Michael Mann's Sources of Social Power is a work of huge scope - it is a history of power itself from the earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Two volumes have hitherto been published. Volume one deals with power from the beginning to 1760, and the second one with the period 1760-1914. A third volume on the twentieth century is forthcoming, and a further one on the theoretical conclusions of all the empirical material.

Mann tells us that his project started as a refutation of Marx and an elaboration of Weber. I will therefore concentrate on Mann's conceptions of power and society, since these offer the clearest contrasts with Marx and Weber. I will also consider one of Mann's most controversial arguments, that of the causes of the European economic miracle, which illustrates his divergence from Marx and Weber.

For Mann, society is not a 'totality'; it is not a system. Indeed, he says he would like to dispense with the whole concept of a society if he could do so. Yet, he does use the concept throughout his work. What, then, is a society? Mann explains his conception by asking the question: in which society do you live? Possible answers would be Britain, France, Germany and so forth. But one could also say "industrial society" or "capitalist society". Or even "the Western alliance" or the "West". These are contemporary examples of Mann's "overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power," which constitute a society. The networks are not 'layers' or 'dimensions' of the social totality as a Marxist or Weberian would have it. They 'rarely coincide'. I think the point is that even though the social networks interact, none of them can ultimately be reduced to any of the others. Ideologies cannot be reduced to modes of production; neither can states.

Mann distinguishes four sources of social power: ideological, economic, political and military. Ideological power derives from the necessity of imposing meaning on the world, direct sense perception not being sufficient. If a group or individual can monopolize meaning in a society, they can excercise considerable power. Also, ideological movements can increase the collective power of groups by introducing common norms, which are necessary for co-operation. An obvious example would be a religion which creates cohesion in a society - according to Mann Christianity pacified violence in and between societies, and created a more stable basis for trade. But it can also be a secular movement - Marxism and the Bolsheviks comes to mind. Surely a basis for the co-operation of the Bolsheviks and thus their ability to exert collective power was their common ideology provided by Marxism.

Mann's conception of economic power is straightforwardly Marxist. Economic power derives from the necessity to produce in order to subsist. Classes arise from the different relations of groups to the means of production, just like for Marx. The dominant economic class controls the means of production, and is therefore able to gain a considerable amount of power over the whole society. However, Mann does not accord primacy to the economic, as Marx does.

Political power is simply the power of the state. It "derives from the usefulness of centralized, institutionalized, territorialized regulation of many aspects of social relations." According to Weber's definition, the modern state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a society. However, Mann distinguishes between military and political power. This is justified since it is only in the modern state that the state has monopolized the use of violence. In the middle ages armies were owned by noblemen, and even in more recent history armies have exerted autonomous power. For example, the strategies favoring offence instead of defence developed in the European militaries of the 19th century had an important impact on the decisions to go to war in 1914.

The different sources of social power give rise to different institutions in society. For instance, ideologies create churches, the need for physical defence causes the development of militaries and so forth. A subtlety and complication is introduced by Mann's conception of institutions as 'promiscuous'. An institution does not wield only a single type of power. For instance, states are not only political but also economic institutions. They are often ideological institutions as well. Economic roles can be played by seemingly pure ideological institutions such as churches.

One of the most interesting parts of Mann's account is his analysis of the 'economic miracle' of Europe. His account illustrates the operation of his networks of power, and since in this instance Mann emphasizes the ideological aspect, it offers a clear contrast with a Marxist account. For Mann, the ideological power of Christianity was necessary for the formation of capitalism. It 'pacified' Europe so that trade could flourish. Mann distinguishes other factors as important as well - early medieval states imposed a small degree of judicial regulation, and strenghtened customs and privleges; military power networks strenghtened social stratification and enabled feudal lords to extract a greater surplus, enhancing trade; and so forth. But he thinks Christianity was the only 'necessary' factor. Whereas for Weber, the Protestant Ethic was a switchman of history, which led Europe down the capitalist track, for Mann, it was Christianity that actually laid the tracks. Christianity in some sense created Europe, a Europe where capitalism was possible. The distinction with Weber is subtle, but with Marx it is clear. For Marx, the economic base would surely be the track-layer, with the superstructure perhaps being the the actual train, going in the direction determined by the base.

I think that in Mann's account of the rise of capitalism in Europe his insistence on pursuing historical rather than comparative sociology is a weakness. Anderson, for instance, has pointed out that Mann essentially neglects China. Mann declares that comparative sociology is not possible because there are too few cases. Mann may be right that comparative sociology is not a good basis for generalization, but dismissing it altogether gets rid of important empirical controls on Mann's claims, as Anderson argues. A comparison of Europe with other areas is surely important, especially with regard to religion. Perhaps Christianity pacified Europe, but surely Islam pacified the Middle East and Confucianism pacified China. The fact that these other religions did not produce comparable economic miracles suggests that Mann's general explanation is too broad. Obviously, Mann does not think that Christianity was the only reason for the rise of capitalism. But asserting that it's the most important factor leads to the question why comparable religions did not produce comparable economic consequences elsewhere. Furthermore, even Christianity did not create capitalism in all the areas it penetrated. Capitalism was a phenomenon of Western Europe, but Christianity was equally a phenomenon of Eastern Europe. Mann ignores Byzantium.

It also seems that there is a degree of teleology in Mann's account of the rise of capitalism in Europe. Mann asserts that the essential innovations which lead to the rise of capitalism were already in place in 1000 or perhaps even in 800 AD. This leads him to dismiss arguments about China being more advanced than Europe in the medieval period. But surely one shouldn't look at medieval Europe from the vantage point of the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and therefore assume that because these developments occurred in European societies in latter centuries that the factors which led to these developments were already present in the early medieval period. From the vantage point of the medieval period, China was more developed than Europe, and from that point of view it could seem more probable that the economic miracle happen in China rather than Europe. Mann dismisses the rise of towns, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and the rise of Protestantism as explanations for the rise of capitalism, but surely these were crucial events from a comparative perspective, since they distinguished Europe from the rest of the world, and perhaps can be part of an explanation why the economic miracle happened specifically in Europe.

Mann's conception of social power seems to be useful in overcoming Marxist reductionism, but I at least find it hard to understand how exactly Mann differs from Weber, since both reject deciding the question of ultimate primacy a priori. I think it is important to acknowledge the independent power of ideologies, but I think Mann's emphasis of this in his account of the European miracle is problematic. Furthermore, his separation of political and military power is helpful. So I think his theory of power is a useful one, and that he is correct in insisting that ultimate primacy can only be decided empirically. The major problem with Mann's approach is his insistence on historical rather than comparative sociology, which leads to some strange conclusions. But it cannot be doubted that Mann's work is a supreme effort in the grand tradition of Marx and Weber. Anyone who ever asked 'How did we get here?' will find this one of the most ambitious accounts of how hunter-gatherers became industrialists.


Anderson, P. (1992) A Zone of Engagement (London, Verso)
Mann, M. (1986) The Sources of Social Power, Vol I. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Mann, M. (1993) The Sources of Social Power, Vol II. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Mann, M. 'The Autonomous Power of the State' in Hall, J.A. (1986) States in History (Oxford, Basil Blackwell)
Wickham, C. (1988) 'Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology' in New Left Review, 171.