Leopold Kohr

The Power Theory of Aggression
from The Breakdown of Nations




This text is a masterpiece of social and political analysis. It presents the theory that the principal cause of aggression and wars is the excessive size leading to excessive power. According to this theory, given a critical dimension (amount of size power) the (almost) inevitable consequence is violence. Kohr calls it the power theory of aggression or the power theory of social misery.

Neither peace-loving religions nor humanitarian conceptions are of any good in view of contrasting the reality of excessive power. The only solution is to avoid it or to overcome the conditions that allow it, that is the accumulation of extraordinary power in a single person (leader) or organization (state). That means to fight concentration of size/power and to favour reduction of size and dispersion of power (i.e. the breakdown of nations).

If the validity test of a theory is to verify if it is capable to predict future occurrences, Kohr's theory appears to do it egregiously if only we read Kohr's statements concerning the United States of America. After the fall of Soviet statism, the USA has remained the only super power, fully aware of its extraordinary strength. The results have been a series of abominable acts of brutality committed by Americans in position of power all over the world.

Given the validity of this theoretical view, only the dissolution of the American empire, followed by the dissolution of all other empires present and future (China, Europe, India, Brazil, etc.) will constitute the necessary way forward towards peace and security.



The Cause of Social Brutality

As regard the scale of socially committed or condoned atrocities, we have so far discovered one fact. Most nations, irrespective of their racial background, the stage of their civilization, their ideology, or their economic system, have managed to roll up an impressively similar record. Mass executions and related monstrosities were perpetrated in Germany under the Nazis, in India under the British, in France under the Catholics, in Russia under some of the most savage, and in Italy under some of the most enlightened, princes. There could not have been a vaster difference of conditions. Yet, if similar excesses occurred everywhere and in all phases and periods of historic development, there must apparently be a common element transcending these differences. This common denominator, as we shall see, seems to be the simple ability, the power, to commit monstrosities. As a result, we arrive at what we might call a power theory of social misery.

In part, the proposition seems self-evident. For no one could perpetrate atrocities without the power to do so. But this is not the point. The point is that the proposition operates also in the reverse. Everyone having the power will in the end commit the appropriate atrocities.

This sounds somewhat extreme. Clearly, not everybody holding power must necessarily make evil use of it. Which is quite true, but it does not alter the proposition. It merely means that we must sharpen the statement. For just as not any mass of fissionable material will produce an atomic explosion, but only the critical mass, so not just any quantity of power will lead to brutal abuse, but only the critical quantity. Hence we might call our theory also an atomic theory of social misery, the more so since, once the critical power is reached, abuse will result spontaneously. Lastly, because the vital element is not so much power, but the size of power which, as will soon become obvious, depends in turn on the size of the social group by which it is generated, we might call the theory also the size theory of social misery.

But what is the critical magnitude leading to abuse? The answer is not too difficult. It is the volume of power that ensures immunity from retaliation. This it does whenever it induces in its possessor the belief that he cannot be checked by any existing larger accumulation of power. Depending on the nature of different individuals or groups, the critical volume represents a different magnitude in each different case, giving rise to the idea that there are really other elements than mere physical magnitudes responsible for criminal outbursts. However, as the boiling point is low for some substances and high for others, so the volume of power leading to abuse is low for some individuals or groups and high for others. And similarly, as rising temperatures will in the end bring even the most resistant metals to the boiling point, so the rising mass of power will, in the end, brutalize even the best, not necessarily in a subjective sense, but certainly in its effects.

This means that, whether we are individuals or groups, once the critical point is reached, we become brutes almost in spite of ourselves. If prison guards and police officials have such a universal record of brutality, it is not because they are worse than other men but because in their relationships with their captives they are nearly always equipped with the critical quantity of power. The moment this is missing, they are as considerate, humble, and complying as the rest of us. Similarly soldiers, who may have committed their souls to God in the morning, may pillage, rape, and rob by nightfall not because they have suddenly changed, but because the confusion following the conquest of a town often provides them with that dangerous cloak of immunity that goes with the acquisition of a momentarily uncheckable power.

While some professions are thus inherently productive of brutality because they are by their very nature repositories of critical quantities of power, the most dangerous source of brutality is not professional or institutional, but physical. It is bulk - sheer physical bulk. For bulk, size, mass, not only leads to power; like energy it is power - power congealed into the dimension of matter. This is why Gulliver, after being cast ashore at Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, was not unreasonable in his apprehensions when he remembered that 'human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk'. [Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726] It also explains why small children, without losing either charm or innocence, do to little creatures what they would never do to larger ones. Thanks to their almost infinite superiority in size, they do not even feel that they are cruel when they tear out the wings of a fly or the legs of a frog, just as the giants of our fairy tails are quite appropriately pictured as no more sensitive and conscious of their monstrosity when they feast on humans, than humans are when they feast on live oysters.

Yet individual bulk is only a minor power-breeding magnitude and, hence, only a minor social problem, since even the biggest amongst us cannot grow much bigger than most others. As a result, they will normally need such additional power-creating assets as a hypnotic personality, a gang, or the possession of guns - all bulk-extending devices and all reducible to physical terms - before they can gratify their evil instincts. And then their available power will hover too close to the margin where the critical volume becomes sub-critical to ensure them a wide enough range of immunity for long enough a time. Consequently the relative infrequency of crime as well as the relatively infrequent intervals at which even the most hardened offenders will engage in criminal activities.

But there is one element capable of accumulating its physical substance so far and so unequivocally beyond the critical limit that no force on earth can check it. This is the immense collective bulk of the most courted organism of our time, the human mass, the people which, at a given size and density, not only generates the ideal condition of anonymity at which a greater number of individuals can, without danger of detection, sweep up critical quantity of power that would be possible at the more translucent lesser densities; at a given point the mass becomes itself so spontaneously vile that, in addition to the increased quantum of individual misdeeds, performed under the cloak of its darkening multitudes, it begins to produce a quantum of its own, and wholly detached, badness that bears a relationship to its size, but not to the nature of the human molecules composing it.

When this social volume is reached, everything becomes predictable, and nothing preventable. The question is then no longer: how many crimes will be committed, but who will choose in the freedom of his will to be the criminal tool of the law of averages whose provisions are so predetermining that any statistician, after correlating a community's size with its density and the pace of its population, can predict everything from the number of its deaths, fatal accidents, and false fire alarms to the fact that, for instance, in Chicago, within the next thirty days, ‘just under 1000 burglaries will be committed. About 500 Citizens will be held up and robbed at the point of a gun, or with some dangerous weapon. Some 15 people . . . will be murdered. Thirty or more women will be waylaid and attacked.' (The Field Glass, House Organ of the Marshall Field Co., Chicago, 6 October 1952, p. 4).

A crowded society is thus full of inherent dangers even in a state of relative repose. But this is nothing compared with the danger it creates when it becomes collectively agitated and, besides contracting to still greater density, as frequently happens on occasions such as feast days, it also begins to increase its velocity. Then its misdeeds will not only increase. They will increase at a geometric rate, beginning with pick-pocketing, followed by altercations, brawls, knifings and, depending on its rate of further contraction and increasing velocity, by massacres that will explode with the violence of a cosmic occurrence, receding only when enough cohesive energy has been spent to allow the crowds to thin back and slow down to their original density and pace.

This is why the police force of communities, to cope with the ever present danger of sudden social fusion, must increase at a more than proportionate rate as the population increases, not because larger cities harbour proportionately more bad men than smaller ones, but because after a certain point, social size becomes itself the chief criminal. [The following figures, taken from the Municipal Yearbook, 1951, give a clear picture of this progression: North Plainfield, N.J., with a population of 12,760, needs a police force of 15; Plainfield, N.J., with a population of 42,212: 78; Elisabeth, N.J., with a population of 112,675: 257; Buffalo, N.Y., with a population of 577,394: 1,398; Chicago, with a population of 3,606,439: 7,518; and New York City, with a population of 7,835,099: 19,521]. There is no crowd on earth that could not in an instant turn into a wolf pack, however saintly its original dedication, as we can see from the many religious holidays (St. Bartholomew's, Michaelmas) that ended in massacres, and the many massacres that ended in holidays. It also explains why even crusaders, who set out from France singing hymns, began to commit atrocities by the time they reached Hungary or Italy, after their armies had gathered up so many devout followers of the Cross that eventually they acquired uncontrollable critical size. And it explains why even the most solemn processions or large funerals are in perpetual need of police protection. Protection from what? Always from the same danger - the atomic consequences of their own mass.


The Origin of Crime-condoning Philosophies

However, the sheer physical size of a social aggregation seems responsible not only for the number of crimes committed by its component individuals or groups; more significantly and dangerously, the frequency of crime, growing with the increasing size of the group, seems to be responsible also for the development of a corresponding frame of mind, a condoning philosophy. And a condoning philosophy, in turn, will invariably (as a secondary cause) exert an intensifying pressure on the frequency of crime. Hence the phenomenon by which, historically, every increase in the quantity of victims has normally resulted in a more than proportionate increase in the ferocity of persecution. This indicates that not only the frequency of persecution but even the philosophy of crime is determined less by a corrupting moral climate, as is so often believed, than by the physical element of mass, numbers, power and, in the last analysis, social size. As society and, with it, power grows, so grows its corrupting effect on the mind. Or, to rephrase slightly Lord Acton's famous statement, relative power corrupts relatively, and absolute power absolutely.

We shall understand this better if we visualize the successive stages through which socially condoned criminal action proceeds. As long as the victims of persecution are few, the method of execution or, to use a Marxian term, the mode of production, will consist in ceremonial knifings, hangings, or shootings, preceded by a semblance of legal process and followed by a semblance of civilized burial. The executioners, moreover, still not quite sure as to the sufficiency of their power and still feeling their wrong because of the singularity of their acts, will have an urge to apologize. But as the number of their victims increases, the time for apologies and even for indulging in guilt feelings begins to dwindle, and individual executions or burials not only become cumbersome but technically unfeasible. So new practices have to be initiated. Now the victims are led to wells, trenches, or rivers, executed on the spot, and then simply thrown in. This represents less an increase in viciousness than an adjustment to the requirements of new situations which could not be handled with previous means. Hence the spectacle in past or present of corpse-filled trenches in France, Germany, Russia, Korea, or wherever else the commission of mass slaughter demanded mass disposition of bodies. As the victims increase still further in number, even trench burial becomes impracticable. So we find corpses arranged in stacks, as was observed with irrational consternation in the concentration camps of the Nazis, or blocking doors and carriage ways, as historians report with irrational surprise of the Paris of the sixteenth century.

Finally, when this, too, becomes impossible, the situation demands the last in the heretofore known modes of production - burning. With other methods falling short of the requirements of the task, the victims are now simply herded together, placed into a building, and set afire either with the building as in the mill at Carmes [1], where the techniques of mass cremation were as yet undeveloped, or without the building as in the modem crematoria of the Nazis. In the future, use will undoubtedly be made of atomic power, which not only suggests itself as the only efficient means of coping with the number of victims made available by our overpopulated modem mass societies, but is also by far the cheapest means of performing what is expected of it. Discussing the ‘economics of extermination' the British mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle calculated that, while the cost of killing in World War was still several thousand pounds per victim,

We see then that it is not atrocious design that breeds multiple slaughter, but multiple slaughter that breads atrocious design. No personal element needs to be involved in this wholly objective phenomenon. But there is yet another relationship of moral adjustment to physical magnitudes that demands attention. While the degree of atrocity reveals a natural as well as impersonal tendency to increase with every increase in the number of victims, the degree of human disapproval, the philosophy of censure, reveals a proportionate and equally natural tendency to decline. Were this not so, the experience of witnessing mounting misery would soon overtax our compassion and kill us. In fact, the greater our decency and ability for compassion, the faster we would succumb.

But this was obviously not nature's intent. So, in the interest of our own survival, it has helped us to counteract the annihilating terror of mass atrocity by providing us with an adjustable cushion of moral numbness. As a result, instead of becoming more conscience-ridden as the rate of socially committed crimes rises, the ordinary human being is inclined to lose even the little conscience he may still have had so long as the victims were few. For as there is a law of diminishing utility, according to which each successive unit of good, acquired at a given time, yields its owner less satisfaction than the preceding one, there seems also to be a law of diminishing sensitivity, according to which each successive commission of a crime burdens its perpetrator with less guilt feeling, and the people in general with less shock, than the preceding one. This goes so far that, when misbehaviour reaches the stage of mass perpetration, such general numbness and sophistication may set in that murderers lose all their sense of criminality, and onlookers all their sense of crime.

This is when the perpetrators begin to show a craftsman's pride in their accomplishments, express satisfaction for jobs well done, and expect promotions instead of punishment for duties meticulously performed. The bystanders, on the other hand, now begin to treat massacres as if they were holidays and, with the detachment that goes with disindividualized great numbers, to detect the scientific and commercial potentialities of the condition. Doctors suddenly see that the dying can be used for medical experiments; matrons, that tattooed skins look nice on lampshades; apothecaries, that human fat lends itself to the production of medicinal substances; and agriculturalists, that crushed bones furnish excellent fertilizer. So progressive is man's increasing insensitivity to the mounting intensity of atrocity that, in the end, mass murder becomes just like any other profession in which its practitioners assume all the attributes of honourable and honoured men, a culmination effectively portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his elegant Monsieur Verdoux. No murderer of just a single person could ever be conceived as developing similar polish or noblesse. On the contrary. Not only will he be plagued by his own feeling of inadequacy; he will be treated with contempt even in the company of murderers. What a difference from the mass perpetrator who considers himself not only a master but a gentleman, and for whom even his antagonists will often feel a grudging admiration. This explains why, before they dispatched the war criminals, many of their captors seemed quite pleased to be photographed with them.


Critical Magnitudes

To sum up, the following conclusions appear to result from the foregoing:

a) The principal immediate cause behind both the regularly recurring outburst of mass criminality and the accompanying moral numbness in large sections of even the most civilized societies does not seem to lie in a perverted leadership or corrupted philosophy but in a purely physical element. It is linked with frequencies and numbers, which exert an intensifying effect, and with the possession of the critical quantity of power, which has a detonating effect. At a given volume a chain reaction of brutal acts and, in due course, the appropriate condoning philosophy will apparently result quite spontaneously.

b) Though the critical volume of power is the immediate element leading to social barbarism, it is itself dependent on another physical element - a social mass of a given size. In a small society, the critical quantity of power can rarely accumulate since, in the absence of great numerical weight, the cohesive force of the group is easily immobilized by the self-balancing centrifugal trends represented by the numerous competitive pursuits of its individuals. In larger societies, on the other hand, the co-ordinating pressure of numbers may become such that competitive individual trends disappear and the danger of social fusion to the critical point is ever present. So, if critical power is the immediate cause of social evil, we may say that critical social size, being the breeding ground of critical power, is its ultimate or primary cause.

c) In evaluating the critical size of a society, it is however not sufficient to think only in terms of the size of its population. Its density, correlating population with geographic area), and its velocity (reflecting the extent of its administrative integration and technological progress), must likewise be taken into account. If a population is thinly spread, it may be larger in numbers and occupy a bigger area, and yet constitute a smaller society than a less numerous but denser group. Similarly, a volatile and faster moving society may be larger than a more numerous but slower moving community. To understand this, we need but think of the number of exits in a theatre. The same number may be sufficient for a crowd moving at its normal pace, but hopelessly inadequate if the crowd becomes excited and doubles its speed. The effect is then the same as if the crowd itself had doubled. However, in spite of these qualifying features, density, velocity, as well as the social integration which they necessitate, are not separate elements but consequences as well as determinants of the physical concept of social size. For if a given area fills up with an increasing population, its society becomes automatically more dense. As it becomes denser, it requires an increasing measure of integration. And integration of the distant parts of the community with its centre will gradually impart to an increasing number of citizens an increased velocity which, in turn, will grow in proportion to its technological progress. A progressive society will, therefore, be a more integrated and faster society, and a faster society will have the same power effect as if it were larger in number. But ultimately, other things such as area, technological progress, social integration, and natural resources being equal, the most powerful society will be the one with the largest population.


In view of all this, we are not only in a position to understand the full meaning of the alternative and more significant name we have given to our theory - the size theory of social misery; having diagnosed the origin and primary cause of the disease, we are moreover for the first time in a position to suggest a cure. For if socially produced brutality, be it on an individual or mass scale, is largely nothing but the spontaneous result of the critical volume of power generated whenever the human mass reaches a certain magnitude, it can be prevented only through a device that keeps power-breeding social size at a sub-critical level. This can be accomplished in two ways: through the increase of the controlling power to the level of the challenging power, or through attacking the problem at its root by bringing about a decrease in social size. The conventional method is to resort to the first alternative. It provides saturation police forces large enough to match at all times the latent power of the community. This is simple in small social units. But in large ones it is both difficult and dangerous. It is difficult because, as history has shown, social fusion in massive societies can unexpectedly reach such a degree that no police force on earth can check it. And it is dangerous because, as long as police power can check it, it possesses itself the critical volume so that, to the extent that it saves us from popular atrocities, it may present us with the subtler atrocities of a police state instead.

This leaves as the only reliable method of coping with large-scale brutality and criminality the second alternative: the establishment of a system of social units of such small size that accumulations and condensations of collective power to the danger point can simply not occur. The answer therefore is not increase in police power, but reduction of social size - the dismemberment of those units of society that have become too big. If we want to eliminate the Chicago rate of crime we must not educate Chicago or populate it with members of the Salvation Army. We must eliminate communities of the size of Chicago. Similarly, if we want to discourage the development of crime-condoning attitudes and philosophies, we shall get nowhere by spreading the gospel. We must destroy those overgrown social units which, by their very nature, are governed not by the gospel but the number conditioned law of averages.


The Cause of War

If we now turn from the cause of society's principal internal, to that of its principal external, misery - the periodic eruption of aggressive warfare - we shall see that the power, atomic, or size theory will again furnish more satisfactory answers than the various other theories. The same causal relationships will reveal themselves once more. Again we shall find that the dreaded result of a society's behaviour is the consequence not of evil schemes or evil disposition but of the power that is generated by excessive social size. For whenever a nation becomes large enough to accumulate the critical mass of power, it will in the end accumulate it. And when it has acquired it, it will become an aggressor, its previous record and intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.

Because of the significance of these causal relationships and of their implications, let us define the nature of the critical volume of power and the role of its underlying social size once more, with its focus this time turned on external aggression rather than internal atrocity. In contrast to the sharply defined mass of power necessary to set off an atomic explosion, the critical mass of power necessary to produce war is again somewhat relative. As in the case of internal criminal outbursts, it varies with the sum of power available to any possible combination of opponents. But the moment it is greater than this sum in the estimate of those holding it, aggression seems to result automatically. Inversely, the moment the power of a nation declines to below the critical point, that nation will automatically become, not peace-loving, which, as we have seen, no nation is likely to be, but peaceful, which is just as good.

Moreover, the same law that causes an atom bomb to go off spontaneously when the fissionable material reaches the critical size, seems also to cause a nation to become spontaneously aggressive when its power reaches the critical volume. No determination of its leaders, no ideology, not even the Christian ideology of love and peace itself, can prevent it from exploding into warfare. By the same token, no aggressive desire and no ideology, not even the ideology of Nazism or Communism can drive a nation into attack as long as its power remains below the critical volume. It is always this physical element of power, dependent in its magnitude on the size of the community from which it flows, and generating at a given volume as its inevitable consequence aggression. It seems the cause of any and all wars, the only cause of wars, and always the cause of wars. Even the most superficial historic survey confirms this relationship. There could be no gentler peoples on earth today than the Portuguese, the Swedes, the Norwegians, or the Danes. Yet, when they found themselves in possession of power, they lashed out against any and all comers with such fury, that they conquered the world from horizon to horizon. This was not because, at the period of their national expansion, they were more aggressive than others. They were more powerful. At other times, the British and the French were the world's principal aggressors. When they had the critical volume of power that allowed them to get away with aggression, they too drove everything in front of them with fire and sword until a vast part of the earth's surface was theirs. The only thing that stopped them in the end was their inability, their lack of power, to go any further. At still other times, peoples such as the Dutch were peaceful in Europe where their power was sub-critical, and aggressive in remote regions where their relative power was critical. More recently, and this is their only distinction and difference, Germany and Russia emerged as the champion aggressors. But the reason for their belligerence was still the same. Not their philosophy drove them to war but their suddenly acquired great power with which they did what every nation in similar condition had done previously - they used it for aggression.

However, as powerful Germany was as aggressive as others, weak Germany was as harmless. The same people that overran the world with the formidable soldiers of Hitler's formidable Reich, formed externally the most inoffensive of human societies as long as they lived divided into jealous and independent small principalities such as Anhalt-Bernburg, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Saxe-Weimar, or Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. They had their little wars, of course, but none that would have stamped them as different from the Italians of Parma, the French of Picardy, the English of Devonshire, or the Celts of Cornwall. Where they escaped the power-breeding unification of Bismarck, they remained peaceful even through the periods of the two world wars as was demonstrated by the inhabitants of Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Confining themselves within boundaries so narrow that they are unable by force of circumstance ever to acquire power unless they discover how to make atom bombs out of the pebbles of their mountain brooks, these two German tribes are for ever condemned to be as peoples amongst the most peaceful in spite of the fact that, as individuals, they may outrank even the Irish as lovers of a good brawl. And the Germans of the Reich itself, stripped of all power as they were after World War II, threatened to become again as peaceful in the nineteen-fifties as the Anhalters were a hundred years ago. Hence the extraordinary string of socialist election victories which were so puzzling to so many of our commentators who were unable to understand how a party in a war-loving country could win on an almost cantankerously anti-militarist platform. Clearly, deprived of power, even the aggressive Germans see no charm in a military destiny just as, endowed with power, even the saintly Indians have demonstrated in their bullying campaigns against Hyderabad, Kashmir, and Nepal, that they are not averse to the pleasures of warfare. Only in the face of the seemingly almighty Chinese and Russians do the disciples of Gandhi practise what they preach - love of peace.

We thus see that the phenomenon seems invariable as well as universal according to which the danger of aggression arises spontaneously, irrespective of nationality or disposition, the moment the power of a nation becomes so great that, in the estimate of its leaders, it has outgrown the power of its prospective adversaries. This estimate, which has already been mentioned but not stressed, seems to introduce a subjective and psychological element indicating that the objective fact of physical power alone is not all that is needed in order to cause its eruption into war. It must be coupled with the belief that the critical volume of strength has actually been reached, for, without such conviction, even the greatest power is no power while, with it, even inferior strength may provide the impetus of aggression. This is true, but should not obscure the fact that the source of aggressiveness lies nevertheless not in the psychological but in the physical realm. And it does so exclusively, since mere belief can obviously not be engendered without the reality of power; and the reality of power, on the other hand, is such that, at a given magnitude, it brings forth the corresponding belief in its existence and, with it, the corresponding aggressive ideology under any circumstances and even in the most timid of peoples. The only significance of the psychological factor is that it blurs the sharp outlines, surrounding the critical mass of power - in contrast to the precise weight limits of fissionable material - with a marginal area of some depth within which the aggressive explosion can occur anywhere, depending on whether the leaders are more or less certain of having acquired the necessary volume. The more confident will push their nations into war close to the inner boundary of the margin, and the more hesitant, in the belief of being more peace-loving while they are simply less confident, close to the outer boundary.

This subjective element which, created by power, and growing in proportion to its magnitude, acts within the limits of the critical margin as its detonator, explains why at times even a colossal power seems peaceful - when it is uncertain of its real strength. It also explains why at times several nations become aggressive simultaneously. This happens whenever, as in the case of the Franco-Prussian War, each gets the idea that it has become stronger than the other at the same time. At still other times, only one nation may become aggressive. This is the case when not only its own leaders think its power is invincible but the leaders of its victims as well. This happened in France under Napoleon, and in Germany under Hitler. It finally explains aggressions such as that of North Korea which became inevitable the moment the United States, by withdrawing from South Korea, produced the condition which turned the previously sub-critical mass of Northern power into a critical mass. Since the power theory would have made this aggression predictable with mathematical certainty, its acceptance might well have prevented this catastrophic advance battle of World War III.

Thus we see that history is full of instances showing how previously peaceful peoples have suddenly and unaccountably become aggressive savages, and aggressors angelic defenders of peace. Not in a single case could their fateful change of heart be attributed to either barbarizing or civilizing influences. The mystery of their war-mindedness was always their sudden acquisition of power, as the mystery of their conversion to the abandoned ways of peace was always their sudden loss of power. Nothing else ever counted.


It is thus always the critical mass of power that turns nations into aggressors, while the absence of critical power seems always the condition that makes them peaceful. Peacefulness is therefore not a mental attitude or an acquired quality that can be trained into us. It falls to us automatically as the result of physical weakness. The most savage tribes are peaceful when they are weak. But, for the same reason, civilized people become savages when they are strong. As an overdose of poison is safe in nobody's system, however sound and healthy he may be, so power is safe in nobody's hands, not even in those of a police force charged with the task of averting aggression.


But so as not to lose sight of the primary causal element, let us return from the power aspect to the size aspect of the theory explaining war, and recapitulate once more briefly the latter's meaning. Being a physical force, and depending for its magnitude on the magnitude of the society from which it flows, power can accumulate to the critical point only in a society of critical size. The question is, what do we exactly understand by social size? What is larger and what is smaller? Considering that social size is a function of physical size, and that the ultimate particle from which a unit of power can be extracted is the individual member of a given group, social size must be the greater the larger the number of the population. The socially largest society is the one with the physically greatest number of people. And the critical society is the one with a population larger than the sum of populations that can be aligned against it.

However, as long as various societies find themselves at different levels of development, a number of qualifying concepts must be introduced in the appraisal of the effective, or usable, or social, size of a group. For prior to the achievement of identical development levels, the social size of different communities is not necessarily equal to their physical size. As has been shown earlier, a denser society may then for a time be socially more effective and powerful than a numerically larger one; a progressive society larger than a retarded one; a faster society larger than a slower one; and a more highly organized society larger than a less organized one. This explains why a well-organized minority may socially frequently constitute a majority, or why less populous groups have historically often been more aggressive than more populous ones. For in times of transition, organization (as also density and velocity) acts as a multiplier of the population number, and an accelerator in the achievement of larger social size, extracting greater energy from an equal number of power-carrying particles by simply rearranging them in a more efficient manner. However, as nations continue to become more populous, density, velocity, and organization will in the end set in spontaneously even in the absence of a deliberate effort, so that in the last stage of development - such as is seemingly being reached by an increasing number of contemporary societies at the present time - social size will again equal physical size, with the numerically larger societies being the socially more powerful ones. And being more powerful, they will develop more readily the various social miseries and complexities, whose analysis is the subject of this study, than smaller societies.

A last modifying element which should be mentioned for the sake of completion in the evaluation of effective social power concerns the geographic distance of the place of its exercise from that of its origin. For effective power, like sound or light, diminishes as distance increases. This explains why empires, though they may retain their position as great powers at the centre, invariably begin to crumble at the periphery as result of even minor local power development. The American colonies, drawing from a relatively small population number, could therefore none the less develop critical superiority and attack British power which, though enormous in Europe, was only a ripple at the distance of three thousand miles. Had it not been for the fact that effective social power is inversely proportionate to the distance from its centre, the American colonists would hardly have begun to cultivate the idea that taxes with representation are more enjoyable than taxes without representation.


Objections to the Power Theory

There are many who will voice objections against the power or size theory of social misery on the ground that it sounds too much like a materialistic interpretation of history. And so it is. But there is nothing wrong with this fact. Simply because the materialistic interpretation was fathered by Marx does not mean that it is untenable. And not every materialistic interpretation is necessarily atheistic. This one is not. We live in a material universe, so why should there be anything strange in the idea that material circumstances have overpowering influences on our behaviour? God, not Kart Marx, created it that way. It is through our senses and through matter that He communicates to us the manifestations of His existence. His directions are conveyed to us through things and the laws embodied in things. To consider His physical creation as meaningless in the interpretation of human and social processes would thus seem much more blasphemous than the Marxian interpretation, which is unsatisfactory less because it is fallacious than because it is incomplete. It denies God, but at least it accepts the grandeur and meaningfulness of His design - which cannot always be said of its detractors. As Churchill has warned us, though we shape our buildings, our buildings shape us.

Nor does a materialistic interpretation of history deprive man of moral responsibility for his actions, or of his influence over historic development. Though our behaviour may be but a response to an external physical condition such as the magnitude of power or, more fundamentally, the size of society, we have both the intelligence and the freedom of action to determine the nature of the physical conditions producing our responses. If our intelligence tells us that a certain degree of power corrupts us all, we need but use our freedom of action and see to it that the corrupting volume of power will not come into our possession. And if we know that the corrupting volume of power can accumulate only in societies that have become too large, nothing prevents us from being wiser still and seeing to it that social aggregations do not grow beyond their critical limits. Ulysses, knowing that no human being could withstand the songs of the sirens, was not, therefore, doomed to become the hopeless victim of a bewitching physical circumstance. Applying his common sense and freedom of action, he plugged his sailors' ears so that they could not hear his commands. Then he deprived himself of the power to perform an otherwise inevitable act of insanity by having his robust body chained to a mast while passing the dangerous island. There is nothing in a materialistic interpretation of history that could be construed as an excuse for man's failure to apply his wit, and change a corrupting socio-physical environment in such manner that unwelcome human responses will automatically cease, and more appropriate responses automatically arise.


Many will object to the power or size theory also on the ground that it is based on an unduly pessimistic interpretation of man. They will claim that, far from being inspired and seduced by power, we are, generally and predominantly animated by the ideals of decency, justice, magnanimity, and so forth. This is true, but only because most of the time we do not possess the critical power enabling us to get away with indecency. We behave simply because we know that crime does not pay and that, with the limited power at our disposal, it is more profitable to use it for good than for bad.

This assertion is however no more a slur against mankind than Adam Smith's concept that the capitalist business man is a cunning schemer with nothing in mind except his own interest, and conspiring whenever he can to enrich himself at the expense of the consumer. We just seem to be that way. Yet Adam Smith saw no reason to attack the freedom of capitalist individualism on this account. On the contrary, he was its staunchest defender. He knew that the individual's meanness was checked by the self-correcting device of competition which is nothing other than a mechanism to keep the business man's power down to proportions within which it can do no damage. It is because of his inability to do harm, not because of superior virtue, that the capitalist profit seeker will paradoxically behave as if guided by an invisible hand to serve society well. Since bad service would not yield profit, he becomes altruistic out of sheer egoism. But whenever he finds the opportunity of getting away with conspiracy against his fellow men, he will grasp it with relish, as has been shown by those who have succeeded in becoming monopolists. As a result of the large size of their business units, they alone in a competitive capitalist society have the power to misbehave with impunity, and promptly do so until checked by another power, the power of government drawing from still larger size.

Competitive capitalism thus does not seem to have suffered from putting trust more in the reliability of man's imperfections in pursuit of social aims than in the fiction of human goodness which has caused the disintegration of the idealistic plans of most social reformers. Nor has the Catholic Church, which was built on similar assumptions when Jesus chose not the gentle and saintly John as His successor, but earthly Peter, a man so full of weaknesses that he betrayed his own Master three times in a single night. And yet it was Peter whom his Master considered the rock on which to found the indestructible monument to His existence, not Saint John. Only socialists pay man the compliment of crediting him with an essentially good nature. But they, too, make this somewhat dependent on an external social condition, the absence of private property resulting from a given mode of production, as I suggested its dependence on an external physical condition, the absence of power resulting from a given size of the community. But the fact remains that capitalism, as long as it was based on the idea of competitive mischief, seems to have produced infinitely greater economic and spiritual values than socialism with its benign and unrealistic assumption that man's nature can be improved along with his economic environments.

One may say in fairness to socialism that it has not yet been given the chance and time to prove itself while capitalism has. But so has socialism. Man's first societies were socialist, and there were numerous attempts throughout history to establish idealistic cells for communal living freed from the degrading effects of private property. They all have had their chance and time, as the very fact proves that, in time, they all failed. And they failed not because of the eventual development of private property, but because from some of these properties, increasing in size, sprouted power. And it was power which broke socialist societies at their beginning, as it is power which threatens through the creation of monopolies to break up capitalist societies at their end.

Objections are finally due to arise from those who feel it would be dangerous to underestimate the role of ideas as the cause of social miseries such as aggressions and wars. However, the size or power theory does not underestimate ideas. All it maintains is that, as primary causal forces, they are irrelevant. An aggressive ideology such as fascism, Nazism, or communism can do nothing to fulfil itself unless it has power - as contemporary Spain, Portugal, or San Marino amply illustrate. On the other hand, and this is the point of significance, if it possesses power, it becomes aggressive on that account, not because of its ideological content.

While thus denying the primary role of ideologies such as Nazism or communism, the power or size theory does not contest their secondary significance. Though they cannot in themselves cause wars, they act as already stated - as accelerators in the process of building up power to the point where it will explode spontaneously irrespective of how and by whom it has been created. But even in this respect, their effectiveness has become limited since, in the present stage of development, the critical mass can be accumulated only in very populous states. As a result, power philosophies, however incendiary they may be, can constitute no external problem if confined to small societies.

In large ones, however, they can indeed exert their influence. In Germany, for example, where the Nazi ideology aspired to the critical volume of power not as an accidental by-product of growth but an end in itself, it managed to speed up the inevitable accumulation process (leading at a given magnitude to war) by perhaps a quarter of a century. But the more important point is that, because of her vast power potential over which she disposed since her unification in 1871 - a potential that was destroyed neither in 1918 nor in 1945 when the Allies merely eliminated her then existing power but not the power-breeding unity of a state of more than sixty million people - Germany would have become aggressive after World War I even without Nazism. The only difference would have been that, in the absence of a power philosophy, it would have taken longer, say until 1960 or 1970. She would have grown on the basis of her peace-directed instead of war-directed activities. But finally she would have exploded anyway, as a snowball on its descent from a mountain grows until it reaches proportions which are in themselves destructive, irrespective of whether it was set on its course by an innocent child or an evil schemer. What our peace planners must watch is, therefore, less the resurgence of Nazism amongst the Germans, but of power - the very thing circumstances drive them to build up again. But power, unless kept at a sub-critical level - a difficult proposition once it has come dose to it - will not be any safer in the hands of an Adenauer or an anti-militarist socialist leader than in the hands of a new Hitler, a German Stalin or, for that matter, an Allied overlord. Ideologies may either delay or hasten, but neither cause nor prevent.


Power and Size in the United States

A similar reasoning applies to the United States which so far has seemed to provide a spectacular exception to the size theory. Here we have one of the largest and, perhaps, the most powerful nation on earth, and yet she does not seem to be the world's principal aggressor as in theory she should be. Moreover, it would seem she is not aggressive at all [2].

This is quite true but, as we have seen, to become effective, power must be accompanied by the awareness of its magnitude. Within the limits of the marginal area, it is not only the physical mass that matters, but the state of mind that grows out of it. This state of mind, the soul of power, grows sometimes faster than the body in which it is contained and sometimes slower. The latter has been the case in the United States. Though she has been by far the greatest physical power on earth since before World War I, and has thus long ago entered the critical area, she has been overshadowed as a political and military power until relatively recently by all other great powers because she lacked the appropriate power state of mind. Her terrific but socially unco-ordinated energies could still be utilized in so many other directions that she saw no necessity of measuring her strength in international competition beyond the boundaries of the Western hemisphere. Thus, with an eagerness quite beyond the comprehension of European nations, she destroyed her military power after World War I as fast as she could and, instead of getting conquering ideas, became isolationist, losing completely the will of being a power anywhere outside the Americas. But within the Western hemisphere, even the United States developed attitudes that cannot always be held up as examples of gentleness. Here she was a power, whether she wanted or not, and behaved like one.

After World War II, a similar trend of destroying her own world power set in, at a pace however that was not only considerably slower. It has in the meantime been stopped altogether. There is no longer a possibility of the United States not being a great power. As a result, the corresponding state of mind, developing as a perhaps unwanted but unavoidable consequence, has begun to manifest itself already at numerous occasions as, for example, when President Truman's Secretary of Defence, Louis Johnson, indicated in 1950 the possibility of a preventive war, or when General Eisenhower, in an address before Congress in the same year, declared that united we can lick the world. The latter sounded more like a statement by the exuberant Kaiser of Germany than by the then President of Columbia University. Why should a defender of peace and democracy want to lick the world? Non-aggressively expressed, the statement would have been that, if we are united, the entire world cannot lick us. However, this shows how power breeds this peculiar state of mind, particularly in a man who, as a general must, knows the full extent of America's potential. It also shows that no ideology of peace, however strongly entrenched it may be in a country's traditions, can prevent war if a certain power condition has arisen. It may have a retarding and embellishing effect, but that is all, as the deceptive myth of preventive war indicates which advocates aggression for the solemnly declared purpose of avoiding it. It is as if someone would kill a man to save him the trouble of dying.

Yet, generally speaking, the mind of the United States, being so reluctantly carried into the inevitable, is still not completely that of the power she really is, at least not from an internal point of view. But some time she will be. When that time comes, we should not naively fool ourselves with pretensions of innocence. Power and aggressiveness are inseparable twin phenomena in a state of near critical size, and innocence is a virtue only up to a certain point and age. If there ever should be a powerful country without any desire to lick and dominate others, it would not be a sign of virtue but of either overage or mongoloid under-development. In the United States, neither is the case. So, unless we insist once more that Cicero's definition of man [3] does not apply to us, the critical mass of power will go off in our hands, too.


With this we have for the second time arrived at the point where we can suggest a cure for one of the most disturbing social miseries on the basis of the power or size theory. Having found that the same element which causes crime and criminality seems responsible also for war and its resultant ideology of aggression, it appears that the same device offered as the solution of the first problem must apply also to the second. If wars are due to the accumulation of the critical mass of power, and the critical mass of power can accumulate only in social organisms of critical size, the problems of aggression, like those of atrocity, can clearly again be solved in only one way - through the reduction of those organisms that have outgrown the proportions of human control. As we have seen, in the case of internal social miseries, already cities may constitute such overgrown units. In the case of external miseries, only states can acquire critical size. This means that, if the world is to be relieved of some of the pressures of aggressive warfare, we can do little by trying to unite it. We should but increase the terror potential that comes from large size. What must be accomplished is the very opposite: the dismemberment of the vast united national complexes commonly called the great powers. For they alone in the contemporary world have the social size that enables them to spread the miseries we try to prevent, but cannot so long as we leave untouched the power which produces them.




[1] At the Couvent des Carmes, in the Rue de Vaugirard, Paris, between 150 and 200 priests had been incarcerated after the 10th of August 1792 for refusing to take the oath of submission to the French State. They were massacred on the night of the 2nd and 3rd of September, 1792, with the connivance of the National Assembly.

[2] Kohr's book was published in 1957, when the USA had not yet systematically embarked on a series of military interventions all over the world and when Russian communism was appearing much more aggressive than American interventionism.

[3] Kohr refers to Cicero's belief about the existence of a common basic human nature.


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