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The Primacy of the Political: A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French and American Revolutionsby Dick Howard
The conflict between politics and antipolitics has replayed itself throughout Western history and philosophical thought. Plato's quest for absolute certainty led him to denounce political democracy, an anti-political position later challenged by Aristotle. This back-and-forth exchange came to a head at the time of the American and French revolutions. Through this wide-ranging narrative, Dick Howard throws new light on a recurring philosophical dilemma, proving our political problems are not as unique as we think. Howard begins with democracy in ancient Greece and the rise and fall of republican politics in Rome. In the wake of Rome's collapse, political thought searched for a new medium, and the conflict between politics and antipolitics reemerged through the contrasting theories of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas. During the Renaissance and the Reformation, the emergence of the modern individual again shifted the terrain. Even so, politics vs. antipolitics dominated the period, frustrating even Machiavelli, who sought to reconceptualize the nature of political thought. Hobbes and Locke, theorists of the social contract, then reenacted the conflict, which Rousseau sought (in vain) to overcome. Adam Smith and the growth of modern economic liberalism, the radicalism of the French revolution, and the conservative reaction of Edmund Burke subsequently marked the triumph of antipolitics, and the American Revolution may have offered the potential groundwork for a renewal of politics. Taken together, these historical examples, viewed through the prism of philosophy, reveal the roots of today's political climate and suggest the trajectory of the battles yet to come.
In this engaging and persuasive book, Dick Howard takes a critically innovative look at Marxism and its blind spots and rethinks the nature of democracy. He explores the attraction Marxism holds for intellectuals, examines two hundred years of democratic political life-focusing on the American and French Revolutions and the truly "revolutionary" aspects of those events-and rethinks Marx's contribution to democratic politics. Howard concludes that Marx was attempting a "philosophy by other means", and that, paradoxically, because he was such an astute philosopher Marx was unable to see the radical political implications of his own analyses. Howard offers a new way of thinking about democratic policy as a political ideal, positing that Marx could have seen this radical third way but did not.