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Militarism and the Coming Wars

István Mészáros is author of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (Monthly Review Press, 2001) and Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition (Monthly Review Press, 1995).

This essay is based on the preface to the recent Turkish translation of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads by István Mészáros. It was written prior to the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Originally published in the June 2003 issue of Monthly Review. Read the full article at the Monthly Review website.


It is not for the first time in history that militarism weighs on the consciousness of the people as a nightmare. To go into detail would take far too long. However, here it should be enough to go back in history only as far as the nineteenth century when militarism, as a major instrument of policy making, came into its own, with the unfolding of modern imperialism on a global scale, in contrast to its earlier—much more limited—varieties. By the last third of the nineteenth century the British and French Empires were not the only prominent rulers of vast territories. The United States, too, made its heavy imprint by directly or indirectly taking over the former colonies of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, adding to them the bloody repression of a great liberation struggle in the Philippines and installing themselves as rulers in that area in a way which still persists in one form or another. Nor should we forget the calamities caused by “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck’s imperialist ambitions and their aggravated pursuit later on by his successors, resulting in the eruption of the First World War and its deeply antagonistic aftermath, bringing with it Hitler’s Nazi revanchism and thereby very clearly foreshadowing the Second World War itself.

The dangers and immense suffering caused by all attempts at solving deep-seated social problems by militaristic interventions, on any scale, are obvious enough. If, however, we look more closely at the historical trend of militaristic adventures, it becomes frighteningly clear that they show an ever greater intensification and an ever-increasing scale, from local confrontations to two horrendous world wars in the twentieth century, and to the potential annihilation of humankind when we reach our own time.

It is most relevant to mention in this context the distinguished Prussian military officer and practical as well as theoretical strategist, Karl Marie von Clausewitz (1780-1831), who died in the same year as Hegel; both of them killed by cholera. It was von Clausewitz, director of the Military School of Berlin in the last thirteen years of his life, who in his posthumously published book—Vom Kriege (On War, 1833)—offered a classic definition of the relationship between politics and war that is still frequently quoted: “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”

This famous definition was tenable until quite recently, but has become totally untenable in our time. It assumed the rationality of the actions which connect the two domains of politics and war as the continuation of one another. In this sense, the war in question had to be winnable, at least in principle, even if miscalculations leading to defeat could be contemplated at the instrumental level. Defeat by itself could not destroy the rationality of war as such, since after the—however unfavorable—new consolidation of politics the defeated party could plan another round of war as the rational continuation of its politics by other means. Thus the absolute condition of von Clausewitz’s equation to be satisfied was the winnability of war in principle, so as to recreate the “eternal cycle” of politics leading to war, and back to politics leading to another war, and so on ad infinitum. The actors involved in such confrontations were the national states. No matter how monstrous the damage inflicted by them on their adversaries, and even on their own people (just remember Hitler!), the rationality of the military pursuit was guaranteed if the war could be considered winnable in principle.

Today the situation is qualitatively different for two principal reasons. First, the objective of the feasible war at the present phase of historical development, in accordance with the objective requirements of imperialism—world domination by capital’s most powerful state, in tune with its own political design of ruthless authoritarian “globalization” (dressed up as “free exchange” in a U.S. ruled global market)—is ultimately unwinnable, foreshadowing, instead, the destruction of humankind. This objective by no stretch of imagination could be considered a rational objective in accord with the stipulated rational requirement of the “continuation of politics by other means” conducted by one nation, or by one group of nations against another. Aggressively imposing the will of one powerful national state over all of the others, even if for cynical tactical reasons the advocated war is absurdly camouflaged as a “purely limited war” leading to other “open ended limited wars,” can therefore be qualified only as total irrationality.

The second reason greatly reinforces the first. For the weapons already available for waging the war or wars of the twenty first century are capable of exterminating not only the adversary but the whole of humanity, for the first time ever in history. Nor should we have the illusion that the existing weaponry marks the very end of the road. Others, even more instantly lethal ones, might appear tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Moreover, threatening the use of such weapons is by now considered an acceptable state strategic device.

Thus, put reasons one and two together, and the conclusion is inescapable: envisaging war as the mechanism of global government in today’s world underlines that we find ourselves at the precipice of absolute irrationality from which there can be no return if we accept the ongoing course of development. What was missing from von Clausewitz’s classic definition of war as the “continuation of politics by other means” was the investigation of the deeper underlying causes of war and the possibility of their avoidance. The challenge to face up to such causes is more urgent today than ever before. For the war of the twenty first century looming ahead of us is not only “not winnable in principle.” Worse than that, it is in principle unwinnable. Consequently, envisaging the pursuit of war, as the Bush administration’s September 17, 2002 strategic document does, make Hitler’s irrationality look like the model of rationality.

Read the full article at the Monthly Review website.