 and following of the Republic, Plato describes the allegory of the Cave.  According to this allegory, philosophy is very useful because it frees us to see things as they really are, not just as illusions.
Moreover, if these ideas are truly insightful into the human condition and politics, then they are worth reading about whether the public is influenced by them or not.  Even if one is not influenced by Marx, one might still act in ways that Marx would have predicted. Also, while the greater public might not have read “The Prince,” chances are greater that a politician would have.  Therefore these works are having an influence on the people that are most directly involved in political thinking, and it is good to know what their influences are.
A second charge that could conceivably be leveled is that these theorists are writing in political times that are out dated.  Again the most common example is Marx.  It is frequently said that his analysis of capitalist society no longer applies.  The same case can be made for all of them though (although granted some better then others).  Is it really worth while to read about the subjection of women after the second wave feminism has made such great strides?  Women may not be equal, but they are hardly subjected in the way that they were in Mill’s time.  Or now that democracy has triumphed in many areas of the globe, does the advice contained in “The Prince”, really matter?
The obvious answer is that while these texts may no longer be current, they show philosophers struggling with the politics of their day.  By seeing how these philosophers responded to the issues of their day, students are able to learn critical thinking skills that will help them to analyze politics in their own lifetime.
The second obvious answer is perhaps summed up in the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Plato, although he is long dead, was trying to deal with the issue of how society is best structured.  His solutions were not made obsolete by the changing times.  Many of these theorists apply more to society than our imaginary critic has given them credit for.
Finally, these sources tell us how political thought has evolved.  Reading John Stuart Mill makes us sharply aware that it was not always taken for granted that women should be equal to men.  Reading Machiavelli or Locke makes us realize that democracy was not always the dominating philosophy in the West.  Understanding where our political notions came from not only makes us more appreciative of them but perhaps more critical of them as well.  We know that they were not given to us on stone by God, but evolved by men over the years.
These are the only two criticisms I can see of a course like this.  Now I would like to proceed to look at the benefits of it, using the course syllabus in part.  The course syllabus emphasizes using the texts to get students to wrestle with to current “pressing issues in political life.”  I believe class discussions have helped to facilitate the link between these dead theorists, and our current political position.  While reading Machiavelli, we as a class were forced to struggle with the question of the ends justifying the means.  While reading Plato, we wrestled with concepts of freedom and justice.  While reading Karl Marx, we focused on the ethics of unequal distribution of wealth.  I also believe that the journal entries were helpful in this regard as well.  I come out in favor of this course.
3.  Both Marx and Machiavelli have different views of history.  It is useful to study these different views in order to fully understand their thinking.  This can be done by first looking at Marx and his idea of history.  Then Machiavelli and his conception of history will be looked at.  Next Marx and Machiavelli will be compared to each other, before I reveal my own analysis of Marx and then Machiavelli.
Marx was influenced by Hegel.  Older Hegelians tended to believe that history is moved by a geist, or spirit.  This spirit moved history toward a specific end.  Older Hegelians put somewhat of a Christian spin on their interpretation.
Younger Hegelians, of which Marx was a part of, rejected the Christian spin but also believed that history was moving in a specific direction.  Marx believed history progressed along a certain line, even if there was not divine force guiding it.
Marx believed that the driving force that moved history along this line was class struggle.  (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” [CM 473].  In every period of history there exists a certain mode of production.  The mode of production is the arrangement of the means of production, which are land, labor and capital.  As various classes struggle with each other, the mode of production is always changing.  Marx believed in a dynamic view of history, which was a constant play of struggles and contradictions.  At first human nature existed in a hunter gatherer society.  Then it changed it to a slave type system.  Then the feudal system emerged, followed by capitalism.  Marx believed that the next step in the progressive history would be a transformation to communism.  Each step in the ladder was marked by class struggle, and one class was able to contradict the established order.  For example when the middle class revolted in the French Revolution against the aristocracy, capitalism was created.  When the working class revolts against the middle class, socialism will be created.  [Most of this is explained on CM 474.]
In this interpretation of history, Marx differed from Hegel in one important aspect.  Marx said that the driving force behind history is material.  What causes history to develop is the way that humans handle physical things.  Put another way, history is driven by the relationship between land, labor, and capital.
As a result of this materialist view of history, Marx did not believe history was about the actions of great men.  Men are simply the pawns in reacting to the material.  Marx would argue, for instance, that even if Adolf Hitler had never existed, conditions in Germany would have thrown someone extremely similar to him into power.
Another important result of the materialist view is that Marx did not believe history was about ideas.  This is contrary to a number of other writers we have read in this course, who praised the value of ideas.  In particular, Marx was writing some what in reaction to John Stuart Mill, who had argued that ideas are the driving force behind history.  Mill believed that if all ideas were allowed free expression, the best ideas would naturally emerge as the dominant ones.  [OL 52 and following: Thoughts and Discussion.]  However Marx argued that the dominant ideas simply reflected the material reality of the time.  Thus Mill was a Liberal who believed in the power of the individual, where as Marx was a structuralist who believed in the dominance of structures.
Machiavelli, by contrast, had a different view of history.  Machiavelli believed that it is important for successful politicians to study history so they can find patterns in it.  Politicians can learn the mistakes and victories made by their predecessors, and act accordingly in able to do whatever it takes to stay in power.  In fact, most of the advise in the Prince is made using historical precedent.  All of the examples given come from history, and Machiavelli repeatedly implores his reader to learn from history.
It appears obvious at first that their are many differences between Marx and Machiavelli.  Marx’s view of a constantly changing history would not coincide well with Machiavelli, who was trying to find patterns in history.  And yet one could suggest that Marx’s theory of history is based on a pattern as well: a pattern of change.  Nevertheless, a Marxist would not seek to find patterns in history in the same way a Machiavellian would.  A Marxist would say that the nature of history is constantly changing because people’s relationship to the material structures are changing.  Therefore strategies that worked in 1002 would not work in 2001.  However a ruler with a Marxist view of history might study history to try and find out when the next revolution might be.  A Machiavellian ruler would study history in order to better manipulate it, but a Marxist ruler would believe that since men are powerless to change history, studying history will not save you from it.
I believe there is much truth to what Marx argues when he says that history is motivated by class struggle.  Certainly when one studies history it is hard to deny that a large part of it is a struggle between the haves and the have-nots.  However, I think Marx sells short the complexity of the human condition when he says that this is the only motivating factor in history.  Humans are complex individuals, and react based on a variety of impulses, not just material ones.
Examples from history abound.  Perhaps a good one is the civil-rights movement.  This was a struggle in our country that shaped the course of history, and it wasn’t about material, it was about ideals of freedom and equality.  Of course I know Marx would explain it away very quickly.  The idealism and rhetoric on both sides was simply a cover for the same old story about poor people (in this case blacks) wanting more material benefits and rich people (whites) that refused to give it to them.  The equality bit was simply an idea that fitted the material reality at the time.  (Just as Marx claimed religious ideology was in many cases just a cover for blatant exploitation [CM 475]).  However when I look at old documentaries from this time period it is hard for me to believe that material concerns was the primary motivation for either side.  And what about all the middle class white college kids who flocked to the civil rights movement?  Surely this demonstrates the power of an idea over material reality.  (I don’t know how Karl Marx would answer this.  I am sure he (and other Marxists) have some way to explain away all this, but I think it is really hard to deny the importance ideas play in history).
I also have some problems with Machiavelli.  As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Marx would critique Machiavelli in several areas.  Marx would say that since the nature of history is constantly changing, humans will not react the same way because the material structures have changed.  I would agree with this, although I would add that other things have changed as well.  The ideology or dominant ideas have changed over time as well.
Machiavelli would no doubt like the popular saying that, “those who have failed to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”  However the problem with this saying is that very seldomly does history repeat itself exactly.  Conditions are never exactly the same.  For instance after World War I, waves of pacifism swept Europe.  Of course World War I is one of the ugliest wars in history for one of the silliest reasons, so that is a suitable lesson to draw from World War I.  It has been argued however that Hitler was given too many concessions during the 1930s, when he could have been easily stopped, ultimately leading to World War II.  Europe’s desire for peace just made Hitler stronger.  Therefore the lessons drawn from 1919 didn’t necessarily apply to 1930.
Perhaps a better example is Vietnam.  We got into the war expecting it to play out rather similar to the Korean War, and were gravely mistaken.  After Vietnam, Americans were reluctant to get involved in another war.  However after the success of Desert Storm, politicians announced that we had beaten the “Vietnam Syndrome.”  The lessons learned in Vietnam did not necessarily apply to Iraq, and the lessons learned in Iraq proved not to apply to Haiti or Somalia.  So, even with in the same historical era, conditions are vastly different from area to area.  If the time factor is added to this as well, things become even more complicated.
So things are not quite as simple as the saying goes.  Often we learn the wrong lessons from history, or try and apply them in situations where they do not apply.  However, there is certainly some truth to the idea that history does repeat itself.  For instance, one of the lessons we have learned during the 20th century from all sorts of different circumstances is that revolutions seldom live up to their expectations.  This was demonstrated all over the globe, with Communist revolutions leading to disaster, and the post communist revolutions of 1989 leading to disappointment.  It was true in South America and in China.  And it has also been fairly true
looking across the spectrum of time as well, going back to the French Revolution or the Revolutions of 1848.  The point of course is history does have something to teach us, we should just be careful about how we read it.  I think the reading Machiavelli intended was to specific, and would lead to errors.  General trends can definitely be learned from however.
4.  Two different political theoriticians, with different views on what it means to be a citizen, are Plato and Marx.  To better understand their differing perspectives, it is useful to examine first of all their views on women in society, secondly their views on the family, thirdly their views on equality, and finally their views on freedom.
Gender equality is a big part of Plato’s Republic.  In fact, Plato was called the first Feminist.  Plato envisions a world in which females are just as politically active as males.  “Everything should be held in common,” Plato argues, qualifying his statement by adding, “except that the males are stronger” [R 125].  A couple lines latter he adds, “Therefore, if we use women for the same things as the men, they must also be taught the same things” [R 125].  This is, of course, a radical break from the thought of the time.
Marx’s view of the female in society was also radically different.  Although Marxists have at times been a the forefront of movements to equalize women, Marx himself is strangely silent on the question of gender equality.  (Although, just by glancing at the tittles of some of the other selections in our book, it appears Marx might have had more to say on the subject in selections we did not read in class).  From the high value Marx places on the equality between men, and the vision of a classless society, perhaps we can assume that Marx would have advocated gender equality as well.  Perhaps this is why feminist causes have often found support with Marxists.  The idea of equality fits in so well.  Like Plato however, Marx did advocate a radical change in the position of women.  Marx claimed that in the bourgeois system, a lot of hypocrisy exists.  Males claim to be faithful to their wives, but in reality seduce the wives of their friends.  Therefore, Marx advocates doing away with the hypocrisy and establishing “an openly legalized community of women”  [CM 488].  Marx believes that he is improving the condition of women by doing this, because he is freeing them from the domination of their husbands, who, in their bourgeois mindset simply see their wife as a tool to be exploited [CM 488].  Marx also claims that by doing away with marriage, prostitution “both public and private” [CM 488] is done away with.  [Many of these same arguments are also in EPM 82-84].
This is of course a terrific lead in to the next point, the condition of the family.  Marx goes as far as to suggest the dissolution of the family.  This is an example of his radical mindset, and how he sought to completely transform society (similar to Plato).  Marx advocated that the family was simply a tool for “the exploitation of Children by their parents” (CM 487), and that it was based on private gain.
Plato also favored radical changes in the way the family was set up.  Plato also thought that the spouses and children would be held in common, like Marx [R 123].  Both viewed their utopias as being set up as one big family among all the citizens.
Next comes the question of equality.  Marx thought that everyone in his society should be given equal rights and treated equally.  Everyone should have an equal amount of money, and an equal amount of power.
Plato, by contrast, thought that the ideal society should be based on a strict hierarchy, with philosopher kings at the top.  In fact, in the Republic Plato scoffs at democracy for being too egalitarian.  Instead Plato argues for a society in which, “the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few” [R 106].  This is one important way in which Plato differed from Marx.  However, Plato, liked Marx, believed that the material well being of all the citizens in Kallipolis should be equal.  Interestingly enough, those at the top of the hierarchy, the philosopher kings, live with the least amount of material goods.
Although Marxists states have been famous for their lack of freedom, it sounds like Marx sought to maximize the freedom of the people living in his ideal state.  Marx identifies freedom at one point as being a value of the bourgeois [GI 173].  At another point however, Marx says that Communism will reconcile the conflicting ideals of freedom and necessity [EPM 84].  

Citizens in Plato’s state Kallipolis, on the other hand, lose a lot of freedom.  Freedom of expression is taken away.  The most notable example is on page 53 of the Republic, where Plato outlines which literary passages would no longer be allowed.  Plato viewed freedom as not being an important thing.  In fact he is openly disapproving of a democratic society and the values of freedom it would bring with it.  The important thing is that everyone worked together to make sure the state went as smoothly as possible.

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