The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Clausewitz Was Right


When Carl von Clausewitz made the observation that wars are started by the defender, it wasn’t a mere sophistry. He was making a point that is very much worth thinking about today. To take the purest example of a war of aggression, which was Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939, the point is that Hitler didn’t want war—Hitler wanted Poland. It was the decision to militarily resist the conquest that actually began the war.

The reason I think this is so important today is because I keep coming across statements to the effect of, “There won’t be a nuclear war because no one wants it.” This makes it sound like wars happen because national leaders wake up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I want to have a war.” If that’s how it happened, we’d be living in a Ghandi-esque paradise.

But Clausewitz was also right when he identified war as the continuation of politics by other means, and Marx was right when he identified politics as concentrated economics.

No, the ruling elite of the US does not want war with Russia or China. For that matter, neither does the ruling elite of Russia, nor of China, want war with the US. But capitalism is organized on the basis of nation-states, which means the interests of profit are fundamentally tied to the interests of nations. Russia does not want war, but neither are the capitalists of Russia willing to give up their remaining interests in oil pipelines and markets in Syria.   The drive for profit cannot be separated from the drive to control geographic regions, and the minor detail that there are human beings living in those regions cannot, of course, be permitted to interfere with the accumulation of wealth.

The point is, it is not a question of individual, or even collective greed, it is simply how capitalism works. To give up control of markets, resources, and labor in various parts of the world is a threat to US economic interests.   So long as production is based on the exploitation of labor for private profit, rather than common ownership based on human need, there can come a point where war is the only alternative to the collapse of a nation’s economy.  In other words, there comes a point where the decision to attack another nation becomes, for the ruling class, the lesser evil.  And the most horrifying thing is, from their standpoint, they’re right.

“No,” cries the US, “we don’t want war, we just need to control those regions.”
“But those regions are ours,” says Russia.
“And we need those,” puts in China.
Meanwhile countries like North Korea become terrified that they will be squashed in the battle of giants, and think to stake out their claim by demonstrating such aggression that no one will dare attack them,  which sounds stupid, but really, what choice do they have?  What choice do any of them have?  They must have control of those regions, and if that country resists, or if another imperialist nation is unwilling to surrender its claims, that is war.

And so the brinksmanship begins. “If we posture enough, they’ll back down, and our interests will be advanced without fighting,” they all say. “Okay, I guess we need to show that we’re willing to use our military force, then they’ll be afraid of us and give us what we want.” “All it will take will be one or two tactical nuclear strikes, and they’ll know we’re serious.”

So say the major powers, and their various elites, willing to kill billions in defense of their interests.  Meanwhile, as they play dice with human civilization, the propaganda machines in each country go to work, vilifying the individual leaders of other countries, accusing them of “human rights violations,” and social media fills up with chauvinism and pretexts.  This is preparation for war, for a nuclear catastrophe that no one wants, and we’re living in it, because Clausewitz was right.

The fight against war must be a fight against capitalism; anything else is, in a word, futile.


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. Yes, exactly (to the blog post). Until the underlying premises are changed, they will always reach the same answer.
    The sum of the angles of a triangle = 180 is a fine premise, but only applies to planar trigonometry.

    If you add up the needs in Capitalism, it is always going to say expand and take control of the resources while maximizing the profit gleaned from labor. Eventually, this means that you will need to crush someone.

  2. Agreed completely. My only quibble is that they were doing it before they had anything I’d call capitalism, and it would take a very *special* changed system to get them to quit.

    Giving up capitalism would not be enough. We’d need a system that discouraged people from getting into escalating confrontations.

    Capitalism isn’t the only way people get into escalating confrontations, and they don’t always do it within capitalism. There are deeper issues. (Not to say that capitalism is good, or that it doesn’t often encourage escalating confrontations.)

  3. Another commonly made comment on the improbability of nuclear war: “They [the president, congressmen, the rest of the ruling class] have children and grandchildren.” Well, the Kennedy clan were a very fecund bunch, and JFK, with two adorable children, brought us to the edge of the nuclear abyss in the Cuban missile crisis.

  4. “It was the decision to militarily resist the conquest that actually began the war.”

    I don’t think I agree with that, but it depends on how you define “war.” One could make the argument that one nation using its military in another nation’s territory, without the permission of that second nation’s government, is also “war” whether or not that other nation retaliates. Of course, if the other nation doesn’t retaliate, or defend itself, then the war is very brief. By that logic, Hitler *did* want a war in Poland, a very brief, victorious war. But Britain and the others declared war over that action and the long, disastrous war is what he got instead.

    As to capitalism being the driving force of today’s warlike acts and future wars, I think it’s clear that the capitalists do not want the big, rich countries to go to war with each other – they have all the customers. They want the resources of the smaller, poorer countries but since those people won’t buy their unnecessary plastic objects, they don’t care about those people. (As one of my professors put it, “What’s your sand doing on top of OUR oil?”) I think the capitalists will keep any “wars” confined to those resource-rich, money-poor places as long as they can.

    Until some guy gets elected or otherwise takes control of one of the big, rich countries, and doesn’t recognize the capitalists’ game plan, and attacks another big, rich country. And then, well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be around to see what happens next, but I doubt it’ll be a capitalist paradise.

  5. i mildly disagree; a fight against capitalism per se will not stop a practice that thrived under feudalism, totalitarianism, and nearly any other system you can name. that said, capitalism is inherently anti-pacifist, so i won’t disagree with you there. but i think that any organizing social system MUST BE explicitly pacifist for war to be avoided.

  6. skzb

    JM: I beg to submit that the major powers didn’t *want* war with each other even in WW I, yet it happened. You speak of war with those smaller and poorer countries; I would observe that to the ruling elite, need is more precise than want, and that there are not an infinite number of these smaller, poorer countries. It is these two facts that bring us to the brink of war. (And I love the quote, and will be stealing it).

  7. To be more accurate, Hitler wanted Russia and Poland was a bridge to that. He did not want a “short, victorious war” as that phrase is commonly used. (Though I am sure he wanted the conflict to be short and victorious for Germany.) He offered Poland the option to join his crusade against the Soviets and they declined. Ironically they got a war against the Soviets anyway, just not in the way most people anticipated.

    I am not going to take the obvious pot shot here at skzb’s theory about war and capitalism. In a world dominated by capitalism, even a truly socialist country would have a hard time playing by its own rules on the international stage, as illustrated by Lenin’s first attempt to exit the First World War.

  8. skzb

    All which is another reason that internationalism so fundamental to socialism. Socialism in purely national basis is absurd as capitalism based on individual competing counties.

  9. I agree with that. But getting to internationalism is going to be interesting, for Chinese proverb values of “interesting.” Sort of one of those evolutionary pathways through the genome: Species A could become Species B, but are there viable transitional organisms completely covering one of the paths from A to B? My answer would be that Species A is going extinct on its present course anyway; so it should at least try to become B.

  10. OMFG you are delusional of history First to believe that attacking someone makes them the aggressor is totally insane, second to believe that the capitalist class did not want war that they very much profited from in WWI is almost as insane, justifying aggression because people defend themselves, wow you really have bought into the 1984 world of capital.typical socialist.

  11. I’m missing an education on the theories of economic systems, something I often regret when reading this blog. (More accurately – my education on comparative economic systems and planned economic systems is seriously lacking; I did make it through four semesters of capitalist economics courses in undergrad … all math, no philosophy, certainly no questioning of basic assumptions.)

    That said, I wonder whether it is indeed capitalism which leads to war, or the other way around: war which leads to capitalism. The norm of violence being justified to protect one’s vital interests seems like a natural extension of the unassailable right to self-defense. At the group level, though, violence is used to establish and maintain power imbalances (at the individual level, too, of course, but I would really struggle to make an argument for eliminating a right to self-defense – violence might not be the most effective tactic to use against an attacker, but I can think of too many situations in which it is the only viable option.) It is these power imbalances that create the incentive for a system in which a few control most of the wealth. The justification underlying capitalism is similar to the concept of justified self-defense: everyone should act rationally in accordance with their own private best interest. If maximizing your own profit hurts the wellbeing of another, or of many, then those others will adjust and find different ways to achieve economic wellbeing. Just as capitalism is promoted as the freedom to secure one’s own success, war is touted as the freedom to secure one’s own vital interests. Only in practice, there are far more losers than winners.

    Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg sort of vicious cycle. I question the distinction, though, because history gives us plenty of examples of violent popular revolts which simply installed one set of oppressive rulers with the next. I fear, therefore, that pursuing socialism with violence is self-defeating. (I’ve suggested this on other posts, and I do appreciate the viewpoint offered by others that working for non-violent change hardly guarantees that the ruling regime won’t resort to extreme violence, and would-be non-violent strugglers ought to be prepared for this.)

    Anyway, the various incentives for war, and the disregard of world leaders for the horrible pain and suffering inflicted by war, are really terrifying. I think ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ should be required reading for all high schoolers … and ‘The Butter Battle Book’ for preschool. No, not all states or economic systems are morally equivalent – far from! But there has to be a better way than war to improve the lives of all.

  12. War is what we do when all alternatives have failed.

    We tried to reach consensus, agreement, and failed.

    We decided we could not live and let live without agreement. At least one side decided that they couldn’t just let the other do whatever it was they wanted to do.

    We couldn’t agree on a course of action and we couldn’t ignore the lack of agreement. So we fought to make the other side do it our way. Sometimes one side fights to do what they want and the other side fights to make both sides do it their way. The distinction is a subtle one and often not worth making.

    Sometimes the war ends when one side is not willing to continue and agrees to the other side’s terms.

    Sometimes it ends when both sides are so exhausted that neither is willing (or able) to continue.

    Sometimes it trails off and sputters along for generations.

    Sometimes the losers agree that they have lost and they give up. Sometimes they keep resentments that get them to start up new wars when they get the chance. The Kurds lost everything long ago, but the USA gave them a new chance.

    The Lithuanians lost their whole nation but they kept believing they were Lithuanians and today they are a member of the EU and of NATO.

    Ukraine has been under occupation far more often than not over the last 700 years, but today they are a nation again.

    Texas has been part of the USA for almost their whole history, but they might soon become independent. I tend to doubt that they will bring back slavery, but who really knows? Stranger things have happened.

    Wars don’t reliably settle the issues that start wars. But they’re what we do when we can’t think of anything else to do, and sometimes after a war people are willing to just let it rest for a good long time before they start looking for agreement again.

    It isn’t so much a solution as what we do when we can’t think of anything else.

  13. It took me far too long to realize that where I’d heard this concept before was from Sethra Lavode via Vlad Taltos. Especially given where on the Internet I currently am.

  14. Steve, I first heard of this idea in your book (Dragon was it?) where you have Sethra tell Vlad that the defender starts the war. I have to disagree somewhat. I suppose in a strict infantry war this might be correct. If I remember correctly the first sign of war between Germany and Poland in 1939 was having the German air force cross into Poland and do some bombing. Does that not count as “starting the war” given that there were probably casualties in the initial raids? And even if one does not use this an an example, in some the more recent wars involving the USA air power has been used extensively prior to any ground troops being involved. And even in a pure ground war, it seems likely that the invading force is not going to wait for the defenders to start fighting before using their weapons, and would for example try to kill or otherwise neutralize any soldiers from the country they are try to occupy irrespective of whether they fight or not.

    Hence I am a puzzled about the point you are making initially in this post. The second part of the post concerning capitalism eventually “needing” to go to war is another issue, and a far more scary one. Of course wars existed long before capitalism and so there must be other reasons for warfare besides the desire of a capitalist economy to control resources. But right now, this may be the big driving force in conflicts. Certainly the USA has used wars to promote its economic interests quite a few times. Robert A. Heinlein once stated that all wars are caused by population pressure. How would one attempt to determine objectively whether he is correct or whether your view of things is correct? (And is it an either one or the other situation in the first place? Could both be true to some degree? We humans like to reduce things to simple “A or B” terms but things are usually a lot more complex than that.) Right now it looks like your view is more in line with what we see, but then again with 7 billion people in the world population pressure underlies much of what is happening as well.

  15. Kevin, you make an interesting point.

    What about sneak attacks, like Pearl Harbor or the Nazi attack on Russia?

    The defender has not exactly started the war by defending. More like, the defender started the war by giving the attacker the impression that they would not surrender if asked to. Germany and the USSR were in an arms race which the USSR was winning. The longer the Germans waited to attack, the more certainly they would lose. They had to attack or eventually surrender, and in a desperate attack why give the Russians an advantage? Similarly, Japan could not survive a long war with the USA, and could not survive US sanctions. They had to attack and hope the USA would back down, or else lose by default.Those wars did not begin when the first bombs fell, they began when the attackers first felt severely threatened.

    The argument becomes, not that defenders start the war by defending, but that defenders start the war by giving the appearance that they will not do what the attacker wants.

    In the last attack on Czechoslovakia, the Czechs made no attempt to defend (except a few confused units that apparently did not get the order to surrender in time). They knew they could not win a war against the Warsaw Pact. They had tried an experiment in government against Russian orders, hoping that they would not be attacked. We could argue that it was not really a war because they did not defend themselves, but is it not a war when the tanks roll in and the occupation begins, just because the defenders don’t defend? Before the invasion they had negotiations and at the Bratislava conference the Czechs agreed to all Soviet demands. The Soviets agreed to remove the troops from Czechoslovakia (which were put there for a training exercise just before the negotiations). How could the Czechs have done more to prevent an attack than to agree to all demands? Well, they didn’t agree to completely end their experiment. The Soviets could not ask that without looking bad, so the Czechs could agree to everything the Russians demanded without actually solving the problem.

    It turned out that some members of the Czech government wanted to stage a coup and asked the Russians to help them. Maybe THEY started the war/invasion/whatever by begging for it. Similarly, part of the Afghan government invited the Russians to invade Afghanistan, part of the Swiss government invited Napoleon to invade Switzerland, part of the Korean government invited the USA to invade Korea, many times part of the government of Panama has invited the USA to invade Panama, etc etc etc.

    What about the Cold War? I’m not sure it even makes sense to say who started the war. The bombs never fell, the missiles never flew. For a long time the Soviets may have felt that they would win the arms race because their economy was growing faster. But the USA controlled the economy of the entire Free World, and vastly out-spent them. All the arguments I made about how somebody forced somebody else to attack by looking like they wouldn’t surrender — it didn’t happen that time. Somebody should have felt like they had to attack, because the defender had started the war, and they didn’t do it. We called it a war for 40 years but the defender never forced the attacker to actually attack.

    This stuff is complicated.

  16. @ Richard – Since I read “Dragon” when I was fairly young, that was the first place I read that quote as well. It definitely caused a paradigm shift in my thinking about war.

    Nation-states and multi-national (or just large national) business go hand in hand. They support each other and by striving to achieve their own continued existence conditions can be made terrible for people. The interests of the people are not the interests of the governments and business. Profit and control are the interests of the govt/business.

    It’s only when voters and consumers get directly involved in influencing business/govt that positive change can oocur.

  17. Many people here question what this blog has to do with capitalism. The very basic and the root of the question can realistically be brought back to the very beginning of recorded warfare: A group of people have decided to attack and kill another group of people in order to acquire their resources. Sure, “Capitalism” at this point had not been yet invented. Yet you can see, even at this point, Capitalism in effect.

  18. Although Clausewitz did say war had a rational aspect (continuation of politics by other means), to him, that was only part of it. As skzb notes, there was also an irrational side and a downright savage side. As J.R.R Tolkein put it: “There is such a thing as hatred and revenge.”

    So far I have not noticed that this around-the-clock Russia baiting has done anything to rouse the public to desire war with Russia. It seems the corporate media’s ability to manufacture public bloodthirst is on the wane.

  19. There have been stories since WWII that Roosevelt knew the Japanese were about to bomb Pearl Harbor and wanted them to do it so he could get a good war fever going.

    We heard the stories about Iraqi soldiers emptying out Kuwaiti incubators of premature babies so they could steal the incubators, were false. It might have happened but the people who told the stories on TV didn’t know about it if so. A lot of the enthusiasm for the Gulf War was built on lies.

    We know there was no particular connection between Iraq and 9/11, and that Saddam had no nuclear program though the US government claimed they had solid evidence.

    A lot of that has spread and a whole lot of people know about it.

    They are just not as ready to believe the US government as they used to be.

    Anyway, what’s the exit strategy for a war with Russia? We don’t want to nuke them. Could we fight a conventional war with Russia, and win, and occupy them?

    Maybe we win a conventional war and then we tell them “OK, we won. I guess we’ll just go home now, and later maybe you’d like to try for two out of three?”.

    Maybe we fight Russia for a long time and nobody wins much, and then suddenly one day Russia and the USA are fighting China? “We are at war with China. We have always been at war with China.”

    It just doesn’t make sense as a war. It only makes sense as a psyop.

  20. Jonah–

    Good thoughts, thanks for posting. I think part of the issue is that Western capitalist leaders do not want BRICS taking off and they do not want Russia to be able to build pipelines to the EU, and they may be warming up some kind of military op in addition to the current Syrian and Ukranian intrigues to stop those things. They need the public primed to accept such a move when and if it becomes “necessary” from their perspective. The public will be fed a thin gruel of pretext for such an attack, and will be expected to swallow it down without complaint.

  21. Again, I don’t see an exit strategy. Since the adoption of fracking US oil imports have gone down from 60% of what we use to 40%. That’s still too much to be anything but a declining power. And if the USA manages to scare the EU into militarizing, they will not follow our leadership. They have put up with us because we have been willing to create massive military force and they have not.

    The whole thing looks short-sighted to me. Like they are not interested in maintaining US power for the long run, or even the medium run, but just want to play with it now.

  22. There are a lot of things going on. Unfortunately, the information feeds are very patchy. Essentially, we are being kept in a permanent fog of war state.
    There are people who very much want the government to be a separate entity from the people. This encourages the people to think of the government as separate and so on.
    One tool for doing this is to declare everything as being secret whether it needs to be or not. Misclassifying items as secret that should not be is every bit as bad for security as the other way around.
    By restricting access to actual information, uncertainty and false information take the place of real information and the public becomes further disassociated from the activities of government. This is exactly what is needed to form a government that is out of control.

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