13 October 2009

On War

[CU for Wednesday, 14 October 2009]

Michael Howard, translator of Clausewitz’ work and author of “Clausewitz”, opens his Introduction with a quote from one Bernard Brodie, about Clausewitz: “His is not simply the greatest, but the only great book about war;” and Howard records his own agreement with this assessment.

Howard’s book helps the reader to understand Clausewitz’ “On War” (Chapter 1, the summarising chapter, is linked below) but in one respect Howard appears to be mistaken. After describing Clausewitz’ “dialectic” (e.g. the relationship between physical and moral forces; between historical knowledge and critical judgement; between idea and manifestation; between “absolute” and “real” war; between attack and defence; and between ends and means) Howard writes: “The dialectic was not Hegelian: it led to no synthesis which itself conjured up its antithesis. Rather it was a continuous interaction between two poles, each fully comprehensible only in terms of the other”

It would seem to be perfectly Hegelian to conceive of such a unity and struggle of opposites; and as to whether Clausewitz’s dialectic lacked a forward dynamic, or not, is something that can be settled at once by reading a few pages. Whereupon it will be found that Clausewitz is surely one of the most dynamic authors ever.

Clausewitz [Image], born in 1780, was ten years younger than Hegel, but died only two days after Hegel on 16 November 1831. Since Hegel’s was the official philosophy of Prussia, and Clausewitz was in charge of the Prussian War College in Berlin for twelve years, while Hegel was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, it is impossible to believe that Clausewitz was not familiar with Hegel’s ideas. These were the same ideas that seized the imagination of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (both of whom spent time in Berlin during the late 1830s to early 1840s) and upon which their thinking relied for the rest of their lives. Clausewitz and Marxism are not far apart; neither in their pedigree, nor in the philosophical structure of their thinking.

Much is made, in the commentaries on Antonio Gramsci’s 20th-century writings, of the contrast between wars of manoeuvre and of position. But the military breakthrough of Clausewitz’s lifetime was the French revolutionary campaign against its neighbours including Prussia which had rendered obsolete, already in the 1790s, the ancient military alternatives of march and siege which were the limits of Gramsci's military perception, still, in the 1930s. Although a servant of the Prussian crown, what Clausewitz described was warfare in the age of mass democracy. As one who fought against Napoleon, Clausewitz had understood Napoleon’s warfare as well as, or better than, anyone.

Clausewitz defined strategy and tactics as “the linking together of separate battle engagements into a single whole, for the final object of the war.” To define strategy in this way, as end, and tactics as means, was a profound contribution for which we in South Africa owe a debt to Clausewitz.

Equally as profound is the complex of thinking around Clausewitz’ well-known understanding of war as an extension of politics, by other means.

Not only does this mean that war is always and everywhere subordinate to politics; but it also means that war (the breakdown of negotiation and the resort to force) must, and can only, return the parties to the negotiating table. War is an interlude of brutality between negotiations.

The world of 1848, when the Communist Manifesto was first published, was already charged up with historical potential by great preceding events, first and foremost among them the Great French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed it; and also by great thinkers and writers, foremost among them GWF Hegel and Carl von Clausewitz.

This is the world into which Karl Marx entered as yet another new kind of actor. The March 1850 address to the Central Committee of the Communist League (linked) shows Marx engaged with the history of his time, among people of action, combining theory and practice. This particular document is well worth discussing separately and for its own sake.

The (linked) inaugural address to the First International in 1864 represents another new beginning. It concludes with an appeal to internationalism.

Thus it is that Anti-Imperialism, Peace, and Socialism, the topics of this set, are rooted in, and united by, the same intellectual and historical soil.

Click on these links:

On War, Chapter 1, What is War?, 1827, Clausewitz (7916 words)

Address to the Communist League Central Committee, March 1850, Marx (4120 words)

International Working Mens’ Association Inaugural Address, 1864, Marx (3320 words)


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