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In a Fix

Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development

by Robert A. Nisbet
Oxford, 335 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Each of the two latest books by Professor R.A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966) and Social Change and History (1969) makes its point forcefully. But taken together the two books seem to me to contradict each other at least in part. In any case I feel that the eminent sociologist of the University of California will need a third book to explain the implications of these two.

The Sociological Tradition, it will be remembered, is a thorough and acute analysis of the main themes of nineteenth-century sociology from Comte and Tocqueville to Simmel and M. Weber passing through Marx, Tönnies, and Durkheim. Nisbet rightly emphasizes that what unifies their works is the awareness of the contemporary transition from the feudal-traditional to the democratic-capitalist social order. The conflicts theorized by the Masters (community-society, authority power, status-class, sacred-secular) were so many facets of the revolution they experienced in their own lives. In so far as Tönnies’s contrast between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft was the most comprehensive, albeit correspondingly the simplest, definition of this process, Tönnies’s emerges as the most revealing interpreter of the social realities of his own century.

This revolution has by now been accomplished, at least in Europe and in North America. Indeed in ominous words, to which we shall have to return, Nisbet declares the results of this revolution as “fixed” and “irreversible,” “despite our occasional, quixotic tilting at windmills” (p. 317). If so, Nisbet goes on to argue, it is to be expected that nineteenth-century sociology will no longer serve our purposes, because it no longer defines our problems.

It may still help us to understand what is happening in the so-called underdeveloped countries, where the conflicts between tradition and nationalism, between feudalism and capitalism, are part of daily life. But so far as we Europeans and North Americans are directly concerned, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber will soon join Milton and Newton and the other “classics.” Nisbet does not seem to be worried by the ambiguity of the word “classic,” as exemplified by the circumstance that it can be applied both to Milton and to Newton. He sees himself at the tail of the sociological tradition. What will happen next he refuses to prophesy: “It will not be the consequence of methodology, much less of computers….it will be the consequence, rather, of intellectual processes which the scientist shares with the artist, iconic imagination, aggressive intuition, each given discipline by reason and root by reality” (p. 319).

Now, if we turn to the later book, we find ourselves immediately in a different atmosphere. Professor Nisbet is no longer making a valedictory speech for the great men who are going to leave us for the Elysian Fields. He is now singling out some of the very same Masters—most emphatically Comte and Marx—for severe treatment. They are recognized as members of the much less respectable congregation of the “evolutionists” or “developmentalists.” They (and with them, of course, Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin) are the latest version of the Greek fallacy that a civilization can be interpreted by applying to it the notion of organic growth and consequently the division into periods of youth, maturity, and old age. Nisbet knows only too well that Comte and Marx expounded an idea of progress which is not compatible with a simple return to the origins. But he believes that the same notion of necessary growth underlies the philosophy of Aristotle or Lucretius as much as the social science of Comte, Marx, Spencer, or Tylor (p. 212).

What he objects to, in either version of organicism, is the underlying assumption of inevitable development “conceived as a natural and self-contained process of change in some persisting entity.” “The real objection is not so much to continuity in the sense of the linear series… The real objection is to genetic continuity: to the fixed notion within the conventional wisdom of social science that one change necessarily engenders another, that one ‘stage’ of developmental change produces the next stage, just as one stage of growth does in the organism” (p. 290). Creating a new expression for an old criticism, Nisbet says that the idea of inevitable historical progress is just a metaphor with a dogmatic-prophetic function rather than a scientific value. “Belief in Providence is a dogma; so is belief in Progress” (p. 246).

It takes no effort to recognize in Social Change and History one of the many contemporary attacks on those who believe in historical inevitability and present their favorite brand of Utopia as the product of permanent historical laws. Unnecessary to add, Nisbet himself is aware of being in good company. Sir Isaiah Berlin gets from him the compliments he abundantly deserves. So does the irrepressible Professor J.H. Hexter. If Sir Karl Popper is apparently absent, he is certainly not forgotten. What, however, gives distinction and originality to Nisbet’s argument within the current criticism of Marx and Co. is his contention that the notion of historical inevitability depends on the “metaphor” of natural growth as applied to social sciences.

What, then, about the sociological tradition? Are we to assume that Professor Nisbet is now prepared to see a future for those sociologists who are not guilty of the historical inevitability fallacy? Some sentences in the final chapters of the book (e.g., p. 277 on M. Weber, p. 287 on Tönnies, p. 291 on Durkheim) would seem to indicate such a change of heart. It will also have been noticed that Professor Nisbet had previously admitted the existence of historically irreversible processes: it has always been a fine point whether an irreversible process is historically inevitable.

Even if Professor Nisbet has not radically modified his ideas between 1966 and 1969, the picture which emerges from his latest book is evidently different from the previous one. There is now something about Comte and Marx which does not seem to apply to Tocqueville, Tönnies, Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim. In so far as Comte and Marx based their work on undemonstrable (and probably false) premises of historical inevitability, they were never scientific analyzers of their own time. They were utopian prophets who were stimulated by a specific social situation to see specific visions. Their contribution to social analysis is comparable with that of dreamers who, almost by definition, express their psychological situation in their dreams.

I may easily be wrong in this interpretation of Professor Nisbet’s thought. My difficulty is that I am not able to ascertain from his book whether he now intends consistently to make a distinction between evolutionists and functionalists, between sociologists who proclaim the principle of historical inevitability and sociologists who do not admit of it (or at least in practice do not make much use of it).

Where I feel I am on more solid ground is in questioning the importance of the metaphor of growth for the tradition of the social sciences. Professor Nisbet knows his texts and does not succumb to the frequently made suggestion that the Greeks reduced any process to a circular movement. He recognizes that Greek historians seldom described a series of events as a circular process. But he seems to believe a) that at least in Greece the metaphor of growth described a circular process; b) that Plato and Aristotle introduced the metaphor of growth into the study of societies, with all its dire consequences. Mr. Nisbet writes:

Suffice it to say that for Plato the cycle was as natural and obvious a perspective within which to examine physical and cultural reality as the idea of unilinear progress was to be for a Condorcet or Comte. …Aristotle was no less convinced of the cyclical character of existence, and he makes cyclical recurrence the very essence of reality. [p. 38]

I shall confine myself to b, because if b can be shown not to be true, an examination of a becomes unnecessary. Now it is of course true that Aristotle envisaged certain aspects of social life as organic developments. The transition from family to state is the most conspicuous example. But he did not analyze the transition from one type of political constitution to another as one of inevitable growth. In the fifth book of the Politics he distinguishes between changes due to internal causes and changes due to external interference. He was not likely to forget the part played by the intervention of Spartans, Athenians, Persians, and Macedonians in political revolutions. Even when he deals with internal processes Aristotle operates realistically with ordinary causes of discontent, such as rivalries between economic groups, envy between peers, etc. As his polemics against Plato show, he was aware of the danger of underrating the variety and irregularity of changes in political constitutions.

But even Polybius, who described the transition from one form of constitution to another in terms reminding us of historical inevitability, attributed unlimited duration to the mixed constitution. In other words, the transition from one constitution to another could be stopped either by wise legislation (Sparta) or by collective wisdom or good fortune (Rome). Contrary to Professor Nisbet’s argument, Greek political thought, in so far as it was primarily concerned with changes in political organization, was not deeply affected by metaphors of growth.

Nor can the theory of growth we find in Hegel and other modern thinkers easily be carried back to Greek models, as Nisbet suggests, though the name of Aristotle is often mentioned in connection with Hegel’s philosophy of history. If we have to find intellectual ancestors for Hegel, the Gospel of St. John, Luther, Boehme, and Spinoza are better candidates. C.F. Baur was not alone in 1835 in sensing that Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel were modern Gnostics. “Alienation” is a cabbalistic rather than an Aristotelian notion. No doubt Marx, after his removal to England, paid less attention to his Hegelian presuppositions and talked more like a straightforward materialist. But the notion of an impure world tending toward perfection never left him.

There was indeed at least one good reason why any revolutionary of the nineteenth century should appeal to the inevitable course of history in order to support his program. Between 1815 and 1917—with the dubious exception of 1848—reliance on the internal forces of change was the best hope a revolutionary leader could offer to his followers. Foreign support was not likely to come to left-wing movements.

As the notion of historical inevitability concerns the future rather than the present or the past, it does not easily affect judgments about present and past, although Nisbet seems to suggest that it generally does so. Even prophets, astrologers, and theorists of the inevitable progress may be acute observers of past and present. To judge from Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, an inclination to prophesy sharpens the eyes to see present and past realities. Comte, Hegel, and Marx are entitled to be assessed as interpreters of past and present without taking into account their inferences about the future. Marx does not come off badly as an interpreter of past and contemporary events.

If Professor Nisbet seems now to be less certain than he used to be about Marx’s qualifications as a sociologist, this is perhaps the consequence of two assumptions which emerge from his new book. One is the assumption that societies are essentially static organisms which would not change except for external factors: “Change is…not natural, not normal, much less ubiquitous and constant. Fixity is” (p. 270). “A more correct view of the matter is that social change, by the very nature of the social reality so well illuminated by functionalists in their empirical studies of social stability and fixity,…is inextricably involved in the historical processes of event and external impact rather than the assumed processes of immanent developmentalism” (pp. 283-4). The second assumption is that sociologists are in danger of losing touch with empirical research and must be brought back to doing historical work.

The first assumption in its turn depends on the further assumption that tensions within a society seldom represent forces of change. As a historian trained to study ancient civilizations where as a rule tensions are documentable only if they produce change, I am hardly in a position to discuss this assumption. The second assumption is probably well justified by the present situation of sociological studies, especially in the United States. But it would be a pity if Professor Nisbet were too successful in persuading his colleagues to do historical work. After all, we historians exist and produce every year a sizable amount of new facts and new ideas. In the last decades we have owed much of our improvement in quality of methods and problems to the impact of sociology. Though occasionally disliking and even detesting each other, historians and sociologists have come to use each others’ materials and to reconsider each others’ problems. Even English historians are now reconciled to the existence of Toynbee.

As a historian I feel it would be a loss if Professor Nisbet were no longer doing something different from me (or I were compelled to do something he can do much better). One of the points in which the damage would be serious is precisely the question of historical inevitability. The notion of historical inevitability is truly of no interest to historians. Their task is to make sense of the evidence they have about the past. The question whether what happened might not have happened (or happened inevitably) is not a question to which a historian can provide an answer. Any historian who begins a sentence with the words “It was inevitable that…” either says more than he means or says more than he can prove. But the question of inevitability in history makes sense if asked in a context of comparative and systematic studies of institutions and civilizations. In the same context, questions about the possibility of predicting the future seem to me legitimate. As we no longer have prophets, let us have sociologists.

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