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THE GOLDEN AGE OF HISTORICAL SOCIOLOGY

The last 30 years, right up to the time in which we are now living, has seen many of the finest and most ambitious projects in historical sociology ever attempted. I have already mentioned some of its high points: the studies of class conflict and the rise of the modern state by Barrington Moore, Jr., and by Craig Calhoun, Charles Tilly's studies of revolutionary social movements that produced his resource mobilization theory, Gerhard Lenski's comparative model of inequality across all of world history. For recent years, we can add Tilly's demonstration that the modern states were created in different forms because of the ways they gained control of economic resources to build their military organization. Another triumph of historical sociology is Robert

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Wuthnow's analysis of how three-sided conflicts between the state, social elites, and cultural entrepreneurs caused the great ideological movements such as the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Socialism. Inevitably the realistic treatment of history has led into the paths of conflict sociology. In these works, the themes of Marx and of Weber have come together.

Some comparative/historical work has stayed closer to a Marxian identity. This includes the British sociologist Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism ( 1974), which traces the distinctiveness of the West not only to capitalism but also to its foundation upon the downfall of the ancient Roman empire. The most ambitious of these projects is Immanuel Wallerstein The Modern World System, three volumes of which have been published between 1974 and 1989. Wallerstein's work is perhaps the closest to a classic Marxian interpretation in that he regards economic processes and contraditions as the driving engine of history. But he differs from the classic Marxist model in that the economy is located not within any particular state but is organized as a world economic system, with its long-term cycles of expansion and contraction. These long waves of global economic boom and depression, taking over 100 years each, are connected with imperialism towards the periphery in their upswings and with wars among the core powers in their downswings, bringing about the hegemony of a new state. Wallerstein's project is not yet finished. Already it promises to be the grandest and most comprehensive view of the mechanisms that drive human societies since Weber's comparative studies of the world religionsand Weber's project was only a fragment, never finished.

Even though Wallerstein is the most "orthodox Marxian" of the major historical/comparative sociologists of today, I would still maintain that the logic of his world system leans in a Weberian direction. The military hegemony of the core states is a key device by which they are able to dominate the world system economically, and the question remains unsettled as to just which of the core states wins hegemony at each showdown period. I would suggest that there is a further process of the geopolitical relations among states themselves that determines these things. These involve such factors as the sheer



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geographical positions of states vis-à-vis each other: states on the outer ring of a settled area have a military advantage over states in the middle, as the latter tend to get chewed up in the long run through multisided wars. There are processes of cumulative advantage and disadvantage as conquering states build up their momentum and add further to their size and resources, whereas their rivals fight from successively weaker positions. But there also seems to be an outer limit to a state's ability to conquer territory; a principle of military overextension applies that can be a prime source of the kind of fiscal crisis of the state that we have already discussed above. When such overextension happens, states can collapse much faster than they grew originally, and they are carved up to the benefit of their neighbours.

The principles of geopolitics, I would contend, are more general even than the principles of capitalism. Geopolitics determined the military cycles of ancient and medieval empires, and the same principles operate today, even though a capitalist world economy has been superimposed on them. A state's geopolitical position, furthermore, has a crucial effect on its internal politics, including its experience of revolution. Theda Skocpol , in her now-famous book States and Social Revolutions ( 1979), showed by a comparative analysis of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions that revolution needs more than merely the mobilization of social classes making economically radical demands. Revolution always begins with a crisis of the state, a breakdown due to war or fiscal crisis that paralyzes the ruling clases in a battle between the administrators of the state sector and the dominant propertied classes outside that sector. The theory is compelling as far as it goes. What can be added is the point that the strain on the state that starts this off is not accidental. It flows systematically from the position of the state in the larger geopolitical situation. Pre-1789France, pre-1917 Russia, and pre-1949China were all in the peculiar position of having great geopolitical strengths in one aspect, but crippling geopolitical weaknesses in another. All were states with great cumulative resource advantages that nevertheless had overexpanded and taken on neighboring powers in too many different directions. In this view, the revolutionary upheaval is a

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convulsion nested within the larger state system in which the classes that directed the disastrous geopolitical policies had to pay the price. Once these inefficiencies were eliminated, postrevolutionary states, as Skocpol aptly demonstrated, reestablish a militant -- and militaristic -- national identity and become once again aggressive powers on the world geopolitical scene.

The state-breakdown theory of revolutions developed by Skocpol has been further expanded by Jack Goldstone. Comparing a whole series of state breakdowns in Europe, as well as in the Ottoman Empire and the Ming Dynasty in China, Goldstone has been able to demonstrate with considerable precision just what conditions bring a state to the point of revolution, and what conditions will keep a state intact. Goldstone expands Skocpol's model by showing that the state fiscal crisis, as well as internal conflicts among elites who tear the state apart, are affected by the entire system of taxation, economic development, and population growth. Goldstone is particularly concerned to show that the early modern boom in population upset almost every aspect of states' fiscal health, and thus prepared the way for breakdowns and revolutions. Does this mean revolutions can no longer happen in states that control their population size? Not necessarily; the Skocpol/Goldstone model, taken as a whole, shows that the core of a state's ability to maintain control is its fiscal health, and that can be strained in a number of different ways: from population growth, from an inadequate taxation system, from geopolitical strains, or from any combination of these, provided that the strain reaches high enough levels. The age of revolutions is probably not over. Even behemoths like the USSR have shown themselves vulnerable to collapse through resource strains, and the fiscal problems of states elsewhere in the modern world (including even the United States) suggests that problems loom on the long-term horizon.

The tradition of conflict sociology is very much alive today and continues to make intellectual progress on many fronts. To some extent it is divided within itself. There are ideological debates between Weberians and Marxists and between different viewpoints within each camp. To some extent this is due to the fact that the conflict tradition is the most politically activist of all the brands of sociology. We tend to choose our intellec-

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tual stances because of the ammunition they provide for the political programs we would like to advance. But besides these inevitable debates over policy questions, there is a genuine core of insight into the principles of how the world works. Conflict sociology is necessarily conflictual, like everything else. For all that, it adds up to a tradition of sociological realism that has become truly sophisticated. If we ever felt like rising above our own social conflicts and merely contemplating the science of how society operates, the conflict tradition would have to be a central part of that vision.


Date: 2015-04-20; view: 625


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