Book Review: Conflict, War and Revolution: The Problem of Politics in International Political Thought by Paul Kelly


In Conflict, war and revolution: the problem of politics in international political thoughtyouavailable free access from LSE PressPaul Kelly offers a rich and engaging introduction to international political thought through ten key historical thinkers. Readers coming to political theory for the first time will find Kelly’s evident enthusiasm for these ideas deeply infectious and this book an exciting entry into the field, recommends Christopher Finlay.

Conflict, War and Revolution: The Problem of Politics in International Political Thought. Paul Kelly. Press LSE. 2022.

In Conflict, war and revolution, Paul Kelly provides students with a rich and engaging introduction to international political thought through a series of ten key historical thinkers. The book is downloadable free from LSE Press, although it is also possible to purchase a hard copy. Students can either read it in its entirety as a general introduction to the field, or extract individual chapters about thinkers that interest them – each is designed to be accessed on its own terms.

It is worth drawing attention to three interesting features of the general design of the book. First, it sits within a specific sub-discipline that Kelly identifies as “international political theory” (IPT). Kelly carefully contrasts the IPT with various things that lie on its borders or overlap with it. IPT is not the same as, for example, international relations (or international relations theory), although it does share some concerns. Rather, the IPT has emerged as an intellectual rival to positivist approaches to international politics that tend to push normative and prescriptive issues away from academics. Against the positivists, Kelly argues for the value of theoretical perspectives that give far more space to normative questions.

On the other hand, however, Kelly distinguishes the IPT from the history of political thought. He advocates engaging with historical thinkers in a way informed by historical scholarship. But he resists the tendency of contextualists to argue that past thought can only really be understood on its own terms. Kelly is convinced that readers of the present can extract valuable insights from historical thinkers and should not view them as understandable only through the methodological prism of history. Conflict, war and revolution therefore presents an idea of ​​international political theory and political thought informed, but not trapped, by history.

The book’s second notable feature is how it carves out a much broader disciplinary space than that implicit in what Kelly calls “an unchallenged but apolitical cosmopolitanism.” Although sympathetic to liberalism, he defends the value of “realism” in engaging with real-world problems and conditions, and he situates the book within the recent “realistic turn” by distancing political theory from what proponents of Bernard Williams call “moralism”. . Kelly believes that cosmopolitan approaches have “marginalised some of the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary politics.” His book presents itself as an exploration of a wider range of ideas which he says are open to “different ways of doing politics, exercising power, force and violence, and designing goals. of political activity and its basic purpose” (5).

Kelly’s emphasis on realism explains some of the choices of chapter topics. It includes Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt, all of whom are frequently drawn in a realistic direction. Furthermore, it also includes chapters on John Locke, who represents a liberal vision, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, representing an inner movement against Enlightenment cosmopolitanism toward nationalist identity and sovereignty. Lenin and Mao, who appear in a single chapter, are selected on the basis that it was through them that Marxism “had the greatest impact on international thought and affairs” (305). Perhaps the newest choice for a chapter in a book on Politics thought is Clausewitz. Kelly argues that the author of On the war should not be bracketed as a theoretician of interest only to military specialists and that he presents an important perspective on international politics more broadly.

Painting, 'The Phantom Horseman', 1870-93 by Sir John Gilbert (d. 1897)

picture by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

While the chapters are intended to be readable by students as stand-alone pieces, and Kelly explicitly disavows any attempt to unify the readings into a connected historical narrative, he suggests that three “linking issues” frame the book as a whole. : “violence and politics, temporality and change, meaning and significance of history” (25). In particular, the figures chosen by Kelly “all hold as fundamental the role of violence, conflict and coercion”. For these thinkers, violence is seen as an ineradicable problem in political experience, but also as a key instrument in the pursuit of political goals or as a key form of political action (5).

As Kelly acknowledges, cosmopolitans and liberals have also grappled with questions about the usefulness of violence and the legitimacy of its use for various ends. We have overtly cosmopolitan and liberal accounts of just wars of national defense, military intervention and armed resistance, for example, not to mention accounts of targeted assassinations and other practices of political violence. This being the case, one could argue that the cosmopolitan theory is quite adequate to address supposedly realistic themes.

On the other hand, the historical thinkers introduced into Conflict, war and revolution combine normative thought with empirical theory in a way that is much less common in contemporary analytical political philosophy. For example, when Machiavelli and Hobbes offer advice on ethical political action or simply on political institutions, they do so on the basis of generalized assertions about human nature, resources, human behavior, and history. For them, political theory is not just about determining what is the morally right thing to do, given the choice; it is just as much a matter of understanding how the choices faced by political actors are shaped by characteristic empirical factors that need to be apprehended in general terms.

The third thing that needs comment is gender balance. Kelly defends the fact that the historical authors he has chosen as subjects for the chapters are all male. In a nutshell, he sees the task of the book as presenting ideas that have been handed down by historical traditions that have themselves been shaped by gendered power relations. This will make them available to students and scholars who can then critique them from perspectives shaped by feminist thought.

That being said, I wondered why someone of Hannah Arendt’s stature wasn’t included. Arendt is surely one of the most insightful theorists we have on book binding issues. The theme of violence forms a persistent theme in Arendt’s work. His reflections on the unprecedented character of totalitarianism are presented in distinctive treatments of 19th and 20th century history at national, regional and international levels. Likewise, Arendt’s reflections on the relationship between contemporary political issues and the history of Western political thought speak to the “meaning and significance of history” on another level. Additionally, Kelly at one point suggests that Arendt was engaged in a largely unspoken dialogue with Schmitt, the subject of Chapter Ten, and, indeed, that she was among those who helped spread his ideas after World War II (373, 400). It would have been good to have Arendt’s side in the debate.

Kelly’s studies of these different thinkers are engaging and enjoyable to read, not least because Kelly himself is so engaged with questions about how best to interpret them. For example, he argues for a view of Machiavelli that leans heavily towards the amoralist side of the debate over the meaning of his political theory. Personally, I read Machiavelli quite differently, but I really appreciated being challenged by Kelly’s chapter to think more carefully about why I’m doing it. I suspect that many readers approaching political theory for the first time will find Kelly’s evident enthusiasm for ideas deeply infectious and Conflict, war and revolution an exciting introduction to the field.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Christopher FinlayDurham University
Christopher Finlay is Professor of Political Theory at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He writes on political thought and the ethics of political violence.


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