Your Political Theory Starter Kit

Maybe your before-bed reading has dried up and that copy of Plato’s Republic that you’ve been using as a coaster is looking tempting, or maybe you’re curious but intimidated. Whatever your motivation, political theory can be accessible, and dare I say it, fun.

Gateway Drugs

If you take a Political Theory 101 course (some may call it political philosophy), you’ll probably read a few key works from the canon, many of them dry and difficult. The texts that follow are more toothsome than most. They won’t offer you a survey of political theory, but they might get you excited to read more.  I’ve also chosen books that should be easy to find either for free at your library or cheaply at your local used bookstore.

Sophocles: Antigone
Antigone is more than you may remember from high-school English: it’s a deeply political work that discusses not only the role of civil disobedience in the state, is also describes how the memory and mourning of political violence might be handeled productively.

The trick to getting it: Have fun. Read it aloud. Be a little melodramatic. There’s also a great production that you can watch on YouTube that has Juliet Stevenson playing Antigone. It’s really good.

What to drink: Much like the Greeks at a good party, wine’s the thing.

Marx & Engels: The Communist Manfesto

Much more than the start of infuriating conversations with your college boyfriend, the Manifesto is a text grounded in frustration over the way things are. Put aside for a moment the tragic mid-twentieth century projects this book spawned and think instead of the deeply critical method that Marx & Engels employ. Lately, I’ve seen authors apologize for being overly critical of the distribution of wealth in this country post-recession, saying that they don’t mean to get all Marxist on their readers, but the thing is, Marx is right in many ways. While there is no purely communist model that we’ll ever achieve, the righteous indignation at how people are treated and the methods used for pointing out the systems that got us here are still relevant and no one should apologize for using them.

The trick to getting it: Fall in with the anger. This is a prescriptive text meant to get one moving. Don’t over-intellectualize it. Give yourself time to nod with agreement or shake your head no.

What to drink: PBR is the opiate of the hipster masses. Marx would prefer you drink a home-brew or something from your local, employee-owned craft brewery.

Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

People might ask why I put Rousseau over Locke or Hobbes, and it’s a fair question. While Locke and Hobbes are a bit more interesting if you’re trying to parse out the origins of American ideology, Rousseau is a pleasure to read. With sentences like, “The first person, who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,” you can’t help but love the author whom I think of as the drunk uncle of social contract theory.

The trick to getting it: As I advise with most theory: just let go. Stop trying to understand every little thing and just read. Since Rousseau is a social contract theorist, you may notice some comparisons to the type of government that the United States adopted.

What to drink: I always imagine that Rousseau would go easy with a dirty martini ““ something with a salty bite similar to Rousseau’s prose.

Judith Butler: Gender Trouble

Oh, Judy B, with your hard-to-understand-sentences, you have led so many of us down the path into feminism and women’s studies with your discussions of performativity. Those of us who have struggled with your syntax both love you for opening our eyes to the fluidity of gender and hate you for taking so many hairpin-turns in language to get to the point. Gender Trouble is where the Butler novice should start.

The trick to getting it: If you read Persephone and other feminist blogs, you probably already do get it, just not in the language of Judith Butler. If you instinctually understand that you perform your gender daily and see ways to perform it differently, you’re well on your way to understanding Butler.

What to drink: If you want to perform your gender properly and you are a lady, maybe something defined as girly, like a cosmo. If you’re feeling like troubling your gender, maybe go for a good Scotch. I like Auchentoshan.

Derrida: Specters of Marx

Nothing that Derrida writes is easy, but he’s funny and angry in Specters, which makes him a little easier to read. Specters is an accessible(ish) book and his descriptions of the plagues of the new-world order will speak to frustrations you might be feeling.

The Trick to Getting It: Like Butler, you may instinctually already understand a lot of this stuff. The idea that things can be rethought if we invite the in-between (in this case the specter, neither living nor all dead) is something you may already think of as important to changing the world.

What to Drink: Whatever makes you feel a little pretentious (because that’s exactly what you’ll feel when reading this) ““ that nice whisky you got for Christmas or a classic cocktail made with an obscure liqueur.

Read Further

Obviously five texts don’t cover everything you need to know and one person could think any other text is a better introduction than these. I’ll admit that the 5th, which I chose as Derrida, could have been anyone. Who I really wanted to choose was Thomas L. Dumm, but finding his books will be difficult to do at the library (but if you do happen across one of his books, do yourself a favor and read it).

Are there any political theory books that you think are good for first-timers? Leave them in the comments, along with your cocktail recommendations.

By [E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

12 replies on “Your Political Theory Starter Kit”


If you’re interested in learning more about the theory canon, I recommend highly the “Very Short Introduction” books, which are exceptionally clear, and written by some of the world’s top experts on various thinkers. I don’t expect people who are not political theorists to slog all the way through Leviathan, so here is my list of relatively accessible (many were written for a wide audience) and live works – pushing the boundaries of traditional political theory a bit – for first timers (and I included drinks, too!):

(It is important to note that none of these texts are perfect, and you might find in them much normative and descriptive content you disagree with. If you do, though, keep on and let yourself be challenged.)

1. Aristophanes, The Clouds; Plato, “The Apology of Socrates”

Aristophanes’ play is a send-up of philosophers in ancient Athens, and is a hoot, even though the complete original is lost. In Plato’s version of Socrates’ “apology” to the Athenians before being put to death, the play is referenced as contributing the Socrates’ downfall. These texts evidence the drama of the birth of Western philosophy and help to put the “project” in perspective (and make you realize how some things never change).


2. Vishnu Sharma, The Panchatantra

A rich and hugely entertaining collection of animal fables, based on oral folk traditions using stock characters, that originated in India and spread from China to Europe, and in many versions. It is like a denser, more interesting, and much more complex Machiavelli … with jackals and crows.

Drink: Mead

3. Paine, Common Sense; Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, The Federalist

Every American should read Paine’s 1776 pamphlet and the 1787 collection of essays by “Publius” in support of ratifying the US Constitution. Bonus points for being able to shut down any and all obnoxious and misinformed Tea Partiers.

Drink: Sam Adams Boston Lager

4. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”

Hugely influential far beyond US borders, this is one of the most important pieces of 19c American political thought. Period. Just read it. (And never misuse the concept “civil disobedience” again.)

Drink: Good old American hard apple cider

5. Mill, On Liberty

Mill was a brilliant and complicated thinker, but you can sense the tension of his intellectual struggle in the text. It’s a challenging and complex defense of freedom of thought and expression, among other things, but it is one of the best defenses that exists.

Drink: Port

6. King, “Our God is Marching On (How Long, Not Long)”, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “What is Man?”, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Not all political theory is in the form of treatises written by dusty old White dudes. “How Long, Not Long” contains, in my opinion, one of the most moving sentences in the history of political thought: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Plenty of others have had the thought, but King said it best. Sit down and really read him. It’s more than rhetoric.

Drink: Your own tears

7. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge OR Discipline and Punish

Foucault is probably the single most important social theorist of the 20th century. If the philosophy-heavy Archaeology scares you off, then read (and be suitably horrified by) D&P. Haha, you thought you were free? Think again.

Drink: The hardest thing you can get your hands on.

8. Shklar, Ordinary Vices

Shklar slams you over the head with her brilliance, and you never really recover. The text is clear, connected, forceful, and unsettling. It is about exactly what the title indicates, and while I would encourage the reading of any Shklar, this book is a bit less academic but more personally challenging than, say, her work on Hegel.

Drink: Screwdriver (because it’s a hard kick even if you don’t feel it)

The only thing I would caution about SSP’s list is that both Derrida and Butler are difficult. The idea of that shouldn’t turn you off, but, gosh, if you start to read Butler and can’t handle it, don’t give up and hate theory. Either try something else, or go to a secondary source.

Theory is fun, y’all!

To add to the Foucault suggestions – his lecture collections are great and can be a little more accessible than the books, though I agree that Discipline & Punish is one of the most important books of the 20th century and should be read by everyone.

Of his lecture collections I particularly recommend Society Must Be Defended – it sags in some parts, particularly the long bits about Gauls and Franks, but it’s fantastic read overall. It certainly makes the reader re-think the relationship between war and peace!

Ooohh, these are all so good. I also laughed out loud at “Not Hemlock!” And yes, Butler and Derrida are difficult, but I chose them because I have seen them in my local library and wanted something people could get for free. That said, don’t let them frustrate you and know that you probably already get it, just not in the way they describe.

Thanks for including the Communist Manifesto on here! I actually think it should be required reading in schools. Not because Marx is right about everything (tip: if you say the revolution is inevitable, which is the whole point, and it doesn’t happen… well you look a little silly don’t you Karl?), but because it’s a fantastic piece that’s really of its time and spawned one of the most important political movements of the 20th century. Plus anyone who waffles on about socialism should know what it actually is.

Now personally, I’m a Foucault kind of girl. Also Clausewitz. And the two go together surprisingly well (Foucault’s critique of Clausewitz is brilliant)…

Yes! I had to read it in college for Sociology, and though a lot of it is just outdated or wrong, there’s a lot in there that’s still relevant (the concept of ‘separation from the means of production’, for example) and really helps give the historical context.

Agreed! Also people miss so much when they talk about ‘Marxism’ but really mean Communist Russia or China. Marx was writing about Germany in a very specific time and place – he was writing about an industrialised society, hence the concept of separation from the means of production (which I agree is still relevant today). Russia, by contrast, was barely industrialised at all in 1917 and the form of Communism that developed there was in many ways a radical break from what Marx had envisioned. He really didn’t think his work would apply to a ‘backwards’, largely rural country like Russia.

Oh yes, foucault! I have read so much of him and am always depressed afterwards because there is no freedom, but he can be very, very fun. I also think the Manifesto should be taught differently in schools – it’s always this historical document and people don’t really try to parse it out as much as they could.

I love political theory! My BA in politics concentrated in post-colonial theory, but I’m a geek for it all. My first theory class was ancient political theory so I pretty much progressed chronologically. Plato’s Republic is a classic and I highly recommend it. I also found his dialogues on Socrates (Apology, Crito, Euthyphro) to be great introductory texts. When I tried to imagine Plato’s drink of choice I can only think of my former Greek roommate (whom upon hearing I had actually read Plato began to recite portions of Republic in ancient Greek). So in her honor drink cheap Dutch beer paired with a hand rolled cigarette.

I’ve got to put in a plug for post-colonial theory. Chandra Taplade Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” seriously is what opened my eyes to both feminism and post-colonialism. It’s a really influential text for me personally and I’d love to share it.

“[T]he feminist writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular “Third World Woman”—an image which appears arbitrarily constructed, but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse”

Mohanty’s writing is relatively clear and easy to understand (unlike, say, Spivak). The perfect drink would be something simple and to the point with a hint of irony, a Bombay martini maybe?

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