Perry Anderson

  • A Treatise on Social Theory. Vol. II: Substantive Social Theory by W.G. Runciman
    Cambridge, 493 pp, £35.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 521 24959 7

Under a flat, anonymous title and in serial guise one of the most exotic – even flamboyant – intellectual projects of recent years is coming to fruition. The first volume of W.G. Runciman’s Treatise on Social Theory, devoted to the dry topic of methodology, set out in reasonable and moderate tones an agenda for social understanding combining – in so many words – ambitions of a Ranke, a Comte, a Proust and a Hart: to report accurately, to explain scientifically, to re-create imaginatively, and to judge impartially and benevolently. Perhaps the most striking feature of this programme was its association of two aims normally reckoned antithetical: an explanatory structure continuous with the natural sciences and an imaginative recapture modelled on literary fictions. Few practitioners of the social sciences have the confidence to invoke the ideals of Herbert Spencer and Henry James simultaneously.

In his second volume, Runciman proceeds to his own substantive social theory. He remarks at the outset that he will here be concerned only with the explanatory segment of his overall prescriptions. But this involves no shrinkage of horizon – on the contrary. For the two questions he seeks to explain are nothing less than these: what kinds of society are possible at any given stage of human development, and why any given society became the kind it did, in the course of it. The answers he arrives at, Runciman goes on to argue, have profound intellectual consequences, offering ‘a very great deal’ more for our general understanding of history than can be found in the contributions of Marx or Weber, or anyone else. For Volume II of A Treatise on Social Theory proposes a novel account of social structure and an original theory of social evolution. It is the integration of these two conceptions, he contends, that marks a fundamental advance in our ability to grasp the pattern of the past.

What is the import of each? For Runciman, power is as basic a concept of sociology as energy is in physics. Societies are to be conceptualised as so many different ways of allocating power. Such power comes in three and only three sorts: economic, ideological and coercive. These are always interdependent, but none is ever reducible to the others. Runciman’s principal early debt was to Weber, from whom this axiom derives. He reformulates it, however, in terms designed to effect a bridge to Marx. Societies are modes of distribution of power, founded on differential control of the means of production, persuasion and coercion. It is the variations in these three dimensions of power that furnish the key to a scientific classification of societal forms. At the same time each of them is composed of a specific set of social practices; and these practices are perpetually subject to selective pressures, generated either within or between the societies concerned – above all, from the competition of alternative practices. The process of this selection in turn constitutes the essential mechanism of social evolution.

Runciman’s calm, considered commitment to an evolutionary theory of history is a gauge of his independence of mind. Nothing could be less in fashion today. For some time now evolutionism has been a disreputable term for many sociologists: one of the cardinal, egregious errors of earlier generations, since generally repudiated. The last major thinker to attempt a systematic theory of social evolution was Talcott Parsons, in his final years. It is significant that Runciman, amidst a vast bibliography, never mentions him. Moreover, the discredit into which evolutionism has fallen has attached principally to variants of Marxism which assert no more than some directionality to historical development. Runciman’s evolutionism, however, is far more specific and stringent. It is a sociology literally sculpted after modern biology. Natural selection serves throughout as the model of social selection. Runciman is well aware of the fate of previous versions of social Darwinism. But he is undeterred by the failure of every previous bid to map The Origin of Species onto the genealogy of social forms, because he believes he has corrected the root mistake common to them. All such theories took as their unit of selection – the basic materials out of which only the fittest survived – either whole societies or social groups. Runciman substitutes particular practices. These, he maintains, are the true counterpart of genes. Like DNA, their mutations are random, in the sense that their origins are extraneous and irrelevant to the process of selection itself. The bodies on which they confer advantages in the competition for power are roles, that are in turn attributes of social groups or societies, which form the equivalent of species.

Armed with this analytic equipment, Runciman then directly broaches the historical record. His purpose is twofold: to establish a Linnaean taxonomy of all societies known to us, and to demonstrate the Darwinian mechanisms of their speciation – how and why successive forms evolved from their predecessors. The result is a dazzling display of erudition. On this showing, Runciman’s command of the comparative historical record has few, if any, rivals. Old Babylonia, tribal Africa, archaic Greece, Pre-Columban America, Stone Age Melanesia, Classical Rome, Dark Age Lombardy, Medieval Japan, Imperial China, feudal Poland, republican Venice, caliphal Islam, absolutist France, industrial Britain, revolutionary Mexico, Stalinist Russia, populist Argentina, social-democratic Sweden, racist South Africa – all these and many more parade across what astonishingly remains a compact, middle-sized book, each deftly and economically captured for the purposes at hand. There are a few gaps: Egypt or Assyria from the ancient world, the Third Reich from the modern; and the sources drawn upon could be thought too consistently Anglophone (about 90 per cent of the modern citations – certainly more than the balance of scholarship). But these are trivial limitations. Runciman handles the enormous range of his evidence with a precision and assurance that are deeply impressive. Vaulting in global ambition, his survey is unfailingly sober and careful in local execution. It is difficult to think of a single obvious lapse or extravagance of historical judgment in the whole account, where stray instances could readily be pardoned. An even, scrupulous, dispassionate voice controls what might otherwise appear an inordinate enterprise. The tone is one of imperturbable suavity.

How should the completed theory be assessed? The comparative testing of Runciman’s hypotheses yields a historical inventory of great richness and fascination. But there are a number of difficulties with the theoretical framework itself. The first of these concerns Runciman’s preliminary move – the definition he adopts of society itself. Can societies be satisfactorily envisaged simply as so many intertwined networks of power? Runciman is not alone in thinking they can. The same assumption can be found in the work of Michael Mann, of which Runciman has been a severe critic, but whose scale and focus invite comparison. The common source of this bias is Weber – the dominant influence on this cohort of British sociologists. Fixation with power has, of course, gone much further elsewhere, in France and the United States, under the spell of Foucault. The excesses and absurdities of the metaphysic now current in much literary theory, and even cultural history, are generally foreign to the more prosaic world of English social science. But they have been warned. Whether in its Weberian or its Foucauldian version, engrossment with power appears hard-headed: in fact, it is naive. (Weber’s delusions over Ludendorff, Foucault’s over Khomeini, are the fitting emblems of each.) Societies are not just power-stuff. Three very large domains of collective life resist such ingenuous reduction. These are the production of persons, of goods and of meanings. Demographic, economic and cultural systems are never mere transcriptions of power relations between human actors: for they always involve transactions with nature that surcharge or overflow these. The sociology of power characteristically seeks to avert this objection by extending its central concept, in a direction originally indicated by Parsons, towards positive-sum usages. Mann, for example, distinguishes between ‘distributive’ and ‘collective’ power – the former exercised by some agents over others, the latter shared between agents as a common enhancement of their capacities. For Runciman, similarly, the notion of power encompasses both ‘domination’ and ‘co-operation’. This doubling of the term is not a mere artifice. Technological invention or economic progress can legitimately be entered under it, since these directly involve an increased social power over the natural world. But this is not true, for example, of most recorded demographic regimes, of major world religions, or significant art forms. It is no accident that they virtually disappear from Runciman’s conspectus. Even economic activity, in principle more amenable to his treatment, gets short shrift. Indeed, it is noticeable that he makes much less of his ‘co-operative’ than Mann does of his ‘collective’ forms of power. After a perfunctory initial mention, they are all but forgotten thereafter. Symptomatically, Runciman – himself a leading industrialist, who must know more about modern economic realities than most of his peers put together – can nevertheless write that ‘the fundamental economic practice is the exchange of goods or services’: as if production did not exist. The ellipse is dictated by the parti pris of the theory as a whole, where to all intents and purposes power is ‘distributive’ domination.

The same inflection recurs in Runciman’s account of the ideological dimension of social structure. Once societies are conceptualised as so many practices of power, competition between these must be anchored in the dispositions of the individuals who compose them. Runciman postulates universally effective, and equivalent, strivings for the possession of wealth, force and prestige. The pursuit of ideological power is a quest for the latter, and the ‘fundamental practice’ of ideology is deference. Noting that some might doubt whether the wish for prestige is really a historical force on a par with the desire for command or riches, he replies that honour is a profound and ubiquitous value, Locke even holding ‘credit and reputation’ to be the most important of all springs of human action. But this is a non-sequitur. For reputation, which can just as well be moral, intellectual or aesthetic, need have – normally does have – nothing to do with power: of Locke’s contemporaries, what ideological sway was exercised by Aubrey or Spinoza or Vermeer? Even where real ideological systems are at work, moreover, in such massive structures as the great religions, is their principal function just to instil social deference? Plainly not: Christianity as a cultural meaning-complex cannot be reduced to the mere authority of priests. Its world-historical role, across successive forms of social order, is not to be squeezed into any such straitjacket. Runciman is right to distinguish between economic, ideological and coercive forms of power, and to insist that the variable relations between them need to be studied empirically, in their different historical settings. But he is wrong to suggest that history itself consists simply of their interplay. Neither labour nor faith, to say nothing of birth or death, are ever just adjuncts of power; and the changes in their regimes – affecting technology, reproduction, belief – cannot simply be assumed to have less causal weight for social evolution than the practices of domination. That has to be shown.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in