Herbert Spencer observes that class structures emerge in societies as a result of war and violence (1882)

Herbert Spencer

Found in The Principles of Sociology, vol. 2 (1898)

In his discussion of the origin of the state and the elites which control it, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) notes that war made it possible for class and exploitation to emerge, whether between men and women or between master and slave:

Where the life is permanently peaceful, definite class-divisions do not exist. … As, at first, the domestic relation between the sexes passes into a political relation, such that men and women become, in militant groups, the ruling class and the subject class; so does the relation between master and slave, originally a domestic one, pass into a political one as fast as, by habitual war, the making of slaves becomes general. It is with the formation of a slave-class, that there begins that political differentiation between the regulating structures and the sustaining structures, which continues throughout all higher forms of social evolution.

One of the things that makes it hard to read Spencer’s magnum opus The Principles of Sociology is the large number of historical examples Spencer provides to support each of his claims. In this quotation I have removed the examples in order to focus on Spencer’s conclusions. The key passages refer to the very different types of societies which emerge under peace (“industrial types of society”) or under war and violence (“militant types of society”). In his view, in a peaceful society dominated by voluntary exchange and other relationships, “where the life is permanently peaceful, definite class-divisions do not exist.” The very existence of class, where one group uses force to dominate and exploit another, does not appear until war becomes the dominant feature of the society. The need to fight and to supply the fighters with the resources they need, creates class. It turns relations between men and women “political” whereby they become “the ruling class and the subject class” respectively. Much the same happens to domestic slavery as “habitual war” turns slavery into a “mass commodity” (my term not his).