Manning’s Quasi-Masterpiece: The Nature of International Society Revisited Essay


Manning’s The Nature of International Society was the consummation of a lifetime’s thinking about the fledgling subject of International Relations (IR). Many have found its pages impenetrable. For this reason it has become almost invisible in contemporary debates about IR theory. Yet for some it is a highly influential work, and one of rare originality and creative flair.

This article seeks to restore the reputation of this neglected work. It analyses Manning’s understanding of international society as a ‘notional society of notional entities’, one of many different layers of world social and political reality. It examines his belief, more generally, that the social world is by and large comprised of notions. It explores his commitment to the relationship between understanding and social progress. It highlights the continued importance of Manning’s view of an education in IR as an education, at its best, in ‘connoisseurship’. Finally it identifies Manning’s chief legacy for thinking about international relations today.

Keywords: Manning, international society, English school, holism, personification, connoisseurship.

It is apt that the recently celebrated 75th anniversary of the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)1 coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the crowning work of its chief architect.2 Charles Manning, initially Cassel then Montague Burton Professor of International Relations, 1930-1962, dedicated his life to forging ‘out of next to nothing’ International Relations (IR) as a distinct and recognisable academic subject, and establishing a secure and respected place for it at the LSE and in the wider university curriculum.

3 The comings and goings of states and other significant international actors was, he believed, a vital facet of what he termed the social cosmos, and its rigorous and systematic study was therefore as integral a part of ‘social cosmology’ as the established fields of Economics, History, Government, Law, and Sociology. ‘Global social cosmology’ (or with characteristic concern for terminological precision, ‘global quasi-sociology’), was an alternative name he gave for it, as was ‘Prolegomena to the Study of World Affairs’, and somewhat anomalously, ‘the structure of international society’.4

Published in the year of his retirement, The Nature of International Society is the consummation of a lifetime’s thinking about the ‘elementals’ of this new-fangled subject, as Manning then conceived it, International Relations. It is a remarkable work, one of the most original contributions to general thinking in the IR field, and the work of a highly creative, indeed poetical, mind.

Yet despite this, and despite the recent resurgence of interest in the ‘international society approach’ of the English school–with regard to which Manning was not only a member but arguably its founding-member5–little attention is paid these days to Nature. This article is an exercise in intellectual conservation. It seeks to bring to the attention of relative newcomers to the field the existence of this neglected though important work. It points to certain shortcomings that account in part for its decline in popularity. It also suggests why the work retains considerable value for thinking about international relations today.

Facts and Thinking

As its author was at pains to point out, Nature is not a work of research. It contains few facts, at least not of the empirical kind. On the actual day-to-day conduct of business in the international society it says little. There is not much on the Cold War, very little on decolonisation, hardly a word on ‘Europe’ and Britain’s relation to it. Even nuclear weapons receive only a few moments of Manning’s scholarly attention.

Oddly for the modern reader, the world event that receives most attention is the seizure by India, in December 1961, of the Portuguese colony of Goa. The insouciance of the transgressing state towards the accepted practice of offering at least some sort of legal justification6, and the passive response with which the transgression was met by the ‘international establishment’, suggested to Manning that a sea change in respect for the law had taken place. It was as if ‘a beautiful young woman, apprehended in the theft of a neighbour’s infant, were not only to be pardoned by the Queen, but allowed to keep the baby’!7 Propriety and a reputation for it seemed no longer diplomatically at a premium. The law had been ‘definitively devalued’. Even Hitler had sought to keep up appearances! The game of ‘let’s-play-sovereign states’ had been replaced by the game of ‘let’s-merely-play-at-playing-let’s-play-sovereign-states.’ But it was the absence of ‘reference group’ pressure that was the real blow. ‘Where nothing cannot be got away with,’ Manning bleakly concluded, ‘bad behaviour drives out good’.8

So there’s a lot on Goa, a fact that can be attributed to the reverence for international law that Manning and many others of the ‘League generation’ felt, a reverence far thinner on the ground today. At least, that would be the conclusion one would reach solely from reading Nature. But there are other factors involved, the complexity and importance of which merit careful treatment in their own right. As this article focuses on Nature, more in the spirit of Leavisian close textual reading than a Skinnerian exploration of intellectual context, I do not intend to go far down this road here9. It is clear, however, with the benefit of hindsight, that Manning made too much of the Goa incident. The sea change that was taking place was not so much respect for law per se, but the law as it related to the practice of colonialism. Manning failed to appreciate the rapidity with which the ethical and legal tide against colonialism in international society was turning.

This is largely explained by his background and general outlook on colonialism. A South African of English, Scottish, and Huguenot descent, Manning was an imperialist of the Milnerite kind. He held Britain’s achievements in the colonial field in high esteem, and conceived its empire in terms not of economic extraction or political aggrandisement but of global responsibility. In the language of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the well-being and development of colonial peoples constituted a ‘sacred trust of civilisation’. And Britain was its foremost trustee. The British commonwealth of nations, as the empire was then in the process of becoming, was a great force for good in world politics. In a world plagued by centrifugal tendencies, it represented, most importantly, one of the few effective sources of peace and international political unity. (The League, which Manning also set great store by, being one of the others).

This set of attitudes gave rise in the 1960s to a general hostility to new states, and perhaps a particular hostility to Nehru whom he regarded as the chief engineer of British imperial disintegration. Events in Goa may also have represented for Manning a sign of things to come in his native South Africa. If the law could be swept aside for the sake of geo-political convenience in Goa, might it not with equal impunity be swept aside for the sake of diplomatic convenience with regard to South Africa? Notoriously, and rather crankily, Manning spent a large part of his retirement, through inter alia his chairmanship of the British South Africa Society, defending on legal and moral grounds South Africa’s right to pursue its policy of apartheid.10 It would be reasonable to infer from this that there was a large element of racial prejudice in his hostility to the emerging, highly heterogeneous, world order. It should be noted, however, that Manning’s conception of apartheid was highly abstract. Failing to comply with some of his own analytical strictures (‘adelphi’, ‘SOBs’… see below), he took its literal meaning seriously, and the doctrines of Malan and Verwoerd at face value.

11 In Nature he interprets apartheid as a means of cultural defence, no more a product of racial prejudice than Afrikaner resistance to the Uitlanders in 1899.12 One of the virtues of the British Commonwealth was that it offered a degree of political unity while allowing the distinctive personality of the groups it comprised to remain largely in tact (cf. la mission civilitrice). It was this virtue that was being seriously undermined by Nehru and other Asian and African nationalist leaders, and also by an increasingly craven West, eager to appease the newly independent states–whose stance on apartheid he regarded as purely opportunistic–and prepared to abandon old friendships and ties of wartime comradeship in the process.13 Manning’s near-obsession with Goa, therefore, does not admit of easy explanation. Rather, it derives from a matrix of psycho-cultural-historical causes, the complexity of which I can only hint at here.

With regard to broader international events and phenomena, the best one can say is that Nature contains an excellent chapter on the place of the League of Nations and the United Nations in international society (or, as Manning called them, ‘League-Number-One’ and ‘League-Number Two’).14 This is one of the best short accounts of the relationship between these organisations and their wider social milieu in the literature, and should be required reading for all students of international institutions. But even here the analysis is abstract, conceptual, and linguistic rather than concrete.

Part, but only a small part, of the explanation for this lack of attention to then-current affairs, is that the work is a product of a long and slow process of evolution, reflecting in the sixties ‘thinking done, or at any rate embarked upon, in the twenties’.15 The main explanation is that Manning conceived the book, in many ways one of the most difficult books in the front-rank of the field, as a work for absolute beginners.

A First Year Primer?

One of the many ironies that dawn upon one reading this book forty years after its initial publication is that although intended for beginners, very few beginners actually read it. This is largely due to the fact that many teachers of the subject to first years, if they are aware of the book (and not all are, given the diverse background from which many IR teachers are presently drawn), have judged it too difficult, too abstract, and too idiosyncratic to be put in a prominent place on their reading lists. For Manning it was a work of ‘propaedeutics’, a ‘first year primer’, ‘not an XYZ book but an ABC’. If the book were to be proscribed to first year students, but prescribed for either sixth-formers or graduates, but not for both, it was to the former, he felt, that it would be of ‘most timely help’.16

Today this strikes one as wildly, and from a historico-pedagogical viewpoint, fascinatingly optimistic. A reflection, no doubt, of the Olympian educational ideal that Manning imbibed during his formation as a pupil at Bishops, one of South Africa’s leading public schools, and as a Rhodes Scholar at Brasenose College, Oxford, during the golden era of British imperial hegemony before the Great War.17 For The Nature of International Society is an essay in ontology, of international society in particular and the social world in general; and the sort of students who are attracted to the study of international relations at the ripe young age of eighteen or nineteen are not the sort, generally speaking, much troubled or enthused by problems of social ontology. Yet, and here lies the irony, graduate students, those students for whom Manning felt Nature would be of no use, are envigorated by them.

To be more precise, every year one encounters a sizeable minority of graduate students for whom ontological questions are, or become, the centre-stage of their IR studies. First year students want to learn about the Cold War, about decolonisation, ‘Europe’, nuclear weapons, and so on. Many of them learn to see the value of taking a theoretical, or more precisely a comparative-theoretical, approach. A few begin to see that questions of method, epistemology and ontology cannot be divorced from such an approach, and that these questions have to be carefully addressed if one is to arrive at philosophically deeper, more coherent, more satisfactory and satisfying explanations. For those among these few who go on to graduate school, plus no doubt a few more, these questions take on, at least for a while, a life of their own. It is to these students, at this stage of their academic careers, to whom, forty years on, Nature is most likely to appeal and be of value.

In the Preface to the reissued edition, Manning admits that ‘the book is indeed a bit hard for the average freshman’.18 It was probably as hard in 1962 as it is today. This is not because the ideas contained therein are intrinsically difficult to grasp, though some of them clearly are. Nor because the mode of their expression is so idiosyncratic as to be unintelligible, though sometimes one’s thought-ways become so congested with Manningite imagery that one cannot see the eggs and the lilies for the trees. The reason is that the book is essentially a work of philosophy. It is about the relationship of the mind to the social world, and indeed the creation, in part, of the social world by the mind. From the perspective of 2004 it is certainly hard to comprehend how someone as dedicated to his students and the broader pedagogical cause as Manning could have been so convinced that Nature was a book for sixth-formers or freshpersons, and of no use for graduates, when in fact almost the opposite is the case.

The Quasi-Society of States

Manning’s central point was that within the multi-faceted, multi-layered social cosmos there existed a particular social realm sufficiently discrete, important, and (as long as one was looking through the right lenses) intelligible, to merit its treatment as a distinct field of academic enquiry. This realm was the society of sovereign states. Such a society had not always existed. In fact its invention was relatively recent. But it had acquired a degree of permanence, and such a position of importance with regard to the organisation, life, and welfare of mankind, that systematic analysis of it had become a sine qua non for an understanding of the broader social whole.

That states formed a society was a fact, but not of the physical, observable kind. This was because international society was not a real society. Real societies can only be composed of flesh and blood human beings. While having as part of their assumed make-up a ‘people’ or a ‘nation’, while possessing a territory, and being governed by a group of persons collectively known as a ‘government’, the state, in essence was an idea. Importantly it was an idea widely entertained. People, official and non-official, thought, spoke, and acted as if the world was comprised of sovereign states, and were regularly in the habit of personifying them. In reality therefore, the sovereign state was a ‘socially prevalent idea’. But crucially it was an idea so widely entertained that, though of a thing ‘in here’, in our heads, it was considered to exist ‘out there’, in the world of concrete, observable facts.

Strictly speaking, international society was neither international nor a society. By ‘international’ was conventionally understood not ‘inter-nation’ but ‘inter-state’, more precisely ‘inter-sovereign-state’. So it was these personified abstractions, the sovereign states, who were the members of international society, not these more fleshy associations, nations.19 But the society that the sovereign states comprised was a society in idea or by imputation. It was, as with the state itself, a case of ‘socially prevalent social thinking’. Those charged with the day to day affairs of states in their relation to one another habitually thought and acted as if states were part of a wider social scene. That states co-existed within a society was part of the ‘official’ or ‘orthodox’ theory of the game ‘let’s-play-sovereign states’.

This game, like all games, had its own rules, goals and conventions. The rules of this particular game were primarily those of international law: i.e. that body of principles, ideas, prescriptions and proscriptions given the status of law by the social grouping it serves, and thereby as a matter of doctrine, binding.20 The chief goal of the game was co-existence. Its conventions included those of diplomatic immunity and mutual respect. In essence the notion that states in their relations inter se constituted a society was one of the chief assumptions of ‘diplomatics’ or ‘diplomatic theory’: i.e., that bag of conventions, understandings, assumptions and expectations that diplomatists and others who speak and act in the name of states carry with them in the day to day conduct of inter-state diplomacy21.

International society was thus a ‘notional society of notional entities’. True in doctrine or in idea rather than fact. At best a quasi- not a real society. A society, so to speak, in effect. Yet so much a part of our, and particularly of diplomatists’, collective understanding of the world that it takes on in our, and particularly their, minds a more concrete presence.22

Mind Games and Mind Creations

The above section does not by any stretch of the imagination do justice to the subtlety, artistry, and originality of Manning’s argument. (I suspect I am not the first author to have found daunting the prospect of having to sum up in a few paragraphs what, in essence, constitutes a lifetime’s thinking by a highly original and acute analytical mind). Yet one cannot help feeling that the difficulty, and hence the rewards, lie in the form of the book rather than its basic idea. Manning takes one on a fascinating though arduous mental journey, a kind of conceptual magical mystery tour. We encounter lily ponds and pantomime horses, lion tamers, ‘eggs that pass … in the mind’, ‘gallant ships’ and ‘fighting ships’, ‘eels eyes and eagle eye’, a homeless Holmes, old Mother Hubbard and her cupboard, Santa Claus and that precociously sophisticated realist, little Willy, and on several occasions Nelson’s famous words on the eve of Trafalgar, ‘England expects…’ (a favoured pedagogical device of Manning’s, once the subject of an entire Cumberland Lodge conference)23.

Through these and myriad other metaphors, similes, and allusions we learn of: the pervasive influence of myth and the practice of myth-making in social relations; the importance and role of the social role; the human predilection for personification and reification (‘she is a gallant ship’, ‘the university’s view is…’, ‘Parliament has spoken’, ‘plucky little Belgium’, ‘perfidious Albion’, ‘America has made up her mind’); the differences between individualism, collectivism, and holism; the importance of acquiring different ‘thinking caps’ or utilising different ‘lenses’ in order to comprehend different types of reality (physical, notional, doctrinal, fictional); and the idea that the social world is by and large a notional world–a world, that is, comprised of notions, though no less real (though differently ‘real’) for that24.

A great strength of the book is that it makes one think about language, in particular the extent to which the language we use to describe and make sense of our social world is full of imagery and metaphor. No one could read this book and not have their self-consciousness raised in this respect. But it is not a book for the impatient, for the person in a hurry, for those in need of a crash-course, no expense spared (or short-cuts overlooked) on how the world (political branch) works. It is more akin to a visit (a two-week visit) to the gym.

Working out will not necessarily make one a better footballer, cricketer, or golfer. But if one goes about it in the right way, concentrating on the right muscle groups for the sporting activity in mind, it can provide one with a better physical basis for enhancing one’s performance. Ditto Manning and IR. Reading Nature does not immediately provide one with a better understanding of international relations. But it does provide one with a better mental basis, especially conceptual basis, for enhancing one’s understanding. Not everyone, as with the gym, takes to it. But those that do, find themselves drawing strength and inspiration from it for many years to come. If not the brightest heaven of invention it is none the less a work of rare originality and creative flair. If not a masterpiece, then certainly, if one may be forgiven, a quasi-masterpiece.

Yet even for the sympathetic reader there are some negatives. The central point, that international society is a ‘notional society of notional entities’, is pretty much established by p.40. Yet this does not prevent the author from making it in many different ways, always searching for the most apt metaphor, for many pages thereafter. I know of no other work that labours a point to such an extent, yet in a manner so uniformly intelligent and engaging. It is conceivable that a less sympathetic reader might conclude that Manning’s obsession with the ontological status of international society is simply a vehicle whereon he could parade his undoubtedly refined and sparkling intelligence. It may be true that ‘In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/As modest stillness and humility’, but only up to a point.

To flaunt one’s intelligence, or beauty, or taste, or refinement, or on-field prowess is a natural and understandable human frailty. Professors are perhaps no less prone in this regard than others. But to judge things thus would be to discount Manning’s lifelong commitment to pedagogy and the high premium he attached to terminological and analytical precision. The dedication to finding the most illuminating, penetrating, or evocative way of putting things in the lecture theatre and the classroom, year after year, comes through on every page. It is, quite simply, the work of a lifelong pedagogue, a work that simply could not be written today in the UK, as pedagogy (despite much propaganda, in the guise of ‘teaching excellence’, to the contrary) increasingly plays second fiddle to ‘research’.

Social Purpose

Manning’s commitment to terminological and analytical precision inevitably spawned a highly involved work, one that some find convoluted and pedantic and others find ingenious and subtle. But it would be wrong to class it as purely cerebral in intent and content. It is certainly true that it appeals most to those who elevate cerebral faculties above all others. Those, that is, who see it as almost an existential imperative to solve mental puzzles, riddles, and conundrums, to strip down all things, whether nominal or phenomenal, to their bare essentials, regardless of the practical value of doing so. Yet one senses throughout the work a clear commitment to the belief that if we are to have any chance of improving the world, we first have to understand it. We have to get the ‘elementals’ right.

This was first and foremost a product of Manning’s League of Nations experience. Enjoying a ‘privileged, ringside, view’ for twelve months in Geneva in the 1920s25 Manning found himself, and the ‘men of good will’ with whom he sympathised, woefully under-equipped, mentally, educationally, for the task in hand. This was clearly a problem about which something needed be done. That something soon occurred to him when his predecessor at Geneva, Philip Noel-Baker26, was elected to the first London University chair in IR, a chair which within a few years he himself would hold.27 The seeds of Manning’s academic career and thus the book that it spawned three decades later, were sown, therefore, in Geneva with the realisation that the knowledge and understanding of those who wanted to improve the world fell well short of what was required. As he put it himself with regard to Nature, ‘… the book was conceived under the influence of the possibly na�ve belief that the world might have a better chance of becoming a better place if the better people in it could come to understand it better.’28

An eyebrow or two may be raised among less sympathetic readers on ideological grounds. It is certainly true that his few and far between concrete pronouncements on world affairs tend to be of a conservative hue. Strip away some of the deft language and one finds, for example, a fairly hostile view of the Soviet Union. This was not because of its communist creed – though as a devout Anglican and reader of the London Times the fact that the Soviet Union was officially a communist state could not have helped. In fact Manning takes a consistently non-ideological view of the motivations of Soviet foreign policy. Rather, Manning’s hostility derives from what he saw as the unrelenting stream of propaganda issuing from Moscow, especially in the direction of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa.

This was behaviour unbecoming of a sovereign member of the club of states.29 For much the same reasons he takes a similarly hostile view of the United Nations, a body he dubbed the ‘Non-Security Organisation’. The UN Charter, he opined, was an ‘unworkable plan’ fallen upon because the delegates at San Francisco were faced with the ‘stark impossibility of arriving at agreement on anything that could be expected to work’.30 But it was the General Assembly that aroused his deepest suspicions. It had become, he felt, little more than a transmitter of anti-Western propaganda: a body in effect hijacked by the newly independent countries (by this stage poisoned by Soviet propaganda) in order to serve their narrow propagandist purposes.

31 One of the reasons for his extreme stance on the apartheid issue was his belief that politically ambitious and ideologically motivated black African states were exploiting the issue in order to take the Commonwealth, one of the few remaining sources of honourable international relations, in the same direction. In no way, he several times stressed, was the General Assembly representative of the ‘will of mankind’ or ‘world public opinion’, concepts themselves not spared the full Manningite treatment. With regard to this he warns us that the ‘brotherhood of man’ should be seen for what it is, an aspiration not a sociological fact (and an aspiration based on the dubious assumption that brothers squabble less than non-brothers).32

More generally, revolutionists, in the Wightian sense33, will find his verdict that the structure of international society is ‘virtually unalterable’, and that war is a ‘built-in feature of that structure’, pessimistic not to say defeatist.34 But it should not be concluded from this that Manning’s conservatism was of the rigid, dyed in the wool kind. I have commented elsewhere on the important fact that Manning regarded the current system as the ‘second best of six possible worlds’.35 The current formula for ‘universal co-existence on this planet’ he described as ‘relative freedom, at best, in a world enjoying a modicum of order through an inherited and ever-developing system of inter-governmental arrangements’. The best formula that one could realistically conceive was ‘the same [relative freedom], in a world enjoying a greater degree of order through more effectively-functioning inter-governmental arrangements’. Manning called on his readers to accept this as ‘what we have to hope, and work, for, here and now.’36

The World of States and the Wider Social Cosmos

It is clear, therefore, that Manning had what has become fashionable to call a ‘normative agenda’. The fact that he concentrated nearly all of his efforts on ‘possibility number-five’ should not blinker us into thinking that he was not committed to the achievement of ‘possibility number-six’. It was simply that ‘intimate stock’ had to be taken of the ‘here and now’ before any attempt was made to reach the better world that might be attained tomorrow. Otherwise ‘our attempted flight’ would very likely ‘end up in a swamp’.37 It is also clear that Manning was no where near as state-centric in his approach to world politics as many would have him.

It is true that his endorsement and employment of methodological holism led to his treating of states as personified abstractions, but this was, he felt, a ploy of the mind that comes almost naturally. It made little sense to resist it and reduce everything to a base ‘nominalism’ or a ‘thorough-going methodological individualism’. The important point was to be alert, mentally, to what one was doing. But the key fact here with regard to state-centricism is that Manning’s holism extended far beyond states. Churches, trade unions, nations, business corporations, faiths, classes, cultures, even humanity ‘itself’ could all be treated, methodologically if not ontologically, as ‘wholenesses’ if the context allowed. Generalising at this level of abstraction was not ipso facto invalid. It was a source, Manning felt, of social ‘knowledge’ that it would be impossible to conceive ‘mankind’ doing without.38

Understood in this way Manning’s ‘social cosmology’ is not the pie in the sky it first seems. While he nowhere explicitly defines the nature and scope of his overriding object of social study (of which IR was but one part), he seems to have in mind something along the lines of ‘the layout of the social world and the relation of the elements within it’.39 Conceived as ‘wholenesses’ the study of ‘the relations of the elements’ becomes more plausible, certainly more plausible than the global empirical sociology that so many IR and globalisation theorists today appear to be advocating. For how can such a sociology proceed except on the basis of certain a priori assumptions about putatively global social forces, or in terms of a more or less explicitly historicist account of social life complete with its ‘historical junctures’, ‘moments’, ‘thresholds’

‘trajectories’?40 The great strength of Manning’s methodological holism is that it provides a means of getting the global sociological show on the road without prejudging its course or destination.

Manning was well aware, however, of the intrinsic difficulties of such an enterprise. This is clearly implicit in his characterisation of the ‘collective life of social man’ as not merely diamond-like, a thing with facets, but ‘pudding-like, a compound of ingredients; not to say skein-like, a tangle of threads; and weather-like, the resolution of a complex inter-acting forces; and battle-like, the occasion of a matching of nerves and skills with nerves and skills’.41 This is far removed from the ‘billiard-ball’ model of international relations that it has become customary in IR textbooks to associate with realism, neo-realism, the English school, and other approaches to the subject on the conservative end of the conservative-revolutionary spectrum.

Indeed, Manning conceived the social cosmos, the ultimate object of all social study, as a ‘three-storied universe’, as the following passage vividly shows:

… the subject to be studied is not just the system of states. It is human society, comprehensively, as a whole. Better then to call it the many-levelled society, with the multi-state system as the layer at the top, not altogether unlike the water-lily-covered surfaces of a series, or system, of ponds (the lilies drawing nourishment from mostly invisible sources down below). Two below-the-surface levels, at least, require separate recognition. Basic to the whole is the level of human life as physically, biologically, and psychologically lived–the life of men and of women and of men-and-women-to-be. And intermediate between the actual life of human units, and the notional life of states, there is the complicated habitat in which there live and have their hybrid part-actual-part-notional being the numberless and variegated assortment of groups, groupings, and organisations, in and through which men associate together to strive the more effectively for ends they have in common.42

Very important among the groups were the nations, and very important among the organisations were the ‘governmental systems’. It was at this intermediate ‘pond’ level that ‘for the purpose of universal sociology, the multi-dimensional interplay of forces goes perennially on.’43 In terms of what Manning called ‘formal-structure study’, the social universe was ‘essentially a compresence of sovereign states, equal in their sovereignty’. But in terms of social dynamics it was indefinitely more complex than that.

This was because there were vastly more social organisms in the human universe than the pure student of formal structure, the ‘lily bedecked surfaces of the ponds’, ever imagined.44 It is certainly true that Manning did not have much to say about these forces, what towards the end of the book he calls ‘global social dynamics’.45 Instead, he concentrated on formal-structure studies, the formal structure, that is, of international society. This he deemed as his chief task as a teacher of IR, and as Hidemi Suganami has recently pointed out, he performed an important service for the IR community during the early decades of the field by providing something that it hitherto substantially lacked.46 But this did not mean that he did not consider these social forces extremely important, though the evidence suggests that he felt systematic study of them would be an arduous, perhaps Sisyphean, task.47


There is much else that the ‘trainee social cosmologist’ (advanced level) will find interesting and illuminating in this tragically neglected book. Though she will discover few things entirely new, at many points she will have her mind, and her mind’s eye, refreshed, her memory helpfully jogged, her thoughts on some of the more elusive IR concepts clarified, and her intellectual imagination simulated. She will receive timely reminders that sovereignty is a question not of power but of status.48 That international law is binding not because of the natural lawyer’s universal reason or deity-given order of things, nor because of the positive lawyer’s charters and conventions, but as a consequence of the doctrinal fact that whatever a society deems to be law becomes ipso facto binding.49 And that ‘decision-making’ within that ‘game-within-a-game’, the UN, should not be conceived as a social process but as a diplomatic process.

In other words, as a special kind of social process, one that crucially depends not on what the delegates want to say and do, but on what the capitals want their delegates to say and do.50 She will also receive a timely reminder of the likely parochial limits of her concepts. That common sense is not common at all, not beyond the boundaries of any given social milieu, but relative. That there is an in-built tendency to regard as reasonable whatever we do here, in our particular pond, and regard with suspicion much that goes on in others. That going with the social flow, following convention, allowing in one’s thinking the pleasure principle to override the reality principle, doing what is safe, socially, rather than taking a risk, intellectually, that these tendencies it will take the trainee social cosmologist not just intelligence but courage to overcome.51 At an early stage she will need to acquire the faculty of being able to distinguish her ‘sense of truth’ from her ‘sense of expediency’.

It is, sure enough, by the second of these senses that in her personal, social, and political life she is likely to be led. But in developing her ‘connoisseurship’ in the field of IR she must endeavour to sharpen and learn to be governed by the first of these senses. In particular, in acquiring her ‘connoisseurship of world political gamesmanship’ she will be ever alert to the prospect that her information will seldom come to her through channels free of ideological pollution. She will therefore, before ingesting what she hears and reads, address to herself an SOS – a warning to ‘sample other sources’. She may find that her information contains SOBs, ‘strategically opportune beliefs’, personal and political preferences disguised in the language of truth. She may also find that what politically comes her way does not add up or quite make sense. In these situations she will require her ‘adelphi’, that is, her ‘aptitude for the detection of elementary lapses into the philosophically inadequate’52-‘philosophical’ in this context perhaps embracing ‘methodological’ and ‘epistemological’ as well as ‘logical’ and ‘ontological’.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the form and style of Manning’s book bars all social cosmologists (elementary level) from comprehension of all of its contents. In this area as in others a lot depends on the individual concerned. Manning is at his most persuasive and least verbally labyrinthine when talking about the art of connoisseurship. The acquisition of this art, for Manning, was the raison d’�tre of a university education in International Relations. Such an education involved above all else a training and refining of the judgement, particularly the judgement by which those responsible for the goings-on of states are criticised.

53 While in some respects IR may become a science, Manning felt that it ‘will never … become a policy science. It will never assume to tell statesmen just what to do. No one can spare the statesman the exercise of a connoisseurship, and a judgement, of his own.’54 While the techniques of science may be appropriate to the investigation of this or that aspect of the social cosmos, the best the social investigator can generally do is approach her subject in the spirit of science. While she should always seek to verify her impressions, she should nonetheless be aware that the currency in which she will be for the most part dealing is comparative plausibility.55

The essence of connoisseurship is refined judgement born of detailed knowledge of a subject. For words of wisdom on so many subjects it is to ‘ the specialisers therein’ that we instinctively turn.

‘Yet on international problems’, Manning lamented, ‘there are all too many who, without having specialised at all, assume without blushing the role of voluntary consultant to the statesmen of the world on their station and its duties.’56 It was the manifest ignorance of certain essentials by so many of these voluntary consultants that impressed on Manning the need for the training of a cadre of persons skilled in the art of IR connoisseurship. But their connoisseurship would never be complete.’The perfect local expert in foreign affairs’ (as he curiously called his IR educational ideal57) would never be a finished product. The connoisseur is not a know-all. Rather her ‘self-confidence is nearer akin to that of the experienced physician, having a background in science, but applying a trained intuition to individual case after case.’ 58

If there is one invaluable lesson that reading Manning forty years on can impart to today’s absolute, and not-so-absolute, beginner, it is the purposes for which she labours. For how many IR students graduate with a confident appreciation of the nature of the skills and the value of the learning they have acquired? How many students know for what purpose they study IR other than the fact that it is ‘an important subject’ and that they are ‘interested’ in it? As far as it goes, this may be fine. But Manning provides a nuanced understanding of the underlying objective of studying a social subject such as IR, one that bestows a valuable sense of direction, and enables the beginner to get her bearings in the complex and sometimes bewildering academic scheme of things.59

Contemporary Relevance

The foregoing analysis suggests that, taxing though it may be, there is much the student of international relations, especially those of a philosophical bent, can gain from reading or re-reading Charles Manning. But what about that altogether more earthy and practical thing ‘contemporary relevance’? Employing one of his favourite analogies Manning said that in IR we are not so much interested in the latest score as the nature of the game. To the extent that he does tell us about the nature of the international game, his book has a lot to offer, even to the most practical-minded reader. It may be true that his concern with the formal structure of the political world dates the book. Scholarly attention has shifted away from structure to ‘process’, ‘change’, ‘transformation’, and to the ‘global social dynamics’ the importance of which Manning stressed but left to others to substantially analyse.

Yet even here there is much in the book of contemporary relevance. At the time of writing ‘America’ appears to be warming up for a war against ‘Saddam’. Brinkmanship has returned after a period of absence following the end of the Cold War. There is a ‘stand-off’ between America and Iraq over, primus inter alia, the latter’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programme and ‘her’ refusal to readmit into ‘her’ territory UN weapon inspectors. In today’s newspapers it is reported that many ‘world leaders’ advise that ‘America’ should not go to war against ‘Iraq’ without ‘UN approval’.

An opinion poll reveals that half of the British people believe that ‘President Bush’ is the third biggest threat to ‘world peace’ after ‘Osama bin Laden’ and ‘Saddam Hussein’. We are told that the feeling in ‘Washington’ and ‘London’ is that no action should begin until Congress and Parliament have had the opportunity to debate the issue and ‘give their view’. The British Prime Minister is reported as declaring that ‘Britain and Europe’s place is by America’s side’. However ‘in many capitals’ it is felt that war should not take place unless it has the broad support of ‘the international community’. And many Americans are reported as ‘feeling’ that ‘going it alone’ could isolate ‘them’ in ‘world opinion’.60

We are presently confronted with a set of events which cry out for the kind of linguistic and conceptual analysis conducted in Nature, and most pointedly in ‘Sanctions–1935’, a study of ‘the problem of international sanctions’ which remains one of the most penetrating in the literature.61 The point about these statements is not that they contain invalid personifications, misleading simplifications, or human collectivities distortedly treated as ‘wholes’. Such ploys of the mind, Manning shows, are fine as long as one is aware of when and where and how they are engaged. It is an advanced level of self-consciousness about the terms of one’s understanding of the world that is required. Manning devoted a large part of his professional life to dissecting international political thoughts, turns of phrase, and conventional modes of expression to unveil the assumptions, concepts, and habits of mind that lie beneath them. The skill with which he did this is his chief legacy. It is a skill that is needed as much today as it was then. His legacy is one that deserves to endure.

8,852 words including abstract and footnotes


1 See the festschrift edited by Harry Bauer and Elisabetta Brighi, International Relations at the LSE: A History of 75 Years, London: Millennium Publishing Group, 2003.

2 C. A. W. Manning, The Nature of International Society, London: Macmillan in association with the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1975. This is a reissue with a new preface. First published by G. Bell and Sons, 1962.

3 On Manning’s role in putting IR on the British academic map see, further, Alan James (ed.), The Bases of International Order: Essays in Honour of C. A. W. Manning, London: Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. vi-viii.

4 Manning, Nature, pp 209-11. F. S. Northedge felt that the variability of Manning’s terminology reflected a degree of uncertainty about the precise focus of his subject. See Northedge, review of The Nature of International Society (reissue), Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol 5, No 2, 1976. ‘Structure of International Society’ was, and remains, the title of the LSE’s first year introductory course in international relations, pioneered by Manning in the 1930s. Since Manning’s departure the course has witnessed many changes. In the 1990s, however, Geoffrey Stern took it back to its Manningite roots, and published the results in his engaging The Structure of International Society: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, London: Pinter, 1995.

5 In the burgeoning literature on the English school two overlapping conceptions prevail: one centring on the British Committee on the Theory of International Relations, founded in 1959 and convened by Martin Wight and Herbert Butterfield; the other centring on the IR department at the LSE and work on the notion of international society by Manning, Wight, Hedley Bull and successive colleagues.

The latter conception strikes me as the more coherent, and certainly more consistent with the original use of the term by Roy Jones in ‘The English School of International Relations: A Case for Closure’, Review of International Studies, Vol 7, No 1, January 1981. See Tim Dunne, Inventing International Society: A History of the English School, London and Oxford: Macmillan in association with St Anthony’s College, 1998, ch.1; and the debate between Dunne and his critics in Cooperation and Conflict: Nordic Journal of International Studies, Vol 35, No 2, June 2000.

6 Though not contempt. India did offer a legal justification. The continued occupation of Goa by the Portuguese amounted to ‘permanent aggression’. How loudly or confidently this justification was offered I do not know. Manning makes no reference to it.

7 Manning, Nature, p xxvii.

8 Manning, Nature, pp xxv-xxxii.

9 See F. R. Leavis, ‘The Responsible Critic: or the Functions of Criticism at any Time’, Scrutiny, Vol 19, 1953; Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, Vol 8, No 1, 1969. For a fascinating portrait of the impact of Leavis on the world of literary criticism see Noel Annan, Our Age: The Generation That Made Post-war Britain, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990, ch. 20.

10 See Hidemi Suganami’s typically astute analysis in, ‘C. A. W. Manning and the Study of International Relations’, Review of International Studies, Vol 27, No 1, January 2001, pp 97-8.

11 Though the evidence suggests that he associated apartheid principally with Bantu self-government rather than the far more odious pass laws, forced deportations, social and educational segregation, and so called immorality acts.

12 Manning, Nature, pp 175-6.

13 Manning, ‘In Defense of Apartheid’, Foreign Affairs, Vol 43, No 1, 1964, pp 135-6. See also Manning, The British Churches and South Africa: Some Plain Speaking by a Layman, London: The South Africa Society, 1965, esp. pp 28, 40-7. He confessed to one of his former students that on the day South Africa was effectively expelled from the Commonwealth he had a sleepless night (Brian Porter, letter to author).

14 Ch. XIII, ‘Sorts of Games’, pp 151-64.

15 Manning, Nature, p xv.

16 Manning, Nature, p xvi.

17 For further biographical information see Alan James, ‘Manning, Charles Anthony Woodward (1894-1978)’, New Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

18 Manning, Nature, p xvi. This admission may have been prompted by Professor Joseph Frankel’s comment that although ‘very valuable’ and ‘important’ Manning’s book was not easy to read and ‘beginners especially may become intimidated by the involved and subtle argument’ (review of The Nature of International Society, Political Studies, Vol 10, No 3, 1962). Allan G. B. Fisher was of the same view (review of The Nature of International Society, International Affairs Vol 38, No 3, July 1962).

19 ‘For as composed of flesh and blood the nation is physically, factually, there. And what is given in social theory is not eo ipso given in fact. Whereas, in the case of the state, the notion of the state, the state as given in social theory, is all we have–even though its nature is conceived of, in social thinking, as if not notional but real. However real your reified abstraction may in theory become, notional at best, if it be but an abstraction, it must in fact remain. So, while the nation as composed of flesh and blood is in reality a reality, the state, as distinct from its machinery, from its citizenry, and from its territory, is a reality only in idea.’ Manning, Nature, p 22.

20 ‘Not naturally, but in point of status, it [law] is binding’. Manning, Nature, p 106.

21 Northedge was only partly right in saying that ‘… Nature … is not so much a treatise on the state of international relations today, or even the state of international society today, as an essay on how ordinary men and women think, feel and phantasy about the social word they inhabit’ (review of Nature, Millennium, p 207). Manning’s focus was less on ordinary folk as those extraordinary folk, diplomatists.

22 Those familiar with social constructivist thinking will be struck by certain parallels. Cf. Alexander Wendt, ‘Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International Organisation, Vol 46, No 2, Spring 1992: ‘It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions’ (p 397). ‘…theories which actors collectively hold about themselves and one another …constitute the structure of the social world’ (p 398). ‘…any social system confronts each of its members as an objective social fact that reinforces certain behaviours and discourages others’ (p 354).As Charles McClelland remarked in an early review (American Political Science Review, Vol 56, No 4, December 1962, pp 983-84), the ‘fundamental point’ of Manning’s book was that social reality is ‘constructed’, consisting of notions, images, myths, and belief systems as much as observable facts. Given this it is remarkable that social constructivists on both sides of the Atlantic have ignored it.

23 Cumberland Lodge, formerly the official residence of the Ranger of the Great Park (a Crown appointment always held by someone close to the Sovereign), is the home of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Foundation. This is an educational trust dedicated to fostering the free exchange of ideas on issues of current social and ethical import between British and overseas students, particularly from the Commonwealth. One of the first university departments to take advantage of the Foundation’s facilities and hospitality was the IR department at the LSE, and it has held a conference at the Lodge for its students annually ever since.

24 Again, the parallels with social constructivism are striking.

25 1922-23, first in the secretariat of the International Labour Organisation, then as personal assistant to Sir Eric Drummond, League Secretary General. See James, ‘Manning’.

26 Noel-Baker went on to become an MP, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in Attlee’s cabinet, and a Nobel Laureate (1959) for Peace. For an excellent overview of his life and career see Lorna Lloyd, ‘Philip Noel-Baker and Peace Through Law’, in David Long and Peter Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Interwar Idealism Reassessed, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

27 Manning, Nature, pp ix-x.

28 Manning, Nature, p xvi.

29 Manning, Nature, pp 137, 190-91. Northedge viewed Manning’s hostility toward the Soviet Union as a flaw in a book which conceived international relations as a game and political partisanship as an inevitable part of it. Northedge, review of Nature, Millennium, p 208.

30 Manning, Nature, p 74.

31 Manning, Nature, pp 144-45, 151-64.

32 Manning, Nature, pp 67-8.

33 See Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions, eds. Gabriele Wight and Brian Porter, Leicester: Leicester University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1991, pp. 7-24.

34 Manning, Nature, p 71.

35 Peter Wilson, ‘The English School of International Relations: A Reply to Sheila Grader’, Review of International Studies, Vol 15, No. 1, January 1989, p 51.

36 Manning, Nature, pp 9-10.

37 Manning, Nature, p 10.

38 It should also be briefly noted that Manning was adamant that the habit of thinking in terms of personified abstractions, so prevalent among lawyers and even historians as well as the ‘man-in-the-street’, did not absolve actual, individual, human beings from moral responibility for their individual or collective actions. Indeed, the ‘austerely realistic’ academic observer, and for the matter the historian, had a duty to remove the veil of the official picture, which so often attributed blame to abstractions such as ‘Germany’ , and trace responsibility for acts good and bad ‘to centres of real, not just postulated, volition’. Otherwise it was probable that ‘a phantom will serve as a scapegoat, and guilty flesh and blood get off scot free’. It made no more sense, in Manning’s opinion, to blame ‘Germany’ for war crimes than it did to attribute wrath to the sea, or call a knight on a chess board ‘silly’ for succumbing to a pawn. See Nature, pp 58-64 (especially, ‘Dishonour where that is Due’, pp 59-60).

39 Inferred from Manning, Nature, pp 209-10.

40 The seminal critique of this kind of historical reasoning, which has resurfaced in the field of IR in the forms of Marxist historical sociology and critical theory, is of course Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, London: Ark, 1986 (1957).

41 Manning, Nature, p 210.

42 Manning, Nature, p 34.

43 Manning, Nature, p 34.

44 Manning, Nature, p 201.

45 Manning, Nature, pp 201, 210.

46 Suganami, ‘Manning and the Study of IR’, pp 105-6.

47 The full complexity of the ‘sub-structural’ groups and organisations ‘would be difficult to reflect in a helpfully simplified chart’. Manning, Nature, pp 201-2.

48 Manning, Nature, pp xxii, 166-67, 189-91.

49 Manning, Nature, pp 101-13.

50 Manning, Nature, pp 143-45.

51 Manning, Nature, pp 88-100, 124-26.

52 Manning, Nature, pp xviii-xx, 201-2.

53 Suganami, ‘Manning and the Study of IR’, pp 102-3.

54 Manning, Nature, pp xx.

55 Manning, Nature, pp 124-6.

56 Manning, Nature, p xviii.

57 Manning, Nature, p xii.

58 Though in IR even more than medicine ‘it is the likely uniqueness of each new situation that gives its characteristic flavour to the diagnostic process in which connoisseurship is applied’. Manning, Nature, p xx.

59 As it did for this social cosmologist during 1982/83, when he was a second-year trainee at that former colonial outpost of the LSE, the IR Department at the University of Keele.

60 Abstracted from the Times, the Independent, and the London Evening Standard, 3-4 September 2002.

61 Manning, ‘Sanctions – 1935’, Politica, Vol 2, No 5, 1936.