Rebecca Jean Emigh, UCLA
I was deeply saddened by Richard’s untimely death. When he died, we (with David McCourt) were working on editing a new Oxford Handbook of Comparative and Historical Sociology. During the pandemic, in one of our many zoom meetings, we were exchanging anxieties about catching the novel disease, and Richard joked that at his age he was more likely to die of a heart attack than COVID. Little did we know at that time that would turn out to be true. On Saturday, September 18, just hours before Richard died on the 19th, we had been emailing back and forth about details of the handbook, as is typical with academics engrossed in a new project. We were surprised when he didn’t respond to our emails by Monday, and when one of our colleagues emailed us asking if he was dead, we were shocked. Richard was always very much alive! How could he be dead? As a memorial, I want to remember Richard Lachmann as great on multiple levels! I’m going to run with a multiscalar alliterative scheme: remembering Richard as great with three “g’s”: genuine (personal), generous (collegial), and genius (scholarly).
As a person, Richard was genuine. I first met Richard when I was a graduate student, and we were both working on the debates surrounding the historical rise of capitalism. He was an assistant professor at Madison Wisconsin, and I was a graduate student at The University of Chicago. He struck me immediately as someone completely without pretense, interested in a genuine exchange of ideas, even with a graduate student, clearly his junior, with only half-baked thoughts to offer him in response to his knowledge and well worked out theory. Many years later, we happened to have published our histories of “how we became comparative and historical sociologists” in the same issue of the ASA Comparative and Historical Sociology Newsletter (2007, 18:32‒36). We had very different backgrounds. When Richard claimed in his article he lacked sophistication as a graduate student, I remember thinking that he had orders of magnitude more than I did! Indeed, Richard was genuinely interested in everyone, connecting with them where they were at.
Richard and I met often over the years, despite living on opposite sides of the country. Richard was genuinely kind and thoughtful. He enjoyed real conversations about real topics. He loved to have a meal and discuss topics both serious and heavy. We had meals at ASA conferences, when I visited his home city, and when he visited mine. The conversation ranged from travel to politics to theater to family to sociology. When asked his opinion, he gave it, unfiltered. But it was always genuinely thoughtful and measured. What is more surprising about this demeanor, however, is that he held very strong opinions and views, and he was not easily (ever!) swayed. Yet, he could deliver these ideas in a personable way. In addition, he responded to his critics, while holding fast to his approach. Once, he told me how he had collected entirely new evidence for a piece, because “the reviewers were right about that.” In fact, Richard and I disagreed fundamentally about the sociological role of elites and nonelites in social life. At an epistemological level, I am convinced that elite theory is misleading, at it focuses its methodological sight on elites, thus blinding itself to the role of nonelite actors. Once, when we were still young, I asked him about what some certain piece of historical evidence implied for our theories. I remember objecting that, in contradiction to his explanation, Florentine elites did transform economic relations, and it was in fact capitalist relations themselves that led to their undoing in Tuscany. He calmly went on to give his view of what the bit of evidence might imply for our respective approaches. I was amazed. He could summarize how his theory might be wrong, what it might mean for a revision of his work, but also reviewed the same points about mine. It was honest, respectful, and above all, genuine.
As a collaborator, Richard was generous. I was on multiple projects with Richard, including panels and edited volumes. Richard always contributed generously. He answered every email, in a deep and meaningful way. Near the beginning of one such project, when the lead editor was trying to get things up and going, the emails were flying fast and furious. Very few of them made any sense. I was a bit puzzled as to how to respond, what to say, or what to add. I think most of the other participants were too, as their responses were equally unfocused and unhelpful. But then I saw Richard’s responses. They were pointed and specific, moving the project along with real substantive points. He could read through what others had written, take the points, and weave them together into some guidelines that we could implement to create a coherent work. He built genuine consensus through his generosity. Richard was always dependable. I could count on him to get things done. So could everyone else.
Thus, my experience with Richard’s generosity was hardly unique. Richard had many colleagues and collaborators. He was also particularly active in fostering interest among up-and- coming scholars of comparative and historical sociology, and he avidly participated in the mentoring program of the ASA-CHS section. Richard was there to the very end of such meetings. How many times did I speak with someone who said, “Oh yes, Richard was very helpful!” He sparked their interest in the topic, especially with the way that he could link the historical material to contemporary social issues. At the ASA and SSHA meetings, Richard was always listening to paper sessions, participating in the business and network meetings, and in between, meeting with colleagues and drawing in new members.
As a scholar, Richard was genius. His work presents the best developed contemporary elite theory, drawing on and synthesizing classic elite theories as he updated and tightened his version of it. He consistently worked out this approach throughout his entire career, applying it to multiple different empirical cases. As a consequence, Richard’s work was always comparative and historical. His major works usually traced the historical trajectories of several regions/nation states. This breadth was impressive, especially in comparison to many other works in this field that take either the historical or comparative approach. This breadth is quite difficult to accomplish in this sort of work, as it is painstakingly slow to gather evidence and learn enough detail about the cases to write them with facility.
Richard theorized that the alliances among elites was the key to understanding social trajectories. Where elites can consolidate and unify, they can grab power. Once they have power, they can transform economies, politics, and societies.Thus, Richard’s work, like mine, honed in on the real actions and relations among social participants. Richard’s insistence, however, was on how elites, not classes or any other nonelites, were key to understanding how transformations occurred. Thus, he carved out a unique space for political sociology: capitalist accumulation cycles could not explain social transformations. Nor could class mobilization, class inequality, class consciousness, or, indeed any other aspect of class, explain such transformations. Even more generally, neither could any aspect of nonelite relations.
His theory was also particularly elegant: the same theory could explain transformations (e.g., how capitalism developed) as well as nontransformations (e.g., where capitalism failed to develop). For example, in his work on the rise of capitalism, he examined the successful case of Britain, as well as the unsuccessful cases of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Tuscany. This is, to a large extent, because the same mechanisms explain both the successful and unsuccessful cases. Elites must first consolidate and unify and then they must transform social relations. If both conditions occur, then dramatic social change occurs. If they do not both occur, then no such change occurs. He also used this theory to explain entire social trajectories, that is, the rise and fall of a social formation. For example, in his work on empires, he examined Spain, France, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States, and explaining why some of the empires lasted longer than others by examining elite conflict. The theory explains both the rise and fall, again, because Richard theorized that they are governed, at least to a large extent, on the same mechanism. If elites did consolidate and transform relations, they were loath to give up their power, so they then tended to lose out in competition with elites in other locations who were not entrenched. Thus, it was the consolidation of US financial elites politically that explained both the rise and fall of US hegemonic power.
The sweep of the work empirically and theoretically is genius. And I say this as someone who does not share Richard’s approach. My quibbles would be, to name a few, his focus on elites that largely fails to take nonelites seriously, his political sociological approach that mostly ignores culture and economy, his a-temporal application of theories, and his universalization of European cases. But I am probably wrong, and more importantly, I wish Richard were still here to tell me so, in his great—genuine, generous, and genius—way.