Austro-American Group Struggle Tradition

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By Sinisa Malesevic:

"Although there is a substantial diversity in the bellicose paradigm of classical social thought, the underlining logic of their general argument is broadly similar – social life is mostly characterized by conflict between distinct groups. In their analyses, violence and war play a vital role either as the principal means of collective struggle or as social mechanisms used to acquire or maintain power. Although Ludwig Gumplowicz, Gustav Ratzenhofer and Lester Ward are today either ignored or mentioned only as marginal representatives of continental and American Social Darwinism, their concepts and theories have little, if anything, in common with Darwin-ism.

In fact, Gumplowicz’s positivist sociology is in many respects an epistemological predecessor of Durkheim as he was the first sociologist who argued that social facts have sui generis quality and that social life cannot be reduced to biological or psychological realities. Gumplowicz was critical of attributing a biological and organicist imagery to social processes arguing that society is no more than an aggregate of collectivities: ‘the real elements of a social process are not separate individuals but groups’ (Gumplowicz [1883]2007: 39). In his theory, groups determine individual thoughts and behaviour and as such are prone to interminable conflicts. His most important work, Der Rassenkampf(1883),argues that groups are the key generators of social action held together by intensive feelings of inter-collective solidarity rooted in cultural similarity and joint action, a process he referred to assyngenism.3As a potent source of collective cohesion developed over a long historical period, Syngenism fosters ethnocentric feelings, thus pitting groups against each other. In his cyclical view of history, group struggle is the foundation of social change: social life is inherently violent as one group conquers another. Syngenic divisions encouraged the formation of hordes, clans and tribes, all of which engaged in periodic raids and warfare. Gumplowicz traces the origins of family, private property and law to these violent group pillages where winning warriors would capture women, goods and exercise rights over the captives while attempting to exterminate the losing group. Moreover, the origin of the state as a centralized, territorially based organization is located in warfare. According to Gumplowicz (1899), the state emerges through a violent process whereby one group subjugates another and in so doing institutionalizes slavery and direct exploitation of the conquered group. As this process intensifies, smaller groups become amalgamated into a larger and better organized entity underpinned by a highly stratified division of labour. This is ideologically enhanced by the emergence of a legal system which is devised solely to reinforce the privileged position of the conquering group. For Gumplowicz, this is seen as a universal phenomenon which is replicated in a more complex form in modernity as states fight wars of supremacy and conquest. The advancement of human civilization is linked to warfare as culture, art and science emerge through successful conquest: the victories in war create an aristocratic parasitic leisure class that turns defeated warriors into workers. Despite the apparent complexity of modern societies and states, Gumplowicz argues that group struggle retains its intensity and operates on basically the same principles throughout history.

Gustav Ratzenhofer was a Habsburg general, military historian, sociologist and close collaborator of Gumplowicz who expanded group struggle theory a step further. Ratzenhofer also sees human life through the prism of intensive social conflict and explains state formation through violent conquest. In his view, the origins of social life areto be found in the Hobbesian-like logic of ‘absolute hostility’. Similar to Gumplowicz, his focus was on collective action rather than structure, as he understands sociology as ‘the science of the reciprocal relationships of human beings’ (Ratzenhofer, 1904: 177). He also shared his mentor’s positivist epistemology in arguing that sociology’s central task is the discovery of universal laws that govern social life. However, his general account of human development is much more developmental, teleological and optimist than Gumplowicz’s. Although not a Social Darwinist in any strict sense, he nonetheless adopted the standard evolutionary scheme of his time to explain the gradual development of societies moving from the primitive to the advanced stages. In this context, he argues that each stage of development is characterized by internal and external conflicts and that social progress and collective violence are closely linked: ‘Wars are consequence of social development’ (Ratzenhofer, 1904: 186). In his view, the conquering state (Erobererstaat) that has dominated the history of human societies is destined to be replaced by the culture state (Kulturstaat). Nevertheless, unlike Gumplowicz, who posits tangible groups as the dominant instigators of social action, Ratzenhofer identifies collective ‘interests’ as key generators of social conflict. In his theory, the social world is essentially a battlefield of competing group interests. These interests are active social forces that direct collective action and as such are difficult to detect, thus requiring an analyst’s abstraction from real life (Bentley, 1926: 252–3). Ratzenhofer distinguishes a variety of group interests operating at different levels of abstraction: from ‘general interest’, ‘national interest’, ‘class interest’ and ‘kinship interest’ to ‘rank interest’, ‘pecuniary interest’ or ‘creedal interest’ (Ratzenhofer, 1881; Small, 1905: 252). What is central here is that, as interests are multiple and varied, individuals and groups are inevitably dynamic agents that can compete and conflict over different interests, thus there is no necessary overlap between an entire group and a specific interests. Nonetheless, because it is directed by irreconcilable interests, social life, in this account, remains wedded to conflict and violence.

Lester Ward was profoundly influenced by Gumplowicz’s and Ratzenhofer’s theories and together with Albion Small was responsible for disseminating their ideas in the USA. In a Heraclitian manner, Ward (1913, 1914) argued that conflict is the source of all creation – physical, biological and social. He developed the concept of synergy, which was understood as a cosmic principle that ‘begins in collision, conflict, antagonism, and opposition, but as no motion can be lost it is transformed, and we have the milder forms of antithesis, competition’ which eventually can lead to compromise and cooperation(Ward, 1914: 175). In contrast to Social Darwinism, which understood group divisions in terms of inherent genetic qualities, Ward adopted Gumplowicz’s interpretation of the origins of class divisions and the state in the violent conquest of one group over another. He argues that all larger polities have emerged through violence. Initially the conquered group maintained its intensive dislike of its conquerors, but would gradually become coercively assimilated, whereby the emergence of shared ‘national sentiment’ would help unify the polity, thus creating the nation-state in the process. Ward saw violence and war both as the normal condition of social life,6and as the paramount genera-tors of social advancement. In his view, the sociological analysis of history shows that: War has been the chief and leading condition of human progress ... when races [social groups] stop struggling, progress ceases ... If peace missionaries could have their counsel prevail there might have been universal peace, nay general contentment, but there would have been no progress. (Ward, 1914: 240) However, not all forms of collective violence are seen as beneficial to social development. Ward distinguishes between revolutionary violence, which is interpreted as detrimental since it only destroys the long-built organic social order without being able to replace it with a better alternative, and warfare, which is in principle productive as con-quests create more complex social units. In his own words, the result of successful war is the preservation of ‘all that is best in different structures thus blended, and creating a new structure which is different from and superior to any prior structures’ (Ward, 1914: 247). Although Ward’s approach is broadly in agreement with Gumplowicz’s model, he clearly departs from Gumplowicz’s pessimism. Instead Ward was a firm believer in planned, state-directed, social progress. In this context he created the concept of ‘telic intelligence’ (telesis) which unlike ‘genetic intelligence’ that operates unconsciously, is seen as a conscious, scientifically developed social device to effect a positive, progressive change. Hence, Ward advocated the idea of telesis by which social evolution can be directed through the use of education and science.