THEORY AND WORKING OF POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS
37. Since the questions: why do we have political institutions? is generally omitted from consideration in the study for this paper, or if not omitted, answered in a plainly circular way (Why do we have a Parliament? In order to govern), the student has excluded from his consideration questions concerning (e.g.) the economic basis of power and the difference between power and authority, and is thrust instead immediately into social engineering considerations. The only questions which arise when such a perspective is adopted ask how the various systems can be made to function better within their own terms of reference. The trivia churned out by the reform of parliament industry become the centrepiece of the course; the level of discussion is indistinguishable from that orchestrated by the Sunday press (the writers are generally the same people); the examination paper asks for a civil servant’s background brief: Question 11 in the 1967 paper reads “‘A proper relationship between policy and good government remained the nub of good government.’ In which of the countries you have studied is this best achieved?”
38. Other questions demand an uncritical descriptivism with regard to the institutions studied: yet the concept of objectivity raises serious problems in politics, as Charles Taylor’s “Neutrality in Political Science” [NOTE: In Laslett and Runciman (Eds), Politics, Philosophy and Society, Volume III, Basil Blackwell, 1967.] shows. Ideally, the study of institutions should be explicitly critical rather than descriptive, judging their achievements against one or other ideal. The realization of this ideal has been inhibited by certain developments in modern western political theory, questions on which comprise about a third of the paper. For the main tendency in modern writings on democratic theory in the west has been to reduce the ideal to the reality. This is most evident in Dahl’s Preface to Democratic Theory, which must be one of the most pointless books ever written. What Marcuse says of Janowitz and Narvick’s study of “Competitive Pressure and Democratic Consent” is just as true of Preface to Democratic Theory: “The criteria for judging a given state of affairs are those offered by … the given state of affairs.” [NOTE: H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, p.115, Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1964.] In fact, quite a large part of modern political theory consists of rationalisation to account for the retreat in the west from the classical conceptions of political democracy: Dahl’s book is one of the most obvious cases; another example is provided by Giovanni Sartori’s Democratic Theory. [NOTE: Praeger, 1964.] This collapse also underlies the work of institutional writers like Crick. [NOTE: e.g., The Reform of Parliament.] The tendency has been effectively criticised by P. Partridge in an article “Politics, Philosophy and Ideology”. [NOTE: Reprinted in A. Quinton, Political Philosophy, OUP, 1967.]
39. The theoretical side of the paper is unbalanced in so far as the only modern theorists of political institutions who are considered are those who accept the American way of life. The living Marxist tradition in Western Europe is ignored. It is interesting to note that though the early Marxists are not excluded from the political theory paper (an optional subject) where they are treated as the representatives of a dead utopian vision, their followers’ writings are excluded form the scope of the paper now under consideration, where their theories would have to be treated as embodying a living challenge to Western political values. The teachers and examiners prefer to forget this, and no doubt the real reason for excluding such theorists from the curriculum is that to include them would involve taking up the study of those social relationships which are crucial to understanding how society works and most embarrassing to our teachers’ understanding, namely the relationships between economic and political institutions. In the few areas where western political scientists voluntarily take up the study of economic-political relations – e.g. in the case of pressure groups – they approach the subject so timorously and with such an impoverished methodological framework as to render the fruits of their work nearly worthless.
40. The restriction of the types of theory thought fit for an undergraduate audience (an X certificate applies to the work of all Marxists since Marx, other than tedious Soviet dogmatists: Lukacs, Gramsci, etc. can only be studied by post-graduates) is buttressed by the choice of the four countries whose institutions are scrutinised. It is quite unbalanced and parochial to study, apart from Russia, Britain and America and France, which on a world scale have far more in common with each other than differences from each other.
41. But what is the alternative? What would constitute a study of real politics, something which would get beneath the tip of one side of the iceberg? On the one hand, it can be argued that the development of political sociology (now available in an optional paper) makes the study of political institutions in the present style obsolete. Alternatively, the student could get a much deeper insight into real politics if his studies were grouped around the theory of the state – both sociological theory and evaluative theory – and the horizon of research extended to take into account developments in the third world, though as we argue below these merit special study in themselves. The basic texts of such a course would be provided by the work of, on the one hand, Michels, Weber, Pareto, Mosca, Dahl, Lipset, etc., and on the other, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mao Tse Tung, etc.
42. To internationalise the study of politics is not the only way to broaden the intellectual horizon. A second way is to alter the teaching and study methods. There is to hand in the University or the City of Oxford material for a study of functioning authority and power structures. Students might grasp the nature of the relationships considered in the texts cited above more fully if they were able to write long essays – short theses on such topics. Equally, the division between political study and political activity could be broken down. If more can be learnt about political activity by canvassing for a party, attending council meetings, joined a racial integration committee, than by reading David Butler, why shouldn’t these activities be regarded as essential activities rather than extra-curricular pastimes? There is no logical reason why reading books is the best learning method at all times in all places.
43. But such an approach raises difficulties which can only be mentioned rather than resolved at this stage. Who is to assess a thesis by a student whose main conclusion is that the University is ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy or a wise council of benevolent men of good will? Clearly, the assessment cannot be left in the hands of persons who fall into the categories lambasted or praised by the student. Assessment procedures would need radical alteration. And how does one assess the worth of what the student has learned from his practical activity? If we are learning in order to act, then is the student who is most successful in achieving his ends the one who has learnt best?