The near-simultaneous appearance of Volumes III and IV of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power concludes a truly grand project of historical sociology. Along with the work of Anthony Giddens, W. G. Runciman, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, Mann’s project was one of the distinctive products of the intellectual conjuncture of 1970s Britain. footnote1 A colleague of Gellner’s at the lse, Mann was, like Giddens and Runciman, in search of a constructive exit from the impasse of post-Marxian, post-Weberian sociology. But his original formation was that of a quintessential ‘history boy’—a product of the legendary Manchester Grammar School–Oxford pipeline. In the course of an itinerary that took him from social work to engaged labour research, the original idea for Sources of Social Power took shape in the mid-1970s. Conceived as a short book, it grew into a massive undertaking. The publication of Volume I in 1986 made Mann famous, and helped to revivify the field of historical sociology. Whilst contemporaries such as Giddens succumbed to the flesh pots of New Labour, Mann, ensconced in California, toiled on. The thousand-page Volume II, covering the period 1760–1914, appeared in 1993. Twenty years on, Mann presents us with a no less enormous, two-volume treatment of the twentieth century. It is a culmination that has been prepared by three other substantial books, on The Dark Side of Democracy, Fascism and Mann’s reckoning with the derailment of us policy after 9.11, Incoherent Empire.

The title of Mann’s project is programmatic. This is not a study of society or culture; it is a study of social power. The shift from society to power has both a constructive and a critical intent. Along with a number of other thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s, Mann set out to build an account of modern power that did not rely on an overly reified notion of ‘society’. Of course, social units may be made; but this is something to be explained, not assumed. Societies can be unmade as well, as Thatcher attempted to demonstrate. Mann therefore proposed the study of networks of power, as a more basic unit of analysis. There is a temptation in such a move to posit a new monism in the form of a single source of power. Instead, Mann launched an acronym—iemp. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, and that is part of the point. It was a conglomerate, not a single term: Ideology, Economics, Military force and Political organization, all four governed by their own logics, are the constituent ingredients of power, defined as ‘the capacity to get others to do the things they would not otherwise do’, in order ‘to achieve our goals’. It is their combination and overlapping interaction that constitutes the networks and other crystallizations out of which states are formed.

Within this framework, Volume I expanded a multi-faceted narrative sweeping across millennia and culminating in an account of the rise of the West that avoided many, if not all, of the pitfalls of that venerable genre. It was received with great applause. More puzzling is the comparative silence that fell over Volume II, which works in a more painstaking fashion to explain the crystallization of Western power in the course of the nineteenth century, in the form of the European nation-state. It may seem paradoxical that someone who set out to refound sociology on a study of networks rather than societies should end up so resolutely focused on the nation. But for Mann, if the nation–state–society triangle did indeed come to dominate modernity, this is something for critical theory to explain, not to be taken for granted as its starting point. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a high tide for the constructivist analysis of the nation; Mann’s distinctive contribution was his focus on power. He speaks of nations not as imagined communities or invented traditions but as cages, the four corner posts of which are iemp.

The pay-off from this increasingly narrow, but increasingly deep, historical exploration comes at the juncture between Volumes II and III—Mann’s account of the outbreak of World War I. It may be to impute to Mann the particular preoccupations of post-imperial Britain, but it seems not implausible to see the brilliant final pages of Volume II as the point to which the entire previous undertaking has pointed: it is in looking back from the mind-boggling derailment of July 1914 that the arch of his construction becomes visible. If Volume I charted the rise of the West out of the pre-Christian era, and Volume II showed the way in which the nation-state emerged as the great rallying point for the energies of collective social power, then 1914 was Armageddon, the pivotal moment, the beginning of the end. As Mann himself put it on the penultimate page of Volume II, almost with a sense of relief: ‘The Great War exemplifies, horrifically, the structure of modern states and modern societies, as I have analysed them and theorized about them.’

What does he mean by this? In a sympathetic assessment of Volume I in these pages, Chris Wickham criticized Mann for saying in an off-hand remark that ‘minorities usually make history’. This, to Wickham’s mind, was both false as a general statement about history and reflective of a ‘traditional model of history as political action’. The quotation did not do justice to Mann; yet the irony of the modern era revealed so startlingly by the July crisis was precisely that, at the same time as social forces appeared to generate enormous momentum, elites came into play as never before. The culmination of this paradoxical process was the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, when ill-matched pairs of men, wielding the destructive power of two continental states, held in their hands the future of life on our planet. That condition is the subject of Volume IV, but the extraordinarily labile quality of modernity was prefigured in 1914. What Mann’s account of power was able to show us about this moment is the fragile quality of what we mean by a state or a nation at such a moment of stress: the entire collectivity, with its immense destructive forces, can be pitched into conflict as the result of a disastrously counterproductive interaction between parliaments, military staffs, mass publics and economic interests. Though each was separately rational, the upshot was appalling. As Mann put it, the polymorphous power formations which he described states as being were ‘only reflecting modern society, equipped with massive collective powers, their distributive power networks entwining non-dialectically’. In the hands of one of his French counterparts, the suggestive idea of ‘non-dialectical entwining’ might have opened out into a deeper theorization. Mann himself prefers more straightforward language: the reality of modern power was ‘patterned mess’.