C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evolution of Political Thought (1958).


Most universities offer courses of lectures in what is called the History of Political Thought. The nature of these courses is fairly reflected in the books compiled on this subject; books written or edited by the lecturers and recommended without hesitation to their pupils. While the titles catalogued are numerous and varied, the books themselves are not dissimilar in content. Fluttering the pages of any volume, chosen at random, the reader will not fail to glimpse successively the names of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and Mill. On adjacent shelves he will find editions of the works from which the compiler has drawn -- More's Utopia, Machiavelli's Prince, Bacon in person and Halifax himself. A study of these books, both texts and commentary, is held to constitute a sufficient grounding in political theory, useful to the student of history and of interest indeed to anyone.

While the value of these works (or, at any rate, of some of them) is beyond question, their general tendency is not without its dangers. The reader is left with fallacies as well as facts. These fallacies are neither stated nor upheld nor even perhaps deliberately implied. They arise indeed less from the study of any given work than, as a general impression, from all. They are none the less fallacious for that and their refutation is more than overdue.

First of these implicit fallacies is the idea that political thought is confined to authors and denied to everyone else. By this reasoning we must learn the ideas of Plato and Laski and can safely ignore those of Pericles and Churchill. This is surely to give an absurd weight to the accident of authorship. The idea expressed verbally or in action may be at least as novel and potent as the idea expressed with pen and ink. Closely connected with this fallacy is the idea that political theory has its origin in ancient Greece. The classically-educated historian has rarely thought it necessary to go either further back or further afield. He may have been misled by the derivation of the words in use; and yet the absurdity of this would seem obvious enough. To deny that there were politics before the Greeks invented the word is no more reasonable than to assume that the Greeks were uncivilised until the Romans had taught them Latin.

If it is wrong to conclude that all political theory began with Plato, it is at least equally wrong to suppose that all political thinking has been done in Europe and America. Of nearly every basic political concept it is true to say that the Greeks had a word for it and often the word that is still in use. That is not to say, however, that there is no Chinese word with a similar meaning. Still less need we assume that the Chinese and Indians have had no ideas of their own. There are books purporting to summarise the history of political thought of which it can truly be said that they do nothing of the kind. Candid at least are the book titles in which 'Western' political thought is specified and more candid still those which define their even narrower scope 'From Bacon to Halifax'. But while there is reason to commend the honesty of those who profess to do no more than they have done, there is less to be said for their originality and courage. Too many have followed each other along the same well-trodden track. Too few have seen that a history of political thought must be world-wide if it is not to be fallacious.

Another impression which the reader may gain from reading the current books on political thought is that the development of political institutions has progressed steadily from the days of Lycurgus or Solon down to the present day; the ultimate achievement being Britisn Parliamentary Democracy or else perhaps the American Way of Life. There are here two separate fallacies involved. The first lies in the assumption that all history illustrates a story of betterment or progress with ourselves as the final product. The second lies in the assumption that such progress as there has been is a western achievement in which no oriental can claim even the smallest share. History records no such monopoly and no such unbroken progression. What the historian does find, however, is a recurrence of the belief that perfection has been reached and that a given constitution (like that of the United States) represents finality. There is, in fact, no historical reason for supposing that our present systems of governance are other than quite temporary expedients. To demonstrate, therefore, that all progress leads upwards to these pinnacles of wisdom is peculiarly needless. In such an attempt one ignores half the work that has already been done and all the work that is still to do.

The belief that the present or else some other recommended constitution can represent finality is as old or older than Plato. It runs through many of the texts which the student is required to read. It forms even now the basis for heated discussions as to what form of rule is best. It is essentially pre-Darwinian, however, as a mode of thought. No believer in evolution would expect to find that sort of finality. He would rather regard society as a growing tree than as a building nearing its completion. He would hope to trace a pattern of growth and decay. He would question, on principle, whether any society could be static. He would see in finality nothing more nor less than death. In practice, however, it is easier for the student of to-day to appreciate how institutions have evolved than to grasp that their evolution must and should continue. Even when the likelihood of further development is recognised, it is usually seen as a perfecting of what exists; as the process, for example, by which representative democracy can be made more representative still. But history shows us no previous example of institutions thus perfected. It reveals rather a sequence in which one form of rule replaces another, each in turn achieving not perfection but decay. The fallacy of the Utopian is to suppose that finality can and should be attained. To the believer in evolution nothing could seem less profitable.

One other error implied in the existing text-books is that the published works of political theorists have had a vast influence on actual events. The student is all too apt to visualise each leader as one likely to refer to a book before deciding upon a policy. But Robespierre no more slept with Le Contrat Social under his pillow than did Louis XVI refer to the Leviathan. No actual politician is greatly influenced by a book of political theory although many have been influenced by a book of religion. The politician who reads at all will have read not only the text which the historian thinks significant but forty-nine other forgotten works of which the historian has never even heard. And if one book appears to have been his favourite it will be because the author recommends what he, the ruler, has already decided to do; or what indeed he has already done. Historically, the book comes afterwards to defend the deed. This is not to say that the book is always written after the revolution it seems to justify. It may be written beforehand, gaining its wide circulation only after the event. The books, by contrast, which supported the losing cause have been forgotten, overlooked, destroyed -- or else never published. There is thus a natural selection among books, giving to some the popularity and survival which rewards what is relevant to the mood of an age, and ensuring for others the oblivion reserved for all that seems eccentric and out of tune. In ancient China (as in modern China) the books out of accord with the party line were deliberately burnt. In England or America the books thus out of step will remain unpublished for lack of expected sales. It is not books which influence political events. It is the events which decide which book is to he pulped and which made compulsory reading in the schools.

The significance then of the political theorist is not that he guided the ruler but that he provided the ruler with a rational explanation of what he, the ruler, had already done. His works to that extent throw light upon the age in which he lived -- or at any rate upon the age in which his works were widely read. But to interpret policy throughout the ages in terms of its literary justification is open to certain objections, of which the chief is that politics are far older than political theory. To begin the story where it is usually made to begin (in Athens of the 5th century B.C.) is to omit the essential background to all human affairs; the background studied by the anthropologist. It would be untrue to say that all authors on the history of political theory have ignored this background. It is with reference to it, however, that they prove least convincing. They are apt to perpetuate by quotation the mistakes made (perhaps unavoidably) by the earlier political thinkers. These philosophers were apt to picture a happy community of primitive men suddenly deciding to organise themselves and elect a ruler.

'I assume' writes Rousseau,1 'that men have reached a point at which the obstacles that endanger their preservation in the state of nature overcome by their resistance the forces which each individual can exert with a view to maintaining himself in that state. Then this primitive condition can no longer subsist, and the human race would perish unless it changed its mode of existence. . . .'

[The problem is] 'To find a form of association which may defend and protect with the whole force of the community the person and property of every associate, and by means of which each, coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before'. [To this problem the Social Contract furnishes the solution.]

'The clauses of this contract are so determined . . . that, although they have never perhaps been formally enunciated, they are everywhere the same, everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised'.

There might be no great harm in reading this piece of eighteenth century rhetoric provided that the antidote were to follow. The student who is advised to read drivel should at least be warned that it is drivel he is being asked to read. Wild guesses about primitive man are needless, for primitive man has survived for our study. And even the slightest acquaintance with the aborigines of Australia, Malaya or Borneo will convince the student that no human beings have ever come together with an open mind to discuss the basis of their social organisation. Nor is there any reason to suppose that our primitive ancestors in Europe or indeed in ancient Britain were in this respect very different from the peoples whose culture has remained primitive. There has never been a clean page upon which to write a constitution. Man had, from the start, physical, biological and mental characteristics; and many of these he still retains. It is by these inherited characteristics, dating back for thousands of years, that his political institutions have been influenced. Books which fail to make this clear are as misleading as they are tedious, as dangerous as they are wrong.

It is no wonder that the social anthropologist turns with disgust from works of political theory. In a recent and important work on the political structure of African tribes,2 the editors explain how unhelpful they found these works to be.

We have not found that the theories of political philosophers have helped us to understand the societies we have studied and we consider them of little scientific value; for their conclusions are seldom formulated in terms of observed behaviour or capable of being tested by this criterion. Political philosophy has chiefly concerned itself with how men ought to live and what form of government they ought to have, rather than with what are their political habits and institutions.

In so far as political philosophers have attempted to understand existing institutions instead of trying to justify or undermine them, they have done so in terms of popular psychology or of history. They have generally had recourse to hypotheses about earlier stages of human society presumed to be devoid of political institutions. . . .

The editors, in this instance, find some excuse for the political theorist in that 'little anthropological research has been conducted into primitive political systems' and even less effort made to correlate what little has been done. While it is thus true to say that the subject remains largely unexplored, it is also manifest (even from such knowledge as there is) that the theories of 'original contract' are baseless suppositions, The anthropologist may not be ready to explain how political institutions first came into being but he is at least prepared to describe theories as 'unscientific' which are supported neither by evidence nor probability.

From a study of the existing text-books in political theory some would conclude that the whole subject were better taken from the historian and handed to the social anthropologist. Rather than leave this subject to historians whose works reflect an ignorance of anthropology, an ignorance of real politics and an ignorance of anything outside Europe and America, some would prefer to set up schools of political science. For this plan there is much to be said. The difficulty about it, as applied to political ideas current in historical times, is that every political theorist has an historical background. He thinks within the framework of the world he knows. Eliminate the historian and you lose all trace of the political thinker's background and motives. Apart from this danger, it is a question whether the historian should remain ignorant of social anthropology. It might be better to include pre-history in the syllabus which the future historian must study. Whatever is done, however, there will remain fields of investigation which the historian and social anthropologist may have to share. No great harm should result if their activities should overlap. More harm results, as at present, in fields which each has left to the other. So far from overlapping, their present activities do not even meet.

While it would be absurd to follow previous writers in assuming that political thought begins with the Greeks, it is to them that we owe many of the political terms commonly in use. As these are not always used in exactly the same sense, it may be as well at this point to define the terms used in this book. As the Greeks perceived, there are, broadly speaking, three alternatives in government; rule by one, rule by a few and rule by many. Rule by one person can take the form of Monarchy, Despotism or Dictatorship. Monarchy is the rule by a King or Queen, depending upon religion, descent, election or established custom. Despotism is the rule by a King or Queen, established and maintained by force or cunning. Dictatorship is rule by a person who is neither King nor Queen whose authority derives from a particular emergency and whose office is widely regarded as a temporary expedient. Rule by a few can take the form of Feudalism, Aristocracy or Oligarchy. Feudalism is rule by nobles, each with control of some province or locality and many almost independent of any centralised authority. Aristocracy is rule by persons enjoying a special and often inherited respect, acting mainly through a central government under their own control. (Theocracy, or rule by a priesthood, is one form of Aristocracy). Oligarchy is rule by a few persons with no special claim to respect other than for their wealth, ability or vigour. (Bureaucracy, or rule by officials, is one form of Oligarchy). Rule by many can take the form of Democracy, Representative Democracy or Anarchy. Democracy is rule by all or by a majority of the voters, by direct expression of their will. Representative Democracy is rule by all or a majority of the voters but through elected representatives. Anarchy, if it can be termed a form of rule, means the refusal of a large number to be ruled at all.

three alternatives in government [Table added by editor.]
rule by one rule by a few rule by many
Monarchy is the rule by a King or Queen, depending upon religion, descent, election or established custom.Despotism is the rule by a King or Queen, established and maintained by force or cunning. Dictatorship is rule by a person who is neither King nor Queen whose authority derives from a particular emergency and whose office is widely regarded as a temporary expedient. Feudalism is rule by nobles, each with control of some province or locality and many almost independent of any centralised authority. Aristocracy is rule by persons enjoying a special and often inherited respect, acting mainly through a central government under their own control.
(Theocracy, or rule by a priesthood, is one form of Aristocracy).
Oligarchy is rule by a few persons with no special claim to respect other than for their wealth, ability or vigour.
(Bureaucracy, or rule by officials, is one form of Oligarchy).
Democracy is rule by all or by a majority of the voters, by direct expression of their will. Representative Democracy is rule by all or a majority of the voters but through elected representatives. Anarchy, if it can be termed a form of rule, means the refusal of a large number to be ruled at all.

Although the basic forms of government are only three, it would obviously be wrong to expect any government to conform exactly to any one of them. In practice, forms of rule are often mixed. Thus, a pure monarchy or despotism is difficult to maintain for long except over a relatively small area. A single ruler soon needs help and, in seeking it, becomes a little less absolute. Despotism or even Dictatorship may become monarchy by virtue of time and habit. A Democracy may still retain elements of earlier forms of rule. When, therefore, a State is here described as, say, an Aristocracy, it must be taken to mean the preponderance of Aristocratic rule, not the exclusion of any other form.

If we owe some of our terminology to Plato, it is from both Plato and Aristotle that we take the idea of sequence. As a scientist and the son of a physician, Aristotle perceived that forms of rule decay and so give place to others. He did not prescribe a single type of constitution as best for every State. The laws towards which he was feeling his way were not The Laws of Plato but the laws of change. With his aid we can readily perceive at least a tendency for Monarchy to turri into Aristocracy or Feudalism, for Aristocracy to become Democracy (perhaps via Oligarchy), for Democracy to turn into chaos and for order to be restored by a Despotism or Dictatorship. When the Dictatorship gives place to Monarchy the wheel has turned full circle and the process may begin again. It would, of course, be a gross exaggeration to represent this tendency as an invariable rule. The sequence is subject to many variations and exceptions. It can be disrupted as a result of war. And different lands within the same civilisation develop at different speeds so that, existing side by side, they represent different stages of the same sequence. Thus a historian of the remote future might remark that the countries of Europe mostly passed from Democracy to Dictatorship during the first half of the Twentieth Century.. This would be true, broadly speaking, but he would have to note certain exceptions and explain that the various transitions were not simultaneous and that the countries affected were not necessarily adjacent to each other. We to-day can generalise about the past in much the same way, again noting the exceptions. And one factor which we can observe as regulating the speed of change is the area and physical nature of the country to be governed. It is almost impossible to govern a vast and diverse area except by loyally upholding a more or less divine Monarch. While the sequence of the forms of rule may be roughly followed, the tendency is to hurry through the forms that are obviously unworkable and return with relief to the form which offers most stability. It is perhaps this factor more than any other which prevents much valid generalisation about any given period. If the Athenians were democrats when the Persians were not, it was basically because they had a different problem to solve.

In a study, therefore, of political institutions and the ideas to which they give rise, there is reason to abandon chronology and concentrate on the successive forms of governance. In this book the plan followed is to take each form in turn and show its origin, its nature, its relative success, its theoretical justification, its decline and its decay. For this purpose the historical examples will be taken, for purposes of illustration, from any period and from any land. This must involve drawing upon the political experience of different civilisations. This is a useful process although difficult in a book of this size. But the reader who is thus encouraged to take a world-wide view should remember that the political approach is only one of severa . During the life of a given civilisation the lands affected by it may undergo different forms of rule, and perhaps in a more or less logical sequence, but the civilisation has a life cycle of its own and one perhaps uninfluenced by political ideas. The rise and fall of civilisations might best be studied in terms of climate, food supply, soil-erosion, reproduction and disease. As compared with factors such as these, the forms of rule are a superficial matter. It is true that certain forms of government are often associated with a civilisation's early development. It would be far more difficult and controversial to show what type of government prevailed at its zenith or during its decay. There is, to begin with, a difficulty in agreeing as to when the zenith was reached and almost as great a difficulty in fixing a period for a civilisation's end.

If we see the sequence of political institutions as falling within the life-cycle of the different civilisations, it is relevant to ask how long a civilisation may be expected to last. The Graeco-Roman civilisation might be said to have had a life of 900-1,000 years (say, from 500 B.C. or rather earlier, to about A.D. 400). The civilisation of Sumeria and Babylon may have lasted about 1,000 years, too. If we regard the Chou, Ch'in, and Sui Dynasties of China as representing different civilisations, they might be credited with durations of 750, 800 and 770 years respectively. From A.D. 321 to 1525 India had a civilisation which thus lasted about 1,200 years. The civilisation of Inca Peru lasted 1,100 years and that of Aztec Mexico about 850. Apart from the doubtful examples of Egypt and Japan, we might be tempted to conclude that civilisations have an average life of about a thousand years. Any such conclusion would be rash but there would be some justification for denying that many civilisations have lasted very much longer. It has been argued, indeed, that the periods of high civilisation have all been relatively brief: --

The acme of Greek civilization is confined to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Hellenistic civilization to the third and second centuries B.C. Rome was certainly not a really cultured country before the first century B.C., and her creative period ended with the second century of the Christian era. We may reckon the Byzantine civilization at best from the sixth to the tenth Century, the Arab civilization from the eighth to the twelfth. . . . The periods of high civilization are always short -- a few centuries, sometimes hardly one century.3

The difficulty is one of definition. It might not, however, be wildly amiss to think of a civilisation as lasting up to about a thousand years, with its greatest achievements confined to a middle period of two or three centuries. Any sequence (or repeated sequences) in the forms of rule must usually fall within that space of time. But to associate the highest achievements with any one form of rule would be difficult, if only from a lack of agreement as to what the highest achievements are.

The plan of this book, it will be seen, is analytical. It is not to the purpose to predict the future or recommend some particular form of rule. There is included, however, an epilogue which concerns the present. This is not designed as a remedy for present ills but merely as a plea for studying them in a more scientific way.

The author's thanks are due to his pupils at the University of Malaya, with many of whom these problems have been discussed; to his secretary, Mrs. Y. J. G. Lawton, without whose tireless help the book would still be no more than a mass of illegible notes; and to Ann, who has had to be very, very patient.

C. Northcote Parkinson

University of Malaya


1 Social Contract, J. J. Rousseau, Chapter VI.

2 African Political Systems. Ed. by M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Oxford, 1940, See 4th Impression (1950), pp. 4 and 5.

3 The Passing of the European Age. Eric Fischer. Cambridge, 1948, p. 191.