Political realism and history

Last month I participated in an Italian conference on political realism. A group of fifty-strong Italian academics and researchers, we spent three days, 8 hours per day, in a beautiful monastery in Perugia debating the meaning of political realism. The line-up was ambitious: we were each given 15 minutes to make our original and insightful contribution to thinking about political realism. Topics ranged from Thucydides to Strauss, from Mosca to Machiavelli, from Hobbes to Aron, via many other thinkers who contributed more or less to shaping the idea of ‘political realism’.

My talk focused on political realism and geopolitics. When my turn to speak arrived, at the end of the first day, the audience seemed a bit fatigued by the day’s intense intellectual labours. To brighten up the discussion, I argued that we, as historians of political thought, should reconsider the usefulness of ‘political realism’ as a category of political analysis. Possibly, ‘political realism’ is too vague and general a category to provide any insightful, instructive and innovative historical and conceptual knowledge. Many past thinkers embellished their arguments with the title of ‘political realism’. But among this diversified group of realist thinkers – even the ones we’ve discussed at the conference – there was a plurality of incompatible arguments and conclusions.

For example, in mid-century American geopolitics, many claimed to speak for ‘political realism’ in their geopolitical writings. Both Owen Lattimore and Nicholas Spykman argued that they were realists because they based their political proposals on empirical observations of the geopolitical world and power relations within it. However, Spykman thought a realist political theory should recognize the real power relations in the world: American political global supremacy. Lattimore similarly thought political realism should be based on reality, which for him meant a plurality of communities, societies and states. Spykman’s world order aimed at accommodating the new American world power, while Lattimore’s aimed at safeguarding the world’s diversity and pluralism. It is easy to judge – anachronistically – whose ideas were more realistic, in sense of political realization and practicality. But this is beside my point. I was interested in showing how ‘political realism’ could mean anything and nothing, even for people who write at the same time and place in similar academic environment. Thus, perhaps we should be wary of using the term too generally, without grounding it in historicised definitions and intellectual context.

Despite the late hour, my intervention ignited a long debate. Some were concerned with giving up on ‘political realism’ – it seemed like a basic concept in politics which should not be abandoned so easily (not to mention the possible implications for the whole conference, whose topic and title were now at risk). Others were relieved to find that many shared their doubts about the viability of ‘political realism’ as an eternal, cross-cultural and cross-temporal category. Perhaps instead of one ‘political realism’ there should be many diverse realisms, not necessarily compatible with each other.

Yet not everyone was keen to give up, and some started to look for a mega-definition of political realism. One proposal went along the lines of ‘political theory based on observation of reality’, which, in its turn, seemed to some too vague as to include almost any attempt at thinking about politics, including Thomas More’s Utopia and Kant’s Perpetual Peace which emerged as a critique on reality of their times. If it wasn’t for dinner, we would have gone on and on forever.

At the end of the day, it was a stimulating and diversified conference exploring ideas from different places, times and contexts. Intentionally or not, the uncovering of the thousand aspects of ‘political realism’ showed that it could never be assigned one clear meaning.