Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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S.N. Eisenstadt
Fundamentalism, Sectarianism and Revolution: The Jacobin Dimensions of Modernity.
Cambridge University Press, 1999, 280 pp. $CDN 36.99 paper (0521645867), $69.95 US cloth (0521641845)

There is no doubt but that Eisenstadt is a major sociologist. This great student of Parsons (but of empires, revolutions and Israeli society quite as much as of modernization) put us in his debt over the last two decades by concentrating on the `axial age’ which saw the birth of the world’s religions –– thereby becoming the leading interpreter of Weber’s comparative sociology. If there is a criticism to be made of some of his earlier work it is that his all-devouring reading occasionally led to clogged expression. Hence it is a particular pleasure to be able to welcome this new book, for it is lucid, extraordinarily wide-ranging and very high-powered. The thoughts of a lifetime are distilled in a single volume, and no sociologist should miss the result.

A general argument is proposed. Eisenstadt follows Weber — and subsequent scholarship — in stressing that all the world religions and ethics developed generic protestant ethics, that is, the differentiation of intellectuals led them to propose various programs of reform. The differences between such programs are convincingly highlighted (and, to some extent, explained), and due respect is given to those peculiarities of the occidental tradition that encouraged the emergence of empirical Newtonian cognitive inquiry. However, a sea change is held to occur in world history when proto-fundamentalist social movements are replaced in modernity by the attempt to form and model whole societies by means of revolution. The Jacobin political program of modernity cannot be understood without reference to the tensions in axial age civilizations, Eisenstadt maintains, but the emphasis on popular mobilization and the belief that a new order can be fully realized are nonetheless wholly new. In a nutshell, what had been sectarian became mainstream.

With this in mind Eisenstadt turns to modern fundamentalism. What he has in mind here is the combination of totalistic thinking and popular mobilization in tandem with a desire to preserve cultures rather than to accede to the tidal wave of occidental rationalism and liberalism. He makes interesting distinctions between communal-national and fundamentalist movements, noting particularly that the former lack the universal appeal of the latter; and he has powerful comments to make about both communism and fascism. But his main attention — as befits one of the key members of the American Academy’s recent Fundamentalism Project directed by Martin Marty — is on the variety of fundamentalism in the contemporary world. He offers accounts of the relative absence of fundamentalism in Europe and of its presence in the United States, and is most impressive in trying to distinguish varied patterns of protest in Asia—from India and Korea to Malaysia and Japan. The volume ends with his reflections on the nature of modernity. He has come to believe, against his earlier views, that modernity is multiple rather than unitary. There are modern social processes but the varied world traditions respond to these in creative ways so as to create ever new and ever more complicated hybrid cultures. His views here have been and continue to be very influential, as can be seen in the two recent issues of Daedalus devoted to this issue.

A great deal is to be learnt from the very acute comments offered about Jewish fundamentalisms, and about Japan—whose absence of a dominant axial age civilization is interestingly cited as the explanation for that country’s absence of fundamentalism. Beyond this, discussion is — perhaps necessarily –– pitched at a rather abstract level. But this does not mean that Eisenstadt retreats to an idealism in which the contents of the various ethics determine patterns of social evolution. Very much to the contrary, he is a good Weberian in being as aware of structural conditions as of intellectual argument. Still, there are places at which one might disagree. Although he is well aware of the way in which nationalism can join itself to different forces, his account privileges its reactionary nature. This may be exaggerated: much nationalism results from advanced areas of empires wishing to embrace rather than to retreat from modernity. More seriously, his constant reading has made him, in my view, somewhat uncritical of some current claims of social theory. The distaste shown for occidental rationalism and much of the sound and fury surrounding `multiculturalism’ represent elite rather than popular reactions — suggesting that modernity might be slightly less multiple than he imagines. Finally, we always need to remember that modernity is but a concept, that a measure of agency needs to be brought back in to what resembles these days nothing so much as a low flying aircraft. What matters about the contemporary world is the extraordinary power of the United States, used to such effect recently as to make quite sure that no other civilization at present can mount a challenge—obviously not the Soviet Union, but equally not the European Union or Japan.

John A. Hall
McGill University
September 2000
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