Reconsidering the Rhetoric of Resistance

by Dustin Stalnaker on March 30, 2017

Carl von Clausewitz: admired by both V.I. Lenin and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt

Amidst the near-ceaseless upheaval that has characterized the first two months of the Trump administration, the term “resistance” has acquired seemingly unprecedented currency within the American political lexicon. The rhetoric of resistance has migrated far and wide from its more traditional, humble sphere of grassroots organizing against war and capitalist mayhem, infiltrating even the conservative editorials printed in such powerful opinion-making organs as The New York Times. A strange, ironic conjuncture has seen the unsexy power of the powerless refashioned into resistance chic. This rapid, unforeseen mutation in the class character of “resistance” leaves little doubt that some bullshit is afoot. We would thus be remiss not to ask: how exactly did we get here?

It takes no sophisticated political analyst to recognize that the newfound appeal of resistance among the establishment crowd owes much to the concept’s ambiguity. Amid the prevailing attitude of opposition to the present state of affairs in American political life, opportunists of every stripe have come to recognize, in the rhetoric of resistance, a ready-made and trusted watchword to be recuperated and exploited to their own ends. By appropriating the rhetoric of resistance, they seek to enlist those who have long fought their flawed policies so as to combat the rising influence of the multitudes whom those very policies have failed. This bright banner of resistance—many elites hope—will blind us to the fact that their reasons for opposing the Trump administration are quite different from our own.

Instead of taking the bait that is the bourgeois appropriation of resistance, we would be better served by responding to this development by stepping back to reevaluate the concept of resistance itself. To be sure, much ink has been spilt in recent decades on the topic of resistance. A popular object of research among academics, it has recently found a home in the Journal of Resistance Studies, which aims to understand “resistance strategies, discourses, tactics, effects, causes, contexts, and experiences.” Perhaps the most incisive treatise to weigh the merits and drawbacks of resistance as a strategic endeavor tout court, however, can be found in the writings of the eighteenth-century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. While Clausewitz’s work has traditionally found its most devoted audience within the field of military science, it is no accident that Clausewitz is today most widely remembered for his dictum that “war is the mere continuation of politics by other means.” The transferability of many of Clausewitz’s military insights to the waging of political struggle earned him the admiration of some of the early twentieth century’s most effective political insurgents, including Lenin and the National Socialist legal theorist Carl Schmitt. For all of the ethical baggage associated with these two figures, it cannot be denied that both succeeded in overturning the existing social orders of their respective societies, creating the conditions for these to be radically reshaped in accordance with new visions. And yet in spite of their mutual interest in Clausewitz, neither Lenin nor Schmitt appears to have dedicated much attention to his thoughts on resistance. Before delving into Clausewitz’s writing on resistance to understand why, however, it is fitting to consider what relevance the ruminations of an eighteenth-century cavalry officer might have to the political present.

Clausewitz penned his oeuvre in the wake of his involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, during which he participated in many prominent campaigns. Unfolding at the dawn of the modern age, the struggles from which he derived his insights took the form of war between  states. Clausewitz’s work was thus most immediately relevant to the realm of foreign policy. However, with the gradual ebbing of the age of monarchy and inception of a new age of parliamentary democracy, which the events of Clausewitz’s own lifetime heralded, the political struggles that were formerly waged only between states emerged also within states themselves in the realm of domestic politics, between political parties that vied for power so as to impose their favored way of life upon all persons living within a given polity. Especially after the emergence of Marxism, which pitted distinct classes of countrymen against one another in an epochal struggle for power, domestic politics acquired an increasingly naturalized, life-or-death significance theretofore characteristic chiefly of foreign war. By the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the dynamics that Clausewitz had once described, between states seeking to impose their will on one another through military conflict, had been replicated internally, between political parties seeking to do the same in the domestic sphere. A fateful fusion of the foreign and domestic forms of struggle soon found expression against the terrible backdrop of the Third Reich—opposition to which the present-day conception of resistance would seem to owe its heroic connotation.

In today’s America, the stakes of electoral political struggle are not nearly so clear or necessarily momentous as things began to become in Europe one century ago. Yet strangely, an enmity scarcely less Manichaean in nature has resurfaced in a farcical form in recent years thanks to the rampant tribalism of the American political mainstream. This is not to say that the outcome of a race for the highest office of the land is inconsequential; indeed, the wages of neoliberalism have so hollowed out the fabric of American society that the dire need for effective leadership cannot be overstated. Yet in an election in which answerability for matters of such urgency was evaded and superseded by a vacuous competition between personalities, the life-and-death billing that the contest receives from Republican and Democratic partisans is almost wholly fabricated. Nevertheless, the ethical high ground to which the Democratic Party cynically elevated itself over the course of the most recent presidential race was facilitated by the palpable fascistic undertones of the Trump campaign, which imbued the Democrats’ claim to the mantle of resistance with a measure of authenticity. Cases for the ethical imperative of resistance in the age of Trump have been made elsewhere; on trial here, with the aid of Clausewitz, shall be only the viability of resistance as a political strategy.

Clausewitz’s treatment of resistance in his classic On War is brief but masterful. In it he defines resistance as a defensive form of struggle “without any positive view” which limits it goal to the “defeat of the enemy’s intentions.” A defensive maneuver at its purest, resistance is wholly negative in its political objective in that it is nothing other than act of repelling an offensive—or positive—maneuver by one’s opponent. This is not to say, however, that Clausewitz regarded resistance, or defensive strategies more generally, as an inferior or ineffective means of waging struggle. While he notes that the political payoff of a victory achieved through a successful defensive maneuver is “not so effective as the positive object in the same direction would be,” he nonetheless acknowledges that resistance can be an effective means of achieving a desired result, with the qualification that “what is wanting in the efficacy […] must be gained through time, that is, through the duration of the contest.”

Here, in broaching temporality, Clausewitz touches on an externality of paramount significance to the outcome of our present-day struggle. Hardly occurring in a vacuum, political struggles unfold of necessity within the medium of time. And we, who bring a political economic analysis to bear in reading the political landscape, recognize that the historical context in which Trump’s rise has played out is that of a profound structural crisis for the prevailing economic order. It is therefore with this in mind that the advisability of a defensive strategy of resistance must be evaluated.

As Clausewitz recognized, adopting a defensive strategy could be justified only if the passage of time was not more profitable to one’s opponent than it was to one’s own forces. In the context in which he wrote, temporal considerations associated with opting for a defensive strategy might have included whether doing so afforded an opponent the advantage of convalescence or securing reinforcements. In our present-day struggle, the metric for assessing the favorability of a resistance-oriented politics might feel more abstract, but it is no less clear. Indeed, it can be boiled down to a single consideration: is the fallout from the present crisis for the global neoliberal order likely to advantage a political bloc consisting of apologists for the economic policies that provoked the crisis and a muzzled Left subservient to it in the name of resistance? Or is it more likely to benefit a self-perpetuating bloc assembled by those who pay lip service to real socioeconomic grievances while diverting rage, resulting from the class war that they themselves wage, into contempt for marginalized communities? If the latter, then embracing a purely pragmatic rhetoric of resistance is certain to swell the ranks of our opponents as our own grow ever thinner.

As a case in favor of resistance, the reader may perhaps object that resisting need not entail dampening critiques of other factions within the opposition. Even corporate democrats—it might be argued—must be regarded as allies in a struggle against the greater evil represented by the Trump administration. Yet to raise this objection or make such a claim is to rail in vain against the sheer physics of a political strategy of resistance. In the pure defensive that is resistance, Clausewitz reminds us, “our forces cannot at the same time be directed on other objects.” Indeed flattening our politics into pure negativity is the necessary precondition for forging an alliance with such forces. To make use of the offensive maneuvers at our disposal—a positive platform for action—is to employ a strategy that these allies cannot but recognize as an offensive maneuver against them as well. To do so is thus to unmask them, exposing them for the opponents they always truly were.

If we follow these considerations to their logical conclusion, then there can be no doubt that the olive branch of resistance being extended today from across the political spectrum is a dead end for persons committed to a transformative political vision. Rather than the noble, conciliatory formula for victory, as which many seek to frame it, the negative platform of resistance is nothing other than the swan song of an establishment opposition that has run out of ideas. Recognizing it as such, we must refuse it and mobilize; for as Clausewitz warns us: “If the moment has arrived in which [postponement of action] can no longer be done without ruinous disadvantage, then the advantage of the negative must be considered as exhausted.”

Lenin and Schmitt had nothing to say about Clausewitz’s commentary on defensive maneuvers because victory was, for them, the sole order of the day. They understood quite clearly that they would achieve their political aims only by creating new circumstances—not by reacting to those created by others. And while both participated in movements that were once decided minorities within the political field, triumph they did. That the political visions of Lenin and Schmitt exhibited deep ethical flaws does not mean that insights derived from their bodies of thought have nothing to offer a resurgent Left. Its own road to victory will not be paved by resistance—nor can it be backward-looking, attempting only to recover territory ceded to opponents in past struggles. Rather, it must be based on bold, iconoclastic visions for a human future that rewrite the political script in its entirety. To formulate, promulgate, and implement such a platform for action is to assume the offensive. And in the struggle ahead, offense alone is our trump card.

(Dustin Stalnaker is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. His research explores the political afterlives of veterans of the Spanish Civil War’s International Brigades.)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

abraham Weizfeld Ph.D. March 30, 2017 at 1:30 pm

True enough.. however resistance is nonetheless necessary although the trick is to give it an unlimited or permenant momemtum. The one will become the other with a transitional programme. This is old stuff discussed by Lev Bronstein. The only problem with Trotsky as with Kadhafi is that those who make a revolution half-way are digging their own grave, as the saying goes.
This was also the debate with the one-issue anti-war movement during the Vietnam war. It is also the issue between the social-democratic minimalist programme and a revolutionary programme even while the synthesis is the Transitional Programme.


D Stalnaker April 1, 2017 at 3:32 pm

LT’s writings on the shortcomings of Popular Frontism would mesh well with the above, I think. I regret to say I’ve not read the Transitional Program. Would you say that it has aged well?


abraham Weizfeld Ph.D. April 2, 2017 at 3:30 am

Well yes and no.. the Transitional Programme was such a contextual work with only hints as to its methodology. It should be considered a work that transends the formal logic of classical theory, including Marxism but of course LT (Bronstein) couldnot possibly do so without provoking unending sectarian charges of blasphamy towards the prophet Marx.
Marxism is still imbedded into the pre-Einseintian revolution of 1905 mode.

As far as being abstract in concerned, it needs be understood that such is only the beginning of the analysis and does not conclude formally with a rejection of Resistance per se. The revolultionaist to today should grow up and start to learn more than what they have read in the works that are now more than 100 years gone.


Joaquín Bustelo March 31, 2017 at 2:34 am

This is at such a high level of abstraction that the author almost completely lost me, until I realized that at such a level, resistance is transformed into a perfect vacuum: it contains nothing, it says nothing, it implicates no commitment, it wards off no attack, for those the author makes central to his analysis are not, in fact, resisting a damn thing. They are disembodied essences with no skin in the game because they have no skin at all.

Let me suggest he come down to the ground of real cases and real conditions and the real people who are under attack. And I want to insist all the way to the ground, for in referring to “more traditional, humble sphere of grassroots organizing against war and capitalist mayhem,” he provides a link that is, I guess, meant to represent this humble, grassroot organizing but in fact is to a grant-making foundation called “resist”:

“Resist is a foundation that supports people’s movements for justice and liberation. We redistribute resources back to frontline communities at the forefront of change while amplifying their stories of building a better world,” is how it describes itself.

I have no idea who these folks are and indeed, I hope they are the most excellently righteous foundation ever. But that is not grassroots organizing. The grass roots continue to be the object of this “resistance,” not its subject.

But the real resistance is on the ground, from and among those who are directly and personally involved in the war and really have no choice about it.

At least among the Latino immigrant community, the point of resistance is to defeat the attacks, and to resist means first of all to organize and to train the community in HOW to resist. Right now a central element is “know your rights”-type education and literature and pushing for so-called “sanctuary” policies, which in reality is about ending complicity with ICE that takes place through municipal and institutional voluntary cooperation with the immigration gestapo.

(And, BTW, this is not a new post-Obama strategy designed for the Trump era, but what various groups had already been doing for a couple of years in the #Not1more and #ICEFreeZone campaigns).

Although strategically defensive, the fight for sanctuary policies is offensive and viewed as anything but inoffensive by most liberal democrat politicians. For Latinos, “resist” doesn’t mean putting on a T-shirt but actively fighting to blunt and turn back attacks on the community.

The author talks about “a resurgent left” and says: “Its own road to victory will not be paved by resistance—nor can it be backward-looking, attempting only to recover territory ceded to opponents in past struggles.”

And here we see the problem with handling things in the outer reaches of stratospheric abstraction. We’re not resisting to recover metaphorical territory “ceded to opponents in past struggles” over policy. We’re resisting to stop the deportations going on now, not the three million carried out by Obama. “Politically” stopping deportations may seem like a battle lost long ago, but for the girl whose father was stopped and dragged away while driving her to school, it is not at all a repetition.

The conclusion waxes poetic and sounds quite combative. Rather than resisting, the fight “must be based on bold, iconoclastic visions for a human future that rewrite the political script in its entirety. To formulate, promulgate, and implement such a platform for action is to assume the offensive.”

That’s very pretty but as written a preposterous non-struggle position. I’m sure the author didn’t mean to present what is in essence passive capitulation to the attacks going on right now, but that he has, in effect, done so is a direct consequence of handling matters so abstractly in categories like “resist” rather than coming down to the ground and engaging with the real battles that are going on.


D Stalnaker April 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Thanks for your comments, Joaquín.

I won’t deny that the piece is more abstract than would be ideal.

My intention was to think about “resistance” on the rhetorical and conceptual levels, asking whether it is beneficial in these respects to the concrete struggles you mention. At certain points in your comment, I get the sense that you think I am suggesting that resistance is actually not a worthwhile endeavor, which, I assure you, is not at all my claim. Above all I was warning of the potential dangers of resistance (as a term) being co-opted by forces that have no actual skin in the game beyond pleasing corporate donors or putting lipstick on the pig of our system.

You write “Although strategically defensive, the fight for sanctuary policies is offensive…” That’s great. It might be useful to think in such terms.


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