We seem to be really living in a post-clausewitzian era, in a double sense of this expression. First, there is a lively ongoing debate, which is not restricted to the narrow range of "polemologists", concerning the clausewitzian or non-clausewitzian character of contemporary wars. This debate started about 25 years ago, when the typical Cold-War era obsession with mutual destruction of the Great Powers gave place to a keen interest among military experts and political theorists for "low intensity conflicts", mainly located in the Third World (a category still very much in use after the Second World as such had collapsed), involving interventions from technologically sophisticated armies from the North against guerrilla-type adversaries, therefore highly dissymmetrical. Martin van Creveld from Israel and Samuel Huntington from the US seem to have been among the first to launch the slogan of "non-clausewitzian" warfare in a post-clausewitzian political environment. Then came the "ethnic wars" in former Yugoslavia and other parts of the world, which prompted the Hungarian-British peace theorist and politologists Mary Kaldor and others to launch the idea of New Wars versus Old Wars, involving historical "subjects" which are not Nation-States with their regular armies, again suggesting that the explanatory value of ideas deriving from Clausewitz’s celebrated work On War - even generalized and adapted to new circumstances, new strategic interests and new technologies, which had been a major preoccupation of War theorists for 150 years - had reached its limit, and was henceforth unable to account for the kind of interaction now arising between war and politics, but also religion, race, economy. Just as, at a certain point, after a glorious career, Euclidian Geometry had to give way to Non-Euclidian Geometry to describe the real physical world, Clausewitzian strategy and polemology should give way to a new non-Clausewitzian understanding of the historical world, allowing another type of "calculations". This did not prevent some analysts of contemporary wars to advocate a continuous use of Clausewitzian schemes and concepts, both analytical and normative, I am particularly thinking of Alain Joxe in his remarkable L’Empire du Chaos (translated as Empire of Disorder), who by the same token reinstalled Clausewitz in a series of theorists of War as a social and political phenomenon, and as the correlate of State sovereignty, which did not only include Thucydides, Machiavelli and Schmitt, but also Hobbes, Marx and Weber. But the situation has now changed again, which to a large extent is the result of the launching of the US War in the Middle East, and the way it has evolved in its first three years. The rapid succession of a victorious attack and a more and more difficult defensive battle, haunted by the possibility and perhaps the necessity of retreat, has not only suggested parallels with the Vietnam War, it has renewed the classical discussion about the return of the political factors within the military operations, and the famous clausewitzian thesis of the decreasing efficiency of attacking armies over time, and the superiority of the defensive strategy over the offensive one in the long run, provided some geographical or geographical-cultural conditions are given. There is a difficulty here, however, which everybody has in mind : namely the fact that, in the "pure" Clausewitzian model, the "subject" of the defensive strategy which in the end became victorious, to use a philosophical category, could be identified with a certain typically modern unity of army, people and state, either already given, or formed in the war process itself. This was also the case for the Vietnamese resistance to the American invasion, but remains more than doubtful and probably inadequate in the case of the war in Iraq, where nobody except some abstract ideologues of "popular resistance" or "anti-imperialist Jihad" could identify the "subject" of the anti-US operations in any simple manner, and the very existence of an "Iraqi" State and unified people is at stake. A similar difficulty seems to be affecting the other way of bringing back clausewitzian or quasi-clausewitzian ideas, or words, into the reading of the current situation, which concerns the representation of a "duel" (at world scale) between two adversaries, each of which seems to be seeking the annihilation of the other, called by the US Administration the "War on Terror". In spite of the blatant dissymmetry of the two enemies, it is tempting to evoke Clausewitz’s idea of the "rising to the extremes", which according to him is the law of the "pure war". But again the analogy stumbles on the fact that, in Clausewitz’s model, the mobile of this rising to the extremes of violence is the will of each enemy to reach a certain "vital" political goal through the acceptance of a higher risk, which is presented as a rational wager. Therefore it also involves a principle of limitation, or self-limitation. War for the sake of war or at the expense of the destruction of one’s power is ruled out from a Clausewitzian point of view, and so is the idea of a war without limits, either in space or in time, against an indeterminate enemy identified with "evil" as such. Perhaps this could be conceived, but then it should not be called "war" : another name, less political and more theological or mythical, should be looked for.
However simplistic and abstract such considerations may sound, they can give us an idea of the reasons why, today as in previous situations along the 150 years that passed since the publication of Vom Kriege by Marie von Clausewitz after the manuscript left by her late husband, the reflection on the intrinsic, perhaps constitutive, relationship between war and politics remains profoundly post-clausewitzian, but this time in a more critical sense, notwithstanding the necessity to revisit and possibly reverse, or alter each and every of Clausewitz’s propositions and definitions. If I had time I would try and argue on the model of what Claude Lefort and Althusser have written on Machiavelli that there is a never ending "labor" or "perlaboration" of Clausewitz’s text within contemporary political theory that goes along with a permanent trouble produced by the reading of Clausewitz on theorists who, at the same time, do not recognize in him their definition of the political, and cannot deny that he touches the heart of what makes politics thinkable, albeit not always, or not entirely rational. But this would pre-empt conclusions deprived of a sufficient textual basis. Let us therefore return, precisely, to the texts, and examine in a schematic manner some of their conceptual singularities. I will divide my presentation in two rather unequal parts, each of which would indeed deserve a much more developed treatment : the first and longest dealing with some problems of interpretation, or better said, reconstruction of Clausewitz’s theory of the articulation of war and politics ; the second with a "derivation" from Clausewitz and a "reply" to Clausewitz that, in different ways, can be found, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Marxist tradition, where a "class" counterpart to the Clausewitzian conception of national wars can be retrieved. After which, in a conclusion inevitably very brief, I will return to the issue of the conception of the "subject" (or the non-subject, or the impossible subject) which is implied in these ways of articulating War and Politics in an intrinsic unity.
Let us now retrieve some of the problems raised by the reading of Clausewitz’s book. To find an internal consistency, either at the philosophical level or at the pragmatic level, in what (we should never forget that) remains an unfinished work, whose status has affinities with the Pensées of Pascal or the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, and whose author has declared himself that he wanted to rewrite it entirely to take into account a crucial rectification that occurred to him in the middle, is a hard task that has produced hundreds of commentaries. Not ignoring them, or rather some of them, I will cut through and propose a procedure of interpretation perhaps incomplete or biased, but I hope not artificial, which relies on the observation that some of Clausewitz’s proposition never ceased to raise difficulties or call for renewed understanding. Selecting four such propositions, I will try to assemble them into a kind of system or axiomatics, and I will describe Clausewitz’s theoretical project as a continuous attempt at controlling their excessive consequences, either taken separately, or reacting one upon the other. And it is the same group of problematic theses that I will suggest "post-clausewitzian" thinkers tried to understand in a different way, or to reformulate, or to dissociate from one another.
Clausewitz’s most famous and most frequently discussed propositions (at least today), well beyond the circle of military experts, are the proposition which defines or characterizes war as "the continuation of politics by other means" (sometimes : the mere continuation, the German term being Fortsetzung), and the proposition which states that "defence" as a strategy (what is a strategy ? this question is also clearly involved) has an intrinsic superiority over "attack" or the "offensive", to which I alluded earlier. Let me briefly comment on each of them, but also suggest that they should be completed by two other propositions. Only this system or axiomatics of four virtually independent theses, I will suggest, allows us to understand where the intentions and the difficulties lie.
The "continuation" thesis is repeated twice, with some significant nuances, in two separate places, Book I and Book VIII of Vom Kriege, which not only find themselves at the two opposite ends of the text, but also, according to the author’s indications, correspond to different conceptions of his object.
On the one side, the accent is put on the idea that war is indeed a way to "continue" to pursue political goals, to pursue political goals "by other means", or "through the introduction of other means", which are the means of actual violence, or even of extreme violence - not only threat or constraint. Implicit here seems to be the idea that the usual or normal means of politics are non-violent, which in certain circumstances becomes insufficient, therefore political action would find its absolute limit if it were not for the possibility of using "other means" (violent means) beyond the normal ones, thus expanding the possibilities (and the power) of politics, and achieving its goals, but perhaps at the risk of an uncontrollable situation, of entering a dangerous field, and a limit domain, where not only the existence of the political subject is in danger, but the political nature of the action, or political "logic" of politics itself, can become subverted. It is in the same context that Clausewitz would bring in the idea that the use of violent means - the means of war, and the means of these means : the institution of the military, the development of patriotism, etc. - reacts upon politics itself, or modifies politics. Politics cannot make use of the violent means of war without being transformed itself by the use of these means, and perhaps radically transformed, denatured. The problem of the articulation of politics and war is therefore immediately posed in dialectical terms, in terms of a process where the identity of the initial terms is at stake.
But then, there is a second formulation, in which the accent is put on the idea that war is "nothing else than the continuation of politics by other means", therefore not a trespassing of the normal limits of the political, but just another possibility within these limits, a shifting from certain political "instruments" to others depending on the circumstances, the forces and the interests at stake (Clausewitz explicitly uses the term "instrument") for the political subject, who in turn becomes precisely characterized by its capacity (which we may call a sovereign capacity) to use of both kinds of means, violent and non-violent, or not to limit itself to the use of non-violent means. With such a formulation comes indeed a certain representation of the rational character of politics, particularly illustrated by the way in which it makes use of violence to achieve some of its goals or handle some situations, but again this proves to be a dialectical notion, or to involve a latent tension and a notion of risk. Since it can be read both ways, or either as a description or as a prescription, either as an assertion that politics makes use of the violent means of war without changing its nature, trespassing its limits, or as a warning that the violent means of war remain political means only if their own consequences and, again, retroactive effects on those who use them, their own "logic" do not escape the political rationality or subvert it, i.e. does not become an independent logic. But in fact would this be an "independent" logic ? What Clausewitz seems to imply is that you either have an instrumentalization of war by politics, or an instrumentalization of politics by war, and since the second is impossible or utterly undesirable, it must be the first, therefore Clausewitz writes that there is a political "logic" and only a "grammar" of war, and the first has a primacy over the second.
Now it seems to me that the difficulty involved here, which is anything but easy to solve either for us or for Clausewitz himself, and which pushed him alternatively to different formulations, can be identified through the following considerations. What seems to be the case is that war, with respect to politics, has to be considered twice, from two different angles. It is not the whole of politics (since politics has other procedures than war, equally necessary), but it concerns and affects the essence of politics, which is revealed and, practically, determined by the ways in which it recurs to war, and the consequences on politics itself of the political use of the violent means of war. Certainly what Clausewitz wants to avoid (and we will see that it is not without difficulties, and that the question keeps haunting his successors) is to assert that recurring to war is the essence of politics, that the use of the violent means of war, with its logical and existential implications (such as the necessity to designate one or several "enemies"), defines the concept of the political, which in turn can lead to the reversal of the initial statement (namely that "politics is the continuation", or the "consequence" of war). But Clausewitz wants (or needs) to be able to make the question of the use of war as an "instrument", and the question of the converse effects of this use upon politics itself its crucial characteristic. It would be tempting to see Clausewitz’s formula as a modern reformulation of the old Roman juridical and political principle : cedant arma togae, the armed activities of war and the military institution shall obey the primacy of the civil magistrate, but this formula which has a normative value, does not account for the problem that obsesses Clausewitz, namely the fact that war used as a political means reacts upon politics and transforms it, not into something else but into something new, a new political form where it meets with its most profound and difficult problems, and where its very possibility is at stake, and at risk. On the other hand, to permanently subject war to the primacy of the political is to assert that war is (and can remain) rational, this rationality being essentially expressed in a "practical" relationship between means and ends, which form a chain, therefore being a teleological rationality which comes from the political itself, which sets a measure for the rationality of war. This is all the more remarkable because Clausewitz is insistent on the fact that war reaches the extremes of violence. But to reach the extremes of violence, where actual destruction is at stake, is not to exist in the form of "pure violence". It is at the level of what Clausewitz call tactics, which he identifies with the management of combat (Gefecht), that the extremes of violence are reached : this is where men kill and die, individually and in masses. But tactics and the combat are not ends in themselves, as parts of the war they have to be subjected to "strategic" objectives, which themselves serve political goals. We can already understand here why the question of strategy (its definition, its function) is the most important one in Clausewitz, and perhaps also the most difficult, which in the end seems to escape. Strategy articulates within the analysis of war (both historical and conceptual) the level of extreme violence (the absolute means, so to speak), and the level of political rationality (the absolute ends). Bringing in an anthropological terminology, we might also say that the "violence" that Clausewitz associates with politics under the name "war" is not unqualified violence (the formula does not say that "violence is the continuation of politics"), it is institutional violence, which has to remain such. Therefore Clausewitz’s problem is : how is it possible for violence to reach the extreme and to remain institutional, within the limits of an institution ? What happens or would happen if this unity of opposites proved unsustainable ?
We may perhaps already understand here how and why post-clausewitzian variations are generated, each time indeed for practical reason and in a given historical circumstance : formally they will maintain the principle "war is a continuation of politics by other means, the means of extreme violence, using violence as an instrument hypothetically subjected to the political rationality, or teleology", but they will give completely new contents, either to the notion of the political, or to the definition of what is a "war", or to both, and conversely, it is only through this new interpretation of the terms politics, war, violence, that they will be able either to maintain or to question the idea of the "continuation". By doing this, they will exhibit the circularity of the Clausewitzian idea, and also its productivity far beyond the initial conditions. But I would argue that this becomes possible only if we take into account the other proposition which, already in Clausewitz, is associated with the general principle in a more specific set of axioms.
The second proposition to be found in Vom Kriege that is probably most well known concerns the strategic superiority of the "defence" over the "attack". Again it is not located in a single place and has several reformulations, but the main developments are in Book VI and VII which concern defence and attack and contain reciprocal discussions on this point. Clausewitz is eager to make clear that the idea of the superiority of the defensive concerns neither the tactical level nor the political as such, therefore it is typical for the relatively autonomous level of strategy and it can be said that the whole object of a theory of strategy aims at establishing this thesis and qualifying it according to its many conditions and circumstances. We find here again a typical circle. There is no question of asserting a tactical superiority of the defensive in general, much the contrary, the idea is that tactical attacks are an essential part of every defensive strategy since they exploit momentary and local imbalances in the relationship of forces in order to harm the enemy and progressively destroy its capacity to wage the war, that is to move and decide, which was maximum in the moment of the initial attack. Among the later followers of Clausewitz, Mao Zedong in his theorization of guerrilla warfare will consistently develop this complementarity, but it is already clearly there in Clausewitz. There is also no question of asserting a superiority of a "defensive politics" or a politics of defence (for instance, national defence, or defence of the national territory, or independence) as intrinsically superior, and this is probably the most difficult point. Such a thesis would amount, it seems to me, to a "realistic" version of the just war theory, or one aspect of it, the ius ad bellum, whose modern version is precisely that only defensive wars, waged by nations to react to an exterior aggression, are legitimate. In this case they would be not only legitimate, but victorious, at least in the long run, and all things considered, which means with possibly many exceptions. But this cannot be Clausewitz’s conception : Clausewitz has no moral or theological conception of war ; he is a typical advocate of what Carl Schmitt later will systematize as the ius publicum Europaeum, the idea that nation-states have an intrinsic right to recur to war to achieve their political goals or pursue their interests, or what they view as their interests. The idea of the superiority of defence does not concern the political goals (in German Zwecke), it concerns "only", so to speak, the military objectives (in German Ziele) through which these political goals can be achieved, and it does indeed impose an intrinsic limitation - should we say a "material" or "materialistic" ? - upon the formal rationality of the articulation of politics and war. This articulation is rational, or displays a rational structure which makes it available for theory, inasmuch as politics imposes the ultimate goals of war (we might also say : the ultimate goals of any war are always political, whether consciously or not, whether the actors are conscious or not of the determinations of their politics), but also inasmuch as it is the feasibility of the military objectives that decide whether a politics was rational or not, most of the time in retrospect, and this will be indeed settled in the form of actual combat. Now we find ourselves again in a strange situation : there is no doubt that "strategy" is the main object of Clausewitz’s reflection, to which he devotes most of his analyses, comparing historical situations, discussing the examples of military genius which are examples of strategic genius, isolating a specific "grammatical" concept which is the concept of "war plan" or "strategic coherence", trying to indicate the geographic and temporal limits within which such a plan can be devised and testes (the "campaign", the "theatre of war", etc.). However these efforts are paradoxical : the more they become precise and substantial, the more the autonomy of their object seems to escape or become problematic, or rather involved in a logical paradox, as if the main objective of strategic thinking and planning were precisely to demonstrate on the field, that is, the battlefield, that there actually can exist, in the long run, something like an autonomy of strategy. Strategy concentrates the inner tensions and perhaps the aporia of the concept of war. It seems to me that three additional considerations can illuminate this point.
First, this is where "theory" and "history" meet in a problematic unity. Clausewitz is insistent on the fact that wars are always singular processes, and there can be nothing such as a deductive science of war. But there can be a reflection on the regularities and the tendencies of the war-politics articulation, in the Kantian sense of the Critique of judgment, which remains hypothetical. We might say that the concept of the autonomy of strategy, which is entirely concerned with its own conditions and limitations, and their variations in history, is a regulative concept, or a category of judgment in that sense, it is permanently testing its own validity. We may also suspect that Clausewitz has an interest, both rational and subjective, in this reflection, which is to decide, in a given historical conjuncture, whether the "lesson" to be drawn from history, and more precisely from the history he has been taking part in, namely the history of the revolutionary and imperial wars between France and the rest of Europe, showing that with time a defensive strategy is bound to win, whether this lesson, I repeat, can be extended to the future. And whether this means that wars will remain an instrument of politics, or in some sense, might become (or already have become) impossible qua "continuations" of politics, or only at the risk of annihilating their logical function. It is striking to see that this question haunting Clausewitz, which is involved in his own argument concerning the superiority of the defensive strategy, in the reasons he gives for this superiority, as a tendencial result of history, will be permanently haunting the post-clausewitzian reflections on war - today more than ever. Clausewitz presents his thesis as a paradox (how come that the strategy which only has a negative result, defence, can be proved superior to the strategy which has a positive result, attack or conquest ?), and he wonders if this paradox signals a latent impossibility that would become manifest when the means of war are pushed to the extreme.
Second, we should probably transform Clausewitz’s formulations in order to overcome the apparent scheme of a comparison between the respective qualities of two "different" strategies, one of which would be the offensive and the other the defensive, as if they existed separately, into a more profound question of the transformation, therefore the reversal of the defensive into offensive, or the quest of the point of inflection where the defence transforms into attack. This is a question of the space and time of the war, therefore of its "history", and a question of its actors, therefore again of its history in a substantial sense. War, writes Clausewitz, is a complex form of the "duel", which develops over time, i.e. progressively transforms the relationship of forces between its own actors, who themselves can be complex actors, since they involve governments and peoples, institutional and human forces which merge in the typical form of the "army" (armies are the general form in which historical actors present themselves in the domain of war), alliances and changes in the alliances, etc. And the time of war is an oriented time, which leads from attack to defence and from defence to attack ; not a pure logical time, with a preestablished cycle, but a historical time which is dominated by the tendencial superiority of all the factors which in the long run reinforce one of the strategic "posture". The general notion used by Clausewitz to summarize these temporal effects is friction. Contrary to what the connotations of the term might suggest, it is not a mechanical notion, but a historical one, which "integrates" moral and technical, psychological and sociological factors. Thus Clausewitz’s problem, the very object of a reflective strategy, becomes the possibility to understand why an attack that is not immediately successful (or completely successful) is bound to progressively yield to its defensive adversary, which means should be used to postpone this inevitable result, and above all to understand how a defensive strategy is a preparation for a victorious counter-offensive, which means that the counter-offensive is prepared from within the defensive itself and the defensive in a sense is continued, prolonged (fortgesetzt) in the phase of offensive, in an immanent manner. There must be an ideal point of inflection, and the whole question is whether this point can be identified, and with what kind of event it should be identified. This question was not Clausewitz’s absolute invention, but he gave it a theoretical formulation. It was staged on a grand scale by the confrontation between the "offensive strategy" of Napoleon and the "defensive strategy" of Kutuzov during the Campaign of Russia in 1812, in which Clausewitz himself took part, having decided after the defeat of Prussia and its more or less voluntary incorporation into the coalition led by the victor, to move to the other camp and enrol in the Russian army as a staff officer. The dramatic moment, to be commented again and again by war theorists in the 19th century and beyond, including Friedrich Engels and Leo Tolstoy who both relied on the account of the campaign written by Clausewitz before he embarked in the writing of Vom Kriege (and published later by Clausewitz’s sister), was the battle of Borodino, with its heavy death toll on the two "great armies" of nearly equal size and strength, which appeared as a tactical victory but proved a strategic defeat for Napoleon, and although it immediately lead to the conquest of the Russian capital, in fact prepared his final defeat. But this confrontation also displayed some of the typical conditions under which the inflection takes place : not only the duration of the campaign, the immensity of the geographic environment, the counter-productive effects of the conquest itself in terms of raising the hostility of the population, etc., but the combination of regular warfare and guerrilla warfare (a new notion, if not reality, imported from Spain), and the incorporation of the people in arms as the main actor of the war on both sides.
Which leads us to a third remark, where the dialectical intrication of the three levels, called "politics", "strategy", and "tactics", becomes even more apparent. This is perhaps Clausewitz’s most profound dilemma. It concerns the relationship between what he would himself describe as two logical "opposite terms" or "extremes" in the understanding of the war : on the one side, the fact that where there is war there is a possibility of annihilation which is sought and has to be faced, and the fact that the proper political capacity within war itself is the capacity to decide whether a war that has been started should be continued or not, given the risks that it involves and the effects it produces at the political level, or should be interrupted : when to "finish a war", and at what price, in short. As for annihilation, Clausewitz clearly believes that there is a limit to it, which should be approached but not crossed. He considers what he calls "absolute war", where the duel rises to the extreme, involving all the forces of the state or the nation, but not what has been called later "total war", where the civilians are targeted as well as the armed forces. The annihilation that is at stake in a war that continues politics is the physical annihilation of the armies, or their reduction to impotency, their disbanding, etc., which makes it impossible for one adversary to resist the imposition of the other’s will, or goals. Which conversely poses the problem of the capacity to halt a war. The reason why Clausewitz is so admirative of Frederick II, king of Prussia, called the great Frederick, is that he proved able to control his own victories and make peace at a favourable moment to retain some of his conquests, and the reason why Napoleon’s genius was bound to fail and end miserably, pulling his country with him into defeat, was that he found himself in a logic of conquest where the political goals could be achieved only at the cost of extending the scale of war beyond any preestablished limit, where the defensive should prevail and prepare a devastating counter-offensive, re-establishing the status quo ante. But there is a strong tension between these two extremes, since the capacity to stop the war (again a "negative" strategic notion, given primacy by Clausewitz in a paradoxical manner) is the greatest when the war only includes partial forces and resources, i.e. remains far away from the prospect of annihilation for one or both of the adversaries, whereas the strategic goal of annihilation materially involves the engagement of forces and resources, above all human forces, which cannot be withdrawn at will from the battlefield, or only at the risk of backfiring on the existence of the state. Again what is at stake here is a point of "equilibrium" which perhaps does not exist, or is an "impossible" point, a point of "impossibility" for what it makes possible, the articulation of politics and war, i.e. which raises the spectre of the impossibility of war, while making it intelligible. Which leads me to some final remarks.
I said in the beginning that we could arrange Clausewitz’s major propositions in the form of an axiomatics, whose status itself is hypothetic and problematic rather than apodictic. Since now I have only evoked two of the propositions forming this axiomatics, each of which poses hard problems. I will have to be very quick on the remaining two, but I cannot spare them because the idea that I want to defend is that Clausewitz’s discourse makes sense only as a combination of them all, that his ultimate question, which is a question about the "subject" of war (or the "political subject" of war, therefore the "political subject" as such, as revealed in war), is a question that circulates - perhaps endlessly, in an aporetic manner - between these four propositions. And this is also where post-clausewitzian discourses encroach and found their site within his own discourse.
The third proposition concerns the distinction between "absolute war" and "limited war". This is precisely the point on which Clausewitz claimed that he had changed his mind while writing his book (which I remind you remained unfinished) and reached a "new" position after which the whole theory should become recast. But this is far from clear, and in fact calls for a symptomatic reading, after interpreters have tried to solve the riddle in all possible directions ; by projecting on Clausewitz various epistemological schemes (dialectical, ideal-typical, etc.). First, Clausewitz hesitates between two terminologies to designate what is not the "absolute" war : he speaks of "limited" war and of "real" war, but to jump from there to the idea that real war, which actually take place, are always limited, while absolute wars are only a virtual model, after which we can interpret empirical cases, but which are not to be observed in practice, is much too simple and in fact contradicts the text. Very quickly said, I side her with Emmanuel Terray against Raymond Aron, and I believe that Clausewitz’s theory does not reduce the notion of "absolute war" to a virtual case or an ideal type, but concerns historical realities, a change of nature of the war which has been observed in history, and confronts us with a dramatic dilemma. To be sure, "absolute war" just as "limited war" represent antagonistic poles ; they represent extremes in the logical sense between which real wars must shift and display various degrees and combinations. But reality has approached each of them in almost pure fashion in at least two circumstances -for which I believe that we could find equivalents in a more recent period : the Kabinettskriege or governmental wars of the absolute monarchies in the 18th century, waged by armies of mercenaries or professional soldiers or recruiting by coercion under the command of a military caste, which aimed at shifting the balance of forces and realizing antagonistic interests within the so-called "European equilibrium", were limited wars by definition ; even when they involved bloody battles. But the "new wars" starting with the French revolution, the Volkskriege that involved a "nation in arms" first arising out of a popular insurrection, then transformed by Napoleon into an imperialist instrument of continental hegemony, then in turn matched and fought against by other nations in arms, with each side developing a nationalist mystique, and fighting for what they believed was their very existence, were absolute wars, involving a rise to the extremes in terms of magnitude and violence. This evolution is sketched in Clausewitz’s extraordinary account of the world history of warfare in Book VIII, a model for many subsequent attempts (including Engel’s in his articles of the New American Cyclopaedia written and published in the 1860’s). And Clausewitz’s question clearly is : which reasons do we have to believe that this evolution is irreversible, that history is evolving into the direction of the "absolutization of war", so to speak, and which possibilities do we have to resist this tendency, which at the same time makes war the most "serious" of all political matters, where the very existence of nations and states is at stake, and in the end could reverse the primacy of the political over its own instrument ? It is useful to remember here who Clausewitz personally was : a Prussian officer coming from a family of dubious nobility, with a philosophical education (mainly Kantian), who had taken the risk of leaving his country to continue to fight the arch-enemy, privileging the patriotic interest over the immediate diplomatic arrangements. He would play a decisive role in the transformation of the Prussian army itself into a national army, in the invention of what would become the huge armies of the 19th and the 20th century based on popular drafting, but he would certainly not see without anxiety the possibility that this evolution deprive the military caste and the state bureaucracy of their unmitigated monopoly of the political decision - not to mention the social risks involved in the use of partisan or guerrilla warfare, which in extreme situations is the ultimate weapon. Which brings us to the fourth and last proposition.
The fourth proposition is also one of the most disputed ones : it states the primacy of "moral factors", again in the last instance i.e. all things considered, over other strategic factors in the history of wars. When we start looking at the complex series of elements that are listed by Clausewitz under the notion of "moral factors" and what they imply in philosophical terms, we find a very complex system of forces. "Moral" indeed refers to considerations of morality, but they are inseparable from a broader problematic of the passions, individual and collective, which animate subjects in history. And they refer to the individual as well as the collective. So you have to take into account both the courage of the soldiers, which allows an army to confront the risk of violent death, and the genius of the commander in chief, which makes it possible to replace the infinite complexity of a situation on the theatre of war by a single intuition, and decide how to move. But you also have to take into account what Clausewitz calls the "intelligence" of the State, or its political rationality embodied in some individuals’ capacity to commensurate means and ends, and the people’s patriotism, which forms the background for the soldier’s capacity to fight and the nation’s ability to sustain sacrifices of resources and lives, and which is also political in the new, "modern", sense. Upon reflection, it appears that all these moral factors are dimensions or instantiations of what might be called collective historical agency, or institutional agency, which is why Clausewitz most of the time discusses them in relation with the problem which, as I said, mirrors the possibility of isolating a "strategic" relatively autonomous level, namely as contributing to the consistency of the army, its resistance to dissolution and its capacity to overwhelm the violence of the enemy. And, conversely, the importance laid on the moral factor, if it is not a way to ignore other factors (for instance economic and technical), is indeed a way to subject their own efficacy to the deeper moral instance (as in the case of the capacity of a nation to mobilize its economic resources for war by raising taxes, etc.). it is on this point that later theorists, who deemed themselves more materialistic or more realistic, criticized Clausewitz sharply, for instance pointing at his relative lack of interest for the development of military technologies and in its influence on the historical transformation of strategies and the outcome of wars. But even Marxists like Engels, who devoted a long study (the article "Army" of the New American Cyclopaedia) to rewriting the history of warfare from the point of view of the impact of technological changes associated with successive modes of production, had to look for an equivalent of what he called the "moral factors", which they found for example in class consciousness and more generally the influence of social ideologies on the possibility and the development of wars.
When you look at the relationship between Clausewitz’s four propositions, you realize that each of them is at the same time supporting and qualifying, or limiting the consequences of the others, which is why you have to turn in a logical circle indefinitely. So, for example, the modern transformation of limited state wars into absolute popular wars gives all its decisive role to certain moral factors, which in turn prove vital elements of the defensive strategy and its conversion into counter-offensive, in a sense "politicizing" the war, but also producing an ambivalence that threatens political rationality, because patriotism is a popular passion that the state needs to steer but never masters : patriotism in war becomes hate of the enemy - Feindschaft - which includes and overcomes fear, and which is neither identical with loyalty towards the rulers (it can even turn against them) nor subjectively controlled by the consideration of interests. It is the realization of politics that can destroy it. It seems to me that we have here the very secret of Clausewitz’s relentless interrogation about the subject of war. The immediate subject is the army, but the army is not and can never be an autonomous being, at least in modern times : it is continuously produced and reproduced, and the circumstances of war, as well as their cumulated effects over time, modify this reproduction. But the army is a monster ; it is the combination and the meeting point of the state and the people, the two instances into which the idea of the nation splits again. This was Clausewitz’s dilemma : draw all the consequences from the fact that wars were now possible only in the form of national, therefore nationalistic wars, but control the new popular power that emerged as such on the historical scene, which might seem to involve that the state itself permanently run ahead of its people’s passions. This was the military or strategic equivalent of the political problem faced by national states in general : how to "institutionalize the insurrection", or harness the multitude. What is amazing is the extent to which this problem remained on the agenda beyond the circumstances in which it had merged as a key to the understanding of the political, namely the aftermath of the revolutionary and imperial wars of the early 19th century.
But not without complications, and this is where, in a final part that I realize will have now to be very brief, I would like to bring in some post-clausewitzian discourses ; limiting myself for today to the Marxists (if Marx himself is a Marxist…). The difference here comes from the fact that Marx had not read Clausewitz, or at least not initially : it is Engels - nicknamed "General" Engels after his brilliant retreat with a detachment of revolutionaries facing the Prussian army in 1849, and for his permanent interest for military matters - who read Clausewitz with admiration and advised Marx of his importance.
Nevertheless, the comparison has to start with a new reading of the Communist Manifesto, and more specifically the phrases in its first chapter which explain that the class struggles whose successive forms constitute the guiding thread for an understanding of historical transformations ; and particularly different forms of the state and different institutions of the political, should be identified with a continuous civil war (the expression is at the end of chapter I, isolated but conspicuous), whose actors (or "parties") are so to speak generated in the process of the war itself, which is now invisible now visible as such, and which can result, says Marx in an amazing formulation at the beginning of Chapter One, either in the victory of one of the contending classes, or in their mutual destruction.
Indeed we read these phrases after Foucault’s commentary which establishes the link with Clausewitz 1) by suggesting that Clausewitz has in fact "inverted" a previous scheme of interpretation of politics as war, more precisely "race war", which was dominating European historiography before the French Revolution and survived it ; 2) that the Marxian notion of the "class struggle" should be understood as a degenerate form of the "race war" (where classes are understood as the continuation of races within Ancien Régime societies), just as its antagonistic notion in the 19th century, the notion of the "race struggle". To return to the initial idea of the "race war", beyond Clausewitz and beyond Marx, would be, accordingly, to retrieve a certain purity, or authenticity of the political, identified with conflict as such, or agonism. From this I will only keep the idea that there is a historical and logical chasse croisé of the notions of war and politics around the emergence of a new intelligibility of history in terms of class struggles, but I will focus, even very briefly, around what for Foucault is deprived of any interest, namely the precise confrontation between Clausewitz’s and Marx’s concepts of this articulation.
What is striking first is indeed the fact that, by interpreting class struggles as civil wars, with their phases of dispersion and concentration, latency and manifestation (i.e., revolutions, in the general sense), Marx is indeed calling a "war" exactly what Clausewitz wanted to exclude from the comprehension of the category "war". No more than the external wars, the national wars, civil wars are forms of "pure", indiscriminate violence, they are also forms of institutional violence, from an anthropological point of view, even if they can reach degrees of cruelty that seem (or seemed, before certain contemporary wars) to bypass the limits of civilization. But civil wars appear (and have appeared, since the Greeks), as the destruction of the typically political institution, the "city" or the "state", and for this reason in Clausewitzian terms, which clearly anticipate the definition of the State as "monopoly of the legitimate use of violence", which could also become phrased as monopoly of the political use of violence, a civil war is not a political instrument, it is an anti-political instrument. It is not before Schmitt that anti-political instruments, including civil wars, are incorporated in the concept of the political in an antinomic manner ; but I leave this aside for the moment. In fact Marx seems to be torn between two concepts of the political (and we know when are familiar with his work, and the problems it poses, that this dilemma was never resolved, and never ceased to weigh upon the development of a Marxian or Marxist "political theory") : if the political means "the political state", the emergence of a separate sphere of the political around the state as public agency, acting in the interest of the ruling class but seemingly, or juridically above class interests as such, then the class struggle is not "political", it is what exceeds the political and, in the end, will suppress it as a separate sphere (what Marx calls the "end of the political state") ; but if the political means the conflict itself, its increasing polarization, its becoming "conscious" and "organized", its role in the production of historical changes, then it becomes defined precisely in terms of this permanent, trans-historical "civil war", which has never exactly the same form, but never ceases to exist (until the "end", that is the final confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat).
Is this a metaphoric use of the term "war" ? I don’t think so, and the comparison with Clausewitz helps understanding why, but it certainly is a reflective use of the concept, involving its questioning and transformation, not a simple application of a given concept of war. What we may read in these passages are the following theses, or hypotheses : 1) only the social war, as a "civil war", becomes "absolute", or radically antagonistic, reaching the extremes, where the risk of annihilation is run, therefore it is the "proper" war ; 2) such a war is constitutive of "politics", it reverses the clausewitzian formula, but also it pushes to its logical conclusion what remained only a tendency (and, as we have seen, a fear) in Clausewitz, namely the idea that violence as a "means" of politics reacts upon the political and make it a continuation of the war that was its instrument. Indeed this is inseparable from a total change in the representation of the "subject" of war : no longer an institutional and in fact a juridical subject, namely the state, but an immanent social subject, which is not really to be distinguished from the very process of its historical formation and its progressive autonomization. Nevertheless, this allows Marx (or would allow a Clausewitzian reader of Marx - we will see that there were quite a few) to retrieve clausewitzian propositions, or rather clausewitzian problems, with due displacement or "translation" in the code of the class struggle.
One of them concerns the possible representation of the classes as "armies" : this seems to be the inevitable consequence of a representation of the class struggle in terms of a confrontation between two antagonistic forces which become increasingly unified and polarized. In Marx’s presentation, this is subjected to qualification : it should be the result of the class struggle itself, which in this sense does really create or produce its own actors, and it is a tendency which finds its final realization only in the last stage or figure of the transhistorical confrontation between exploited and exploiting classes, the capitalist society. Only in that society does the state directly function as an organizer of the class struggle on behalf of the ruling class. But what about its adversary ? You might think that from the point of view of the proletariat, the organizing force is the International Association, or the "party". But this is precisely where Marx hesitated to push to concept to its last consequences, and returned to a more metaphoric use. We know that the representation of the revolution as a class war was very powerful for one century at least in the Communist tradition, but in Marx we find only the possibility of the conception of the revolutionary Party on the army type, a class party or an "party of the whole class" as it were, and I will say why in a minute. But before that I have to insist on a second post-clausewitzian or quasi-clausewitzian derivation, which concerns the question of the defensive. Here we witness - in the Communist Manifesto - an amazing reversal which prepares for the return of an "impolitical" element : Marx does present the struggle of the proletariat, even when it is preparing the Revolution and the overthrowing of the capitalist class, as a "defensive" struggle, but this defensive character becomes meta-political, and in fact apocalyptic : it is associated with the idea that the capitalist mode of production while reducing the workers to absolute poverty and unemployment does threaten their very life, and in this sense the reproduction and survival of society (since the workers, more generally the labourers, are those who feed and sustain society as a whole). There is a nihilistic element in Capitalism as portrayed here by Marx, which allows it to identify the assault against it as a defence of society against its internal enemy. But then comes also a more strategic or quasi-strategic consideration, which resides in the idea that the proletarian class struggle derives its own strength, consciousness, and organization, from the organization of the bourgeoisie against which it is pitted. Initially at least, Marx would not so much imagine the proletarian class party as an anti-state, he would rather see it as a negative of the State, therefore a "negation of the negation", if the State is what suppresses society for the sake of the exploiting social order. All this derives from the fact that, contrary to external war situations, the adversaries in a "social war" conceived as "civil war" are not really external, separated from one another. They are and remain modalities of evolution of the same social subject in the form of a division.
Finally the consequence for the understanding of the articulation of war and politics is both crucial and ambiguous : it is by actualizing the unconciliable character of the antagonism that the model of the civil war reveals the essence of the political in class societies, and especially in capitalism ; but at the same time it registers this manifestation in the figure of transition, the "vanishing mediator" which prepares for the end of the political as such, we might say its self-annihilation.
What prompted Marx to abandon or neglect this representation in his subsequent works ? They would lead him to looking for other models of the development of the class struggle, but also to retreating in some sense from the acute picture of the political as anti-political that he had exposed in the Communist Manifesto : why ? In my opinion a series of positive factors, including the increasing importance granted to the economic cycles of accumulation in the development of capitalism at the expense of the "apocalyptic" linear vision of the increasing polarization of poverty and wealth, played a role, but also negatively a greater experience of the phenomena of wars and civil wars, which made it difficult or impossible to endorse the analogy of class struggle as such with civil war, and, conversely, displayed all the negative sides of the model of revolution as civil war pushed to the extreme - "absolute civil war" if you like (a lesson hotly debated in the Marxist tradition subsequently, among "reformists" and "revolutionary"). The idea of a "limited civil war", or a civil war "refrained", seemed a contradiction in terms. Actual civil wars, in 1848 or in 1872 (the Paris Commune) were tragic experiences of bloodbaths in which the bourgeois State easily implemented the military apparatus formed in external wars (including colonial wars) to crush the proletariat, which itself was anything but an "army" (not even a guerrilla army). And beside that the 19th century (not to speak of the 20th) provided overwhelming evidence of the fact that national wars were not giving way to the class struggle, and remained the proper site of the articulation of politics and war, therefore strategic thinking. In spite of attempts, never completely convincing, to picture national wars as mere appearances, or simulacra, masking the "real" and really "political" process, which should be the combined effort of the ruling classes of different countries to exterminate their "own" workers by throwing them against one another and cheating them with nationalist discourses, this hard reality of the national wars had to be taken into account, and it called for a return to the direct understanding of Clausewitz and his problems.
This was prepared by Engels, who simultaneously criticized Clausewitz’s allegedly "idealistic" emphasis on moral factors, and sought a materialist equivalent, which would prove compatible with an insistence on the technological, economic and social factors of the wars. This equivalent was found in the idea that people’s armies, or mass conscription, would potentially introduce the class struggle within the army itself (at least in democratic republics), thus reversing Clausewitz’s fear of the masses in military matters into a prophecy of their emerging as new strategic actors at the expense of the State and its military machine. But it was only with Lenin and Mao Zedong that this dialectical principle would lead to a new articulation of war and politics, displacing the idea of the strategic combination from the state-army-people unity to a new unity of class, people, and revolutionary party. Lenin, as we know, intensively read Clausewitz, taking notes and writing marginal commentaries on his On War at the beginning of WW I, after the collapse of the Second International and its anti-war agenda. He drafted and successfully tried to implement (at least in his own country) the motto of the "transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war", which describes the "moral factor" (the internationalist class consciousness) as the political result over time of the horrors of a "popular" war (i.e. waged by mass national armies). It gives a completely original interpretation of the idea of an "offensive" prepared from within the "defensive" ; and derives its necessity from the fact that "absolute" warfare is, in a certain sense, or rather becomes untenable. It must therefore destroy the State itself, better said it must recreate the conditions of politics at the expense of the State, who in a sense could incarnate politics only as long as it also retained the capacity to arm the people and control its use of the arms it receives, but would become a political phantom as soon as it would be deprived of it. Or, if you wish, as one would pass from the State monopoly of legitimate violence to the Class monopoly of historically decisive violence. It is this displacement of Clausewitz, let us note in passing, that forms the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s impolitical concept of the "political" - where sovereignty is identified with the capacity to install a "state of exception" in the core of the State, in order to repress the class struggle in a preventive manner, so that the definition of the "internal enemy", the enemy of the "class civil war", is used to recreate the monopoly of the state and its capacity to wage external wars.
But it is only in Mao Zedong’s theory of the "protracted war of partisans" that we find what can be considered at the same time a Marxist rescuing of Clausewitz’s concept of the War as "the continuation of politics by other means" and an alternative to Clausewitz’s idea of the political, which tries to solve the aporia on which, as we have seen, Clausewitz was permanently hitting his head. In fact I tend to believe, not only that Mao Zedong, as several commentators have acknowledged, was the most consistent Clausewitzian in the Marxist tradition, but that he was perhaps the most consistent Clausewitzian after Clausewitz, because he re-interpreted all his axioms, and not only one or two of them. It is hard to know if he actually had read Clausewitz in the text, or in some adaptation (I should have to check whether Clausewitz was translated into Chinese, the only language read by Mao) : the references he gives in his various brochures and articles written in the late 30’s and 40’s during the Anti-Japanese War (after the end of the Long March properly speaking), only quote from Lenin’s own references to Clausewitz in his essays on imperialism. Which seems to indicate that, from these fragments, Mao actually reconstructed the problematic. His key idea is that the defensive strategy which is imposed by the fact that, initially, the imperialist adversary and the ruling bourgeoisie have armies whereas the proletariat and the peasants have none will become reversed into its opposite in the end, and lead to the actual annihilation of the "strongest". So the length of the war, the dialectical equivalent of the "friction" now called "protracted war" (or the long March of the war) is the time needed for the tiny nucleus of revolutionary workers and intellectuals who have sought refuge within the masses of the peasantry (who find themselves within the people "like fishes swimming in water") to achieve simultaneously a triple result : 1) to arm themselves at the expense of the adverse forces by performing local guerrilla attacks against isolated detachments of the invading army ; 2) to "learn" the art of strategy by expanding the theatre of war to the national level (which in the case of China is semi-continental) ; 3) finally to "solve the contradiction in the people" and separate the people from its enemies (or the party’s enemy…), by transferring the hegemony from an external power (either a colonial conqueror or a national caste) to an immanent power, representing the common interest of all national dominated classes. The communist party is supposed to be (and to remain over a long period) precisely that immanent power.
The blind spot of this analysis seems today rather clear (and it was not without consequences on the subsequent developments) : namely the fact that the international global context of WW II is practically ignored, as if only the national forces would count strategically in the anti-imperialist struggle. "Self-reliance", the great Maoist motto, has a latent nationalist dimension itself. But the result remains impressive in terms of a new historical interpretation of the idea of a rationality of war which is political - therefore implies a political subject. So, in a sense, we have come full circle, and it is not by chance, probably, that the closure of this circle particularly consists in the reversal of the hierarchic relationship established between institutional warfare waged by the state and popular guerrilla warfare. But it is not the case, in my opinion, that this reversal completely resolves the aporia that we found in Clausewitz. It rather displaces it. Clausewitz’s difficulty came from the fact that the State could not be said a priori to have become the absolute master of the "instrument" it had to build and use in the course of the transformation of wars into "absolute wars", i.e. wars waged by the people in arms. Mao’s difficulty, or the difficulty we read in Mao with hindsight, drawing some lessons from the history of the Chinese revolution itself, comes from the fact that the immanent power of the organization which, from the inside, transforms a people into an army, or a "popular army" with a class ideology, in given historical circumstances ; namely the revolutionary party, can completely perform the strategic reversal and remain a political agency only at the condition of becoming a state itself (even if a State periodically destructed and reconstructed by revolutionary episodes, in the Maoist vision which led to, or was taught, during the "Cultural revolution"). The only thinkable alternative - very unlikely in the circumstances of war of national liberation - would be that it refrained from "taking power", or carrying on the revolutionary war until the ’final" goal (Zweck) ; which is the complete destruction of the enemy - thus somehow "scaling down" the war from "absolute" to "limited".
So the subject of the strategic process (or the subject determined from within the strategic process) remains in every case a split subject, or a subject oscillating between sovereignty and insurrection. Some modern theoreticians and commentators of "molecular wars" (Enzensberger) solve the aporia by simply eliminating the category of the subject, or reducing it to negative or defective figures. But in this case it remains to be explained how the category of "war" itself can be maintained.