Michael Rustin: Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, and a founding editor of Soundings.
Here are some thoughts on your article, ‘Why is there no international historical sociology?’.
As I was reading. I was puzzling about where the ‘Development’ in Uneven and Combined Development was going to come in, and then I got to that section.
Why ‘development’ at all, I was thinking. Why did Trotsky not call his theory Uneven and Combined Change (hereafter by initials) rather than ‘development’, and does it matter? Well of course it does, because his theory presupposes a Marxist concept of development. What U&CD is counterposed to in his theory is even and uncombined development – an undifferentiated model whose reference point was an idealised version of Western Europe’s trajectory.
This theory of development, leaving aside its U and C aspects, was criticised by Mann and Giddens in their critiques of historical materialism. We are back to Weber again, since this is mainly where they were coming from! If one argues that different modes of power, not development of the mode and relations of production alone, are the causal agents, what model of development emerges? Well, possibly none, they suggest – or at least a much more contingent model of change and stasis. Here are two pieces on Giddens, both in disagreement with him).
Theories for New Labour (Radical Philosophy, 1995)
New Labour and the theory of Globalization (Critical Social Policy, 2008)
Giddens’ view is really a different one – he implicitly takes up a liberal version of development, via globalisation theory, which has a different teleology. But that seems not to be his theoreticalposition.
Have you looked at WG Runciman’s evolutionist theory? This tries to model social change on a Darwinian basis, with innovations selected through competition, on the analogue of mutation and natural selection. There is a large problem with this, as he acknowledges more fully in his most recent book. This is because in social evolution the processes of innovation, replication and competitive selection are not radically separated as they are in Darwin’s account of biological evolution (even if Darwin’s account has become a bit more interactive in recent years). The processes of innovation are substantially controlled by those who have succeeded. The underlying dynamic seems to be a Weberian-Nietszchean (here we are again!) in that a struggle for power seems to be Runciman’s developmental motor.
Still, for all its problems, this model seems to me to be quite interesting, and does enable to map some developmental processes. It seems to me that it is worth discussing, especially as it seems to me that the Trotsky model is making a lot of tacit assumptions that one can no longer make tout court. There is a lot to be said for making the most of Darwin. Here are two things I have written about this.
A New Social Evolutionism? (New Left Review)
A New Social Darwinism? (21st Century Society, 2008)
The second question I have is about IR. It seems to me that some ‘sociology of knowledge’ is in order here. Your argument about the ways societies are constituted through their relations with each other is a very good one – I remember this from reading earlier work of yours – and a valuable complexification of our understanding of these supposedly separate bounded entities. But the problems in giving IR full theoretical depth seem to me to have a particular origin. Disciplines are not like Platonic forms of knowledge, with their own innate rationality, if only one could find it. They are instrumental enterprises, designed to serve specific social purposes, some more so than others. IR is surely a system of thought designed to inform entities that have constituted themselves as polities in their pursuit of what they define as their interests. Hence diplomacy etc. – I remember you got me to read the excellent Mattingly on this subject. It is not that states can be adequately defined in terms of their interests, as if they were individual subjects, as the Realist position as I understand it presupposes. It is rather that it is a convenient simplification for those who hold power in states to make this assumption, ‘black box’-ing all the other things that go on in societies in order to focus on the task in hand, namely gaining advantage in dealing with other states. It is rather like the rational interest assumptions that economists make – if one is producing a theory of how to operate in competitive markets, then assume that this is what actors do, and leave out the rest as needless diversion. One can only understand why these simplifications are made if one understands for what instrumental purposes they have been made.
Now one argument is that this is now less adequate as a modus operandi because state boundaries have become weaker, through globalisation etc. I believe you think little of this argument, since states have mostly had permeable boundaries and there have long been powerful non-state institutions, like the great religions, or the communist movement, impinging on and sometimes overwhelming states as actors. It has never made much sense to think about inter-state relations without regard for these other forces. But I wonder what the underlying argument is. Why does one want to situate in a broader theoretical framework states constructing themselves as rational agents in relation to competing states?
One reason might be, if one was still committed to the instrumental role of IR in guiding state power-holders, that more complex models of inter-state relations would lead to better statecraft. The distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power makes an adaptation of this kind, since it enables the State Department to include the influence of Walt Disney or Abstract Expressionism in its strategic thinking. (I believe Jackson Pollock and co were made much of in the 1940s by the US Government’s cultural arm.)
Another reason would be if one were a Marxist of the old school. Then an understanding of the respects in which states were complex effects of configurations of class relations would give one a better idea of how to conduct the class struggle. I guess the long project of New Left Review post 1962, with its attention to different states and regions of the globe, had this presupposition, at one time anyway. (Of course Critical Realism has a different ontology than IR Realism, much closer to your own way of thinking! )
But suppose neither of these purposes is quite it. For what purpose would one want to see a more complex explanatory discipline of IR, aside from the natural academic ambitions of those identified with the discipline as an enterprise? I doubt if you count yourself as one of them.
What is IR for, if it is not to add power to the elbow of the Henry Kissingers of this world? Where, in short, are the agencies which might give effect to improved IR insights to be found, or made?
Justin Rosenberg, University of Sussex:
June 3rd, 2010
Many thanks for your comments. Let me try to answer your two questions – on ‘development’ and IR – in turn.
On the first of these, I’m not sure that I have much to add here to what I’ve written about this elsewhere. Like you, I think the teleology implicit in Trotsky’s political use of Uneven and Combined Development is untenable – and always was. But there are two connotations of the term ‘development’, neither of them straightforwardly reducible to ‘change’, which I would want to hang on to. First, over the very long run, the successive emergence of hunter-gatherer, agrarian and industrial societies does compose a cumulative augmentation, unique to human history, of productive, organisational and cognitive capacities. Leaving this fact out of a conception of overall historical process would surely be just as untenable as claiming that this sequence has been continuous, unilinear and driven by a single, simple ‘motor’. All general social theories try to explain what this characteristic of human history is about – including those of Giddens, Mann, Runciman etc.. They may bridle at the term, but they are in fact theorists of development. And if they weren’t, and if human history did not exhibit this property overall, it’s not clear what they would be producing theories of.
Second, ‘development’ also refers, at a micro and meso level, to processes of directional change embodied in sequences of individual interconnected events. Social institutions ‘develop’, but so do crises, epidemics, conflicts etc. Even deterioration, regression and collapse are instances of ‘development’ in this second connotation – each involves a cumulative process with an outcome. In this sense, the term evokes the processual nature of reality and thereby challenges us to provide equivalently processual explanations of whatever we’re looking at. To put it another way: ‘change’ denotes an alteration of state, whereas ‘development’ compels a reconstruction of how and why the alteration occurred. And in this sense too, Giddens et al. (and all historical sociologists) remain theorists of ‘development’.
So I want to keep the term because in one connotation it has meaning as a very long-term (but fundamental) characteristic of human history; and in another connotation it seems to be a necessary element of the apparatus of (historical) sociological method. Strictly, neither of these entails either an automatic normative judgment or a causal teleology – in fact, in the idea of ‘development’, causalitymust be immanent. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t massive problems with the classical ideas of development – hence the fundamental qualifiers ‘uneven’ and ‘combined’, which of course were conceived and deployed as a critique of those classical ideas. But that’s what the article you’ve read is all about, so I won’t bore you by repeating the argument here.
Two smaller points, though, before I move on. First, I must look more into Runciman (and your articles on him) because I agree with you (as did both Marx and Trotsky of course) that Darwinism has something really valuable to offer the social sciences. Second, in your email you ask about the political agencies that U&CD can connect to. People often ask about this, and I’ll try and answer it below. Here I just want to note that this is a criterion which other theories of history are able to evade, apparently with impunity! You yourself happily discuss the intrinsic intellectual merits of the various schemas of Giddens, Mann and Runciman without (in this correspondence) requiring them to have a political agency or programme attached. I’d say this is legitimate – and it’s also just as well really, because what on earth would be the politics of Giddens’ ‘discontinuous theory of history’, Mann’s ‘IEMP model’ or Runciman’s evolutionary theory? Where are the ‘agencies’ that they connect to? This question doesn’t seem to get in the way of people treating them in the first instance as potentially fruitful intellectual ideas, and I feel that U&CD warrants the same treatment too. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t now try and answer your question anyway!
I think my answer would have three main parts to it. The first is about how to respond to the instrumentalist framing of academic disciplines. The second concerns the particular case and significance of IR in this regard. And the last tries to answer your ‘for whom if not Kissinger?’ question.
First then, as your own comments imply, the discipline of IR is hardly alone in its instrumentalist origins. The founding of academic Sociology, for one, was also heavily shaped by conservative, control-oriented goals – and still largely is. But that has not prevented generations of radical sociologists from investing it – right from the start – with a quite different vocation, of which C.Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (OUP 1959) remains a classic statement. If I remember correctly, this vocation has four parts:
1.asserting, in the face of dominant technicist interpretations, the fundamentally social construction of reality;
2.invoking the variability of societies across space and time, revealing how different social orders have created and constrained human possibilities in dramatically different ways – and thereby showing how deep the social construction of reality runs;
3.using this perception to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about our own form of society, assumptions which otherwise present it in a fixed, reified or even mystified form,
4.and trying, by contrast, to uncover the non-tangible social mechanisms of causality through which given configurations of power and inequality are reproduced – allowing us to see these structures for what they must be: particular historical forms and instances of collective human agency.
Arguably this critical function has a value in itself, even during times when it does not have a transformative political movement to appeal to. Indeed, Mills himself could find no such ready-made agencies, beyond the rather diffuse idea of ‘cultivated publics’. And yet, while reading his book, I never found myself asking why he was bothering with ‘the sociological imagination’. On the contrary, the predominantly bureaucratic and obscurantist nature of of the orthodox discipline, far from being an argument against Mills’ enterprise, was the very reason for writing. And it is what inspires critical theories of all stripes in IR too.
Second, I believe that in IR this vocation has a twofold extra warrant. On the one hand, the geopolitical subject matter of IR has always been especially resistant to a critical ontological reformulation of Mills’ kind. It has tended to provoke essentialised (political realist) conceptions of ‘the international’ which cannot be reconnected to wider understandings of the social world, and which often involve an explicit rejection of sociological premises. And these in turn have more often than not been met by ‘reductionist’ analyses which, in their counter-rejection of realism, lose sight of the causal specificity of inter-societal relations altogether. What seems so striking about U&CD is that it appears to overcome both of these problems at once. First it allows us to posit ‘the international’ as an intelligibly social phenomenon which arises from the spatio-temporal unevenness of human development; and then it prompts us to trace the systematic causal implications this has for the structuring and dynamics of the social world. It enables in this way a genuinely social theory of the international.
On the other hand, I think IR is also worth re-imagining in this way, because doing so might overcome a problem which has been general to the social sciences: the problem variously called ‘internalism’, ‘methodological nationalism’ and ‘ontological singularity’. Writing in Intimations of Postmodernity, Zygmunt Bauman described the need to overcome this problem as ‘a most urgent task faced by sociology… [T]he reality to be modelled’, he continued, (referring to inter-societal space), ‘is… much more fluid, heterogeneous and ‘under-patterned’ than anything the sociologists have tried to grasp intellectually in the past.’ (Intimations of Postmodernity, Routledge 1992:65). In a broad sense, of course, the formula for ‘modelling’ it has always been clear enough: we need somehow a theory of multiple interacting societies, in which the consequences of multiplicity itself add a further dimension to the patterns of development which they are undergoing. Many Sociologists have tried to provide such a formula – Skocpol, Giddens, Mann and so on. But it is striking that within IR all three of these are regarded as having reinforced the existing realist conception of geopolitics. I think the reason for this is that none of them sought to derive sociologically the existence of the international, and hence it retained a supra-social quality in their accounts. Bauman was right to imply that the international is a really knotty problem for social theory. Meanwhile, there is something indicative about the way that, despite this geopolitical infusion, Sociology, (though hardly Sociology alone), subsequently fell for the distraction of globalisation theory. I think it shows just how rooted in a hidden premise of ‘ontological singularity’ most social theory remains.
In IR by contrast, the basic problematic of multiple interacting societies may have taken on a reified, state-centric form; but it is the founding, irremovable premise nonetheless. In this respect, IR is the only discipline which specifically constitutes ‘the international’ as its focus. This makes it the natural place to try and think through the international dimension of ‘the sociological imagination’. You say that ‘[d]isciplines are not like Platonic forms of knowledge, with their own innate rationality, if only one could find it’. I only half-agree. The academic divisions among the social sciences may be problematic in various ways. But they do also focus intellectual attention on particular features of the social world, challenging us in each case to work out (a) why a given feature arises, (b) what characteristics and logics are specific to it, and (c) how it is connected to and significant for the whole. Multiplicity and interaction of societies is the feature which underlies IR, and I do believe that it is worth getting to the bottom of. Not only does it give rise to highly specific causal logics and normative issues which are not conceptualised elsewhere. But also, its existence has generic implications for the other social sciences too. Perhaps this is not an ‘innate rationality’, and it is certainly different from Plato’s (supra-social and extra-historical) Forms of knowledge. But disciplines are not only instrumental. They have, or acquire, or can be made to acquire significant intellectual problematics relating to their real-world referents. Given the disciplinary division of labour, if IR did not exist, it would have to be invented. If it does not exist in the form we approve, we must re-invent it. Either way, ‘the international’ is real and concrete.
To be clear, I am not saying that societal multiplicity is the only source of change: development is not reducible to difference and interaction. Rather I’m saying that a conception of historical process or development which does not incorporate this dimension theoretically will breed false, unilinear explanations. (And, by externalising international factors, it will play its own role in perpetuating IR as a self-enclosed, reifying field of discourses.)
(This point about historical process is quite central. Trotsky never criticised his Marxist opponents for their understanding of capitalism per se, including the transformative logics which both they and he attributed to it. Rather, it was the wider conception of historical process within which this understanding was deployed which was, for him, the seat of the problem. At root, the intellectual originality of U&CD lies in the positive alternative ontology of that process which it propounds: a plurality of differentially developing social formations (unevenness), whose spatio-temporal intersection and interaction chronically generates sources of change which are not derivable from any one of them considered singly (combined development). And this is also why the revisionist implications of the idea are neither restricted to, nor the exclusive property of, Marxism alone.)
Finally, there is your question of ‘for whom?’. This is a really important question to answer, because a notion has gained currency in recent debates to the effect that U&CD is either too ‘abstract’ or too ‘structuralist’ to address questions of concrete political agency. And this notion must ultimately be mistaken.
After all, very few theoretical ideas start their lives with as dramatic a demonstration of political applicability as this one did. For better or worse, Trotsky’s role in the Bolshevik revolution shows U&CD being used to identify and seize historical opportunities which other theories could not visualise. As a guide to conjunctural analysis, it transformed the socio-political contradictions of late Czarism from a paralysing conundrum into a strategic opening. Indeed, by breaking the shackles of a rigid stagism, Trotsky’s particular revisualising of capitalist development as international was fundamental to imagining and mobilising the political agencies involved. In other words, precisely the dimension of the idea now being further developed – its theorisation and integration of ‘the international’ – made a real difference at the level of agency in 1917. One might be skeptical, as I certainly am, of the strategy of ‘permanent revolution’ which Trotsky drew out of U&CD. But any claim that U&CD is unable to get concrete, or to address questions of agency, does seem weak in the light of this founding example.
To be sure, ‘permanent revolution’ failed. But that is a different issue, and hardly one that places U&CD in a different category from other critical approaches in the social sciences. Right now, they are all in the same boat: struggling to conceptualise the future shape and agencies of a radical transformative politics. And yet in just this context too, I would argue that the texture of historical process identified by Trotsky remains a necessary ingredient of any such conceptualisation, because it is so manifestly central to world events today. The rise of political Islam, the peculiarities of Chinese industrialisation, the origins and consequences of the post-2008 financial crisis, and the ways that all these interact with each other: a progressive politics which did not grasp the partly inter-societal production of these phenomena would be unable to find its bearings in the contemporary world situation. In fact, has this not been exactly the fate of the Left in the post-Cold War years, especially in the realm of international affairs?
In the light of all this, extending U&CD in order to recover ‘the international’ for social theory does seem potentially to be a contribution to the political visions of the future, even if we can’t yet see what those visions will be. Still, one element of its contribution can perhaps already be stated.
With or without an overt political strategy, U&CD may also bring with it an ‘ethic’ (in the Weberian sense) which is more specific than the generic humanism of Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’. In a recent public lecture, Barry Buzan compared the traditional Eurocentric narrative of modern world history with a range of ‘polycentric’ accounts which have, over recent years, been piecing together a more plural and interactive account of the ‘rise of the West’. The shift underway here, he argued, was not only a historiographical development. Something like it would also be a necessary element in our collective political and cultural adjustment to the re-emergence – for the first time since the industrial revolution – of a regionally multipolar world. I agree. And I think that the idea of U&CD is especially well suited to this. Its core content, after all, is a re-visualising of human history as a fundamentally shared, interactive process. To be sure, it sees this as the source of conflictual as well as creative dynamics. But then it would not be a very grown-up idea if it pretended otherwise. Nonetheless, the one thing which it thereby excludes is any warrant for group chauvinism. U&CD shows that the idea of the singular society is as mythical as that of the pre-social individual. It extends Classical Social Theory’s original premise about the deep sociality of human existence to the level of social formations. It simultaneously explains and delegitimises all ideas of ‘pure identity’ – biological, cultural, national, religious or other. In the future, we’re all of us – the Left included – going to need much more of this particular kind of ‘internationalist’ thinking. Thus, in an increasingly post-Western world, U&CD also looks very much like an idea for our times.
So when you ask ‘What is IR for, if it is not to add power to the elbow of the Henry Kissingers of this world?’, I would say that the answer depends on us. We can leave IR to the never-ending standoff between essentialising Realism and its reductionist critics; or we can deploy U&CD in order to reclaim ‘the international’ for the sociological imagination whose grasp it has so long evaded. This won’t automatically produce the transformative agencies you ask for. But it might help free the social sciences from their inherited problem of ‘methodological nationalism’, enriching the imaginative field in which these agencies might cohere. And that, perhaps, is itself a kind of agency too?