‘War, Conflict, Politics’ – Mario Tronti (1982)

Between war and politics, in the middle, the given, the form of conflict. War is the exception, conflict the norm, politics is the translation of the terms of war into the modes of conflict. This is the Modern condition in which we remain.[1]

Total war moblisation. Women working in ordnance plants (1914-18), spanner slotting fuse on head end of fuse bodies at Gray & Davis Co., Cambridge, Mass.

1. At the beginning of this age of politics was war. If we go and excavate the origins of capitalism, we find civil wars, religious wars, political revolutions, industrial revolutions: a process marching towards a concept of total war, which will be theorised much later. A fundamental passage is the one that Schmitt called the war of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, which is to say interState war. A war conducted, in Schmitt’s words, by a regular State army against another regular State army. The legal situation that arose in this case was one in which the State could exert violence against a territory, a people, the property of another State; and this legal situation would be made explicit in international law. Note immediately one thing, that in the history of modern societies and States (a history of society and the State that is interwoven in the modern era), two dimensions proceed contemporaneously: a political theory of war and a military theory of politics. They proceed contemporaneously, but at the beginning lay the military theory of politics. Modern politics is born as the art of war. It is born, practically, as the extension and reduction of brutality and of the totality of a military campaign to the area of civilian relations. It is easy to recall the names. And the first name that comes to mind is that of Machiavelli. 

The Prince, Ch. XIV, Quod pricipem deceat circa militiam: ‘A prince, therefore, must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war…; because that is the only art befitting one who commands’; ‘He should, therefore, never take his mind from this exercise of war and in peacetime he must train himself more than in time of war’. The most important skill that a captain must have, is that which ‘teaches you to find the enemy, choose a campsite, lead troops, organize them for battles, and besiege towns to your own advantage.’[2] And in the Preface to The Art of War: ‘good orders without military help are disordered’.[3] The other name is that of Hobbes: from the tale of civil wars to the theory of civil wars, his entire thought could be placed under the title: ‘of sedition’, this inner disorder that is for the political body what disease is for the living organism. 

Behemoth, Dialogue II: ‘Our late King, the best King perhaps that ever was, you know, was murdered, having been first persecuted by war, at the incitement of Presbyterian ministers; who are therefore guilty of the death of all that fell in that war; which were, I believe, in England, Scotland, and Ireland, near 100,000 persons. Had it not been much better that those seditious ministers, which were not perhaps 1000, had been all killed before they had preached? It had been (I confess) a great massacre; but the killing of 100,000 is a greater.’ See also De Cive, Ch. XII, Of the Internal Causes, Tending to the Dissolution of any Government; and Leviathan, Ch. XXIX, Of Those Things that Weaken or Tend to the Dissolution of a Commonwealth.

This discussion, the theme of civil rebellions within the city, has very distant origins. Aristotle, Politics, Book V, on the relationship between stasis and metabole, and consequently the presence in one and the same person of the demagogue and the strategos. Hence the idea of the birth of politics from the art of war can easily be found in classical thought as much as in modern civil history. 

Anti-Vietnam War vets protest 1970

From here on, politics begins to function also as a civilising of the relations of war. Civilising in the sense that this term has in its history, in its specific conceptualisation, whether bourgeois or great bourgeois; civilising in the sense of the natural perspective of capitalism. If politics is the civilising of relations of war, in some cases politics will functions as a neutralization of war. I would say it is possible to reread the entirety of modern history no longer as the age of politics interposed and continued by war, but in the opposite sense, as an epoch of war, a war of a longue durée interrupted by the parenthesis of the unfolding of politics. 

Politics lies between wars, between moments of war; and the unfolding of politics takes place in the absence of war. Naturally, here war and the concept of war are adopted in the widest sense, not only as the relation of war between States, but also as that of the war between individuals. In this case, its ‘seat’ is civil society itself, as bourgeois society, in the most classic and traditional sense of the expression: coexistence as competition, economic relations as class struggle, production (and in the specifically modern sense of production that is industry) as revolution, – implicit revolution, conjoined, within as a technical moment of production itself.

All this takes place before the forms of the liberal State begin to appear. If politics is in this sense the neutralization of the relations of war, the State will become neutralization of social conflict. I understand that the classic moment when war is transformed into politics comes with Locke. We find Hobbes ‘further back’ when he speaks of a war that comes about at the very time in which the modern State is born. Ultimately, Hobbes describes a phase that precedes the one we find in Locke’s thinking. For Locke, the problem of the institutionalisation of war comes to the fore through politics itself. It is a case, here, of conserving not supressing the bellum omnium, i.e., a case of avoiding the permanence of war with a form of power that ensures the continuity of conflict. The problem of the difference between the State of nature and the State of war emerges in Locke’s thought. In The Second Treatise on Government, Ch. III: the State of nature if is a State of peace, benevolence, mutual support, and conservation; the State of war is a State of darkness, evil, violence and reciprocal destruction. ‘…force, or a declared design of force upon the Person of another, where there is no common Superior on Earth to appeal to for relief, is the State of War[4] But ‘where there is an Authority, a Power on Earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the State of War is excluded’.[5]

The dimension that is born here is new when compared even to the immediately preceding modern past: it is the dimension of power as politics. Power itself begins to operate as politics, because it is the institutionalisation of the relations of war that exist within society. There is the risk that one comes to Zum ewigen Frieden, to Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’, the sign Dutch innkeeper put up alongside a painting of a cemetery.[6] The final word on this falls to Moltke: ‘perpetual peace is a dream and not even one of the more beautiful ones’. The other Kant, that of the Rechtslehre,[7] knew this and indeed takes Locke’s path of war-conflict-politics to its final consequences.

2. Let us turn the page, crossing to a different front and pursue the same path from another standpoint. Let us take up the interest in the logic of war that the Marxism of action always maintained. When I say, ‘Marxism of action’, I am thinking of the more radical forms of revolutionary Marxism. It’s the problem, that today appears so scandalous, of the so-called military language in the words of the workers’ movement. From war to politics is the passage of the technique for winning consent. From politics to war again there is an act of will so as to overturn history.

There are two couples that are very significant in this regard: the Lenin who reads Clausewitz; the Mao who reads Lao Tzu. In the one case as in the other, it is a case of reducing politics to war, – after the great bourgeois liberal and democratic tradition.

Sun Tzu, Eleven Commentaries on the Art of War, edition dating from the Shaoxi reign (1190–94)

In Lenin’s political criterion there is no longer a iustus hostis: the right enemy disappears, the entire bourgeois cosmos becomes the enemy to be defeated with all available means. And Lenin begins to read Clausewitz. ‘The art of war, considered from its highest viewpoint, becomes politics, but this politics develops through battles rather than through diplomatic messages’.[8] Lenin comments on this passage: ‘The art of the politician consists precisely in directly evaluating the presuppositions and the moments in which the proletarian vanguard can successfully win power’. It is the form of proletarian war. But it is also the tradition of thought of modern political realism. Lenin again: ‘a good commander… and mistrust in men’. ‘He who (as a military commander) habitually thinks and expects the best of folk, would on this basis alone be incapable of leading an army’.

Mao takes up several theses of Lao Tzu, but in an analogous way. The famous Chinese strategist defined the principle: ‘acquire supremacy equal to a grindstone dashed against an egg’.[9] This acquiring of supremacy, such that your own strength must always be stronger than that of the adversary, was put alongside the reciprocal game of Full and Empty. The form of military action, Lao Tzu said, ‘like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and full and to strike at what is weak and empty.’[10] It is the form of peasant warfare. And it is also part of the most ancient wisdom, that of survival in the face of power.

Mao responds: in no circumstances shall we take risks in battles of strategic importance… We have thwarted the enemy’s plan, which aimed to force us into a long war… We are for decisive battles only when conditions are favourable’. Sun Tzu had said: ‘the Enemy reveals his form and so makes himself human. I, on the other hand, am without form.’[11] And Mao: ‘strategy means placing one against ten; tactics means putting ten against one.’

There are principles common to war and politics: the concentration of force, the clarity of objectives, the offensive, surprise, the appeal to moral strength, the enthusiasm that Clausewitz will say was the truly new weapon of Napoleonic armies. From then on there no longer be total war without ideology. And ideology is first a technology of war and then a technology of politics.

Manoeuvre and dominate: the relationship between politics and war is also posed in this way. A relationship that is posed in the concept, between army and State, 1870: Moltke’s objective was to completely destroy the enemy’s military power. Bismarck’s objective was to take advantage of the victories achieved so as to conclude a peace as quickly as possible. It is also a great theme of modern politics, ‘the primacy of foreign policy’, which can be linked to the theme of the ‘politics of power’. We are heading towards Otto Hintze’s crucial essay, ‘Military Organization and the Organization of the State’ (1906),[12] where for the first time (although it had been developed previously) the problem of the relations between political order and military administration, and hence the problem of the ‘external’ history of the State, Weltpolitik, was posed with extreme clarity. This current of thought did not run through revolutionary Marxism. From here stem two limitations. A solely ‘internal’ action, an interest almost exclusively on social conflicts internal to the Nation State. An ambiguous external projection under the weak sign of the ‘theory of imperialism’. The balance of power in the world State system was always overlooked. The post-Metternich, modern nineteenth century Raison d’états, hegemony and balance in interstate relations, never reach the theory of the workers’ movement. Perhaps this is the reason why they come so brutal and direct in the practice of real socialism. The approach of geopolitics as well is a kind of retranslation of war into politics. Kissinger: ‘…I forced myself to establish relationships between different wants, to create motives and pressure in some parts of the world, so as to influence events elsewhere’. This in a phase in which the ‘balance between superpowers became at once precarious and rigid’. Kant’s dream begins to become possible on this basis.  

Scene from the Trojan War, with at the centre Achilles supporting a dying Penthesilea. Rome 3rd century A.D.

3. We can now once again turn the discussion around, to grasp it from the other side. After the Marxism of revolutionary action, after the great wars, after the great effort to retranslate politics into war in the 1920s and ‘30s, there was perhaps a rewriting of war in political language: the initiative was taken by the great, reforming capitalism, the post-Great crisis capitalism. In this way was born a new relationship between war and the political, in the sense in which one speaks of the difference between politics and the political. The State that has lost the monopoly of politics, begins to lose the monopoly over war. And political war spreads savagely, according to classical principles: simplicity, brutality, rapidity. Here war relates to a political that has undergone powerful transformations at the level of power: of the flexibility and internal articulation of power. This political has led to what we see confirmed in the ‘crisis of politics’. The overcoming of social dualism, which was the result of the reformist initiative of capital in the social State, this political production of social complexity, which has been the modern history of the contemporary State, has led to the end of politics as the mediation between opposed blocks and as the mediation of social conflict. It is at this point that the contemporary political, insofar as it is a producer of political crisis, can retranslate itself into war. 

The problem is posed. Is it still legitimate to read the categories of the political in terms of war today, after the great reformist season of capital and of the workers’ movement, after the new perspectives on the critique of politics, with the latest qualities assumed by war, its contents and results? The retranslation of politics into war has touched the outer limits beyond which it does not appear possible to go. And yet, at the same time, this whole complex of novel conditions does not appear to have dented the fundamental criterion of the political. The division, opposition, the struggle, friend and enemy – it is a case today of seeing how they remain politics without becoming war. This time, the development can set out from the alternative force to this system of power. The metaphor of the classical passage from Hobbes to Locke becomes current again. From the definitive suppression of war due to the transference of sovereignty to the open search into the institutions of conflict.

Different signs are given by the disquieting presence of conflict’s growth. At the same time the political compromise between classes that can be dated back to the twenties-thirties and the strategic balance between States that stems from the forties-fifties. Social conflict and interstate conflict tend to come again to the fore. Dramatic shifts cannot be excluded, and it is perfectly useless to demonise them. There is need for a reconversion of an entire political culture, without taking for granted that an achieved peaceful coexistence between classes and the State can be assured for an entire historical epoch.

It becomes decisive that the terrain of conflict is rapidly won back. Who governs conflict will have the greater chance of defeating war by exiting the crisis of politics. Those able to foresee, predetermine, even ‘await’ conflict, win. It is Kutusov’s attitude towards Napoleon. On the one side, the vain hunter, on the other, the Russian bear who placidly, calmly awaits in his den; and while he awaits in his den, he draws the other from his base. This technique of waiting, if conjoined with the element of sortie, of surprise, of wager, knowing how to unleash forces, becomes the truly contemporary theory of conflict.

Scene from, Scioperi a Torino (1962), Carla e Paolo Gobetti

There is an art of war, but there is no science of war. As far as the art of war is concerned, we know that there are possibilities of adaptation to the situation, but there are no criteria developed once and for all. Rules, not laws. How to translate this into politics is one of our problems. There is no crisis of ideologies, because the old ones resist and are in some way reborn. There is a crisis of strategies, a crisis of thought, a crisis of theory, a crumbling of the classical and neo-classical foundations of politics. A politics without foundation is the technology adequate for beating war and at the same time for saving conflict. In this phase of active waiting, within this risky process of decadence, is it possible to reconstitute the scope of an action that is conscious of being the mature expression of a side [una parte]?

Schmitt defines Die Hermannsschacht as ‘the greatest poetic work of partisan inspiration of all time’. It is Kleist who makes the Elector State, in The Prince of Homburg: ‘I do not love victory illegitimately born of chance’.[13]


[1] This essay was published in Della Guerra, edited by U. Curi, Arsenale Cooperativa Editrice, Venice 1982. All notes are by the translator.

[2] The Prince, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, pp. 50-1.

[3] The Art of War, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2003, p. 4.

[4] Two Treatises on Government, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 280.

[5] Two Treatises on Government, p. 282.

[6] Tronti is referring to the opening lines of Kant’s 1795 essay ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, where he writes: ‘Perpetual Peace. A Dutch innkeeper put this satirical inscription on his signboard, along with the picture of a graveyard’ (I. Kant, Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991, p. 93).

[7] ‘The Metaphysic of Morals’ (1797).

[8] The quotations from Clausewitz, Lenin, Mao are all from the Italian. I hope to trace the passages and will update the article in time. 

[9] The Art of War, Allandale Online Publishing, Leicester 2000, p. 15 – translation modified.

[10] The Art of War, p. 23 – translation modified.

[11] I could not find anything resembling this in the English translation.

[12] A translation of this essay exists in The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1975.

[13] There doesn’t appear to be an English translation of Hermann’s Battle. I have been unable to find translation of The Prince of Homburg. Tronti does not provide a reference for the Schmitt citation.

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