The Polish-Austrian sociologist and political theorist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) is considered one of the more significant "conflict" theorists in sociology.
Ludwig Gumplowicz was born on March 9, 1838, the son of prominent Polish Jews living in Cracow. His early career was as a journalist, but in 1875 he began his university career as a teacher of law at Graz, where he remained until shortly before his death.
Gumplowicz viewed sociology as the study of groups in conflict. Sociology was dominated by the social Darwinists, who crudely applied Charles Darwin's theories of "the survival of the fittest" and "the struggle for existence" to the development of human societies. Gumplowicz and others refined the application of these theories to society into a sociological system known as conflict theory. The theory, now considered to be somewhat dated, exercised an extraordinary influence in political, social, and legal studies, an influence which continues to this day.
Gumplowicz's theories played a major role in reorienting American political science away from the study of public law and the structure of government and toward the process of politics by focusing on interest groups.
Gumplowicz minimized the importance of the autonomous individual, viewing him in a Marxist deterministic manner. The individual never functions as individual but only as a member of a group, the influence of which determines his behavior. Thus social change and the development of history are entirely the products of social groups, their conflicts being analogous to the biological struggle for existence, with the result being growth. Human history, however, does not develop linearly but—as in all nature— cyclically, from birth, to growth, to maturation, to decline, to death, and then begins a new cycle.
According to Gumplowicz, the state originates in the conflict among races, which in turn are simply primitive groups. At the outset of his Outlines of Sociology he describes the foundation of the state:"Every political organization and hence every developing organization, begins when one group permanently subjects another. Subjection of some to the others is the source of political organization, is the condition essential to social growth." According to Lester Ward, this principle constitutes the cornerstone of Gumplowicz's theory.
Gumplowicz argued that there are no natural rights antecedent to the state, all rights being of the civil type only, that is, existing to the extent that they happen to be guaranteed by a particular state. The history of every nation is one of class conflict in which the fittest necessarily survive and dominate the less fit. Each group strives to become the controlling group within the state, the only motive being self-interest.
The same principles are applied to the behavior of states as to groups. Their most natural tendency is incessant increase of power, and territorial expansion is the expression of the very being of a state and is so inevitable that rulers and people are powerless to resist it. Gumplowicz also gave currency to the terms "syngenism" and "ethnocentrism."
Ironically, since Gumplowicz was Jewish, his work Race Struggle (1883) is regarded by some scholars as having been an important influence on the development of Nazi theories. Early in 1909 Gumplowicz left the University of Graz, and shortly thereafter he and his wife committed suicide.
Further Reading on Ludwig Gumplowicz
Gumplowicz's influence on racism is discussed in William M. McGovern, From Luther to Hitler (1941). His contributions to the development of sociology are assessed in Lester F. Ward, Outlines of Sociology (1898), and Harry Elmer Barnes, Historical Sociology:Its Origins and Development (1948). A recent evaluation of Gumplowicz's significance is in the second English-language edition of his Outlines of Sociology (1963), edited and with an introduction and notes by Irving Horowitz.