Questions of Military Theory

Military Knowledge
and Marxism

Speech at the meeting of the Military Science Society attached to the Military Academy of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, May 8, 1922[1]

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Introductory Remarks

Allow me to declare open this meeting of the Military Science Society – the 51st such meeting, as I have just been told.

The subject of our discussion today is to be the place occupied by military knowledge and military skill in the system of human knowledge as a whole. Let me confess at the outset that the responsibility for initiating this discussion falls largely upon me. Not that I consider this complex, abstract, theoretical-epistemological and philosophical question – in the best and worst meaning of these words – to be the most topical and urgent in our military studies. But it does seem to me that these questions have been forced upon us by the entire course of ideological development and by a certain theoretical-ideological controversy among the leading circles of our army.

In one of our publications, closely associated with your Society, I read two articles [2], one of which argued that military science cannot be built by, and cannot apply to its specific tasks, the methods of Marxism, because military science belongs to the order of natural sciences. This article was accompanied by a polemical and critical article which, presumably, reflected more closely the views of the editors. In this article an attempt was made to show that, on the contrary, the methods of Marxism are universal scientific methods, so that their validity extends also to military science. Let me confess, once more, that to me both of these viewpoints seemed incorrect. Military science does not belong among the natural sciences because it is neither ‘natural’ nor a ‘science’. Our discussion today may perhaps bring us closer to an understanding of this question.

But even if one grants that ‘military science’ is a science, it is nevertheless impossible to grant that this science could be built by the method of Marxism, because historical materialism is not at all a universal method for all sciences. This is a very great delusion which, it seems to me, is fraught with very harmful consequences. It is possible to devote one’s whole life to military activity, and very successfully, without ever thinking about theoretical-epistemological methods in military matters – just as I can look at my watch every day without knowing anything about its internal mechanism, that concatenation of wheels and levers. Provided I know about the figures and the hands, I won’t go wrong. But if, not being satisfied with the way the hands move over the dial, I want to discuss the structure of the watch, then I must be properly informed about that: there can be no room for ‘independent thinking’ here.

In the course of another discussion (about the unified military doctrine) I referred to a feature from the life of Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, the first crusader for Marxism on Russian soil, a man of vast intellect and great talent. Whenever Plekhanov noted that questions of philosophical materialism and historical materialism were being counterposed to each other, or, on the contrary, were being merged together, he would always protest hotly. Philosophical materialism is a theory based on the natural sciences: historical materialism explains the history of human society. Historical materialism is a method that explains not the entire universe but only a strictly delimited group of phenomena, a method for investigating the development of historical man. Philosophical materialism explains the movement of the universe as the changing and transformation of matter, and extends its explanation to the ‘highest’ manifestations of the spirit. It is difficult, not to say impossible, to be a Marxist in politics if one is ignorant of historical materialism. It is possible to be a Marxist in politics while being ignorant of philosophical materialism – and there are plenty of examples to prove that

And whenever any Marxist (in the old terminology, any ‘Social-Democrat’) strayed into the field of philosophy and started to muddle things up, the late Plekhanov would bash him mercilessly. How many times did people say to him: ‘Come, Georgi Valentinovich, after all, this is a young fellow who hasn’t had time to study philosophical questions, he has been busy in the underground struggle.’ But Plekhanov would, with reason, reply: ‘If he doesn’t know, let him keep quiet. Nobody is forcing him to talk ... Nothing is said in our programme about a Social-Democrat having to be well-grounded in philosophical materialism. You have to be an active member of the Party, you have to be a courageous fighter for the workers’ cause; but if you do invade the sphere of philosophy, don’t muddle things up.’ ... And he would rise to his full height, wielding his splendid polemical whip. If you review the history of our Party you will find many who still to this day bear on their ribs the marks of that whip.

I consider that in the sphere of the philosophy of military affairs we should follow the good tradition of the late Plekhanov. We are not all obliged to occupy ourselves with questions that are called ‘gnosiological’ ‘theoretical-epistemological’ – with philosophical questions. But if we do happen to take them up, it is not permissible to muddle things and to wander, equipped with an inappropriate instrument, into a different field, trying to apply the method of Marxism directly to military affairs in the true sense of the word (not military policy). To try and construct a special domain of military affairs by means of Marxist method is a very great delusion, no less a one than that expressed in trying to include military affairs among the natural sciences. If I am not mistaken, proponents of both these tendencies are ready to take the floor today: they will probably expound their views better than I can – and, after they have done so, we shall argue with them.

I do not think, comrades, that we shall arrive today at any generally binding decisions on this question. But if we do succeed in bringing some clarity into the matter, and if we conclude that it is necessary to be more cautious in directly applying Marxism to special spheres of creative activity, that alone will be a big achievement. With our ‘military doctrine’, which has some connection with the problem before us today, we kept, as you know, circling round and round and muddling things up to our hearts’ content, and I don’t think we were greatly enriched thereby, except, perhaps, in the negative sense alone: everyone was convinced that nothing in particular had come out of all that. We undertook to build a ‘unified military doctrine’ on a ‘proletarian Marxist’ basis, but, after debating the matter, we came back to the point that what was needed was to re-examine our regulations on the basis of our experience. And we are re-examining them – slowly, hobbling along the road and through the potholes, for ours are rough country roads and there is no lack of ravines. But I firmly hope that real benefit will accrue from our review of the regulations: we shall not invent a new military doctrine by means of a commission but, on the other hand, we shall rid ourselves of a lot of rubbish, and we shall formulate some things more precisely than before. So far as our meeting today is concerned, the benefit of discussing the broad question of the interrelation between military matters and Marxism will be more in the nature of mental hygiene, so to speak: the degree of confusion that prevails will be somewhat diminished. Our practical task is this: learn to speak more simply about the cavalry, do not encumber our discussion of problems of aviation with pompous Marxist terminology, high-flown expressions, wideranging problems which more often than not turn out to be hollow shells without kernel or content.

These, comrades, are the introductory remarks which I have taken the liberty of making. In the interests of the audience, in which there are comrades who are at varying levels of familiarity with philosophical questions, I strongly request all the rapporteurs and participants in the discussion to express themselves as concretely, precisely, simply and comprehensibly as possible. I believe that I come quite close to the truth when I say that not everyone here present has studied philosophy from beginning to end, so to speak, and some of us, certainly, have not even read the most elementary books on philosophy. I believe that such a presentation, that is, one designed for an audience not expert in philosophy, will also have the advantage of helping us to scrutinise the contents of each rapporteur’s kitbag: for philosophical terminology is a device akin to makeup ... The makeup may be terribly impressive, and yet have nothing beneath it. And yet, as I have noted from many articles in our military publications, this occultism for the augurs, for the initiated, these mediaeval traditions and procedures are still maintained among us. And so I ask you to expound your ideas in as simple a way as you can.

With your permission, comrades, we shall now pass to the discussion. Observing the order in which the reports are listed, I call on Comrade Lukirsky to make his contribution.


The list of speakers is exhausted. Allow me to say in conclusion a few words in defence of an art which, in my opinion has been slighted here – slighted for the benefit of military science, which certain comrades, in their turn, defended against slurs, in my opinion imaginary, that had been cast by us.

Comrade Ogorodnikov, the last speaker, like some others before him, directed his attack particularly against Comrade Svechin, against whom, I too, have had the occasion in my time to polemise: how could a man who is a member of the guild of military science suddenly renounce himself and uncrown military knowledge, by declaring that there is no question of science here?

In a roundabout way, Comrade Polonsky also touched on this question. Let us get things clear, he says: ‘Knowledge can be either scientific or unscientific. If military matters are scientific, then we are dealing with a science. If they are unscientific, then ... they are not worth a brass farthing.’ Comrade Polonsky compared a military commander to a surgeon. Not a bad comparison! A surgeon performs an operation. This is an action which demands certain practices, a certain skill; but for a student watching the operation, says Comrade Polonsky, it is a science. But that, of course, is not so. For the student, too, the operation is not science: it is apprenticeship. If an artist makes a drawing, that is art. Others are sitting around him and copying what he does: what, would you say, does that mean for them? Is it science? No. It is apprenticeship, which is still not science. This is the sense in which ‘science’ was understood in Suvorov’s time: when soldiers were made to run the gauntlet, that too, was ‘the science of victory’.

One of the speakers said that one cannot put military matters on the same footing with art. Art, he said, has an aesthetic criterion. But what about the practical arts? The art of building bridges, the art of building houses, the art of laying down sewerage systems? A practical art, let us not forget, also has a scientific basis. In the last analysis, of course, all the sciences grew out of practice, out of the crafts, out of activities; but, later, they freed themselves from this direct, ‘crude’ connection, while nevertheless preserving their historically utilitarian significance. When he makes chemical experiments, or investi-gates in a laboratory the crossing of different species, a scientist may be pursuing an immediate practical aim, or he may not. On the other hand, even a purely theoretical deduction serves, in the last analysis, to enrich practice. An art may be based on a multiplicity of sciences. One man develops science for science’s sake, ‘disinterestedly’, as they say, while another operates with the conclusions of science for purely practical ends; and a third picks up intuitively, through creative flair, what he needs for practical work. Comrade Snesarev got to the heart of the matter better than anyone else when he proposed, for military affairs, the term obnauchennoye iskusstvo. [3] A dozen other terms could, of course, be invented, and I am not proposing to make Snesarev’s term compulsory, but, in my opinion, the author of the term showed himself freest from guild prejudices when he said: ‘I am not afraid to call it a craft, and still less am I afraid to call it an art.’

Many comrades approached the question under discussion from an ‘aristocratic’ standpoint, from the standpoint of commanders, of military leaders of today or tomorrow. But if we take military matters as a whole, then the fact remains that every soldier mi.jst know his manoeuvre. That manoeuvre which a rank-and-file infantryman knows and has to know – is this a science or isn’t it? You say of a commander that he must know geography and history – it would be no bad thing, let me add, for him to learn political economy, too. He must know the military history of at least the last hundred years. But are military matters exhausted when we have discussed the army commander? No. There is also, let us not forget, the soldier, there is the section commander, there is the platoon commander: at their level the military trade remains a matter of craft skill.

If a soldier does not know his manoeuvre, he is merely cannon fodder: if he does know it, then he is a ‘craftsman’. Above that level lies an art that is based on the methods and conclusions of many sciences, which are utilised in the soldier’s trade. The methods, for example, of geography, can and must be made use of in military activities. A knowledge of statistics, is also obligatory. Ethnography is needed. So is history. All these are sciences. But the business of war itself is not a science. One must distinguish between, on the one hand, science, which establishes the law-governed character of phenomena, their causality, and, on the other, art, which is concerned with the expediency of procedures. [Snesarev’s ‘obnauchennoye’ is a made-up word based on nauka, and his suggested term could mean something like ‘a science-impregnated art’.] These two – the expediency of procedures, practices and methods, and the law-governed character of objective phenomena – are not one and the same thing. I am the better able to work out an expedient method, the more I know about the law-governed character of phenomena, but, all the same, one cannot confuse the one with the other.

Our method in military affairs in the Soviet Republic is determined, in the last analysis, by technique, the relation between classes, and so forth. But one can’t deduce from these correct Marxist propositions the proper establishment for a cavalry regiment! Gleb Uspensky showed magnificently, in The Power of the Land, how a peasant’s entire life and all his thinking are dominated by the land, wholly determined by the peasant’s means of production. Marxism can answer the question: why will the muzhik continue to believe in the house-demon so long as he goes about in bast shoes? Bast shoes are determined by the peasant’s mode of production, and the latter also gives rise to a number of other phenomena which are inseparable from the bast shoes – a narrow horizon, slavish dependence on rain, sunshine and other elementary phenomena of nature: and all this, together, creates the peasant’s superstitions. Marxism can try and explain all this. But can Marxism teach how to plait bast shoes? No, it can’t. It can explain why the muzhik goes about in bast shoes – because around him is the forest, the bark of trees, and he is poor – but one can’t plait bast shoes with the aid of Marxism. Nothing will come of that.

One of the speakers protested against calling military matters an art on the grounds that military matters are not subject, do you see, to the criterion of beauty. But this is the sheerest misunderstanding. Trading, especially as carried on in the Sukharevka [The Sukharevka was the ‘thieves’ market’ in Moscow, tolerated most of the time, but subject to occasional police raids.], is surely not subject to the aesthetic criterion: yet, all the same, there is an art of trading. Trade has its own complex methods, connected with certain theories that are akin to science: Italian double-entry book-keeping, commercial correspondence, commercial geography, and so on. What, then, is trade – a science or not? Marx made a science of trade, in the sense that he established the laws of capitalist society, that he made trade an object of scientific investigation. But can one trade ‘according to Marx’ in the Sukharevka? ... No, one can’t. One of the most persistent, if not eternal, principles of trade is the rule: ‘if you don’t cheat, you don’t sell’. Marxism explains whence arose this ‘principle’, how it was later replaced by Italian double-entry book-keeping, which comes to the same thing, but in a more delicate form. But can Marxism create a new sort of book-keeping? Or is a Marxist spared the need to study book-keeping if he wants seriously to engage in trade? Attempts to proclaim Marxism the method of all sciences and arts often serve as cover for a stubborn aversion from entering new fields: it is, after all, much, much easier to possess a passe-partout, that is a key which opens all doors and locks, than to study book-keeping, military affairs, and so on ... This is the greatest danger when people try to endow the Marxist method with such an absolute character. Marx attacked such quasi-Marxists, and in one of his letters he literally said: ‘I’m no Marxist!’ [4] when they palmed off on him, instead of an explanation of the historical process, instead of an attentive and conscientious investigation of what happens, a sort of itinerary through history. Even less did Marx intend that his socio-historical theory should replace all other spheres of human cognition. Does this mean that a military leader has no need for Marxist method? Not at all. It would be absurd to deny the great importance of materialism for disciplining thought in all fields. Marxism, like Darwinism, is the highest school of human thought. Methods of warfare cannot be deduced from Darwin’s theory, from the law of natural selection, but a military leader who had studied Darwin, would, given the presence of other qualities, be better equipped thereby: he would have a wider horizon and be more resourceful, he would take note of aspects of nature and of man which previously he had not noticed. This applies to an even greater extent to Marxism.

One comment on Comrade Akhov’s remarks about the role of historical analysis in clarifying a particular concept or hypothesis. It is absolutely correct that the historical point of view is extremely fruitful, and the history of science better than any Kantian gnosiology. Man must keep his concepts and terms clean, just as a dentist cleans his instruments. But what we need for this is not a Kantian gnosiology which takes concepts as being fixed forever: terms must be approached historically. But the history of terms, hypotheses and theories does not take the place of science itself. Physics is physics. Military matters are military matters.

Marxism can be applied with very great success even to the history of chess. But it is not possible to learn to play chess in a Marxist way. With the aid of Marxism we can establish that there was once an Oblomov-like nobility who were too lazy even to play chess, and that later, with the growth of towns, intellectuals and merchants appeared, who felt a need to exercise their brains by playing draughts and chess. And now, in our country, workers go to chess clubs. The workers play chess because they have thrown off those who used to ride on their backs. All this can be excellently explained by Marxism. One can show the entire course of the class struggle from the one angle of the history of the development of chess. I assert that one could, using Marx’s method, write an excellent book on the history of the development of chess. But to learn to play chess ‘according to Marx’ is not possible. The game of chess has its own ‘laws’, its own ‘principles’. To be sure, I read recently that, in Napoleon’s time, chess was played in a manoeuvring way, and this continued until the middle of the 19th century: during the period of armed peace, between the Franco-Prussian War and the recent imperialist war, chess remained wholly ‘positional’, but it is now again being played in a mobile, ‘manoeuvring’ way. At any rate, we are assured that this is so by one American chess-player. It may be that social conditions do, in some unknown ways, penetrate into the brain of a chess-player, and, without being conscious of what he is doing, he reflects these conditions in his style of play. A materialist psychologist might find this of great interest. However, to learn to play chess ‘according to Marx’ is altogether impossible, just as it is impossible to learn to wage war ‘according to Marx’. Marxism does not teach how to use surprise, when this becomes necessary in dealing with the elusive Makhno.

What constitutes the essence of the soldier’s trade is the aggregate of rules for gaining victory. These rules are summed up, well or badly, in our regulations. Are they a science? I think that our regulations cannot be called a science. They are a set of prescriptions, a body of rules and procedures for a craft or an art.

To those comrades who want to construct the soldier’s trade according to Marxist method I recommend that they review the field service regulations from this standpoint, and indicate just what changes – from the standpoint of Marxism – should be introduced into the rules for reconnaissance, security, artillery preparation or attack. I should be very glad to hear at least one new thing arrived at in this sphere by using the Marxist method – not just ‘an opinion or so’, but something really new and practical.

Such are the mistakes of youthful and immature Marxist thinking in the sphere of military theory. In contrast to them are the mistakes of the military academician-metaphysicians. They tell us that military science discovers and formulates eternal principles in military matters. What do these principles signify? Are they scientific generalisations or are they practical precepts? In what sense can they be called eternal?

War is a certain form of relation between men. Consequently, methods and procedures in war are dependent upon the anatomical and mental properties of individual man, upon the form of organisation of collective man, upon his technology, his environment both physical and cultural-historical, and so on. The procedures and methods of war are thus determined by changing circumstances, and therefore can themselves in no wise be eternal.

But it is quite obvious that these procedures and methods do contain elements of greater or less stability. Thus, for example, in cavalry methods we find elements that are common to us and to the epoch of Hannibal, and even earlier. The methods of aviation are, obviously, only of recent origin. In infantry methods we find features in common with the operations of the most backward and primitive hordes and tribes, which waged war against each other before the horse was domesticated. Finally, it is possible to find in military operations generally some elementary procedures which are common to man and to animals that fight. Clearly, in these cases, too, it is not a question of ‘eternal truths’, in the sense of scientific generalisations derived from the properties of matter, but of the more or less stable procedures of a craft or an art.

An aggregate of ‘military principles’ does not constitute a military science, for there is no more a science of war than there is a science of locksmithing. There are a whole series of sciences which an army leader needs to know in order to feel fully equipped in his art. But military science does not exist: what exists is a military craft, which can be raised to the level of a military art.

A scientific history of warfare is not military science but social science, or a branch of social science. A scientific history of warfare explains why, in a given epoch, with a given organisation of society, men waged war in a certain way and not in a different way, and why such and such procedures led, in that epoch, to victory, whereas others brought defeat. Beginning with the general state of the productive forces, a scientific history of war must take into account all the other, superstructural factors, including the plans and the mistakes of the commanders. But it is quite obvious that a scientific history of war is, by its very nature, aimed at explaining that which changes, and the reasons for these changes, and not at establishing eternal truths.

What truths can history give us? The role and significance of the growth of towns in the Middle Ages for the development of military affairs. The invention of firearms. The overthrow of the feudal order and the significance of this revolution for the army, and so on.

Marxist political economy is incontestably a science, but it is not the science of how to manage a business, or how to compete on the market, or how to form trusts. It is the science of how, in a certain epoch, certain economic relations (capitalist relations) took shape, and in what consisted the internal conditioning, the law-governed character, of these relations. The economic laws established by Marx are not eternal truths but are characteristic only of a particular epoch of man’s economic development: and, in any case, they are not eternal principles such as the bourgeois Manchester school sets forth, according to which private ownership of the means of production, buying and selling, competition and so on are eternal principles of economy derived from human nature (which, however, is itself not at all eternal).

Wherein lies the basic theoretical error of the liberal Manchester school of political economy? In this, that the generalisations (laws) which define the economic practice of mankind in the epoch of commodity economy are transformed by the Manchester school into eternal principles which are supposed to govern economic activity for ever and ever.

Naturally, it is no secret even to the Manchester economists that the principles of commerce and competition did not always exist, but arose at a certain stage of development. However, the doctrinaires of Manchesterism get out of that difficulty by making the chronology of economic science begin with the origin of capitalist relations. Previously, mankind was sunk in the darkness of ignorance or in feudal barbarism, but later the truth of free trade was discovered, and this truth remains the eternal principle of human progress. For the Manchesterites their economic laws possess the same significance as the laws of chemistry. In the Middle Ages mankind was sunk in serfdom, particularism and superstition: neither the laws of chemistry nor the laws of the free market were known: later, both the former and the latter were discovered. Their objective value, their ‘eternal’ character is not compromised by the fact that people did not know about them earlier.

Doctrinaires in military matters show exactly the same attitude towards military truths. The military generalisations or, more correctly, the procedures of a particular epoch, are transformed by them into eternal truths. If people were previously ignorant of these eternal truths, so much the worse for those people, sunken in barbarism. But, as soon as discovered, they become eternal principles of the soldier’s trade. The erroneousness of such an approach becomes quite obvious if we adopt the appropriate scale. The mediaeval economy was not at all a product of ignorance: it had its own internal laws, derived from the then-existing stage of man’s technology and the class structure of society which was connected with this.

The very simple laws which determined the economic interrelations of a feudal lord, or seigneur, with his peasants, or of a craft-guildsman with his customer, are just as ‘legitimate’ from the standpoint of economic science as are the most complex laws of capitalist economy: both the former and the latter are transient in character.

The army made up of landsknechts, the standing armies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the national army called to life by the Great French Revolution, all corresponded to definite epochs of economic and political developments, based upon a certain level of technology, on which depended their structure and their methods of operation. Military history can and must establish this social conditioning of the army and of its methods. But what does military philosophy do? As a rule, it looks upon the methods and procedures of a preceding epoch as eternal truths, which have at last been discovered by mankind and which are destined to retain their significance for all times and all peoples. The discovery of these eternal truths is located, for the most part, in the Napoleonic epoch. Later, these same truths or principles are found to have been present, though in less developed form, in the operations of Hannibal and Caesar.

The mediaeval period is turned into a hiatus during which the eternal principles of war sank into oblivion, along with the science and philosophy of antiquity.

There is, however, a difference between the errors of the Manchesterites and those of the doctrinaires of the eternal principles of military science. This difference lies in the difference between the two kinds of activity. Economic relations in capitalist society take shape, as Marx put it, behind people’s backs, as a result of their ant-like economic activity, and people then find themselves confronted with already crystallised property relations which determine the relations between man and man.

In military affairs the element of planned construction, of conscious direction by man’s will finds incomparably wider application. Under capitalist relations, plan, will, calculation, supervision, initiative are applied within the limits of an individual business. The laws of the capitalist economy grow out of the mutual relations between these individual businesses: that is why they take shape ‘behind the backs’ of people. But the army is by its very nature an enterprise common to the state as a whole, and, consequently, plans and projects are here applied within a state-wide framework. This does not, of course, eliminate the decisive dependence of military matters upon the economy, but the subjective factor, in the form of the military leaders, acquires a scope which is not available in the economic sphere.

The distinction, however, is by no means absolute and unalterable. The operation of the ‘eternal’ principle of free competition led, as we know, to monopoly, to the creation of powerful national and even international trusts. The individuals at the head of these trusts obtain a scope for strategical manoeuvres which is fully comparable to the theatre of military operations in the recent great war. Naturally, Rockefeller’s scope for manifesting his ‘free will’ in the sphere of economic construction is immeasurably greater than that available to some ordinary industrialist or merchant of fifty or a hundred years ago. Rockefeller is not, however, an arbitrary violation of the Manchesterite truths, but their historical product and, at the same time, their living negation.

Every merchant-industrialist, from Gogol’s Goat-beard to cleanshaven Rockefeller, has his own petty eternal truths of commercial operations: from ‘if you don’t cheat, you don’t sell,’ and so on, up to the complicated calculations of an oil trust. Italian book-keeping is, of course, not a science but an aggregate of craft practices. It can be raised to the level of an art when it is applied on the scale of a giant trust. The procedures and practices involved in managing an industrial enterprise, the methods of supplying it with raw material, the Taylor methods of organising work, the methods of calculating prices, and so on, constitute a highly complex practical system which might even be called a ‘doctrine’, in the sense of an aggregate of those practices, procedures, methods and devices which best ensure the plundering of the market. But this, of course, is not science. To put it more simply, political economy, that is, a genuine science, studies the internal relations of capitalist society, but does not in the least indicate the ways in which one may most certainly become rich. Military history, scientifically grounded, studies the typical features of the organisation of the army and of war in each given epoch, in correlation with the social structure of society, but it does not in the least teach, nor can it teach, how to create artillery or how most certainly to gain victory.

The military art of our time is summed up in regulations. These are concentrated experience of the past coined into currency intended for use in the future. What we have here is an aggregate of the procedures of a craft, or of an art. Just as a collection of textbooks on the best ways to organise industrial enterprises, on calculation, on book-keeping, on commercial correspondence, and the rest, does not constitute the science of capitalist society, so a collection of military manuals, instructions and regulations does not constitute military science.

To convince ourselves of the great unclarity and contradictoriness that prevails in the matter of the so-called eternal principles of military affairs (also known as the laws of military science), let us take the book The Principles of War, written by the most victorious military leader of our time, Foch.

In his preface of 1905, Foch writes, on the basis of the initial data concerning the Russo-Japanese War: ‘The manoeuvring offensive eventually gets the better of every form of resistance.’ [This phrase does not appear in the English translation of Foch’s book, made in 1918. It comes in the introduction to the 1905 edition.] Foch puts this idea forward as one of the eternal truths of the military art – in contrast, by the way, to our native innovators, who perceive in the strategy of the manoeuvring offensive qualities that are specific to revolutionary warfare. We shall presently see that both parties are mistaken: Foch, who sees the manoeuvring offensive as an eternal principle, and those comrades who see in the manoeuvring offensive the specific principle of the Red Army. In the preface to the first edition of this book, Foch quotes approvingly the words of Von der Goltz: ‘Though it is true that the principles of military art are everlasting, the factors that this art deals with and has to take into account suffer a ceaseless evolution.’ [5] It is the totality of these everlasting principles of military art that constitutes the theory of war. The existence of the theory is just what, according to Foch, makes war an art. One can thus say that the theory of war is the totality of those principles which were applied in all the correct operations, violation of which led to failure, and which must be applied in all wars in epochs to come. Consequently, principles (‘everlasting’ ones) do exist which formed the basis for military operations when Troy was taken, when the cunning Greeks hid in the belly of the wooden horse, and also for the operations of our own time, when a squadron of aeroplanes unload upon a city hundreds of pounds of explosives of extraordinary destructive power, or masses of poison gas. What sort of principles are these?

It is not a question here of laws of anatomy or psychology. Unquestionably there have been no very radical changes in that connection. A Greek or a Trojan whose heart was pierced died in just the same way as one of our fighting men dies. A coward took fright and fled from the battle. An army leader encouraged his men – and so on. Man’s basic psycho-physiological and anatomical structure has not altered to any considerable extent. Needless to say, the laws of nature have remained the same. But the relations between man and nature have changed a very great deal. That artificial milieu which man interposes between himself and nature – tools, instruments, machines – has grown to such a degree as to transform completely methods of work, the organisation of work, social relations. There has undoubtedly been preserved since the days of Troy the urge among human groups (nations, classes) to exterminate, conquer and subjugate one another. The artificial milieu, or human technology, in the broad sense of the word, has transfigured war just as it has transfigured all other human relations. Undoubtedly, even in the period of the siege of Troy, this goal was being attained not by means of nails and teeth alone, but with the aid of artificial weapons which man interposed between himself and his enemy. This most general basis remains unchanged. In other words, war is a hostile encounter between human groups equipped with instruments for killing and destroying, with the direct aim of winning physical dominance over the enemy.

This definition sets the concept of war within the limits of social and historical frameworks. Pointing out the general features of war – first, the clash between groups of men; second, the use of weapons; and, third, the goal of gaining preponderance over the enemy – still does not, of course, furnish us with any principle of the military art. At. the same time, this definition sets limits to the ‘eternity’ of war itself. During that period when man had not yet learnt to fight with sticks or stones, when he was not yet organised in regularly-functioning herds (clans and tribes), there could obviously be no question of war, for a clash between two of our distant ancestors in a forest, biting through each other’s throats on account of a female, cannot be treated as belonging to the sphere of military art, illuminated by the light of ‘eternal principles’. Consequently, the eternity of the art of war must straightaway be limited, and a current accoi1nt be opened for it only from the moment when man stood firmly erect on his hind legs, armed himself with a club, and learned to act in battle, as in economic life, collectively, in troops – even though these were as yet without firmly-decided establishments.

Von der Goltz, and Foch following him, acknowledge that the factors studied by military art undergo change (the stick, the musket, the automatic rifle, the machine-gun, the cannon, and so on), but the principles of the art remain, if not eternal, then unaltered since war first began.

What, then are these principles? In his preface to the second edition of his book, Foch seems to put forward the manoeuvring offensive as the main principle. But in the first lecture he gives this answer: ‘There is, then, such a thing as the theory of war. That theory starts from a number of principles:

And, further on, in order to fortify himself (‘help thou mine unbelief’) [Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief (Mark, 924).] Foch adduces a few quotations, including the words of Marshal Bugeaud: ‘There are few absolute principles, but, still, there are some.’ [Foch, Eng. trans., p.9]

What is comprised by the first of these absolute principles, namely, the principle of economy of forces? The task of war is to destroy the enemy’s manpower. This can be achieved only by means of a blow. For this blow a concentration of one’s own forces is needed. But, before this blow can be struck, one has to find out where the enemy is, to cover oneself against an unexpected blow struck by him, to safeguard one’s lines of communication, and so on. This requires detachment of the appropriate forces to carry out reconnaissance, guard duties, and so forth. The principle of economy of forces consists in detaching from one’s main forces, in order to carry out such auxiliary and preparatory tasks, only such forces, no more and no less, as are required by the nature of these tasks; and, at the same time, ensuring that it will be possible to bring into play at the decisive moment these auxiliary detachments as well, so as to strike a concentrated blow. Foch explains that this result can be obtained only through a manoeuvring offensive carried out by the main nucleus together with the auxiliary detachments. The eternal principle of economy of forces is thus, according to Foch, characteristic only of the strategy of manoeuvre. And it is not surprising to find that he admits into the sanctuary of the art of war only manoeuvring offensive operations, holding that ‘the theories current before this time were false.’ [6] Proceeding from the manoeuvring offensive as the sole form of strategy, Foch predicts that ‘the first actions of the next war will also be the most decisive ones’ (p.10). [7] In harmony with this view, Foch draws the conclusion that ‘such a war cannot last long, it must be conducted with violence and reach its goal quickly: otherwise it will remain without result.’ (p.38)m[8]

Essentially, quoting these conclusions suffices to cause Foch’s eternal principles to look quite pathetic in the light of subsequent events. During the last war the French army – after initial and costly attempts at an offensive – went over to positional defence. The initial reverses did not at all predeter-mine the war’s outcome, as Foch had predicted. The war lasted for years. In essence, the war remained positional throughout, and was settled in the trenches. The initial period of field manoeuvres served merely to show the need to dig in. The final period of field operations merely revealed what had already been achieved in the trenches: the exhaustion of Germany’s power of resistance.

This experience is worth something. While, according to Foch, the theories that dominated the French school of war until 1883 were false, and the light of the true principles began to shine towards the end of the last century, it was revealed only a decade alter his book was written that war had developed in complete opposition to those predictions which Foch had deduced from eternal principles.

One may say, of course, that the error here is wholly an error on Foch’s part, in that he simply failed to draw the necessary conclusions from correct principles. But, in fact, if the ‘eternal’ principle of economy of forces is cleansed of Foch’s incorrect conclusions, not much is left of the principle itself. According to Foch’ s line of thought, which is here nourished mainly by the Napoleonic experience, one has first of all to track down the enemy, to protect oneself by bringing to the front, the flanks and the rear the troops needed for reconnaissance and guard purposes, and then, having defined the main direction of the blow to be struck, to subordinate all forces to the single task of a crushing offensive. Essentially, the bare principle of ‘economy’ of forces has little to do with all this. It all comes down to the pattern of Napoleon’s offensive manoeuvre, in which every other consideration is subordinated to the moment of the concentrated blow.

The principle of economy of forces thus consists in expediently distributing one’s forces between the main nucleus and the auxiliary troops, while preserving the possibility of using all of them to destroy the enemy’s manpower. However, this same Foch gives another, more concrete and particular interpretation of the principle of economy of forces, based on a well-known conversation between Bonaparte and Moreau.

On his return from Egypt, Bonaparte explained to Moreau how he had secured for himself a preponderance of forces, despite his inferior numbers, by first falling with all his forces upon one wing of the enemy, routing it, and then availing himself of the disorder thus produced in order to attack the other wing with all his forces. [Bonaparte’s conversation with Moreau is reported in Foch, Eng. trans., p.96] Does this mean that from the ‘theorem’ (as Foch expresses it) [Foch, Eng. trans, p.97] of economy of forces is to be derived the principle of successive routing of the two wings of the enemy army? Obviously not. We have here a specific case of a successful operation which is characterised by many very important elements: the number of troops involved, their armament, their morale, their disposition, the command, and so on. In the concrete circumstances, the problem was solved by Napoleon by one of the methods open to him. Its successful outcome proved that Napoleon was able, in the given instance, to make use of his forces; or, if you prefer, he used them economically; or he applied the principle of ‘economy of forces.’ And that’s all. But to interpret the principle of economy of forces in this way is merely to give a different name to the principle of expediency. This principle counsels us to act sensibly, not spending our strength in vain. That is a little bit like the ‘principles’ of Kozma Prutkov. [9] If I know nothing of military matters as such, this principle will not help me in any way. When a mathematical law states that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, I can deal with every relevant phenomenon by applying this theorem in practice. But if all I know is the ‘principle of economy of forces’, to what can I apply it? It is just a mnemonic sign which can be made use of only if one possesses all the corresponding practical knowledge and know-how. Surprise, economy of forces, freedom of action, initiative, and so on and so forth – these are essentially just mnemonic signs for use by someone who knows the soldier’s trade. The ‘free masons’ turned the signs of the mason’s craft into the symbols of Freemasonry. Similarly, in military matters, a certain accumulated experience is given a symbolic, conventional name, and that is all there is to it – nothing more.

Foch proves the absolute, or eternal, character of the principle of ‘freedom of action’ by tracing it back to Xenophon: ‘The art of war is the art of keeping one’s own freedom of action.’ But what is the content of this freedom? Above all, you must maintain freedom of initiative in relation to the enemy, that is, he must not be given the opportunity to constrain your will. In this general form the principle is quite incontestable. But it applies also to fencing, to chess, and in general to every form of two-sided sport – and, finally, to parliamentary and juridical debates. Foch later gives another interpretation to this principle, according to which freedom of action is retained only by the commander-in-chief. All the other commanders are subject to constraint, because they have to act within the framework of his tasks. Consequently, their will is constrained not only by the material situation but also by formal orders they have received. But economy of forces, or common sense, or expediency whichever you prefer – demands that the framework imposed by the supreme command on subordinate commanders shall not be too narrow. In other words, it is necessary, after setting a clearly defined goal, to leave to the subordinate commander the maximum freedom in choosing and combining means for reaching that goal. In such a general form as this the principle is again indisputable. The difficulty consists, however, in finding, when one issues an order, the limit beyond which definition of the goal becomes excessive tutelage over the choice of means. The ‘theorem’ does not in itself provide any ready-made solution here. At best it only serves to remind the commander that he has to find some solution to this problem. But even apart from this, it is quite clear that Foch gives an equivocal interpretation to the principle of freedom of action. On the one hand, it is that degree of initiative in battle which ensures the necessary independence in relation to the enemy’s will, but, on the other hand, it is a sufficiently wide freedom granted to the lower commanders, within the limits of the aims and tasks laid down by the supreme command.

Neither, the former nor the latter interpretation can, however, be called a theorem, even in the broadest meaning of that word. In mathematics we understand by a theorem a correlation of variable magnitudes which holds good under all quantitative changes in these magnitudes. In other words, the equivalence is not disturbed, whatever arithmetical figures may be substituted for the algebraic terms designating the magnitudes. But what does the principle of economy of forces signify? Or the principle of freedom of action? Is this really a theorem which would enable one, by substituting concrete magnitudes, to draw correct practical conclusions? Not at all. If we try to invest this principle with truly ‘absolute’ meaning, that is, to raise it to the level of a theorem, what we get is an indisputable commonplace such as: it is necessary to use all forces expediently; it is necessary to retain one’s initiative for action; it is necessary to issue orders that are expedient, or realisable, and therefore to avoid including in them any superfluous conditions, and so forth. In this form these are not at all military principles, but axioms of all purposive human activity in general.

In point of fact, however, these and similar principles are given by military theoreticians a more concrete interpretation, that is, these principles are made to include (either frankly or surreptitiously) regiments, corps and armies with a specific structure and armament, which operate on the basis of numerous regulations and instructions that sum up the experience of the past. In this form there is nothing eternal about these eternal principles, and they in no way resemble theorems, but are the conventional denominations of certain procedures, empirical practices, positive and negative experiences, and so on. Essentially, no military theoreticians escape from the framework of this contradiction: in order to demonstrate the eternal character of the principles of the military art, they throw out the entire ‘ballast’ of living historical experience and reduce them to pleonasms, to commonplaces, Euclidean postulates, axioms of logic, and so on. On the other hand, in order to demonstrate the importance of these principles for military affairs, they stuff these principles with the content of a particular epoch, a specific stage in the development of an army or in the development of military affairs, and, thereby, these principles are invested with the character of useful practical ‘cribs’ to help the memory. These are not scientific generalisations but practical directives, not theorems but regulations. They are not eternal but temporary. Their significance is all the greater the less absolute they are, that is, the more they are filled with the concrete content of a particular period of military affairs, its vital peculiarities in organisation, technique and so on. They are not absolute, but conditional. They constitute not a branch of science but a practical guide to an art. Frederick’s statement that ‘war is a science for the outstanding, an art for the mediocre, and a craft for the ignorant’ is wrong. There is not and cannot be a science of war, in the precise meaning of that word. There is an art of war. However, a craft, a trade, also presupposes an apprenticeship, and he who has been apprenticed to a trade is no ignoramus. It would be more correct to say that war is a craft, a trade, for an average man, and an art for an outstanding man. As for the ignorant man, he is only the raw material for war, its cannon-fodder, and not at all a craftsman.

The attempt to eternalise the principles of Napoleon proved, as we have seen, unfounded. This was shown by the imperialist war. It could not have been otherwise, if only because the wars of the Revolution, like Napoleonic wars which grew out of them, were marked by the immense moral and political preponderance of the revolutionary people of France and their army over all the rest of Europe. The French took the offensive on behalf of a new idea which was bound up with the powerful interests of the masses. The armies opposed to them put up only a diffident defence of the old order. But during the recent imperialist war neither side was the bearer of a new principle, incarnated in a new revolutionary class. The war was imperialistic on both sides. But, at the same time, the existence of both sides, and especially of Germany and of France, was equally threatened. No swift blow was struck, such as might have immediately caused demoralisation and dejection in the opposing camp, nor could it have been struck, given the great human and material strength of both camps, which gradually moved up all their forces and resources. For this reason the initial battles, contrary to Foch’s forecasts, did not at all pre-determine the outcome of the war. For this reason, too, offensives broke against offensives, and the armies, each relying more and more on its rear, dug themselves into the ground. For this very same reason, the war lasted a long time – until the material and moral resources of one side were exhausted. The imperialist war thus ran its course, from beginning to end, in violation of the ‘eternal’ principle of the manoeuvring offensive, as proclaimed by Foch. This circumstance is only further emphasised by the fact that Foch proved to be the victor against his own principle. To explain this we must remember that, while Foch’s principles were against him, the British and American soldiers and, especially, the Anglo-American shells, tanks and aeroplanes, were for him.

One may, of course, say that the principle of economy of forces remains valid for positional warfare as well, for in this case, too, there must be an expedient distribution of forces between the units in the front line and the various categories held in reserve. That is quite indisputable. But, with such a general interpretation, not even a trace remains of the schema whereby forces are distributed with a view to striking a concentrated offensive blow. The ‘eternal’ principle dissolves into a commonplace. In positional, defensive and offensive wars, as well as in wars of manoeuvre, it is necessary to have an expedient and economic distribution of forces, determined by the task in hand. It is quite obvious that this ‘eternal principle’ applies in war just as in industry and in commerce. One must always use one’s forces economically, that is, obtain the maximum results from the minimum expenditure of energy. All mankind’s development is based on this ‘eternal’ principle, and technology first and foremost: it was for this reason that man took to using a stone axe, a club, and so forth – because he thus obtained the greatest results from the least expenditure of effort. Precisely for this reason was it that man progressed from the club to the pike and the sword, from them to the musket and the bayonet, and later to the cannon, etc. For this same reason he is now going over to the electric plough. The eternal principle of war thus amounts to the ‘principle’ which is the driving force of all human development. As for the concrete interpretation given by Foch to the principle of economy of forces, this proved to be an unfounded attempt to invest with an absolute character the Napoleonic offensive manoeuvre resulting in a concentrated blow.

And so, in so far as the principle of economy of forces is ‘eternal’, there is nothing military about it. And, in so far as it is given a military interpretation, there is nothing eternal about it, either.

But why does this talk of ‘eternal’ principles so stubbornly persist? Because, as has already been said, at the basis there is man. Human qualities undergo little change. Anatomical, physiological, psychological qualities change very slowly, as compared with changes in social forms. The correlation of man’s hands and feet and the structure of his head remains in our epoch, more or less the same as in the epoch of Aristotle. We know that Marx read Aristotle with enjoyment. And if it were possible, having transferred Aristotle to our epoch, to offer him Marx’s books to read, he would in all likelihood understand them excellently.

Man’s anatomical and psycho-physical make-up is far more stable than social forms are. Corresponding to this fact, there are two aspects to military affairs. There is the individual aspect, which finds expression in certain practices and procedures, determined, to a large extent, by man’s biological nature, which, though not eternal, is stable: and there is the collective-historical aspect, which depends on the way that man engaged in war is organised socially. But it is precisely this latter factor which is decisive, because war begins when a socially-organised armed man enters into combat with another socially-organised armed man. Otherwise it would be just a squabble between animals.

Comrade Lukirsky approached the problem in this way. On the one hand, there is experience, empirical investigation – an imperfect method. On the other hand there is ‘pure reason’, which arrives deductively, by means of logical procedures, at ‘absolute’ conclusions, and thereby enriches military matters. As a materialist I am used to regarding reason as an organ developed by historical man in the process of his adaptation to nature. I cannot counterpose reason to matter. I cannot agree to think that reason can give birth to anything that material experience has not already provided. Our reason merely co-ordinates and combines conclusions drawn from our practice: from ‘pure’ reason man can extract nothing new, nothing he has not absorbed from experience. Experience does not, of course, ‘take shape’ mechanically – an order is introduced into it which corresponds to the order of the phenomena themselves, and leads to cognition of the laws that govern these phenomena. But to suppose that reason can engender by itself, arbitrarily, a conclusion which has not been prepared and grounded in experience – that is absolutely wrong. And, since this is so, there cannot be, either, two sorts of principles, the practical and the eternal.

Let me conclude with this. We have already had one discussion about ‘military doctrine’, and today we reached the ultimate heights of philosophy. The time has come to begin the downward climb and to apply ourselves to practical study. We once planned to bring out a Compendium for the Section Commander, but nothing has come of that so far. Which is it harder to write – abstract theses, or a compendium for the section commander? The latter task is a hundred times harder; but, as against that, it is a thousand times more fruitful. I will make use of this large gathering, the presence of many competent workers, to put forward once again my proposal that we produce some general directives for the section commander – a little standard work, a Science of Victory. It would be an excellent school for all of us if we were to set down our experience of war in the form of such clear and distinct rules that a section commander could not only read them but also learn them by heart.

Out of the very same bricks one can build a factory, a dwelling-house or a temple. The only requirement is that the bricks be made of good material and properly baked. The very same regiments, with identical training, and under uniform circumstances, can be deployed and utilised for the most diverse strategical and tactical tasks. All that is required is that the basic cell, the section, be viable and resilient. And for that we need a conscious section-commander who knows his job and knows his own worth. Our task of tasks now consists in educating such section commanders. Educating a proletarian section-commander does not at all mean implanting in his mind the idea that, hitherto, there have been bourgeois tactics, but now the time has come for proletarian tactics. No, such training would lead him astray. Creating a proletarian section commander means helping the section commander of today to acquire at least that sum of knowledge and practices which his equivalent in the bourgeois armies possesses, so that he may consciously use this knowledge and these practices in the interests of the working class.


1. The stenogram of this speech was preserved in highly incomplete form. Correcting it presented great difficulty. However, found among my old papers some fairly extensive notes for an article, which I never finished on the same subject: military science, military art, eternal laws, Marxism, and so on. This article, which remained unfinished and unpublished, was written soon after this meeting of the Military Science Society at which I made the speech printed here. I have used my old notes to replace certain obscure passages in the stenogram. This has given the work somewhat more polish, and I consider it publishable in this form. [Note by Trotsky]

2. The reference is to the articles in the periodical Krasnaya Armiya, No.12, March 1922: On a Certain Theoretical Passion and Concerning Kvarin’s Article.

3. The controversy had been about whether military matters constituted a science (nauka) or an art (iskusstvo).

4. Engels mentions Marx’s ‘All I know is that I’m no Marxist!’ in a letter to Paul Lafargue, August 27, 1890 (Correspondence of F. Engels with P. and L. Lafargue, Vol.II, 1960, p.386).

5. English translation of Foch’s book. The Von der Goltz quoted is Field-Marshal Colmar von der Goltz, 1843-1916, who wrote several books (of which The Nation in Arms and The Conduct of War were translated into English), reorganised the Turkish Army, and died while commanding Turkish troops against the British in Mesopotamia.

6. This phrase referring to the period ended in 1883, is omitted in the English translation. It appears on page 2 of the 3rd edition of the original (Des principes de la guerre).

7. Foch, Eng. trans., p.%. (The English translation, published in 1918, has a footnote: ‘Words written before the Great War of 1914.’

8. Foch, Eng. trans., p.39. In his 1918 preface to the English translation of his book, Foch noted that the machine-gun and barbed wire gave new advantages to the defence, but that the attacker overcame these by means of the tank.

9. ‘Kozma Prutkov’, a fictional character invented in the 1860s by A.K. Tolstoy and the brothers A.M. and B.M. Zhemchuzhnikov, was a self-satisfied civil servant who fancied himself as a philosopher and uttered ‘aphorisms’ of the utmost banality as though they were pearls of wisdom.

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Last updated on: 31.12.2006