J.R. Johnson

The Course of the War

(August 1944))

Source: New International, Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, pp. 247–251.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (December 2015).

The Bourgeois Theory of the Offensive

Today military conflict embraces the entire structure and superstructure of society. Its arena is the whole of the globe. We propose here to examine certain aspects of its development to date and more particularly in regard to the impending defeat of Germany.

No attempt will be made to deal with the technical military content of the war. Nor is this necessary. If Hitler lost four or five million men to get a thousand square miles outside the eastern borders of Germany in eighteen months, and in another eighteen months is back again where he started, one does not have to be a master of logistics to be able to draw certain extremely important conclusions. We propose rather, as an indispensable part of our analysis, to treat the question historically, to place this war in relation to other great wars in the past and the prospect of the future. In particular, we wish to draw attention to the method of judgment of Marx and Engels, the founders of historical materialism. By this means we shall be in a position to learn much that is valuable. The actual proletarian revolution can assume the form of a full-scale military conflict, as did the Civil War in Spain in 1936–38.

But there are today more topical reasons for the study of war. Marx wrote to Engels that “the history of the army brings out more clearly than anything else the correctness of our conceptions of the connection between the productive forces and the social relations” (September 25, 1857). Today when the whole social organism becomes one vast armed camp the movement of bourgeois society in its various stages of progress toward disintegration, ruin and barbarism appear starkly. Abstract theories take on a vivid actuality. The proletariat is faced with fundamentals and can learn rapidly.

Every general staff in Europe begins with Clausewitz, who drew his principles from the wars of revolutionary France and of Napoleon. Hitler’s special translation of the numerous volumes of Napoleon’s correspondence is deeply scored and underscored. The European generals know their roots. To attempt to understand them we must have some idea of what the teacher of them all stood for.

It is a commonplace in our movement that the drive of the French revolutionary armies sprang from the consciousness of the revolutionary nation in arms and the sense of individual personality in the soldier. Perhaps this was most concretely expressed in the speed of the French infantry which at times could do one hundred and twenty paces per minute, in comparison with seventy-five paces characteristic of feudal armies. Napoleon perfected the strategy and tactics which the earlier revolutionary generals began. Thus was born the modern theory of the offensive.

There is, however, a decisive break in Napoleon’s military career. After the victory of Austerlitz in 1805 the revolution was over. Napoleon’s wars were now unmistakably wars of conquest and the tremendous vitality of the army, the speed and recklessness with which large masses of men fought and sacrificed themselves between 1793 and 1805 began to disappear. Beginning with 1807 he was compelled to lean more and more heavily on artillery. By 1812 the very marshals and the higher officer caste were sick of war. Today contemporaneous evidence has piled up to prove the moral and organizational disintegration of the army before one foot had been set on Russian soil. Thus the great army and the great soldier rose and fell with the rise and fall of the revolution.

But, stated so baldly, the generalization is misleading. In 1814 Napoleon was decisively defeated and abdicated. When he returned from Elba he faced a coalition of all Europe. The masses were with him. The bourgeoisie was undecided. The rank and file of the army and the lower officers were fanatically on his side. But the old general staff was broken up. Ney took up his command at Quatre Bras with one officer in attendance for staff. Napoleon, it is said, didn’t know whether to trust him or not. Those who again joined Napoleon were distrusted by the soldiers. Thus the army was an exact reflection of the state of affairs in the country. Napoleon, with the help of Carnot, hastily organized an army, and in a few weeks had over 100,000 men with whom to take the field. Nobody knew more about war than Carnot, who had organized the armies of the revolution. Yet Carnot wanted Napoleon to wait six weeks. He would give him an army twice the size and fortify Paris so as to make it impregnable. Napoleon refused to wait. His reply was that he must have a brilliant victory at once. The class relations in the country, the political combinations against him, governed every move of the campaign from the initial organization of the army down to the last fatal hesitation at six o’clock whether to throw in the Old Guard or not.

Thus the theory of the offensive passed from the supreme military expression of the revolutionary masses of France to its final stage, where the bourgeois Emperor was using it only in form but with its genuine content gone. Engels has expressed his admiration for the Waterloo campaign, and it was a most brilliant display. But every theory, and military strategy, too, is rooted in class relations.

The “Classic Lines” of War

Marx and Engels used this basic method in the imperative political business of analyzing a concrete war and no more brilliant and instructive example can be given than their analysis of the Civil War in America.

When the war broke out, one graduate of West Point from Ohio wrote to another graduate from Georgia:

“Your whole population is about eight millions, while the North has twenty millions. Of your eight millions, three millions are slaves who may become an element of danger. You have ... none of the manufactures and machine shops necessary for the support of armies, and for war on a large scale ... Your cause is foredoomed to failure. “ (R.S. Henry, Story of the Confederacy, page 18)

To think that Engels, a student of military affairs all his life, did not know this is ridiculous. Yet, after the early successes of the South, Engels wrote his doubts to Marx. Marx replied:

“The way the North is conducting war is only what might have been expected from a bourgeois republic, where fraud has been enthroned as king so long. The South, an oligarchy, is better adapted to it, especially an oligarchy where the whole productive work falls on the niggers and the four millions of ‘white trash’ are professional filibusterers. All the same, I would bet my head that these fellows will get the worst of it, in spite of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. It is possible, of course, that before this things may come to a sort of revolution in the North itself.”

The summation is concise but complete. Engels, however, was still unconvinced and on October 28 Marx wrote again:

“In my opinion, therefore, for the South it will only be a matter now of the defensive. But their sole possibility of success lay in an offensive ... There is no doubt at all that morally the collapse of the Maryland campaign was of the most tremendous importance.”

Engels agreed in general but in his reply used the phrase: “I am by no means certain that the affair is going to proceed along such classic lines as you appear to believe.” What are these “classic lines” which Engels referred to so familiarly? Clausewitz has stated them when he says that “... when an object at the very beginning is beyond our strength, it will always remain so.”

Clausewitz was a student of Kant and a follower of Hegel. His book is a logic of war, of the subject conceived, like Marx’s Capital, in the “absolute” form. The laws are therefore subject to all the qualifications of a concrete situation. And on this there is always room for disagreement. On the basic analysis of the contending forces in the Civil War and the “classic lines” of the military development, there was no difference between Marx and Engels. They differed amicably only on the immediate estimate. Both agreed that if the North did not change politically, then there would be a compromise peace – temporarily. Marx’s judgment might have seemed rash. Today we can read in authoritative studies of the Civil War that, despite the brilliant victories of the South up to that time, the turning point of the war was the Maryland campaign of the fall of 1862, and not Vicksburg or Gettysburg in 1863. (R.S. Henry, The Story of the Confederacy, page 101. The volume is introduced by Douglas Southall Freeman.)

In his review of Engels’ military writings, Leon Trotsky notes that Engels makes the same basic point in his analysis of the Franco-German war, and Trotsky agrees with him. (The New International, May 1944)

Strategy and Class Struggle

Now that the bourgeoisie is washing its dirty linen in public, most of the military theories of 1918–39, like so much bourgeois theory in this age, are being exposed for what they are – a lot of knowledge, a lot of nonsense, and a lot of lies. The layman need not be afraid of this question at all. Clausewitz, the greatest theoretician of war, and a soldier and staff officer in many campaigns, has laid it down that “the events in each age must, therefore, be judged with due regard to the peculiarities of the time and only he who, less by an anxious study of minute details than by a shrewd glance at the main features, can place himself in each particular age is able to understand and appreciate its generals.” To judge the generals, you need to understand society. And the “main feature” of the military debates of society after World War I was the theory of the defensive. This was no accident, no stupidity of generals. The theory of the defensive came straight from the hostility of the organized proletariat and the great masses of the people to the very thought of war. In France, over the length and conditions of service and military appropriations, the “right” and the “left” fought a series of continuous battles that lasted practically up to the outbreak of war. In Britain it was the same, and the foremost military theoretician of the day, a man widely read by the general public, was Liddell Hart, the great protagonist of a special theory of defensive war. Ignoring the tank and condoning the miserable strategy of 1914–18, most of the authors used the 1914–18 war of attrition as a basis for their defensive theory. Major General J.F.C. Fuller, chief of staff of the Royal Tank Corps in 1918 (he now writes for NewsWeek), argued bitterly and in vain in favor of the mechanized offensive. As late as 1937 one of his books was published in Britain in an edition of only five hundred copies. But thirty thousand copies of the same book were published for Hitler’s army and it was widely circulated throughout the military forces of the USSR. The proletariat in those countries being chained, the ruling class could think a little more freely. That Russia’s geographical and economic position precluded more or less a Napoleonic offensive at the beginning of a war against Germany, for example, did not alter the question. It was the very concept of the Maginot Line which was so absurd and to which Britain and France stuck so woodenly.

In an article written four years ago, the present writer said as follows:

“Today the bourgeois theorists wake up to the fact that the strategy of the defensive was a criminal blunder and in fact always has been. But which country, torn as the democracies were torn, could even attempt to consider any other strategy but the defensive? ... Perhaps the most ironic commentary on the French defeat is that the method of breaking the center by a heavy concentration of mechanized forces was insistently urged on the French government by the French general, de Gaulle, as far back as 1934 ... It was open to the French if they had wanted it. THEY COULDN’t USE IT.” (The New International, July 1940, page 126)

There is little to add to that today. [1]

To the German ruling class, the defensive meant economic strangulation at the hands of Britain, France and the United States. But Germany up to 1933 was a democratic republic. We do not pretend to know what plans the general staff was secretly elaborating, but the theory which attracted wide-spread notice before 1933 was Von Seeckt’s theory of the small, highly mechanized army of the offensive. This was merely the German adaptation of the theory of the offensive to the limitations of the Versailles Treaty and the hostility of the organized German workers to war.

When Hitler gained power, however, he proceeded to organize Germany for total war based on the most extreme application of the theory of the offensive. His whole strategy rests on a modern application of Clausewitz, and it was Clausewitz who first gave full theoretical emphasis to the importance of the moral and psychological factors in war. The early revolutionary generals and General Bonaparte had developed their devastating offensives from the revolutionary consciousness of France. But the German people, and the proletariat in particular, with its enormous role in contemporary society, had no revolutionary or any other dominating consciousness for which to fight. Furthermore the class struggle had now reached a pitch, undreamed of and impossible in Napoleon’s time. Hitler needed a “revolutionary ideology.” He posed as the revolutionary creator of a “new order.” Napoleon to the end had retained the glamor of his name and achievements. Hitler sought to create artificially what Napoleon had done practically. Dr. Goebbels became his Marshal Ney. He sought to recreate in himself the legend of the divinely-inspired, all-conquering national hero who was Napoleon. Thus the general social policy of fascism reached its intensest expression in the military sphere. The World War experience of Germany, certainty of America’s ultimate entry, were the basic military conditions of the policy. But the causes go beyond that. It is impossible not to recognize in this macabre economic, political and psychological mobilization of a great nation and the whole fantastic plan the diseased imagination of a ruling class conscious that it was at the end of its tether and that only a miracle could save it. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Some high-ranking generals, conscious of the innumerable chances of war, condemned the whole business. That Hitler was allowed to get so far with it testifies to the complete moral disintegration of bourgeois society as a whole, and not only of the German bourgeoisie.

To take the military strategy as it developed: first Hitler overwhelmed France. He followed this with an attempt to overwhelm Britain by air. He failed. He thereupon under-took the destruction of the military power of Russia.

The Russian Campaign

When the German army marched in June 1941, it proposed to be in Moscow before the winter and to overwhelm the Russians on two thousand miles of front. Like Napoleon, Hitler couldn’t wait.

In his sketch of The Army of the Soviet Union, Professor Minz of the USSR as early as 1942 wrote that “the phantom that always haunted the fascist generals – i.e., the danger that the blitzkrieg would be converted into a long-drawn-out war, with all the fatal consequences for Germany – became real. In their savage fury the fascists hurled more and more divisions into the holocaust in a desperate effort to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. They could not do otherwise.” (Page 35) That is brilliantly true and is the key to Hitler’s course. The great offensive drew from weakness in relation to the enemy as a whole and therefore carried within itself the seeds of its own catastrophic collapse at any miscarriage. The more thorough the preparation, the more necessary was unbroken success.

The defeat in front of Moscow was the turning point of the war for Hitler’s armies. It is easy to see that today and some saw it then. The course of the war has since placed in proper perspective the strategic significance of the Russian winter offensives of 1941–42. We must go back to Clausewitz again. After the passage quoted above, he went on to make a final application of this theory – the use of the offensive in defense. In his usual categorical manner when stating a general proposition, he wrote:

“But we must maintain throughout that a defensive without any positive principle is to be regarded as a self-contradiction in strategy as well as in tactics, and therefore we always come back to the fact that every defensive, according to its strength, will seek to change to attack as soon as it has exhausted the advantages of the defensive.”

That the Russians could launch an offensive after the battle of Moscow was an indication of great power. In 1941 they refused deliberately to fight a major battle on the frontier. They drew Hitler’s lines out almost to the very gates of Moscow, stood confidently on the defensive, repulsed the attack and then launched a powerful counter-offensive on every front. In front of Moscow the German army was on the defensive for five months. In the South the Russians recaptured Rostov, in the North their offensive saved Leningrad. Hitler’s whole strategic campaign on an international scale was based on the taking of Moscow in 1941. Not only in theory but in practice the German army threw everything that it could into that assault. Where it had failed once, it was useless to try again. It never even tried. Where Hitler had attacked on two thousand miles of front in 1941, he could attack only on five hundred miles in 1942. The German army wasted itself before Sevastopol and after a superhuman effort which put the Moscow drive in the shade, it experienced the disaster of Stalingrad.

Stalingrad, in the present writer’s opinion, is a battle without any parallel whatever in military history. To deal with it at all satisfactorily would involve a comprehensive treatment of the Russian army and state, which is beyond our scope. Sufficient to say here that the tremendous offensive which accounted for Von Paulus and his 300,000 men foreshadowed the whole story of the almost uninterrupted series of retreats and defeats which have since befallen the German army. To see beneath the surface and follow the inner dialectic of this campaign we cannot do better than try to grasp what is perhaps the main strategic thesis of Clausewitz’s great book. Near the end of his work he states it clearly enough:

“Our opinion is, therefore, that no pause, no resting point, no intermediate stations, are in accordance with the nature of offensive war, and that when they are unavoidable, they are to be regarded as an evil which makes the result not more certain, but, on the contrary, more uncertain; and further, that, keeping strictly to the general truth, if from weakness or any cause we have been obliged to stop, a second attempt at the object we have in view is, as a rule, impossible; but if such a second attempt is possible, then the stoppage was unnecessary, and that when an object at the very beginning is beyond our strength, it will always remain so.” (On War, Modern Library edition, page 590)

But that is only half the story. The other half is most pertinent. Clausewitz mistrusted these all-out offensives profoundly because he had seen in life what happened to the army which attempted them as they ought to be attempted, and failed.

“There are strategic attacks which have led to an immediate peace, but such instances are very rare; the majority, on the contrary, lead only to a point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive and to wait for peace. Beyond this point comes the turn of the tide, the counter-stroke. The violence of such a counter-stroke is usually much greater than the force of the original blow.” (page 513)

That is what we are seeing today on both the fronts where Hitler’s great offensives failed. The tremendous effort he made mobilized greater efforts in his enemies. The mobility of contemporary war insured not only the violence but the speed of the counter-stroke.

The vast trumpetings about the impenetrability of Festung Europa were myths. The German army could not muster the strength to make the last serious offensive open to them, to push the United Nations into the sea somewhere. Today, 1944, Hitler and Goebbels actually try to make believe that they are going to use men from civilian life, barbers’ assistants and movie operators, men who must have been rejected for military service a dozen times over, to help fill the gaps in the army and oppose the battle-tested Russian army and the millions of highly trained men whom Britain and America have not even yet put into the field. But for the vast tragedy involved, the gesture is not even comic opera, but opera bouffe, burlesque. Dorothy Thompson writes that the Allied estimate of German casualties all told is nine million men! It cannot be far from that. The present writer has not the slightest belief in any great defensive actions by the German army on the line of East Prussia or the West Wall or any other line or wall. Hard and bloody fighting there may very well be. But the theory of the defensive is even more rotten today for Germany than it was for France in 1940. If the German army could carry out any protracted defense of Germany it could do so in only one way – by taking not a mere tactical but a strategic offensive as the sole means of an effective defensive. Not only that. It would have done so long ago. Except in the retaking of Rostov in 1943 and for a brief moment at Salerno, it has shown, since Stalingrad, not the slightest capacity for doing this. Historical logic rolls with remorseless speed to a climax predestined at Stalingrad. And as it does so, it shapes the outlines of the future conflicts. We must look at those.

The War of the Future

It is a fundamental postulate of Marx that the increase of accumulation, i.e., the development of technology and science, is accompanied by the increased misery of the proletariat, not only in production but in society in general as well. Absolute as war seems to have become, the end is not yet. Napoleon aimed at the destruction and if possible the annihilation of the opposing armies. The limitations of this destruction were the economic limitations of his time – the horse was still the fastest means of transport. The Civil War in America showed that the steam engine, the railway, could bring large masses of men to the battlefield. But there it left them to fight on foot or on horseback. Despite the vast advances in artillery, the battlefields of 1914-17 were not as qualitatively different from the wars of the previous century as might have been expected. The decisive change came with the tank, the application of the Diesel engine to the battlefield itself. This the Germans developed and by means of the Diesel engine overwhelmed France and tried to overwhelm Britain. For Hitler, the failure over Britain proved another example of the catastrophic reprisals which await him who has tried an all-out offensive and failed. Britain and the United States began the preparation of an offensive in the air which aimed not only at the destruction of the existing Luftwaffe. This offensive aimed at preventing any future Luftwaffe from being built. Thus it sought to destroy the very sources of life of the enemy nation. Today one Anglo-American expedition can drop a weight of fire-power over Germany equal to all that Germany dropped over Britain in the entire air offensive of 1940. And as the tank appeared at the end of World War I, so the robot bomb has appeared in the last stages of World War II. This means that the strategic preparation of World War III must be based on the principle of an offensive aimed at the destruction or annihilation, no longer of armies, but of the whole economic and social life of the enemy country. It is difficult to see what place remains for any theory of the defensive.

One aspect of the defensive still remains, to destroy completely the defeated enemy and keep him destroyed. That is the fate reserved for Germany, even apart from the more basic question of economic rivalry. But Europe still remains the arena of competing imperialisms. De Seversky is confident that in a few years the powerful long distance plane, capable of going 25,000 miles will be perfectly feasible. Bourgeois nations, therefore, must become a congeries of armed camps, each of which, at the approach of war, concentrates on the business of wrecking the opposing nation completely. For this, fantastic as it may seem, the military men will prepare. Hitler’s whole career proves that. But the international proletariat will have its word before this consummation is achieved. The theory of the offensive, which safeguarded the birth, is now herald of the death of contemporary society. In war as elsewhere the inevitability of socialism is written across the skies.


1. In an article on Attack in the New American Encyclopedia (1858–63), which is almost certainly written by Engels, he, governed by the limitations of his time, makes the best possible case for a general theory of the defensive. But in the end he decides for the general belief in the offensive though with “considerable modifications.” With the application of the Diesel engine to the battlefield itself, however, even the defensive had to lose every trace of a static mentality.

Last updated on 15 December 2015