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Backstage Politics
December 16, 2020

Militarism and Politics: the Rise of the State


The rise of the State is understandable if we take into account the role of militarism. Indeed, militarism is the key to this process, and we’re going to see it.

Today, I want to speak to you about a much-neglected issue. I refer to the relationship between militarism and politics in the rise of the State. The origin of the State is a matter that political scientists haven’t studied too much. Despite that, there are interesting contributions. However, to link militarism with the rise of the State may sound provocative and disruptive for many, especially for State supporters. Anyways, what matters here is the political role of militarism in the process of State-building.




Before starting the discussion, some preliminary clarifications are necessary to establish the current framework of the analysis that follows. In this regard, I’m going to address only the European early modern age. So, I’m going to focus on the European experience, and more specifically, on the birth of the modern State. Hence, I’ll leave out other types of State. I believe I have to set out the reasons for this decision. First, the most common political organization in history has been Empires.

Nevertheless, from the beginning of the modern age, the modern State has become the dominant sort of State in the world. For this reason, I think it’s fundamental to analyze a process that was decisive for the course of history in the next centuries. Aside from that, there are more reasons to adopt this perspective. That’s the case of the historical and political context in Western Europe, where States as such didn’t exist. I draw this claim from the American historian Joseph Strayer, who stressed that, in Europe, prevailed cumbersome motley confederations of principalities, kingdoms, towns, counties, and so on. Therefore, there was no State, and that makes it necessary to discuss its origins in this part of the world.

Finally, I want to mention that the current approach to this topic focuses on the role of conflict in the formation of the State. So, it will lead us to address the relationship between militarism and this political and historical phenomenon.




I don’t want to go over the meaning of militarism here because I addressed it on another occasion.

However, I consider it necessary to make clear how I understand it in the current discussion. So, we can consider it in cultural terms, or as a political trend embedded in statecraft, and mainly in the process of State-building.

We can’t deny the fact that the members of the western elite had a militaristic education since their youth. Indeed, in the political thought was present the idea that military campaigns were, and had to be, their primary concern. I remember a quotation of Machiavelli that says: “A prince, therefore, should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take as his own special art any other concern than war, its institutions and discipline; for that is the only art which belongs properly to one who holds ruling power.” It’s interesting advice that reflects the mindset of that time.

That mindset wasn’t an accident, but the consequence of an active process of shaping the ruling elite members. Princes and kings learned to fight each other as their most important mission. They learned it since their childhood with toys, games, and models. Later, they learned to use firearms. When they arrived in adulthood, they consider war competition to attain glory. Indeed, they thought of warfare as a quest for glory. In sum, they integrated war in their way of life and dealt with it as it were a sport.

That’s a way of considering militarism. However, my approach is going to stress the material dimension of militarism, and I’ll leave out the cultural perspective. So, what’s the relationship between the rise of the State and militarism? How does it work? What I’m going to explain is nothing new, and some scholars have already set it forth before me. Despite that, it’s still a compelling point of view that contributes to a better understanding of this phenomenon.

At this point, some new clarifications are necessary. This point of view is part of a broader theoretical framework. The origin of the State is the result of conflict, which puts this approach in the group of conflict theories. It means that the formation of this political structure is the consequence of power differentials. In this group of theories, we find the conquest theory. It would take too much time to discuss the variety of approaches in this group, and I only want to focus on one of them. The warfare theory about the formation of the modern State is the yardstick for this discussion.


Warfare theory


According to the conquest theory, the State is the result of conquest, namely, the war between peoples that led to the victor to dominate the loser group. Therefore, the victorious side in war establishes a new political and social order in which it wields power and makes laws. They impose their interests. However, those who lost war become an oppressed and subdued group, forced to comply with the new rulers and their order. The State is the result of war, and it exists to make war in two different ways: as a conquest means to attack and subdue other populations and as means to make war against the dominated society to keep it subdued.

How does this theory work in the discussion of the modern State? The nature of the State is war. As Charles Tilly stated, “War makes the State, and the State makes war.” In the European early modern age, the rise of the State was the result of war, but in different conditions, if we compare this experience with other cases in history. In Western Europe, the germ of the new State was the crown. So, all royal houses were fighting each other, and at the same time, they needed to extract more resources to wage war. That situation combined with the own competitive dynamic of the international environment. It stimulated the formation of standing armies that grew with the pass of time. Besides, new military technology influenced the way of waging war and made it more expensive than ever. That led to the growth of the State to collect more taxes to fund its spending.

At this point, we find a theoretical bifurcation to explain the rise of the modern State. On the one hand, we see authors, such as Tilly himself, who argue that State-makers were decisive in this process. On the other hand, other authors, such as Michael Roberts or Geoffrey Parker, say that military revolutions drove the rise of the State in modern Europe. They are not contradictory theories, but they focus on different aspects of the same phenomenon. Indeed, Tilly based his view on Michael Roberts’ work and the notion of military revolution. Aside from these differences, we can develop a comprehensive framework to explain the role of militarism in this process.

I can’t expand on the discussion of the role of military revolutions in State formation. For this reason, I’m going to set forth the main ideas that constitute this approach. So, first of all, changes in tactics and technology in military affairs led to wider transformations at different levels. In this regard, the military revolutions in the early modern age transformed warfare. The introduction of portable firearms, the decline of cavalry, the increasing importance of artillery, the linear tactics, the siege war, and new fortifications made necessary decisive changes in the State structure. These changes made war more expensive, especially the combination of new technologies and the rise of expanded armies.

The war effort required more resources, that is, money and recruiters. The only institution able to manage the mobilization of these resources was the State. It could supply the administrative, technical, and financial resources required for large-scale hostilities. Nevertheless, to do so, it was imperative the expansion of the State and the establishment of a large bureaucratic organization. In this way, the State could get access to those resources, and tighten its control of the military.

Besides the cost of war, the recruitment needs, and the organizational issues to mobilize resources, there was another critical matter. I refer to logistics. The new scale of warfare led to broader campaign scenarios. Because of this new situation, many difficulties arose when kings had to pay large and distant armies and ensure the supply of ammunition, food, clothes, and so on. The restless expansion of bureaucracy to coordinate war effort in these and other realms turned out to be the solution. It contributed to the State-building process in which the role of the military, and especially warfare, was crucial.


Militarism and State-building


The main conclusion we can draw from this discussion is the importance of militarism in the rise of the State. Indeed, State-building has been a violent process and the result of international conflict. It also combined with internal or civil wars, but the role of geopolitical rivalries has been crucial in its formation.

So, international competition drove the development of the State. In this respect, royal houses took on a leading role in this process. Their permanent quarrels boosted the creation of larger armies and bureaucracies to coordinate and afford the war effort. The State expansion was critical in this context of international periodical crises, persistent rivalries, and wars. Otherwise, State survival would be in danger. Indeed, the survival of the State represents its national interest, and it’s fundamental in security terms. The growth of the State aimed to increase its internal capacities to ensure its existence in the long run.

In sum, it was the logic of the geopolitical competition abroad. Militarism was the force that fueled this dynamic. After all, States were military organizations until the twentieth century. Their main activity was war, and they devoted most of their spending to wage war. All of this explains how militarism contributed to building States, and why it’s still a relevant dimension of this institution.

The world lives in a permanent war, and States are always preparing for war. Militarism is at the center of this international dynamic. That’s quite evident in arms races, and especially in the expansion of military budgets, as well as the growth of armies. The competition between great powers reflects this reality. The struggle for safety and power feeds militarism and transforms it. The search for security leads them to fight each other to gain more power and attain safety. In the meantime, militarism operates as the necessary means to ensure the State’s survival. It contributes to mobilizing resources and increasing the State’s capabilities. At the same time, it transforms the State, which adjusts its internal order, with all its political structures, to the external challenges. Then, militarism transforms not only the global stage but also the domestic realm of every nation. In that way, we can argue that State-building never ends.


Question of the day


Question of the day! Do you think militarism can be stopped? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.

Bibliography used:

Porter, Bruce D., War and the Rise of the State

Giddens, Anthony, The Nation-State and Violence

Tilly, Charles, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” in Evans, Peter et alii (eds.), Bringing the State Back In

Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992

Rasler, Karen and William R. Thompson, “War, the Military Revolution(s) Controversy, and Army Expansion: A Test of Two Explanations of Historical Influences on European State Making” in Comparative Political Studies 32(1), 1999, pp. 3-31

Oppenheimer, Franz, The State

Gumplowitz, Ludwig, Der Rassenkampf

Service, Elman R., “Classical and Modern Theories on the Origins of Government” in Cohen, Ronald and Elman R. Service (eds.), Origins of the State: The Anthropology of Political Evolution

Rasler, Karen A. and William R. Thompson, War and State Making: The Shaping of the Global Powers

Rasler, Karen A. and William R. Thompson, “War Making and the State Making: Governmental Expenditures, Tax Revenues, and Global Wars” in American Political Science Review 79(2), 1985, pp. 491-507

Roberts, Michael, The Military Revolution, 1560-1660

Rogers, Clifford (ed.), The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe

Parker, Geoffrey, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800

Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power

Mann, Michael, States, War and Capitalism

McNeill, William H., The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society A.D. 1000

Duffy, Michael (ed.), The Military Revolution and the State 1500-1800



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