Engels was a military historian; in August 1917 Lenin took Clausewitz’s On War with him into hiding; Mao Tse-tung and Vo Nguyen Giap are famed for their military writings. But in the twentieth century West, Marxists have largely ignored military strategy, and have remained obstinately oblivious of recent developments and extensions of strategic theory, particularly in the usa. This is doubly surprising. From Machiavelli onwards, social theory and philosophy in general in the West has always regarded war as one of its major themes. Moreover strategy, established as a true science by Carl von Clausewitz, is a product of the same generation of German thinkers as the Hegelian philosophy from which Marxism began. But there is another cause for surprise, recently underlined by André Glucksmann in his book Le Discours de la Guerre: ‘War is doubly important, 1. through the place it occupies in reality: it is the “highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions, when they have developed to a certain stage, between classes, nations, or political groups” (Mao Tse-tung); 2. through its intelligibility; as forces do not confront one another blindly in it, there is an understanding of war which provides the theory of struggle (contradiction) in general with valuable examples’ (p. 295).

André Glucksmann’s book, of which the following article is a chapter, fills this gap. Not only does it discuss the two main modern developments of strategy, the nuclear strategy of American authors such as Kahn and Schelling, and Mao Tse-tung’s theory of revolutionary war, but it analyses the ideological and theoretical implications of these developments by returning to the founder of modern strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, and the place of war in the philosophy of his great contemporary, Hegel.

The choice of Clausewitz rather than Machiavelli or Vauban is not arbitrary, nor that of Hegel rather than Hobbes or Rousseau. Both authors’ decisive military and political experiences were the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the first modern State and the first modern war.

Clausewitz drew on existing traditions of military commentary and social philosophy. The philosophers of the Enlightenment regarded the limited wars of the eighteenth century as representing a move towards a rational way to deal with international disputes. Hence Clausewitz’s conception of war as a political instrument—war is governed by a political end (Zweck). But though war is a continuation of politics, the relation between them is not simply that between means and an end; the political end (Zweck) defines a framework within which the military commander decides on a purely military target (Ziel), essentially the annihilation of the enemy’s forces in a decisive engagement. But the rationalist dream of the advent of ‘perpetual peace’ was shattered at Valmy, and this failure was brought home by the retreat from Moscow: modern wars would get more bloody and inclusive, not less. So Clausewitz’s conclusions flow from the possibility of absolute war; whether a war becomes absolute or not, absolute war as the limit of the ‘ascent to extremes’ governs all strategic calculation. Any international conflict is potentially an absolute war. Why are all wars not then absolute? Because something limits the ascent to extremes, acts as a ‘safety-catch’ to it: the supremacy of defence over attack. For this supremacy is both military and political. Militarily, the defensive side has the advantages of easier and more total mobilization, access of supply, command of the terrain, and so on. But it is also the defender who decides politically to what length he is prepared to go—the aggressor would always prefer peaceful submission. These three Clausewitzian principles—politics as a continuation of war, the ascent to extremes, and the supremacy of defence—define and presuppose a homogeneous and continuous space and time in which the decisive engagement of the military campaign can be fought. In the language of modern game theory, they define a soluble matrix of decision for the participants and observers—Clausewitz’s strategy is a strategy in the mathematical sense. As such, in its general form it is the only rational strategy possible.

The nuclear strategy of the 1950’s and 6o’s attempts the same rationalization of war in a radically new situation—the situation defined by the possession of nuclear weapons by the great powers. Total war is no longer conceived on the models of the Vendée or Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, nor even Hitler’s invasion and defeat in Russia in the Second World War. It is no longer conceived as devastation, but as general annihilation, as the ‘doomsday machine’. Nonetheless, Kahn, Schelling and the rest attempt to rebuild a strategic logic while sacrificing some of the Clausewitzian principles. The ascent to extremes survives, renamed the ‘ladder of escalation’, but defence is no longer supreme, it does not even exist in nuclear war. What then limits the ascent to extremes? Deterrence, fear of total annihilation, answer the strategists. But deterrence cannot provide an autonomous matrix of decision as Clausewitzian strategy did; the crisis, the nuclear strategist’s equivalent of the decisive engagement, has neither the continuity in space nor the continuity in time of a traditional military campaign.