History as a social science explores many aspects of life throughout the ages: economics history, intellectual innovation, and politics. In this, it is similar to sociology, except that the humanities branch including political history doesn’t study modern societies, it studies the different types of political thought throughout the centuries, the political manoeuvering of historical figures as well as various types of political upheaval (revolutions, coups, putsches etc…)
Historical research in political history also studies political interaction, meaning that it crosses over to military history and diplomatic history - the various types of political ties formed between nations and their impact on inner politics and international relations.
One thing you should consider is that, both from the point of view of cultural history and anthropology, politics and bureaucracy do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many so-called “primitive” societies without their own system of writing or political institutions such as a parliament still exhibit political behaviour and have their own system of governance and political philosophy, often steeped in their moral and cultural values and traditions.
In this article, we’ll give an overview of some of the more common political systems and the different historical iterations they come in.
The Politics of an Oligarchy
An oligarchy designates societies where the governing body is a group of privileged people. If the ruling class is made up of the rich, it is also called a plutocracy.
The criteria for choosing the rulers can vary:
- Those belonging to a certain family or lineage (whether traditional aristocrats or for mythological reasons),
- Those Belonging to a certain class or profession (merchant, religious…)
- Perceived wisdom
Some political systems are obvious oligarchies, while others are considered one from an empirical point of view even though they officially subscribe to another political methodology. For example, due to the influence of lobbyists and campaign financers, the American political system is often considered to be an oligarchy, since many aspects of American politics are ruled by the big companies and certain wealthy men.
Are all oligarchies council-led?
One form of oligarchy is to have a ruling council of policy-making individuals, often deciding by vote. The difference between this form of political system and a democracy is that the voting body is not elected by the people they are meant to represent - or at least, rule. This is common on a more local level - some of the Hanseatic city-states were ruled by a council, for example - though rarer in larger countries.
However, sometimes an oligarchy is made up of only two or three people - some examples from global history are the triumvirate that ruled Rome after the death of Caesar (consisting of Mark Anthony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus), or the Consulat (Consulate) with Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul, aided by two other Consuls.
Oligarchies according to function
Some early societies divided political power according to its function in society. For example, some Polynesian societies had a war chief and a talking chief - one for foreign relations (such as they were) and one for internal affairs, each coming from a specific traditional family line. Another civilization might divide between a secular and a religious leader. During much of Japanese history, political power rested with the Shogun while the Emperor was the spiritual and religious leader (as head of the Shinto religion).
In much the same way, many modern companies divide the power between a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and a CFO (Chief Financial Officer).
Oligarchies according to geographical location
Another way to divide the responsibility between the different members of an oligarchy is by geographical location, especially if the country covers a lot of territory. This was the case in the second Roman triumvirate with Mark Anthony for Gaul (France and Belgium) and Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy), Lepidus for Hispania (Spain and Portugal) and Octavian for North Africa, while all three had to agree on decisions for Italy. Shortly after, Octavian remained as sole ruler of imperial Rome, which became an autocracy.
Autocracy as a Historical Political System
Autocracy basically means that one single person is in charge of both the legislative and executive. He or she can decide on policy without any system of legal checks and balances, or any form of popular control. There are several ways an autocrat can rise to power, and autocracies can be found in countries with a very different social structure.
In absolute monarchies, the Head of State is born into the ruling family and is either the eldest sibling or the eldest son (depending on the rule of succession). Historically it is one of the most widespread forms of autocracy or even any form of government. We can start in the realm of archaeology, in Antiquity - the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, the rulers of the city-states of the Near East, move on to the Empires of Alexander, Rome and Byzantium, to the absolute rulers of feudal England and France in the Middle Ages. The most famous autocrats are possibly Louis XIV of France and Tsar Peter of Russia. Absolute monarchies were also found elsewhere in the world, from the Inca to China to various kingdoms in Asia and Africa.
A kingdom becomes an Empire, and its ruler and Emperor, when several different nations with different cultures - often nations who once had their sovereignty - are ruled by one person. Thus, the Roman Empire included Celtic and Near Eastern lands, the Napoleonic Empire covered much of Europe including Italy and parts of Germany and the British Colonial Empire included African, Indian, Polynesian and North American nations.
The system of absolute monarchy was put into question in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment; new ideologies were sought and toward the end of the eighteenth century, the participation of the people became the ideal political philosophy. This lead to various forms of Constitutional monarchies (older in England and successful, less so in France just prior to the Revolution), many of them in the nineteenth century, then to actual democracies. The process was finished in the twentieth century, with no absolute monarchy left in Europe.
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However, even with the advent of globalization, there are still some absolute monarchies in the world today - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Brunei in the Arabic Peninsula, and Swaziland in Africa.
Electorates are a form of absolute monarchy in which the monarch does not descend from a single ruling family but instead is elected from one of many aristocratic or royal families by an electoral college. This was the case in the Holy Roman Empire where the Prince-Electors chose the next Emperor from among their midst by means of an election. So theoretically a new emperor was not necessarily the son of the old - though, from 1440 onward, they were all from the House of Habsburg, and the elective role of the college was merely to ratify the usual course of succession.
A despot usually designates an autocrat who is - either truly or symbolically - elected by the people. Some despots are elected democratically to the presidency of their country and then seize power and disenfranchise any regulatory instances, others have rigged or single-party elections that ensure that they stay in power while symbolically giving the people a sense of political participation.
However, many a despotic regime also came to power through a political or military coup.
They are not monarchies mostly because they are not (officially) hereditary, although many a despot has had his son “elected” to office after him.
Many despots use ideological means to stay in power, with political propaganda and information manipulation and control playing an important role to limit criticism of their regime.
Theocracy as a Form of Government?
Theocracy means that religion rules politics - that the Head of State is a deity or a representative thereof.
Direct theocracy is when the deity is considered to rule the country directly. This is very rare but existed for a time in Ancient Egypt of the Third Intermediate Period when the god Amun ruled the area around the city of Thebes through oracles.
Of course, even a direct theocracy rules through its priests.
Most theocracies don’t pretend to have the deity taking a direct part in the political process. Instead, the deity is present through its rules and ordinances, while the heads of the religion rule in its name, basing their legitimation in theology. This is theoretically true of the Vatican, where the Head of State is also God’s representative on Earth. Some absolute monarchies have a certain claim to theocracy, while in other instances religious leaders took over from secular ones.
Again, a theocracy can exist within another, official political system when religious leaders make public policy despite the government being officially in other hands.
Democracy: the Best Worst Solution
Currently, the most common political system in the modern world is the Republic. The oldest attested democracies are those of the Greek city-states such as Sparta and Athens. However, evidence suggests that other non-Western societies - such as the Iroquois Six Nations - also had a form of democratic rule.
The leader of a democratic nation is generally called a President, though some countries differ - in Britain, it’s the Prime Minister; in Germany, the President has very little political clout (other than a veto) whereas the Chancellor is the Head of State. Presidential elections (or their equivalent) can be direct (President elected by the people), party-based (the strongest party in parliament provides the president/chancellor etc.) or through an electoral college (a system only the American government pretends to understand).
A republic is not a separate form of democracy, but simply designates any type of state in which government is considered a public matter rather than the sole province of a monarch or despot.
Constitutional monarchies are systems of government in which the Head of State is nominally or politically a monarch - someone whose right to rule is determined through birthright - but the actual governing and lawmaking is done by a parliament or other elected body whose representatives are elected by the people. Many monarchies became constitutional monarchies in the late 19th century or early 20th as a reaction against the emergence of a new sort of nationalism in which citizens wanted some say in government.
The exact role and political power of the monarch is regulated by the constitution, ranging from Morocco, where the king retains executive powers (though lessened with the reform of 2011) to monarchies such as Britain and Sweden where the monarch’s power is extremely limited, playing a mostly representative role in global politics.
Direct democracy vs. representative democracies
In political science, a difference is made between direct and representative democracy.
- In a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives that make policy and decide on laws and other governmental acts. This body of representatives is often divided into two houses elected according to different principles (population vs. area, or equal representation, or party etc.) and can be divided between the legislative an executive branches. They can be called a parliament, congress, senate, or any number of different names, but the important factor is that the people have representation by members of a political party they feel corresponds to their personal ideology.
Interestingly, the idea of “left” and “right”-wing parties emerged from the seating of representatives in the parliament of the first French Republic, right after the Revolution - to the left or the right of the political leader.
- In direct democracies, the people vote directly on legislation, possibly electing one or two leaders for the executive branch of government. This is the form of government found in classical Athens, where every citizen attended sessions of parliament where they would debate the questions of the day and voted via secret ballot with stones in urns. Of course, Athens was only one city with a bit of countryside attached, and citizenship only applied to free landowning males (feminism wasn’t invented yet), so the amount of people present at any one session was not overly excessive. Another historical example for direct democracy are pirate ships. On many filibusters, the captain was elected democratically and many decisions, such as where to go next and how to divide the booty, was decided by vote.
Today, direct democracy is usually only occasionally practised in the form of referendums on important affairs - EU applicants have to have a referendum before joining officially, and we all know what happened with Britain’s last attempt at direct democracy.
Communism is interesting in that the political theory of communism is impossible without the economic theories behind it.
Communism is often confused with socialism:
- While all communists are socialists
- Not all socialists are communists
Socialism posits a welfare state - that is to say, socialists consider it to be the responsibility of the state to look after its citizens. To what extent depends on the individual philosophy - but most socialists agree that basic care - health care, a certain minimal unemployment and a right to basic education and foodstuff - is a governmental responsibility. The important aspect is that it’s a form of state-run insurance, with all citizens paying into a pot that’s then redistributed.
Socialism can exist within capitalism - the most common form of economy among democracies. Communism, however, needs a completely different framework.
In communism, there is no personal ownership - of anything. Everything is owned communally and distributed to those who need it. It is often propagated as the rule of the working class. As French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already understood, it works best on a local level. A whole communally-owned state needs a political structure, which inevitably leads to the creation of a political elite. Oddly enough, while the theoretical structure of communist nations is a democracy, most of them turn into dictatorships, with a single charismatic personality at their heads until he dies.
Communism at a local level existed in many so-called primitive societies, in which most goods were communally owned and resources distributed according to need.
Studying Political History
Universities rarely offer political history as a separate subject. However, if you are interested in the intellectual history of politics, there are ways you can still find out more about it by studying on an interdisciplinary level.
- If you are interested in the political events that formed (and destroyed) nations, become a historian and study ancient history, modern history or archaeology. Undergraduates learn about the different cultures and the social systems, and the libraries are excellent for research on political events.
- If you are interested in the schools of thought behind political systems and decisions, why not study philosophy? Though often considered a purely intellectual pursuit, philosophy has influenced political thinking for millennia, whether the religious philosophy found in Latin texts of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the philosophers of the Enlightenment or Machiavelli in early modern times, or modern political thinkers such as Foucault in the twentieth century. Anyone interested in comparative politics and ethical questions in politics would do well to study the philosophical thought behind the political systems. A graduate student in philosophy understands the conflict behind the different methodological views of politics and can analyze their pros and cons - though no-one has yet found the perfect system.
- If you are more interested in studying how political history impacted modern society and politics - the rise of liberalism, the differentiation between legislative and executive powers, analytical views on the impact of political decisions on the economy and social history or the interaction of world powers in international politics - consider a Political Science major. A number of universities in the UK have political science courses on their curriculum.
Read more about studying History in the UK.
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