Clausewitz Meets Trotskyism

Leon Trotsky, Russian Revolutionist and Continuator of Lenin’s Political Heritage

“We have repeated hundreds of times the priceless thesis of Clausewitz that war is but the continuation of politics by other means. In order to determine in each concrete case the historic and social character of the war we must be guided not by impressions and speculations but by a scientific analysis of the politics which preceded the war and determined it.” – Leon Trotsky, “Social Patriotic Sophistry,” 1938

“Opportunism is always accompanied by the contortions of adventurism.” – Leon Trotsky, “The Decisive Hour in France,” 1938

Much has been written about how Second International’s betrayal of the working class during World War I spurred Lenin to re-examine and refine his political commitments. Usually articles and books focus on Lenin’s supposed rediscovery of Hegel, his jettisoning of a purportedly undialectical and naïve philosophical realism of his earlier years, or his recovery of an independent class-struggle approach to the party question. Lesser known is how the war compelled Lenin to undertake a close examination of the writings of Hegel’s contemporary – the 19th century Prussian military officer and theorist Carl von Clausewitz.

By the end of 1915, Lenin had composed an entire notebook of thoughts about one of the general’s most widely known works. These notes served as the basis for how he understood the impending inter-imperialist slaughter in class terms, resulting in a political perspective sharply at odds from that of the social-chauvinist leadership of the Second International. Owing to the inter-imperialist nature of the conflict, the war could not be “won” politically in class terms—it had to be stopped at once through workers’ revolution against the capitalists waging war with one another. Following October, Lenin revisited Clausewitz once more and, in agreement with Trotsky (who himself was known to quote the Prussian theorist), argued that the material realities of Russia at the time, with its relative backward economy and large peasantry, entailed maintaining in the Red Army some bourgeois trappings (and earlier Tsarist-era bourgeois personnel) that impinged upon the communist ideal of a “pure militia” of workers. Military politics, like politics more broadly, was to be materialist as well as dialectical in nature. It was to account, Lenin and Trotsky concluded, for the balance of class forces and consciousness at any given juncture in a dynamic process of transition – a process in which different “bourgeois” leftovers can assume proletarian functions in certain contexts, and in which the military and civil-political levels were distinct but interconnected extensions of one another. If Marx and Engels had set Hegel’s dialectic on materialist feet, Lenin and Trotsky did the same to Clausewitz’s conception of war.

This general agreement did not, however, preclude differences on how to apply the methodology in specific circumstances. Examples abound from the Soviet period, most notably in the 1920-1921 debate between Lenin and Trotsky on the continued militarization of labor (in which Trotsky took a position he later conceded was wrongly based on “purely economic considerations” in contrast to Lenin’s more Clausewitzian attentiveness to “political considerations”). Other examples can be found in the literature of groups claiming the mantle of Trotskyism later in the century. Two groups in particular – the Spartacist League and the Bolshevik Tendency – squared off in the 1980s on how best to defend the Soviet  Union and defeat imperialism. Their debate focused on two incidents that occurred in 1983.


In the summer of that year more than 240 commercial passengers died when a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 jet shot down a Korean Airlines passenger plane that had penetrated Soviet airspace. The Boeing 747, which had taken off from Anchorage, Alaska, navigated so dramatically off course that it was hundreds of miles within Soviet airspace when it was intercepted. Occurring as it did in the midst of Reagan’s ramping up of Cold War II, the incident triggered virulently anti-Soviet reactions within the United States, with Ronald Reagan describing it as “a crime against humanity.”

The intervening years have permitted a reasonably clear picture of the sequence of events that sealed the fate of KAL-700. And in the words of a 2007 article in the journal Airways, “It is quite obvious that Chun [the Korean aircraft’s pilot] had embarked upon a ‘ferret’ mission carefully designed to bring the Soviet defenses to the highest possible state of military alert.” The Soviet air force, almost certainly mistaking the airliner for one of the number of U.S. military aircraft that resembled it, fired on the plane in self-defense. (Notably, just five years prior, the Soviet military forced a different South Korean passenger jet to make an emergency landing in similar circumstances, thinking it was a reconnaissance aircraft after the jet failed repeatedly to respond to radio contact.)  The needless and unintended loss of civilian lives was a tragedy, but not a Stalinist crime – either against humanity or against international law.

Actual-vs.-real flight path of KAL-007.

Shortly after the downing of KAL-007 the Spartacist League used its flagship publication, Workers Vanguard, to lift the shroud of lies and obfuscations that the government and its lackeys in the capitalist media were working overtime to weave. The first issue after the incident bore the front-page headline “Reagan’s Story Stinks!” Noting that the plane seemed to deliberately change course, the accompanying article pointed out that the U.S. government had suspiciously extensive and immediate knowledge of the flight – perhaps due to the spy plane patrolling nearby airspace. The second issue continued along exactly the same lines, this time under a headline that exclaimed “Reagan’s 007 War Fever – Don’t Mess With Russia!” The article concluded that the available evidence, even at that early stage, proved at the very least that the U.S. government was responsible for an “elaborate provocation” in which KAL-007 served as “the bait.” The over-arching message of both articles was that the Soviet military’s shooting down of the airliner was a reasonable act of self-defense. Reagan’s imperialist military was to blame, not the Soviets.

Cover to the first issue of WV after the downing of KAL-007.

No sooner had the SL printed its robust defense of the USSR than its erstwhile adversaries in the External Tendency (ET)[1] printed its own piece related to the incident. Oddly, it contained no detailed recounting of the flight, no hard-hitting analysis of the U.S. government’s increasingly obvious responsibility for the tragedy. In fact, it was not about the incident at all, so much as it was about the SL’s position regarding the incident. It was titled “A Textbook Example” and contained only a brief discussion of a subsidiary point of the SL’s earlier articles. The “flinch,” in the ET’s view, came when the SL insisted:

“If the government of the Soviet Union knew that the intruding aircraft was in fact a commercial passenger plane containing 200-plus innocent civilians, despite the potential military damage of such an apparent spying mission, if they deliberately destroyed the airplane and its occupants, then, to paraphrase the French, the act of shooting it down would have been worse than a barbaric atrocity, it would have been an idiocy worthy of the Israelis. But the piecemeal facts and obvious falsifications argue that this was not the case, and something resembling what really might have gone on is rapidly being pieced together internationally.”

That the SL would use the word “atrocity” in describing the disruption of an anti-Soviet spy mission was, in the ET’s view, a betrayal of elementary principle. Unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union required, in their calculation, that Trotskyists support the unconditional right of the Soviet Union to terminate that mission by whatever means necessary. As they explained it, “the Soviet Union includes defense of Soviet airspace.” And since KAL-007 invaded that airspace, “the only ‘barbaric atrocity’ committed was by the South Korean and American spymasters who used these unfortunate people as their unwitting hostages.” Thus the ET did not disagree with the SL’s analysis of what happened to KAL-007, what Trotskyists were to do in response, or even the specific framing of the Workers Vanguard headlines. They simply took issue with the idea that the deliberate killing of more than 200 civilians to stop potential spying on the U.S.S.R. would have been an “atrocity.” Apparently it was not possible for the Soviet Union to commit atrocities if the acts were done in ostensible defense of their state. An odd position indeed for a self-avowed Trotskyist organization to take.

Even on that relatively narrow front, the ET’s criticism fails. Much as Trotsky treated the militarization of labor question as purely a question of economic logistics in abstraction from politics, the ET’s accusation of “flinching” treats the defense of the Soviet Union as simply a matter of military logistics, abstracted from the international political dimensions of military affairs. The conscious and deliberate killing of over 200 civilians on KAL-007 certainly would have put a stop to the U.S. intelligence mission, but at a potentially major political cost. Such callous disregard for innocent lives could have potentially undermined Western workers’ willingness to obstruct or oppose the anti-Soviet military drive taking place during Cold War II.  It also posed the risk of weakening Soviet military morale. Some unconditional defense!

In an age when wars are fought in the news media every bit as much as they are fought in the battlefields, Marxists must take their cues from Clausewitz and recognize that even the smallest questions of military tactics have political dimensions. The SL’s reference to the reckless disregard that the Israeli government has consistently demonstrated toward both the Palestinians and to world opinion is apt. The flagrant violations of human decency meted out by Israeli soldiers carrying out the occupation of Palestinian territories is possible only due to the overwhelming military superiority its forces have enjoyed under U.S. auspices. A more equal balance of military forces – as was the case between the United States and the Soviet Union – requires careful attention to matters of working-class and world opinion. The SL’s writings on KAL-007 demonstrated that attention, while the ET’s did not.

Beirut and “Bloodthirstiness”

Later in 1983 a similar debate erupted between the Spartacist League and the External Tendency. This time disagreement centered on the SL’s writings on the stationing of U.S. military personnel as part of an international “peacekeeping force” around the Beirut International Airport in Lebanon. For the prior eight years, the country had been racked by regional and civil war pitting Maronite Christians, Shiite and Sunni militias, and Israeli and Syrian militaries, all involved in internecine bloodletting and skirmishes. The purpose of the token U.S. force, joined by an even small number of French, Italian, and British soldiers, was to guard the Beirut airport. They were also to act as an aspiringly “neutral” and “interposition force” whose goal was to stabilize Lebanon by overseeing the evacuation of foreign troops. Israel, the PLO, and the Lebanese government all invited the U.S. military into the country for that purpose.

Front page of the Autumn 1983 issue of Spartacist.

It is a matter of principle for revolutionists to oppose this intervention by imperialist boots on the ground in a semi-colonial country. Indeed, the Spartacist League was one of the few to do so unapologetically throughout the conflict, calling repeatedly in their publications for U.S. forces to leave Lebanon immediately. At the same time, the group maintained that the strategic rationale behind the U.S. presence there was muddled, and did not rise to the level of a conquest in which the victory of any one “side” who opposed U.S. government objectives. As Workers Vanguard explained at the time, “in Lebanon at the moment, there is little evidence of justice on any side.” Rather than an imperialist conquest of Lebanon, the conflict was best understood through violent regional dynamics: “At bottom, the present fighting there is a continuation of the centuries-old communal/sectarian conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites, Druze and others. There is no known force fighting against the U.S. imperialists—they are all jockeying for position with the imperialists.” Additionally, the SL hoped to capitalized on what it called “widespread revulsion in the American population against the imperialist machinations of the U.S. rulers abroad.” If the United States military was not involved in an act of conquest, was not provoking anti-imperialist forces to organize, and public sentiments in the United States lay with withdrawing the enlisted soldiers before their lives were lost, what class gain or principle was at stake by calling for their safe removal? None comes to mind, unless the death of all U.S. military personnel at all times and under all circumstances is confused with Marxist or anti-imperialist politics.

U.S. hopes of leaving a light footprint in Lebanon were dashed. The evolution of the conflict in July and August of 1983 had changed the balance of forces on the ground. The anticipated withdrawal of the Isreaeli Defense Forces (IDF) stimulated increased fighting between Druze and Shia militias pitted primarily against the Lebanese armed forces. Stepped up U.S. intervention on behalf of a distinct “side” would have been necessary. And indeed, such inchoate tilting toward (arming of and support of) the LAF, in keeping with earlier peacekeeping agreements predicated on conditions that no longer obtained, was beginning to occur. The increased but still minimal participation in military operations was what ultimately prompted unknown but likely Shia-connected extremists to target the U.S. Marines barracks in late October 1983. If the U.S. had redoubled its commitment on behalf of the Lebanese government, a reassessment of the proper line by Marxists would have been in order. But that issue never had to be contemplated precisely because of the U.S. government’s reluctance to get involved in even a proxy war of conquest in the country – like the war it is undertaking in Syria today with definite sides fighting against it. By February of the next year, the U.S. Marine presence had redeployed from Lebanon to an offshore location.

Front Page of the November 4, 1983, Issue of Workers Vanguard.

Shortly after the bombing of the barracks, Workers Vanguard published on its front page a headline “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive! U.S. Out of Grenada, Dead or Alive!” The slogan pertaining to Lebanon captured the character of the U.S. military presence on the ground, opposed it, but expressed a preference that their removal be done peaceably rather than through an additional attack that – considering the disposition of all the organized forces on the ground – amounted to an isolated act of violence carried out by tiny number of plotters unable to conduct regular combat operations. At no point did the SL’s article oppose the forcible removal, by any party, of the U.S. Marines. Nor did it claim that such forcible removal would not have been a gain in terms of the Leninist principles of opposing imperialist presence in the semi-colonial world. All their position implied was that, with widespread pacifist sentiments in the U.S. fueling opposition to any intervention in Lebanon, removal of U.S. soldiers would have been a gain better achieved (and was a real possibility) through voluntary withdrawal.

These nuances seemed to elude the ET. Responding in their own press, they characterized the SL’s line on the Beirut bombing as “social pacifist” and a “qualitative break from the program of revolution.” As opposed to the Leninist position of calling for the defeat of imperialist conquest anywhere it is taking place, the ET suggested: “The Spartacist League is moving towards the role of safety advisers to the armies of imperialism, to protect them from unnecessary defeat.” But the question arises: defeat by whom? Which organized militias on the ground, which armed forces, were waging a campaign against the multi-national “peacekeeping” force? The ET document remains mum on this question, because there was no such campaign.

The ET’s criticisms do raise other questions of how they would apply their “by any means necessary” approach to striking U.S. military or police-executive installations outside of Lebanon. When Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 car-bombing destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, should Marxists have considered that a “defeat” or a “setback” of the U.S. capitalist state Marxists seek to overthrow by any means necessary?  After all, Marxists on principle are for the forcible toppling of bourgeois states by forces who view it as an oppressive body of armed men (and women). Yet, when the military politics of the McVeigh atrocity are taken into consideration, Marxists had a duty to oppose it. Or what about the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 – government installations protected by military personnel (“imperialist boots on the ground”) – and with the express purpose of pressuring other imperialist boots on the ground to be removed from Saudi Arabia? The “military politics” of these acts – the meaning these acts acquired within a definite constellation of armed class forces – similarly revealed them to be little more than isolated, adventurist episodes of wanton killing.  The Marxist program, in contrast, is to pursue alternatives besides calling “open season” on military or government installations.

The “military politics” of these acts bore profoundly negative consequences in the class struggle. In Oklahoma City, the victims included many civil service employees and even their children in the in-house nursery. Meanwhile, in East Africa, more Tanzanian and Kenyan locals were killed than were U.S. personnel. If the embassies had been closed, and no longer able to be used for imperialist penetration into sub-saharan Africa, that would have been a victory–but one best pursued through other means, if possible. But neither attack achieved its goal. Because of the means by which they were carried out, they had reactionary consequences in the politico-military class struggle against imperialism. Both these attacks played into the growing calls for expanded repressive powers of the U.S. government via the “anti-terrorism” legislation passed in the following year, and in the second place triggered sympathy for the U.S. government and stimulated calls that it step up its campaign to kill “evildoers” across the globe. The perpetrators of these acts, lacking a class analysis, had no qualms about the U.S. government response, but for revolutionaries, these were marked setbacks in the class struggle.

These examples illustrate that anti-imperialist campaigns are more than just acts of violence, isolated or even coordinated, against those associated with or working for imperialists. They are more than just military campaigns. They are an extension of definite political campaigns and objectives and must be situated within a context that accounts for those variables. As with the question of KAL-007, the ET’s response on the Lebanon question exhibited profound confusion over how to grasp military matters as existing within and extending from a larger political totality which Marxist must take into account.

To do so requires taking account of what a previous blog post called “military politics.” And the disagreement between the SL and the ET on these issues places the question of “military politics” front and center in a manner very similar to how the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan did. In regards to the latter question, In Struggle has argued against the notion that hailing the red army categorically – touting the desirability of its presence in Afghanistan – entailed any political support to Stalinism. The Kremlin’s military program—its “military politics”—stood categorically opposed to what would have been the necessary political outcome of the Soviet military’s success in Afghanistan: the de facto transformation of the country, against the political program of its own incredibly weak left-nationalist government, into the sixth and newest Soviet Central Asian Republic.

By contrast, the IBT adjudicated the “Hail the Red Army” slogan as Stalinophillically transgressing the bounds of Marxist politics. In so doing, the IBT seemed acutely sensitive to what are nowadays referred to by political pundits as the “optics” of the situation. The Soviet Union had every right to defend itself militarily from imperialist threats at its doorstep, their argument went, but Trotskyists had no role in “hailing” a campaign under the political control of a bureaucracy that was bound to oversee at least some atrocities and betrayals against the Afghan people.

It is odd, indeed, then that the IBT would demonstrate utter obliviousness to the “military politics” of either the KAL-007 incident or the Beirut barracks bombing. The SL has framed the ET’s (and later the BT’s and IBT’s – as well as a split from the IBT, the Revolutionary Regroupment’s) position as unnecessary “bloodthirstiness.” They are correct in characterizing the functional consequences of the position that way, but revolutionary Marxists should be attuned to how these errors are often more the sign of theoretical confusion borne of definite class perspectives – or even of political inexperience. A position might be bloodthirsty in character, but that does not mean all those who espouse it necessarily do so for subjectively bloodthirsty motivations. And the way to win over the largest mass of advanced workers would be not to attack the personal characters of those holding the wrong positions – as an author from In Struggle has unfortunately witnessed in person in a discussion between a supporter of the SL and a supporter of the IBT – but rather to assume that the person defending the “bloodthirsty” position is doing so because good political intentions can often result in poor political positions due to poorly thought-out political analysis.

[1] The ET later became known as the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) and then still-later, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). Their offshoots in the Revolutionary Regroupment (RR) maintain the same position as the original ET on these issues.


2 thoughts on “Clausewitz Meets Trotskyism

  1. The KAL thing is an enigma. As it happens the Soviets changed their rules of engagement and now follow what all countries do: they do a *visible inspection* before downing any “spy plane shaped aircraft”. They eye-ball the plane in question assuming it’s not a fighter plane. IMO, they blew it. They could of easily warned off the plane. In fact, more so…the could of forced the plane down and then had the pilot, the passangers and any spy equipment, if it existed, in their possession. If politics is primary, the SL position is nonsense. Unconditional “Defense” of the USSR doesn’t mean supporting every act of defense/aggression simply because they are the USSR. That’s a mechanical/scholastic excuse, IMO.

    The enigma part is the issue of what and why the pilot did what he did it. I suppose we might never really know.



    1. David, I think your astute point that “politics is primary” (or at least relevant) in terms of what “military defense” means is key to understanding this dispute, but that is actually the point the SL was making about their characterization of what a *deliberate* killing of civilians would have represented as far as Soviet defensism represents. As it stands, the plane was indeed mistaken for a spy plane, and I think the Soviets acted reasonably — their conduct defensible. It’s the IBT and their successors who seem to have forgotten “military politics” (at least as far as KAL goes). They have adopted this narrow understanding of “military defense” that means supporting maximal military responses regardless of political context, and if you disagree with that notion (like not deliberately downing a plane full of innocent civilians in Soviet airspace), you’re somehow flinching on Soviet defense.


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