War and state formation: Amending the bellicist theory of state making

Hendrik Spruyt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

21 Scopus citations


Introduction. While historians and social scientists have long noted the connection between war making and state making in Europe, social scientists have extended this insight by claiming that this relation holds more generally. Charles Tilly, as no other, has demonstrated the implications of this insight to students of society and politics, and claimed in a famous aphorism that “war made the state and the state made war.” Although Tilly referred particularly to Europe, his insight has influenced a large body of scholarship that can be denoted as the bellicist theory of state making. In the bellicist account higher levels of warfare create more centralized, higher-capacity states. Such states in turn are prone to war. “The central claim of this approach [the bellicist approach to state building] is that wars are a great stimulus to centralizing state power and building institutional capacity.” There can be little doubt that the bellicist theory of state formation contains considerable insights. However, in order to be of greater analytic value, particularly for understanding state building today, it needs to be amended. First, the particular account of state formation in Europe derives from a unique systemic environment. Because the social science literature has largely focused on the creation of state capacity (the internal capability of states), rather than on state creation as the emergence of sovereign, territorial authority, it has neglected the unique systemic environment that existed in Europe since the failure of the imperial project. Indeed, the connection between warfare and the creation of high-capacity states depended on the prior emergence of distinct territorial entities in competition with one another. The failure of empire and theocracy opened up the space for territorial rulers that engaged in frequent wars with one another. This in turn led over several centuries to high-capacity authority structures. Without the emergence of nascent sovereign, territorial states, warfare would have been less intense and less frequent, with the result that governments would have developed with less capacity. That is, neither the presence of states nor the frequent occurrence of warfare can be taken as exogenous conditions. Both require explanations of their own.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDoes War make States?
Subtitle of host publicationInvestigations of Charles Tilly's Historical Sociology
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781316493694
ISBN (Print)9781107141506
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'War and state formation: Amending the bellicist theory of state making'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this