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by H.G. WellsJanuary 29th, 2023
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What is the meaning of war in life? War is manifestly not a thing in itself, it is something correlated with the whole fabric of human life. That violence and killing which between animals of the same species is private and individual becomes socialized in war. It is a co-operation for killing that carries with it also a co-operation for saving and a great development of mutual help and development within the war-making group.
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First and Last Things by H. G. Wells, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. WAR AND COMPETITION


What is the meaning of war in life?

War is manifestly not a thing in itself, it is something correlated with the whole fabric of human life. That violence and killing which between animals of the same species is private and individual becomes socialized in war. It is a co-operation for killing that carries with it also a co-operation for saving and a great development of mutual help and development within the war-making group.

War, it seems to me, is really the elimination of violent competition as between man and man, an excretion of violence from the developing social group. Through war and military organization, and through war and military organization only, has it become possible to conceive of peace.

This violence was a necessary phase in human and indeed in all animal development. Among low types of men and animals it seems an inevitable condition of the vigour of the species and the beauty of life. The more vital and various individual must lead and prevail, leave progeny and make the major contribution to the synthesis of the race; the weaker individual must take a subservient place and leave no offspring. That means in practice that the former must directly or indirectly kill the latter until some mitigated but equally effectual substitute for that killing is invented. That duel disappears from life, the fight of the beasts for food and the fight of the bulls for the cows, only by virtue of its replacement by new forms of competition. With the development of primitive war we have such a replacement. The competition becomes a competition to serve and rule in the group, the stronger take the leadership and the larger share of life, and the weaker co-operate in subordination, they waive and compromise the conflict and use their conjoint strength against a common rival.

Competition is a necessary condition of progressive life. I do not know if so far I have made that belief sufficiently clear in these confessions. Perhaps in my anxiety to convey my idea of a human synthesis I have not sufficiently insisted upon the part played by competition in that synthesis. But the implications of the view that I have set forth are fairly plain. Every individual, I have stated, is an experiment for the synthesis of the species, and upon that idea my system of conduct so far as it is a system is built. Manifestly the individual’s function is either self-development, service and reproduction, or failure and an end.

With moral and intellectual development the desire to serve and participate in a collective purpose arises to control the blind and passionate impulse to survival and reproduction that the struggle for life has given us, but it does not abolish the fact of selection, of competition. I contemplate no end of competition. But for competition that is passionate, egoistic and limitless, cruel, clumsy and wasteful, I desire to see competition that is controlled and fair-minded and devoted, men and women doing their utmost with themselves and making their utmost contribution to the specific accumulation, but in the end content to abide by a verdict.

The whole development of civilization, it seems to me, consists in the development of adequate tests of survival and of an intellectual and moral atmosphere about those tests so that they shall be neither cruel nor wasteful. If the test is not to be ‘are you strong enough to kill everyone you do not like?’ that will only be because it will ask still more comprehensively and with regard to a multitude of qualities other than brute killing power, ‘are you adding worthily to the synthesis by existence and survival?’

I am very clear in my mind on this perpetual need of competition. I admit that upon that turns the practicability of all the great series of organizing schemes that are called Socialism. The Socialist scheme must show a system in which predominance and reproduction are correlated with the quality and amount of an individual’s social contribution, and so far I acknowledge it is only in the most general terms that this can be claimed as done. We Socialists have to work out all these questions far more thoroughly than we have done hitherto. We owe that to our movement and the world.

It is no adequate answer to our antagonists to say, indeed it is a mere tu quoque to say, that the existing system does not present such a correlation, that it puts a premium on secretiveness and self-seeking and a discount on many most necessary forms of social service. That is a mere temporary argument for a delay in judgment.

The whole history of humanity seems to me to present a spectacle of this organizing specialization of competition, this replacement of the indiscriminate and collectively blind struggle for life by an organized and collectively intelligent development of life. We see a secular replacement of brute conflict by the law, a secular replacement of indiscriminate brute lust by marriage and sexual taboos, and now with the development of Socialistic ideas and methods, the steady replacement of blind industrial competition by public economic organization. And moreover there is going on a great educational process bringing a greater and greater proportion of the minds of the community into relations of understanding and interchange.

Just as this process of organization proceeds, the violent and chaotic conflict of individuals and presently of groups of individuals disappears, personal violence, private war, cut-throat competition, local war, each in turn is replaced by a more efficient and more economical method of survival, a method of survival giving constantly and selecting always more accurately a finer type of survivor.

I might compare the social synthesis to crystals growing out of a fluid matrix. It is where the growing order of the crystals has as yet not spread that the old resource to destruction and violent personal or associated acts remains.

But this metaphor of crystals is a very inadequate one, because crystals have no will in themselves; nor do crystals, having failed to grow in some particular form, presently modify that form more or less and try again. I see the organizing of forces, not simply law and police which are indeed paid mercenaries from the region of violence, but legislation and literature, teaching and tradition, organized religion, getting themselves and the social structure together, year after year and age after age, halting, failing, breaking up in order to try again. And it seems to me that the amount of lawlessness and crime, the amount of waste and futility, the amount of war and war possibility and war danger in the world are just the measure of the present inadequacy of the world’s system of collective organization to the purpose before them.

It follows from this very directly that only one thing can end war on the earth and that is a subtle mental development, an idea, the development of the idea of the world commonweal in the collective mind. The only real method of abolishing war is to perceive it, to realize it, to express it, to think it out and think about it, to make all the world understand its significance, and to clear and preserve its significant functions. In human affairs to understand an evil is to abolish it; it is the only way to abolish any evil that arises out of the untutored nature of man. Which brings me back here again to my already repeated persuasion, that in expressing things, rendering things to each other, discussing our differences, clearing up the metaphysical conceptions upon which differences are discussed, and in a phrase evolving the collective mind, lies not only the cures of war and poverty but the general form of all a man’s duty and the essential work of mankind.

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This book is part of the public domain. H. G. Wells (2009). First and Last Things: A Confession of Faith and Rule of Life. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022,

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