War as a Symptom of Our Social Crisis


By JOSEPH S. ROUCEK, Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology, Hofstra College, Hempstead, N. Y.

Delivered for the Eastern Sociological Society, at the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel Asbury Park, N. April 27, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 423-426.

WHAT are the main causes of the current World War? Why, in spite of all the earnest praying of millions of people for peace, have we drifted into another series of declared and undeclared wars?

The search for some reasonable answers is, and will be, one of the chief pre-occupations of mankind. But in his desperate search for somebody or something on which to pin the blame for starting the wars, man has wasted a greatdeal of effort in proving his theories on the causation of such conflict. Each of these theories has some merit, but each has failed by its very simplicity to provide a scientific explanation of that extremely complex phenomenon.

From the sociological point of view, it can safely be stated that there are two basic reasons (in addition, of course, to others) why the average observer has been unable to comprehend war, as a cause and an effect, in its complex, empiric sociological aspects. In the first place, much of our social thinking, in spite of our advance in empiric knowledge, is still obscured by all kinds of myths based on "wishful thinking." It is pretty generally acknowledged that the highest goal of the social sciences is to describe the social word around us "as is," rather than as it "ought to be." Fundamentally, no cure can be lasting under false pretenses. If you go to a physician, who diagnoses your ailment as a kind of tuberculosis, the starting point of your cure depends on his analysis of your tubercular condition "as is"—and only then steps can be taken to make your condition as "it ought to be." But since it is always easier to view the troublesome world around us as it "ought to be," wishful thinking has always had the upper hand over the scientists' attempt to describe the social reality as it actually exists. From this point of view, all the phenomena of war have been hidden under the top-heavy legalistic philosophical and moralistic judgments. The legalist has been particularly outstanding offender in this respect by his insistence that social processes can be directed by freezing them into legalistic definitions. The result has been that our post-war relations have been viewed as they "ought to be," and the cold-blooded reality has been lost in legal fictions. In the "good old days," wars were wars. We knew what we meant, with some precision, when we talked of neutrality, embargoes, intervention. A pirate was a pirate, and he flew the Jolly Roger, not the anonymous and submerged flag of Rome. A battle was a battle, not a pacification operation, and when we created a machine gun, we did not call it a baby carriage. But, today we have fictions which are not ornaments to policy but the basis and expression of policy—fictions which embrace whole phases of international relations. In picking and choosing these fictions, we may begin with the "independence" of Manchukuo; carry on "with the stiff upper lip and all that" in terms of the fiction of the American Neutrality Act; the fiction of Soviet democracy; and end with the way Japan is restoring "order" in China in order "to preserve peace," since the war between the two yellow states is undeclared as yet.

The second major difficulty confronting those studying war is the eternal tendency of the average man, as well as of the learned scholar, to provide one, single, all-embracing explanation, one simple "cause" of a social phenomena. In that respect there is very little difference between the blase and historic approach of Spengler and the way in which a simple farmer blames the sickness of his cow on God's ill-will.

From that point of view, one is willing to go as far as to state, brutally but not carelessly, that among the causes of our current wars may be listed mankind's predominant wishful thinking for peace (since the peace can be achieved, as far as Hitler and his counterparts are concerned, but not daring to oppose the slightest whims of such dictators) and the way we go about working for peace will come by doing something about such simple, single and few "causes" as Hitlerism, the granting of more "Lebensraum" to have-not nations, by defining "aggression," or by just praying for peace.

The tragic aspect of the sociological explanation is that its analysis of war as a social phenomenon explodes all simpleexplanations and indicates the extreme complexity of its causation. But let us look at some of them, particularly as symptoms of our current social crisis.

We must remember, first of all, with Conte, that the transitions from one social order into another has always been accompanied by definite periods of unrest, a sort of inter-regnum of anarchism, which can last for several generations. No one alive today can escape the realization that he is living through one of the greatest crises of history. Certain landmarks loom out of the past to point the zig-zag course of human history; the coming of the barbarians and the fall of the Roman Empire; the long darkness and the thirteenth century dawn of modern civilization; the Renaissance and the Reformation; the political revolutions of the eighteenth century; and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth. These were periods when the ferment of change reached the boiling point. Certainly ours is such a period. Never since the moving finger began to write, have the pages of the chronicle been so crowded and overwritten as during the past three decades. This revolutionary epoch which we live in shows, furthermore, one definite characteristic that all other transitional periods have always shown—that characteristic expressed in violent struggles which we term "war."

Sociologically speaking, what are the basic elements of this war crisis? By the concept of "crisis" we understand the deterioration of the fundamental functions of the social organism. What are these fundamental functions? We need to be aware that society is nothing static, but that it is a process, a complex system of co-ordinated functions directed to the fulfillment of certain tasks, given partly by the relations of this society to other social groups, and partly by the relations concerned mainly with its internal processes. We speak here, of course, of society not as a totalitarian unit, but of individual, concrete societies, bound together by the combination of force and ideologies—the states. Those states are now carrying on organized conflict since our period of history is a period of anarchy wherein all values are in a state of flux, contradicting and fighting each other. This anarchy is particularly obvious in international relations, and we are told over and over again that the basic cause can be traced directly to the Peace Treaties of 1919.

Notice, first of all, that a majority of the participants in World War I did not really know what they were fighting for. They were satisfied by several glittering slogans which intimated that the war was being fought over some ethical myth, or to preserve this or that civilization. That so many historians have destroyed such ideological pretenses, proves our contention here. For that very reason the peace treaties were unsatisfactory, since, down in the deep heart of hearts, mankind did not really know why the "Great Parade" started. With the enthusiasm of victory worn off, the people recognized that their emotional as well as material values were destroyed because of reasons hidden under such glittering generalities as "the self-determination of small nations," "to make the world safe for democracy," etc. These very principles had to be violated in actual application. Hence, the peace treaties were worked out in the atmosphere of uncertainty which was intensified in proportion as their execution became more difficult.

What were these peace treaties in themselves? They were a hash of numerous, quite contradictory concepts. Basically the treaty makers wanted to realize the principles of nationalism as formulated in the 19th and the early 20th century; but, in many cases, they had to violate these principles when the borderline of the new states were finally determined. Then they expressed the norms which are considered the foundation of our civilization, but which are propounded in mutually contradictory forms. There was, first of all,the legalistic idea of reparation for the damages done, and of the organized world order in general, and secondly, the idealism of Wilsonian humanitarianism. Actually no one principle achieved predominance over any other. The nationalist, the legalist, and the homo economicus each had something to say but none was able to impose his basic ideas on the new state system in 1920. But these basic ideas were not new in 1919. They held sway long before World War I.

It thus appears that the origin of the World War crisis cannot be found in the years 1914 or 1918, but in the history preceding it, in the crises preceding the crisis of 1914, which bad separated the nationalistic othnocentrism from religious universalism, power politics from the ideals of international cooperation, and moral and humanitarian principles and the classic economic principles from the needs of the growing interdependence of the world. The World War was, therefore, rooted in the fact that the development of the dominant ideologies had not permitted the integration or the domination of one ideology over all other competing ideologies.

Legally, World War I was ended by the Versailles Treaty of 1919. But sociologically speaking, it continued indefinitely. The immediate post-war years were really only armistice years at best. World War II was approaching actuality long before 1939. The social causes were indestructibly connected with the pre-1914 cause. But the anarchy preceding 1914 was infantile when compared to the anarchy preceding 1939. From early in 1938 until September 1, 1939, crisis after crisis piled up on one another at an ever-accelerating rate.

Today Europe (as well as every other place where war is going on in its most violent stages) is being transformed under our very eyes. All the ideological pillars upon which Europe's and the world's culture is based are weakening. Liberalism, democracy, and free trade, rationalism and the dignity of human life, commonly thought of as the determining directive lines of progress, are defended in some places and even more frequently proclaimed as a heresy elsewhere. This chaos is being settled (or rather unsettled) today by another war being fought to decide between two main trends: one favoring the return to the older forms of life, and the other experimenting with the new realities and hoping to survive on the wreckage of the old ideological structure. Briefly stated, it is a fight between the extremist aspects of nationalism versus internationalism, between humanitarian values versus the totalitarian disregard of all human values. The trouble is that, fundamentally, the ideological bases on which civilization rested have been shaken and no new foundations have yet been constructed. We are thrust ahead into the unknown and, unlike the French thinkers of a century and a half ago, we know that "a general going back is out of the question."

We must go forward, yet we do not see the way.

This war anarchy has its relation to the crisis apparent in internal state politics. The main function of politics is its synthetic capacity, which is to equalize and adjust in useful compromises, all forms of social activity. But, as all creative forms of human life are undergoing crises, politics, then, cannot produce anything acceptable and settled, and hence politics is also in its critical stage. The resulting social uncertainties produce regimes which are anything but peaceful regimes and which, fundamentally, are actually war, additional symptoms of our critical times.

Tacitus has British chieftains say of the Romans, in the popular version, "They make a desert and they call it peace." The chief contribution of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin to our series of crises is the autocratic state which uses all the features of militaristic warfare for its existence;their main contribution to political theory is the idea of progress through internal and international wars.

If in the old sense, politics means civic life, in modern dictatorships the mentality is a war mentality. The case goes far beyond the externals of military organization and drill, banners, uniforms, parades, salutes, leaders, war-cries, challenges, and defiances. Theirs is the system of permanent mobilization. It is life on war-footing.

When war breaks out the democratic people tend to announce that politics are adjourned and the party system is suspended for the duration of the crisis. Our modern dictatorships have discarded the party system altogether. In the stress of war the democracies abdicate their basic liberties. Dictatorships have as their basic principle the destruction of the historic liberties of the individual. In wartime the democracies acquiesce in what is virtually a suspension of the reign of law. The national interest becomes the sole criterion of official conduct as long as the enemy is figuratively at the gate. In the autocratic states the national interest as interpreted by the leader is the sold criterion at all times. No rules by decree. In peace we spend as much as we can afford, or at least try to; in war we spend whatever is called for. In the autocratic state, popular sacrifice is put on the eternal war-footing. Privation under this system becomes ipso facto heroic, as it does in wartime with free peoples.

It is not accident that the dictatorships use a militarist vocabulary to describe actions which in free countries we regard as peace activities. Democracies stimulate wheat growing by bounties and tariffs, but dictators fight the "Battle of the Wheat." Democracies build tractor factories, but dictatorships hurl their Shock Brigades into the trenches on the Tractor Front. The autocratic state is always on its toes against the enemy within and outside its gates. The war which such a state is always fighting is a civil war.

Autocracy today, therefore, is a permanent war system concerned with internal and international foes. Such armed camps then, superficially at least, have the singleness of purpose, the swift efficiency, the crisp discipline of the military method geared up to the aims of the dictators, in order that they may fish in the muddy international crises. Although the partisans who are now fighting for the mastery of the modern world wears shirts of different colors, their weapons are drawn from the same armory, their doctrines are variations of the same theme, and they go forth to battle singing the same tune with slightly different words. Their weapons are the coercive, war-like direction of the life and labor of mankind. Their doctrine pre-supposes that disorder and misery can be overcome by more and more war-like measures. Their promise is that through the war-power of the state men can be made happy. In the name of progress, men who call themselves Communists, Socialists, Fascists, Nationalists, Progressives, and even Liberals, are holding that government with its instruments of war must, by telling the people how they shall live, direct the course of civilization and fix the shape of things to come. This is the dogma which all the prevailing dogmas presuppose. Though despotism is no novelty in human affairs, it is probably true that at no time in twenty-five hundred years has any western government claimed for itself a war jurisdiction over men's lives comparable with that which is officially attempted in the totalitarian states. Yet it is governmental coercion that is creating the very chaos it purports to conquer. The consequence of collectivism must be regimentation, censorship, despotism, and impoverishment, all tending to militarism, and finally war. This very militarism of social processes is a cause as well as a result of our social disorganization, inherent in the striving of our contemporary authoritarian systems toachieve internal stability, resembling a state of siege, by the determined policies unsettling the established order all around them. These contradictions and paradoxes indicate that war is not only an outgrowth of the over-accelerating changes in our social institutions, and therefore the result of social causes, but also the result of mans irrationality. Modern man is frequently a genius in dealing with the physical and external world, but often a driveling idiot when dealing with himself and with his relations with his fellows.

Our war crises can also be traced to the disruption of our social equilibrium. Man is not only unable to determine the sense of striving and the sense of direction of his definite social goals, but he has also lost that culture which demands a certain balance of material and spiritual values, and he has lost the sense of an obligation to something not ourselves. We do not mean here any mixture of superstition and man self-worship on which the modern dictatorships rest. Every culture must have its ultimate aim in spiritual values. We do not imply by the "spiritual" something the wearing of a little mustache or an infantile frown, the commandment to bully the weak and the helpless, making a creed of the ethics of the jungle: but super-individual, super-national, humanitarian values which would check the antisocial tendencies of our times. In the nineteenth century, theorists of violence, such as Nietzsche and George Sorel had created among certain numbers of ideologists a state of mind, hostile to everything which, for 2000 years had been the humane ideal. It is in these doctrines of violence common to the extremists of right and left, that war has its fertile ground. Related to it is the common assumption that man is sovereign in his spiritual values and refuses to accept any super-natural (or shall we call it "divine") ideology of life. Hence no rules are imposed on him in his tribal warfare on others, and the system of warfare has, in fact, became an end in itself.

Approach this trend from the standpoint of the accent on the growth of state power, with a parallel development in the acceleration of the growth of the military and desperate struggle for the control of power, within the state and internationally, and you are bound to conclude that in the current scheme of social values the extreme kind of politics, warfare, has been assigned the supreme rank, the value of all values. Instead of power being an instrument for the attainment of all-human (and however vague they may be) values, human values have become an instrument for the attainment of power. By rendering all human values subservient to the supreme end of power, all human institutions have become subordinated to the politics of warfare. The state and politics have become our modern god.

Interconnected with this trend is ideological overemphasis on the acquisition of material goods as the source of "happiness"—of the kind so well described in Lynd's Middletown in Transition. Since our whole economic system is based on competition and the insistence that any reasonable person must strive for the ever-growing consumption of the ever-accelerating production of goods, we can see here another kind of warfare, which penetrates all spheres of internal and international life and which is connected inseparably with the structure of our modern culture. Related to this is our ideological insistence that the ever-accelerating tempo of daily life speeded up by the ever-growing number of inventions, the fastness with which we can shoot, jump, travel, hear and see, further and particularly faster, is real "progress."

This type of "business ideology" shades off into the war mentality of those who believe in the creation of a perfect world by proletarian action, that a new golden age will dawn for mankind, after a period of necessary violence, be it revolution or war. Because of such particular class or race ideologies, men cut one another's throats, asphyxiate one another, and willingly undergo the most horrible torments. We cannot but come to a tragic conclusion; that war is a cause as well as a result of the transitory state of all culture patterns around us. The latest phase of man's cultural development is his effort to disrupt the most stable elements of that culture: the concepts of human personality, the institutions, the doctrines, the social hierarchies. We pride ourselves in our contempt of that which is not changing, and we admire everything that is on the move, which is changing. This movement, in its lack of solidarity and general incoherence explains, I believe, today's wars. War is, therefore, inherent in our culture pattern and will stay with us for a long time. It is one of the penalties that man has to pay for the type of culture he has created and which he admires so much.

Remedies? One even does not dare to enumerate them. With our belief that education or public forum discussions can solve "everything," it might be preferable to give hope to the inarticulate masses by leaving the problem to the individuals and groups who—as we indicated at the beginning of our discussion—offer simple and easy solutions, and thus often achieve the distinction of helping war-mongers.

We may look forward to some comparatively safe period of civilization only when men will be able to reduce the violent processes of conflicts to the more civilized methods of competition; when they will desist from insisting on clearing away the ruins of old systems too rapidly; when they will painfully set about reconstructing the institutions which they have destroyed; and when they will realize that peace must, in the first place, be a general peace, i. e., must refer to all departments of social life, international as well as internal.