Martin Wight: A Biographical Overview of his Life and Work

Ian Hall, School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide


Robert James Martin Wight was born on 26 November 1913, the second of the three sons of Dr Edward and Margaretta Wight, née Scott.[1] He was educated at Prestonville House School and Bradfield College in Berkshire, winning an Open Scholarship to read Modern History at Hertford College, Oxford. He took a First Class degree in 1935.

Wight's subsequent career may be divided into three distinct phases. Between 1935 and 1949, by which time he was thirty-six years old, he engaged in a variety of occupations, from bookseller to schoolteacher, researcher to journalist.

From 1949 until 1961, he held the post of Reader in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. In 1961, Wight became Professor of History at the new University of Sussex, where he remained until his untimely death, on 15 July 1972.

Throughout his life Wight was torn between the study of history and international relations, and between scholarship and activism. In both cases, the former eventually trumped the latter. His interest in international relations dated from his Oxford days, perhaps stimulated by one of his tutors, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, the historian of the First World War, or by the dramatic course of contemporary events. While an undergraduate, he was a 'passionate supporter' of the League of Nations.[2] It appears, however, that the blow dealt to that institution by the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36 prompted a change of heart. Wight turned against the League and became an outright pacifist, falling under the influence of the Reverend Dick Sheppard of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).[3] Around the same time, after some postgraduate work at Oxford, he submitted an application for the lectureship[4] in the Department of International Politics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.[5] He was unsuccessful, instead moving to London to manage the PPU's bookshop on Ludgate Hill.[6] Wight's first publication dates from this period: a characteristically elegant, powerful and unorthodox article advocating Christian pacifism that appeared in Theology in 1936.[7]

In early 1937, Wight took up a position as a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where he contributed to a number of Chatham House research programmes, including those on South Africa, British imperial policy, the political and strategic interests of the United Kingdom, and 'Ocean routes: bases and ports'.[8] He worked under the direction of Arnold J. Toynbee, who quickly became something of a mentor, as Dick Sheppard, who died later that year, had once been. Before joining Chatham House, Wight had read volumes one to three of Toynbee's monumental A Study of History (1934). The book had a considerable and lasting effect on his thought. As he later wrote to its author: '[a]t once all my previous reading and experience fell into perspective and pattern, and I saw clearly, instead of in a glass darkly, what historical study was about and the heights that it might scale'.[9]

Wight left Chatham House in 1938. It seems to have been the case that he again sought an academic post,[10] but, finding no suitable opportunities, he turned instead to school-teaching, becoming History Master at Haileybury. He lasted two years in this role, until he received call-up papers for military service and decided to make an application to be registered as a conscientious objector.[11] The application was refused, at first, and then accepted, provided that he left the teaching profession.[12] Finding himself again without paid employment, Wight went back to Oxford, joining the staff of Margery Perham's project on colonial constitutions from 1941 until the spring of 1946.[13] This work led to the publication of three books: The Development of the Legislative Council 1606-1945 (1946), The Gold Coast Legislative Council (1947), and British Colonial Constitutions (1952).[14]

In 1946 Wight returned to London, and to Chatham House.[15] Under its auspices, during the first half of that year, he wrote his pamphlet on Power Politics, often described as a 'realist' classic, though - arguably - its central argument is consistent with his later more 'Grotian' work.[16] Power Politics brought him to the attention of the editor of The Observer newspaper and Liberal grandee David Astor, who commissioned Wight to travel to the United States as special correspondent at the first session of the United Nations in the winter of 1946-47.[17] In early 1947, having been succeeded at the UN by Susan Strange,[18] Wight rejoined Chatham House, where he was being touted as a future Director of Studies. Over the next two years, Wight worked closely with Toynbee and others on the production of the Survey of International Affairs for the war years, contributing five lengthy and now much-neglected essays, as well as footnotes and appendices to volume VII of Toynbee's A Study of History, published in 1954.[19]

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wight toyed too with a number of causes. He was active in the Christian ecumenical movement, addressing the World Council of Churches Round Table Meeting of Christian Politicians in Geneva in June 1948.[20] The address was later published in the first issue of the Ecumenical Review as 'The Church, Russia and the West' (1949).[21] In the early 1950s, Wight worked on the World Council of Churches project to promote European unity.[22] He continued, moreover, to show concern for colonial issues, working with Arthur Lewis, Michael Scott and Colin Legum on a Penguin special book, Attitude to Africa (1951),[23] which Richard Cockett has called 'the manifesto of the liberal Africanist in England in general but also for the Observer in particular'.[24]

In 1949, the second phase of Wight's career opened. At the second attempt, Charles Manning, Montague Burton Professor at LSE (1930-62), had succeeded in creating a Readership in International Relations and - together with Herbert Butterfield - persuaded him to take the post. Wight was quickly recognised as an exceptional teacher. It is clear, however, from his surviving early lectures and essays that Wight was none too familiar with the literature of the field (notwithstanding his earlier work for Power Politics), but that he committed himself with great dedication to establishing its parameters.[25] Nor, once he was more familiar with it, was he completely convinced as to the academic merits of IR, at least as a subject for undergraduates.[26]

During the 1950s Wight taught with great commitment, reviewed extensively in the field for a variety of outlets (including The Observer, The Economist, and International Affairs), and remained closely involved, as a member of Council, with Chatham House. He toyed, at the LSE, with a number of major projects, but being something of a perfectionist, proved unable even to complete the long promised, extended version of Power Politics. He did, however, help revise Harold Laski's An Introduction to Politics for a posthumous edition and succeeded in publishing a number of essays, including an incisive review of Herbert Butterfield and Reinhold Niebuhr (1950), two radio lectures for the BBC, 'War and International Politics' and 'What Makes a Good Historian?' (both 1955), 'The Power Struggle within the United Nations' (1956), and two of his finest pieces, 'Why is there no International Theory?' and 'Brutus in Foreign Policy' (both 1960).[27]

In 1956-57 Wight took a sabbatical year from the LSE, serving as a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago and standing in for the absent Hans Morgenthau. Wight took this opportunity to develop and to present the drafts of the work on international theory for which he is perhaps today best known: his lectures on the 'three traditions' of realism, rationalism and revolutionism.[28] He gave them for three further years upon his return to the LSE - but it is ironic, indeed, that these lectures, so central to the so-called 'English school of international relations' were first delivered in America.

It is clear that around this time Wight had begun to contemplate leaving Manning's Department. In 1955, he turned down the chance, probably slight, of succeeding Toynbee in the Stevenson Chair of International History at University College, London.[29] During much of 1956 he was involved in lengthy - and, as it proved, rather fraught - negotiations for a Chair and the Headship of the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, urged on by the historian of the British Empire Keith Hancock.[30] In 1957 Wight was offered a professorship at Chicago, but eventually turned it down.[31]

Other opportunities, however, were welcomed. In 1958 the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield asked Wight to participate in the meetings of his new British Committee on the Theory of International Politics - an honour, such as it was, not accorded to Manning or indeed to colleagues of Butterfield like F. H. Hinsley. The group, initially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, at the behest of Kenneth Thompson, met fairly regularly during the first half of the 1960s. Wight delivered nine papers in all, of which three remain unpublished, three appeared in Diplomatic Investigations (1966),[32] edited with Butterfield, and three in the posthumous Systems of States (1977).

By 1960 Wight had resolved to leave the LSE, partly, as he put it in a private note, to 'avoid' the 'Manning succession crisis' and to '[g]et out of a subject I don't believe in into [a] subject I do believe in'.[33] The following year he took up a Chair of History at the University of Sussex, then a new institution being built on the outskirts of Brighton. This post was combined with the Deanship of the School of European Studies, with a mandate to create its curriculum.[34] Together with Asa Briggs and others, Wight designed an innovative (and now sadly defunct) range of inter-disciplinary courses for the School, combining history, philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, geography and international relations, as well as modern languages. Wight's object was to demonstrate the 'unity of European history' and to 'combine historical and contemporary interest'.[35]

Only in the late 1960s, a few years before his death, did Wight return to the study of international relations. When he did, his work showed a marked shift in approach, one evidenced in the contrast between the taxonomical, even Procrustean approach of the international theory lectures, and the more nuanced exploration of 'longitudinal themes' of his essays on 'International Legitimacy' (1972) and 'The Balance of Power and International Order' (1973).[36] These changes have, in part, been obscured by the otherwise very welcome posthumous publication of a number of Wight's works. In 1977 his former colleague Hedley Bull assembled some of his later British Committee essays in Systems of States. In 1978 he collaborated with Carsten Holbraad in the production of a revised Power Politics.[37] Two further essays appeared in 1978 and 1987.[38]

Since the early 1990s, however, these works have been overshadowed by Wight's earlier writings, especially by his Chicago/LSE lectures on international theory. Indeed, one of the most significant moments in the recent history of the field came with the publication, in 1991, of International Theory: The Three Traditions.[39] The book might easily have been dismissed as a historical curiosity if not for the sympathy of Wight's former students and the enthusiasm of a new generation of theorists eager to distance themselves from American thought. Instead, it reinvigorated the 'English school' and remains, for better or worse, a touchstone for those working within that tradition. In 2005, a later series of lectures, Four Seminal Thinkers, were published, the eponymous thinkers being Machiavelli, Grotius, Kant and Mazzini. The impact of this elegant volume is yet to be determined.[40]


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