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.
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:
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.
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.
Julius Caesar was also part of a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus.Photo credit: iandolphin24 on Visualhunt
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).
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 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.
Louis XIV of France is often considered the poster boy of absolute monarchy. Photo credit: Hyacinthe Rigaud on Wikimedia
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 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.
For a while, the god Amun-Re reigned over part of Egypt.
Photo credit: kairoinfo4u on Visual Hunt
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.
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 designation of political “right” and “left” come from the seating arrangement at the Convention Nationale, the first French parliament.
From Augustin Challamel, Histoire-musée de la république Française, depuis l’assemblée des notables, Paris, Delloye, 1842. Photo on Wikimedia.
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.
In political science, a difference is made between direct and representative democracy.
In Athens, citizens could vote to exile someone by writing their name on shards of pottery and dropping them in an urn. Photo credit: Pilar Torres on Visualhunt
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:
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.
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.
Read more about studying History in the UK.