Marxism and war

RP 160 () / Article

War for Marxism is not exactly a concept, but it is certainly a problem.* While Marxism could not invent a concept of war, it could re-create it, so to speak – that is, introduce the question of war into its own problematic, and produce a Marxist critiqueof war, or a critical theory of warfare, war situations and processes, with a completely original content. In a sense, this could be conceived as a kind of test for the capacity of Marxism to establish itself as a genuinely independent discourse. There is a wealth of illuminating analysis in the history of Marxist thought concerning war in general and specific types of war. But something awkward happened: instead of helping to broaden the scope and confirm the coherence of Marxism, the problem of war instead produced a profoundly deconstructive effect, stretching Historical Materialism to its limits and showing that it could not really give an account of these limits.

But there is more than that: the intervention of Marxism in debates around war, therefore also peace and politics, has profoundly disturbed this traditionally symmetrical pattern by imposing the consideration of revolution as an additional term (and, to a large extent,‘class struggles’ form only the background for the idea of revolution). The disturbing effects on the conceptof the political are to be observed not only within Marxism itself but also within so-called ‘bourgeois’ theory. However, seen from the Marxist point of view, as expressed by Marx initially in The Poverty of Philosophyand the Communist Manifesto, the concepts of class struggle and revolution are not political; they anticipate the ‘end of the political state’, or they suppress the autonomy of the political sphere. Conversely, at the end, the combination of ‘war’ and ‘revolution’as realizations of, and obstacles to, the class struggle appear to be profoundly unpolitical. In other terms, not only does the understanding and managing of warremain a problem for Marxists, not only does it featureas a limit of Historical Materialism, but, through itsconfrontation with Marxism, the unpolitical character of war emerges into the open. This testifies to the relevance of Marxism as one of the deepest attempts at theorizing politics and the political in modern times, but also it seems to indicate that a ‘Marxist’ solution, or an end to the riddles of any politics of war, remains inaccessible.

It is around these questions, and in order to investigate their implications, that I want to examine the articulation of Marxism and war by successively following three guiding threads, each of which confers a privilege upon certain authors and certain texts. Of course, they are not really independent, they continually overlap, but they deserve to be examined separately. These are, first, the problem of the conceptualizationof class struggle in terms of a ‘civil war’ or a ‘social war’; second, the problem of the relationship between capitalism and war, and the ‘capitalist wars’, or the specific form, aims and political consequences of wars within capitalism, from a Marxist viewpoint. A third moment will be devoted to the problem of the historical relationship between revolution and war, and therefore the crucial issue of ‘revolutionary wars’, the dialectical tension between the military and the political elements within revolutionary processes or situations. This leads to disturbing questions concerning the reversal of revolutionary politics into counter-revolutionary politics through the militarization of revolutions.

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