[OPE] The origins of militarism at the beginning of the capitalist era in Europe

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 16:18:27 EDT


Apropos, I realize that staunch Marxists schooled on old pamphlets by Lenin believe that militarism originated out of imperialism starting in the 1880s, but a Marxian scholar would point out that this is just a fantasy. Just as an indication, allow me cite at some length Prof. Parker's comment on Michael Roberts' research (also used by Charles Tilly) about the "military revolution" from the 16th century (regarded by Marx & Engels as the "beginning of the capitalist era") onwards:

"Between 1530 and 1710 there was a ten-fold increase both in the total numbers of armed forces paid for by the major European states and in the total numbers involved in the major European battles... the rise in combatants is obvious when one compares battles like Pavia (1525) and Nieuwpoort (1600) with 10,000 combatants on either side, and a battle like Malplaquet (1709) with 200,000 men involved. (...) The number of horsemen had decreased both absolutely and relatively. This shift in emphasis from horse to foot was crucial for army size. While there was a limit to the number of knights who could manage to equip themselves and their horses ready for a charge, there was none to the number of ordinary men who could be enlisted and issued a pike, sword, and helmet. A pikeman's basic equipment cost little more than his wages for a week, and in some cases even this paltry sum could be deducted from the soldier's pay. Thanks to the triumph of the pikemen, therefore, it became possible for governments to recruit, arm, and train an unlimited number of men. The road to unrestrained military increase lay wide open. But it only lay open. There was nothing in all this which actively compelled an army to augment its numbers. (...)

"The growth of military manpower depended not only on internal factors like tactics but also on a number of extrinsic factors, totally unrelated to the art of war itself. (...) It is interesting to note that the major waves of administrative reform in western Europe in the 1530s and at the end of the seventeenth century coincided with major phases of increases in army size. On the one hand, the growth of a bureaucracy was necessary to create large armies; on the other, it was necessary to control them. The rapid numerical expansion of the early seventeenth century forced some decentralization: governments used entrepreneurs to raise their soldiers, sailors, and (in the case of the Mediterranean states) their galley fleets. It has been estimated that between 1631 and 1634 there were some 300 military enterprisers raising troops in Germany alone... It was the same story in most areas of Europe... War departments [then] proliferated in every country, squeezing out military entrepreneurs and other middlemen and establishing a direct link with every soldier in the army... The numerical expansion of armies was also dependent on certain elementary technological improvements [such as mass-production of food, mass transport, construction of tent camps, roads, causeways and bridges]. (...) In the eighteenth century, roads even began to be used as an instrument of imperialism, as they had once been by the Roman, Chinese and Inca empires...

"However, for all this one needed money, and here we come to two other, and perhaps more important, extrinsic limits to military growth. First there had to be a certain level of wealth in society before heavy and prolonged military expenditure could be supported; second, there had to be ways of mobilizing this wealth. It would seem that between 1450 and 1600 the population of Europe almost doubled; and there is little doubt that, over the same period, there was a notable increase in the total wealth of Europe. After about 1660 both population and wealth began to increase again. This new prosperity was tapped everywhere by taxation, either indirectly through excise duties upon consumer goods or directly by a variety of levies on land, capital, and (very rarely) income. Government revenues increased everywhere in the sixteenth century, delving ever deeper into the pockets and purses of the taxpayers. However, no government could pay for a prolonged war out of current taxation: the income which sufficed for a peacetime establishment could in no way prove equal to the unpredictable but inevitably heavy expenses of a major campaign. The state therefore had to spread the costs of each war over a number of peaceful years... or by spending in advance the income of future years with the aid of loans from bankers and merchants. (...)

"It was the Dutch who first perfected techniques of war finance capable of sustaining an enormous army almost indefinitely. The cost of the war with Spain from 1621 until 1648 steadily increased... but there was not a single mutiny or financial crisis. On the contrary, in an emergency, the Dutch Republic could raise a loan of 1 million florins at only 3 percent in two days. The key to this effortless financial power was, in part, the enormous wealth of Amsterdam, which by 1650 was the undisputed commercial and financial capital of Europe; but it was equally the good faith of the Dutch government, which always paid interest and repaid capital on time. This combination enabled the Dutch to raise an army and go on fighting, whatever the cost, until they got their own way: something no previous government had been able to do. (...) Thanks to all these improvements, by the first decade of the eighteenth century the major wars of Europe involved some 400,000 men on each side, and major battles involved up to 100,000." (quoted from Geoffrey Parker, Spain and the Netherlands 1559-1659, pp. 95-102).

As this passage indicates, in Europe at least, militarism was closely bound up with the very beginnings of capitalist development (which BTW were not in England, as many Marxists claim), associated with the growth of a cash economy, production on a mass scale, and the formation of nation states with extensive bureaucracies (which already at that time engaged in imperialist policies of various kinds). So really the pursuit of military wars has always been part of the development of capitalism, from its very origins. There never existed any "golden age" of capitalism without militarism, and it is unlikely that there ever will be a capitalism without militarism. At best you can say that in some epochs, militarism consumed/conquered more of the social surplus product, in others less.

In the Netherlands around 1670, the total population was about 1.85 million. The Dutch had an army of 110,000 confronting Louis XIV's French invasion with an army of 100,000 in 1672, which would therefore imply that about one in every 17 Dutch citizens of all ages was mobilized as a soldier - even if we allow for a portion of soldiers who were foreign hirelings, this is an astonishing level of militarization; the Dutch military/population ratio went from circa 1:50 in 1600 to circa 1:17 in the 1670s.

For an interesting article on the contemporary privatisation (outsouring) of military services - a phenomenon which turns out to have historical parallels through the whole history of capitalist civilization - see http://books.sipri.org/files/insight/SIPRIInsight0801.pdf . World military expenditure is estimated by SIPRI to have been $1,339 billion in 2007, a value equal to the total GDP of a country like Brazil, Spain or Canada. I have estimated myself that about one out of every eighty men, women and children living in the world today is a military employee, para-military or reservist. Business competition carries its cost, and this is one of them.


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Received on Wed Oct 8 16:20:38 2008

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