Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII: Politics Can Be Murder

The Division of Power

The German word politik, as used by Clausewitz, can mean both politics and policy. The two words were used interchangeably by Michael Howard and Peter Paret in translating On War depending upon how they interpreted Clausewitz’s meaning in a particular passage. This can serve to remind us that both policy and politics play a role in launching and waging war. While much of On War deals with policy, the rational planning of how to use x resources to achieve y goals, much of Book VIII deals with politics. What is politics? James Burnham ponders this in The Machiavellians:

What are we talking about when we talk politics? Many, to judge by what they write, seem to think we are talking about man’s search for the ideally good society, or his mutual organization for the maximum social welfare, or his natural aspiration for peace and harmony, or something equally removed from the world as it is and has been. Machiavelli understood politics as primarily the study of the struggles for power among men. By so marking its field, we are assured that there is being discussed something that exists, not something spun out of idealist’s dreams, or nightmares. If our interest is in man as he is on this earth, so far as we can learn from the facts of history and experience, we must conclude that he has no natural aspiration for peace or harmony, he does not form states in order to achieve an ideally good society, nor does he accept mutual organization is to secure the maximum social welfare. But men, and groups of men, do, by various means, struggle among themselves for relative increases in power and privilege. In the course of these struggles and as part of them, governments are established and overthrown, laws passed and violated, wars fought and won and lost. A definition is arbitrary, true enough, but Machiavelli’s implied definition of the field of politics as the struggle for power is at least insurance against nonsense.

Max Weber echoed Burnham’s definition even earlier in Politics as a Vocation:

‘Politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.

Christopher Bassford places the definition of politics as the division of power between socially determined ends in a specifically Clausewitzian context in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century:

Politics is the highly variable process by which power is distributed in any society: the family, the office, a religious order, a tribe, the state, an empire, a region, an alliance, and the international community. The process of distributing power may be fairly orderly—through consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition, or it may be chaotic—through assassination, revolution, and warfare.

War is not a departure from this fundamental nature of politics, it is a logical continuation. As Clausewitz observes:

It is, of course, well-known that the only source of war is politics – the intercourse of governments and peoples; but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own.

We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase “with the addition of other means” because we also want to make clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues irrespective of the means it employs.

Political intercourse, concerned primarily with the division of power both within and without a human community, does not suspend itself during war. This means that the petty details of politics, buying political support, the compromising of principles, the catering to special interests, the rhetorical excesses, whoring, horse-trading, half-truths, distorted world views, all the evils of Babylon, will shape war more profoundly than devotees of rational decision making would like or even acknowledge. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita argues that most foreign policy decisions are primarily shaped by domestic politics as political leaders seek developments abroad that will satisfy their domestic constituencies and enable them to both gain and hold on to power. War is no different. Politics may not stoop to determining “the posting of guards or the employment of patrols” (though LBJ may beg to differ). It usually has other sordid details to oversee. But the very atmosphere the flames of war feed on emanates from the machinations of politics. It is politics, driven by narrow and parochial concerns, tossed and turned as it is by the shifting fortunes of war, that will determine the outcome of war. Clausewitz puts this kindly, putting the ideal first (with my substitutions):

It can be taken as agreed that the aim of [politics] is to unify and reconcile all aspects of internal administration as well as spiritual values, and whatever else the moral philosophy may care to add.

Then comes the first qualification:

[Politics], of course, is nothing in itself; it is only the trustee for all these interests against other states.

He acknowledges the imperfections but sticks to the main assertion:

That it can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power is neither here nor there. In no sense can war ever be regarded as the preceptor of [politics], and here we can only treat [politics] as representative of all interests of the community.

Politics, for all of its flaws, determines the course of war. This isn’t to say that participants in the political process, inasmuch as such participation is allowed, shouldn’t seek the best policy for their community. However, they shouldn’t seek fault in the instrument, war, alone, though the critical eye may see flaws in the instrument as well. They should seek to remedy faults in the real source: politics:

No major proposal required for war can be worked out in ignorance of political factors; and when people talk, as they often do, about harmful political influence on the management of war, they are not really saying what they mean. Their quarrel should be with the policy itself, not with its influence. If the policy is right – that is, successful – any intentional effect it has on the conduct of the war can only be to the good. If it has the opposite effect the policy itself is wrong.

When the current power configuration of a community is summed up by the political process at a given point in time, that summation will be what dictates the direction war will take. If the military instrument rebels against the hands of its masters and takes over the political process, that is not an unnatural assertion of the power of war over politics. It’s the replacement of one set of politicians with another set, only this time they are garbed for war instead of peace.

Clausewitz rejected technical explanations for changes in the art of war because of his belief in the primacy of politics over war. He argued that shifts in the nature of politics had more to do with the descent of Europe into total war than advances in technology and tactical technique:

Clearly the tremendous effects of the French Revolution abroad were caused not so much by new military methods and concepts as by radical changes in policies and administration, by the new character of government, altered conditions of the French people, and the like. That other governments did not understand these changes, that they wished to oppose new and overwhelming forces with customary means: all these were political errors. Would a purely military view of war have enabled anyone to detect these faults and cure them? It would not. Even if there really had existed a thoughtful strategist capable of deducing the whole range of consequences from the nature of the hostile elements, and on the strength of these of prophesying their ultimate effects, it would have been quite impossible to act on his speculations.

The bad news is that the solution to the changing faces of warfare may have to emerge through the narrow bandwidth of the intelligence of those who are usually the last to realize the world has changed: politicians:

Not until the statesmen had at last perceived that the nature of the forces that had emerged in France, and had grasped that new political conditions now obtained in France, could they foresee the broad effect all this would have on war; and only in that way could they appreciate the scale of the means that would have to be employed, and how best to apply them.

That the monarchies of Europe only solved the problem of the Corsican Ogre and his Merry Frenchmen after twenty years of policy failure is only stronger evidence of the primacy of politics in war:

It follows that the transformation of the art of war resulted from the transformation of politics. So far from suggesting that the two could be disassociated from each other, these changes are a strong proof of their indissoluble connection.

The success and failure of war and strategy can occur without the direct influence of politics. However, they are in orbit around the planet Politics and its gravitational sway will eventually decide if local success or failure translate into global success or failure. The muddled and confused strategies of contemporary conflicts are the product of a muddled and confused politics; they reflect the contortions and pretense of contemporary society as accurately as a mirror held up to the face. Only a better political outcome will result in a better strategic outcome. Though the two constitute a feedback loop that causes strategy to shape politics and politics to shape strategy, the impact of politics is inevitably stronger. As Clausewitz concludes his last section on war as an instrument of politics (with my replacements):

Once again: war is an instrument of [politics]. It must necessarily bear the character of [politics] and measure by its standards. The conduct of war, in its great outlines, is therefore [politics] itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen, but does not on that account cease to think according to its own laws.

If so much of war is spent struggling in the squalor of mud advancing or retreating from an unimpressive dot on a map at the caprice of persons far away, it is because it is a representative sample of politics as a whole. Politics, at its core, is a struggle in the mud between writhing swine grubbing desperately in the muck for the fetid slop of power.

Like father, like son.

1 thought on “Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII: Politics Can Be Murder”

  1. It is always bracing to encounter someone a little more cynical than me.

    Politics, in the Western tradition, following Aristotle, and St. Thomas and many others, is not merely pigs fumbling in the filth. It can only exist where there is some degree of freedom. In a continental empire like China during one of its powerful dynasties, there is no international politics: There is only the will of the Son of Heaven, apparently over the whole earth. Europe, land of many states, land of an equilibrium that comes into play against any would-be hegemon, is a place where international politics is possible. Similarly, politics can only exist where there is something short of absolute tyranny. Again, to use the Chinese example, there may be court intrigues, but the Son of Heaven is a God, and his commands are law, and there is no politics. When the Persian Emperor attacked Hellas, he confronted a political community of states, which warred on each other, but united against a common foe. And within those states, there was a political process that decided policy and raised armies and selected commanders. Even Sparta, where almost all the human beings were helots, abject slaves ruled by terrorism, there was a small core of citizens who practiced politics.

    Politics is not just a category. It is part of a continuum. It is not an inherently degraded process, but rather, where it exists, it proves the existence of some scope for freedom and initiative.

    So, yes, politicians spend a lot of time mucking around after power, fame, popularity, corrupt gain. Some are, some of the time, attuned to the needs of the various groups in the community, or the community as a whole, and with their sensitive political antennae, are able to choose policies that their people can handle and will pay for and kill and die for. It is interesting that the seemingly most ill-disciplined political machines, the British and American, have been so successful over time in surviving and prevailing in major wars. Big moats help, certainly. But it is not just the moats.

    It is the particular type of politics that arose in both places that has allowed them, most of the time, to prevail in wars, particularly the very major ones that matter the most.

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