Over the millennia, political philosophers have expounded on a variety of political ideologies, or ways governments and societies can be organized. Today, scholars generally talk about five major political ideologies:
These political ideologies are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. So, a liberal government does not usually practice socialism, nor does an absolute ruler follow liberalism. The five major political ideologies have played a key role in history by shaping governments and political movements.
The belief that the best government is absolutely no government is known as anarchism. This ideology argues that everything about governments is repressive and therefore must be abolished entirely. A related ideology known as nihilism emphasizes that everything—both government and society—must be periodically destroyed in order to start anew. Nihilists often categorically reject traditional concepts of morality in favor of violence and terror. Anarchism and nihilism were once associated with socialism because many anarchists and nihilists supported the socialists’ call for revolution and the complete overhaul of government and society in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Example: Although neither violent nor strictly anarchist, members of the American Libertarian Party believe that government should be so small that it hardly ever interferes in citizens’ lives, thereby best preserving individual liberty.
Traditionally, much of Western civilization’s history was dominated by absolutism, the belief that a single ruler should have control over every aspect of the government and of the people’s lives. Absolute rulers had a variety of titles, including chieftain, king, shah, pharaoh, emperor, sultan, and prince. In some cultures, the absolute ruler was seen as a god in human form. Other peoples believed that their ruler had the divine right of kings, meaning that God had chosen the ruler to govern the rest. As a result, many cultures with absolute rulers practiced some form of caesaropapism, the belief that the ruler is head of both the governmental authority and the religious authority.
Example: In the Byzantine Empire, the double-headed eagle symbolized caesaropapism. The two heads stood for church and state. This symbol clearly and graphically portrayed the unity of religious and secular power in one person.
In the early modern age of the Western world (beginning roughly in the early 1500s and running for about 200 years), a number of changes occurred that led to new ideologies: The European discovery of the Americas, the rise of Protestantism, the beginnings of the free-market economy, and the early stages of the scientific revolution fundamentally altered Europe. People began developing different ways of thinking to take account of these changes.
Perhaps the most important of the new ideas is liberalism (also known as classical liberalism). This type of liberalism, which began in England in the 1600s, differs from American liberalism. Classical liberalism developed when such thinkers as John Locke (in his Second Treatise of Government in 1690) rethought the relationship between the individual and society, as well theorized about the rights and responsibilities of the individual. These ideas formed the foundation for many political systems still operating today.
These basic characteristics of liberalism have led liberals to argue in favor of a limited government, which draws its power from the people. In practice, this has meant favoring a democratic government.
Classical liberalism has profoundly influenced the modern world, so much so that we do not even realize how controversial its ideas were in early modern Europe. Back then, liberal ideas were considered dangerous and inflammatory by traditional European governments, and liberals were frequently persecuted. Even after liberalism took hold in England, the rest of Europe was hostile to liberal ideas for another century (and even longer in some cases).
Example: For centuries, Eastern Europe suffered greatly from authoritarian rule, in which one person or a small group holds all the political power and oppresses everybody else. As recently as 1989, open discussion of liberal ideas (such as the free market) or publicly complaining that the communist governments did not speak for the people could get a person arrested. The writer Vaclav Havel, for example, was jailed by the Czechoslovakian government. But after the 1989 end of the communist government in Czechoslovakia, Havel served as the newly democratic government’s first president.
Conservatism (also known as classical conservatism) began as a reaction against the liberal ideas taking hold of Europe during the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. This type of conservatism differs from American conservatism. Edmund Burke, a British member of Parliament, observed the early stages of the French Revolution with great distress and predicted the violence and terror that would ensue. His book, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), is one of the founding texts of classical conservatism.
Burke and other conservatives attacked liberalism for many reasons. They argued that liberalism destroyed tradition. In its rush to overturn the old and bring in the new, liberalism and capitalism ruthlessly attacked traditional institutions and beliefs.
Many early conservatives favored authoritarian government. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (roughly 1792–1815), for example, most European governments actively worked to stop the spread of liberalism and democracy. Nevertheless, conservatives were not necessarily hostile to democracy. Generally these conservatives argued that some sort of monarchy was necessary, but some were more open to popular government. Burke, in particular, thought that limited democracy was a good form of government for England, as long as it maintained the customs and mores it inherited from its predecessors.
For the most part, classical conservatism has faded. Most people who label themselves conservatives are more like American conservatives than classical ones. But there are still some classical conservatives. Many of them in Europe have ties to old noble families, and some advocate monarchism. Classical conservatives can also be found in other parts of the world.
The chart below compares classical liberal views with classical conservative views on several issues.
|Tradition||Only valuable if it serves a purpose; we should not be afraid to overturn tradition||Repository of acquired wisdom; collection of best knowledge from many years of practice|
|Freedom||Essential for human flourishing; people are free to do as they please as long as they do not hurt others||Excessive freedom is bad; lets people ignore societal responsibilities and overlook social customs|
|Reason||Relies on reason; the great success of the scientific revolution can be repeated in human affairs if we use reason||Thinks reason is fallible and prone to error; human beings cannot discover the best way to govern through thinking. Instead, we must base our judgments and decisions on experience.|
|Free Market||Valuable because it unleashes tremendous economic growth and efficiency, enriching society||Dangerous because it breaks down traditional economic roles. The profit motive corrodes customary mores and reduces all relationships to cash transactions.|
Socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution, which was the emergence of technologies such as the steam engine and mass production. The Industrial Revolution started in England in the last years of the eighteenth century and had spread to much of Europe and America by the end of the nineteenth century. It caused major upheavals: In a very short time, many people were forced to abandon agricultural ways of life for the modern mechanized world of factories.
Early versions of socialism were put forward in Europe in the first part of the nineteenth century (these versions are often dubbed “utopian socialism”), but truly influential socialist theories did not emerge until industrialization expanded in the mid-nineteenth century. Karl Marx is the best-known theorist of socialism. Along with Friedrich Engels, Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848) as a call to revolution. Other prominent socialists thinkers included Karl Kautsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Antonio Gramsci.
According to socialists, liberalism fails to live up to its promises of freedom and equality. Socialists blame the free market for liberalism’s failings. Under a capitalist system, money and means of production are the measures of power. The haves (the bourgeoisie, in Marx’s terms) and the have-nots (whom Marx calls the proletariat) are locked into a fight that Marx called class warfare. Because they control the money and means of production, the bourgeoisie have the power and thus are winning the fight. The rich use the government to further their control and to increase their power over the lower, poorer classes, so people are neither free nor equal.
Socialism evolved in a variety of ways. Communism and democratic socialism are the two most prominent evolutions of socialism.