One of the most important classical liberal crusades of the nineteenth century was to at least tame, if not end, the death and destruction of war. From time immemorial, wars have been the scourge of mankind. Huge numbers of ordinary people have been uprooted from their homes and families to be the human sacrifices in battle to serve the purposes of kings and princes, dictators and tyrants, and even democratically elected governments declaring that they represented the peaceful purposes of their citizens.
It is one of the tragic failures of the classical liberal movement that its efforts to bring war to an end did not come to fruition. The liberals of that earlier time — liberals devoted to individual rights and personal liberty, to peaceful and voluntary human association both inside and outside of the marketplace, to impartial rule of law, and to constitutionally limited, representative government — were originally hopeful and confident in bringing an end to military conflict among the nations of the world.
Classical liberal attempts to end war
They lobbied governments and reasoned with them to stop arms races, especially among the “Great Powers” in Europe after the awful quarter century of warfare among those nations in the wake of the French Revolution and during the rise of Napoleon with his wars of conquest from the Atlantic to Moscow between 1792 and 1815.
They persuaded political leaders to at least consider and occasionally abide by arbitrations and plebiscites in place of armies set loose to settle political disputes among nations. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, they helped inspire and organize international conventions on the rules of war to treat prisoners more humanely, to respect the lives and property of civilian populations occupied by a belligerent power, and to restrain and demarcate the use of various weapons to minimize the damage done in the midst of battle.
However, as the nineteenth century was ending and the twentieth century was dawning there were those who warned of the dangerous game of open and secret military alliances among “the Powers,” the huge costs of standing armies and navies that always had to be more expensively modernized with the latest technologies of combat, and the emotional fervor of imperialist and nationalist jingoism that found expression in the far-flung colonial empires of those European powers.
The costs of war to the world and America
Those concerns were more than proven justified. In the twentieth century, wars, great and small, have inflicted terrible consequences on peoples all over the world. It is estimated that 20 million or more men, women, and children were killed during the First World War (1914–1918). An even larger number, upwards of 50 million, possibly perished as a result of the cruelty and mass barbarity of the Second World War (1939–1945). Another 10–15 million or more lives have been lost in wars and civil wars in the period since 1945.
Millions upon millions more people were left permanently disabled, physically or psychologically. Families were torn apart and sometimes made into enemies set upon defeating and killing each other. The accumulated, productive capital of many lifetimes has been razed to the ground in bombings and battles. The historical heritage and architectural artifacts of hundreds or even thousands of years past have been ruined, destroyed, or intentionally obliterated in all of the violent conflicts just over the last 120 years.
America’s foreign wars have not been without their human cost. In the First World War, there were more than 116,600 deaths and 204,000 wounded; in the Second World War, 405,400 deaths and 670,850 wounded; in the Korean War, 36,500 deaths and 92,135 wounded; in the Vietnam War, 58,210 deaths and 153,300 wounded; in the war in Afghanistan, 2,215 deaths and 20,050 wounded; in the Iraq War, 4,500 deaths and 32,225 wounded. Almost 625,000 Americans lost their lives in foreign wars since 1914, along with nearly 1.2 million wounded.
Jacques Novicow’s life and interests and fame
Among those classical liberal voices at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century for international peace and associative human freedom was the Russian sociologist Jacques Novicow (1849–1912). Almost forgotten today among both sociologists and classical liberals, Novicow was one of the most well-known and prominent social thinkers of his time.
Born in Constantinople, Turkey, of a Russian father and a Greek mother, his family settled in the Imperial Russian port city of Odessa on the Black Sea when Novicow was four years old. Educated at the University of Odessa, he inherited a profitable private enterprise from his father, which gave him a degree of financial independence to pursue what was clearly his first passion, the scholarly study of society in its various historical, political, cultural, and economic forms and evolutionary patterns.
Stifled by the political censorship that constrained intellectual openness and debate in Imperial Russia, Novicow spent a good part of his adult life in Paris, France. Much taken by the French language, he often wrote on the superiority of French over English as an “auxiliary” vernacular for intellectual discourse among Europeans.
It is not much of a surprise, therefore, that almost all of his significant works on social, political, and cultural themes were written and published in French. Only a handful of his writings have ever been translated into English, but among classical liberals on the European continent and among academic sociologists he was highly respected and widely known during his lifetime. In fact, for a period of time he served as vice president of the International Institute of Sociology, headquartered in Paris.
Nowadays, most people abhor the idea that war is both necessary and good for the betterment of nations and peoples. Two devastating world wars consigned most rationales and justifications for war as an institution that advances civilization and improves the human species to the past. Wars are being fought and, no doubt, will continue to be fought for the foreseeable future. But war, itself, as something glorious and uplifting, is rarely defended or proclaimed.
Yet, for a good part of human history and well into the twentieth century, war was often glorified. The classical liberals of the nineteenth century worked hard to refute this idea. And one of the most determined and uncompromising was Jacques Novicow.
The fallacy that war strengthens a nation’s people
Novicow’s book War and Its Alleged Benefits (1911) is a devastating critique of virtually all the war-praising arguments of his time. “Bloodshed never will succeed,” he said. “Since the beginning of history wholesale murder has been committed thousands and thousands of times without resolving anything. It will be committed thousands and thousands of times again without yielding a better result. Each war merely sows the seeds of a future war.”
A common argument, Novicow explained, is that war weeds out the weak and invigorates the strong, leaving the human race better than before. He asked how this could be, when a moment’s reflection makes it clear that it is the physically heartiest who are normally sent off to war, and they are the ones who are left dead on the battlefield, leaving behind those who are genetically weaker and less physically fit.
The fallacy of economic gains from war
War has been often proclaimed as a necessary means by which one nation and people materially improve themselves by conquering and subjugating another country and its inhabitants for purposes of plunder and enslavement of the defeated. But the supposed economic gains through spoliation are illusory. To be victorious, an aggressor nation must first incur huge financial and material expenses to have the military wherewithal and capacity to come out the winner of an initiated war. Before booty may be extracted from the defeated nation, many of the aggressor’s own soldiers will be lost in battle, thus, reducing the successful nation’s “human capital.”
Those deaths are usually heavy “costs” before any “profits” may be gained from the conflict. Furthermore, enslaving those among the defeated who have not been killed in battle, or exploiting those who remain in the defeated land, has its own negatives. Slave labor is far less productive than free labor, reducing the net gain presumed to result from war. Furthermore, history shows that a conqueror bears the burden of occupation and the constant fear of rebellion and attacks on the occupiers by those resentful of their oppressed state. Novicow attempted to give a financial price tag to the “glories of war”:
Since 1648 [to 1912] war has cost the European nations alone $80 billion [in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars, $20.9 trillion]. It would not be exaggerating to say that in the entire historic period war has cost at least ten times that amount. Then, at the very lowest estimate, war has cost in all, $800 billion [in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars, more than $200 trillion]. What does this mean? It means that a certain number of days of work, the money value of which is equal to that sum, were employed by men in killing one another. Suppose the same effort had been expended in cultivating the soil, irrigating the fields, weaving cloth, building houses, leveling roads, channeling harbors, and so on, is it not perfectly clear that the world’s face would be entirely different to-day? We should be at least ten times as prosperous, or, in other words, the sum of suffering would have been perceptibly less for us unhappy beings.
War neither unifies nor civilizes.
Another rationale for war, Novicow said, was the belief that only war has unified peoples in larger political entities to reduce the number of petty states that clutter the political map, preventing the civilizing possibilities that can come only when numerous people live under one political roof; it also reduces the Tower of Babel of many languages, producing a leading few through which people may converse. Novicow replied to this:
Civilization is not made by the relative number of spoken languages, but by the sum of the scientific knowledge and artistic treasures accumulated by mankind. Europe is now divided into eighteen main principalities. It might have been divided into fifteen or twenty-five, and civilization would in no wise have been affected….
… It is not to wholesale slaughter on fields of battle that we owe the existence of those glorious historic entities called England, Germany, France, and Italy. It is to a galaxy of geniuses and talents of all kinds, to Dante, to Shakespeare, to Descartes, to Goethe, and the rest…. Suppress war, and the unity of the human race in its entirety is instantly realized.
Peace, Novicow insisted, is the father of civilization, of prosperity, of cultural achievements. War siphons off the accumulated wealth of multitudes of people, and creates constant fears that distract from more productive and creative activities that enrich and improve all of humanity. “Why should there have been more light in Europe after a stupid Roman soldier murdered Archimedes than there had been before?” Novicow could not see how it could be.
Other advocates of war had insisted that war engenders the highest moral values and attitudes. Novicow wondered, “How can robbery, parasitism, intolerance, despotism ennoble communities. How can the practice of all these crimes develop the virtues?… If the 8,000 wars of the historic period could not make us moral, what chance is there that the eight thousand and first will effect the result?”
War requires indoctrination.
At the beginning, wars were the activities of small bands led by some tribal chieftain. Since most people are reluctant to risk losing their lives, there must be some anticipated benefit worth such a risk. The tribal chief would promise that when victory was won he would divide the spoils with his loyal lieutenants, along with booties for the common soldiers in his band. But now that war has been taken out of private hands and “monopolized” by governments that insist on concentrating the plunders of war for themselves, how do you get large numbers of ordinary persons to go into battle and possibly lose their life? Explained Novicow,
But when war came to be monopolized by the heads of a state, the advantages to a soldier ceased to be apparent. To get men to decide to fight it is necessary to employ an amount of complex measures which Tolstoy very accurately describes as the hypnotization of the masses. A number of institutions — the Church, the school, and many others — lay hold of a man when he leaves the cradle, and impress certain special ideas upon him. He is made to believe that it is to his interest to be ready at any moment to throw himself upon his fellow-beings and massacre them…. One of the most effectual ways of keeping up the military spirit is to represent to people that they are always on the defensive and their neighbors alone are aggressors. That illusion has taken hold of all the nations.
Competition for survival and betterment need not lead to war.
Novicow was especially critical of those nineteenth-century proponents of war who had taken up a particular interpretation of Charles Darwin’s notion of the evolutionary “survival of the fittest” and who concluded that since “struggle” for existence was inseparable from the circumstances of all living things, violent warfare among peoples for survival was no less inevitable.
Animals kill each other for food, and men have certainly done that enough against themselves, but violent, murderous methods for existence are not the only ones open to human beings. Men have the capacity for reasoning, for conceptualizing courses of action in terms of desired ends and imagined means for attaining them.
The superior and far more productive and moral one, Novicow explained and reminded his readers, is peaceful cooperation through numerous forms of exchange. Competition among men need not be limited to murder for the material means to life. Competition can also take the form of peaceful rivalry through voluntary trade that betters the overall condition of humanity as a whole, without any of the destructiveness of war. Said Novicow,
Here struggle has by no means disappeared, but goes under the form of economic com-petition, lawyers’ briefs, judges’ sentences, votes, party organizations, parliamentary discussions, meetings, lectures, sermons, schools, scientific associations, congresses, pamphlets, books, newspapers, magazines, in short, by spoken and written propaganda…. In short, economic, political, and intellectual competition will never cease among them.
Hence antagonism will always exist, but as soon as men stop butchering one another solidarity among them will be established.
Peaceful exchange the foundation of freedom and prosperity
If War and Its Alleged Benefits was his response to the proponents of violent human conflict, Novicow’s positive statement in behalf of personal liberty, freedom of trade, and peaceful relationships was offered in “The Mechanism and Limits of Human Association: The Foundations of a Sociology of Peace” (1912), first published in French and then in English in the American Journal of Sociology (November 1917).
“Exchange” is the fundamental element of all human existence. All that man does is a deliberative decision to trade one circumstance that he finds himself in for another that he views as better, superior, or more desirable to his current one. Isolated man enters into exchanges with himself all the time in choosing how to transform the world in which he lives, when he must “struggle” with nature to make it give up what he needs to better his circumstances.
Associations among men include the exchange of commodities that are respectively desired, and for which each is willing to part with something, exchanging what they value less for what they value more. Men trade commodities for services and exchange services, one for the other. The entrepreneur gives money salaries to those he hires, salaries that represent a quantity of purchasable commodities those employed may buy, and in turn the hired supply of labor services enables the entrepreneur to manufacture a product to offer in exchange to still others in the market.
The gains from trade are made permanently beneficial through processes of interdependent division of labor that in its limit incorporates all of humanity in every corner of the globe. And the same, in principle, would apply if intelligent life were to be found on other planets. Novicow reasoned that if there were men on Mars with whom we could communicate, there could be intellectual and culture interchange with them that would enrich both groups. “That exchange would fasten the bonds between the Martians and ourselves, and the two groups, heretofore two completely separate societies, would henceforth form a single vast society.”
Even if people are separated by great distances, as this interplanetary example suggests, peaceful and mutually beneficial association through exchange of various sorts would be both possible and desirable. Novicow argued it is not necessary that all the individuals in various groups separated by such great distances know anything about each other in the everyday sense. It is sufficient if the self-interested bonds of trade connect them together in ways from which each benefits, even if they know virtually nothing about all the multitudes of others with whom they have formed peaceful interdependencies of commerce and intellectual and culture networks of shared experiences.
Writing at a time when “race consciousness” was widely held by many Europeans and most certainly among a large number of Americans, Novicow touched on the delicate subject of interrelationships among whites and blacks. He accepted as an existing fact that many whites, especially in the United States, viewed blacks as inferior and unwanted in any close social relationships. But nonetheless he anticipated a time when race prejudice would be gone and the mixing of whites and blacks — including interracial marriage — would eventually take place, and from which all would gain and be better off as members of humanity as a whole. In Novicow’s words,
In the United States, however, there is a much deeper prejudice against the Negro [than in other places], and fusion of the two races is a much slower process. But they are nevertheless amalgamating…. When prejudice will disappear in the United States as it has disappeared in Brazil — and prejudice is purely a psychical fact arising from social conditions — the fusion between Negroes and [white] Americans will be accomplished in a few hundred years….
We are unable to tell now whether or not all the human races will some day become one…. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the life of the human species will be more intense when they are amalgamated than if they remain differentiated.
Also, in an earlier article, “The Yellow Peril” (1897), Novicow refuted the accusations and fears that Chinese competition and migration threatened the economic and cultural well-being of the white man’s civilization, by emphasizing the positive and universal behavioral qualities and characteristics in all human beings, regardless of time and place, that made us all one people in a shared world.
Foundations of a peaceful world
All that Jacques Novicow saw as the experienced and potential benefits from the peaceful and productive associations among human beings, however, was dependent on the end to a spirit of both international war and domestic plunder in the form of misguided government interventions; the worst of such domestic forms of plunder and societal disintegration, he said, would be if socialism were to triumph anywhere in the world.
The prerequisites for such a possibly world-enveloping association of exchange in all their economic and social and cultural facets were the foundational principles of a recognition and respect for the individual liberty and rights of each participant in the societal networks; a system of recognized and secured property rights; and organized justice so that violence may be minimized and disputes might be peacefully adjudicated.
Jacques Novicow’s analysis of the tragedies of war and the benefits from a peaceful, liberal world of individual liberty and freedom of trade remain as relevant and timely today as when he penned them more than a hundred years ago.
This article was originally published in the April 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.