Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987

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Social Power

SIR: I am puzzled by W.G. Runciman’s review of my book, The Sources of Social Power. Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (LRB, 19 February). If it is as bad as the substance of his comments would indicate – lengthy enumeration of five ‘serious and even crippling defects’, plus solecisms and spelling errors – why is my ‘show still on the road’ for Volumes II and III, as he briefly suggests when opening and closing his account? This may have doubly puzzled your readers since he gives no indication of what the show is or what are its main arguments. Perhaps in rebutting his five defects I can briefly indicate the nature of my show.

1. I identify four fundamental sources of social power: economic, ideological, military and political. As an orthodox Weberian, Runciman wants to reduce this to three. He accuses me of confusing ‘forms’ with ‘means’ of power, and regards political power as not analogous with the others (in his own work he combines it with military power). Frankly, I do not care much for analogical neatness when dealing with the mess that is society and history. I notice only that four especially powerful types of organisation, each with its distinctive form (political is centralised and territorial, military is concentrated and coercive), appear ubiquitously in the history of societies, and that to study their interrelations affords us a decent level of overall understanding. My history then attempts to prove this, with a distinctive methodology which concentrates on the logistics of power – how messages, materials and manpower are communicated and controlled by power organisations. Perry Anderson and John Hall have labelled my entire approach ‘organisational materialism’. Your reviewer gives only the barest hint of this.

2. Clearly, however, if I have ‘a tendency to lapse into oversimplification’, my history cannot prove anything. Runciman gives three examples. One, a trivial metaphoric aside on Byzantium which is given too precise a context, I concede. The second example is my unwillingness to concede that Rome at its height was simply ‘more powerful’ than Classical Greece. Who is oversimplifying, I ask? The context is an argument that only rarely can societies be ranked simply above or below each other in power resources. They often differ qualitatively as well as quantitatively in their power achievements. The example still seems apposite: many of the Romans who conquered Greece and found themselves adopting Greek ways asked themselves the same question: who had really ‘won’? But again, nothing important hangs on the example. The book contains more central ones – for instance, the distinction between intensive and extensive power that is used throughout. Hence the argument that Medieval Europe developed extraordinary intensive powers, such as small groups pioneering local agricultural innovations, compared to the more extensive powers, the pacification of large territories, mobilisation of enormous armies, etc, of China in the same period. Runciman alludes briefly to this in saying I ‘condescendingly dismiss’ Chinese achievements as merely extensive. He gives no hint either of the meaning of ‘extensive’, or that the whole point is not to rank Medieval Europe above China, but to assert the qualitatively different nature of their achievements.

Only the third ‘oversimplification’ would matter, since it is part of an important theme, the developmental role of salvation religions. I assert, as he says, that early Christianity and Islam both possessed a ‘particularly dynamic and contradictory power form’. He finds this unacceptable. As he gives no clue of the nature of that power form, or why he disagrees, the reader cannot judge. My claim is that Christianity and Islam both differed from the other world religions in incorporating into their core doctrines both an egalitarian doctrine of individual salvation and an authoritarian justification of secular authority (Islam incorporated the latter rather less). I argue that this was not only contradictory, but also led to a dynamic interaction between church-state hierarchies and radical reform movements. The argument is not original to me, I discuss it at length, and I stand by it.

But only the third example matters anyway. Is this all my oversimplifications amount to? What about my core arguments detailed below in response to Runciman’s fourth ‘defect’? Are these all acceptable?

3. I do not discuss Africa or East Asia, complains Runciman. True. No, it is even worse than he says. I do not discuss anywhere outside the ancient Near East, the Mediterranean and Western Europe – apart from two comparative forays into the origins of civilisation and salvation religions and a few asides. But then my book does not claim to be a world-history. It is a history of power, and the Introduction makes quite clear that my history is of the ‘leading edge’ and most dynamic power region in any one period within a single civilisational area. The ‘inadequacy’ of my treatment of Byzantine or Chinese history is surely an understatement. They are not ‘treated’ at all!

4. This is a very similar defect: I discuss Medieval European development without much reference to China! What an outflanking movement Runciman has mounted! We may ask why he mounts it. His review is titled ‘The Old Question’, meaning, he says, ‘why did “modernity" arise in the European West?’ That may be his question, even Max Weber’s question, but it is not mine. I am concerned with power development, to be sure. But ‘the European miracle’ is only one of half a dozen I discuss, from the breakthrough to civilisation onward. My predominant method is historical rather than comparative because they occurred in a just-about continuous and cumulative sequence of development. I have attempted to reconstruct the sequence. This enables me to make some points concerning development itself: to construct a list of the techniques that enabled ‘power jumps’ to occur (from irrigation through the invention of the state, diffuse upper-class literacy and Marius’s pole, to commodity production) which demonstrate the importance of all four power sources; to analyse the geographical migrations of the leading edge of power; to mount forays against a too-static comparative sociology. Has he noticed any of this?

5. Most crushing of all, he fails to perceive any overall argument. Some of my cases are interesting if speculative (ancient Mesopotamia), or persuasive though eclectic (Rome). But they stand quite independently of my general arguments at the beginning and end of the volume. He then enumerates his four solecisms-misspellings-typos. I am slain!

Except that there is a general model which does inform the individual cases. Societies are viewed as multiple, overlapping and intersecting socio-spatial networks of power – principally mixed or occasionally ‘pure’ networks of economic, ideological, military and political power. Each network has a logistical infrastructure whose capacities are carefully assessed, and whose development is charted historically. No single one can be assigned historical primacy. To ascertain their exact and varying powers we must analyse long-run processes of historical development and interaction. Hence there follows a theory of the origins of the state and social stratification based on the ‘social and territorial caging’ provided successively by alluvial agriculture and military conquest; a dialectic over two millennia between Empires of Domination and ‘multi-power-actor civilisations’; a phase in which normative pacification is provided by salvation religions; an explanation of European development in terms of localised and non-coinciding economic, military and political power networks within the broader normative pacification of Christendom; the emergence of the modern world through the interactions of capitalism and a multi-state system; plus persistent themes such as the limited but developing role of classes and nations in the history of agrarian societies. This is to state my themes in 150 words. The book is 200,000 words. Of all this Runciman gives not a word.

Why has he so consistently missed the point? Is it because he is preparing a work whose model is the Weberian class-status-power, whose method is comparative, and whose cases include Byzantium and China. Is this the only legitimate sociological enterprise?

Michael Mann
Dedham, Essex

W.G. Runciman writes: I am sorry that Michael Mann should be so upset by a review which sought to convey that despite its failings his book deserves the serious attention of sociologists and historians alike. But failings they are. I see no reason to modify my view that his treatment of ‘power’ rests on a conceptual mistake, that he sometimes (but only sometimes) lapses into misleading oversimplification, that a so-called ‘history of power’ needs to cover more than its ‘leading edge’, and that selective narrative is no substitute for comparative analysis. Nor does his 150-word synopsis disclose any more of an ‘overall argument’ than I had perceived already: there is, rather, a general approach whose value my review endorsed and an interesting set of, to use his own word, ‘themes’.

A Kind of Integrity

SIR: Jonathan Barnes’s review (LRB, 6 November 1986) of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Philosophical Apprenticeships, which I translated, is nothing if not character assassination. Perhaps it is better to steer clear of this low road, but such proves impossible given Mr Barnes’s relentlessness.

The coming of Hitler’s Germany, we are told, brought a ‘turn for the better’ for Gadamer. Really? How so? Why did Gadamer, already 33 years old in 1933, have to wait until 1938 to get the call to a professorship? Could it be that he was not co-operating and hence was not being rewarded by the Nazis by being put on the fast track? Mr Barnes will have none of this. Gadamer was, according to him, ‘prepared to give the Hitler salute’. Well, perhaps: but if it matters at all to Mr Barnes, this is not what Gadamer says in his autobiography. In the passage presumably referred to (p. 75), Gadamer is describing what was done among reluctant German academics, and the practice was a grudging half-salute, more like a flick of the wrist from the hip, that was designed to demonstrate refusal rather than the kind of enthusiasm Mr Barnes insinuates. But Mr Barnes has an agenda, and it quickly – dare I say predictably – leads up to this: Professor Richard Kroner ‘was sacked because he was a Jew. Gadamer took his job’. Well, yes and no, and true as far as it goes etc, etc, but Mr Barnes neglects to mention that this taking of Kroner’s job was only a one-year replacement (p. 76) and that the presumed NSDAP enthusiast somewhat inexplicably remained lifelong friends with the Jewish professor (Kroner returned to Heidelberg to visit Gadamer in 1962). Mr Barnes might also have mentioned that Gadamer brought Karl Lowith, another Jew forced to leave Germany in 1933, back to a permanent position in Heidelberg in the early Fifties. But of course this story would not fit Mr Barnes’s agenda, and so it is omitted. Finally come characterisations that might have alerted the reader to the problems in Mr Barnes’s scheme: after the war Gadamer became the ‘trusty’ (read: ‘convicted criminal’) of the Americans in their brief occupation of Leipzig and then was named Rector (read: ‘trusty’) of the re-opened University by the Soviet authorities when they replaced the Americans in late 1945. However we take these actions by the Americans and the Russians, they might at least have suggested to Mr Barnes that Gadamer had in fact come through the Nazi period uncompromised. Yet Mr Barnes manages to turn even this on its head: uncompromised becomes ‘uncompromised’ in telling quotation-marks.

Let me suggest what I think is at the bottom of Mr Barnes’s character assassination of Hans-Georg Gadamer. The Nazis were manifestly reprehensible morally. Therefore it is easy to believe that if one did not oppose them, one must have been in favour of them. Gadamer clearly did nothing to oppose the Nazis, and this annoys Mr Barnes. Therefore, he concludes, Gadamer must have favoured the Nazis. Does Mr Barnes actively oppose the Thatcher Government? If not, may I conclude that he supports it?

Given the job done on Gadamer’s character, little can be expected of Jonathan Barnes’s treatment of Gadamer’s thinking, and, true to form, he has little to say. Indeed, his best sentence is the following: ‘I do not understand much of this …’ Such a startling revelation occurs in reference to a quotation which, upon careful reading, is a forceful, eloquent and concise statement of Gadamer’s thinking (and well translated to boot). But since Mr Barnes understands so little of what he reads, he is constrained to go on and invent his own version of Gadamer’s thinking. ‘I guess,’ says he, and then what follows is just that, a guess at what philosophical hermeneutics is. He gets it for the most part botched. Ironically, however, when he comes to Gadamer’s key relationship to Platonic texts, he very nearly gets it right. But he still does not understand it. Mr Barnes claims that Gadamer is not interested in what Plato is about. But this is true of all Gadamer’s writings on Plato. Such a distinctly positivistic interest would work to turn Plato into a historical object in the distant past, and it is precisely this distance that philosophical hermeneutics strives to overcome. Gadamer is, rather, interested in the lively, provocative ability of Platonic texts to spark a response in us, and this suggests a passion to collapse historical distance and make Plato part of the modern present. Gadamer indeed would enter into conversation with Plato. This, in a nutshell, is effective, really effective, historical consciousness, but Mr Barnes is incapable of recognising it.

Aside from Plato, what bothers Mr Barnes about philosophical hermeneutics is its potential for moral relativism. Yet, amazing as it first seems, it is precisely the possibility of avoiding moral relativism that gives philosophical hermeneutics its attractiveness. Put differently, if Gadamer’s thinking has an absolute commitment, one that is nowhere relativised, it is to ‘conversation’, a term which here functions as the layman’s version of what professional philosophers like to call ‘procedural rationality’. The attraction of procedural rationality is that it responds to the bankruptcy of foundationalism in modern philosophy. If all fixed, fast-frozen principles have been called into question, melted into air, as Marx might say, then why not privilege the question? Is this not what the Platonic Socrates did? If I may, for the sake of dramatic impact, redeploy the terminology of Thomas Kuhn to fit Gadamer’s project, let me characterise philosophical hermeneutics by saying that it is not ‘normal philosophy’, which always proceeds axiomatically on the basis of unquestioned givens. Philosophical hermeneutics is rather ‘revolutionary philosophy’ because it proceeds by dissolving all historical axioms into hypotheses to be tested in conversation. In this manner, it collapses history, which after all is a kind of establishment of axiomatic positions. This is philosophy for the few, as Nietzsche might put it.

Robert Sullivan
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University, New York

Mrs Shakespeare

SIR: You have to admire the speed of Barbara Everett’s footwork (LRB, 18 December 1986). She puts forward the amusing theory that Shakespeare addressed his sonnets to his wife. I ask (prosaically): ‘But, what about those sonnets where the poet appears to be urging a young man to get married? A funny thing to write to a wife’. Everett, at great length, dodges the question, but asserts that the Man Right Fair and the Dark Lady are Victorian Myths. She draws my attention to the old saw that ‘metaphor is the soul of poetry,’ and says that those early sonnets ‘work well as an internal debate on Life versus Art’. (This ‘work well’ reveals all: it shows that, for Everett, reading is a purely creative process in which we can modishly make the words on a page ‘mean’ what we want them to ‘mean’.) I reply: ‘But you still haven’t answered the question. What about the indisputable maleness of the addressee?’ She replies (surprisingly for one who floated the notion that Shakespeare was addressing his wife) that the person addressed ‘appears’ to be ‘a hermaphrodite’. We are in the world of metaphor again. She repeats her belief that Shakespeare was ‘partial to’ his wife, and adds (Everett the gossip columnist) some fascinating speculations about the harmony of my own marital relations.

I am glad that she makes it so clear that the Sonnets can mean whatever we make them mean. Since all is metaphor, we need not quarrel about anything so sordid as a fact. It would have pained me to point out to Everett, who (I read once in a Sunday paper) leads a reclusive life, that a hermaphrodite is not the same as an androgynous young man whose pretty features call back the lovely April of his mother’s prime. I should also have found it distasteful to suggest that there was Freudian significance in Everett’s inability both to see the smutty joke in Sonnet XX or get the Fats Waller quotation right. ‘Lady, if you gotta ask, you ain’t got it’ becomes, in such a context, positively obscene.

So, I promise not to take up any more of your space with attempts to get Everett to deviate into sense about the Sonnets. May I raise one general point, though, about which your readers probably have views? It is this business of Shakespeare being devoted to his wife. Beyond the fact that they lived apart for needlessly long periods, and that he provided for her with notorious minginess in his will, we do not know much about the relations between Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway. Yet Everett ‘can’t believe in a Shakespeare who loved and married a fool’ (Letters, 5 February) and more recently (Letters, 5 March) she ‘argues’ that Shakespeare was partial to his wife. This from someone who thinks that the Man Right Fair and the Dark Lady are ‘myths’! Merely because Shakespeare was the most generous and humane of all great geniuses, why should we believe that he liked his wife? It is simply a non-sequitur. Literary history is full of geniuses who were either wretchedly unhappy with their wives or who were married to fools, or both. One does not need to choose extreme examples, such as Strindberg, Wesley, Milton, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Carlyle, Ruskin or Meredith, to make the point.

A.N. Wilson

SIR: I have little doubt that Barbara Everett’s piquant review of John Kerrigan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ was of great interest to persons in the Eng Lit trade. Outsiders like myself were less well done by. What somehow got lost sight of and was not recovered in the subsequent correspondence was an indication of the immense help the common reader of the poems receives from Kerrigan’s book. Its ‘Introduction’ of 63 pages I find as informative as it is lucid and ambitious; the 257 pages of ‘Notes’ are detailed without ever being pedantic, helpful without being patronising, and comprehensive without being tedious; and even the critical ‘Account of the Text’ is written with the needs of the inexpert reader in mind. Don’t you, sir, think that all this amounts to a service that is worth mentioning, and even perhaps commending?

J.P. Stern
Williams College, Massachusetts

The Clearances

SIR: I am not sure how old a horror has to be, in Angus Calder’s view (Letters, 5 March), before it is no longer worth rehearsing. Should we stop talking about the Holocaust in, say, 2050, the Soviet farm collectivisation in 2000, and the Somme any time now? But if the rehearsing is being done at all – as it is, after all, by Smout, Richards, and the other historians whom he favours – then it should be done in terms that do justice to the cruel upheavals that took place. These were not less because they also happened in the Philippines and Mexico, or for that matter Cuba and Ceylon. I used to cite this parallel when I gave talks, in Sri Lanka, to highland Ceylonese workers whose forebears had been cleared from their farmlands and cut off from their wells – then sentenced to fifty lashes and a year in prison when they barked and uprooted the coffee trees planted by the British colonists or smashed the boundary fences round the new estates.

That all this was ‘in no sense unique’ but world-wide – the eviction of the peasantry to make way for capitalist farming – has been familiar history to me for thirty years, the subject of some of my poems, and has made the Scottish experience seem no less brutal. That some Highlanders then evicted some original Australians adds to the tragedy, not lessens it.

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return,

as we also see when Israeli Jews strafe the camps of evicted Palestinians or Catholics blow up the descendants of Protestants planted on Irish land three hundred years ago.

I do not know if the present events in Ulster or the Middle East can be reduced to what Angus Calder classes, diminishingly, as ‘certain aspects and incidents of the process’. Whole islands were cleared in the Hebrides, and the 800 people cleared from the Barra Isles or the 1600 from South Uist cannot have ‘wanted to emigrate’ or they would not have had to be clubbed, fettered and pursued at the instigation of the landlord, John Gordon, and by a minister, Henry Beatson.

By all means let us ‘consider such events as world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons’. When I do, I am impressed by many hideous likenesses: e.g. the use of whips and chains by early Kandyan planters – to hold down the Tamils they had imported to replace the evicted Sinhalese. This ‘old horror’ has to be ‘rehearsed’ if we are to understand the extreme methods of the present Tamil freedom-fighters. A bland, Smout-like view of the landlords’ methods of ‘dispossession’ in Ceylon would be as serious a faltering of the historian’s function as it is in the case of the Scottish Highlands.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Seconds Away

SIR: END, for which organisation Mark Thompson speaks in his letter (Letters, 5 March), hoped to find valid interlocutors in Eastern Europe, but the civil rights groups they naturally approached made it poignantly clear that unilateral nuclear disarmament (and END is a unilateralist organisation) in Western Europe would be against their interest. They believed that they were in some sense protected by a Western Europe armed to the same degree as the Soviet Union. Was this not ‘grief’?

Mr Thompson complains I fail ‘to mention that Mercer’s account of END ends in 1984’. So did his account of everything, as I did indeed mention.

Wayland Kennet
London W2

Upper-Class Casualties

SIR: The concept of the ‘Lost Generation’ referred to recently in your columns is one I came across when tracking the scent of a more unusual beast called ‘university education for journalism’. Although it is exactly 100 years since the first (private and commercial) London School of Journalism opened its doors, just off Fleet Street, under a Mr Anderson of the Daily Telegraph, the subject of educating journalists rarely rouses much attention outside a limited coterie. Yet in trying to find an answer, if there is one, to the changing face of the British newspaper in the inter-war years, I was struck by references made by journalists to their luck in being born when they were. Usually the references indicate a change in the recruitment into journalism after the First World War. Until then, a large proportion of men could waltz from the ‘Greats’ course in Oxford into the employment of newspapers, as many memoirs reveal. Writing about this in 1948, Percy Cudlipp wrote: ‘Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express, and I … benefited from the fact that many clever men had been killed in the first Great War. There were gaps to be filled, and so fellows like you and me, who had been too young to fight, had an early chance to show what we could do.’

On checking the records for Oxford and Cambridge it would appear that nearly five thousand Oxbridge men lost their lives in the First World War. One attempt to cope with post-war reconstruction in journalism was the introduction of the Diploma for Journalism course at London University in 1919. While many, then and now, strongly believe that journalism cannot be taught, this course produced many who approached the pinnacles of the press during their working lives: from Home News Editor on the Times to editor of the People. One of the interesting facts about this course, which did not re-open after World War Two, was that more women won the Diploma than men, 219 to 194. Among the women were Kathleen Nott, Stella Gibbons and Elizabeth Ferrars, who was one of about fifty English authors to receive the maximum payment of £5000 when Public Lending Right awards were first made two years ago.

Fred Hunter
Kingston on Thames, Surrey


SIR: I am writing a book about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and wonder whether any of your readers knew him either in Britain or Sicily. Although he was a shy and reclusive man, he was an ardent Anglophile who spent much time in this country between the wars. He generally lived in London at the Italian Embassy, where his uncle the Marchese della Torretta was Ambassador, but he enjoyed travelling in the country and much admired Powis Castle in Wales. Apparently he was briefly engaged to two British girls, one of them from Scotland: I would obviously be delighted if anyone could reveal their identity.

It is possible that some of the people who knew Lampedusa never realised that their friend was the author of The Leopard, published after his death in 1958. Until his father died in 1934, Lampedusa would have been known as Giuseppe Palma or, more formally, as the Duca di Palma.

David Gilmour
Ruchlaw House, Stenton, East Lothian EH42 1TD

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