Perhaps you've enjoyed George Orwell's Animal Farm or Nelson Mandela's Long Walk To Freedom. Maybe you've even tackled Plato's The Republic or Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. Here are some other hugely important, but lesser known, political classics.
1. Lord ActonEssays On Freedom & Power (1948)
It was Acton who penned the famous line (in a letter to a friend), "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".
Few know now that Acton was actually referring to the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he vigorously opposed at the First Vatican Council in 1870. As a staunch Catholic he believed the moral laws of the Church were perfect, but human beings certainly were not. To stay in power a good person may need to become bad, he noted, and when their power is great so grows the potential for badness.
Acton worked for years on a History of Liberty that would trace the slow emergence of freedom from classical times through to the modern world. He never completed it, and the Essays on Freedom and Power were published only after World War Two. Indeed, Acton's view of history as a morality tale in which liberty and truth unfold over time was unfashionable during his lifetime, and according to biographer Gertrude Himmelfarb it was only in World War Two, when his unyielding moral outlook was seen as a prophetic warning against totalitarianism, that Acton's resurrection began.
For Acton, liberty was "the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation". It takes a long time for freedom to become rooted in institutions, and even then it is prey to subversion; we who live in democratic systems should never be complacent. Democracy is desirable to the extent that it enhances and preserves liberty. If it does not achieve this, our casting of a vote in the ballot box is a hollow act.
2. Sun Yat-senThree Principles of the People (1921)
Before Mao Tse-tung, before Deng Xiaoping, there was Sun Yat-sen.
Sun despaired at the vulnerability of early 20th century China to Japanese aggression and colonial exploitation by the Western powers. He ran a long campaign, mostly from exile, for China to rid itself of centuries of dynastic rule and foreign influences and stand on its own feet. His Three Principles - nationalism, democracy and 'people's livelihood' - would restore China's greatness.
Now revered in both China and Taiwan as leader of the first popular revolution and father of the Chinese republic, Sun was strikingly international. He spent his high school years in Hawaii, studied medicine in Hong Kong, where to his family's dismay he converted to Christianity under the influence of English missionaries, and after his first failed attempt at overthrowing the Manchu Qing government in 1895, spent years living in Japan, the United States and Britain. His forced exile allowed him to study Western politics, and he constantly worked to get the support of the Chinese Diaspora for the nationalist cause. Sun was raising funds in America when, after numerous attempted uprisings orchestrated from abroad, China had its 1911 revolution. The following year the first Chinese republic was formed, with Sun as its president. Modern China's achievements stem from the revival of a nationalist spirit, spearheaded by Sun, which preceded communism.
Reading Sun-Yat Sen today makes you appreciate why contemporary China is so paranoid about giving up even a centimeter of territory it believes belongs to it historically, and why it clamps down hard on any separatist movements such as the Uyghurs. Because in the past national consciousness has sometimes been lacking, it now goes quite the other way. No diminution of nationhood can be tolerated. Reading the Three Principles, you begin to understand where this outlook comes from.
3. Robert NozickAnarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)
Today it is fashionable to call one's self a libertarian, railing against the excesses of the Big State, but in the mid-1970s anyone calling for severely limited government was firmly on the political fringe. Robert Nozick, a philosophy professor, himself started out thinking that this view of the state and society was callous; like many people he believed that it is the state's duty to help people.
Yet he came to the realisation that, "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do." In writing Anarchy, State and Utopia he hoped to convince readers that "the minimal state is inspiring as well as right".
The book had such an impact because it was an uncompromising, almost shocking answer to the ideological paradigm of the mid to late 20th century, redistributive justice, which undergirded the welfare state and which was best expressed in a theoretical sense in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.
In the Preface to the book, Nozick even admits that he did not enjoy the fact that most people in his world (America's East Coast intelligentsia) didn't agree with his views, not least because his position on the limited role of the state put him with some 'bad company', as he puts it. He distanced his well-reasoned outlook from that of ultra-libertarian Ayn Rand, for instance. Anarchy, State and Utopia is not a strident political tract, but a philosophical work that admits its own weak points and pays due respect to opposing arguments. If you wish to be seen as a well-reasoned libertarian, and not a crank, you must read this book.
4. MachiavelliDiscourses on Livy (1519)
We all know about Machiavelli's The Prince, his famous manual of power, but many would argue that his much longer Discourses represents his true political philosophy.
Medieval political theory had the king or ruler as 'father' of the people, and saw republican government as inherently unstable, but Machiavelli was not taken in by this. Republics certainly had the appearance of messiness and unpredictability, but underneath this the fact of popular enfranchisement and power provided a stability that tyrannies and oligarchies lack. In contrast, his theory of power says that only states which are meritocratic, allow immigration, and have a wish to grow large will be able to command lasting influence in the world. Add to this an emphasis on open government, a trustworthy judiciary, and an array of checks and balances that prevent any one person or party being able to dominate, and you have a recipe for lasting state success.
The Discourses is important in the history of political philosophy because it provides an antidote to Utopian schemes such as Plato's republic. Machiavelli believed that only a society in which conflict was allowed, indeed part of the system, would be robust. Any system that tried to force an ideal order on people would in contrast be brittle or fragile, since it could not accommodate a plurality of views or dissent. Where Plato tried to arrest change, Machiavelli knew that institutions and public opinion constantly change and evolve, so the wise thing was to accommodate it. In this he provides a model for the sprawling, pluralist democracies that have been the most successful form of political organization in the modern era.