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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2017

Social structure and naval power: Britain and the Netherlands

from La politique maritime et l'idéologie


ABSTRACT. This contribution shows that there is an interaction between the nature of society, the nature of the political system and the nature of military activities. Societies adopting the trade dynamics, based upon an opened, social and political system, with a strong implication of the middle classes, have been able to benefit from a virtuous circle of growth based on the maritime development of a strong naval force, contrary to the closed states which rely on their autocratic institutions, a strong land army and a rural economy.

RÉSUMÉ. Cette contribution montre qu'il y a interaction entre la nature de la société, la nature du système politique, et la nature des activités militaires. Les sociétés s'inscrivant dans une dynamique commerciale, fondée sur un système social et politique ouvert, avec une forte implication des classes moyennes, ont été en mesure de profiter d'un cercle vertueux de croissance fondé sur le développement maritime et l'édification d'une puissante force navale, à la différence des états fermés reposant sur des institutions de nature autocratique, une puissante armée de terre et une économie rurale.

It is not entirely original to note that different kinds of social organisation fit naturally with different kinds of armed force. Aristotle, to look no further back, was clear that ‘light-armed troops and the navy are wholly on the side of democracy’, because the oarsmen of Greek warships were drawn from the poor free citizens, who had nothing to contribute to the war effort but their muscles, whereas the cavalry and infantry were recruited from the well-to-do who could afford horses, armour and weapons. It is worth the historian considering whether such a linkage can be established in later European history. Is it mere coincidence that in the English and Dutch cases naval power was associated with forms of representative government, while the great military powers (France, Prussia, Russia, Austria) were all autocratic monarchies? It is a matter of observation that army officers have traditionally been noblemen or gentlemen, while navies have tended to be run by middle-class professionals on whom the aristocratic concept of honour sat somewhat awkwardly. Is this coincidence, or is it in the nature of a navy to favour constitutional rather than autocratic government? If there is a connection, which is cause and which effect?

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