The Old Question

W.G. Runciman

  • The Sources of Social Power. Vol I: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 by Michael Mann
    Cambridge, 549 pp, £37.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 521 30851 8

Books on the theme of society-down-the-ages generally fall into one of two kinds. Either they are a narrative synthesis organised according to some preconceived criterion of historical significance, or they are an attempt to test against the historical evidence some would-be general theory to the effect that demography, class struggle, national psychology or whatever it may be is the master key to the explanation of the whole long story. Michael Mann, however, deliberately places himself mid-way in-between. As a result, he risks being simultaneously attacked by one set of readers for writing potted history at a safe distance from the sources, and by another for theorising at an insufficiently high and abstract level. But this is, in a sense, the point of the exercise. ‘Historical sociology’, so called, needs to vivify the higher theory with the right infusion of historical detail and vice versa, and it is by this that its success or failure requires to be judged.

As it happens, this volume – the first of a projected trio – has already been proclaimed by Perry Anderson, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, to be ‘not lesser than Economy and Society itself in analytic stature’ – an absurd hyperbole which can do no good to either the author or his subject, and is in any case belied by Anderson’s own damaging criticisms on major points. But it would have been perfectly plausible to claim that Mann succeeds in carrying a perceptible way forward the same intellectual enterprise to which Weber’s posthumous treatise is addressed. Although Mann’s treatment suffers from a number of serious and even crippling defects, they are not fatal: 541 pages on, despite some alarming bumps and lurches, the show is still on the road.

The first serious defect is in Mann’s conceptualisation of power itself. He identifies four ‘sources’ of power whose interrelations are to constitute his theme: control over economic, ideological, military and political resources respectively. But this distinction confuses the different forms of power (that is, the different kinds of inducements and sanctions which people can bring to bear on one another) with the different means of doing so (that is, the different institutions through which those inducements and sanctions are applied). Political institutions are of course different from economic, ideological or military institutions: states are not the same things as markets, churches or armies. But there is no form of social power which they embody or apply other than economic, ideological or coercive (or some combination of the three).

The second defect is a tendency to lapse into oversimplification in order to reinforce a favoured general theme. Simplification is, naturally, not only necessary but desirable in a work of this kind. But it is no excuse for misleading overstatement of the kind to which Mann is dangerously prone when stressing the independent influence of religious ideology on human history. Thus, it may be all right to label both Islam and Christianity ‘dynamic’ by comparison with Hinduism and Buddhism: but it is not all right to say that ‘Christianity and Islam adopted one particularly dynamic and contradictory power form.’ It may be all right to say that the ‘hieratic’ Eastern Orthodox Church had a ‘fortress morale’: but it is not all right to offer that proposition as accounting by itself for the failure of the Arab siege of Constantinople in 718 – as if Greek fire, Bulgarian attacks on the besiegers, shortage of food in an exceptionally hard winter, and above all strong walls, were not at least as important as the morale which they made it possible to sustain. And it is extraordinary to question that Rome ‘at its height’ was more powerful than Classical Greece on the grounds that although a Roman victory would have been the ‘probable outcome’ on the battlefield and Rome’s economy was ‘more developed’, Rome, after its conquest of the Greek successor states, ‘was itself converted by the Greek successor ideology, Christianity’.

The third defect is the lack of discussion of societies and peoples which on any theory belong somewhere in a ‘history of power’ up to the year 1760 AD. Nothing is said about the development of indigenous political systems in Africa, or the rise and fall of the empires of South-East Asia, or the unification of Japan, and the all-conquering Mongols are dismissed as ‘outside the scope’ of the volume. The answer may be that Mann’s primary concern is with what Weber himself called the ‘old question’: why did everything including industrialisation that we now associate with ‘modernity’ arise in the European West? But this only makes the more glaring (as Perry Anderson’s review forcibly points out) the inadequacy of Mann’s discussion of, on the one hand, Byzantium and, on the other, China. Although Christianity is crucial to Mann’s whole account, he almost totally ignores its Orthodox as opposed to its Roman variant; and although he has a certain amount to say about China, particularly during its earliest history, he condescendingly dismisses celebration of its achievements during the Medieval period as ‘European self-denigration’ deriving from ‘obsession with “extensive” power’.

The fourth defect springs directly from the third. Mann’s answer to the ‘old question’ places much emphasis – and plausibly so – on the early date by which the institutions of Northern and Western Europe had started to evolve into their distinctive later form. Indeed, he is surely right to argue (as others whom he acknowledges have done before him) that the explanation of European distinctiveness needs to be sought much further back than Weber or, for that matter, Marx sought it. But that is no reason to refuse properly to confront the question why China, in particular, evolved in its distinctive way from its unarguably powerful apogee. Mann is perfectly well aware of what was happening in China under the Sung, but bypasses the problem of its subsequent history on the grounds that four ‘plausible contributing forces’ can be identified and ‘Europe differs in respect of all of them.’ He may be right to remark that if this is so, then ‘there is no chance of using the comparative method in the way Parsons attributes to Weber.’ But are we then to infer that the ‘old question’ can be answered simply by a narrative of what happened in Europe alone, without any serious reference to what happened (or didn’t) elsewhere?

The fifth defect (which perhaps Volume III will remedy) is that the relation of Mann’s particular narrative explanations to his underlying theory of ‘sources’ of power is never made fully clear. He has, for example, a number of interesting, if inevitably speculative, things to say about the origins of states in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, and his treatment of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in the West is eclectic, sensible and persuasive. But both can (so far as I can see) stand quite independently of his general arguments at the beginning and end of the volume about the nature of power and its history. He is at pains to insist that his theoretical approach is neither comparative (by which he appears to mean statistical) nor evolutionary (by which he appears to mean unilinear). But there is surely another sense in which it needs to be both: comparative in relating one narrative sequence to another, and evolutionary in showing why the particular narrative sequences which have been the most influential for the history of power in the world at large turned out as they have.

By this point, readers will no doubt be thinking that with a fellow sociologist like myself for a friend, Mann needs no historians for enemies. So while I’m about it, let me also concede to the pedants that it is gratuitously infuriating to be confronted with such easily corrigible solecisms as ‘Boetia’ for ‘Boeotia’, Res Augustae for Res Gestae, ‘Sidonius Appolinaris’ for ‘Sidonius Appollinaris’ and ‘ideographic’ for ‘idiographic’. One can already hear the grinding of dentures in the Senior Common Room: what, don’t these sociologists even know how to spell? But as Mann himself asks disarmingly, do even a few howlers invalidate the overall argument? The charge of inaccuracy once registered, it would be a pity if it were to be used by specialist readers as an excuse to dismiss the whole enterprise as unscholarly and therefore unsound. For all the defects of this volume, both large and small, it has two merits which justify its being treated seriously by historians and sociologists alike. One is of substance rather than method, and the other of method rather than substance.

The substantive merit is Mann’s emphasis on the role which military ambitions, opportunities and pressures have played not only in the growth and development of states but also in national and imperial economies both ancient and modern. Like Professor William McNeill of Chicago, whose influence he acknowledges, he is good both on the logistic and fiscal details and on the broader relationships between the aims of rulers and the geopolitical context in which they are pursued. Nor is any of this simply an anti-Marxist polemic. Mann is very ready to see class conflict at work, but not to the exclusion of conflicts between church and state or region and region or centre and periphery, and not to the neglect of the independent effects of ‘reorganisation induced by redevelopment of military power relations’.

Moreover, he is quite entitled to claim that his version is more than a mere restatement of the thesis of the realpolitik school of historiography. His military-cum-political history gives due weight to both economic and ideological determinants without re-creating what he correctly sees as the false opposition between one-sidedly idealist and materialist presuppositions.

The methodological merit is that despite his reticence (thus far) about spelling out in detail the relation of his theory to his data, Mann is entirely right in pointing out the extent to which the distinctive evolution of Northern and Western Europe is due to a combination of factors many of which were entirely fortuitous. Although, as he recognises, any account of the ‘rise of the West’ is bound to have a teleological air about it, Mann is no teleologist. The story is not, for him, any more a process of cumulative rationalisation à la Weber than it is an inexorable sequence of modes of production à la Marx. It is a story of antecedent geographical as well as sociological conditions which create the context within which the pursuit of power works sometimes to the advantage of one and sometimes of another form of social organisation. As he rightly points out, sociological theory cannot hope to progress by merely seeking to dissect ‘Society’ in the abstract or to generalise about ‘societies’ as unproblematic entities given in nature: it can only do so by analysing the range of different influences operating across both social and geographical space which have caused particular historical systems of domination and co-operation to rise and fall.

With two volumes still to follow, any judgment of the work as a whole can only be provisional. But it can already be said – paradoxical though this may seem – that the defects of the first volume underline the value of the general approach as firmly as do its merits. However critical either sociologically or historically-trained readers may be on particular issues – and this review has only touched on a few – they will still benefit from being driven to formulate the grounds on which they agree or disagree both with Mann’s analysis of individual cases and with his more wide-ranging claims about the ‘history of power’ as such.