Military Metaphors for Marxists

Antonio Gramsci is the Marxist that non-Marxists are allowed to love.

But that’s not why I’ve got a problem with him. My problem is much smaller, and refers to just one of his favoured ideas: the ‘war of position’.

He divides revolutionary strategy into two opposing forms: one is the ‘war of maneouvre’, which he sees as the older form, and which we can take as typified by a full-frontal proletarian assault of capitalist power. The other prong of his false dichotomy he names the ‘war of position’. We can see this as closer to the slow and highly technical trench warfare that characterised the most famous battles of the Western front during the First World War.

It’s this metaphor that he employs in his recommendation for long-run revolutionary strategy in the era during which he was imprisoned by the fascists, and which has been drawn from by lots of Marxists as applicable even into our own age. 

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The trouble is that, as a metaphor, it was outdated even by the time Gramsci wrote in his prison cell, and it misses important elements of revolutionary organisation and military strategy that ought to draw attention from any genuine revolutionary. 

My suggestion is that those seeking to revive the left consider what and who they are borrowing Gramsci’s war metaphors for, and substitute others in their place.  I’ve provided three here that seem like they would perform useful functions.

1. The War in the Air

The first of these is drawn from H.G.Wells 1908 book, and refers to the nature of actual war as it’s now most commonly experienced both by thosing waging it and most of its victims: The War in the Air.  The science fiction scenario Wells uses, and his dread ending, foresees the absolute breakdown of social structure as a result of technological warfare from above.

Equally, this pattern of big change from above, along with incessant surveillance and a decisive role for centralised organisation dependent on high technology and media strategies relating to it, is best understood as necessitating speed over strength as the decisive quality in social action.  Where the war in the air is the appropriate metaphor for social conflict, Blitzkrieg is the appropriate strategic method.

Socialists, by using Gramsci’s ‘positional’ metaphor in situations where what’s actually being fought is a war in the air, habitually move slowly and carefully into concentrations where they are highly visible for no good strategic reason, and thus are open to sudden and dismaying attack.

2. Winning the Peace

If you’re only using one metaphor for social conflict, you’re ruling a large part of your would-be ‘army’ out of decision-making, and failing to tap their expertise. 

Most working people have skills or knowledge of the order that will be necessary in revolutionary and post-revolutionary situations.  If you’re a Marxist or left theorist seeking such change, you need a way to build reconstruction (winning the peace) into your military metaphors, and to involve the revolutionary forces in this consistently and respectfully. 

If you don’t, all your revolutions will be followed by Thermidors.

3. The Army on its Stomach

All wars are ultimately about logistics. 

This is the most difficult, detailed, technical and boring bit of warfare.  Likewise, and for the same reasons it is the bit of social theory that is nearly always bypassed in Marxist analysis.

But the social solidarity of armed forces derives directly from close, conscious and constant analysis of how to create and recreate that solidarity on a daily basis, and that involves the quartermasters, drivers and cooks as much as it involves artillery seargents. 

To neglect the logistical metaphor means that revolutionaries are treating the entire working class (and anyone else they look on as an ally) like soldiers who don’t have to be paid, fed, watered, entertained or moved.  

It’s no way to treat an army.

More than this.  It’s no way to treat your friends.