Ever since the invention of printing, books have heavily shaped the basis of political ideas and cultures around the world and influenced the course of revolutionary political movements from time to time. Moreover, in most cases, the political inclinations of a person are heavily influenced by the kind of books he/she reads.
Though millions of books on various political ideas have come and gone, only a handful of them stood the test of time. For centuries now, these books have formed the basis of some of the most fundamental political thoughts and ideas we know today.
Though a list of ten books will never be able to cover all the dominant ideas or portray the dominance of books in the sphere, it can definitely provide a beginning point to undergraduate and graduate students.
This list is an attempt to compile some of the powerful books that shaped the basis of major political thoughts around the world and India in particular and continue to play a key role in our day to day political discourse.
Last but not the least, this list does not intend to endorse any particular political thought or incline towards one ideology or the other.
1. Republic, Plato (4th Century BC)
Compiled around 375 BC, The Republic is one of the best-known works of the Greek political theorist and thinker Plato. The Republic discusses a range of topics from justice, the order, and character of the just city-state, to the idea of the just man to other foundational concepts of political theory.
The text of the Republic is presented in the form of a dialogue between Socrates who was Plato’s teacher and three other interlocutors. The book remains till date a classic enquiry into the idea of a perfect community and the ideal individual within it.
As the conversation progresses, a range of questions arise such as what is goodness? what is reality? and what is knowledge? It addresses the purpose of education and the role of both women and men as guardians of the people.
For more than two thousand years, the Republic has proven to be one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory. Therefore, it becomes a fundamental read for graduate and undergraduate students.
2. Politics, Aristotle (4th Century BC)
In Politics, Aristotle, who was Plato’s student himself, fundamentally describes the role that politics and the political community must play to bring about the truthful life in the citizenry. The work can also be seen as an analysis of the sorts of political communities that Aristotle saw in his time. He talks about where and how cities fall short of the ideal community of virtuous citizens.
For centuries, Politics, which is a reflection of Aristotle’s belief that citizens must take an active part in politics and his commentary on what causes and prevents revolution within political communities have proved to a constant source of inspiration for many contemporary theorists. Aristotle’s Politics is particularly important for those who oppose the liberal political philosophy endorsed by thinkers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill.
3. The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)
In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau talks about the best way to establish a political community against the backdrop of the problems of commercial society.
Rousseau opens The Social Contract with the famous phrase, “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” Through this, he insists that modern states not only repress the physical freedom that is the birth right of every man but also does nothing to protect the civil freedom, the primary reason behind our entry into the civil society.
Ever since its publication, The Social Contract has helped inspire various political reforms or revolutions in Europe and particularly in France. A number of Rousseau’s theories on sovereignty and law discussed in The Social Contract had a direct influence on French revolutionaries such as Robespierre.
For over a century now, the book has been seen as one of the defining texts of modern political philosophy. It emphases the need for selves to play a responsible role in civil society in order to ensure their liberty.
4. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
First published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest works in the field of modern feminist thought. The central argument that Wollstonecraft introduced in this work is as relevant to present-day feminist philosophy as it ever was.
Through this book, Wollstonecraft responded to the educational and political theorists of the 18th century who opposed the idea of providing rational education to women. Wollstonecraft argues that female education must essentially match their position in society and since women raise the children and possess all the abilities to act as respected “companions” to their husbands.
Wollstonecraft’s arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman were far ahead of her time. In the 12th Chapter of the book, ‘On National Education’, Wollstonecraft recommends the establishment of a national education system in the UK, to regulate mixed-sex schools. It was a revolutionary argument that turned into reality almost a decade after her death with the establishment of The Scottish Dollar Academy in 1818.
5. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (1848)
Written by Karl Marx with the help of Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto was first published on 21st February 1848, in London by a group of German-born revolutionary socialists known as the Communist League.
Though heavily criticised by certain political classes, and often rejected on grounds of being delusional and irrelevant, ever since its first publication, this political pamphlet remains one of the most influential in history.
The Communist Manifesto proclaims that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It offers an analytical approach to the historical and the contemporary class struggle and the conflicts of capitalism and the capitalist mode of production.
The Communist Manifesto offers a brief reflection of Marx and Engels’ ideas of how the capitalist society of their time would ultimately be replaced by socialism. Moreover, the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions,” that Marx and Engels called for in the last paragraph of the Manifesto, eventually became the basis of communist revolutions around the world and remains the same to date.
The aggrandization of the idea of political violence, and the gross materialism of the thought process embedded in the narrative that the Manifesto sets for itself actually isolates the book into a class of its own, and possibly embodies the zenith of the defensive offences that modern world politics emerged into after the Second World War.
6. On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1859)
First published in 1859, On Liberty is one of the most fierce and powerful defences of free speech ever written.
John Stuart Mill begins On Liberty by discussing the historical “struggle between authority and liberty.” He further describes the tyranny of government, which, in his opinion, must be controlled by the liberty of the citizens.
Mill goes on to divide the control of authority into two mechanisms. Firstly, necessary rights belonging to citizens, and secondly, the establishment of constitutional checks through which the consent of the community, or a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests.
In this essay, Mill aims to defend free speech and individual liberty by referring to them as “one very simple principle.” Later, modern commentators called this idea harm principle. According to the harm principle, people should only be stopped or restricted from acting when their conduct is certain to harm another individual.
Over the years, the ideas and arguments presented in On Liberty have shaped the basis of sizably political thoughts.
7. Annihilation of Caste, B. R. Ambedkar (1936)
Annihilation of Caste, first published in 1936, is one of the most important, yet largely overlooked political writings from India.
Annihilation of Caste is a lecture written by Shri B.R. Ambedkar that denounces the Hindu Brahminical caste system in India. Through this speech, he offers an intellectual critique of Hindu scriptures, that permit a rigidly hierarchical and iniquitous social system.
In the text, Ambedkar argues that only inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriage are not enough to completely annihilate the caste system. Rather, “the real method of breaking up the Caste System was… to destroy the religious notions upon which caste is founded.”
On 12 December 1935, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, an anti-caste Hindu reformist group invited B. R. Ambedkar to deliver a speech on the caste system in India at their annual conference in 1936.Ambedkar prepared the speech in the form of an essay under the title “Annihilation of Caste” and sent a copy to the organisers in Lahore.
However, organisers found some of the subjects so critical in the idiom and vocabulary used, and so provocative in promoting conversion away from Hinduism, that it endangers Brahmanical interests.They requested Ambedkar to delete large sections of the content which, in their word were “unbearable.”
In his response, Ambedkar declared that he “would not change a comma” of his text. Finding no other option, the committee was ultimately compelled to cancel the whole annual conference as they feared violence by orthodox Hindus.
Annihilation of Caste becomes significantly important as it contains some of the fundamental arguments that largely influenced the shaping of the Indian Left.
8. Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)
Animal Farm, published in 1945, begins with a political motive from the very first chapter. Though the story revolves around an animal farm, a strong political satire accompanies the plot throughout the book.
Animal Farm tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their dictator human farmer with the hope to create a fair society for animals where they can be free, happy and equal. However, the rebellion is soon spoiled by some of the animals who become greedy for power and the farm ends up under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.
In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” Orwell mentioned that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried what he was doing with full consciousness. He tried “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
Time magazine chose Animal Farm as one of the 100 best English-language novels ever written. The book was also included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels and BBC’s The Big Read poll. In 1996, Animal Farm won the prestigious Hugo Award.
9. A Brief History of Citizenship- Benjamin Heater (2004)
Beginning from Plato to Richard Rorty, A Brief History of Citizenship provides a brief analysis of the idea of citizenship. The book covers major periods, starting with Greece and Rome, on to the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, and finally to the modern era.
In this book, Heater positively argues that it is impossible for us to understand our present conditions until we have a basic understanding of the fundamental idea of “the citizen” and how that idea has evolved over the centuries.
The book covers some of the important areas such as how citizenship differs from other forms of socio-political identity, the differences between nationality and citizenship, and how our ideas of citizenship in the twenty-first century by the influence of multiculturalism.
The book provides a brief reflection on how citizenship became the main concept in democracy during the struggles of the British people, the Americans and the French.
10. Why I Killed Gandhi, Nathuram Godse (2015)
Why I Killed Gandhi contains the original statement given by Nathuram Godse. In this book, Godse states some of the primary reasons that motivated him to carry out the biggest assassination in Indian history.
Though heavily criticised by almost all factions of the Indian leftist spectrum, and admired and idolised by the international Right, Why I Killed Gandhi is significantly important to understand some of the fundamental ideas and beliefs that shape the basis of the Indian Right. This book becomes a must-read for any undergraduate or graduate to understand the fundamentals of the Indian right-wing ideology and how they differed from those of the Mahatma.
But to call it only relevant to the Right would be a mistake. Godse’s statements in the book border on ideates like the ‘greater good’ and identitarian politics is something that has been at the core of nationalistic movements all across the world even in contemporary eras.