This Penguin edition of Clausewitzfootnote1 contains Books I, II and III of Vom Kriege complete, all but one chapter of Book IV, and most of the incomplete Book VIII, i.e., well under half of the original three volumes. The selection is introduced by a 70-page essay on Clausewitz’s book by Anatol Rapoport, supposedly ‘assessing its significance for its contemporaries, its effect on succeeding generations, and its relevance today’ (the aim of the Pelican Classics series, as outlined on the back cover).footnote2 It is this essay that I want to discuss, though the importance of Clausewitz’s book will emerge from my argument, which I hope will persuade revolutionary socialists to read all of On War rather than any of the many selected versions now on the market.
Rapoport’s aim in the Introduction (written in 1967) is to attack the school of theorists of ‘international relations’ he calls ‘neo-Clausewitzian’—primarily Raymond Aron, Hermann Kahn and Thomas C. Schelling. He regards the influence of their way of thinking as partly responsible for the us involvement in Vietnam, to which he is opposed. According to him, the neo-Clausewitzians follow Clausewitz in regarding war as an extension of a State’s political means, as an essentially normal constituent of international relations. Now, in 1832, Clausewitz was giving an accurate description of the way war was used in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a means of national aggrandisement on the part of the States of Europe. But, argues Rapoport, this supposes a particular notion of the State and its external relations, where the (territorial) gain of one State is directly the (territorial) loss of another, or, in the language of game theory, that war between States is a zerosum game. Where a nation is absolutely ruled, and hence the interests of
It will be obvious that although Rapoport concedes the accuracy of Clausewitz’s account of the wars of his day, he rejects his claim to be outlining the philosophy of war.footnote3 Clausewitz’s theory of war is limited by his unspoken view of the State. Rapoport gives three defining characteristics of Clausewitz’s view: that war is (and should be) rational, instrumental and national. These specifications distinguish a Clausewitzian philosophy of war from the eschatological view that sees eternal peace as emerging from some final, total war (e.g., Lenin and Mao Tse-tung), and from the cataclysmic view that sees war as a possibly avoidable catastrophe threatening all or a part of humanity (Rapoport’s own view). But this convenient classification is based on a complete misunderstanding of Clausewitz, a mis-reading that follows from an over-hasty desire to assimilate him to the realm of the ‘science’ of international relations. A ‘science’ which includes among its devotees Raymond Aron, Hermann Kahn and the late J. P. Nettl does not inspire much confidence, but it does not require a full-scale critique of its object to demonstrate that Clausewitz was a theorist of war not of international relations, that war is not necessarily international, and that Clausewitz makes no assumptions that depend on war being international. It is true that he speaks of States, nations and governments as
Let us look at Rapoport’s essay from another direction. Covertly, every line of it is devoted to answering the question ‘Why are the Americans fighting in Vietnam?’. But the answer to this question depends on the answer to another question which Rapoport never asks: ‘Why are the Vietnamese fighting in Vietnam?’ The Americans only intervened militarily because they hoped that by doing so they could prevent militarily the politically inevitable loss of South East Asia to socialism. The people of Vietnam have decided that this is a zero-sum game, that a loss for imperialism is a gain for socialism and vice versa, whatever the sacrifice. Hence they are fighting a rational (Clausewitzian) war for socialism in South East Asia. The American role in Vietnam is an attempt to damp down a people’s struggle; the us aim is to stop the war. That is why there is no difference between the Kennedy-Johnson ‘war’ policy and the Nixon ‘peace’ policy. That is why the us finds the nlf and drv delegations in Paris ‘unco-operative’: they are talking to win as well as fighting to win. Hence also the fact that the failure of the usa to impose their peace in Vietnam has resulted in the struggle breaking out in the usa itself: they are bringing the war back home.
Hence the two faces of Rapoport’s ideological position. His essay has a defeatist message for the us government: the fight in Vietnam is not worth the losses it involves. But this defeatism is equally urged on the Vietnamese people, and, by implication, on those now sharpening the contradictions within the usa: the people lose more by the fight for socialism than they gain by winning it. In other words, Rapoport’s message for socialists is a classical reformist position. Revolutionary socialists should not be reading Rapoport and the other advocates of ‘peaceful co-existence’ calling for a truce in the struggle for socialism, but Clausewitz for the lessons his work contains on how they can win this struggle.