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Volume 3

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. Aggression and the Conflict Helix
3. Frustration, Deprivation, Aggression, and the Conflict Helix
4. Misperception, Cognitive Dissonance, Righteousness, and Conflict
5. Marxism, Class Conflict, and the Conflict Helix
6. Same and Other; Similarity and Difference
7. Cross-Pressures, Overpopulation, Anomie, and Conflict
8. Conflict as a Process and the Conflict Helix
10. Intentional Humanism

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 9

Opposition, Determinism,
Inevitability, And Conflict*

By R.J. Rummel

The two extremes appear like man and wife,
Coupled together for the sake of strife.
---- Charles Churchill, The Rosciad


For ages philosophers have been captivated by the conflict of opposites in nature, a belief in reality as a manifestation of an underlying struggle between opposing or contradictory tendencies, elements, or forces. An insight into the nature of these oppositions was believed to provide as essential understanding of all things, and of harmony, strife, and change.

Greek philosophers, under the influence of Anaximander (Durant, 1939:138) and, especially, of Heraclitus (Burnet, 1957), believed that reality comprised opposites whose unity manifested all things. For Heraclitus, the "formula" for understanding reality was the perpetual strife of opposites. No simple empirical opposition, this was a connection between opposites such that one cannot exist or be perceived without the other, as with the day-night, up-down, hot-cold. "Men do not know what is at variance argues with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre"1 and wisdom is to perceive this underlying opposition.

This philosophy is remarkably similar to the yin-yang of classical Chinese philosophy, elaborated in the commentaries of I-Ching. The yin and the yang are complementary principles or forces, explaining all processes of development and decay. Yin is the negative, passive, weak, or destructive element existing in all things, and yang the coexisting positive, active, strong, and constructive element. All change manifests an interaction between these forces; harmony is their equilibrium, conflict their opposition.

This philosophy can also be found in the Pair of Opposites of Buddhism (Humphreys, 1955), or in the blending of the two antagonistic forces (the life-monad versus matter) in non-Aryan Indian philosophy (Zimmer, 1969:379), in medieval Christianity (as in the coincidentia oppositorum of Nicholas of Cusa),2 and in contemporary non-Marxist philosophies.3

A belief in a fundamental opposition in all things has had its greatest modern influence through Marxism, and especially Engels' interpretation. For Engels (1934, 1954), the unity and struggle of opposites was one of the dialectical laws through which change is understood. Without a tension between opposites, things would be unchanging: the overcoming and being overcome of opposing forces explain all natural and human history.

Contemporary Maoism (Mao, Vol. 2, 1965) combines this Western dialectical view of opposites with the classic Chinese perspective. Contradiction--the unity of opposites--is a universal principle explaining change. Things must be studied from the inside, for their development is a self-movement (an imminent causation) due to internal contradictions. One must grasp the principal contradictions, as between proletariat and bourgeoisie in capitalism, to understand the course of change, for it will constitute a struggle between these opposites and the eventual triumph of one over the other.

As a philosophical principle, the unity and struggle of opposites are prominent in my perspective on human nature and conflict. Consider. Perception is the outcome of a struggle between opposing forces--the powers of reality bearing upon us and our outward-directed perspective-between opposing vectors. Reality itself is a complex of opposing powers struggling toward manifestation.

Life is then a struggle of opposites toward realization. Harmony is a balance among such opposites. For society, the struggle is the balancing of powers among people--the manifest determination of their interests, capabilities, and wills: the harmony is the structure of expectations. Thus the conflict helix, the process of balancing, balance, disruption, and balancing, is a unity of opposites through which society changes and evolves. Conflict transforms itself into harmony and harmony into conflict; war into peace and peace into war. Both are aspects of the same process, an inseparable unity in our psychological and social fields.


In The Dynamic Psychological Field I considered the issue of free will versus determinism. Very briefly, I see our freedom as a necessary hypothesis of reason. We can spontaneously decide to act and to initiate new causal series. We can be a first cause.

This freedom, however, lies at the level of potentialities, of things-in-themselves. In the world of manifestations, social interactions, distances, rules, and natural causes, we appears determined, bound inexorably in the process of conflict, in the formation and destruction of structures of expectation. Even though the struggle of opposing interests is ultimately a struggle of an independent will, the elements within the helix--the trigger events, capabilities, wills, and interests--seem to allow our will the spontaneity of a leaf floating on the stream of events.

The difficulty here is our simultaneous view of events at two levels. The first is the level of phenomena, of triggers, manifest behavior, specific capability, and determinant distances, where our behavior appears to be causal and rule following--determined within the conflict helix.

The other level is that of underlying potentialities, dispositions, and powers that we can know only through their transformation into the world of experience. At this level exists our reason, a potentiality independent of the phenomenological world and with the power to conceive of analytic ideas and moral oughts. At this level we can conceive of ourselves as free.

One and the same social phenomenon can be viewed, therefore, as either free or determined. Located in the phenomenological realm, it is determined by the process of conflict; as a manifestation of our underlying reason and will, however, it may be reflect our freedom. These are not inconsistent viewpoints; and both can be valid. Whether we see an action as free or determined depends on our intentions as a social scientist. If our focus is on the empirical field, the determinate processes, and understanding them, we can deal in forces, causes, conditions, and so on. If, however, our interest is in the moral aspects of the process, in what ought to be and the future we can create through such a process, we can emphasize our underlying freedom.

All reality may be a struggle of powers. All societies may be arenas of balancing and balanced interests. Strife and harmony may flow into each other like the seasons. But we need not participate. We can withdraw from society, even from reality. If we do not withdraw, we can decide when to conflict and what accommodations we will accept.


Is social conflict, then, inevitable? Yes, insofar as we participate in a society, we must establish a balance with others. This is not an empirical statement, as "all history has seen conflict; therefore we must conflict." I am not committing the fallacy of establishing a universal on the basis of empirical knowledge conditioned by time and place (see Popper, 1964). Rather, I am arguing from our human essence and the nature of our societies. Conflict is intrinsic to being a human among humans. It is a social necessity.

We may be free to decide the how, when, and where of conflict; free to ignore events that would plunge others into strife. However, if we wish to be part of society, eventually we must assert our interest and realize our power, whether with, through, or against lovers or friends, associates or colleagues, antagonists or enemies. And conflict is the process for doing so.4

Is coercive conflict inevitable? Such conflict is manifested when threats, deprivations, and force are used to determine a balance as in bringing up children, union strikes, political struggle, military coups, revolutions, and various kinds of warfare. Is such opposition between coercive powers inevitable?

As argued in Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix (Section 20.2 of Chapter 20), coercion involves two linked negative interests: if an individual fails to do something he does not want to do (one negative interest), he is threatened with sanctions (the second negative interest). This condition is very much a part of contemporary society. It is an aspect of raising children (do not play with matches, or else ... ), a part of education (if you do not study, you will flunk), an ingredient in modern society's organization (pay your taxes or go to jail), in its everyday regulation (if you drive faster than 35 miles per hour on Haiku Road, you will be fined), and in our jobs (publish or perish). Coercion seems to be pervasive. Is it essential?

I can conceive of raising children without coercion. By manipulating the situation and opportunities of the child, by love, and by the use of authority and bargaining, the parent may avoid threats, spankings, and other negative sanctions. Such is the argument of the permissive school. I can also conceive of friends, lovers, and relatives whose interaction is devoid of coercion.5

However I cannot conceive of a large collective of individuals differentiated by interests and roles who can totally avoid coercion. Law-norms enforced by sanctions will always be essential to maintain order within society and to protect individual rights. Even the most authoritative society, such as the Islamic, threatens to cut off the hands of thieves. Those who would eliminate all government coercion and laws, relying exclusively on the exchange between individuals to order society, still make provision for the coercive control or deterrence of actual or potential law breakers. And can love alone organize a society? In the late 1960s many idealistic young people felt that love and intellectual power (persuasion) were sufficient. They organized communes--small-scale societies in which people could live together cooperatively. To their amazement, coercion became an element in the formation of their structures of expectations. Jobs had to be done, a division of labor had to be developed, and responsibility had to be allocated. Not all participants were equally gifted, equally responsible, or equally interested, and coercion based law-norms soon developed to govern the commune. Expulsion from the commune was the final sanction.

Outside the small circle of friends and relatives, we find in the larger society an increasing differentiation of interests and values. Disagreements regarding the proper allocation of rights are inevitable, as is the development of individuals with no moral inhibition against taking what belongs to others. Selfishness, jealousy of others' attainments and property are human traits. The external threat of sanctions is the only alternative to a lack of internal inhibitions.

Restraining criminals is an obvious and necessary application of coercion. What is not generally recognized is the degree to which a modern, nontotalitarian society manifests coercive social conflict unassociated with law-norms. The principal example is the union strike. A strike is a coercive instrument, a means of applying deprivation to an employer until he yields to the strikers' demands. Collective bargaining is thus a balancing of coercive powers that establishes a structure of expectations (a contract). Yet like taxes and social security contributions (a coercive government insurance plan), strikes have become accepted as a necessity.

However, as libertarians, classical liberals, and conservatives continue to observe, taxes and strikes (as legalized extortion) may be unnecessary; indeed, they may inhibit the proper functioning of society. The real argument is not over necessity but over desirability. On the other hand, few but the extreme anarcho-libertarians would deny the need for some kind of coercive protection (private guard corporations or governmental police and court systems) against common crooks and clever thiefs.6

Is then the amount of coercion applied in a society a matter of degree? The U.S.S.R. is a more internally coercive society than Spain, and the latter more than Brazil, which in turn is more coercive than the United States. Moreover, in terms of government rules and regulations, New York City is a more coercive city than Honolulu, which in turn is more coercive than Houston. But the degrees, as with heating water, become qualitatively transformed. All societies exercise coercion, but in doing so there is a meaningful difference between exchange, authoritative, and coercive societies. As discussed in Chapter 30 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix, the authoritative and exchange societies apply coercion to protect accepted principles or rights; in the coercive societies the elite apply coercion to organize society toward a superordinate goal. We cannot escape coercion, thus coercive conflict; but by the society we create we can determine its scope, amount, and direction.

If conflict is inevitable in human society, what about violence? Is violence inevitable?

Violence is the use of force, when coercion fails, or the application of deprivations attendant to coercion ("terrorist activities will continue until the regime submits to our demands"). If one accepts the need for coercion, even on a minimal basis to protect people's rights, then the use of force is inevitable. Force is the ultima ratio. Unless occasionally used, the threat of sanctions undergirding the law-norms of society is empty. If those who prey on others could do so with impunity, they could protect their illegal gains simply by using force. It would be unreasonable to expect all to refrain from operating outside the law.

But violence takes many forms. Some acts of violence accompany the functioning of law-norms (such as the force applied by the police to restrain a prisoner). Others ensue from collective social conflict, such as terrorism, guerrilla warfare, riots, terrorism, revolutions, or war.

If we consider all kinds of violence, we must conclude it is inevitable that some kind of violence will be used at some time. Based on unavoidable social differentiation and differences among people in their values and interests, surely that kind of violence attendant on enforcing even minimal law-norms is a social inevitability. But what about collective violence?

At the outset, we must understand that some types of collective violence are limited to certain societies. For example, war is violence between states in the international society; revolution is a violent, direct attempt to change the elite and their policies within a state-society; civil war is an attempt to violently create a separate state-society. Thus although we could eliminate one form of violence by altering the social system within which it is defined (as by, some argue, eliminating war through the institution of world government), we may create another form congenial to the new society (such as civil war or revolution under a world government).7 The upshot is that we must deal with collective violence generally, for if the occurrence of one form is not inevitable, some form or another may be.

Revolutions, uprisings, riots, wars, coups, assassinations, terrorism have been the lot of all civilizations, cultures, and nations. Toynbee's (1936-1954) massive historical study, Durant's comprehensive survey,8 or Wells' (1922) popular outline all show that collective violence has always been with us. For the statistical taste, there are Sorokin's (1957) historical tabulations. Our societies have evolved; knowledge has grown, science has developed, technology has expanded and matured. Only our collective violence has not evolved. The forms we know now were there at the beginning of recorded history, and although I know of no quantitative survey, I have the impression that the extent of violence today is little different from ancient times.9

But history is the record of phenomena, of manifestations, of observations. That a phenomenon has always been part of the human record does not prove inevitability. This is not true of slavery that has historically plagued humanity, but is now virtually eradicated; nor is it true of our presumed physical limits ("we will never fly" or "leave the earth"). Is collective violence different? Is something virtually intrinsic to society usually reflected in the historical record, mirroring our free will and nature?

I believe that for all practical purposes, and especially in modern times, there is. This is our morality, our practical reason, our superego. Collective violence is now generally organized violence between collective oughts. We who share similar interests about how society ought to be structured, about the best policies of government, or how to improve our lot, organize into groups. Whether ideological, theological, nationalistic, or racial, violence between groups is ultimately altruistic or fraternal. It is violence over what ought to be.10 It is believed wrong that some are wealthy while many are poor, that private property be taken away, that a minority elite rule, that workers be exploited, that people live in sin, that they have our land, just to give a partial historical list representing human values. It is true that many, like international mercenaries, participate in collective violence for selfish gain and profit, because of frustrations or to satisfy a need for adventure. But usually the basis of such collective violence is ultimately a question of which ought will prevail. Today, collective violence is generally righteous violence.11

This basis, or in terms of the conflict helix, this balancing of powers manifesting violence, is intrinsic to us as social animals. It connects our fundamental needs (protectiveness, self-assertiveness), morality (superego and self-esteem), and will. For the essence of our free will is that we can conceive of an ought that does not exist among phenomena.12

It is inconceivable that humans will not always differ with respect to class memberships held and moralities espoused.13 People are willing to risk death and deprivation for what they deem right14 and will organize to fight for these beliefs.15 It is therefore a logical conclusion that collective violence in one form or another will always be with us. This is a human necessity of practical reason and altruism,16 a necessity of individually perceived justice, a necessity for the evolution of society.

This is not to say that the degree of violence of whatever form will remain the same. Some societies are much more violent than others and the study of comparative violence would show that although we cannot totally eliminate collective violence from human society, we can minimize it. The key to doing this is recognition of the variety of conflict helices people can form in society, the role of interests and will in them, and how these function in different kinds of societies.

As documented and elaborated elsewhere (Power Kills), in the spontaneous society created where exchange power dominates, interests are divided and cross-pressured (Section 7.1 of Chapter 7) by the diversity of groups: associations, leagues, clubs, organizations, institutions, and the like. Across these multifold and intersecting groups people are in different positions of power and form many different conflict helices. Moreover, the government is only one of many pyramids of power. The result is that people do not form overwhelming social--collective--interests in any one direction and a strong resolution (will) to achieve any one. What violence occurs as the result of one helix being disrupted, therefore, is usually isolated to local disputes or a small set of issues. A violent strike at a Ford plant, for example, will not spread across industries and engulf the whole country, ending in a general strike, and perhaps bring about the violent downfall of government. While the freedom of an exchange society with its spontaneous relationships and interactions will not assure the end of some violence, it normally will reduce it to isolated events at the margins.

Now consider the opposite type of society, an antifield. Where coercion reigns, where the government totally controls all meaningful aspects of society (as in communist North Korea), where as a result all issue are a matter of them (those in power) versus us, where as a result there is effectively one conflict helix involving the power elite versus the rest of society, then the magnitude and extent of violence can engulf and overwhelm normal society. Even a minor matter in a remote district would of necessity involve the government's powers and therefore could escalate to revolutionary violence. A strike at a steel mill (government owned and run, of course), for example, becomes a crisis of legitimacy for the power elite, a strike to be settled by all the force necessary. Where government controls all, there are no other pyramids of power (such as the church or universities) or independent overlapping groups to mediate, moderate, or contain violence.

While to argue that violence is inevitable may seem a pessimistic conclusion, this analysis really holds out hope for a much less violent future. The promise lies in fostering the individual freedom of an exchange society with its minimum libertarian (liberal democratic) government. Given the diversity of humanity, of each person with his different and subjective perception, interests, capability, and will, minimizing violence is a practical matter of maximizing the possibility of each of us working out our own structures of expectations. The answer to the inevitability of collective violence is to promote individual freedom and reduce centralized power. 


* Scanned from Chapter 9 in R.J. Rummel, Conflict In Perspective, 1977. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. Heraclitus, as quoted in Burnet (1957:136).

2. Bertalanffy (1928).


Philosophy cannot give up its search for a fundamental unity in this ideal world. But it does not confound this unity with simplicity. It does not overlook the tensions and frictions, the strong contrasts and deep conflicts between our various powers. These cannot be reduced to a common denominator. They tend in different directions and obey different principles. But this multiplicity and disparateness does not denote discord or disharmony. All these functions complete and complement one another. Each one opens a new horizon and shows us a new aspect of humanity. The dissonant is in harmony with itself; the contraries are not mutually exclusive, but interdependent: "harmony in contrariety, as in the case of the bow and the lyre."
---- Cassirer, 1944:228.

Consider also the work of Nishida Kitaro, perhaps Japan's greatest modern philosopher, who made the unity of opposites a fundamental of his philosophy. See, for example, Nishida (1958).

4. For the argument that nonassertion of power lies at the base of many severe psychological problems, see May (1972).

5. Recall that an ingredient in coercive power is intentionality. We may do certain undesirable things because we dislike making our mate or friend unhappy or angry. Moreover, a raised eyebrow or a laugh on us may be a potential negative sanction compelling us to act in ways we would otherwise avoid. Such "sanctions" are, however, unintentional. They are the identive power of the other.

6. For an elaboration of such an exchange society, see Rothbard (1973).

7. This is the profound fallacy in the argument that a world government having a monopoly over force would be a way to peace. Under such a government, what used to be war between nations could metamorphosize into some other form of collective violence, such as global revolution, guerrilla warfare, or elite terrorism. The domestic history of governments has not been without large-scale collective violence exceeding the violence of war. The question is not one of eliminating international violence through world government, but whether the risks of violence overall are thereby lessened, and whether other cultural or personal values thus sacrificed are worth the assumed increment of peace.

8. Many of the volumes were written with Ariel Durant. For their conclusion about history, see Durant and Durant (1968).

9. We do know that the frequency of war has remained the same since the early 19th century. See Singer and Small (1972) and Richardson (1960b).

10. Omitted

11. See Section 4.4 of Chapter 4 .

12. Many deterministic social scientists who assert that oughts cannot be logically derived from existential statements (is/ought dichotomy) do not realize that this position entails free will. For if phenomena constitute the world of cause and effect, of natural laws, and if our oughts cannot be derived from phenomena, then some oughts must be a spontaneous product of our reason. Consider the rights to freedom of religion and of the press, of private property, or to happiness. The value that no person should be the slave of another is not a matter of evolved cultural experience. The enslavement of some by others was once considered the order of nature. Only through the creation of the concept of human equality by the Jews and its dissemination through Christianity was the idea of the "rightness" of slavery eventually eroded.

13. Even if a world totalitarian system were to thoroughly brainwash nearly everyone into an antlike society, the elite themselves would have different oughts. And these would lead inexorably to different organizations and eventual violence, such as the total purging of one side by another. The history of modern communist societies shows what can happen. See, for example, Conquest (1968).

14. It is unfortunate that the psychologist and ethologist have had more influence on contemporary scientific views of violence than the humanist. By mistakenly emphasizing aggression and frustration, the noble and dignifying dimension of much violence has been ignored. We often collectively fight for what we believe is right, for justice,

15. It is in not recognizing this that classical liberals and current anarcho-libertarians commit their major error. If people feet that the authoritative class--those who head private or public organizations--should not be rich, no matter how well earned by merit or by satisfying consumer demands, people will organize to redistribute wealth. Such organized power can be met only by countervailing power, whether of a government or of a private defense organization that in effect functions as a government. The history of the vigilante movements in the American West during the 19th century shows what happens even when state powers are lacking.

16. Again, this is not to deny free will but to acknowledge it. Collective violence is often the affirmation of our free will, an assertion of our freedom from causal nature.

For citations see the Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective REFERENCES

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