The Work of Retrieval

A conversation with Krishan Kumar about returning to the work of forgotten and neglected scholars

At CSSH we pride ourselves on not falling prey to intellectual fads, and our contributors are often adept at turning unfashionable topics and thinkers into appealing, even popular scholarship. Two recent articles by Krishan Kumar exemplify the trend. “The Return of Civilization – and of Arnold Toynbee?” (CSSH 56-4: 815-843) has been at or near the top of our monthly download counts for several years now. “Colony and Empire, Colonialism and Imperialism: A Meaningful Distinction?” (CSSH 63-2: 280-309), which centers on now-obscure work by Moses Finley, is also attracting a steady stream of readers. We admit to being somewhat surprised (and pleased, too!) that Kumar’s engagement with these authors is finding a receptive audience. It is certainly a measure of the enduring significance of the ideas he explores — civilization, the colony, imperialism — but it is also proof that his decision to come at these concepts by returning to what earlier generations of scholars had to say about them is filling a gap. This aspect of Kumar’s work is worth a closer look, since we are now in times when syllabi and canons are being vigorously updated, and the prevailing editorial logic favors scholars who were ignored in the past, or marginalized, not those who were once influential but no longer are.

We decided to ask Kumar about his approach. What draws him back to authors now eclipsed, or rejected? How does he select them, and how does he decide which aspects of their work deserve a second look? Below, he answers at length. Along with a rich catalog of forgotten classics, Kumar provides an account of how these books and authors shaped his own development as a scholar. It is both a guide to “the work of retrieval” and a call to do more of it. The basements and attics of our disciplines, Kumar assures us, are filled with treasures. It is important to dust them off, not only to show how our thinking is connected to the past, or disconnected from it, but to re-historicize vital concepts now. The work of retrieval enhances comparative frameworks. It also acquaints us, in the cases selected by Kumar, with earlier styles of writing that were compelling and accessible in ways contemporary scholarly writing often is not.

In short, Kumar’s agenda fits perfectly with the intellectual ambitions of CSSH. Which might explain why so many of our readers are downloading his work! It is music (old and irresistible) to our ears.


CSSH author Krishan Kumar

A Taste for Neglected Things

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by figures, and works, that once had their day but for various reasons have been forgotten or neglected. It’s partly an interest in recovering the world in which they flourished. Why were they so famous and influential at the time? What was it in their environment that they responded to so successfully? What changed in that environment such that they were no longer thought relevant, and they and their ideas fell into disfavor or oblivion?

These kinds of questions have been asked often enough, of course, mostly by historians of ideas. John Burrow’s Evolution and SocietyA Study in Victorian Social Theory (1966) might serve as good an example of this as any, especially as it deals with a subject in which I have a particular interest. Burrow first rightly separates Darwinism from evolutionism, and then shows how European encounters with non-Western peoples, especially in the context of the European empires, forced European social theory to take on a more “anthropological” and ethnographic turn. But this did not necessarily lead to relativism or cultural pluralism. In the thought of Spencer, Tylor, Lubbock, Maine, and others the new knowledge of “primitive” or “archaic” societies was fitted into an evolutionary schema – basically the stadial approaches of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers – that allowed societies to be ranked on a scale of progressiveness or civilization. So while due respect was paid to the distinctiveness and differences of primitive societies, and their study was strongly encouraged, in the end their fate was simply to be dragged up the scale of civilization by the more progressive Western societies.

When, as Burrow shows, at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth, evolutionism came under attack – especially by anthropologists such as Boas and Malinowski – most of these thinkers rapidly ceased to be read and discussed, unless it was to dismiss them. Perhaps the biggest casualty was Herbert Spencer, one of the most highly-regarded and influential writers of the nineteenth century. “Who now reads Spencer?” was the mocking opening line – actually a quote from the historian Crane Brinton – of Talcott Parsons’s path-setting Structure of Social Action (1938). It was a rhetorical question of course, expecting the answer: nobody. Why bother?

What I felt about these accounts, good as they were, was that in rejecting some of the leading elements of evolutionary theory, they also seemed to want to show the thinkers to be wholly anachronistic in our own times, of purely antiquarian interest, and of virtually no use to us now (which was more or less Burrow’s position). That has always seemed to me unfair to thinkers such as Spencer, or for that matter Tylor or Maine. The fact is that, shorn of some of the evolutionary propositions, Spencer offers us as good an account of the structural-functional  approach to society as any of its leading theorists (and, as compared with at least one of them, Talcott Parsons, certainly in a far more readable and accessible form). If one adds to the main works of “Synthetic Philosophy” the essays on a whole variety of subjects that Spencer published during his lifetime, one has a body of work that infinitely repays study today (as some sociologists, such as Jonathan Turner, are recognizing). Maine too is once more attracting some interest (see my “Maine and the Idea of Progress” in Alan Diamond, ed., The Victorian Achievement of Sir Henry Maine, 1991; and Karuna Mantena, Alibis of empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism, 2010). 

So the interest in these neglected thinkers is two-fold. First, what gave them their influence in the first place, and why did that cease? But secondly, and for my purposes more importantly, what is it in their work that remains inspiring and valuable? What have we lost by our comprehensive rejection of these thinkers?

Classic Examples: Nineteenth Century

My choice of examples is very much dictated by my own intellectual and scholarly development, particularly in the early days. I can also break them down into a number of chronological or historical levels. We can consider some of the “classic” thinkers who are now forgotten, such as Spencer, and also H. T. Buckle, whose unfinished History of Civilization in England (1861), famous throughout Europe in his lifetime, and referred to by such figures as Tolstoy, also repays study for its early environmentalist approach to history, carried out sensitively and on the basis of an enormous store of historical and ethnographic knowledge. Often they were much better known at the time than the thinkers who now figure most prominently in courses on classic social and political theory, such as Tocqueville, J. S. Mill, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. 

The choice of these thinkers – Spencer, Maine, and others, and Burrow’s discussion of them – is not entirely arbitrary. They reflect an important early moment in my own academic development. I had begun, at the London School of Economics, a Ph.D. thesis on Darwinism and Sociology. The first problem was to get my teachers to accept that Darwinism was not the same as evolutionism, and in some ways could be considered its direct opposite (no idea of direction, “purpose” or “progress,” for instance). Since LSE had been the home of some of the most resolute opponents of evolutionism – Malinowski himself, also such thinkers as Karl Popper and Ernest Gellner – it proved very difficult to get my teachers to accept what they saw as an attempt to resurrect evolutionism. I was eventually shunted onto an anthropologist, Robin Fox, who along with Lionel Tiger (!) was at that time engaged in promoting sociobiology, and so found myself placed in another camp that was not to my taste. Not surprisingly, that particular version of my thesis was never completed. 

I was therefore delighted when Burrow’s Evolution and Society appeared, because he showed so clearly that Darwinism and evolutionism were not the same thing, and so I could try to advance a specifically Darwinian approach to the study of society without – I hoped – being accused of attempting to resuscitate evolutionism. That continued to prove difficult, at least at LSE, but it allowed me to range more widely in Victorian thought for what could be held to be actually Darwinian, as opposed to evolutionary, approaches. I found a treasure trove of little-known, or at least little used, material, such as the Darwinian Lectures and Essays (1879) of the mathematician W. K. Clifford,  D. G. Ritchie’s Darwinism and Politics (1889), and Leslie Stephen’s The Science of Ethics (1882), which puts Darwinism to highly effective use in searching for a scientific basis for ethics. What all these works displayed was the enormous power and fertility of the use of Darwinian concepts such as selection, variation, adaptation, and adaptability not just in understanding natural but also social processes. 

But pride of place should probably be reserved for Walter Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1867), aptly subtitled Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of “Natural Selection” and “Inheritance” to Political Society. Bagehot is best-known today as the author of The English Constitution (1872), but in his time Physics and Politics was as well-known and well-regarded. It is indeed, in Bagehot’s characteristically vivid and lucid prose, a brilliant application of Darwinian principles to the study of society (for an account, see my “The Evolution of Society: A Darwinian Approach,” in Chris Hann, ed., When History Accelerates, 1994). Here he coins the term, and the concept, of “the yoke of custom,” as an obstacle to progress, that had such an influence on Arnold Toynbee’s account of the dynamics of civilizational change. But he also indicates, in strictly Darwinian terms, why a culture of discussion and diversity is essential to the health and continued survival of society. It is a great pity that, in the various attempts to apply biological concepts and approaches to the study of society, as in the work of the late W. G. Runciman, there are virtually no references to Bagehot’s seminal work, the use of which would immensely clarify how (and how not) Darwinian concepts can be used. 

One further example from the field of Victorian social thought, and one again close to my own interests: the great legal scholar A. V. Dicey’s Law and Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century (1905). This virtuoso study of the impact of Benthamite ideas on the evolution of English law and English public policy was once the center of a vibrant debate – as “the Dicey problem” – about the role of ideas in the making of public policy. It is now hardly ever referred to, even in contexts where it would be highly relevant and fruitful, as for instance in the frequent discussion of Max Weber’s position on the role of ideas in social and political change. Here too is the loss of a valuable intellectual resource (for a discussion, and a defense of Dicey, see my “Social Thought and Social Action: The ‘Dicey Problem’ and the Role of Ideas in English Social Policy,” in Douglas Ashford, ed., History and Context in Comparative Public Policy, 1992). 

Early Twentieth Century

The next level of historical retrieval might be the writers and thinkers of the early part of the twentieth century, from roughly the First World War to the 1930s and 1940s. It is within this category that I include thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee (for Toynbee, see my CSSH article, “The Return of Civilization – and of Arnold Toynbee?” 56/4: 815-843). To these neglected writers one might add a figure such as the historian E. H. Carr. Carr is best known for his multivolume history of the Soviet Union, but he was also an astute analyst of the phenomenon of nationalism, which in the wake of the First World War and Wilson’s principle of “self-determination” was convulsing the world (see the excellent account in Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, 2009). Carr was the (anonymous) author of the impressive but now wholly neglected report, Nationalism (1939), of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. In my view, despite the outpouring of publications on nationalism recently, not much has been added to our understanding of nationalism that is not contained in that masterly report (commissioned, as it happens, by Arnold Toynbee as Director of the Institute of International Affairs). Carr produced a shorter and more popular account in his Nationalism and After (1945), a powerful and sharply-written book that emphasized the “dark side” of nationalism, later taken up by such authors as Elie Kedourie (Nationalism, 1961) and Michael Mann (The Dark Side of Democracy, 2005). This is not to disparage the contributions of these later authors, simply to say that there is a lot to be gained from reading some of the original presentations of a powerful point of view, especially if one considers the quality of the writing. One might mention, in this context, a similarly impressive work on nationalism, Frederick Hertz, Nationality in History and Politics, 1944 – another unjustly neglected work of the period that hardly ever features in current discussions of nationalism, despite its wealth of scholarship and its incisive commentary on contemporary nationalism. Nationalism is indeed replete with neglected classics: the works of Carleton Hayes and Hans Kohn, for instance, or Karl Deutsch’s Nationalism and Social Communication (1953), which anticipates much of the later nationalism theories of Ernest Gellner and others. 

A quite different area was covered in this period by another work that was something of a sensation when it came out, but which has dropped almost wholly out of sight since then. That work is James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution(1939). It was a brilliant feat at the time, given the fierce ideological conflicts then dividing the world, to see something in common in Roosevelt’s New Deal, Stalin’s collectivization, and Hitler’s state-run projects to revitalize the German economy. Quite deliberately ignoring ideology, Burnham discerned a long-term trend in all industrial societies for professional managers, scientists, technologists, and experts of all kinds to take over the direction of society, whatever their political complexion. In doing so Burnham laid the groundwork – usually unacknowledged – for later theories of “post-industrial society,” in the writings of such thinkers as Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine. When I came to write my own work, Prophecy and Progress (1978), a critical discussion of the theory of post-industrial society, I found it immensely refreshing to go back to Burnham’s powerfully-expressed, almost manifesto-like, work. So much of what was later claimed, and painstakingly described, was already there, in pithy and pregnant form. All that was needed was a certain updating of trends. Why was Burnham ignored? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that in his later life Burnham renounced his earlier radical leanings and leant his considerable talents to right-wing causes, thereby offending the liberal intelligentsia that largely dominated the Western universities of the 1960s and 1970s. 

One further item from these examples of currently neglected interwar works: Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution(1939). Syme has always been acknowledged as one the great classicists of the twentieth century, and is certainly not forgotten today. But in discussions of Roman history I rarely come across references to this great work that, like Burnham’s, was acclaimed when it first appeared. Syme had his eye on the tendencies of his own time, the 1930s, with the rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This cued him to the changes taking place as the Roman Republic morphed into the Roman Empire, a process that he called a revolution and that he chronicled with Tacitean economy and power. It is a brilliant exercise in historical sociology, as compelling today as when it was written, and it is regrettable that students are not sent back to it by their teachers in classical history (as I was by mine, my classics tutor at St. John’s College, Cambridge, John Crook). 

Mid-Late Twentieth Century

A third level of historical retrieval brings me closer to my own times, as it relates to works and thinkers that influenced me as a student. This puts the period in the 1960s and 1970s, some 50 years ago. Especially important were some of my teachers, both in terms of their own writings and in terms of works and thinkers that they referred me to. Again, I do not mention works, such as E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), that certainly influenced me but which have been much discussed and are still alive in contemporary debates. I am more interested in those works that seem to have got lost in the cracks, that for a number of reasons have disappeared from view and that I feel we would all benefit from revisiting. 

I have already mentioned my classics tutor, John Crook, at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where I studied history as an undergraduate. Two other teachers there were Ronald Robinson and F. H. (“Harry”) Hinsley. Robinson, part of the famed duo of Gallagher and Robinson, with their concept of “informal empire,” continues well after his death to be a prominent influence in the field of imperial studies (Africa and the Victorians, etc.). The same is not true of Harry Hinsley. Prominent at the time, as the long-standing editor of the Historical Journal, and the author of a number of important works, he seems more recently to have been comprehensively forgotten. This is a pity, as two of his works at least have a distinct contemporary resonance.

The first is Power and the Pursuit of Peace (1963), a compelling account of the search over the centuries for an alternative form of the universalism of the Roman Empire and medieval Christendom. Unlike most accounts that concentrate on the emergence of the nation-state and state sovereignty as the paramount feature of the past few centuries, Hinsley shows how that was always paralleled by an awareness of the limitations of a world of nation-states, and the need for some overarching international authority, later adumbrated in the League of Nations and the United Nations. Newer accounts are now recovering something of that perspective, but seem totally unaware of Hinsley’s contribution, from which they would have much to learn not just in the clarity of the language but from the longer historical arc within which Hinsley positions the search for an international order (for an example of a recent study that would have benefitted on all counts from a careful reading of Hinsley, see Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 2020).

A similar breadth and analytical rigor are to be found in Hinsley’s Nationalism and the International System (1973). Not only was Hinsley early in the rediscovery of nationalism as a subject of study, but unlike most accounts he was deeply aware of the international context of nationalism, the fact that nationalism – in the thought of Mazzini and others – was never meant to be a self-sufficient principle but was conceived as part of an international order, a world of nation-states. This continues to be neglected in the otherwise flourishing field of nationalism studies today, in which it is rare indeed to see any reference to Hinsley’s work. 

I might also mention here how important Hinsley was to me not just as a writer but as a teacher. Many of the interests that I later developed, especially when I switched – formally at least – from history to sociology, came from the one-to-one supervisions that were conducted in his rooms at St. John’s. Hinsley was superb at opening up areas and making bold connections that others were hesitant to do, as professional historians. Thus it was in those sessions that I came to think about revolution, nationalism, the origins of European modernity, the importance of Rome in the European imagination, and many other far-reaching topics. I sometimes think that most of my work as a sociologist has really been no more than a working through of many of the ideas and insights that were developed in those sessions with Harry Hinsley.

Other Cambridge figures of that time opened up for me new ways of thinking, and again though many of them are well known and still read, often there were aspects of their thought that have been overlooked and can be revived. That was true of Moses Finley, the well-known classicist whose work on colonialism has been ignored not just by classicists but by other scholars, including those working in just that field of colonialism (see on Finley my “Colony and Empire, Colonialism and Imperialism: A Meaningful Distinction?” CSSH 63/2: 280-309). Another important person was the historian Peter Laslett, whose writings on political theory and how to do the history of political thought have remained significant for many people, but who should also be remembered for his work on the history of the family. The World We Have Lost (1965) remains a highly stimulating exercise in historical sociology, posing the question of the uniqueness (or otherwise) of the early existence of the nuclear family in north-western Europe, especially England. While the argument itself has entered the general stream of the history of the family, it appears that few people now read Laslett’s original text – a loss given its conciseness and the vivid quality of its presentation. One might also say that of a somewhat later offering from the same Cambridge quarter, with something of a similar argument, the anthropologist Alan Macfarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism (1978). It is more polemical than Laslett’s book, and was greeted with a certain amount of hostility when it first appeared, but that is no reason for ignoring a sparkling and stimulating contribution, one that questions a good deal of received opinion in sociology on the nature of “traditional” society. 

The 1960s have been scoured often enough for ideas and movements that still animate debates in many areas (Freudo-Marxism, the ideas of the Situationists of May ’68, feminism). But the 1970s have been dismissed by many as “the decade that never was,” as the novelist Malcolm Bradbury put it. I’m more persuaded by the idea that the problems that concern us most today got some of their best airing in the 1970s. I’m thinking of works like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), the many works by Ivan Illich (De-Schooling Society, 1971; Tools for Conviviality, 1973; Energy and Equity, 1974; Medical Nemesis, 1975), Fred Hirsch’s Limits to Growth (1977), and the Club of Rome Report Limits to Growth (1972). While the 1960s explored problems of affluence, the oil shocks and other developments of the 1970s provoked a searching rethinking of some of the main assumptions of industrial societies, especially as regards diminishing natural resources, the social consequences of continued economic growth, the need for radical changes in our life-styles and social arrangements to meet the challenges of large-scale technology, large-scale bureaucratic organizations, and dependence on fossil fuels. I can’t think of another period of intellectual history when so many of our current concerns were diagnosed and discussed. The fruits of some of this appear in my book, Prophecy and Progress (1978), and in a volume I co-edited with Adrian Ellis, Dilemmas of Liberal Democracies: Studies in Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth (1983).

There is one other figure that I associate with this period, though he himself is not of the period. That person is Lord Acton. For many years in the 1970s and 1980s I was associated with the Acton Society in London, a kind of think-tank that took as its remit a host of contemporary issues such as the impact of large-scale technology and the optimum size of organizations, the potential of “intermediate technology” to resolve questions of de-skilling and alienation, and the impact and limits of economic growth. Behind all this was the inspiration of the thinking of the 19th century historian and liberal thinker Lord Acton. Some of the sessions of the Society were devoted to seminars on his work.

It was through this that I became aware of the immense accomplishments of Acton as a writer and thinker. He sadly did not leave many finished or large-scale works, but his lectures and addresses are masterpieces of historical writing, luminous in their clarity and analytical power.  Particularly suggestive are the Lectures on Modern History (1905), The Lectures on the French Revolution (1925), the essays on such subjects as “Nationality” and “The Study of History,” and the sketches on “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” and “The History of Freedom in Christianity” for the projected but never written History of Liberty. Acton is not exactly forgotten today – he has fans such as the world historian William McNeil – but it is fair to say that his works are little read and studied. This is a great loss; there is a wealth of ideas and insights there, many of which could very profitably be drawn upon by contemporary historians and sociologists. 

Concluding Remarks

I have come back by a circuitous path to the 19th century – my favorite period for social and political theory – and it might be worth saying in conclusion why I feel so strongly about returning to some neglected works from the past. I should stress that my choice has been a very personal one, governed by works and thinkers that have been particularly influential in my own thinking and writing. Others will have their own selection of works in need of retrieval.

The works I have referred to are important not just for their substance – their specific content and ideas – but for the literary form in which the thoughts are expressed. They are models in many cases of how to write on historical, social, and political topics. They are written for the most part in direct and simple language, so that they are accessible to most educated people. Contemporary academic works – even acclaimed ones – are often shrouded in opacity and obscurity, with a fondness for jargon words and concepts that lead to a clotted and overburdened style, one that makes the works all but unreadable except for the most dedicated. For our students as much as ourselves, we need to be reminded that complex thoughts and subtle arguments can be expressed in a language open to all with a reasonable degree of education, whatever their background or disciplines. This was certainly the accomplishment of the great Victorian thinkers and writers, who for me remain models of good writing.

There is another reason for returning to some once highly-regarded but now neglected works. Even when their ideas have been absorbed in contemporary scholarship, there is a real gain to be had in reading the original sources whence these ideas came. That is why after all many of us get our students to read Marx, Weber, and Durkheim in the original (translated if necessary), rather than simply in the digested form of textbooks of social theory. There is no substitute for the original. The neglected classics will have as much to reveal to the attentive reader as the ones that are still attended to.  

There is a strong tendency in the current academy, certainly in the social sciences, to look down on “old works” as out of date and irrelevant – where old can mean something written not more than 20 or 30 years ago, let alone earlier. Graduate students are encouraged to read and cite only the latest authors, on pain of being accused of not keeping up with the latest scholarship.  Certain journals also stress this. It used to be only in the disciplines of science, and those that imitated them, such as economics or psychology, that such an attitude was to be found, in the spirit of Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum that “a science that hesitates to forget its founders is lost.” However true that might be for the sciences – and it is questionable even there – such an attitude in the humanities and the social sciences is nothing short of disastrous. “Latest is best” is vulgar and short-sighted. It cuts away from students and scholars the chance to explore the full range and depth of their discipline, to mine past works for their insights and illuminations. Many of these are lost or ignored in later works, usually because of ignorance of or indifference to their existence. Often too this can lead to tedious repetition, because authors do not study previous works on the subject and either think or present their ideas as new. 

Max Weber, in his great lecture “Science as a Vocation,” pointed out that while we can speak of “progress” in the natural sciences, in the human sciences that was much more difficult to assert. The questions that are thrown up in the human sciences are very different from those that arise in the natural sciences; the methods and (provisional) answers too are of a different kind. We ignore the old works, with their diverse ways of conceiving and describing the world, at our peril. We recognize this, some of us at least, by constructing a canon of great works which we seek to teach to our students. But we need also to be aware of the neglected classics of our fields of study, the ones that have fallen away because of shifts in fashion or simply because they fall within the category of the “old” and are therefore seen as lacking significance or authority. The danger of this attitude is obvious; it is the production of superficial and jejune work that will be as ephemeral as the times that it so desperately strives to keep up with.


Krishan Kumar is University Professor and William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. He was previously Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, a Member of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Bergen, the University of Bristol, the Central European University, the University of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Among his publications are 1989: Revolutionary Ideas and Ideals (University of Minnesota Press, 2001); The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2003); From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World (2d ed., Wiley, 2005); The Idea of Englishness: English Culture, National Identity and Social Thought (Routledge, 2017); and Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton University Press, 2017), which was co-winner of the Barrington Moore Prize of the Comparative-Historical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, and winner of the Ab Imperio Award for the Best Book on Empires in 2017. His most recent book is Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology (Polity, 2020). He is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement