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New Left Review I/171, September-October 1988


Chris Wickham

Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology

Michael Mann has recently published a large book on the history of power which few historians or sociologists can afford to ignore. [1] Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, I: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760, cup, Cambridge 1986. Its 549 pages are only the first volume out of three; Mann’s aim will at the end be a massive retheorization of the sociology of power, on the basis of historical examples taken from the span of human history from the Neolithic Revolution to the present day. Vol. II will complete the history in the capitalist/industrial world (it will include a discussion of gender relations too); Vol. III will be the theoretical volume. However, there is plenty of theory in Vol. I, integrated into the historical analysis with a stylish verve and (usually) a satisfying neatness. Mann is ambitious: he remarks in his first sentence that he initially wanted to refute Marx and ‘reorganize’ Weber and, although he indicates that he has stepped back a bit from this, he still does, really. Whether he has ultimately managed or not will presumably have to await Vol. III: not least because Marx (although not, of course, Weber) was not particularly concerned with the pre-capitalist world. But Mann’s models are already pretty clear in Vol. I, and we can learn a good deal about how far he has reached. Enough, indeed, for me: I am a practising historian, and prefer to discuss my theory as intermingled as possible with historical example.

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