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 …

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