Martin Wight: A Biographical Overview of his Life and Work
Ian Hall, School of History and Politics, University
Robert James Martin Wight was
born on 26 November 1913, the second of the three sons of
Dr Edward and Margaretta Wight, née Scott. 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. 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). Around the same time, after some postgraduate work at Oxford, he
submitted an application for the lectureship in the Department of International Politics at the University College
of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was unsuccessful,
instead moving to London to manage the PPU's bookshop on Ludgate
Hill. Wight's first publication dates
from this period: a characteristically elegant, powerful and unorthodox
article advocating Christian pacifism that appeared in Theology in 1936.
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'. 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'.
Wight left Chatham House in 1938. It seems to have been the case
that he again sought an academic post, 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. The application was refused,
at first, and then accepted, provided that he left the teaching
profession. 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. 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).
In 1946 Wight returned to London, and to Chatham House. 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. 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. In early 1947, having
been succeeded at the UN by Susan Strange, 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.
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. The address was later published in the first issue of the
Ecumenical Review as 'The Church, Russia and
the West' (1949). In the early
1950s, Wight worked on the World Council of Churches project
to promote European unity. 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), which Richard Cockett has called 'the manifesto of the
liberal Africanist in England in general but also for the
Observer in particular'.
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. 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.
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
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. 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. 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. In 1957
Wight was offered a professorship at Chicago, but eventually turned
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), 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'. 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. 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
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). 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. Two further essays
appeared in 1978 and 1987.
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. 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.
For footnotes click here (opens in separate window)