J.A. Hobson

The Scientific Basis of Imperialism

(September 1902)

From Political Science Quarterly, Vol.17 No.3, September 1902, pp.460-489.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Daniel Gaido.


THOUGH it can hardly be denied that the ambitions of individuals or nations have been the chief conscious motives in imperialism, it is possible to maintain that here, as in other departments of human history, certain large hidden forces operate for the progress of humanity.

The powerful hold which biological conceptions have obtained over the pioneers in the science of sociology is easily intelligible. It is only natural that the laws of individual and specific progress, so clearly discerned in other parts of the animal kingdom, should be rigorously applied to man; it is not unnatural that the deflections or reversals of the laws of lower life by certain other laws, which attain importance only on the higher psychical levels of the genus homo, should be underrated, misinterpreted or ignored.

The biologist who enters human history often finds himself confronted by intellectual antagonists, who regard him as an interloper and seek to raise a barrier between human and animal development. Indeed, from the ranks of the biological profession itself, scientists of such eminence as Huxley and A.R. Wallace have lent themselves to this separatism, distinguishing the ethical or spiritual progress of the human race from the general cosmic process, and endowing men with qualities and with laws of action different in kind from those which obtain in the rest of the animal kingdom.

A reaction against the abrupt dogmatism of this position has led many others to an equally abrupt and equally dogmatic assertion that the laws of the lower forms of physical struggle and selection, which explain or describe progress in lower animals, are sufficient for all purposes of sociology. Sociologists have in some cases shown themselves eager to accept this view, and have applied it to defend the necessity, the utility, and even the righteousness of maintaining to the point of complete subjugation or extermination the physical struggle between races and types of civilization. Admitting that the efficiency for combat of a nation or a race requires a suspension of intestine struggle, at any rate in its most intense form, the crude struggle on the larger plane, it is held, must be maintained. This serves, indeed, two related purposes. A constant struggle with other races or nations is demanded for the maintenance and progress of a given race or nation; abate the necessity of this struggle and the vigor of the race flags and perishes. Thus it is to the real interest of a vigorous race to be “kept up to a high pitch of external efficiency by contest, chiefly by way of war with inferior races, and with equal races by the struggle for trade routes and for the sources of raw material and of food supply.” “This,” adds Professor Karl Pearson, “is the natural-history view of mankind, and I do not think you can in its main features subvert it.” [1]

Other philosophers, taking the wider cosmic standpoint, insist that the progress of humanity itself requires the maintenance of a selective and destructive struggle between races which embody different powers and capacities, different types of civilization. It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed and developed as far as possible by the races which can do their work best, that is, by the races of highest “social efficiency”; these races must assert their right by conquering, ousting, subjugating or extinguishing races of lower social efficiency. The good of the world, the true cause of humanity, demands that this struggle – physical, industrial, political – continue until an ideal goal is reached, where the nations of greatest social efficiency rule the earth, in accordance with the several kinds and degrees of this quality which they manifest. This principle is clearly enunciated by M. Edmond Demolins,who describes it as being “as indisputable as the law of gravitation.”

When one race shows itself superior to another in the various externals of domestic life, it inevitably in the long run gets the upper hand in public life and establishes its predominance. Whether this predominance is asserted by peaceable means or feats of arms, it is none the less, when the proper time comes, officially established, and afterwards universally acknowledged. I have said that this law is the only thing which accounts for the history of the human race and the revolutions of empires, and that, moreover, it explains and justifies the appropriation by Europeans of territories in Asia, Africa and Oceanica and the whole of our colonial development. [2]

The western European nations, with their colonies, represent in various degrees the socially efficient nations. Some American and English writers, such as Professor Giddings and Mr. Kidd, believe that the Teutonic races, and in particular the Anglo-Saxon branches, represent the highest order of efficiency, in which notion they are supported by a little group of Anglophil Frenchmen.

This genuine and confident conviction of our “social efficiency” must be taken as the chief moral support of imperialism. Human progress requires the maintenance of the race struggle, in which the weakest races go under while the socially efficient races survive and flourish; we are a socially efficient race. So runs the imperialist argument.

When the argument is thus concisely stated, the meaning of the term “socially efficient” becomes evident. It is simply the antithesis of “weak,” and is equivalent to “strong in the struggle of life.” At first sight it suggests moral and intellectual virtues of some broad general kind, and afterwards it is taken to imply such qualities. But in the “natural-history” sense which we are at present considering it signifies nothing more or less than capacity to beat other races, which, from their failure, are spoken of as “lower.” It is merely a different form of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” the meaning of which is clear when the question is put: “Fittest to do what?” and the answer follows: “Fittest to survive.”

Giving then the proper value to the terms, the view of human progress simply comes to this: “In the history of man, as throughout nature, stronger races have continually trampled down, enslaved and extinguished other races.” The biologist says: “This is so deeply rooted in nature, including human nature, that it must go on.” He adds: “It has been the prime condition and mode of progress in the past, therefore it is desirable and should go on. It must go on, it ought to go on.” So easily do we glide from natural history to ethics, and find in utility a moral sanction for the race struggle.

Now imperialism is nothing but this natural-history doctrine regarded from the standpoint of one’s own nation. We represent the socially efficient nation; we have conquered and acquired dominion and territory in the past: we must go on; it is our destiny – one which is serviceable to ourselves and to the world – our duty. Thus emerging from natural history, the doctrine soon takes on a large complexity of ethical and religious finery, and we are wafted into an elevated atmosphere of “imperial Christianity,” a “mission of civilization,” in which we are to teach the arts of good government and the dignity of labor.

That the power to do anything constitutes a right and even a duty to do it, is perhaps the commonest, the most “natural,” of temperamental fallacies. Even Professor Pearson does not avoid it, when, after an able vindication of the necessity of intra-race selection and of race struggle, he speaks of “our right to work the unutilised resources of earth, be they in Africa or in Asia.” [3] This belief in a divine right of force, which teachers like Carlyle, Kingsley, Ruskin did so much to foster, is primarily responsible for the transmutation of a law of natural history into a moral enthusiasm.

Elsewhere I have dwelt with so much insistence on the more sordid and calculating motives which direct the imperialistic movement that I am anxious here to do justice to the nobler aspects of the sentiment of imperialism interpreted through a naïve rendering of science into a gospel of arduous chivalry. These are revealed in the charming nature and buoyant career of Hubert Hervey, of the British South Africa Chartered Company, as described by his fellow-adventurer, Earl Grey. Here we have imperialism at its best in action, and, what is better for our purpose, a most ingenuous and instructive attempt to set forth the gist of the imperialist philosophy.

Probably every one would agree that an Englishman would be right in considering his way of looking at the world and at life better than that of the Maori or Hottentot, and no one will object in the abstract to England doing her best to impose her better and higher view on those savages. But the same idea will carry you much further. In so far as an Englishman differs in essentials from a Swede or Belgian, he believes that he represents a more perfectly developed standard of general excellence ... Yes, and even those nations nearest to us in mind and sentiment – German and Scandinavian – we regard on the whole as not so excellent as ourselves, comparing their typical characteristics with ours. Were this not so our energies would be directed to becoming what they are. Without doing this, however, we may well endeavour to pick out their best qualities and add them to ours, believing that our compound will be superior to the foreign stock. It is the mark of an independent nation that it should feel thus. How far such a feeling is, in any particular case, justified, history alone decides. But it is essential that each claimant for the first place should put forward his whole energy to prove his right. This is the moral justification for international strife, and for war, and a great change must come over the world and over men’s minds before there can be any question of everlasting universal peace in the settlement of all international differences by arbitration. More especially must the difficulty caused by the absence of a generally recognised standard of justice be felt in the case of contact between civilised and uncivilised races. Is there any likelihood of the gulf between the white and the black man being bridged within any period of time that we can foresee? Can there be any doubt that the white man must and will impose his superior civilisation on the coloured races? The rivalry of the principal European countries in extending their influence over other continents should lead naturally to the evolution of the highest attainable type of government of subject races by the superior qualities of their rulers. [4]

Here is the undiluted gospel of imperialism; the fact of physical struggle between white races, the fact of white subjugation of lower races, the necessity based upon these facts, the utility based upon the necessity and the right or duty based upon the utility. As a statement of the best spirit of imperialism it is not to be bettered. The Englishman believes he is a more excellent type than any other man; he believes that he is better able to assimilate any special virtues others may have; he believes that this character gives him a right to rule which no other can possess. Mr. Hervey admits that the patriotic Frenchman, the German, the Russian feels in the same way his sense of superiority and the rights it confers on him; so much the better (and here Mr. Hervey is in line with Professor Pearson), for this cross conviction and these cross interests intensify the struggle of white races and ensure the survival and progressive fitness of the fittest.

So long as we regard this imperialism exclusively from the standpoint of the English, or any other single nation, its full rationale escapes us. It is essential to the maintenance of that struggle of nations which is to quicken vigor and select the fittest or most efficient that each competitor shall be stimulated to put forth his fullest effort by the same feelings regarding the superiority, the destiny, the rights and imperial duties of his country as the English imperialist entertains regarding England. And this is just what we seem to find. The Englishman is genuinely confident of the superior fitness of England for any work she may essay in the civilization of the world. This is the supreme principle of the imperialist statesmen, well expressed in Lord Rosebery’s description of the British empire as “the greatest secular agency for good the world has ever seen.” Of the superior competence of Englishmen for all purposes of government, quite irrespective of climatic, racial or any other conditions, there is no touch of doubt in the average man. “Why, I suppose you imagine we could undertake to govern France better than Frenchmen can govern her,” I heard put as an ironical poser in a discussion on British capacity. The triumphant retort, “Why, of course I do,” was no rhetorical paradox, but a perfectly genuine expression of the real conviction of most Englishmen. Now the French chauvinist, the German colonialist, the Russian pan-Slavist, the new American expansionist, each entertains the same general conviction, with the same intensity, regarding the capacity, the destiny, the rights of his own nation; these feelings have perhaps come more clearly into the forefront of national consciousness with the British than with any other nation, but events are rapidly educating the same imperial aspirations in all our chief industrial and political competitors.

In our own day Victor Hugo declares France “the saviour of nations” and bursts out “Non, France, l’univers a besoin que tu vives. Je le redis, la France est un besoin des homines.” Villari, echoing the illustrious Gioberti, claims for Italy the primacy among nations. The Kaiser tells his people, “Der alte gute Gott has always been on our side.” M. Podbyedonostseff points to the freedom of Russia from the shibboleths of a decadent civilisation, and looks to the young and vigorous Slavonic stock as the residuary legatee of the treasures and conquests of the past. The Americans are not less confident than in the days of Martin Chuzzlewit, that it is their mission to “run this globe.” [5]

Nor are these barren sentiments; in various parts of the world they are inspiring young soldiers and politicians and missionaries to a practical direction of the resources of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States towards territorial expansion.


We are now in a position to restate and test the scientific basis of imperialism regarded as a world policy. It is held that the maintenance of a military and industrial struggle for life and wealth among nations is desirable in order to quicken the vigor and social efficiency of the several competitors, and so to furnish a natural process of selection, which shall give an ever larger and intenser control over the government and the economic exploitation of the world into the hands of the nation or nations representing the highest standard of civilization or social efficiency, and which, by the elimination or subjugation of the inefficient, shall raise the standard of the government of humanity.

This statement withdraws the issue from the purely national-political and from the distinctively ethical standpoint, and refers it back to a scientific basis in the laws or analogies of biology.

Here we can profitably start from a statement of Professor K. Pearson:

History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilisation has been produced, namely, the struggle of race with race, and the survival of a physically and mentally fitter race. If you want to know whether the lower races of man can evolve a higher type, I fear the only course is to leave them to fight it out among themselves, and even then the struggle for existence between individual and individual, between tribe and tribe, may not be supported by that physical selection due to a particular climate, on which probably so much of the Aryan’s success depended.

Assuming that this is a true account of the evolution of civilization during the past, is it essential that the same methods of selection must dominate the future? Are there no forces that have been coming into play during the later periods of human history which deeply modify, suspend and even reverse the operation of selective forces that dominate the rest of nature?

In the very work from which I quote, Professor Pearson furnishes a complete answer to his own contention for the necessity of this physical struggle between races. In the last sentence of the passage quoted he seems to recognize the utility in lower races of the physical struggle for life between individuals in the same tribe. But his general position as a socialist is very different. In order that a tribe, a nation or other society may be able to compete successfully with another society, the individual struggle for life within the society itself must be suspended. The competitive vigor, the social efficiency, of the nation requires a saving of the friction of individual competition for life or for the means of life. Now this is in itself a reversal of the generally recognized law of progress throughout the animal world, in which the struggle for food and other livelihood is held to be essential to the progress of the species, and that, too, though every species is engaged in more or less direct competition for food, etc., with other species. Cooperation, social solidarity, is indeed recognized as an adjunct of progress in many of the higher species, but the struggle between individuals for a restricted supply of food or other necessaries is maintained as a leading instrument of progress by rejection of the physically unfit.

Professor Pearson justly recognizes and boldly admits the danger which attends the humanitarianism that has in large measure suspended the “struggle for life” among individuals, inciting modern civilized nations to insure to all individuals born in their midst the food, shelter and other necessaries enabling them to grow to maturity and to propagate their kind. He sees quite clearly that this mere suspension of the individual struggle for life not only is not essential to the solidarity and efficiency of the nation, but even positively impairs its virtues by burdening society with a horde of physical and moral weaklings who would have been eliminated under earlier forms of the struggle for life. He rightly enforces the doctrine that a nation which is reproduced from its bad stock more than from its better stock is doomed to deterioration of physique and morale. It is as essential to the progress of man as to that of any other animal, as essential in the future as in the past, that reproduction shall be from the better stock, and that the worst stock shall be eliminated. Humanitarianism and the sense of social solidarity by no means require or even admit that this condition should be sacrificed; they merely impose new methods on the process of selection.

Irrational nature selects wastefully and with the maximum of pain and misery, requiring innumerable individuals to be born, in order that they may struggle and perish. Rational humanity would economize and humanize the struggle, by substituting a rational social test of parenthood for the destruction of children by starvation, disease or weakness. To prevent reproduction from bad stock, however difficult and dangerous it may be, is obviously the first duty of an organized society, acting alike in its own self-defense and for the interests of its individual members. It is not necessary for the safety and progress of society that “unfit” children should die; it is necessary that they should not be born, and ultimately the society which prospers most in the character of its members will be the one which best fulfills this preventive duty.

Yet when Professor Pearson passes from a society of individuals to the society of nations which we call humanity, he insists upon retaining the older, cruder, irrational method of securing progress, – the primitive struggle for physical existence. Why? If it is profitable and consonant with progress to put down the primitive struggle for life among individuals with one another, to suppress the family and tribal feuds which survive even in fairly developed societies and to enlarge the area of social internal peace until it covers a whole nation, may we not go further and seek, with hope, to establish international peace and cooperation, first among the more civilized and more nearly related nations, and finally for the complete society of the human race? If progress is served by substituting rational selection for the older physical struggle, first within small groups and then within the larger national groups, why may we not extend the same mode of progress to a federation of European states, and finally to a world federation? I am not now concerned with the grave practical difficulties besetting such an achievement, but with the scientific theory.

Although a certain sort of individual efficiency is sacrificed by repressing private war within a tribe or nation, it is rightly judged that the gain in tribal or national unity and efficiency outweighs that loss. May not a similar biological and rational economy be subserved by substituting government for anarchy among nations? We admit that a nation is strengthened by putting down internecine tribal warfare; what finality attaches to the social grouping we term a nation which obliges us to reverse the economy applicable to tribes when we come to deal with nations?


Two objections are raised against this idea of internationalism. One is historical in its nature; it consists in a denial that “a society of nations” does or can exist at the present time or in that future which concerns us. The physical and psychical relations which exist between nations, it is urged, have no real analogy with those existing between individuals or tribes within a nation. Society is dependent on a certain homogeneity of character, interests and sympathies in those who form it. In the ancient world this was seldom found of sufficient strength save among close neighbors, and the city state was the true social type; the actual and possible relations of these city states with one another were commonly those of war, modified by transitory compacts which rarely led to any truly national unity. In such a condition close-welded cooperation of citizens was essential as a condition of civic survival and progress; and a struggle for life between the several city states was a means of progress in accordance with the biological law. The nation state stands now where the city state stood in ancient Greece or mediaeval Italy; there remains the same historical and even ethical necessity to retain the struggle between nations now as there was in earlier times to retain the struggle between cities.

Social psychologists attempt to fortify this position by emphasis upon the primary psychical condition of a national life. The possible area of a genuine society, a nation, is determined by the extension of a “consciousness of kind” – an “ethical like-mindedness.” [6] This may be applied as a limiting condition by a “little Englander,” or as a principle to justify imperial expansion, according to the quantity and quality of like-mindedness that is taken as the basis of social unity in a nation or an empire. The most precise statement of this doctrine in its application as a barrier to ethical and political internationalism is that of Dr. Bosanquet: “The Nation State is the widest organisation which has the common experience necessary to found a common life.” [7] He carries the finality of the national type of society so far as virtually to repudiate the ethical fact and the utility of the common conception of humanity.

According to the current ideas of our civilisation, a great part of the lives which are being lived and have been lived by mankind are not lives worth living, in the sense of embodying qualities for which life seems valuable to us. This being so, it seems to follow that the object of our ethical idea of humanity is not really mankind as a single community. Putting aside the impossibilities arising from succession in time, we see that no such identical experience can be pre-supposed in all mankind as is necessary to effective membership of a common society and exercise of a general will. [8]

Though a subtle qualification follows, based on the duty of states to recognize humanity, not as a fact but as a type of life, “and in accordance with it to recognise and deal with the rights of alien individuals and communities,” the real upshot of this line of thought is to emphasize the ethical sovereignty of a nation and to deny the validity of any practical standard of the conduct of nations towards one another, at any rate so far as the relations between “higher” and “lower,” eastern and western, nations are concerned.

This view is stoutly supported by some sociologists and statesmen from the juridical standpoint. There can be, we are told, no real rights of nations because there exists no sanction, no recognized tribunal to define and enforce rights. The legal rigor of this position I am not greatly concerned to question. It may here suffice to say that the maintenance under ordinary conditions of treaty relations, international credit and exchange, a common postal and, within narrower limits, a common railway system, not to mention the actual machinery of conventions and conferences for concerted international action and the whole unwritten law of war and international courtesies, embassies, consulates and the like – all these things rest upon a basis of recognition of reciprocal duties, the neglect or violation of which would be punished by forfeiture of treatment as “most favoured nations” in the future, and by the reprobation and the possibly combined intervention of other states. We have here at least a real beginning of effective international federation, with the rudiments of legal sanction for the establishment and enforcement of rights.

The studied ignoring of these vital facts in the more recent statecraft and the reversion alike of legal theorists and of “high politicians” of the Bismarck school to a nationalism which emphasizes the exclusive rather than the inclusive aspect of patriotism and assumes the antagonism of nations as an all-important and a final fact, is the most dangerous and discreditable factor of modern politics. This conduct in politics, and in no small degree its defense among political theorists, may be in part explained through analysis of the economic driving forces. This reveals certain sectional interests and orders within the nation usurping the national will and enforcing their private interests, which rest upon international antagonism, to the detriment of the national interest, which is identical with that of other nations.

This obstinate halt in the evolution of social relations at the limit of political nationality now reached will be recognized by the future historian as the most difficult of all present-day political phenomena to explain. The community of interests between nations is so great, so multifarious and so obvious, the waste, pain and damage of conflicts are so gross and palpable, that to those who do not understand the strong sectional control in every modern state it may well appear that some natural barriers of race, boundaries or color make impossible any real extension of “society” beyond the area of nationality.

But to ascribe finality to nationalism upon the ground that members of different nations lack “the common experience necessary to found a common life” is a very arbitrary reading of modern history. Taking the most inward meaning of “experience,” the meaning which gives most importance to the racial and traditional characters that mark differences of nationality, we are obliged to admit that the fund of experience common to peoples of different nationality is growing with great rapidity under the numerous, swift and accurate modes of intercommunication which mark the latest phases of civilization. It is surely true that the dwellers in large towns in all the most advanced European states, an ever-growing proportion of the total population, have, not merely in the externals but in the chief formative influences of their lives – their reading, their art, their science, their recreation – a larger community of experience than existed a century ago among the more distant members of any European nation, whether dwelling in country or in town. Direct intercommunication of persons, goods and information is so widely extended and so rapidly advancing that this growth of “the common experience necessary to found a common life” beyond the area of nationality is surely the most markworthy feature of the age. Making, then, every due allowance for the subjective factors of national character which temper or transmute the same external phenomena, there surely exists, at any rate among the more conscious and more educated sections of the chief European nations, a degree of true “like-mindedness” which forms the psychical basis of some rudimentary internationalism in the field of politics. Indeed it is curious and instructive to observe that, while some of those most insistent upon like-mindedness and common experience as the tests of a true social area apply them in defense of existing nationalities and in repudiation of attempts to absorb alien nationalities, others, like Professor Giddings, apply them in the advocacy of expansion and imperialism.

But as between the policy of national independence on the one hand, and on the other the right of conquest, by which “the more efficient nation” subjugates and absorbs the less efficient, there is surely a third alternative, namely, experimental and progressive federation which, proceeding on the line of greatest common experience, shall develop formal bonds of political attachment between the most like-minded nations, extending them to others, as common experience grows wider, until an effective political federation is established comprising the whole of “the civilized world,” that is, all those nations which have attained a considerable fund of the common experience that is comprised under the head of civilization. This idea does not conflict with the preservation of what is really essential and valuable in nationalism, nor does it imply a suspension or abolition of all forms of struggle by which the true personality of a nation may express itself, in industry, in art or literature.

If it be objected that the requisite amount of like-mindedness or common experience does not exist even among the nations most subject to modern assimilative influences, that the forces of racial and national antagonism even there preclude any truly effective union, I can only repeat that this is a matter for experiment, and that the experiment has never been tried. Racial and national antagonisms have been so fed, fostered and inflamed for the class and personal ends and interests which have controlled politics that the deeper underlying sympathies and community of different peoples have never been permitted free expression, much less political assertion. The most potent and pervasive forces in the industrial, intellectual and moral life of most European races, so far as the masses of the peoples are concerned, have so rapidly and closely assimilated during the last century as of necessity to furnish a large common body of thought and feeling, interests and aspirations, which are a “soul” for internationalism. The main economic conditions affecting the working life of the masses of the peoples, both in town and country on the one hand, and, on the other, the matter and methods of education through the school, the church and the press, show features of similarity so much stronger and more numerous than those of difference as to make it a safe assertion that the peoples of Europe are far closer akin in present sympathy than their governments, and that this sympathy is already strong enough to furnish a solid and stable foundation for political federal institutions, if only the obstruction of class governments could be broken down and the real will of the peoples set in the seat of authority. To take the commonest of concrete instances, it is at least probable that the body of the workers in different countries who fight and pay for wars would refuse to fight and pay in the future if they were allowed to understand the real nature of the issues used to inflame them and to determine them.

If this view is correct, the mere fact that wars still occur and that national animosities are continually flaring up must not be taken as valid evidence that sufficient common sympathy and experience do not exist between the different nations to render impossible a suppression of physical conflict and the political machinery required to maintain peace.

And, on the other hand, it is not necessary to exaggerate the extent of this international community of interests. If any considerable amount of real community exists, it furnishes the spirit which should and might inform a body of political institutions. Here is the significance of The Hague Conference, alike in its success and its failure. Its success – the mere fact that it was held and the permanent nucleus of internationalism created – attests a real and conscious identity of interests among different nations in the maintenance of peace; its failure and the open derision expressed by many politicians merely indicate the presence in high places of cliques and classes opposed in their interests and feelings to those of the peoples, and the necessity of dethroning these enemies of the people if the new cause of internationalism is to advance. Secure popular government, in substance and in form, and you secure internationalism; retain class government, you retain militant imperialism and international conflicts.


In following out the psychical argument for regarding nations as final social areas I seem to have wandered very far from the biological basis, – the necessity of maintaining conflicts between nations for purposes of natural selection. In reality I have come round precisely to the point of divergence. Assuming it were possible to enthrone the will of the peoples and so to secure institutions of internationalism with a suspension of war, would the individuality of a nation perish? Would the nation lose vigor, become less efficient and perish? Is the maintenance of physical conflict essential to the natural selection of nations?

Turn again to the suspension of the cruder physical struggle which takes place in the evolution of tribal or national solidarity. As such national organization becomes stronger and more skillful, the ravages of intestine strife, starvation and certain diseases cease to be selective instruments, and the kind of individual fitness which was tested by them is superseded; the vast expenditure of individual energy formerly engaged in protecting life and in securing necessaries of life is reduced to insignificant dimensions: but the struggle for individual life is not abated, it is simply shifted on to higher planes of life than are implied in bare animal existence, nourishment and propagation. Instead of struggling for these simpler vital ends, individuals now struggle, with all the extra energy spared from the earlier struggles, for the ends of an enlarged and more complex life – for comfort and wealth, for place and personal honor, for skill, knowledge, character and ever higher forms of self-expression, and for services to their fellow men with whom they have identified themselves in that expanded individuality which we term altruism or public spirit. Individuality does not suffer, but greatly gains, by the suppression of the lower struggle; there is more energy, greater scope for its expression, a wider field of close competitors, and higher and more varied forms of fitness are evoked and tested. It is not even true that the struggle ceases to be physical; the strain and the support of the higher forms of struggle, even on the topmost intellectual and moral planes, are largely physical; the health and nervous energy which take part in the struggles of the legal or literary professions, or on any intellectual arena, are chief requisites, if not the supreme determinant, of success. In all the higher forms of struggle an elimination of the physically unfit is still maintained, though the criteria of physical unfitness are not quite the same as in the primitive human struggles. How arbitrary are the convenient distinctions between physical, intellectual and moral qualities and defects is nowise better illustrated than in the elaborate methods which modern complex civilization evolves for the detection, degradation and final extinction of bad stock, whose “degeneracy” is attested not less by physical than by mental and moral stigmata. The struggle for physical fitness never flags, but the physical forms part of a higher and more complex test of character determined by a higher standard of social utility. The point is that national government, or state socialism, using the term in its broad sense, as a coercive and educative force, does not, in so far as it is wisely exercised, diminish the individual struggle, repress individual vigor, reduce the arena for its display. It does just the opposite; it sharpens and varies the struggle; by equalizing certain opportunities it keeps a fairer ring, from which chance or other factors alien from personal fitness are excluded; it admits on more equal terms a larger number of competitors and so furnishes a better test of fitness and a more reliable selection of the fittest. Professor Pearson rightly urges that under truly enlightened national government the slow, painful and irregular elimination of bad stock which goes on through progressive degeneracy will be replaced by some rational control of parentage, at least to the extent of preventing through public education, or if necessary by law, the propagation of certain surely recognized unfitnesses.

Does a nation thus firmly planted in rational self-government, with individual competition within its ranks conducted most keenly over a wide variety of fields, furnishing the keenest incentive to the education and display of every kind of personal originality, really require a retention of the crude form of physical struggle with other nations in order to maintain its character and progress? If individuality does not disappear with the removal of the cruder struggle for life within the nation, why should the valid force of nationality disappear if a corresponding change takes place in the nature of international conflict? Does biology furnish any reason for believing that the competition among nations must always remain a crude physical struggle, and that the substitution of “rational” for “natural” selection among individual members of a nation cannot be extended to the selection of nations and of races? It is indeed sometimes suggested that the sole object and result of the stoppage of individual warfare and of the closer cooperation of individuals in a nation is to increase the efficiency of the nation for purposes of physical struggle with other nations; and it is stated or implied that the physical conflict of nations or races must ever remain a biological necessity; if the higher races sought to evade the conflict and ceased to equip themselves for it, they would be overwhelmed and crushed by the lower races. In other words, the lower struggle is suspended among individuals in order that it may be waged by nations; on the larger scale it remains a necessity of nature. Now, if we press the analogy of the lower forms of life, there is a plausibility in this argument. In these lower forms the physical struggle is primarily a struggle for food, and it might seem that the tendency of population to press upon the means of subsistence, which is the active force in the conflict throughout the animal world and in the past history of man, must continue as the dominant factor in the future.

If we point out that civilized societies of men can by the fuller development of their reason, wherein they differ from the rest of nature, reduce or eliminate direct pressure on the food supply, first, by their superior control over their material environment, secondly, by a tendency, now plainly visible, to check the growth of population, the biological argument is turned on to another track. If these nations, it is argued, are no longer called upon to struggle for food and check their growth of population while they increase their control over their material supplies, they will become effete for purposes of physical struggle; giving way to an easy and luxurious life, they will be attacked by lower races that multiply freely and maintain their military vigor, and will succumb in the conflict. This is the danger indicated by Mr. C.H. Pearson in his interesting book National Life and Character.

The whole argument rests, however, on a series of illusions regarding actual facts and tendencies. It is not true that the sole object and result of the stoppage of individual warfare has been the increase of the efficiency of the nation for the physical struggle with other nations. As man has risen from barbarism towards civilization, the struggle of each people to appropriate the land and food supply of other peoples has tended continuously to be replaced by the struggle of each to adapt its own material and social environment to purposes of better livelihood and life. This is the triumph of intensive over extensive cultivation; it implies a growing disposition to put into the arts of industry that energy which formerly went into war, and a growing success in the achievement of this end. It is the need of peaceful, steady, orderly cooperation for this work as the alternative to war, and not the need of war itself, that is the prime cause of the suspension of internecine struggles, at any rate in most societies. This is a matter of pivotal importance in understanding social evolution. If the sole or main purpose of suspending individual conflict was to strengthen the purely military power of a tribe or nation, and the further evolution of society aimed at this sort of social efficiency, it might well be attended by the decay of individual freedom and initiative, by the sacrifice of individuality to a national life. The fact that this result has not occurred, that in modern civilized nations there exists far more individual freedom, energy and initiative than in less advanced societies, attests the truth that military efficiency was not the first and sole object of social organization. In other words, the tendency of growing civilization on the national scale has been more and more to transform the struggle for life from a struggle with other nations into a struggle with environment, and to utilize the fruits of reason in such manner as to divert a larger and larger proportion of energy to struggles for intellectual, moral and aesthetic goods, with the result of a decrease in the struggle for goods which tax the powers of the earth and, conforming to the law of diminishing returns, tend to bring on international conflicts. As nations advance toward civilization it becomes less needful for them to contend with one another for land and food to support their increasing members, since their increased control of the industrial arts enables them to gain what they want by conquering nature instead of conquering their fellow-men.

This truth does not indeed disclose itself readily with its full brilliancy to the eyes of modern civilized peoples, whose greed for foreign wealth and foreign lands seems as fruitful a source of wars as in more primitive times. The illusion that it is necessary and advantageous to fight for new territory and distant markets, while leaving most imperfectly developed the home land and home markets, is slow to be dispelled. Its sources have been frequently explored; it has been traced to the dominance of class interests in national politics. Democracy alone will serve to fasten on the national mind the full economy of substituting the inner struggle with natural environment for the outer struggle with other nations. If, as seems possible, the civilized white nations, gradually throwing off the yoke of class governments whose interests make for war and territorial expansion, restrict their increase of population by preventing reproduction from bad stock, while they devote their energies to utilizing their national resources, the motives of international conflict will wane and the sympathetic motives of commerce and friendly intercourse will maintain permanent peace on a basis of international union.

Such a national economy would not only destroy the chief motives of war, but it would profoundly modify the industrial struggle in which governments engage. Democracies chiefly concerned with developing their own markets would not need to spend men and money in fighting for the chance of inferior and less stable foreign markets. Such rivalry as would remain would be the rivalry not of nations but of individual manufacturers and merchants within the nation; the national aspect of industrial warfare, by tariffs and bounties and commercial treaties, would disappear. The dangers and hostilities of national commercial policies are due, as we have seen, almost entirely to the usurpation of the authority and political resources of the nations by certain commercial and financial interests. Depose these interests, and the deep, true, underlying harmonies of interest between peoples, which the prophets of free trade dimly perceived, will manifest themselves; and the necessity of permanent industrial warfare between nations will be recognized as an illusion analogous in nature and origin to the illusion of the biological necessity of war.

The struggle for life is indeed a permanent factor in social progress; selection of the physically fit is a necessity; but as men become more rational they rationalize the struggle, substituting preventive for destructive methods of selection, and raising the standard of fitness from a mere crude physical robustness to one in which physical endurance is regarded as the raw material of higher psychical activities. Thus, while men no longer fight for food, their personal fitness is maintained; the struggle and the fitnesses are both raised to a higher plane. If this can take place in the struggle of individuals, it can take place in the struggle of nations. The economy of internationalism is the same as that of nationalism. As individuality does not disappear but is raised and quickened by good national government, so nationality does not disappear but is raised and quickened by internationalism.

War and commercial tariffs are the crudest and most wasteful forms of national struggles, testing the lowest forms of national fitness. Let international government put down wars and establish free trade, and the truly vital struggles of national expression will begin. As in the case of individuals so now of nations, the competition will be keener upon the higher levels; nations having ceased to compete with guns and tariffs will compete with feelings and ideas. Whatever there is of true original power and interest in the Celtic, the Teutonic, the various blends of Latin and Slavonic races, can bear its fruit only in times of peace. So far as nationality or race has any distinct character or value for itself and for the world, that value and character are expressed through work. Hitherto the absorption of so much national energy upon military and, in later times, rude industrial occupations has checked the higher forms of national self-expression; while the permanent hostility that has characterized international relations has chilled the higher intercourse and prevented what is really great and characteristic in the national achievements of art, literature and thought from penetrating other nations. For only through the reciprocal interpretation of national ideas, by subtle educative processes, is laid the foundation of true feelings of humanity, based, as such feelings perhaps must be, not on vague imaginative sympathy but upon common experience of life and common understanding.

Peaceful intercourse between nations is thus, not merely the condition, but also the powerful stimulus of national energy and achievement in the higher arts of life; for the self-appreciation of national pride can never furnish so wholesome an incentive or so sound a criterion of human excellence as the impartial judgment of civilized humanity, no longer warped by baser patriotic prejudices, but testing what is submitted to it by a universal standard. A few rare individuals of genius in art and literature, a few in science and in religion, have permanently broken the barriers of nationality and have become fertilizing, humanizing forces among peoples not their own, – such men as Jesus, Buddha, Mahomet, Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin. A larger number of great men have exercised some real and abiding influence upon the little world of science and letters, which in the Middle Ages attained an internationalism that disappeared in the rise of military nationalism and is being only slowly rediscovered in our own age. But, outside these conquests of personal genius, the streams of influence and achievement which might have fertilized the wide plains of the intellectual world have been confined within their narrow national channels. Nationalism as a restrictive and exclusive force, fostering political and industrial enmities and keeping down the competition of nationalities and races to the low level of military strife, has everywhere checked the free intercourse requisite for the higher kinds of competition, – the struggle of languages, literatures, scientific theories, religious, political and social institutions and all the arts and crafts which are the highest and most important expressions of national as well as of individual life.


This thought unearths the lowest root-fallacy of the biological sociology, – the assumption that there is but one sort of national efficiency and that it is tested by a contest of military or commercial power. The only meaning of “social efficiency,” as applied to a nation, is the power which the nation displays of adapting itself to its physical environment and of altering that environment to help the adaptation; the attainments in religion, law, politics, intellectual life and industry are the expressions of this social efficiency. Bearing this in mind, it is evident that for purposes of concrete comparison there are many kinds of social efficiency, and that the notion that civilization is a single beaten track upon which every nation must march, and that social efficiency, or extent of civilization, can be measured by the respective distances the nations have gone, is a mischievous fallacy.

The true social efficiency, or civilization of a nation, shows itself only in its more complex achievements and activities. The biologist who understands his science would recognize that a true test of the efficiency of nations demands that the conflict of nations should take place not by the more primitive forms of fight and the ruder weapons in which nations are less differentiated, but by the higher forms of fight and the more complex intellectual and moral weapons which express the greatest degrees of national differentiation. In a word, we must stop military and commercial warfare between nations, which test very poorly the lowest forms of fitness that are the least characteristic expressions of nationalism, in order that we may substitute the struggle of moral, intellectual and aesthetic ideas and institutions, which best test the higher forms of fitness that are the most characteristic expressions of nationalism. This higher struggle, conducted through reason, is none the less a national struggle for existence because it results in the death of ideas and institutions which are worsted, and not in the death of human organisms. The civilization of the world can proceed upon the higher planes only on condition that this struggle of national ideals and institutions is waged by a free field of competitors; and this struggle cannot be effectively maintained unless the lower military and industrial struggles cease.

Biology always demands as a condition of progress the competition of individuals; but as reason grows in the nation it closes the ring and imposes laws, not to stop the struggle, but to make it a fairer test of a fuller form of individual fitness. Biology demands as a condition of world progress that the struggle of nations or races continue; but as the world grows more rational it will in similar fashion rationalize the rules of that ring, imposing a fairer test of forms of national fitness. The notion of the world as a cockpit of nations, in which round after round shall eliminate feebler fighters and leave in the end one nation “the most efficient” to lord it on the dunghill, has no scientific validity. Invoked to support the claims of militant nationalism, it begins by ignoring the very nature and purposes of national life, assuming that uniformity of character and environment which is the negation of nationalism.

The notion that with the stoppage of war, could it be achieved, national vigor must decay is based on a complete failure to recognize that the lower form of struggle is stopped for the express purpose, and with the necessary result, that the higher struggle shall become possible. With the cessation of war, whatever is really vital and valuable in nationality does not perish; on the contrary, it grows and thrives as it could not do before, when the national spirit out of which it grows was absorbed in baser sorts of struggle. Internationalism is no more opposed to the true purposes of nationalism than socialism within the nation, rightly guided, is hostile to individualism. The problem and its solution are the same. We socialize in order that we may individuate; we cease fighting with bullets in order to fight with ideas. All the essentials of the biological struggle for life are retained, – the incentive to individual vigor, the intensity of the struggle, the elimination of the unfit and the survival of the fittest. The struggle has become more rational in mode and purpose and results, and reason is only a higher form of nature.

The shortsightedness of the school of biological sociologists is nowhere more strikingly displayed than by the exclusive attention they pay to the simpler form of struggle – the direct conflict of individuals and species – to the exclusion of the important part played by “crossing” as a means of progress throughout organic life. The law of the fertility of “crosses,” as applied to civilization or social efficiency, alike on the physical and on the psychical plane, requires internationalism as a condition of effective operation. It is of course true that throughout history the crossing of national types has been largely achieved by means of war, conquest and subjugation. But this, though subserving progress in the long run, has been a most wasteful, indirect and unsafe method, the selection being determined with no clear view to the future or to any higher purpose of social efficiency. Just in proportion as internationalism promotes free intercourse between nations for higher purposes of peaceful interest, the blending of races by intermarriage will be determined on grounds of affinity more fruitful of improved racial efficiency, and modifications of species more numerous and more novel will compete with one another as factors in the civilization of the world, raising the character and intensity of the competition and enhancing the pace of human progress.

Nay, we may carry the biological analogy still further, following the insistence of Professor Pearson regarding the necessity of bringing direct social pressure, of public opinion or of law, to prevent the fatal process of breeding from “bad stock.” If the ordinary processes of physical degeneracy within the nation do not suffice for the elimination of bad stock, but must be supplemented by some direct prohibition of bad parentage, taking the wider scale of operations it might be necessary in the interests of mankind that similar measures should be enforced by the mandates of organized humanity. As lower individuals perish by contact with a civilization to which they cannot properly assimilate themselves, so lower races in some instances disappear by similar contact with higher races whose diseases and physical vices prove too strong for them. A rational stirpiculture in the wider social interests might require a repression of the spread of degenerate or unprogressive races, corresponding to the check which a nation might place upon the propagation from bad individual stock. With the other moral and practical issues connected with such a proposal we need not here concern ourselves; confining ourselves to the distinctively biological argument, that course would seem to follow from the application of direct rational rejection of bad stock upon the smaller scale of national life. The importance of this consideration rests upon the fact that this rejection of unsound racial stock implies the existence of an international political organization which has put down war and substituted this rational for the cruder natural selection and rejection of races.

Whether a nation or a society of nations will ever proceed as far as this, or, going further, will ever attempt the fuller art of stirpiculture by encouraging useful crosses of families or races, may be matter of grave doubt; but if the maintenance and improvement of the national stock ever warranted such experiments, we are entitled to insist that logic would justify the application of the same rule in the society of nations.

Again, while it is questionable how far the law of the utility of cross fertilization is transferable from the world of physical organisms to the psychical realm in its literal bearing, the more general applicability cannot be disputed. That scientific theories, religious, social and political arts and institutions gain by free friendly vital intercourse with other theories, arts and institutions, undergoing serviceable accretions, excretions and modifications, is a commonplace of intellectual life. Therefore, whether we regard the contact of ideas and feelings and the arts they animate as a direct struggle for existence in which the worse or falser perish and the better and truer survive, or as a friendly intercourse in which each selects and assimilates something from the others, internationalism is as essential to the efficiency of these processes as nationalism itself.

It is only when we realize the true nature of this spread and fertilization of ideas and arts and institutions – the riper fruits of the spirit of a nation – that we realize the legitimate as distinguished from the illegitimate expansion, the valid significance of empire. When nations compete to take one another’s lives or land or trade, the dominion which the conqueror establishes has no element of permanence; another shift of the military or commercial tide sweeps away the victory and leaves scarce a ripple mark in the sands. But the influence exerted through arts of peace is more lasting, more penetrating and more glorious. Shakespeare, Byron, Darwin and Stevenson have done incomparably more for the influence of England in the history of the world than all the statesmen and soldiers who have won victories or annexed new provinces. Macaulay has well said: “There is an empire exempt from all natural sources of decay. That empire is the imperishable empire of our art and our morals, our literature and our law.” The antagonism between imperialism in the extensive sense and this intensive imperialism is not rhetorical; it is grounded upon biological necessities.

The essential conditions of the lower struggle for the life and land and trade of others preclude the higher and more profitable competition of ideas by which the empire of the national mind is extended; it is not merely the economy of energy which determines that the national vigor cannot at the same time engage effectively in both struggles, but, far more important, the very nature of the lower struggle drives each nationality to feed upon itself in insolent and exclusive pride, inhibiting the receptivity of other nations. Effective international government for national and racial selection can alone be regarded as an accurate and economical instrument of world progress. In the cruder form of the struggle for national selection, accident or numbers or some low form of force or cunning may secure the success of a people whose social efficiency is of a low order, impermanent and unprogressive, and may stamp out or check the growth of a people whose latent powers of achievement and capacity for progress are far superior. Only in proportion as racial or national selection is rationally guided and determined does the world gain security against such wastes and such calamities. An international government is required which can furnish adequate protection to weak but valuable nationalities, and can check the insolent brutality of powerful aggressors, preserving that equality of opportunities for national self-expression which is as essential to the commonwealth of nations as to the welfare of the several nations. Only by raising the crude, fragmentary, informal, often insincere beginnings of international government into a stronger, more coherent and more complex authority can the struggle for life proceed upon the highest arena of competition, selecting the finest forms of social efficiency.


One further objection to the final efficacy of a federation of civilized nations demands consideration. It may be stated as follows: Suppose a federal government of European nations and their colonial offspring to be possible, in such fashion that internal conflicts were precluded, this peace of Christendom would be in constant danger of invasion by the “lower” races, black and yellow, who, assimilating the arms and military tactics now discarded by the “civilized” races, will overwhelm them in barbarian incursions even as the ruder European and Asiatic races overwhelmed the Roman Empire. You cannot get the whole world to the level of civilization which will admit it into the alliance; the powers outside will be a constant menace; and if the main purpose of federation is to eliminate militarism from the economy of national life, effective resistance to the invaders will not be possible. This has been the universal fate of empires in the past; what talisman would this latest federal empire possess enabling it to escape?

To this objection we make only a preliminary answer, since space is lacking for a complete defense. Two factors in the older empires have primarily contributed to weaken their powers of resistance against outside “barbarians” and to strengthen and stimulate the zeal of the invaders. The first is the habit of economic parasitism, by which the ruling state has used its provinces, colonies and dependencies in order to enrich its ruling class and to bribe its lower classes into acquiescence. This bleeding of dependencies, while it enfeebles and atrophies the energy of the imperial people, irritates and eventually rouses to rebellion the more vigorous and less tractable of the subject races; each repression of rebellions rankles in the blood, and gradually a force of gathering discontent is roused which turns against the governing power.

The second factor is related to the first, consisting in that form of “parasitism” known as the employment of mercenary forces. This is the most fatal symptom of imperial infatuation, whereby the oppressor at once deprives himself of the habit and the instruments of effective self-protection and hands them over to the most capable and energetic of his enemies. This conjunction of follies and vices has never failed to bring about the downfall of empires in the past. Will it prove fatal to a federation of European states? Obviously it will, if the strength of the combination is used for the same parasitic purposes, and the white races, discarding labor in its more arduous forms, live as a sort of world-aristocracy upon the exploitation of “lower races,” while they hand over the policing of the world more and more to members of these same races. These dangers would certainly arise if a federation of European states were simply a variant of the older empires, using a pax Europaea for the same purposes and seeking to maintain it by methods substantially the same as those which characterized the so-called pax Romana. The problem here presented is a great one, forming in fact the supreme test of modern civilization. Is it possible for a federation of civilized states to maintain the force requisite to keep order in the world without abusing its power by political and economic parasitism?




1. National Life from the Standpoint of Science (Black, 1900), p.44.

2. Boers or British, p.24.

3. National Life, p.46.

4. Memoir of Hubert Hervey, by Earl Grey (Arnold, 1899).

5. G.P. Gooch, The Heart of the Empire, p.333.

6. Giddings, Democracy and Empire, pp.10-51.

7. The Philosophical Theory of the State, p.320.

8. The Philosophical Theory of the State, p.329.


Last updated on 29.7.2007