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 the State are identical with the interests of its ruler, or where the whole nation is committed to territorial expansion as a national task, this is the case. But if these conditions are not fulfilled, it is possible, or even likely, that the war is damaging to both parties, that it would have been better for both if it could have been avoided: in other words, war is not a zero-sum game. The 19th and early 20th centuries constituted the ‘Clausewitzian century’, the period when the Clausewitzian assumptions appeared to be true. But once the Schlieffen plan failed in 1914 and the First World War settled down into its cycle of murderously punishing offensives across the no-man’s-land between the trenches, it became clear that war benefited no-one. Hence the revulsion from Clausewitzianism in the inter-war years. In the present epoch it is even clearer that any nuclear war is to the disadvantage of both sides. It follows that a conflict-resolution approach to international relations is apt today, with the primary aim of ensuring that war does not break out; but instead, beneath the nuclear umbrella, the neo-Clausewitzians insist on continuing to regard wars as a normal instrument of policy. Hence the theories of ‘limited war’ which have led in practice to the war in Vietnam and, in fantasy rather than in theory, to Kahn’s ‘group of “college students, business men, members of the League of Women voters, etc.,” arguing whether the “elimination” of Moscow or Leningrad plus Kiev is the more “appropriate” response to the “elimination” of NewYork’ (p. 80).

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 the political actors behind wars,footnote4 draws his examples from the international wars of the Napoleonic and pre-Napoleonic epoch, and intended his concepts to be applied to such wars; but his conception of war is independent of this its empirical environment. Its defining concepts are the relation of autonomy in dominance of war and politics, and the existence of a theatre of war defined in homogeneous time and space.footnote5 When he asserts that these are the preconditions for war, the philosophy of war, Clausewitz means that under other circumstances it is impossible to fight rationally. A science or philosophy of irrational war is meaningless. Hence Rapoport is correct in his first two assumptions, but not in his third. There may be some ‘philosophy’ of international relations that corresponds to the practice of Metternich, Bismarck, Louis Napoleon, etc, but it is not Clausewitz’s science of war. A Clausewitzian civil war is possible—indeed, if Clausewitz’s conditions are correct, every civil war must be Clausewitzian. Discussing Lenin, Rapoport sees that he displaced attention from relations between States to relations between classes within the imperialist system, but he ignores Lenin’s intuition that Clausewitz’s theory could be applied to the class struggle and he barely mentions the realization of this project in Mao Tse-tung’s military writings.footnote6 In other words, Rapoport’s displacement of Clausewitz’s object from war as such to international relations obscures Clausewitz’s achievement: the establishment of a science of war that can be incorporated into a Marxist (class) science of politics.footnote7 This displacement is no neutral ‘mistake’, but, like all ideology, highly tendentious. We can see this if we return to Rapoport’s critique of the ‘neo-Clausewitzians’, Aron, Kahn and Schelling. Does the defence of Clausewitz I have given above apply to them, too? The answer is no. The Clausewitzian theory of rational warfare demands a theatre of war defined in time and space. Within the nuclear deterrent framework with which they work, the equivalent of the campaign is the crisis and the terrain the ‘ladder of escalation’. But it is correct to criticize the attempt to apply zero-sum game rationality within this framework—not because any struggle leaves both parties worse off, as Rapoport thinks, but because there is no natural, physical theatre of war. Nuclear crises can only be handled rationally on one condition: that both opponents agree to a social, conventional theatre within which the war can be ‘fought’. Conventional warfare is defined by the physical logic of the destruction of enemy’s ability to fight; nuclear ‘warfare’ demands an agreed, conventional set of values (for example: New York = Kiev + Leningrad).footnote8 Hence the hot line and the idea of ‘co-operating with the enemy’ conceded by the ‘neo-Clausewitzians’ are not so trivial as he implies (p. 75), though they are thoroughly un-Clausewitzian (i.e., throughly un-warlike). The ‘neo-Clausewitzian’ language conceals a policy of co-operation with the enemy. But a policy of ‘co-operation with the enemy’ is precisely the conflict-resolution ‘philosophy of war’ Rapoport himself advocates. For the usa can only co-operate with an enemy who agrees to co-operate. An enemy that refuses, and forces the usa to fight a real (i.e., Clausewitzian) war, destroys us strategy and the deterrent power of its nuclear weapons. The demand for a conflictresolution philosophy of ‘war’ is a demand for the peoples of the world to stop fighting imperialism. It is merely another defense of us imperialism.

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.