Beyond conflict

In the following article, I argue against the pessimistic idea of the irresolvable conflict, against the great unwisdom that holds conflict to be an inevitable part of human societies. I attempt to lay out the most basic causes for conflict, and the kind of vigorous reasoning, debate and tolerance that is needed – practically speaking – to move beyond them.

Most political theories involve certain presuppositions. One of these is that there are conflicts that are more or less irresolvable, that arise as it were from the nature of things. Class conflicts, national or territorial conflicts, religious conflicts, might be cited here… There are of course different types of conflict; and each group or movement tends to put them into their own hierarchy.

The existence of conflicts of all kinds is an evident fact. But must we resign ourselves to it, and believe that conflict is inseparable from “human nature” or from human societies? There have been numerous conflicts that in their time were judged insurmountable, but that were eventually solved. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics suggests that a serious ideological difference can be resolved; as does the nationalistic antagonism between the French and the Germans… The world is full of old enemies that have made lasting peace with one another. One of the presuppositions of “active tolerance” is that well-led discussion enables real progress, particularly toward the resolution of differences. But this assumption is far from being shared by many; it is even considered naïve to most people. Can we resolve the conflicts that tear apart humanity? Or are some conflicts irreducible, leaving no choice except power struggle? This question is not an object of “belief”, but can be advanced by the precise study of kinds of conflict and possible ways of resolving them.

Most political theories posit that there are some conflicts that are more or less irresolvable, stemming in some way from the nature of things. One could cite class conflicts, national or territorial conflicts, religious conflicts…

There are of course different types of conflicts, and each ideological group tends to organize them into a hierarchy. Thus a neo-conservative, following Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”, may say that religious conflicts are very important; a nationalist would stress national conflicts; and a Marxist would consider that class conflict determines the rest. Most of the time, each ideological group affirms that these conflicts cannot be resolved by dialogue, since they are based on irreconcilable differences.

Finally, one might think that the dominant class tries to impose their law onto those beneath them, and that it can’t accept losing their advantage (financial advantage, yes, but perhaps also a psychological one—the ability to impose their power without restriction).

The political sphere is then reduced to a system of power struggle, and each collectivity considers itself an ensemble that fights others—more or less violently—in order to promote its interests, its class, its nation, or even its religion…

The idea that conflicts are irreducible remains a presupposition, one that is based on several types of arguments:

-  1) the notion of diverging interests;

-  2) the notion of the antagonism of values

-  3) the importance accorded to cultural or national “identities”

-  4) the idea that man craves power and domination…

Yet, all these factors—if they do exist—represent fractures that can be mended.

Typology of Conflicts

1). Conflicts of Interest

The idea of fighting over special interests presupposes that there is a group in whose interest it is to monopolize wealth and goods, and to oppress other people (a dominant class, or a subjugated nation). This vision of things appears “obvious”. Those who are privileged cling to their privileges—by force if need be—and discussion is not going to convince them to let them go. This is what’s said by the partisans of class conflict, or of nationalistic conflict (in this case “wealth” is replaced by “oppressive nations” or “enemy nations”, which dialogue won’t induce to give up territories or resources).

The idea of fighting between nations follows a similar schema to that of class conflict. Instead of declaring that interest solidifies the classes, it presupposes that it is the inhabitants of one country that are in solidarity.

Conflicts of interest oppose groups considered homogenous from other such groups. One might say that the “dominating” and the “dominated” have interests in opposition to one another. So be it. But is it quite clear that each individual can be placed into a definite group? We’ve known for ages that the middle classes of the rich European countries have an ambiguous place. Are they in solidarity with the poor from third-world countries, or with the European nations? The supposed solidarity uniting each class, beyond the borders of a country, begs numerous questions and poses a problem for internationalist theories. But we cannot fall into nationalism either, and consider that before everything else, the individual is in solidarity with his fellow citizens. I might after all feel closer to relatives living in other countries, or even to the people of my faith, than the citizens of the country in which I live… One quickly realizes how difficult it is to identify which “group” a given individual should be identified with. Is it a question of nationalities? Of members of the same class, across different borders? In a world where everyone has multiple allegiances, ideas of nationalism as wells as of class turn out to be reductive. The conflicts apparently irresolvable that these doctrines define rely on notions that are no longer coherent. Of course there are conflicts of interests and of nations, which determine the “sides”. But these conflicts are changeful, and the individuals who find themselves in a position of class or in solidarity with a nation at a given moment, will find themselves in another place and connected to other things at a different moment. We cannot see individuals as statically belonging to a given class, or even nation or religion. (On this subject see Amin Maalouf’s essential book Les identités meurtrières).

To finish, one might object to this vision of the conflict of interests on the grounds that there is an entire tradition which speaks of common interests, or even a common Good, enabling the reconciliation different collectivities—such as classes or nations.

Thus, facing the rise of ecological perils, we see China as well as the United States coming to ecological theories and beginning to take measures to avoid climatic disorder. All inhabitants of the earth have converging interests; the preservation of water for example, or biodiversity, or fertile land, etc.

Key response: the existence of the common good, and moral imperative of justice present to most people.

I affirm that the conflict of interest is solvable by a notion of sharing. The exception is when the rarity of resources is such that the survival of one people comes at the cost of another people’s survival. In this case, sharing becomes impossible. But in the measure that humanity has the means of feeding 10 billion people, or furnishing each individual with the means of surviving, particularly with technological advances, the problem of conflict presents itself in reasonable terms. For an irresolvable conflict of antagonistic interests, we may substitute a conflict solvable by discussion, where we would organize production and the distribution of wealth, keeping in mind ecological and judicial constraints. Here we would be coming back to a strong tradition of reform:

“ […] Jaurès profoundly differentiates himself from Marxist thought. Indeed, for Jaurès, the State’s function is to aid the two classes. Thus, with regard to the capitalist upper-middle class, the State—which is not the expression of this sole class—must make economic business more efficient. […] On the other hand, concerning the proletarian class, the democratic State must set the framework for freedom of expression, and the possibilities of change in proportion with the strength and breadth of its cause. […] Under the pressure of a growing number of proletarians, the democratic state is going to be forced to take social measures, as well as decisions that will meet capitalist interest […] The two classes will realize that their interest is bound up with the collective interest” (which, here, is to increase production).

Extract from Jacques Ellul, Les successeurs de Marx (Cours professé l’Institut d’Etudes politiques de Bordeaux), éd. La Table Ronde, pages 49-50.

2). The conflicts of values and/or religions

- One could claim that the real conflicts are those between “civilizations”. This is the famous idea of Samuel Huntington, identifying every civilization as a coherent block, representative of a kind of irreducible unity, struggling to survive and affirm itself. The solution advocated by Huntington consists of finding a form of multi-polar balance, with each culture giving up trying to impose its model on others and accepting certain multicultural exchanges.

But his ideas have been widely criticized, inasmuch that closed civilizations do not exist; exchanges, population flux, the plurality of groups to which an individual belongs,—all this deconstructs these artificial blocks, which cannot no longer be considered as in opposition to one another (except by imagining the fiction of closed borders, total obstructions to the flow of information, etc.).

- At bottom, the notion of “the clash of civilizations” mixes two types of conflict: the supposed conflict of “identity” (between different lifestyles, cultures, and social mores), and the conflict of values, in the sense (for example) in which believers and atheists could oppose each other by their fundamental values (the Holy Book and the will of God for the former, the Constitution and the Rights of Man for the latter).

Yet, if we think about it, conflicts of “identity” resolve themselves a priori through a peaceful coexistence, between languages, mores, cuisines, etc. At this level we could say that it’s a matter of personal choices, which should not bother others. Secular thought allows for the coexistence and the practice of diverse religions, demonstrating a rational solution to this type of conflict, which exists only when one group tries to impose its way of life onto other people. On the other hand, since Max Weber, we believe that “conflicts of values are irreducible”.[1]

Certainly, it’s impossible to claim to have found a “solution” to a problem of morality, politics or art in the way that one could when facing a scientific problem. It is not sufficient to reunite the experts to let them find the right answer to our problems in the social and political world—or in the metaphysical one for that matter. Duly noted.

“Confronting science, which accords the privilege of rationality only to scientific and technical knowledge, the ethics of discussion enlarges the field of argumentation and integrates the practical domain.” [2]

This is also the case with Popperian fallibility:

“[…] thanks to a discussion animated by the ideal of justice, the choice of one norm as more just than another could nevertheless be founded upon an examination of the consequences of adopting such or such value. Between the scientific decision and the rational decision, there would be place for the reasonable decision […]” [3]

Key response: The search for the Truth and the accepting of differences, as constituents of humankind—or as, if we are of faith, “the will of God”.

We think that conflicts of values can be resolved in peaceful ways: research and debate (everyone expounds his or are arguments, a little like in the Middle Ages when sages from the three monotheistic religions gathered together and attempted to find the truest religious path); and the discovery of common practices or values, beyond the divergences (this is the sense of Kwame Appiah’s work in his manifesto Toward a New Cosmopolitanism, or, in another way, the sense of esotericism when it affirms that religions transmit the same message, etc. See for example F. Schuon’s On the Transcendental Unity of Religions).

On certain points, I don’t share Appiah’s optimism. According to him, it’s habit and life in common which will allow us to accept different values. I believe on the contrary that we need a sustained political willpower in order to move past these differences and create a link. This won’t happen by itself; and it’s the very urgency of the situation that justifies the lancing of a movement for active tolerance, allowing cosmopolitanism to realize itself.

3). The Will to Power

- Here the essential motif of conflict is no longer the survival of humankind or even the belief in an ideology. The ultimate cause of conflict is posited as residing in the need to be recognized and to dominate, which are considered finalities. There would be groups and individuals with whom we cannot reason because they want to impose their domination, and it’s this exercise of pure force that constitutes their jouissance. This vision of things is pushed to the extreme by some, who affirm that individuals are possessed of an insatiable thirst to affirm themselves, regardless even of their own life. I’m thinking of Freud’s “death drive”, or the will-to-power of certain Nietzschians. “The true subject of The Illiad is war’s hold on those who make it, and, by extension, on all humans; no one knows why everyone sacrifices himself, and his own, to a murderous war without object […]. The vulgar moralists complain that man is led by his egotistical interest; would that this were so!” (In Simone Weil, Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression, Folio Gallimard).

At this point we begin to depart from reason, and even the instinct for survival. In that vision of things, there is within man himself an irrational force pushing him to affirm himself against others, to seek power for the sake of power. Ideological factors would be but pretexts for relaxing this urge toward death, which in general is curbed by society.

- One version of this idea, under the form of the irrational influence of power for the sake of power, can be found in conspiracy theories. For their partisans, there exist many malevolent and powerful groups who attempt to enslave humanity. Depending on the time period, the conspirators have been identified as Jewish, Jesuit, Zionist, Illuminati, etc. All these theories have in common the presupposition that there are individuals who are devoted to Evil. This idea seems more simplistic than the preceding version, which at least “democratized” the predatory tendency. To affirm the existence in society of Evil is to suppose the existence of a sort of partition in interior of humankind, no longer merely social but quasi-mystic, between “normal” people and a small minority of maleficent people whose soul is damned (whether they reside in the underground of the Vatican or in the White House changes nothing of the though mechanism in play here). Taguieff has pointed out the often esoteric roots of conspiracy theories (see P.A. Taguieff, La foire aux Illuminés, A Thousand and One Nights).

Key response: self-interest correctly understood, and “sympathy”

It is problematic to pose such a “death drive” or delirious desire of power, or any other name designating a purely irrational urge, as primary force within human beings. How could the evolution of the Darwinian man permit the emergence of such a drive? Without going too far in this debate, we can affirm that if this impulse toward death or domination exist, it is thwarted by self-interest correctly understood, an understanding which shows the impasse to which the delirious will to power is leading. We can therefore affirm, opposite to the desire of domination, both the need for the organism to assure its survival (and thus avoid suicidal behavior) and from the moral point of view, the desire to relate and unite itself to the Other. This is sympathy in the strong sense of the word, as put forth by Rousseau.

- With regard to conspiracy theories, I adhere to the idea of Socrates: “No one is mean voluntarily”. The powerful, even if the objective result of their behavior is oppression, have moral dispositions like any one else, that is to say shared between egoism, desire and altruism. I refuse to demonize them. Nevertheless, this attitude does not prevent me from staying open-minded and advocating contradictory debate, wherein conspiracy theories may be discussed rationally.


We are witnessing a struggle, going on inside of individuals and inside of groups, between irrational forces and the forces of reason. This apparently banal remark runs counter to the majority of ideas currently in vogue, which, as we’ve seen, presuppose a sort of impossibility to find any understanding and amity between adversaries.

Contrary to what the tenants of irremediable conflict claim, I think that forces pushing people toward dialogue and the establishment of harmonious relations exist everywhere. Nevertheless, in contrast to the utopian naïveté of dialogue without obstacles, we must also recognize the existence or important forces that tend to split us apart and sometimes kill dialogue. This essentially in two sets of circumstances:

- The unilateral exercise of force

- The rarity of resources

These configurations render active tolerance inoperable. Confronted with racist enslavers, or insane exterminators, discussion is not the solution! Obviously, I am distinguishing here between acts and ideas. For active tolerance, we must do everything possible to bring about rational debate, including when dealing with fascist or racist theories. It’s only when ideas pass into action that discussion is no longer proper. As Vidal-Naquet said, “one fights an Eichmann armed with paper with paper, one fights an Eichmann armed with weapons with weapons.” I have outlined in this article a non-violent path, and contested that conflicts of class, of nations, of civilizations, can be reduced—outside extreme cases—by rational discussion. A better understanding of the egotistical spirit of self-interest and the moral exigency of goodwill recognizes them as forces that move us toward a sense of rationality.

[1] Pages 107-108, in Max Weber, conférence « Le métier et la vocation de savant » (1919), in Le savant et le politique, trad. J. Freund, 10/18. 1996.

[2] Page 190, Adela Cortina, article sur « L’éthique de la discussion » in Les philosophies politiques contemporaines (sous la dir. d’ Alain Renaut), Calmann-Lévy 1999.

[3] Page 161-162, Sylvie Mesure, article sur « Rationalisme et faillibilisme », in Les philosophies politiques contemporaines, op.cit.