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.)