Special Subject: Demagogues and Dictators in the History of Political Thought

Module code: V1434
Level 6
30 credits in autumn & spring teaching
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Coursework, Unseen examination

Demagogy and dictatorship have been near-constant preoccupations in the long tradition of European political thought since its emergence in ancient Greece and Rome. From one perspective, democracy has always appeared vulnerable to manipulation by charismatic leaders. This anxiety about populist demagogues who could subvert the rule of the people began in ancient Greece, and has been a recurrent issue for both the critics and defenders of democracy. For example, the seventeenth-century English political theorist Thomas Hobbes identified demagogic orators as an unavoidable problem for democracies, while the Founding Fathers of the United States worried that the Constitution might fail in preventing political leaders from “commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” From another perspective, dictatorship has been perceived as necessary to the survival of republics in times of crisis and emergency. This argument originated in republican Rome, was developed by early modern thinkers like Machiavelli and Rousseau, and was revived by right-wing and proto-fascist thinkers in the early twentieth century. Versions of this argument are sometimes repeated today, in the context of the debate about the extent and legitimacy of presidential “emergency powers.” This module seeks to understand such claims historically. At the same time, the module will shed light on the politics of today, providing students with tools for understanding demagogues and dictators in Europe, the United States, Russia, Latin America and the Middle East. In this module we shall examine the debates about demagogy and dictatorship in four clearly demarcated periods: the classical world (Greece and Rome); early modern Europe between Machiavelli and Rousseau; the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century between the Weimar Republic and the present. Alongside classic texts by Thucydides, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Tocqueville, Marx, Weber and Schmitt, students will encounter polemical tracts, letters, philosophical treatises, constitutional documents, and images. Drawing upon the most up-to-date approaches to intellectual history, students will be expected to relate the use of political ideas to concrete historical contexts and events.

Module learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a detailed knowlege of a closely defined topic.
  • Construct sophisticated written arguments that demonstrate intellectual maturity and integrity
  • Situate, evaluate and analyse primary historical sources.
  • Relate the interpretation of primary sources to secondary interpretations.