On Politics

Penguin UK
3

This is a book about the answers that historians, philosophers, theologians, practising politicians and would-be revolutionaries have given to one question:how should human beings best govern themselves? That question raises innumerable others: can we manage our own affairs at all? Should we even try? Many people in the past have thought that only some individuals were either able or entitled to practise self-government: Greeks, but not Persians; men, but not women; the better-off minority, but not the poor majority. Others have thought that few of us have any desire to govern ourselves, and that government is inevitably a matter of a competent elite managing an acquiescent mass.

Then, what do we mean by 'freedom' today, and is it the same freedom that people enjoyed, or strove for, in the past? Almost every modern government claims to be democratic; but is democracy really the best way of organising our political life? For almost two thousand years, educated opinion said not. Today, educated opinion says yes. In the modern west, do we actually live in democracies? They certainly do not resemble what the Athenians fought and died to preserve. It seems that there may be less agreement than we might think about how human beings can best govern themselves.

In this extraordinary book, more that thirty years in the making, Alan Ryan engages with the great thinkers of the past to explain their ideas with a lucidity which makes the book compelling reading. While acknowledging how much separates us from our intellectual forebears, he reminds us how often the ideas of long-dead or distant thinkers are more alive, and speak to us more vividly and immediately, than those of our contemporaries. At a time when we sometimes feel that the problems of the globe will simply overwhelm our ability to control them, he provides a peerless guide to the ways in which the problems of politics have been thought about by the greatest minds of our civilization.

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About the author

ALAN RYAN was born in London in 1940 and taught for many years at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of New College and Reader in Politics. He was Professor of Politics at Princeton from 1988 to 1996, when he returned to Oxford to become Warden of New College and Professor of Political Theory until his retirement in 2009. His previous books include The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life and John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Penguin UK
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Published on
Nov 9, 2012
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Pages
1152
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ISBN
9781846147906
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Historiography
History / World
Philosophy / Political
Political Science / History & Theory
Political Science / Political Ideologies / Democracy
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Reading information

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'As the early 21st century emerges as an era that is likely to be the most operationally demanding decade in Australian Army history since the Vietnam War of the early 1960s, I commend this excellent study to all those who seek understanding of the changing character of armed conflict.' - Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove, AC, MC, Chief of Army

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A lucid introduction to the philosophical complexities and the practical limits of the political thought of Karl Marx. When Karl Marx was buried at Highgate Cemetery in North London in 1883, his longtime friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, remarked that he was "above all a revolutionary." For Marx, the struggle to accurately describe or interpret the world in rational terms was not enough; the point of politics and philosophy was not to diagnose human society but to change it. According to Marx, history was defined by class conflict, with the state heretofore existing as a medium through which the ruling classes can exploit the labor of the productive classes. Only through revolution could true self-government be achieved with the ultimate goal of achieving a stateless, self-administering society free of coercive law, police, and military forces. Marx spent most of his adult life dedicated to uniting the radical working-class movements of Europe around this central idea.

In On Marx, Alan Ryan examines Marx's political and economic philosophy within the Victorian context of Marx's own life and times as well as glancing forward to the uses and abuses of his ideas by his many successors. Tracing Marx's influences from Hegel to Feuerbach, from French socialism to British political economy, and documenting his ideological battles with his contemporaries, Ryan provides a sterling explication and critique of Marx’s theories of alienation, surplus value, class struggle, and revolution. Situating Marx into the framework of everyday politics is never easy, but this one volume provides the clearest, most accessible introduction to Marx's theories in recent years.

On Marx: Revolutionary and Utopian features:

• a chronology of Karl Marx's life

• an introduction and text by Alan Ryan that provides crucial context and cogent analysis

• key excerpts from: "Notes on James Mill," The German Ideology, "Theses on Feuerbach," The Communist Manifesto, Capital, The Civil War in France, and Critique of the Gotha Program

Tocqueville’s gifts as an observer and commentator on American life and democracy are brought to vivid life in this splendid volume. In On Tocqueville, Alan Ryan brilliantly illuminates the observations of the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who first journeyed to the United States in 1831 and went on to catalog the unique features of the American social contract in his two-volume masterpiece, Democracy in America. Often thought of as the father of "American Exceptionalism," Tocqueville sought to observe the social conditions of emerging political equality in America, "a river that may be channeled but cannot be stopped in its course." In choosing America, he posed a central question of how a moderate, stable, and constitutional government is to be maintained in the wake of a revolution. As a dispassionate visitor, Tocqueville wanted to discover the social, moral, and economic arrangements that made liberty and self-government possible.

In doing so, Tocqueville made a number of prescient observations about American life—whether it be the contrast between equality and liberty or Americans’ belief that they all belong to the middle class—that remain as relevant today as when they were first written. While Tocqueville is often praised by both conservatives and liberals, either for his distrust of big government and fondness for decentralized power or for his concern with association and community, both tend to overlook his contempt for the “coarse appearance” of the individual members of Congress as well as his enthusiasm for the brutal nature of our prison system. Alan Ryan examines the often complicated and elusive Democracy in America, tracing the influence of writers such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Guizot, and explaining Tocqueville’s original conceptions of equality and individualism within their historical context. In Ryan’s hands, On Tocqueville becomes the perfect introduction and guide to Democracy in America.

On Tocqueville: Democracy and America features:

• a chronology of Alexis de Tocqueville's life

• an introduction and text by Alan Ryan that provides crucial context and cogent analysis

• key excerpts from Democracy in America

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