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Elias Defended

In response to:

Clockwork History from the October 21, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the second volume of Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, published in the United States under the title Power and Civility, Professor Geoffrey Barraclough tells us that “the two halves of [the book] must be considered separately” NYR, October 21]. This is odd and ill-guided advice, which may cause serious misunderstanding. As the author points out in the preface, in Volume One, the design of the whole book reflects a series of interlocking problems. Volume One presents historical evidence documenting changes in conduct and feeling in Europe since the Middle Ages. Volume Two continues with an inquiry into the regularities of more encompassing societal processes of which these changes in conduct and feeling form a part. The various threads are pulled together in a final chapter containing the outline of a theory with the aid of which long-term changes in social and personality structure may be explained.

None of this is brought out in Professor Barraclough’s review, which suggests that Power and Civility is a self-contained piece of “clockwork history” that can be characterized by such epithets as “top-heavy sociological theorizing,” “overtaken by more recent research,” “a crudely mechanistic view,” “pronounced ethnocentricity,” and “ingrained elitism.” At one point we even find the completely unwarrantable insinuation that Elias’s imputed “grandiose vision of the future” may have something to do with Hitler’s “new order.”

A more substantive criticism by Professor Barraclough concerns Elias’s emphasis on the role of “the state” in the European civilizing process, and his neglect of “the influence of religion.” Now, first of all, as the title of the English edition, State Formation and Civilization, clearly indicates, Elias is not so much concerned with “the state” as such but with the process of “state formation”—a subject that has increasingly demanded the attention of historians and political scientists in recent years, and about which he has a great deal to say that not only was novel in 1939 but still is. What Elias shows, furthermore, is that in the transition from the medieval to the modern age state formation was a precondition for the spread of more “civilized” conduct. No matter how much particular clergymen might long for peace and a softening of manners, they had little chance of realizing this ideal as long as the prevailing social conditions did not allow for it.

What is at issue is a general transformation of society, and, within society, a changing role of worldly and churchly authorities. If one insists on speaking in an unqualified manner about “the influence of religion,” one has to consider not only the lofty words and deeds of saints and schoolmen but also the atrocities committed by crusaders and inquisitors. To all of them Elias’s observation applies that “religion is always exactly as ‘civilized’ as the society or class which upholds it” (Vol. I, p. 200).

To call Elias’s view “mechanistic” is to miss the central point: “plans and actions, the emotional and rational impulses of people, constantly interweave in a friendly or hostile way. This basic tissue resulting from many single plans and actions of men can give rise to changes and patterns that no individual person has planned or created. From this interdependence of people arises an order sui generis, an order more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the individual people composing it” (Vol. II, p. 230; italics in the original).

A clear example of the compulsive nature of social processes, which is curiously denied by Professor Barraclough, is the present trend towards increasing global interdependencies. It is remarkable how little Elias’s diagnosis of this trend, made in 1939, stands in need of revision today. No one who is not bewildered by short-term fluctuations can fail to recognize this trend leading to ever more extensive social formations, controlled by ever more encompassing centres monopolizing the means of organized violence. That these growing monopolies are not immediately stable goes without saying. The disintegration of the Western European colonial empires has only been a step towards even larger, and more tightly knit military “superpowers.” Of course, this is not to say that NATO and Warsaw pact will last forever—on the contrary. Processes of this magnitude are unlikely to proceed in a straight and unilinear fashion. To recognize their complexity should not lead us, however, to deny the over-all direction into which they have been moving thus far.

The labels “ethnocentric” and “elitist,” used by Professor Barraclough to describe Elias’s orientation, are as misleading as they are wrong. Such labels are fashionable today, and cater to popular sentiments, but as applied here they evade the question whether the processes of increasing interdependence actually follow the pattern outlined by Elias. Is it really nothing but an expression of ethnocentrism and elitism to note that styles of clothing or techniques first developed by European upper and middle classes are now spreading all over the world? Is not the ubiquitous resistance against “Westernization” evidence of its impelling impact?

Perhaps because of his professional bias as a historian, Professor Barraclough has no eye nor any use for the sociological implications of The Civilizing Process. It is surely significant that the only writer within whose tradition he places Elias is, rather erroneously, Ranke; he overlooks altogether that the names of Freud, Marx, and Max Weber would have been far more fitting. But even as a historian his judgment is debatable. Thus he mentions Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society as a book that would make some of Elias’s conclusions outdated. There is far more reason to observe, however, how remarkably these two chefs-d’oeuvre, which were published around the same time, converge in their view of the structure and dynamics of medieval society. They do not contradict but supplement each other.

Johan Goudsblom

Universiteit van Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Geoffrey Barraclough replies:

I am not surprised that Professor Goudsblom is more impressed than I am by Elias’s book. As he was himself actively involved in its preparation, it might almost be said that he is an interested party. But his suggestion that I misrepresented Elias is not correct. Professor Goudsblom seems to object strongly to my description of The Civilizing Process as “mechanistic.” But it is Elias, not I, who makes everything depend on the operation of a “monopoly mechanism” which “proceeds like clockwork.” Professor Goudsblom is right, of course, in saying that “what is at issue is a general transformation of society.” My contention was—and is—that Elias’s account of this process is both too narrow and too rigid. His “monopoly mechanism,” invoked ad nauseam, is like Toynbee’s “challenge and response,” a truism which explains too much or too little. Nor, I fear, does Elias’s sociological and psychological theorizing, for which Professor Goudsblom says I have “no eye,” improve matters. In fact, I turned a blind eye to it. Psychological musings which discovered “how deeply the stratification, the pressures and tensions of our own time penetrate the structure of the individual personality” (p. 331), and sociological musings which arrive at the conclusion that “the continuous intertwining of human activities again and again acts as a lever which over the centuries produces changes in human conduct” (ibid.), seemed to me to reach a level of banality which it was kinder to pass over in silence. But perhaps I was wrong about that, and Professor Goudsblom is right.

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