Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, Chapter 3B, The Concept of Cohesion

There are many points one could make in connection with Book VIII of On War.  As I mentioned in my first post on this roundtable, Clausewitz deals with different types of theory in the book.  I have mentioned the general theory, Clausewitz’s art of Napoleonic warfare, and his theory of politics/political development.  This last type could be simply described as his concept of cohesion, since it is the different types of cohesion present which indicate the type of political community we are dealing with.  For this discussion I  rely on Chapter 3B of Book VIII particularly, in addition to his essay titled “Agitation”, as well as other parts of On War.

This concept has received next to no treatment in Clausewitz literature, or in any treatment of On War, outside of a paper I posted last year on the DNI site.  The concept indicates the “cutting edge” nature of Clausewitz in strategic theory even today.

The Clausewitzian Concept of Cohesion

This concept comes up in various forms in On War and Clausewitz’s other writings. The concept has at least five different applications in terms of the general theory:

  • Cohesion as the moral (think tribalism, nationalism) and material (think constitution, institutions, shared views of how to define “civilization”) elements that make up the communal/social organizations of political communities, including the three ideal types discussed below. Moral cohesion can be seen as the traditional communal values of a political community, whereas material cohesion (in its most developed form) is the complexus of modern cosmopolitan values associated with society. The two types exist is a certain state of constant stress and tension with modern values actually being destructive to the retention of traditional values (following Weber). Cohesion here is Clausewitz’s theory of politics which also includes the abstract concept of money.
  • Cohesion provides the process behind which the center of gravities of both participants in a conventional war are formed. Lack of a center of gravity would indicate the inability to win decisively, which would include conventional militaries committed to unconventional/guerrilla warfare (Book VIII, Chapter 4; Book VI Chapter 27).
  • Cohesion is the target of strategy in that tactical success is extended by strategic pursuit in order to expand the sphere of victory and bring about the disintegration of the enemy. Cohesion links the whole sequence of decisions (contingency) that allows the political purpose to be achieved through the means of the attained military goal, that is cohesion provides the chain of decisions/outcomes that unite political purpose with strategy and strategy with tactics (Book VI Chapter 8; Books II & IV).
  • Cohesion acts within the balance of power among various states, with an aggressor having to contend with all the other states having an interest in maintaining the status quo (Book VI, Chapter 6).
  • Cohesion could also be seen has having an influence in the varying states of balance, tension and movement through which all conflicts proceed (Book III, Chapter 18). At the most abstract level the concept of cohesion can be seen as providing the unifying concept which maintains the various elements of Clausewitz’s general theory as part of a whole, the fields of attraction and tension that provides the general theory with its dynamic quality (Book I Chapter 1).

For our purposes here we are interested in Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion as it pertains to the first point, the material and moral elements of political communities, how cohesion acts in effect as a sliding scale of ever increasing concentration, integration and organization of a political community. We will be referring to two specific works primarily, these being Book VIII, Chapter 3B of On War and the essay “Agitation”, both seemingly written in the late 1820s, that is by the mature theoretician.

Clausewitz begins his introduction (Book VIII Chapter 3B) with describing how the “strength of will, characters, and abilities” of the states involved in a war can be quite varied. He gets to the actual concept by stating:

A more general and theoretical treatment of the subject may become feasible if we consider the nature of states and societies as they are documented by their times and prevailing conditions. Let us take a brief look at history.

The semi barbarous Tartars, the republics of antiquity, the feudal lords and trading cities of the Middle Ages, 18th Century kings and rulers and peoples of the 19th Century – all conducted war in their own particular way, using different methods and pursuing different aims.

The first paragraph sets the theoretical setting. The second introduces three distinct ideal types of political communities: the Tartar nation; various kings/ruling classes in a historical sequence of gradually forming states; and finally “the rulers and peoples of the 19th Century”. Why the distinctions? The very next words, the next paragraph reads:

The Tartar hordes searched for new land. Setting forth as a nation, with women and children, they outnumbered any other army. Their aim was to subdue their enemies or expel them. If a high degree of civilization could have been combined with such methods, they would have carried all before them.

The Tartars represent for Clausewitz what I would refer to today as the ideal type of an armed (stateless) nation. A people organized for war, but lacking a specific geographical homeland, meaning that they would also lack the territorial-based apparatus of the state. However they could have the “civilization factor” meaning socio-economic-technological development (material cohesion) linked with a “nation” that is a political community (with high moral cohesion), making them theoretically unbeatable in war with other political communities.  Thus they would enjoy all the advantages of the “nation” with none of the liabilities of the “state”.

What makes the Tartars distinct, is not their history, the point in time that they ruled, but their social-political organization, and the fact that they were not bound to a specific territory, that is were not a state, since they set forth “as a nation” in search of areas to conquer. This would also preclude them from drawing on the advantages of occupying a certain territory, that is having a “state”.

Clausewitz follows with the second ideal type which includes “the republics of antiquity, the feudal lords and trading cities of the Middle Ages, 18th Century kings”, all these groups have a common trait being that they are made up (using Weberian terms) of a ruler/ruling class and a state apparatus of varying and ever increasing complexity (rationalization) or material cohesion located within a specific territory. Rome is mentioned in this regard as well, but is different than the other republics of antiquity, since she spread not only by conquest, but also by assimilation.

The feudal levies lacked the material cohesion of states, and were in realty “true confederation[s]”. Clausewitz goes on to describe this situation as “indeed, cohesion in the state was never weaker or the individual so independent. It was the combination of these factors that gave medieval wars their special character. Slowly, over centuries the “feudal system hardened into clearly delimited territorial sovereignty . . . The slow evolution toward this goal naturally brought with it numerous overlappings of these three military institutions. Under Henry IV of France feudal levies, condottieri and a standing army were used side by side.”

A state of that type could not be said to be genuinely united; it was rather an agglomeration of loosely associated forces. Therefore we should not think of such a state as a personified intelligence acting according to simple and logical rules.

At the time of the Hundred Years War, France was still not a “genuine monarchy”, but “an agglomeration of duchies and counties; while England, though displaying greater unity, still fought with feudal levies amid much domestic strife”. This process continued through the next couple of centuries till by the end of the 17th Century, Louis XIV controlled a mature standing army, whose organization was based on the power, money and cohesion of the state. “The states of Europe had achieved complete internal unity.”

The executive had become completely unified, and represented the state in its foreign relations. Political and military institutions had developed into an effective instrument for control of the states’s territory and promoting the states interests among other states respectively, with which an independent will at the center could now wage war in a form that matched its theoretical concept.

By comparing these two ideal types the two modes of cohesion are clear.  The “Tartar nation” demonstrates high moral cohesion, but very low (if any) material cohesion, whereas the developing “state” initially has a significant level of moral cohesion with an ever increasing level of material cohesion.  What is significant here was that as the state’s material cohesion becomes more pronounced, the tendency is for moral cohesion to deteriorate: the rulers exclude the people from participation in war (effectively from politics) since the decision to go to war is the most important political decision.

The effect of this concentrated power, of this level of material cohesion as defined by the state, was that the monarchs looked on the state as their own private property, war became “a true game”, but with very limited stakes since the armies were very expensive investments which could not be risked. Also the military only fought other militaries avoiding civilian areas. On the geo-strategic level, interests of states interacted in a balance of power relationship and even the power that Louis XIV commanded could make little headway in these circumstances. Most importantly for Clausewitz, the people were considered to have no interest in the affairs of state, that is in politics. Significantly Clausewitz brings up the example of the Tartars once again, “The Tartar people and army had been one; in the republics of antiquity and during the Middle Ages the people had still played a prominent part; but in the circumstances of the 18th Century the people’s part had been extinguished”.

The very next lines are important in indicating how this development reached a certain culmination:

War thus became solely the concern of the government to the extent that government parted company with their peoples and behaved as if they were themselves the state. Their means of waging war came to consist of the money in their coffers and of such idle vagabonds as they could lay their hands on either at home of abroad. In consequence the means they had available were fairly well defined, and each could gauge the other side’s potential in terms both of numbers and of time. War was thus deprived of its most dangerous feature – its tendency toward the extreme, and of the whole chain of unknown possibilities which would follow.

War became very limited in its scope and objectives “due to the narrow base on which it rested” and at the same time very predictable since the amount of resources (financial and otherwise) were essentially known quantities. An attacking army would attempt to “seize an enemy province or two” and the defender would attempt to prevent this until the onset of Autumn at which time both armies would retire to their winter quarters. Added to this is the fact that as Clausewitz has mentioned, Europe was in a state of balance Friedrich the Great stands out at this time due to the risky nature of his endeavors, the boldness of his operations, and the mobilization of popular support among the Prussians for his policies.

At this point in our analysis we have two of the three types of social-political entities described, the “Tartar nation” which is the combination of people, army and rulers moving about as a nation (that is a traditional pre-modern political community), but not tied to any particular territory; and the ever increasingly materially cohesive state. Clausewitz finds this former type potentially the strongest grouping (“they would have carried all before them”), that is possessing a high level of moral cohesion, but limited due to the minimal level of “civilization” /material cohesion that they enjoy. While they wage war effectively – this is simply as an expression of their culture and their desire to live a nomad lifestyle, not to mention gaining what they need by way of pillage (the objective meaning of Politik)- they lack political purpose and the ability to form rational policy (the subjective meaning of Politik).  In Book VI, Chapter 6, Clausewitz describes 18th Century Poland as a “Tartar State” with “their chaotic public life and boundless irresponsibility” and “long before the country was partitioned, the Russians were doing what they liked there. So what reduced 18th Century Poland to a “Tartar state” was the chaos and irresponsibility of their political leaders/system and their inability to control what was going on within their own territory, that is they had lost that basic element of being a state long before they disappeared from the map of Europe.  Thus “Tartar state” is for Clausewitz a contradiction in terms.

Material cohesion would also influence the quality of military leadership. Clausewitz doubted the ability of the military commanders of “Tartar nations” to achieve any high level of expertise, “we will never find a savage who is a truly great commander, and very rarely one who would be considered a military genius, since this requires a degree of intellectual powers beyond anything that a primitive people can develop”. (Book I Chapter 3).  Remember however that should a “Tartar nation” achieve a certain level of material cohesion (civilization) they could become theoretically “unbeatable”.

On the other hand we have the ideal type of “the state”, starting with the states of ancient times and slowly, but consistently developing into the “mature states” of the 18th Century. This process was a long one and not without the potentiality of reversal, but acted as an ever increasing concentration of power in the hands of the rulers of the various states. The states went through a process of material consolidation or increasing material cohesion which allowed for ever increasing control and mobilization of the resources of the state. The indirect result was that the rulers came to view the state as their own personal property, which is contrary to the “nature” of the state which must also include the interests and participation of the people, according to Clausewitz, this being what we can term the moral cohesion (allegiance)  of the political community to the state which is the political community’s controlling apparatus. That is, following Weber now, the state requires legitimacy in the long-term to ensure its survival as a social entity.

Finally, the third ideal type that Clausewitz mentions is the modern 19th Century state, that is the ruling class using the apparatus of state control for a political community which feels its interests more or less represented by the leadership. This type of political community, “the rulers and peoples of the 19th Century” dates from the French Revolution:

When the enormous majority challenged the minority in France, the nobility had to give way. It was no longer strong enough to resist this force. The Old Regime collapsed – and collapsed forever, because once an organic whole has been broken it may be glued together again, but its original unity can never be restored. The masses, furthermore, broke the scepter that had ruled them so despotically, and set up a mixed government. This shattering of all social relationships, which were already under great strain, was much easier than the creation of a new regime, and it could be foreseen that after the violent upheaval there would be much groping around and that some decades would be needed to explore new ideas before a new form of government could put down firm roots.

I would argue that the history of France from 1789-1871 very much proves Clausewitz’ view to have merit. It would thus be unreasonable according to Clausewitz to expect a political community to develop a new state quickly to replace an old system of “social relationships” (or Weberian social action orientations) which had been swept away. This would be even more difficult under a foreign occupation with the resulting government seen as imposed by and acting in the interests of the occupying power, that is enjoying little if any legitimacy/potential “core” of moral cohesion let alone any material cohesion. This element would be separate from the administrative ability of the new state to provide basic services and security that the people had come to best expect from the previous state in question.  For cohesion to be present, the political community has to consider the values and/or institutions to be their own.

What most interests us here, and also interested Clausewitz at the time was the ability of this revolutionary government to mobilize and wage war at a level of power that “beggared all imagination”, that is the amalgamation of moral with material cohesion by the leadership of a state for achieving policy goals through the use of organized violence.

Suddenly war again became the business of the people – a people of 30 millions, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens . . . The people became a participant in war, instead of government and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance.

Notice the “again” in the first sentence, alluding to the “Tartar nation” as well as early “state” ideal types. The result was an unbeatable combination of moral and material state cohesion under the control of a military genius who was able to combine the two positions as head of state and commander in chief – Napoleon. The shocking effect of this material and moral level of cohesive political power in turn caused a corresponding reaction, as Clausewitz writes, “Just in time, the reaction set in. The Spanish war spontaneously became the concern of the people.” Clausewitz goes on to describe how the European states attempted to harness this source of power by rallying their people to defend their states against the might of France. It should be important to note that Clausewitz puts special emphasis on the case of Spain since it was the “nation” that reacted to the French invasion, not the Spanish state, that is the people rose up against the French occupation and carried out a popular uprising.  Clausewitz nevertheless sees popular uprisings as a 19th Century phenomenon and “an outgrowth of the way in which the conventional barriers have been swept away in our lifetime by the elemental violence of war. It is in fact, and broadening and intensification of the fermentation process known as war”.  Book VI Chapter 26.

It is here with Clausewitz’s idea of popular uprisings being a reaction to the aggressive political instrument of moral/material cohesion of the modern nation state that we have an interesting inversion which occurs in Clausewitz’s theory, and links an additional aspect of the concept of cohesion. The French Army under Napoleon exhibited both material and moral cohesion, whereas the Spanish guerrillas who were the reaction to it could not equal the material cohesion of the French and in fact it was against their purposes to do so. They would have to operate more along the line of the “Tartar nation”, that is harnessing the “blind natural force” of a political community united in common effort, since it was not in their interests to become involved in a tactical defense along the lines of a professional military.

This leads us to one final point which needs to be clarified. There appears to be a distinction for Clausewitz between the moral cohesion of the “Tartar nation” and the moral cohesion of the “19th Century state”. In Book V, Chapter 4, Clausewitz writes, Russia and Austria, for example, are included in this direction [maintaining large numbers of cavalry] because they still maintain fragments of Tartar institutions in their political structures.  “Tartar institutions” seen as pre-modern anomalies existing in modern states, but not included as part of the political mobilization of the people which is seen as essentially a 19th phenomenon. Thus moral cohesion in the “19th Century State” is fundamentally different than the moral cohesion of the “Tartar nation” although they have obvious similarities.  What is interesting here is that France represents more the “19th Century state” type of moral cohesion, whereas its Spanish reaction seems to represent more the “Tartar nation” type of moral cohesion.  

Before continuing with our discussion however, it would be interesting to consider what Clausewitz sees as the reason behind this radical social transformation, that being the inability of the French aristocracy to adapt to their new social reality/responsibilities prior to the French Revolution, as Clausewitz wrote in his essay Agitation:

If we now consider how the concept of the state has only evolved in recent centuries, how power has grown stronger at the top as fragmented lands combined into a unified whole, it becomes clear how – precisely because the estates grew closer to each other and were bound together in the unity of the state – the differences in their rights and duties became more evident and led to tension [my emphasis]. . . .

All these privileges and rights were a natural right of his [the aristocrat’s] earlier condition, when he alone had been a citizen, and indeed the citizen of a free state in whose government he had shared. Then the mass of the people counted for nothing and the middle class for very little; now the masses had entered the ranks of those who counted, and the middle class joined forces with it. Le nouveau people had become four or five hundred times larger than l’ancien people, and in the eyes of philosophy, as of ordinary common sense, the enormity of its majority was the essential basis for its claims.

The tension between the nobility and the other classes was due to them maintaining the privileges of their earlier status which no longer corresponded to their role in the increasing material cohesion of the state, nor increasingly with the political community they claimed to represent. Contrary to the Middle Ages when the nobility had protected the community/state, in the 18th Century they were hardly represented at all in the areas of middle class activity – commercial and industrial development – both of great importance to the material cohesion of the emerging state. Their privileged positions in the military and state bureaucracy were often characterized by inflexibility, incompetence and corruption. In fact Clausewitz lists the two main reasons for the French Revolution being “the strained relationship between the classes” due to the outmoded attitude of aristocratic privilege along with oppression of the peasants, and “the disorganized, biased and wasteful administration”of the French state. This inability of ruling classes to adjust to their new social conditions of increasing material cohesion and the resulting political turmoil (loss of whatever moral cohesion exists) is an idea that was later developed further by both Karl Marx and Max Weber. Today the assumption is seemingly that we operate as a society predominately in terms of economic relations, that is “the market”.  Should the people suspect that the “folks in charge” are no longer operating in the interests of the political community, that is loss of moral and even material cohesion, political upheavel is the consequence.

Which brings up the last element I will mention in connection with Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion. This is the effect of wealth or money on the powers of the state. Not surprisingly Clausewitz addresses in Chapter 3B the subject of wealth with the example of 16th Century Spain, “What this colossus lacked in cohesion and domestic stability was made up for by its wealth.”

In addition in “Agitation” there is also this:

In the Middle Ages the power of the princes, whether great or small, was extremely limited. With the advance of culture, national wealth and working capital increased, and so did the power of the princes. Money can be thought of as acting like oil, which reduces natural friction and permit all forces to operate with much greater independence and flexibility. It was money that made it possible for the supreme authority in the state to pull together the forces it needed to strengthen itself, like the core of crystallizing mass

As money gradually spread and established itself though out society, providing the princes with the means to purchase personal services and to obtain them where they were cheapest, many sources of friction fell away. A mass of inertia that otherwise opposed the power of the state no longer needed to be overcome. Now the first great step toward sovereignty was taken. It consisted in this : that the princes acted alone, even if they might not yet decide alone. The estates had lost their function, but not yet their rights. Instead of the service they had contributed in the past, they now contributed money. . .

Thus supreme power in the state progressed toward absolute monarchy as we knew it in the 18th Century.

Money is what lubricates the machines of government/domination, be it 16th Century Spain or 21st Century China. Money can compensate for a lot, but has its limits in terms of cohesion. Lubrication is separate from apparatus, so whatever influence on the actual machine’s development would be indirect: seen perhaps in moral terms as a reflection mirrored in social action orientations. Clausewitz would of course assume actual wealth, that is at least instruments corresponding to real money, not mass swindles, of which he would have been well aware (John Law and his Company of the West is an obvious example).

It also worth noting here that for Clausewitz there exists a close relationship between the market and the state. The state provides the stability and dependability which the market requires to function adequately, in fact it is the growing material cohesion of the state which makes the modern market system possible. By use of money available through a stable market the state was able to more easily consolidate against individuals who may have otherwise resisted as Clausewitz’s points out, the material interest in money making assuring compliance.  Would loss of faith in the market transfer to loss of faith in the state?

In conclusion Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion is perhaps the dominate operating principle of the general theory.  It encompasses various aspects which are present throughout On War.  The dynamic quality of the general theory assures its continued relevance.

1 thought on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, Chapter 3B, The Concept of Cohesion”

  1. I am printing this out.

    You are setting the bar awfually darned high, Seydlitz.

    (I need to type up Book VI and Book VII and finish reading Book VIII. What a slacker I am … .)

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