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Engels on war



In Anti-Dühring Engels is keen to emphasise that victory in war depends on economic superiority; and this is not just a Marxist point but rather was the opinion formed by contemporary military theorists and, indeed, theorists right down to today—and even right-wing military theorists such as JFC Fuller think this is so.


We can see this play out in the war between the Ukraine and Russia: the Ukraine is supported by the world’s economic colossus (US and her European empire) whereas Russia’s economy, even her military spending, is comparatively tiny. Therefore, the Ukrainians will win. The war replicates the old left-right divide in warfare where the right has strong individual berserker soldiers with an aristocratic mien and the left has a modern mediocre but well-supplied and disciplined army: Cavaliers versus Roundheads, Confederates versus the Union, and the Wagner Group versus the Ukrainian army.


Russia’s Wagner Group may well be impressive maverick individualist warriors but they will be ground down by the Ukraine’s disciplined citizen army that is mediocre in the whole but knows how to apply pressure with mechanical efficiency in situations where the individual “aristocratic” soldier loses the initiative. In addition, the Ukrainians are inspired by a democratic-nationalist ideology that tells them they fight “for the nation” whereas Wagner, as with the Confederates who fought for “property”, fights for financial interest. Combine democratic discipline with huge financial resources and victory is assured. The exceptions to these situations occur when a democratic army is hamstrung by its own humanitarian precepts, as in Afghanistan, and so is outmanoeuvred by barbarians (the Taliban).


However, Engels made a mistake in the way he thought about war. He thought about it, ironically, in a non-dialectical way—his thought is non-holistic; and that was because the materialist theory of history demanded that economics dictated everything. Engels grants that an individual soldier might innovate on the field and his innovations be adapted, carried up into the wider economic system, but he grants no importance to the individual himself; it’s just written off as “the economic system” at work.


The example I pick in recent times in this regard is the way the Ukrainians have adapted commercial drones—sometimes basically toys—into anti-personnel weapons. This is what Engels means by the way an ordinary soldier can force military innovation, quite contrary to moribund military authority. These jerry-rigged anti-personnel drones have already been noticed by the economic colossus and by the next war will appear in a refined and mass-produced form.


Engels is not dialectical in his thought: the individual is important—someone has to have the idea to make crude anti-personnel drones, and that requires individual genius; it’s not connected to the economy, to the military organisation itself, or society. Now, it doesn’t happen in isolation, the individual interpenetrates and interdepends on his society—yet for Engels it’s all “just economics”; and it has to be that way for him—otherwise Marxism isn’t true (which it isn’t). To admit other factors, such as initiative, introduces a non-materialist aspect to the theory and so they have to be automatically discounted; yet the fact remains that the individual innovation picked up by the whole economic machine comes from an individual and comes from an idea.


So contrary to Engels and the military theorists war is not just decided by economics; victory in war depends on unique individuals whose innovations (bravery, initiative) are recognised and utilised by the wider whole. War can neither be seen as a purely economic activity nor as a purely aristocratic “cavalier” activity; and to look at it in a one-sided way leads to errors like Marxism. On the other side, reactionary people are wrong to view war as a purely aristocratic activity that can be carried on through initiative, “will”, or extreme courage—and to think that way will lead to defeat; and the counterpart to this view can be found in the purely economic democracy that discounts individual initiative and invention in order to concentrate on discipline and mass.


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