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  • From the EditorsThe Nature of Social Interaction from the Vantage Point of a Participating Observer

In his famous Leviathan, published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes offered a pessimistic vision of the social condition:

Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind … From Equality Proceeds Diffidence … From Diffidence Warre … Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known. … For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.1

Hobbesian belief in the fundamentality of the war of "each against all" has repeatedly been challenged by other social thinkers (first and most [End Page 9] famously – by John Locke). However, his truly systematic framework of analysis remains relevant to this day, suggesting the existence of a structural interconnection between the inclinations of individuals and the general state of society. Hobbes also demonstrated a way of thinking about social processes without drawing a rigid divide between "domestic" and "international" contexts, thus allowing the study of civil discord and a war with foreigners as analogous and often interconnected phenomena. This makes the three-and-a-half-centuries-old treatise, Leviathan, look surprisingly relevant today, especially given the propensity of modern historians and social scientists to rigidly segregate the continuum of social self-organization and disorganization into distinct departments of domestic and foreign policies, of conflicts and social cohesion. The point is, of course, not to call for a return to Hobbesian abstract generalizations. Rather, we need to contextualize and historicize the broad categories of "men," "power," and the like that framed Hobbes's philosophical thinking. Moreover, these categories need to acquire the same multifaceted and syncretic meaning as the concept of "war" that was so keenly understood by Hobbes, who was writing his treatise during the decade-long English Civil War and under its direct influence.

In 2019, Ab Imperio invites contributors and readers to think about the ambivalence of the phenomenon of social strife, which can precede the "civil state" (Hobbes) or result from its collapse, and can be regarded as an internal or an international conflict (depending on the scale of analysis). Every familiar notion becomes problematized when "society" stops being seen as a homogeneous entity with clear borders, and appears in a more realistic light – as a multilayered amalgamation of social networks and communities of solidarities of various sizes. If some of these are confined to a village while others are intercontinental in scale, some are based on common economic interests and others on shared culture, then how do we differentiate a civil war from a world war, and societal disintegration from the implementation of universal trends in a global society?

Peace and stability, as the opposite of war, are no less puzzling. Do those societies and historical periods that are described as "peaceful" or even "stagnant" find ways to resolve grave conflicts, or do they just "outsource" them beyond the limits of the officially recognized community (overseas or in the gray zones of domestic marginality)? Will the change in the scale of analysis – from the local to the global, and from the global to the microhistorical – help locate the fractures and breaches in the fabrics of states and societies that are camouflaged by the dominant narratives of social cohesion? How does the historical optics that takes into account multiple forms [End Page 10] of diversity change our perception of the dynamism and internal conflict of those societies that appear to have achieved a Hobbesian state of peace? Whether it is the "reaction" in imperial Russia between 1907 and 1914, Stalinist "totalitarianism," or Brezhnevite "stagnation," how can historians...


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pp. 9-16
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