Lucian Pye’s theory of political development


Lucian W. Pye was a political scientist, sinologist and comparative politics expert considered one of the leading China scholars in the United States. Educated at Carleton College and Yale University, Pye chose to focus on the characteristics of specific cultures in forming theories of political development of modernization of Third World nations, rather than seeking universal and overarching theories like most political scientists.

As a result, he became regarded as one of the foremost contemporary practitioners and proponents of the concept of political culture. Pye was a teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 35 years and served on several Asia-related research and policy organizations. He wrote or edited books and served as advisor to Democratic presidential candidates, including John F. Kennedy.

Pye advised the Department of State and the National Security Council in China-related matters. He also served as an advisor to Democratic presidential candidates, Senators John F. Kennedy and Henry M. Jackson, and urged both men to pursue a muscular foreign policy. He was an early proponent of the Vietnam War.


Pye served as a leader, and eventually acting chairman, with the National Committee on United States-China Relations, where he helped lay the groundwork for the American table tennis team that visited China in 1971. Pye served on several private organizations in which scholars, government experts and intellectuals discussed Asia-related research and policy, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Asia Society and the Asian Foundation.

Pye set up a scholarly center in Hong Kong. He also conducted research in Malaysia, which he used to suggest the appeal of communism in that nation came from insecurity over the pace of change. Pye also worked in Burma (now Myanmar), where he concluded psychology we more important than economics in explaining development.

He applied this psychological approach to his 1976 biography of Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong, who he imagined as a child and argued Mao Zedong’s rebellious attitude stemmed from a desire to recapture his “infantile omnipotence.”

Later Pye revealed his underlying diagnosis that Mao Zedong was “probably a narcissist with a borderline personality.” Donald L. M. Blackmer, of the journal Political Science and Politics, cited the Mao Zedong biography as an example of Pye’s tendency to use leaps of imagination for “Interpretation and generalization abound, often unsupported by the sorts of evidence most of us have been taught to look for.” Blackmer said the benefit of this approach was that Pye could “explain the otherwise inexplicable.”

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