Grand Theories

W.G. Runciman

  • The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences edited by Quentin Skinner
    Cambridge, 215 pp, £17.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 521 26692 0
  • Classes by Erik Olin Wright
    Verso, 344 pp, £20.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 86091 104 7
  • Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West by John Hall
    Blackwell, 282 pp, £19.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 14542 7

What is a ‘Grand’ as opposed to a ‘General’ theory, in the human sciences or anywhere else? Nobody talks about Keynes’s Grand Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, any more than they do about Einstein’s Grand Theory of Relativity. If not frankly pejorative, the term is at best ironic, implying a loftiness of tone, an inflation of aim, and a pretentiousness of content which no serious academic author could possibly want to be charged with. Professor Skinner begins his Introduction by quoting from a celebrated attack on Talcott Parsons by C. Wright Mills, for whom Grand Theory was the most absurd but also the most serious impediment in the way of a sensible, informed and humane understanding of human societies. So one supposes that what is to follow is a carefully mounted assault on what the chosen contributors see as a regrettable revival of the Higher Bogus. But not at all. They, and he, seem if anything to welcome it.

This is very odd. The impression left by Skinner’s Introduction is of a self-perpetuating cycle of talk about talk, of ‘changes of theoretical allegiance’ which have little to do with the advancement of learning but much to do with swings of intellectual fashion, self-conscious displays of dialectical skill and the capacity of academics to earn royalties by taking in one another’s washing. In defiance of the title, the human sciences hardly feature at all. No mention whatever is made of the remarkable advances of the past two or three decades in, say, linguistics, historical demography, archaeology, or the study of memory and perception. A little allowance is made for the claims of Lévi-Strauss and Braudel to have offered more rigorous general explanations of certain aspects of human institutions and behaviour than would have been attempted without them. But even this is presented as though only arising in the context of philosophical disputations about determinism, rationality, hermeneutics, cultural relativism and the so-called ‘sociology of knowledge’. It is as if the intellectual life of the contemporary West were dominated by an urge to escape from the unpalatable fact that the world we live in is a world of causes we do not understand and effects we mostly deplore into a realm of Pure Thought where societies are merely abstractions, institutions merely structures and ideologies merely conceptual worlds on epistemological all fours with one another.

Well, perhaps it is. But if so, the oddity is compounded by Skinner’s unwillingness to analyse the state of affairs which he depicts in the terms on which his own reputation rests. He is, after all, a distinguished historian of political thought whose particular contribution has been to see theories of society neither as timeless contributions to a common philosophy, nor as self-serving reflections of material interests, but as statements whose meaning is inseparable from the complex intentions of their proponents in their particular historical context. Bogus or not, what is it about Grand Theory which makes it so appealing? Skinner has elsewhere, in a perceptive essay on Habermas, given the answer that its appeal is primarily religious: the adherents of Grand Theory are seekers after deliverance not from error but from doubt. But no such implication is hinted at here. With a studious avoidance of censoriousness or even of scepticism, the Grand Theorists and their commentators are left to speak for themselves.

Here, accordingly, is a mild caricature of the nine contributions designed deliberately to confirm the equation of the Grand with the Bogus. Outhwaite: Gadamer draws from the truism that any understanding of the social world presupposes an understanding of what that understanding consists in the sweeping conclusion that subject and object are never separable – which thereby deprives him of any means of justifying the completeness which he claims for his own ‘hermeneutic consciousness’. Hoy: Derrida, by trying to go beyond this into a ‘deconstruction’ of radical hermeneutics as well as everything else in the humanist tradition, merely succeeds in reducing every text to a common undecipherability symbolised by quotation-marks. Philp: Foucault sets out to subvert all grand theories by exposing them as coercive discourse arbitrarily framed in the interests of power and thereby ends up with a philosophy of his own which is no less arbitrary and coercive than the rest. Barnes: Kuhn’s attack on the ‘rationalist’ account of science owes its influence to being wrongly held to imply that scientific progress is anything which a community of scientists asserts to be so – which Kuhn himself doesn’t believe at all. Ryan: Rawls’s Grand Theory of Justice seeks to found a doctrine of rights (as opposed to deserts) on first principles to which all disinterested persons will assent, but it is really only an appeal to moral intuitions which many disinterested persons do not in fact share with him. Giddens: Habermas, whose treatment of a whole range of large philosophical questions is as sketchy as their importance is unquestionable, has reverted to a belief in the possibility of a rational consensus about the validity of truth-claims which his earlier writings appear to deny. James: Althusser’s historical materialism, by claiming that all beliefs about the social world are structurally determined, thereby not only relativises itself but makes nonsense of his claim that historical materialism is ‘scientific’. Boon: Lévi-Strauss’s discoveries of latent structural oppositions and constraints encoded in diverse cultural forms are not scientific in any conventional sense but, as it were, musical compositions to be interpreted, like all cultural forms, as such. Clark: the historians of the Annales School, having started out from a ‘structuralist’ rejection of the presuppositions of both cultural anthropology and narrative history, have come round after all to the study of both symbols and events.

Shouldn’t all this verbiage then be consigned to the flames before any more seminars, conferences and commentaries are wasted on it? No, not really. Or at least, not quite. If nothing else, the authors discussed all share the unquestionable merit of having successfully disturbed a bit of the conventional wisdom, and it can be said of them all that there is more to be learned from their errors than from the truths propounded by more cautious spirits. Yet the most abiding impression of the volume as a whole is of how they all pale in the long shadow of the grandest social theorist of all, whose perennial influence is attested no less by the number of entries he scores in Skinner’s index than by the still unshakable conceptual hold which he exercises over acolytes and critics alike. His predictions have been falsified, his inconsistencies exposed, his hypotheses tested and found wanting against evidence which he either misinterpreted or ignored. But Marx stalks these pages quite as if the social theory of the past hundred years had been no more than an elucidation of whichever aspect of his long outdated insights rival interpreters have deemed worthy of continuing attention. Is it not, indeed, astonishing that this volume should include as a ‘grand theorist’ in his own right Althusser, whose claim to that status rests entirely on the impact of his attempt to rescue the determinism of Marx’s later writings from criticisms levelled against it by disciples of the humanism of his earlier ones?

Two new books by sociologists of very different ‘theoretical allegiances’ illustrate this posthumous ideological hegemony as vividly as each other. Erik Wright is an American Marxist of the Class of ’68, intellectually formed in those heady days of protest and idealism and now comfortably but a little uneasily settled in a tenured professorship in Wisconsin where he hopes that ‘the time, travel and intellectual stimulation that my present position gives me may expand the space for critical thought more than the privileges I enjoy erode it.’ John Hall, now at the University of Southampton, read history at Oxford but was seduced (his word) by Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy into historical sociology in the liberal tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. Wright’s vision is of a world where abundant resources are allocated without exploitation or waste through the institutions of a ‘radical democracy’ in which production is controlled by the producers. Hall’s vision is of a world where the elective affinity between political freedom and economic growth is preserved without there emerging an inescapable choice between authoritarianism with development and pluralism with decline. Each would no doubt be equally sceptical of the other’s naivety (although agreeing about the wickedness and folly of the arms race). But in the context of this review, what is interesting is not the persuasiveness of their views so much as the route by which they arrive at them. Wright is at all costs determined to remain faithful to Marxism, although freely admitting that whatever Marx’s answer (had he finished Capital) to ‘What is a class?’ it would not have been the same as his own. Hall is at all costs determined to distance himself from Marxism, yet ends up in a position which could easily be reconciled with Susan James’s reading of Althusser.

The central argument of Wright’s book is that classes should be defined by reference to relations of exploitation, and for this purpose he draws ingeniously and constructively on John Roemer’s A General (Grand?) Theory of Exploitation and Class (reviewed here by Jon Elster on 20 October 1983). The definition enables him to salvage, as it were, the proletariat of advanced capitalist societies, since it follows from it that the ‘working’ class is still much the largest component of the labour force even in Sweden and the United States. Moreover, it enables him to resolve to his satisfaction the question of the position of the ‘middle’ class (or rather, classes), about which there continues to be much agonised Marxist debate. He applies his schema – again, both ingeniously and constructively – to a comparison of Sweden and the United States which shows that Sweden, while it has a much smaller petty-bourgeoisie, a much more highly unionised work-force and a much more developed welfare state, also has a much more radically polarised distribution of attitudes to class as conceptualised in terms of exploitation. These findings will not surprise anyone with any direct experience of these societies (and here I speak not merely as an academic sociologist but as the head of a capitalist corporation with subsidiaries in both of them), and they are clearly a product of their two very different political histories. The interesting question is: does that amount to a vindication of Marxist theory? For Wright, of course, it does. But he willingly allows that a different theory might fit the same facts as well or better. Does it, therefore, follow from his demonstration of the plausibility of a version of Marxism which squares with them that Marx was fundamentally right about how human history works?

Hall’s answer would be an indignant no. For him, Marx’s theory, ‘magnificent’ as it is, is a secular religion which holds out a path from primitive innocence to hard-won salvation through three stages of purgatory – ancient, feudal and bourgeois. It fails to explain the course of human history partly because it underrates nationalism, partly because it refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of ideology and politics, and partly because it falls flat on its face when trying to accommodate the societies of Asia. Hall’s own résumé of the rise of the capitalist West is not so much Weberian as Braudelian. Weber was right about the European city: but his account of the role of ideology won’t do because, although he is convincing about the implications of Buddhism, he is totally wrong in attributing to Islam an incompatibility with the rational pursuit of profit. More important is the role of the state. Hall clearly endorses Braudel’s emphasis on the way in which regimes with different structures and priorities inhibit, forestall, absorb or encourage the latent possibility of a triumphant capitalism which was realised only in the West. And yet: Hall tells us that Professor Habermas – no less – has put it to him that he merely conceptualises ideology and politics as ‘blocking forces’ in the way of a dynamic which is located in the economy; and although he denies it, the denial is not wholly convincing. States, he insists, follow a political logic of their own which is not dictated by economic needs and may actively, albeit unintentionally, help the market. But this can be quite well accommodated within a Marxism which, just as Althusser would wish, abandons naive economic determinism and maintains only that economic forces are determinant ‘in the last instance’. Ideology and politics may foster capitalism but they cannot bring it into being – or not the first time, anyway. So can Marx’s theory of history really be just a fairy-tale? And if it is, why does it need such strenuous refutation more than a hundred years after it was told?

Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that it doesn’t matter if Marxism (or any other Grand Theory) is right or wrong, provided that those who are inspired by an enthusiasm either for or against it are thereby helped to advance the understanding of human institutions and behaviour in their own more restricted fields. As it happens, there have recently been published two related articles by a Marxist historian at Birmingham University, Chris Wickham, which show how much can be done by a new application of an old Marxist concept to a concrete problem. Wickham uses his chosen definition of a ‘mode of production’ not to bandy abstractions with his co-religionists but to address the same classic question why the Roman Empire gave way to feudalism (and thereby made capitalism possible) whereas the empires of the Near and Far East did not. His answer depends on an analysis of the capacity (or otherwise) of central governments to retain effective powers of taxation, and it is not necessary to agree with everything he says before acknowledging it as a contribution of exceptional interest. The two papers are ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ (Past and Present, May 1984) and ‘The Uniqueness of the East’ (Journal of Peasant Studies, January/April 1985), and I strongly commend them to anyone sufficiently interested in the topic of this review to have read it through to the end.