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State and Class in ‘War and Social Change in Modern Europe’

by Alison Fenech on January 30, 2018

For anyone interested in understanding the European “Great Transformation” that tore down the feudal structures of the past and opened the door to the modern system, Sandra Halperin’s War and Social Change in Modern Europe is a book that cannot be missed.  Examining the transformation through class analysis, the detail of her work is nothing short of extraordinary.  Hundreds of years’ worth of public documents, court rulings, and legislative changes provide the evidence for her compelling arguments which suggest (among other things) that Europe did not experience a “hundred year peace”; that a flourishing bourgeoisie did not spontaneously arise along with liberal democracy; and that contrary to popular belief, the “transformation” did not occur until the end of World War II. Challenging the work of Karl Polanyi, Halperin paints a picture of the European transformation and the period leading up to it, as riddled with conflict and violence, discontent, and war amongst classes rather than states. Playing off the work of Robert Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics, Halperin dissects mainstream realist arguments and contends that it was a redistribution of wealth, property, and status within European societies after World War II, rather than amongst states, that changed society thereafter.

Yet, reading the book from a realist perspective, what was noticeably excluded from Halperin’s work was an analysis of Power Transition Theory (PTT) as presented by AFK Organski in World Politics (1958). While other strands of realism are addressed, Organski, whose work in many ways advances the arguments made by Halperin, is nowhere to be found.  The crux of Organski’s argument is as follows:  a dominant state exists within the global system and that state creates and enforces the rules of conduct by which other states play.  That dominant state does not lead with an oppressive hand, but rather seeks to spread satisfaction as broadly as possible across the system, for it is beneficial for it to work cooperatively with other states rather than constantly being confronted with costly violence. As other states in the system progress through the development process, those with large enough populations and capable governments with the ability to extract both human and physical resources from the population and territory, have the potential to surpass the dominant state.  When the rising state and the dominant state possess roughly equal capabilities (which PTT advocates measure in both hard and soft resources), the occurrence of war is determined by the rising state’s evaluation of the status quo established during the dominant state’s reign.  If the rising state is satisfied with the world order, the hegemonic transition will occur without violence, as was the case in the shift between Britain and the United States.  However, if the rising state is dissatisfied with the status quo, and seeks to make changes that will alter the existing system, the likelihood of war increases.

Although perhaps the class analysis offered by Halperin and the state-centric portrayal offered by Organski have little in common on the surface, Halperin’s explanation of British appeasement of Germany leading up to World War II and Organski’s idea of status quo evaluations do, in fact, draw the theories together.  As Halperin explains, Britain was willing to appease Germany because the greatest threat to the landed class of British society was the spread of Bolshevism.  The rise of the working class, it was feared, would put a nail in the coffin of those remaining feudal structures that still remained after World War I.  The option then, for the British ruling class, was either to side with the fascists who would perpetuate the status quo social order or the socialists who would disrupt it. Halperin writes:

“Two threats faced Europe after World War I.  The first was German imperial ambitions in Europe, the second was the rise of the left in Europe, represented by Bolshevism abroad and socialism at home. Both threatened the European status quo.  German ambitions threatened Europe’s territorial order, while Bolshevism ‘aimed at the destruction of the [existing] social order”.

So while both Germany and Russia were seeking to alter the status quo (the former through territorial changes and the latter through social changes), the British, when forced to decide which system was most worth preserving, placed the maintenance of the social order as a higher priority.  In the European regional hierarchy, the dominant state (Britain) viewed a rising Germany as a preserver of the social order status quo and Russia as revisionist of that system, and hence, the politics of German appeasement ensued.

While other realist theories examine the importance of polarity and the miscalculation of power leading up to the world wars (as does Organski), the issue here was a misinterpretation of status quo preferences.  The Allied Powers did not realise, until it was far too late, that while fascism in Germany would preserve the status quo, it would do so at an unthinkable cost, and in ways that were against the existing norms. Furthermore, underestimating Germany’s imperial ambitions on the continent, it eventually become unquestionably clear that Germany had broader revisionist intentions that would destroy the European order created and maintained by Britain, and impose its own.  Once these disparities in Germany’s status quo preferences were recognized by Britain, appeasement came to an end.

To sum up, although Organksi and Halperin’s theories address different units of analysis, there is an underlying commonality between the two: the important role of status quo preferences.  Often perceived as irreconcilable, the state-centric and class-analytic works presented here, have found common ground. Why Halperin did not use Organski’s work to reinforce her own ideas seems, to me, to be a missed opportunity to connect her class-analysis, more broadly, to wider perspectives.

Alison Fenech
Alison Fenech is a doctoral student at the University of Sydney in the Department of Political Economy. Her research interests include Sino-US relations in the twenty-first century and issues surrounding world order. Previously she was a lecturer of social sciences at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey (2010-2015). Alison was a visiting scholar in the Department of International Relations at New York University (2016), she has completed an internship with the Sydney based think tank, the McKell Institute (2016), and is a member of the Sydney Democracy Network and the University of Sydney’s Chinese Studies Centre.

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