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2.3 From Modernity to Today

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand why the U.S. Constitution was designed the way it was.
  2. Understand Marx and Mill’s different visions for a just society.
  3. Understand contemporary approaches in political theory.

Sometimes overlooked among political philosophers is James Madison (1751–1836). A small man with a high voice, he nonetheless became the fourth president of the United States after being the chief author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison read history and political philosophy and was able to build on the ideas of those who came before him. Unlike Locke, he argued for a balance of power in government, more like Aristotle, Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1685–1755), a French philosopher who influenced the American Founding Fathers. This balance of power became, in practical terms, the division of power in U.S. government between the states and the national government; the division of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches; and the literal encouragement of interest groups who would, Madison hoped, keep each other in check.

This last idea was a crucial one, for interest groups (which Madison called “factionsWhat James Madison called interest groups, which are collections of like-minded individuals who unite in pursuit of common political goals.”) had been the downfall of Athens and other states throughout history. Factions, he argued, tended to become so obsessed with their own concerns that they forgot about everything else. That could mean that important issues were neglected and that good leaders could be thrown from office over differences on a particular topic. But, Madison argued, limiting the influence of interest groups would in fact limit the liberty they had just fought so hard to win. The answer, he said, was a system of government with many checks on power, so that no one group could dominate the government, and letting interest groups flourish so that they will keep each other in check. The challenge to this idea is the danger of ending up like the Roman Republic, with so many checks on power that you can’t get anything done. For the United States, at least, we don’t have a final score on that yet.

Revolution and Counter-Revolution

The American Revolution was followed by the French Revolution in 1789, with somewhat less benign results. The French monarchy was not meeting people’s needs, and avenues for political participation and regime change were limited. When the cork finally popped on this over-shaken bottle of civic champagne, royals and revolutionaries lost their heads, literally and figuratively. (Eventually, Napoleon made himself emperor, and ushered in a few more decades of war in Europe.) Revolution produced different reactions among political thinkers.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797), a British politician, found himself on both sides of the issue. While serving in Parliament, he argued against any oppression of the American colonists, recognizing that a wealthy America would make Britain richer than it could imagine. He turned the other way on the French revolution, as people who disagreed with the new regime kept ending up dead.

A strong believer in representative government, Burke is nonetheless often regarded as the father of modern conservatism. Like Confucius, he argued against rapid, radical change, saying instead that human institutions are there for a reason, and embody the collective wisdom of generations.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809), whose pamphlet Common Sense helped reinvigorate the American revolution, later served in the revolutionary legislature in France (even though he didn’t speak French). Paine was anti-monarchy, which made him a radical for his time and rather unpopular in his native Britain. In his pamphlet Rights of Man, he argued for a right to revolution when government does not protect people’s rights. He also argued that rights are natural to human beings, and are not granted by government, because then they become mere privileges, which can be taken way.

The 1800s saw a broader push for more popular participation in government, at least in Europe and the Americas. It also saw the Industrial Revolution, which began the movement from a world in which most people were farmers to a world in which most people were not. The Industrial Revolution, beginning with the widespread use of steam and water power and continuing through the revolution of electricity late in the 1800s, changed how we live. Farms got more efficient, so that fewer farmers were needed. Meanwhile, mass production, rapid transit (beginning with the steam train and the steam ship), and rapid, widespread communications (beginning with the telegraph and then the telephone), led to the creation both of efficient factories and of large business enterprises. When most people were farmers, people worked outdoors and, in theory, could at least feed themselves. Factory work meant less pleasant if not downright dangerous working conditions and, frequently, low pay and no benefits. This was a world in which there were no child labor laws (and children were sometimes chained to the machines they operated), no overtime, no day off except Sunday, no industrial insurance, no unemployment insurance, and no protection for workers at all. (Some folks on the right would tell you that this was better; you’ll have to decide that for yourself.) In this world, in which civic institutions were playing catch-up with the realities of modern life, a couple of different philosophers approached the problem in widely different ways.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) argued for broader political participation. Mill saw the benefits of expanding wealth, and thought that popular political institutions were the way to address the inequalities generated by the uneven flowering of capitalism.

Mill had a strange childhood. His father, a political philosopher in his own right, gave his son a rather rigid upbringing, so that he learned Ancient Greek at age 3 and was reading Plato and Aristotle by age 12. He has been estimated to have had the highest IQ in history, and at age 20 he had a mental breakdown, having become, in his own words, “an intellectual thoroughbred and an emotional hobbyhorse.”

Mill recovered, and wrote a lot of important work. He believed in individual liberty and limits on the power of government. He believed that society existed for the benefit of the individual, who ought to be able to do what she or he likes, as long as they aren’t hurting others. In the concept of utilitarianism, in which Mill built on the work of his father and of the economist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), Mill argued that society should provide the greatest good for the greatest number. For the most part, he believed that people should be allowed to participate in government (for the most part, because he allowed that despotism was OK in “backward” societies). He did, however, oppose slavery. But while he was not always a progressive thinker on race, he was perhaps the first major philosopher since Plato to argue for the rights of women (his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, is regarded as a first-rate philosopher in her own right).

Mill believed in free markets—leaving the economy alone and letting capitalism work as intended (though later in life he began to edge toward socialism). He also believed in some sort of workplace democracy, with workers given a say in choosing managers.

The Marx Brother

Karl Marx (1818–1883) did not believe in free markets (or God or capitalism or democracy. None of this, he said, helped people). Born in Germany, Marx described the world as he saw it. Like most political philosophers, he was a voracious reader, a critical thinker, a voluminous writer, and a bit odd. (A visitor to his house in London, where he later lived, described a chaotic scene of dirt, broken furniture, randomly placed children and a heavy patina of stale cigarette smoke.) His analysis of the modern capitalist world was compelling, and his ideas had a huge impact on world history.

While Mill saw the upside of an evolving world, Marx saw the costs. Workers were oppressed, and capitalists, “the bourgeoisie,” as he called them, were unduly profiting from their labor. This led to what he and his writing partner, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), (who, ironically, was himself a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie), called the labor theory of value: The worth of anything is reflected by the labor it took to produce it. Profit, therefore, was merely value stolen from the workers.

Also unlike Mill, Marx said that the state was merely an instrument of the capitalist class, “the committee of the bourgeoisie,” there to enforce the rules that kept the workers in their places. Neither elections nor labor unions, which were quite weak in Marx’s time, would provide the workers with any meaningful protections against the depredations of capital.

Marx gave us what he called dialectical materialism. This argued that the conditions of production determined the material and political conditions of life. So, for example, under feudalism people were ruled by aristocrats such as kings and dukes, and were treated badly in the process. But, Marx said, each new system sewed the seeds of its own demise. So feudalism managed to create order out of chaos, which led to trade, the growth of cities, and the end of feudalism.

For Marx, history wasn’t a series of random events, but instead unfolded with all the crystalline clarity of a strand of DNA. One gene leads to another. The history of man was essentially the history of class struggle. And so, Marx predicted, capitalism would plant the flowers of its own funeral. It would so impoverish the workers that they would rise up, overthrow their capitalism overlords, and begin the happy march toward a workers’ paradise. (It was for this reason that Marx expected that what he called communismA political and economic system featuring broad public ownership of resources with rule by a dictatorship. would arise first in the industrialized west, rather than in the agrarian east.)

Marx’s answer was socialism, an idea developing in various times and places in the 19th century in response to the excesses of industrial capitalism. Under socialism, the workers would control the means of production, and people’s needs would be met: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” as Marx once put it. Marx understood that some people wouldn’t like this idea much, and so the workers’ paradise is to be reached through a transitory phase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The proletariat are the working class, and the dictatorship will allow them to learn, over time, that the promises of a market-based, capitalist economy are merely the siren song of our old friends the bourgeoisie, who never have your best interests at heart. Eventually, Marx said, people will be properly educated and the state will just “wither away,” leaving people to produce for use, not profit, and leading more fulfilling lives. “Workers of the world unite,” Marx and Engels wrote at the end of The Communist Manifesto. “The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” (Translations of this line vary from place to place, but you get the idea.)

Marx was a little hazy on how all this was supposed to work. As trenchant as his analysis of his time was, his prescriptions were a bit foggy. We are left to guess at how Marx would have regarded the oppressions that were later visited in his name.

The objections to Marx are many and worth considering. First, while he sees human history as an evolutionary process, for some unexplained reason it apparently just stops evolving when we get to communism. Seriously, if capitalism sewed the seeds of its own demise, wouldn’t communism also naturally give birth to its own Oedipal assassin? (The Greek tragic hero Oedipus kills his own father to become king. Of course, he didn’t know it was his own father, but that’s Greek tragedy for you.) Second, if the problem with capitalist classical liberalism is that it tends to centralize power to the point where the system oppresses the many for the benefit of the few, wouldn’t communism, run by a doctrinaire dictatorship, have the same problem all over? The anarchist writer Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) correctly predicted that if Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat came to pass, it would simply be just that, a dictatorship, oppressing people in much the same they’d been oppressed by business and government under capitalism. Finally, Marx may have underestimated people’s ability to get change through normal democratic means—choosing leaders who would pass laws to empower and protect workers through the excesses of capitalism. It’s worth noting that while Marx predicted communism would occur in the industrialized west, in fact it was two very poor, largely agrarian societies—China and Russia—that took to communism, whereas Europe and the Americas never really did. In societies where people already owned nothing, perhaps communism offered something. In societies where people were becoming wealthier, perhaps it did not offer as much.

Modern/Contemporary Theories

History did not stop with communism; people have continued to make arguments about the nature of politics and government long after Marx. Human beings are pretty clever, and people frequently think of new ways of looking at and explaining things. (And, let’s be honest: In contemporary academics, you have to say something new and different if you want to get anywhere.) And while some of this theory isn’t quite as fun as the older theory, it can be helpful in explaining why things happen the way they do (even if the answers aren’t any clearer than they’ve ever been).

For example: Institutionalists have long looked at the institutions of politics and government, and tried to understand how the way we organize things can influence how we behave. From Madison until recent times, institutionalismThe study of political institutions with an eye to understanding and improving them. was the dominant school of political philosophy in the United States. Certainly, as people figure out how the institutions of modern governments actually work, they will adjust their behavior to try to achieve what they want by making best use of those institutions. Institutionalism fell somewhat out of vogue as governments that looked good on paper, such as the Soviet Union’s (whose constitution had substantial guarantees of individual liberty) failed to match their descriptions.

Other contemporary (which usually means after World War II) theories have drawn on other disciplines to try to explain politics, such as psychology, sociology and biology. BehavioralistsThe scientific study of politics, through observation and collection of data and statistical measurement. have attempted to collect data on people’s actual behavior and use that to explain why they behave the way they do. Post-behavioralists attempt to combine this with more traditional forms of analysis to form a more well-rounded picture of current political behavior. Systems theoryThe idea that people and politics form a living ecosystem, and the effort to understand political behavior by studying that ecosystem., which borrows from biology, tries to look at politics as a living system, in which all the players interact to create the political environment in which we live. As a change in climate would affect a forest and the creatures that live in it, a change in political and economic conditions tends to produce reactions among citizens, which are somewhat reflected in actions by government (presuming the government is at all responsive to public pressure). Modernization theoryThe idea that democracy becomes more likely as societies grow wealthier. notes that as nations get richer, they become more stable and more democratic (rich people don’t riot, except maybe at sales where they run out of Guccis). Feminist theories examine the role of women in politics, rightly pointing out that, historically, women were excluded from politics and economic and public life. While feminist political theoryThe effort to understand and end the political and economic subjugation of women. is generally aimed at gaining and preserving an equal footing for women in politics, it comes in all kinds of flavors, from Marxist feminists to democratic feminists, with several stops in between.

Rational choice theoryThe idea that people are rational decision-makers, so that their political behavior can be predicted by looking at what choices would best serve their personal interests. attempted to apply economic logic to politics: People calculate what serves their interests best, and behave accordingly. This may seem sort of obvious, and it is, and it’s also not so easy to predict what’s rational from person to person. It also presumes that people are completely self-interested, and operate with perfect information, neither which is likely to be true all the time. And it also ignores culture-driven aspects of people’s behavior. It can, however, help us predict elected officials’ behavior. For example, will a city council approve a rezone for an apartment complex, or insist that the land be used for single-family homes? Rational choice theory would tell us that they will choose single-family homes, because they will attract wealthier people who will pay more taxes and demand less services, thus costing the city less money (and this is what often happens).

Critical theoryThe idea that political problems come down to cultural blinders and communication problems. If we can remove/solve these problems, we should be able to decide a right course in government. might best be summed up in a light-bulb joke: How many critical theorists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one, but first he has to sit in a darkened room and determine whether light is something he really needs, or if it’s just something that’s been culturally imposed upon him. Critical theory looks at communication and culture to try to determine if 1. We make choices because we are driven by culture (which might lead us to make less than optimal choices) and 2. If, when we communicate, we are actually getting true to each other. The assumption of the leading light of critical theory, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is that if we create this “ideal speech situation,” is that we’ll all be Marxists. And since communism ended up looking so much like Plato’s guardian plan, that rather takes us back to the beginning, doesn’t it?

Key Takeaways

  • Madison and the Founding Fathers sought to balance government’s need for power with citizens’ need for liberty
  • Mill thought that government and society should create the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • Marx thought that capitalism would so impoverish the workers that they would revolt and create communism.
  • Contemporary theories have sought explain people’s political actions by applying the disciplines of other social sciences.


  1. Read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution at (It won’t take you long to read the whole thing.) Based on what you know about American government, is the nation living up to this?
  2. Imagine Karl Marx’s ideal state, run by and for workers. What could be better about this? What might be worse? Could this work?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.