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Political Evolutionism

Undoubtedly this is an incomplete account of post-historicist studies in comparative politics. It has dealt only with dominant themes in American and German political studies. As a result, it necessarily is less than just to those writers who were, as some writers always are, out of tune with the dominant trends, who lagged behind the times or marched ahead of them. For example, Bluntschli, in his monumental (and much neglected) Theory of the State , begins with an explicit rejection of two "false methods," "abstract ideology" and "mere empiricism," and a special plea for methods of "concrete thinking," and lives up to this position at least to some extent (though Bentley denies it). We can no doubt find other important writers equally at odds with the tenor of the times. This is especially the case in regard to a school of writers who, more than any others, kept comparative politics alive throughout this largely anticomparative period, writers whose works have very wide scope, who combine theory and data almost on the scale of the historicists, and who are alluded to in almost every work on politics of the period, even the narrowest, most abstract, and most formal-legal—the political evolutionists.

Evolutionary studies might of course be considered a particular kind of historicism, and in some forms they do come close to what is nowadays (after Popper) generally meant by that term. Those evolutionary studies that posit some inevitable goal (such as democracy or perfect freedom) for the evolutionary process and a basic evolutionary principle (such as survival of the fittest, economic growth, progressive economic differentiation) as, so to speak, the "spirit" of the process are almost indistinguishable from historicist theories. Most evolutionists rejected, however, the too audacious, often ill-informed, theories of the historicists no less than did the pure philosophers, the formal-legalists, and the political ethnogra-


phers, although they rejected them in different ways and for different reasons.

Evolutionary theories about politics involved, in the first place, an empirical reaction against historicism in that the evolutionists paid meticulous attention to data that the historicists had on the whole treated only in the vaguest generalities—particularly primitive, early Western, and non-Western political systems. Evolutionism involved also a theoretical reaction against historicism. Instead of attempting to write universal history, including the future no less than the past, they concentrated upon much more limited problems—particularly the problem of the origin of the modern territorial state. As a general rule, they tried merely to find the processes and laws underlying the development of complex political systems. This is in every sense a more limited concern than that which motivated Condorcet or Hegel. At their best, evolutionary studies combined the respect for data of the ethnographers with the modesty in speculation of contemporary middle-range theorists. Granted that some of the theories the evolutionists produced look very peculiar nowadays—that is less the result of any dubious procedures on their part than of the fact that they proceeded from theoretical presuppositions and asked theoretical questions that have simply gone out of fashion.

Evolutionary Theories

What sort of theories did the evolutionists produce? Essentially two kinds: theories of sequence—the stages of political development—and theories of the moving forces behind the evolutionary sequences. The most common theory of sequence traced the origin of the modern state to a continuous process of social enlargement and complication beginning with the primordial family. Among many works arguing this point of view probably the most illustrious are Sir Henry Maine's Ancient Law (1861) and Early History of Institutions (1874), in which political life is depicted as beginning with the patriarchal family and proceeding through two intermediate units, the house and the tribe, before the territorially contiguous form of the state is reached. This argument is based on a meticulous examination of Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Hindu history.

The principal alternative to this interpretation is one that traces the origin of the state not to the family but rather to the disintegration of primitive social forms—not to the growing size and complexity of social units but to the opposite, the gradual individuation of human beings, their extrication from collectivities in which individuality itself is absorbed into the larger unit. So, for example, Edward Jenks argued, in A Short History of Politics and The State and the Nation , both published toward the end of the period under consideration (1900 and 1919), that the proper sequence


for the emergence of the territorial state is not Maine's, but rather from hunting pack to tribe, from tribe to clan, from clan to family, and from there to nonkinship units, individuals, and the state. In a sense, he reverses Maine's arguments.

As to the moving forces behind these sequences, a much greater variety of theories confronts us. Some evolutionists attributed the rise of the state, particularly the transition from the patriarchal family to the more extended political groups, to religious forces. The usual theory is that of Fraser's Golden Bough (for a political scientist's version, see Sir John Seeley's Introduction to Political Science , 1896), which traces the evolution of simple patriarchal authority through gerontocrats claiming a special skill in dealing with the world of spirits and through the rule of specialized magicians to that of the priest-king. Fraser's work was based largely on studies of societies with which Maine had not dealt in detail, such as ancient Egypt and primitive societies portrayed in early anthropological studies.

Another group of theorists, especially Oppenheimer in The State (1914), find the propelling force leading to the state not in religion but in force, in the building-up of gradually larger units through systematic conquest. Still another theory claims that the state comes into being through the impact of social differentiation on primitive social forms, especially through the appearance of vertical stratification. This view is argued, for example, by W. C. MacLeod in two works, The Origins of the State (1924) and The Origin and History of Politics (1921), studies in which Darwin, Marx, and early anthropology are all combined in a curious mixture.

A fourth theory linked the evolution of political institutions with economic changes, not so much in the style of Marx as in that of Rousseau's Essay on the Origins of Inequality . An example is Oppenheimer's The State , which, in effect, combines the conquest theory of the state with an economic theory of its origins. Oppenheimer argues that complex forms of government are made necessary by class distinctions based on wealth and that the institution of slavery to build up a labor force is the basic foundation of the state. ("The moment when the first conqueror spared his victim in order to exploit him is of incomparable historical importance. It gave birth to nation and state.") Some writers linked the development of the state with the development of pastoral pursuits, others with the accumulation of surplus wealth, still others with the development of the idea of property or population pressures upon resources and resulting wars of conquest or, as we have seen, social differentiation of any sort.

Finally, certain writers produced "diffusion" rather than "convergence" theories of the state. These theories argue, in effect, that the factors leading to the state did not produce it in different places through force of similar circumstances, but that the state came into being only once and in only


one place through "natural causes" and then gradually spread, presumably because of its organizational superiority and through a process combining conquest and borrowing, to other societies, like ripples in a pool. For example, G. E. Smith and W. J. Perry, in The Origin and History of Politics (1931), place the origin of the state in Egypt around the year 5000 B. C. Here the state emerged, in their view, through a convergence of religious and economic forces never duplicated elsewhere. From Egypt it spread, by quite another sort of inevitability, to the rest of the world.

The Legacy of Evolutionism

Developmental theories of this sort have gone out of style in our age of models, "system" theories, and equilibrium analyses; and so they have about them a musty and archaic flavor, an ambience of crumbling volumes in the dark recesses of libraries and of vain debates long since resolved in irreconcilable disagreements. Yet the pursuit of such theories spans a period from mid-nineteenth century to a mere generation ago, a period that overlaps on one end with historicism itself and on the other with the comparative politics of our own time. In fact, the larger syntheses of political evolutionary studies still smell of fresh ink; the best-known perhaps is Book I of MacIver's The Modern State , first published in 1926 and reissued last in 1955, and Part II of E. M. Sait's Political Institutions , published first in 1938. Sait calls his study A Preface , a rather melancholy fact when viewed from the perspective of our time, for it is, in fact, an epilogue and a summing-up. This useful summing-up synthesizes all the divergent tendencies of nearly a century of evolutionary thought about politics, however, as witness the following extract:[6]

The State is composed of three elements: people, government and territory. From the beginning, groups of people are bound together by the cohesive force of kinship and religion. The family is the primordial unit, which expands into sibs (gentes , clans) and the tribe. Among pastoral people, patriarchal discipline prepares the way for tribal government; tribesmen who are accustomed to give unquestioning obedience to their respective family heads naturally accept the authority of the council of elders or patriarchs and of the chieftain who rises out of the council. But the emergence of government—that is, an intensified regulative system—within the kinship group must be associated with economic causes, with the adoption of pastoral pursuits and the accumulation of surplus wealth. Property introduces all sorts of complications. There are disputes within the tribe to be settled; there are raids by avaricious neighbors to be repelled. The situation calls for individual leadership. Some member of the council, more energetic and enterprising than his fellows (and for that reason more wealthy), pushes his way to the front with or without the assistance of religious superstition. He, or some one who later essays the same role, is recognized as chieftain. Since the


qualities of leadership are likely to be inherited, the office becomes attached to a particular family and is transmitted like other forms of property. Government exists. But although the pastoralists may confine their wanderings within roughly determined geographical limits, they are still nomads.

The territorial State does not appear until population begins to press upon subsistence. Then one of two courses may be followed: new land may be acquired by migration or the old land put to more productive use. Fertile pasturage, when brought under cultivation, will support a much larger population; and the tribesmen have long been familiar with the possibility of raising grain and vegetables from wild seed. Rather than leave the region to which they have become attached, they supplement the prevailing pastoral economy with the rudiments of agriculture. Gradually the herdsmen become husbandmen. The transition takes place slowly, as, by trial and error or by the imitation of some neighboring agriculturists, the methods of tillage are improved and their potentialities realized. Along with the new system of production come great social changes: above all, the sharpening of class distinctions, the systematic resort to slavery, the emphasis placed upon military life (first for defense, then for conquest), and the establishment of monarchy. With settlement upon the land and the acquisition of fixed abodes, the original kinship tie gives way, naturally but stubbornly, to the new territorial tie.

In some such way the state arose.

Because evolutionary political studies have passed out of fashion, their importance is all too easily underrated, but they constituted a tremendously important phase in the development of comparative politics. Above all, they kept comparative study itself alive in a period when it was threatened from every direction. Along with political ethnography they helped to focus attention on political systems other than those of the West just when the academic emphasis on training exerted great pressure toward restricting the political scientist's span of attention. They posed genuine theoretical problems when political scientists were concerned mainly with depicting formal-legal structures. They kept alive a systematic interest in links between political institutions and other aspects of society and kept political science in touch with other social sciences, especially sociology and cultural anthropology, when the newly won departmental autonomy of the field produced attitudes threatening to cut it off from a vast range of relevant data and many useful theories. To be sure, they led in political studies to the consideration of a very limited range of problems, especially concern with the origin of certain widespread political forms and the attempt to discover common sources for similar political institutions in different societies—the chief purpose of E. A. Freeman's celebrated Comparative Politics . But that was better at least than no concern at all with problems requiring large-scale comparisons.


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