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on 31 May 2010
Politics is, when you stop to think about it, surprisingly slippery in its definition. In this Very Short Introduction, Minogue begins by trying to pin down what we mean by the word, and compares it to what (in his view) it isn't: despotism. He then proceeds to explore the history of politics, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans and moving on through medieval politics and the influence of Christianity, all the way to the present day.

The author then turns to the practice of politics: how it is experienced, the difference between the State and society, the role of the individual, culture, and the economy. He investigates international relations and examines what we mean by "the national interest". He looks at the experience of engaging in politics - and the type of person it takes to be a politician. As you would expect, parties and doctrines are covered, including the conservative-liberal divide, and where socialism fits into that picture. Concepts like justice, freedom and democracy are also considered.

Finally, Minogue moves on from the practice to the science of politics, and the attempt to understand politics as a process or mechanism. The last chapter is a glance into the future: at growing internationalism, at the widening definition of politics, and how almost everything is now deemed 'political'. There have been hints at the author's political leanings throughout earlier chapters, but it is here that they really come to the fore.

History forms a dominant part of this book, as you might expect. The first third is a solid history of politics, but be warned: the author assumes familiarity with significant figures like Machiavelli and Marx, and takes it from there. Whether this constitutes an 'introduction' to politics is debatable (though readers already familiar with the Very Short Introduction series will know not to expect Politics For Dummies). Like me, you may not entirely agree with Minogue's own politics, but there's no denying his encyclopaedic knowledge. That, combined with his well-crafted prose, makes this is a challenging but pleasurable read.
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Otto von Bismarck once remarked that politics is "the art of the possible." This sentiment is meant to convey the idea that there is not much room for idealism in the everyday conduct of politics. Indeed, as "Politics: A Very Short Introduction" observes repeatedly, all attempts at organizing affairs of men along some highly idealized guiding principles invariably result in large-scale bloodshed. Another way of looking at this is to think of politics as a necessary evil, albeit one that can improve the lot of humanity in concrete ways without the need to reach all the way to the stars.

Because of its nature, politics can be a very unsavory subject to deal with. It is one of the virtues of this very short introduction that it aims to take a very long-term view of politics as it has evolved over the course of several millennia. This is also a very western-centric view, taking the beginnings of what we recognize as civic politics in the ancient classical world of Greece and Rome. Nonetheless, it is a fact that politics as a participatory civic activity has for the first time been well defined in the classical context, and whether consciously or unconsciously political institutions for the next two millennia have been compared to their purported classical ideals.

This book is written in a very literary style that is as far removed from the standard textbook writing as they come. The author throws sweeping generalizations and one-sentence characterizations with an almost reckless abandon. In a way this approach can be very refreshing, and makes this an enjoyable book to read. Even when you come across points that seem dubious at best you will appreciate the insights that are being offered. The book treats politics within the history of ideas, rather than a craft. This approach is probably necessary for a short book that aims for a sweeping view, but after reading it you may not be able to understand the politics as reported in the news any better than before. Nonetheless, this is a very lively book that is thought provoking and fun to read.
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on 19 March 2002
As a second year political science student, I considered it to be excellently written, even for people who don't have much idea on politics, and it gives a good insight on what the main theories and ideas that you need to retain on politics. He introduces a good evolution of politics from ancient Rome and Greece to the twentieth century. In all it's a great jargon-free introduction to politics and is very recomended.
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on 27 June 2005
This is probably one of the most amazing, challenging and beautifully-written books I have ever read in my life (at least in English). Kenneth Minogue has produced an outstanding page-turner. The book covers the essential history of politics and looks at the ways in which it is experienced, construed, challenged and also threatened in our modern society. It is an excellent introduction that every serious student of Politics must read.
However, I think that first year university students, who have little or no knowledge of politics might find the content of this book a bit tricky and confusingly complicated. It thus seems appropriate to rename it from "A Very Short Introduction" to "A Very Short Review".
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on 16 July 2010
It is perhaps inevitable, given the essentially contested nature of politics, that any book on the subject is bound to be slanted, opinionated and infused with the author's own biases. But in an introductory text, an author arguably has a special obligation to at least strive for objectivity, to at least present the facts or differing opinions on a subject to a reader, and let them decide among them (or, at the very least, to make an argument that is presented as such, rather than as a statement of fact). In all of this, Kenneth Minogue completely fails. What he has actually produced is a highly ideological treatment of the topic, disguised as an objective statement of fact.

The best aspect of the book is that Minogue understands that politics means different things at different moments and so he takes readers through Ancient Greece, Rome, and the formation of modern states. These summaries are understandably brief but they give a decent overview of the notion of politics held in the past. Where the book completely falls down is in its presentation of the present. For all of Minogue's warnings about people assuming that today's values are natural and eternal, his presentation of contemporary politics unthinkingly and uncritically endorses the current liberal-democratic, capitalist mainstream and dismisses any attempt to change prevailing arrangements as inherently dangerous. He presents the current order as entirely natural, uncritically endorsing individualism (without considering its historical contingency and negative effects), along with dubious concepts like the "national interest" and "public good". He also repeatedly warns against any attempt to disturb the liberal order, saying it will only lead to despotism (as will various other things, including idealistic young people in politics, trying to reduce poverty, or being too enthusiastic about orienting politics towards justice). Minogue's book is really an endorsement of the neoliberal claim that There Is No Alternative.

Ideological arguments are arguably inappropriate for an introductory text since readers may be particularly ill-equipped to identify them as ideological. This makes it especially necessary to announce ideological statements as such, to flag up the potential for disagreement, to deal with counter-arguments adequately. However, Minogue completely neglects to tell readers that he is producing an ideological account; in fact, he distinguishes ideology from politics by explicitly defining politics in liberal terms, therefore ruling out the consideration of liberalism as an ideology. This is, of course, a classically ideological move! He also fails to really grapple with counter-arguments since he deals so dismissively with alternative approaches, producing a particularly derisory and crude account of Marxism.

His brief attempt to deal with international relations is also incredibly simplistic and uncritically endorses realism, in line with his generally pessimistic view of a naturalised "state of nature" prevailing among states. The notion of the "balance of power" has come under enormous challenge from IR scholars over the last several decades, which Minogue seems completely unaware of.

I would not recommend this book to either a general readership or to students of politics. There are far better general introductions to the nature of politics out there (even Bernard Crick's similarly reactionary tome, 'In Defence of Politics', is better than this; better yet, read some of the classics, like Weber on 'Politics as a Vocation' or Marx and Engels in the 'Communist Manifesto'). This book adds very little. It will not provide the broad overview of schools of thought that many students need to guide their understanding of political science, while it remains frustratingly narrow, parochial and status-quoist in its presentation of the nature and scope of politics by sneering at every significant attempt made to change it. For young readers in particular I can only imagine that this text would be a profoundly depressing and demoralising introduction to the subject.
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on 17 October 2009
This book is very well written, just like all the other books of the series I've read.

The only thing I found difficult is that the author uses overly long and complicated words, which are not always necessary. The other thing is that you really need to have a good insight on the basics of politics: some essential writings (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobes, Locke etc), otherwise you don't really understand half the things he mentions.

It really makes sense though - it is a highly complicated and intricate subject, and in order to write such a brief introduction to the topic, the author has had to take some things for granted.

Great book overall, would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in politics, history, societies etc.
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on 15 May 2010
It could be a bit difficult to understand (when reading it as a book to pass the time) if some of the meaning of the technical words used in the book have not been understood previously
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on 6 November 2012
I'm a Politics student and found this book extremely interesting and really good for my studies.

As far as academic texts go it was quite easy to read, however some words did need looking up. Overall it was enjoyable and gave a really good in-depth insight into how Politics developed back in the times of the Ancient Greeks, which is something I have never come across before, right up to modern Politics.
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on 23 August 2013
This introductory text is quite Eurocentric and biased in some ways, for instance its dismissal of all non-European political traditions as "despotism". This view is certainly too simplistic. For instance, in the ancient Chinese political doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, there are democratic elements present too. As Mencius once said: "Heaven sees through the eyes of the people; Heaven hears through the ears of the people" and "The people are the most important components of a nation. The rulers are less important...". It is mind-boggling that the author would consider ancient China to be more "despotic" than medieval Christian Europe. And during the Western Han Dynasty in China nearly 2200 years ago, a poor peasant girl was able to directly write a letter to the Han emperor and successfully got the emperor to reduce the punishment for her father for a crime he committed. For all the much vaunted "republican civil law" and "democracy" in Ancient Rome, I don't think this kind of thing ever happened in the Roman world. The point is not that there aren't some relatively positive political elements from Ancient Greece and Rome as well, The point is that to dismiss the entire political history of the non-European world as simply "despotism", like what the author is doing here, is really the worst kind of Orientalism which even relatively enlightened Western thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries didn't indulge in. How could the author repeat this kind of old line today in the 21st century when the West no longer dominates the world like it used to in previous centuries?

Of course, compared with today's political standards, every ancient society would seem somewhat "despotic". But our world today has only become more democratic because of the numerous mass movements, reforms and revolutions in recent centuries across the entire world, rather than due to some "intrinsically progressive essence" in "Western civilisation".
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on 6 February 2012
I have read five different 'a very short introduction...' books; unfortunately, I rank this book last. Not only did I feel it was slightly too opinionated rather than factual, but perhaps more importantly, it was difficult to read. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, however I can read and follow most books. Yet there were some very interesting and informative sections. Nonetheless, this is merely my viewpoint and I'm sure others can understand it perfectly well and love it.
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