Wars of position, wars of maneuver

The concepts of “war of position” and “war of maneuver” are widely, and incorrectly, attributed to Antonio Gramsci. They also serve as a glimpse into longstanding debates over theories of causation and the decisive element in both figurative and literal wars.

By obscuring the sources and debates that gave rise to Gramsci’s use of these terms it is impossible to understand the influence and significance of contrasting “war of maneuver” concepts in the conduct of both contemporary warfare and frontier wars, but also how, ironically, “war of position” triumphed as the doctrine of political success within socialist and social democratic parties (or more specifically, within ‘Western Marxism‘). The recourse to the latter theory of decisive or causal force has much to do with the way in which Anglo-American socialist and social democratic parties adopted a liberal theory of causation ‘at home’ (and came to emphasize national representation) while navigating around but nevertheless conceding to the terms of the Cold War–the only symmetrical war that has ever taken place.

It is difficult to see how Cold War scenarios could be mapped onto the realignments between the US and Russia in the wake of Trump’s election, even if we manage to pretend to ourselves that they somehow did map after the late 1980s or even since the 1900s. In post-Cold War circumstances, where wars proceed as “long war” maneuvers involving variable alignments of standing armies, insurgents, mercenaries and uprisings, through which shifting combinations of corporate and government armaments and money flow along the routes of pipelines and, not least, where war has financial and forceful value (as terror, catastrophe or disruption) and is not simply an instrument of government policy, holding fast to Clausewitz’s classically liberal theory of power and causation seems absurd to say the least.

As to how that came about: firstly, Gramsci’s use of “war of position” and “war of maneuver” arises in the context of his argument against Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 pamphlet, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” which he referred to as “one of the most significant documents theorizing the war of maneuver in relation to political science.” Luxemburg was not obscured in contemporary understandings of these concepts because of her imprisonment and subsequent murder by the Freikorps mercenaries, ordered by the German Social Democratic government in 1919, but because she was critical of both Lenin and Trotsky, figures around which socialist groups outside of Russia gathered until joined, more recently, by Gramsci.

Secondly, the terms “war of position” and “war of maneuver,” and the theory of war with which it is associated, comes directly from Jomini’s Art of War. It is there, in Jomini’s argument that infrastructure is decisive to the conduct and course of wars, that “the system of positions” is distinguished from the “pivots of maneuver” or “pivots of operation.”

Thirdly, Gramsci’s argument for a “war of position” (in later formulations, ‘hegemonic strategy’) is an elaboration on Clausewitz’s arguments against Jomini, in contexts where the very distinction between the figurative and the literal war becomes obscure but on whose clear demarcation Clausewitz’s theory of war firmly rests.

The attribution of original invention to Gramsci, indeed much of Gramsci’s contemporary standing and the redefinition of hegemony as a version of the “war of position,” was hard-wired into socialist lore by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe who, in the Preface to the second edition of their 1985 book, wrote that of all the twentieth-century contributions to marxism, “Only Gramsci, writing from the Mussolinian jails, can be quoted as a new departure producing a new arsenal of concepts – war of position, collective will, hegemony, intellectual and moral leadership – which are the starting point of our reflections in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.” There is nothing in that sentence that is not false or misleading. It is simply not the case that Gramsci invented this “new arsenal of concepts.”

What Laclau and Mouffe present as a “new departure” is only novel in contrast to “the Marxist tradition” because it positively emphasized intellectual sources that Mussolini admired (such as Sorel’s concept of collective will and more besides, and Machiavelli’s concepts of “intellectual and moral leadership,” which Machiavelli called virtu), and which were therefore not subject to prohibition by prison censors. How Gramsci’s imprisonment, along with many others from the Italian Communist Party at the time, impacted on how and what was written is beyond the scope of this discussion. It is also, now, somewhat beside the point because of the floating, canonical status accorded to those texts as the handbook of a strategy that has nowhere been successful but which nevertheless continues to flatter ideologues who see themselves engaged in directing massed battalions in a figurative war if not, more crudely, who simply wish to see themselves as players. Still, the extent that Laclau, Mouffe and many others present the writings of The Prison Notebooks as the quintessential expression of Gramscian theory has been remarkable for the way it tacitly romanticizes imprisonment as some kind of monastic circumstance that facilitates authentic and heroic introspection while ignoring the material significance of the involuntary conditions under which it places authorship.

It understates, put simply, the circumstances in which Gramsci was imprisoned and held captive. It skips over the extent to which Gramsci’s politics, along with Mussolini’s and many others, shifted around from similar points of departure from WWI and during the series of strikes, occupations and the workers’ councils that the fascists eventually crushed in the early 1920s, much of which in the post-war period turned around the question of ‘national identity versus class struggle’ in shaping the role and aims of a political party. Some of Gramsci’s prison writings were an effort to explain the defeat of the workers’ councils, much as Marx’s Capital could be said to be a reflection on the defeats of the uprisings of 1849. Yet where Marx delved into the writings of political economy, at times raising questions about whether Capital is political economy or its critique, Gramsci adopted some of the basic tenets of liberalism (and fascism) in the causal importance assigned to ‘national culture’ in determining the outcome of wars both literal, as in WWI, and figurative, as in ‘the class war.’ Not least among these tenets is that the party-army that is decisive in the (class) war is the party-army that represent the sovereign will, a will that presumably transcends class and resolves differences in the solvent of a unique, national culture.

That, in  short, is the basis of Gramsci’s theory of “hegemony,” itself a Latinized form of Greek hegemonikos. Gramsci did not invent it. In ancient Greece, ‘hegemonic’ meant the military and political predominance of one city-state over others. It came to Gramsci by way of Roman and Italian Renaissance writers’ preoccupations with antiquarian political theory. While Gramsci’s own use of the term varies considerably, Laclau and Mouffe settled its present-day canonical meaning by resetting it’s significance in the context of Latin American debates over elections, guerrilla war and counter-insurgency programs. And Laclau and Mouffe redefined that concept by locating it on one side of the principal axes of liberal political philosophy, where ‘hegemony’ comes to mean consensual rather than coercive political rule – or, more simply, the strategy to popular government. Jon Beasley-Murray has more to say about hegemony than I could here.

But much of the course of later Italian politics emerged from the splits within the Socialist Party (PSI) over whether to fight in WWI and its position on the occupation movement of the workers’ councils. Gramsci went from being the editor of the Turin branch of Avanti! (the PSI’s publication) to following Bordiga out of the PSI and into the newly-formed Communist Party in 1922. A few years prior to this, Mussolini had been expelled from the PSI’s National Directorate and his position as editor of Avanti! for arguing that the entry of Italy into the First World War was necessary for the unification of Italy (the Risorgimento), after which he formed the Revolutionary Fasci for International Action in 1914. Initially, the Fasci were a lucrative conduit for the funding of a campaign in favour of Italy’s entry into WWI. Among other things, from 1917, Mussolini was paid a weekly income by the British security agency, MI5, to campaign for Italy’s involvement in the war. By 1922, Mussolini had formed the Partito Nazionale Fascista and was constitutionally sworn in as Italy’s Prime Minister. After his imprisonment in 1926, Gramsci’s writings markedly shift from debates over the workers’ councils and opposition to nationalism to an emphasis on attaining national hegemony and related, Machiavellian themes of the Risorgimento (hence Gramsci’s arguments for a “modern Prince”). Throughout much of this period, the Soviet Comintern vacillated between arguing for a popular or united front against fascism and declaring social democrats and liberals to being the real enemy.

As noted,  Gramsci’s argument follows the line of argument put by Clausewitz against Jomini, in a series of essays posthumously published as On War; and it reiterates Lenin’s high regard for Clausewitz, whom Lenin considered “one of the greatest writers on the history of war,” and according to which “every war [was viewed] as a continuation of the politics of given interested nations—and various classes inside of them—at a given time.” Clausewitz’s famously misquoted dictum—that “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means“—characterized war as an otherwise neutral instrument of clashing, sovereign wills.

Gramsci’s additional contribution was to make a somewhat orientalist and definitively liberal philosophical argument for the decisiveness of a “war of position” in the Occident. Hence Gramsci’s importance to the development of a ‘Western Marxism’  looking to distinguish itself from ‘Soviet Marxism,’ particularly from the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. Taking its cue from Gramsci’s argument that whereas a ‘frontal assault’ on the despotic power of Eastern rulers such as the Russian Tsar might make sense, by that view the revolution in ‘the West’ required a struggle throughout ‘civil society’ and, principally, by way of a struggle over the consciousness of the national-popular masses. In this way, and more emphatically than in Lenin, intellectuals were cast as the vanguard of Gramsci’s hegemonic struggle—or “war of position”—because that struggle was conceived in Clausewitzian terms as a conflict between wills carried out within a national and inter-national field of battle, in which the triumph of one’s political will is decisive. But if Gramsci elevated intellectuals to the front and center in this theory of a figurative revolutionary war (one that did not include a discussion of guerrilla war or insurgency or borderless, frontier conflicts that, by contrast, Jomini’s theory did grasp), he also borrowed heavily from Sorel and Croce in characterizing “the subaltern classes” as incapable of logic but moveable through recourse to myths. Therein, as it happens, lies the politician’s justification for adopting positions that one can claim to not believe in when pressed, but which are deemed necessary for the attainment of political power-as if an interior disbelief diminishes the material effects of something that is put into practice.

I’ve not discussed Clausewitz, Jomini and Luxemburg much in the above because I do that elsewhere and at greater length. But reading accounts of both the war in Syria as well as related debates around social democratic responses to Trump’s election recently, they seemed to me so filtered through Gramscian and Clausewitzian preconceptions that making those preconceptions explicit seemed important.


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