Richard Lachmann, who died suddenly on 19th September 2021, was a leading historical sociologist. Born on 17th May 1956 in New York City as the oldest son of two Jewish refugees, Karl and Lotte Lachmann who fled Nazi Germany, he completed his secondary school education at the United National International School, New York in 1974. In the same year he was accepted at the Princeton University where he majored in sociology and European cultural studies. As a gifted student he skipped a year and graduated in 1977. At Princeton he also met his life partner, Arlyn Miller, a schoolteacher, translator, and author of books for children. They lived together for 45 years and had two children, Derrick and Madeleine. After graduation he was accepted as a PhD student at Harvard University’s sociology department where he worked with Theda Skocpol, John Padgett and Harrison White. Lachmann graduated in 1983 and was soon appointed assistant professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison. After seven years in Wisconsin Richard accepted a position at the State University of New York, Albany in 1990 where he remained until his premature death. He also held recurring visiting professorships at the Lisbon University Institute in Portugal and at the Fudan University in China. Richard authored five books, over 60 peer reviewed articles and book chapters and many short pieces. His work has been translated into several languages including Chinese, Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, Polish, Persian, and Romanian. He was also a recipient of three book awards: 2003 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award of the American Sociological Association, 2002 Barrington Moore Best Book Award Honourable Mention from the Comparative Historical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association and 2001 Distinguished Publication Award from the Political Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. During his career Richard supervised numerous PhD projects and was a mentor to hundreds of students at different levels of their academic careers. Many of his former students fondly remember Richard as an excellent supervisor who always found time to read and comment on their work and who was always friendly and encouraging.
Lachman’s intellectual development was shaped by social and political upheavals of 1970s including the Vietnam war, civil right campaigns, Watergate, apartheid in South Africa, military coup in Chile, and the conflict in Northern Ireland among others. In this context he became interested in the historical roots of contemporary struggles over power, inequality, and justice.
Richard developed a unique style of historical sociology that does not fit well within the established schools of thought. Although he was initially strongly influenced by the Marxist tradition of sociology, he soon found the conventional Marxism too determinist and incomplete for understanding the changing dynamics of elite politics. He often emphasised that Marxists asked the right questions on the genesis of capitalism, but their answers were not adequate on their own. Hence his approach incorporated other theoretical developments including elite theory and neo-Weberianism. Another distinct feature of Richard’s historical sociology is his ability to successfully navigate between theory and empirical research: he generated a number of innovative theoretical ideas which were then rigorously tested and applied to the variety of historical and contemporary case studies. He was a fully-fledged sociologist who always balanced advances in theory building with a meticulous use of quantitative and qualitative research.
This was already visible in his first monograph (1987), developed from his PhD project – From Manor to the Market: Structural Change in England, 1536-1640. The book’s aim was to identify the key social factors that made the transition from feudal order to capitalism possible. Since England has regularly been characterised as an unusual case in this respect Lachmann’s study offered an alternative interpretation of how capitalism developed on the British Isles. Challenging the existing explanations, both Marxist and Weberian, Lachmann argued that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was not caused by class conflict or gradual expansion of international trade but was the product of several protracted elite conflicts. By zooming in on the conflict dynamics on the local (i.e. landowners, commercial farmers, and tenants) and the national levels (the royal family, aristocracy and the top clergy) Lachmann shows how the series of elite conflicts unintentionally generated large-scale structural transformation. The power of the church was substantially reduced by Henry VIII who took control of monastic lands and other church property. At the same time, he and other rulers limited the local power of magnates by preventing them from acquiring these former monastic lands. The consequence of this process was gradual strengthening of the gentry class who managed to privatise common lands and abolish tenant rights. These actions curtailed the power of the monarchs as they were unable to reclaim land and profits from agriculture. This prolonged elite conflicts on the national and local levels ultimately resulted in the emergence of a large landless class and an agrarian revolution that supplied resources for the development of industrialisation and capitalism.
This explanatory shift from structure to agency and the emphasis on elite conflict was also the hallmark of Lachmann’s second highly successful, multi-award winning and influential book – Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe (2000). Continuing his dialogue with Marx and Weber, he extended his argument into a comparative framework centred on England and France, but also bringing in Spain and the Netherlands. Developing his analysis of England, his guiding model was that major social change is driven not so much by class conflict as by within-class inter-elite conflicts, which then can mobilise classes lower down, e.g. peasants, forming new social and economic structures. He viewed elites, and all social actors, as ‘rational maximisers’ but under conditions of limited and unstable knowledge about their situations. Thus elites generally seek new ways to consolidate existing power, bringing about deeper structural change unintentionally. He argued that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was not ultimately driven by urban commercial growth, which was limited by stalemates between urban elites. Rather, the Reformation had different structural effects in the key cases of England and France. In England local landlord elites were more able to mobilise against the monarchic centre, forming an agrarian capitalist class in the gentry, whereas in France local landlord elites sought to preserve their seigneurial privileges from the centre, blocking realignments of elites and classes. For Richard the Reformation was not so much an ideological shift, as in Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’ thesis, as a restructuring of elite and class relations, that had ideological effects, in the decline of magical beliefs, the rise of science, and so on.
In his next book, States and Power (2010), Lachmann widened the frame to a more global 500 year history of the rise of the modern state, providing a synthetic overview of the relevant social science literature, while maintaining his underlying concern with elite conflict. He saw this as a European process in which the rises of the state and capitalism are entwined. This is the context in which new state-centred and capital-centred elites are formed, as are citizens with emerging national identities, forged in democratic bargains and struggles with elites to lay a claim to a share of society’s wealth, and a say in strategies of social provisioning. In the final chapters he begins to look at the causes of state weakening and breakdown, the possibilities for international cooperation on shared problems such as terrorism and global warming, and the decline of US hegemony, themes that come to fruition in his last book.
In his fourth book What is the historical sociology? (2013), Lachmann offers succinct analysis of key topics in comparative historical sociology: empires, nation-states, capitalism, revolutions, social movements, culture, gender, and inequality. In this state of art synthesis, he shows why temporal analysis maters and how specific historical contexts generate unique developmental pathways. The book engages with different strands of comparative historical scholarship and shows us the significance of historical sociology in helping us understand how social order is generated, reproduced, and changed.
Richard’s last book, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (2020), is probably his best work. In this meticulously researched comparative analysis Lachmann develops further his elite conflict theory, which is then applied to case studies of France, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US. By comparing historical trajectories of these different polities Lachman aims to identify the key factors that generated their rise and decline. Lachman explains the decline of the Spanish and French empires through their inability to convert their military capacity and the resources from the colonies into hegemonic power. In contrast the Netherlands, the UK and the US relied on their state capacity and elite consensus to temporarily establish hegemonic control. Nevertheless, once political, and economic elites found themselves on a collision course the UK and the Netherlands lost their hegemonic position. For Lachmann the balance between economic and political power is crucial for social stability and it is only when interests of different elite groupings coincide that state hegemony can be established and maintained. For example, in the Netherlands balance was attained through existence of different regional clusters of wealthy families while in the UK the presence of landed aristocracy was a potent check on the state elite and monarchy. Ultimately much of Lachmann‘s analysis is focused on the rise and decline of the US. He argues that the American state is experiencing an almost irreversible decline which can be traced to the breakdown of elite consensus since 1960s. The elite polarisation has intensified from early 1980s when the Republican-led governments encouraged economic deregulation and corporate mergers that have resulted in sharp social inequalities. In addition, the changes in government regulation allowed economic elites to use their wealth to block state reforms and, in the process, appropriate more resources while impoverishing the state capacity to collect revenue. With the systematic decline of trade unions and other mass membership organisations the economic elites were able to amass enormous profits. Lachman finds many similarities between the US and the previous global hegemons such as the Netherlands and UK who experienced similar decline.
In the last decade Richard was also writing extensively on the role of war and state formation, and the relationship between the military and society. His writings, both academic and for a general public, were increasingly concerned with issues such as climate change, the impact of Donald Trump, and fraught US class politics in all its forms. In November 2020, about a week after the US Presidential Election, Richard, and Elisabeth Clemens (U. of Chicago) joined an ASEN webinar to offer their initial analyses of the role nationalism was playing in the election and US politics generally, the deeper roots of Trumpian nationalism, national narratives among the Democratic party, and contestation over the nation as regards Black Lives Matter. As ever with Richard, it was a thought-provoking encounter, and we are saddened that we will not have the opportunity to do it again.
Jonathan Hearn (University of Edinburgh)
Siniša Malešević (University College, Dublin)