Social Process

Chapter 4: Conflict and Co-operation

Charles Horton Cooley

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FROM the perennial discussion regarding the meaning of conflict in life two facts clearly emerge: first, that conflict is inevitable, and, second, that it is capable of a progress under which more humane, rational, and co-operative forms supplant those which are less so. We are born to struggle as the sparks fly upward, but not necessarily to brutality and waste.

Vivere militare est; even the gentlest spirits have felt that life is an eternal strife. Jesus came to bring not peace but a sword, and the Christian life has always been likened to that of a soldier.

"Sure I must fight if I would reign,
Increase my courage, Lord ! "

The thing is to fight a good fight, one that leaves life better than it found it. In the individual and in the race as a whole there is an onward spirit that from birth to the grave is ever working against opposition. A cloud of disease germs surrounds us which we beat off only by the superior vigor of our own blood-corpuscles, and to which as our organism weakens in age we inevitably succumb. It is much the same in the psychological sphere.

(36) Every meeting with men is, in one way or another, a demand on our energy, a form of conflict, and when we are weakened and nervous we cannot withstand the eyes of mankind but seek to avoid them by seclusion.

The love that pervades life, if it is affirmative and productive, works itself out through struggle, and the best marriage is a kind of strife. The sexes are as naturally antagonistic as they are complementary, and it is precisely in their conflict that a passionate intimacy is found. We require opposition to awaken and direct our faculties, and can hardly exert ourselves without it. "What we agree with leaves us inactive," said Goethe, "but contradiction makes us productive." Stanley, the explorer of Africa, writes: "When a man returns home and finds for the moment nothing to struggle against, the vast resolve which has sustained him through a long and difficult enterprise dies away, burning as it sinks in the heart; and thus the greatest successes are often accompanied by a peculiar melancholy." [1]

It is apparent that both conflict and co-operation have their places in our process of organic growth. As forces become organized they co-operate, but it is through a selective method, involving conflict, that this is brought about. Such a method compares the available forces, develops the ones most fitted to the situation, and compels others to seek functions where, presumably, they can serve the organism better. There seems to be no other way for life to move ahead. And a good kind of co-operation is never static, but a modus vivendi under which we go on to new sorts of opposition and growth. People may be said to agree in order that their conflict may be more

(37) intimate and fruitful, otherwise there is no life in the relation.[2]

The two are easily seen to be inseparable in every-day practice. When, for example, people have come together to promote social improvement, the first thing to do is to elect officers. This may not involve a conflict, but the principle is there, and the more earnestness there is, the more likelihood of opposition. Then there must be a discussion of principles and programme, with occasional ballots to see which view has won. I remember reading of several rather serious conflicts within societies for the promotion of peace, and churches and philanthropic movements are not at all lacking in such incidents.

Co-operation within a whole is usually brought about by some conflict of the whole with outside forces. Just as the individual is compelled to self-control by the fact that he cannot win his way in life unless he can make his energies work harmoniously, so in a group of any sort, from a football-team to an empire, success demands coordination. The boys on the playground learn not only that they must strive vigorously with their fellows for their places on the team, but also that as soon as their team meets another this kind of conflict must yield to a common service of the whole. In no way do working people get more discipline in fellowship and co-operation than in carrying through a strike. The more intelligent students recognize some measure of conflict between capital and labor as functional and probably lasting. Like the struggle of political parties it is a normal proc-

( 38) -ess, through which issues are defined and institutions developed.

And likewise with nations. Their enlargement and consolidation, throughout history, including the remarkable development of internal organization and external co-operation due to the great war, have almost invariably been occasioned by the requirements of conflict. And if we are to have a lasting world-federation it must preserve. while controlling, the principle of national struggle.

A factor of co-operation, of organization, always presides over conflict and fixes its conditions. There is never a state of utter chaos but always a situation which is the outcome of the organic development of the past, and to this the contestants of the hour must adjust themselves in order to succeed. That this is the case when the situation includes definite rules, as in athletic contests, is manifest. But the control of the social organization over conflict goes far beyond such rules, operating even more through a general situation in which certain modes of conflict are conducive to success and others are not. In business the customary practices and opinions must be observed as carefully as the laws, if one would not find every man's hand against him, and the same is true in sports, in professional careers, in manual trades, in every sphere whatsoever.

Even in war, which is the nearest approach to anarchy that we have on any large scale, it is not the case that a presiding order is wholly absent. Any nation which defies the rooted sentiment of mankind as to what is fair in this form of conflict, regarding no law but that of force, sets in operation against itself currents of distrust and resentment that in the long run will overbear any temporary

( 39) gain. The most truculent states so far understand this that they try to give their aggressions the appearance of justice.

The more one thinks of it the more he will see that conflict and co-operation are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involves something of both. Life, seen largely, is an onward struggle in which now one of these phases and now another may be more conspicuous, but from which neither can be absent.

You can resolve the social order into a great number of co-operative wholes of various sorts, each of which includes conflicting elements within itself upon which it is imposing some sort of harmony with a view to conflict with other wholes. Thus the mind of a man is full of wrangling impulses, but his struggle with the world requires that he act as a unit. A labor-union is made up of competing and disputing members; but they must manage to agree when it comes to a struggle with the employer. And employer and employees, whatever their struggles, must and do combine into a whole for the competition of their plant against others. The competing plants, however, unite through boards of trade or similar bodies to further the interests of their city against those of other cities. And so the political factions of a nation may be at the height of conflict, but if they are loyal they unite at once when war breaks out with another country.

And war itself is not all conflict, but often generates a mutual interest and respect, a "sympathy of concussion." A scholar who perished in the trenches of the German army in France wrote: " Precisely when one has to face suffering as I do, it is then a bond of union enlaces me with those who are over there—on the other side...

( 40) If I get out of this—but I have little hope—my dearest duty will be to plunge into the study of what those who have been our enemies think." It is not impossible to think of the battling nations as struggling onward toward some common end which they cannot see. They slay one another, but they put a common faith and loyalty into the conflict; and out of the latter may come a clearer view of the common right. It is a moral experiment to which each contributes and defends its own hypothesis, and if the righteous cause wins , or the righteous elements in each cause, all will profit by the result. So it was with the American Civil War, as we all feel now. North and South say: " We differed as to what was right. It had to be fought out. There might have been another way if our minds had been otherwise, but as it was the way to unity lay through blood,"

Much has been said, from time to time, about our age being one of combination, in the economic world at least , and of the decline of competition. It would be more exact to say that both combination and competition have been taking on new forms, but without any general change in the relation between them. What happens, for example, when a trust is formed to unite heretofore competing plants, is that unification takes place along a new line for the purpose of aiding certain interests in their conflict for aggrandizement. It is merely a new alignment of forces, and has no tendency toward a general decline of competition. Indeed every such trust not only fights outside competitors, but deliberately fosters manifold competition within its system, for the sake of exciting exertion and efficiency. The different plants are still played off one against the other, as are also the different departments, the different foremen in each department, and the

( 41) different workmen. By an elaborate system of accounting, every man and every group is led to measure its work against that of other men and other groups, and to struggle for superiority. And the great combinations themselves have not been and will not be left at Peace. If they absorb all their competitors they will have to deal with the state, which can never permit any form of power to go unchecked.

It is evident that the vigor of the struggle is proportionate to the human energy that goes into it, and that we cannot expect tranquillity. It does not follow, however, that the amount of conflict is a measure of progress. The function of struggle is to work out new forms of cooperation, and if it does not achieve this but goes on in a blind and aimless way after the time for readjustment has arrived, it becomes mere waste. Synthesis also takes energy, and very commonly a higher or more rational form of energy than conflict. Critics of the present state of things are wrong when they condemn competition altogether, but they are right in condemning many present forms of it. Extravagant and fallacious advertising, price-cutting conflicts, the exploitation of children and squandering of natural resources, not to mention wars, indicate a failure of the higher constructive functions. Indeed the irrational continuance of such methods exhausts the energies that should put an end to them, just as dissipation exhausts a man's power of resistance, so that the more he indulges himself the less able he is to stop.

Evidently progress is to be looked for not in the suppression of conflict but in bringing it under rational con-

( 42) -trol. To do this calls for some sort of a social constitution, formal or informal, covering the sphere of struggle, a whole that is greater than the conflicting elements and capable of imposing regulation upon them. This regulation must be based on principles broad enough to provide for pacific change and adaptation, to meet new conditions. So far as we can achieve this we may expect that struggle will rise to higher forms, war giving place to judicial procedure, a selfish struggle for existence to emulation in service, a wasteful and disorderly competition to one that is rational and efficient. Our past development has been in this direction, and we may hope to continue it.

But the current of events is ever bringing to pass unforeseen changes, and if these are great and sudden they may again throw us into a disorderly struggle, just as a panic in a theatre may convert an assemblage of polite and considerate people into a ruthless mob. Something of this kind has taken place in connection with the industrial revolution, bringing on a confusion and demoralization from which we have only partly emerged. Another case is where a conflict, for whose orderly conduct the organization does not provide, having long developed beneath the surface in the shape of antagonistic ideals and institutions, breaks out disastrously at last, as did the Civil War in the United States, or the great war in Europe. We can provide against this only in the measure that we foresee and control the process in which we live. If we can do this we may look for an era of deliberate and assured progress in which conflict is confined and utilized like fire under the boiler.


  1. Autobiography of Henry M. Stanley, M. 535.
  2. Among the writers who have expounded conflict and co-operation as Phases of a single organic process are J. Novicow, in Les luttes entre sociétés humaines, and Lester F. Ward, in Pure Sociology. Professor Lad. Bristol gives a summary of their views in his Social Adaptation.

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