Martin van Creveld usually writes scholarly works on military history and other topics. This one, while scholarly in bearing and rich in citations, is breezier in tone. It could be assigned as a classroom text for an introductory Western Civilization course for freshmen. But you would run the risk of expulsion in most modern American universities today if you brought up either this book or its author to the wrong audience.
There’s a lot in this book that’s reminiscent of his earlier book, Rise and Decline of the State, but this is a bit more focused on ancient history as well as the more contemporary context. What this book doesn’t do is roundly proclaim that all forms of equality are bad and evil. What it does it put it into the proper historical context in which the term was once used. You may have read from other authors that contemporary Westerners tend to use equality in a ‘vulgar’ way, usually to mean a sort of magical equality in human potential, which includes possible equality in intelligence.
Regarding the Ancient Greeks, van Creveld writes:
An orderly life was only made possible by the fact that some had precedence over, and greater rights than, others. All over the socio-political ladder each individual had a place of his or her own as well as clearly distinct rights and duties. As long as those duties and those rights were upheld, peace, if not necessarily liberty and justice, prevailed.
He also speaks of the hypothetical origins of inequality in primitive society. Throughout history, ‘equality’ has tended to mean different things, and it usually only pertained to certain situations or within certain groups. The most powerful argument that he makes is towards the end of the book, in which he points out that equality is an essential concept in military life, but that it isn’t generally sustainable outside that context. Members of a military unit of similar ranks must be somewhat equal — else the army loses coherence. It can’t hold a formation in reality, or be conceived of in a useful way by officers, if there is no attempt to make those men more equal.
Without equality, cohesion is inconceivable. Cohesion, the ability to stick together and stay together through thick and thin, is the most important quality any military formation must have. Without it such a formation is but a loose gathering of men, incapable of coordinated action and easily scattered, and of little or no military use. In all well-organized armies at all times and places, the first step towards cohesion has always been to put everyone on an equal basis. Often the process starts when all new recruits are given the same haircut. Beards may have to be taken off, moustaches trimmed, piercings and jewelry discarded.
This is the proper understanding of equality: equality of rank within a hierarchy. It has a limited conceptual and practical utility that becomes wasted when thinkers apply the concept beyond its carrying capacity, so to speak.
There’s also a long discussion within this about the many utopian movements, particularly in America, but there’s also an extended examination of what actually happened on the kibbutzim of early modern Israel. The conclusion is that islands of equality can only be supported at the expense of the surrounding ordinary, hierarchical society. Further, most egalitarian communities either evolve into hierarchical ones or disintegrate.
Where the book is weak is in some of the technological prognostication. It reminded me of Fukuyama’s book on transhumanism at times, and seemed to fear far-off developments as if they were right up close.
The section in this which should hopefully break through to more of the mainstream right is the truly pernicious nature of the discriminatory ‘equality-making’ bureaucracies throughout the West. Criticizing the “minster for equality” in Britain, van Creveld writes:
Her real job, taken straight out of 1984, is to make sure men in general and able-bodied heterosexual ones in particular are discriminated against as much as possible. A brave new world is rapidly being built. Like it or not, it is the one in which our children and grandchildren will have to live in.
There’s also a meaty section on the near-banning of research into human genetics which threatens to have any politically incorrect results. The author relates some anecdotes of scientists who submit findings to hundreds of journals, and find them rejected. This is how censorship in state science tends to occur — it’s through a combination of omission and commission, to deliver an official truth which only winds up promoting stagnancy and lack of trust in the institutions charged with guarding scientific norms of truth-speaking.
By Martin van Creveld
282 pp. Castalia House. $6.99