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War and Militarism in the Thought of Herbert Spencer

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This article re-examines Herbert Spencer's position concerning war and militarism, using as a backdrop the ideas of the thinkers that preceded him. Both Smith and Ferguson had already forwarded their idea that a civil society may be distinguished from a primitive society by the specialization of a small part of the former for specific defence activity. Saint Simon and Comte then introduced the military society/industrial society dichotomy. While the French positivists, however, based this dichotomy on an observation of history, Spencer used the observation of nature as his basis. The law of evolution applies and it is this that differentiates the various active sections that go to make up the social organism; those destined to carry out the function of "sustentation" from those destined for "defence or offence." The levels of development that these functions reach determines whether they can be classed in the "militant" or "industrial" category. The general evolutionary tendency of progression from the former type to the latter does not necessarily eliminate the occurrence of processes of involution. This is indeed what occured in Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, where there arose a process of militaristic "rebarbarization" which was to culminate in the Anglo-Boer war. A previously unpublished letter and records of heated discussions in Italy bear witness to Spencer's involvement in the political events of his time.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Sociology, University of Rome, via Salaria 113, 00198 Rome


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