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Critical Sociology


Rethinking War of Maneuver/War of Position: Gramsci and the Military Metaphor

Daniel Egan
Crit Sociol 2014 40: 521 originally published online 20 March 2013
DOI: 10.1177/0896920513480222

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Critical Sociology
2014, Vol. 40(4) 521538
Rethinking War of Maneuver/War The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0896920513480222
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Daniel Egan
University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA

One of the most important components of Antonio Gramscis social theory is his discussion of
political strategy, particularly his distinction between war of maneuver and war of position. For
Gramsci, the classical model of revolution through military insurrection (war of maneuver) has
been supplanted within advanced capitalism by a cultural struggle of much longer duration and
complexity (war of position). Despite the significance of Gramscis analysis of war of maneuver/
war of position for contemporary Marxism, it is striking that so little attention has been paid to
these terms. These terms have a history, both in military theory and in Marxism, which predates
Gramscis prison notebooks. An examination of the military writings of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky,
which are grounded more directly on military theory, leads to different conclusions about the
nature of political strategy and the relationship between war of maneuver and war of position.

Marxism, neo-Marxism, radical social theory, left politics, political sociology

There can be little doubt as to the significance of Antonio Gramsci in contemporary social thought.
His contributions to sociology, political philosophy and cultural studies make him one of the most
important representatives of the neo-Marxist perspective. Gramscis contributions have not been
limited to Marxist social theory, but extend more broadly. Indeed, Thomas states that [a]rguably,
Gramsci is today a more popular theorist in mainstream academic debates than any other thinker
from the Marxist tradition, Marx and Engels themselves not excluded (Thomas, 2010: 199). One
of the most important components of Gramscis social theory is his discussion of political strat-
egy, particularly his distinction between war of maneuver and war of position. For Gramsci,
the classical model of revolution through military insurrection (war of maneuver) has been sup-
planted within advanced capitalism by a cultural struggle of much longer duration and complexity

Corresponding author:
Daniel Egan, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 883 Broadway Street, Lowell, MA, 01854, USA.
Email: Daniel_Egan@uml.edu

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522 Critical Sociology 40(4)

(war of position). This argument has become a central feature of western Marxisms shift of focus
away from the political economy of capitalism and toward analysis of cultural superstructures
(Anderson, 1979).
Despite the significance for contemporary Marxism of Gramscis analysis of war of maneuver/
war of position, it is striking that so little attention has been paid to these terms. Scholars have
assumed implicitly that war of maneuver/war of position are themselves Gramscian terms, or at
least that Gramscis use of these terms is unproblematic. In fact, these terms have a history that
precedes Gramsci, both in their original military context and in Marxism. There is an extensive
Marxist literature on war, ranging from the classical works of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to more
contemporary works by Mao Zedong (Mao, 1963), Vo Nguyen Giap (Giap, 1970), Che Guevara
(Guevara, 2006), Rgis Debray (Debray, 1967), Tito (Tito, 1966) and Kwame Nkrumah (Nkrumah,
1968) as well as an extensive literature from Soviet military theorists (see, for example, Byely
et al., 1972). This article focuses on those Marxists who were most contemporaneous with Gramsci:
Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. An examination of this literature reveals a very different understanding
of war of maneuver/war of position from that offered by Gramsci. This alternative interpretation
not only is grounded more directly on military theory itself, it also leads to different conclusions
about the nature of political strategy and the relationship between war of maneuver and war of

Gramsci and the Military Metaphor

For Gramsci, the use of the military metaphor in his analysis of revolutionary political strategy
flows from the complex interrelationship between war and politics. On the one hand, every politi-
cal struggle always has a military substratum (Gramsci, 1971: 230). At the same time, however,
to fix ones mind on the military model is the mark of a fool: politics, here too, must have priority
over its military aspect and only politics creates the possibility for maneuver and movement
(Gramsci, 1971: 232). Having justified the use of war as a metaphor for politics, though, Gramsci
warns us not to take this too far. The military metaphor is a useful tool for analysis, no more:
comparisons between military art and politics, if made, should always be taken cum grano salis
[with a pinch of salt] in other words, as stimuli to thought, or as terms in a reductio ad absurdum
(Gramsci, 1971: 231).
Gramscis analysis of war of maneuver/war of position is most often associated with the geo-
graphic distinction between East and West:

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a
proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil
society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful
system of fortresses and earthworks. (Gramsci, 1971: 238)

With a relatively underdeveloped civil society, revolutionary strategy in the East required a direct
frontal assault against the principal form of bourgeois political power: the state. Gramsci provides
a description of this strategy in the context of his critique of Rosa Luxemburgs The General Strike,
which Gramsci calls one of the most significant documents theorizing the war of maneuver in
relation to political science (Gramsci, 1971: 233). He states,

The immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in
the enemys defenses a breach sufficient for ones own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic)

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Egan 523

victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line. Naturally the effects of immediate
economic factors in historical science are held to be far more complex than the effects of heavy artillery in
a war of maneuver, since they are conceived of as having a double effect: 1. they breach the enemys
defenses, after throwing him in disarray and causing him to lose faith in himself, his forces, and his future;
2. in a flash they organize ones own troops and create the necessary cadres or at least in a flash they put
the existing cadres (formed, until that moment, by the general historical process) in positions which enable
them to encadre ones scattered forces; 3. in a flash they bring about the necessary ideological concentration
on the common objective to be achieved. This view was a form of iron economic determinism, with the
aggravating factor that it was conceived of as operating with lightning speed in time and space. It was thus
out and out historical mysticism, the awaiting of a sort of miraculous illumination. (Gramsci, 1971: 233)

In the West, however, with its more fully developed civil society, such a direct, lightning frontal
assault against the state would likely fail. In this case, revolutionary strategy must be a slower,
more protracted process of siege warfare, in which subordinate classes wear away the existing civil
society and, through their self-organization, create a new one:

in politics the war of position, once won, is decisive definitively. In politics, in others words, the war of
maneuver subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the
resources of the States hegemony cannot be mobilized. But when, for one reason or another, these
positions have lost their value and only the decisive positions are at stake, then one passes over to siege
warfare; this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness. In
politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster
all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary. (Gramsci, 1971: 239)

In addition, there is also a temporal aspect to the war of maneuver/war of position distinction.
While a strategy of war of maneuver may have been relevant in an earlier stage of history in the
West, Gramsci argues that this is no longer the case:

Political concept of the so-called Permanent Revolution, which emerged before 1848 as a scientifically
evolved expression of the Jacobin experience from 1789 to Thermidor. The formula belongs to an historical
period in which the great mass political parties and the great economic trade unions did not yet exist, and
society was still, so to speak, in a state of fluidity from many points of view: greater backwardness of the
countryside, and almost complete monopoly of political and State power by a few cities or even by a single
one (Paris in the case of France); a relatively rudimentary State apparatus, and greater autonomy of civil
society from the State activity; a specific system of military forces and of national armed services; greater
autonomy of the national economies from the economic relations of the world market, etc. In the period after
1870, with the colonial expansion of Europe, these elements change: the internal and international
organizational relations of the State become more complex and massive, and the Forty-Eightist formula of
the Permanent Revolution is expanded and transcended in political science by the formula of civil
hegemony. The same thing happens in the art of politics as happens in military art: war of movement
increasingly becomes war of position, and it can be said that a State will win a war in so far as it prepares for
it minutely and technically in peacetime. The massive structures of the modern democracies, both as State
organizations, and as complexes of associations of civil society, constitute for the art of politics as it were
the trenches and the permanent fortifications of the front in the war of position: they render merely partial
the element of movement which before used to be the whole of war, etc. (Gramsci, 1971: 242243)

In the past, strategy was defined by the war of movement, with war of position relegated to tactical
uses such as siege warfare. By the late 19th century, however, the relative status of these had
switched; war of position had become strategic, and war of movement had become more tactical.
Gramsci also suggests that with the rise of Soviet power in Russia in 1917, there had been a shift

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524 Critical Sociology 40(4)

to the war of position in the East as well. His critique of Trotskys theory of permanent revolution
sees it as a reflection of the general-economic-cultural-social conditions in a country in which the
structures of national life are embryonic and loose, and incapable of becoming trench or fortress
(Gramsci, 1971: 236). For Gramsci, Trotsky is the political theorist of the frontal attack in a period
in which it only leads to defeats (Gramsci, 1971: 238). In contrast, Gramsci sees Lenin as properly
shifting strategy from the war of maneuver to the war of position with the formula of the United
Front (Gramsci, 1971: 237).

Classical Marxist Writings on War and the Military

Femia identifies Machiavelli as the inspiration for Gramscis use of military metaphors, but takes
this no further (Femia, 1987: 260n); otherwise, Gramscian scholars have taken Gramscis use of
military concepts at face value. While Gramscis understanding of war of maneuver/war of posi-
tion is clearly influenced by his reading of Machiavelli, especially the latters Art of War
(Machiavelli, 2001), it is striking that these terms are not found in Machiavellis text. There is,
however, a literature in which these terms are more prominent classical Marxism. The most
important statements of a Marxist theory of war that are relevant for a critical understanding of
Gramscis social theory come in the writings of Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon
Engels had a longstanding interest in military matters, stemming in part from his own experi-
ence of military service as an artilleryman and of barricade fighting during the 1848 revolution
(Achcar, 2002; Berger, 1977). In addition, Engels made extensive study of the major 19th century
military theorists, particularly Carl von Clausewitz (Von Clausewitz, 1982) and Antoine Henri
Jomini (Jomini, 1977), both of whom developed a theory of modern warfare based on Napoleons
military campaigns. Clausewitz and Jomini both saw Napoleon as revolutionizing the art of war,
moving away from what Jomini called the system of positions (Jomini, 1977: 123, emphasis in the
original) that is, a war of position with armies in tents, with their supplies at hand, engaged in
watching each other; one besieging a city, the other covering it; one, perhaps, endeavoring to
acquire a small province, the other counteracting its efforts by occupying strong points (Jomini,
1977: 123) to a war of maneuver based on speed and the concentration of forces against the deci-
sive point in the enemys forces. In their emphasis on taking the offensive, neither Clausewitz nor
Jomini rejected defensive war, but they distinguished between passive defense which, by leaving
the initiative with the enemy, was to be avoided, and active defense, in which defense was orga-
nized so as to shift to the offensive at the appropriate moment.
Engels agreed, stating that as far as the modern art of war is concerned, it has been completely
developed by Napoleon (Engels, 1975: 547). According to Engels, the transition from war of posi-
tion to war of maneuver was the result of two major forces (Engels, 1939), one of which took place
over centuries and the other a more conjunctural factor. First, the development of firearms was
instrumental in this transition. Arquebuses could only be fired from a stationary position, and while
the later development of the flintlock musket allowed for more mobility, the slow rate and inac-
curacy of fire required organizing soldiers in tight lines that could move only as a whole and very
slowly over level ground; likewise, while the development of artillery changed dramatically the
balance of forces in siege warfare, its size and weight rendered it largely immobile during combat.
Engels points to the development of the rifle, with its greater accuracy, and the development of
lighter gun carriages as providing the opportunity for a military strategy based on speed, mobility,
and taking the offensive. Second, the specific nature of the French Revolution led to the transition
to a war of maneuver. The leve en masse which replaced the royalist army after the revolution was

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relatively untrained, and so the earlier tight organization of troops was not possible. Because the
revolutionary army lacked the supplies (tents, provisions, etc.) which in the past were carried along
with the troops, troops bivouacked or were quartered in towns, thereby increasing significantly
their mobility. As a result, troops could move more quickly over any kind of ground, and could
combine the deployment of troops in more mobile columns with skirmishing tactics.
Engelss analysis of modern warfare had important implications for his analysis of revolu-
tion. In the context of the 1848 revolutions, a strategy of insurrection is grounded in a war of

insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which,
when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from
the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple
that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never
play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is
a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed
to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority; unless you bring strong
odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act
with the greatest determination and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed uprising;
it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are
scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendency which the first
successful uprising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the
strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they
can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy
yet known, de laudace, de laudace, encore de laudace! (Engels, 1969: 100)

By the time he wrote the introduction to Marxs Class Struggles in France 1848-1850 (Marx,
1964) in 1895, however, Engels had modified his analysis of revolutionary strategy. The insurrec-
tionary tactics of 1848 were no longer applicable, he argued, as developments in military tech-
nology, urban space, transportation, etc. made the advantages of organized militaries over
revolutionaries even greater. As a result, [t]he mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete from
every point of view (Marx, 1964: 13):

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of
unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization,
the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they
are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that
the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work
which we are now pursuing, and with a success that drives the enemy to despair. (Marx, 1964: 25)

Instead of directly confronting the bourgeois military through a frontal attack, Engels argued that
a long process of undermining the military from within was necessary before such a frontal attack
could succeed. This explains Engels support for general military conscription in Germany; not
only would workers acquire the necessary military skills and training to fight effectively when the
frontal attack occurs, but also a military that has been thoroughly permeated by the working class
will more likely refuse to turn its guns on the workers. Engels does not see this long, protracted
struggle as eliminating the need for armed struggle, however:

Does this mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that
the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the

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526 Critical Sociology 40(4)

military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated
by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its
further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. (Marx, 1964: 2425)

In other words, a political war (war of position) is necessary to make the subsequent use of barri-
cade fighting (war of maneuver) effective (Draper and Haberkern, 2005); revolutionaries must not
fritter away this daily increasing shock force in advance guard fighting, but keep it intact until
the day of the decision (Engels, 1969: 27, emphasis added).
Lenin read Clausewitzs On War in 1915 while in exile in Switzerland and took extensive notes
from the book (Davis and Kohn, 1977). While Lenins notebook contains references to Clausewitzs
discussion of military technique, his major interest lies in Clausewitzs assertion that War is a
mere continuation of policy by other means (Von Clausewitz, 1982: 119):1

Applied to wars, the main thesis of dialectics so shamelessly distorted by Plekhanov to please the bourgeoisie
consists in this, that war is nothing but a continuation of political relations by other [i.e. forcible] means.
This formula belongs to Clausewitz, one of the greatest writers on the history of war . And this was
always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who looked upon every war as a continuation of the politics of
given interested nations and various classes inside of them at a given time. (Lenin, 1930: 18)

For this reason, Lenin criticized those in the socialist movement who called for disarmament
and pacifism and who, in their critique of militarism, failed to identify the specific class nature of
capitalist militarism: we cannot rule out the possibility of revolutionary wars, i.e. wars arising
from the class struggle, wars waged by revolutionary classes, wars which are of direct and immedi-
ate revolutionary significance (Lenin, 1964b: 399). Furthermore,

the victory of socialism in one country does not at one stroke eliminate all war in general. On the contrary,
it presupposes wars. The development of capitalism proceeds extremely unevenly in different countries. It
cannot be otherwise under commodity production. From this it follows irrefutably that socialism cannot
achieve victory simultaneously in all countries. It will achieve victory first in one or several countries,
while the others will for some time remain bourgeois or pre-bourgeois. This is bound to create not only
friction, but a direct attempt on the part of the bourgeoisie of other countries to crush the socialist states
victorious proletariat. In such cases a war on our part would be a legitimate and just war. It would be a war
for socialism, for the liberation of other nations from the bourgeoisie. (Lenin, 1964c: 79)

Lenin thus argues that, rather than being a dramatic break from the politics of class struggle, revo-
lutionary wars and wars in defense of socialism represent a continuation of that struggle by other
In addition, Lenins embrace of Clausewitz is the foundation for a periodization of wars within
capitalism that mirrors that of Engels. From the French Revolution beginning in 1789 to the defeat
of the Paris Commune in 1871, wars were of a bourgeois-progressive, national-liberating charac-
ter (Lenin, 1976: 5). As a result, during such wars, all honest, revolutionary democrats, and also
all Socialists, always sympathized with the success of that country (i.e. with that bourgeoisie),
which had helped to overthrow, or sap, the most dangerous foundations of feudalism, absolutism
and the oppression of other nations (Lenin, 1976: 5). In doing so, these wars prepared the ground
for the eventual development of proletarian revolution. With the rise of imperialism, however,
capitalism ceased to be progressive and became reactionary, and so the nature of war changed: the
specific feature of imperialist war [is] war between reactionary-bourgeois, historically obsolete
governments, waged for the purpose of oppressing other nations (Lenin, 1976: 13). The correct
position for socialists in this context can only be to oppose imperialist war and convert the impe-
rialist war into civil war (Lenin, 1976: 25).

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Egan 527

Clausewitzs discussion of military technique is secondary for Lenin, although it is clear that his
writings on the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 reflect Engelss reading of Clausewitzs focus on the
war of maneuver:

No Social-Democrat at all familiar with history, who has studied Engels, the great expert on this subject,
has ever doubted the tremendous importance of military knowledge, of military technique, and of military
organization as an instrument which the masses of the people, and classes of the people, use in resolving
great historical conflicts. (Lenin, 1965c: 565)

Lenin cites approvingly Engels statement that insurrection is an art (Lenin, 1964a) and adds

the principal rule of this art is a desperately bold and irrevocably determined offensive. We have not
sufficiently assimilated this truth. We have not sufficiently learned, nor have we taught the masses this art
and this rule to attack at all costs. We must make up for this with all our energy. It is not enough to rally
round political slogans, we must also rally round the question of an armed uprising We must proclaim
from the housetops the necessity of a bold offensive and armed attack, the necessity of exterminating at
such times the persons in command of the enemy and of a most energetic fight for the wavering troops.
(Lenin, 1934: 3839)

Lenin stresses the importance of workers acquiring military training and weapons, organizing
fighting detachments capable of mobile action, etc. Armed struggle, though, by itself is inadequate
there must be political coordination of guerrilla action with other forms of struggle:

the party of the proletariat can never regard guerrilla warfare as the only, or even as the chief, method of
struggle; it means that this method must be subordinated to other methods, that it must be commensurate
with the chief methods of warfare, and must be ennobled by the enlightening and organizing influence of
socialism. (Lenin, 1965b: 221)

For Lenin, as with Engels, war is not an isolated military activity, but instead reflects, and must
reflect, the politics of class struggle.
With the rise of Soviet power in 1917 and the subsequent civil war and Allied intervention,
Lenin acknowledged that revolutionary strategy had to change:

Everyone will agree that an army which does not train itself to wield all arms, all the means and methods
of warfare that the enemy possesses, or may possess, behaves in an unwise or even in a criminal manner.
But this applies to politics even more than it does to war. In politics it is harder to forecast what methods
of warfare will be applicable and useful to us under certain future conditions. Unless we master all means
of warfare, we may suffer grave and even decisive defeat if changes in the position of the other classes that
do not depend on us bring to the forefront forms of activity in which we are particularly weak. (Lenin,
1940: 7677)

Left Communist critics of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which officially ended war with Germany,
had argued for the continuation of offensive war in defense of the socialist fatherland. In contrast,
Lenin argued that the civil war and Allied intervention against the new Soviet power required a
shift from a war of maneuver to a war of position:

When we were the representatives of an oppressed class we did not adopt a frivolous attitude towards
defense of the fatherland in an imperialist war. We opposed such defense on principle. Now that we have
become representatives of the ruling class, which has begun to organize socialism, we demand that
everybody adopt a serious attitude towards defense of the country. And adopting a serious attitude towards
defense of the country means thoroughly preparing for it, and strictly calculating the balance of forces. If

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528 Critical Sociology 40(4)

our forces are obviously small, the best means of defense is retreat into the interior of the country (anyone
who regards this as an artificial formula, made up to suit the needs of the moment, should read old
Clausewitz, one of the greatest authorities on military matters, concerning the lessons of history to be
learned in this connection). (Lenin, 1965a: 332, emphasis in the original)

For Lenin, the Left Communists continued devotion to a war of maneuver, given the new bal-
ance of forces, was ridiculous in the extreme (Lenin, 1940: 52).
Leon Trotsky, the architect of the Red Army, provides the most extensive set of military writings
within Marxism; Gat argues that Trotskys articulation of the Marxist position regarding the nature
of military theory has no equal (Gat, 1992: 373). Trotsky, like Lenin, saw the necessity for armed
insurrection given the specific historical conditions that characterized Russia: insurrection, armed
insurrection was inevitable from our point of view. It was and remains a historical necessity in
the process of the peoples struggle against the military and police state (Trotsky, 1971: 394).
While Trotsky does not use the term war of maneuver in this context, it is clear that this is implicit
in his discussion of armed insurrection. Since revolutionary situations are short-lived, it is essential
that revolutionaries take the offensive and strike quickly and unrelentingly: attack is the only
proper method for military risings: attack without any interruptions that might engender hesitation
and disorder (Trotsky, 1971: 209). Trotsky takes this further, however, by suggesting that instead
of a clear temporal distinction between war of maneuver and war of position, the war of maneuver
(insurrection) contains within it a war of position:

The first task of every insurrection is to bring the troops over to its side. The chief means of accomplishing this
are the general strike, mass processions, street encounters, battles at the barricades. The unique thing about the
October revolution, a thing never before observed in so complete a form, was that, thanks to a happy
combination of circumstances, the proletarian vanguard had won over the garrison of the capital before the
moment of open insurrection,. It had not only won them over, but had fortified this conquest through the
organization of the Garrison Conference. It is impossible to understand the mechanics of the October revolution
without fully realizing that the most important task of the insurrection, and one of the most difficult to calculate
in advance, was fully accomplished in Petrograd before the beginning of the armed struggle.

This does not mean, however, that insurrection had become superfluous. The overwhelming majority of
the garrison was, it is true, on the side of the workers. But a minority was against the workers, against the
revolution, against the Bolsheviks. This small minority consisted of the best trained elements in the army:
the officers, the junkers, the shock battalions, and perhaps the Cossacks. It was impossible to win these
elements politically; they had to be vanquished. The last part of the task of the revolution, that which has
gone into history under the name of the October insurrection, was therefore purely military in character.
At this final stage rifles, bayonets, machine guns, and perhaps cannon, were to decide. (Trotsky, 1980:

That is, the successful use of military force in an insurrection requires the winning over of the army
to the revolution; once this has taken place, the war of maneuver can be decisive.
Trotsky, like Lenin, sees Clausewitz as important for his emphasis on the political nature of war:

There is a prejudice, or, at least, something that takes the outward form of a prejudice, not always sincere,
that the army, the science of war, the art of war and the institutions of war can stand outside politics. That is
not true. It never was true. It is not the case anywhere, and never will be the case anywhere. One of the
greatest theoreticians of military matters, the German Clausewitz, wrote that war is the continuation of
politics by other means. In other words, war, too, is politics, realized through the harsh means of blood and
iron. And that is true. War is politics, and the army is the instrument of this politics. (Trotsky, 1979b: 211)

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Egan 529

In discussing the need to create a Workers and Peasants Red Army, he states that the famous
German theoretician of war, Clausewitz, said, War is the continuation of politics, but only by other
means that is, the army of a particular country is subordinate to the politics of that country.

From this it is clear that the army of Tsardom was nothing but an armed force adapted to the service of the
interests of Tsardom and carrying out precisely the politics of Tsardom. (Trotsky, 1979d: 412)

With the rise of Soviet power, the Tsarist army was dismantled and a new, workers and peas-
ants army created: Since the working class has taken power, it must, obviously, create its own
army, its own armed organ [It must] build the army on class principles (Trotsky, 1979a: 134
135, emphasis in the original). This meant an army made of only workers and peasants, one based
simultaneously on the elimination of the old forms of discipline and hierarchy and on the develop-
ment of a revolutionary discipline based on solidarity. Trotsky saw such an army as not being
simply a reflection of these class principles, but also a means of building and strengthening these
principles throughout Soviet society: The army and the people must be brought close together. In
the actual process of production the people must be brought closer to the army, while the army is
brought closer to the labor-process, to the factory and the field (Trotsky, 1979f: 184185). In the
context of the low level of cultural development that characterized Russia, the mass mobilization
of workers in the military would provide the discipline and skills necessary to construct socialism:
the army has to act as educator for all Russia (Trotsky, 1981b: 81).
In response to those who argued for the primacy of guerrilla warfare, which had served the
Soviet revolution of 1917 so well, in the doctrine of the new Red Army, Trotsky called for a cen-
tralized military force:

Guerrilla methods of struggle were forced on the proletariat, in the first period, by its oppressed position
in the state, just as it was forced to use primitive underground printing presses and to hold secret meetings
in small groups. The conquest of political power made it possible for the proletariat to use the state
apparatus to build, in a planned way, a centralized army, unity in the organization and direction of which
could alone ensure that the maximum results were obtained with the minimum sacrifice. Preaching
guerrilla-ism as a military program is equivalent to advocating a reversion from large-scale industry to the
handicraft system. (Trotsky, 1979c: 246)

He argued that the historically progressive role of guerrilla struggle ceases when the oppressed
class has taken state power into its own hands:

[W]hat, in general, is the point of the working class taking state power into its own hands if it is not then
supposed to make use of this power to introduce state centralism into that sphere which, by its very nature,
calls for the highest degree of centralization, namely, the military sphere? (Trotsky, 1979g: 260)

There was, Trotsky argued, nothing inherently revolutionary about guerrilla warfare; the Whites,
for example, made use of guerrilla warfare during the civil war. Instead, guerrilla warfare is the
weapon used by a weaker against a stronger adversary (Trotsky, 1979e: 81). Methods that were
defined by the circumstances the Bolsheviks faced in 1917 were not necessarily relevant after the
revolutionary seizure of power. Trotsky does not reject guerrilla warfare outright, but sees it as
having a positive role only in conjunction with a regular army. At the same time, though, Trotsky
recognized that the new Soviet power lacked officers with the necessary military skills to train
soldiers in the new Red Army. For this reason, Trotsky argued that it was necessary to accept offi-
cers from the former Tsarist army in the new army. During this period of transition, there would be

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530 Critical Sociology 40(4)

a division of labor within the command structure of military units, with those former Tsarist offi-
cers willing to work with the new Soviet power responsible for military tasks and commissars
appointed by Soviets to perform political and educational work within these units. By 1920,
Trotsky noted that there had been sufficient development of red officers to gradually shift to one-
man command uniting the functions of military commander and political commissar.
In recognizing the importance of conventional military skills for the development of the Red
Army, Trotsky rejected those who argued for the creation of a proletarian military science that
emphasized offensive revolutionary war. Trotsky argued war is an art rather than a science:

There is not and never has been a military science. There are a whole number of sciences on which the
soldiers trade is based War is based on many sciences, but war itself is not a science, it is a practical
art, a skill War cannot be turned into a science, because of its very nature, just as one cannot turn
architecture, commerce of the work of a veterinary surgeon, and so on, into sciences. What people call the
theory of war, or military science, is not a totality of scientific laws which explain objective phenomena,
but a totality of practical procedures, methods of adaptation and knacks which correspond to a specific
task, that of crushing the enemy. Whoever masters these procedures to a high degree and on a broad scale,
and is able to obtain great results by the way he combines them, raises the soldiers trade to the level of a
cruel and bloody art. But there are no grounds for talking of science here. Our regulations are just a
compilation of such practical rules, derived from experience. (Trotsky, 1981f: 361)

Marxism is a science, but one cannot construct field service regulations by means of Marxism
(Trotsky, 1981f: 362). As a result, those who argued against incorporating former Tsarist officers
into the new Red Army and for deriving the war of maneuver from the nature of the dictatorship of
the proletariat were, in Trotskys eyes, missing the point. He noted the flexible nature of Soviet
military strategy during the civil war and Allied intervention against the Soviet state. Having
engaged in a war of maneuver in seizing state power, the Bolsheviks were forced by circumstances
to shift to a war of position during the civil war:

the low level of military training and education among the Red Guards and the rebel masses, and later
among the conscripts, the extreme shortage of commanders who were both qualified militarily and wholly
devoted to the revolution, and the almost complete lack of cavalry naturally forced the Soviet power to
adopt a mass strategy and a continuous front, with features of positional warfare. (Trotsky, 1979e: 85)

Initially, the Red Army established a cordon system that sought to cover the Soviet Republic from
every direction. Such a strategy, however, was not sustainable given the enormous area of the
Soviet Republic, and so there was a shift to a more mobile and flexible strategy of war of

We leave open, more often than not, wide, even very wide gates for our enemies to pass through; but at
certain points in the most important directions we concentrate very powerful strike-forces, with, behind
them, in the appropriate places, substantial reserves and, when we have allowed the enemy to come a
long way in, we hit him on the flanks and in the rear, and sometimes frontally as well, when necessity
requires this. But we have entirely abandoned our old, primitive strategy of being equally strong
everywhere, on every inch of our borders which meant, more correctly, being equally weak everywhere.
(Trotsky, 1981a: 252)

In turn, the end of the Allied intervention against the Soviet Republic was accompanied by a simul-
taneous stalling of revolutionary opportunities in the West, which meant that the Soviet power would
continue to face hostile powers on its western borders for the near future. Given the advantages held

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Egan 531

by these powers in terms of troops, war materiel, transportation and communication, etc. relative
to the new Soviet Republic, a proletarian strategy calling on the Red Army to take the offensive
to spread the revolution westward was, for Trotsky, untenable:

The pace of development of the world revolution has proved to be very much slower. That means that the
struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class, in all countries, will be intense, prolonged and
bitter. It may last not for just a year or two but, if we take the whole world arena, for entire decades, with
fresh attempts to seize power, with intensification of civil war, with periods of lull, and with renewed
upsurge of fierce struggle. This prospect is, of course, a very hard one, but, comrades, it is not for any of
us to change the laws of human development and regulate history. We must know how to wait: to find our
way among the objective causes of historical phenomena, and draw the corresponding conclusions.
(Trotsky, 1981b: 6566)

In the absence of conditions that would facilitate offensive revolutionary war, a proletarian mili-
tary strategy based on the war of maneuver was simply an expression of the superficialities of
Leftism, here being played to a military tune (Trotsky, 1981c: 129). Just as the Treaty of Brest-
Litovsk was significant for Lenin in providing a breathing space for the consolidation of Soviet
power, Trotsky saw the need for a breathing space to prepare more thoroughly for future war. He
was not renouncing the significance of offensive war, but rather asserting the need for flexibility in
the application of strategy in order that war of maneuver and war of position should correspond
with the present balance of forces:

only a traitor can renounce the offensive, but only a simpleton can reduce our entire strategy to the
offensive While preserving the principled foundation of waging an irreconcilable class struggle,
Marxist tendencies are at the same time distinguished by extraordinary flexibility and mobility, or, to speak
in military language, capacity to maneuver. (Trotsky, 1981e: 330331)

In time, a proletarian military strategy may develop, but only on the basis of existing ideas about
the art of war and of a Soviet Republic that has experienced sufficient economic and cultural

We were arguing not so long ago about when, how and in what period we should create for ourselves our
own military doctrine. We have now become a bit more modest in that regard. I think it is good that we
have become a bit more modest. But precisely in proportion as we engage wholly and completely in
practical and theoretical working-over of our experience, bringing into this work also the military and
political experience of the West, and widening our horizon precisely in this process are we, unconsciously,
without setting ourselves this aim, preparing, grain by grain, the elements of a new military doctrine,
which will appear not because he, or you, or I set ourselves the task, sitting down at a desk, of creating it,
but because, under the new conditions in which we work over our old experience, we apply existing
methods and modify them in accordance with new tasks and new circumstances. (Trotsky, 1981d:

The ability to maneuver between war of maneuver and war of position based on the concrete
analysis of the situation is, for Trotsky, the appropriate course for Marxists.

Critical comments on Gramscis military metaphor have been limited to specific statements made
by Gramsci and have not addressed the core argument. Both Anderson (1976) and Saccarelli

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532 Critical Sociology 40(4)

(2008), for example, point out that Gramscis identification of Trotsky as the political theorist of
the frontal attack ignored Trotskys more nuanced discussion of the relationship between war of
maneuver and war of position. In the military debates that followed the rise of Soviet Russia, it was
military theorists such as Frunze (Gareev, 1988), not Trotsky, who presented a unified military
doctrine based on a strategy of maneuver as a proletarian strategy. It is noteworthy that Trotsky,
whose theory of permanent revolution came to be criticized by Stalin for speeding the process of
world revolution along and ignoring the more protracted struggle of creating socialism in one
country, was arguing for a military strategy of position in post-revolutionary Russia, while those
military theorists advocating a revolutionary war of maneuver were associated with Stalins politi-
cal strategy of position.
What is significant here, however, is not that Gramsci was mistaken in his evaluation of Trotsky,
but that this mistake is a consequence of a much more significant problem: the problematic nature
of Gramscis military metaphor. In part, this is the result of a considerable degree of confusion in
Gramscis writings about the nature of the relationship between state and civil society (Anderson,
1976). At some points, Gramsci sees the state and civil society as separate:

What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural levels: the one that can be called
civil society, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called private, and that of political society
or the State. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of hegemony which the
dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of direct domination or
command exercised through the State and juridical government. (Gramsci, 1971: 12)

Elsewhere, Gramsci sees hegemony divided between political hegemony (Gramsci, 1971:
246), which is located within the state, and civil hegemony located within civil society; in this
case, hegemony is not a pole of consent in contrast to another of coercion, but [is] itself a
synthesis of consent and coercion (Anderson, 1976: 22). Finally, in a third conceptualization of
the state-civil society relationship Gramsci sees civil society as part of the state: the general
notion of State includes elements which need to be referred back to the notion of civil society (in
the sense that one might say that State = political society + civil society, in other words hege-
mony protected by the armor of coercion) (Gramsci, 1971: 263). This ambiguity has significant
consequences for Gramscis use of the military metaphor. In some places, the state is only an
outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks (Gramsci,
1971: 238). This imagery of the state reflects the common interpretation of Gramscis discussion
of hegemony, which sees it as the principal form of class power in advanced capitalism; in such
a situation, a war of maneuver attacks positions that are not decisive (Gramsci, 1971: 239).
Elsewhere, however, Gramsci provides a different image of the fortifications associated with
bourgeois class power:

in the case of the most advanced States, where civil society has become a very complex structure and
one which is resistant to the catastrophic incursions of the immediate economic element (crises,
depressions, etc.). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In
war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemys entire
defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter; and at the moment of their
advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defense which was still
effective. The same thing happens in politics, during the great economic crises. A crisis cannot give the
attacking forces the ability to organize with lightning speed in time and in space; still less can it endow
them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralized, nor do they lose faith in their own
strength or their own future. (Gramsci, 1971: 235)

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Egan 533

Here, civil society, which in the previous quote is the fortress surrounded by the trenches of the
state, is itself part of that network of trenches. In Gramscis critical comments about Trotsky dis-
cussed earlier, he is even looser in his military imagery, referring to the inability of civil society in
pre-revolutionary Russia to become trench or fortress (Gramsci, 1971: 236); since the distinction
between trench and fortress is a central feature of Gramscis counter-position of war of maneuver
and war of position, the fact that here Gramsci expresses ambivalence concerning civil societys
military function is noteworthy.
This confusion can also be found in commentary on Gramscis social theory. Femia, for exam-
ple, defines hegemony as the inner fortifications of class power and emphasizes that [t]he war
of position must be the fundamental approach in advanced societies (Femia, 1987: 206), but then

The military aspect of the struggle becomes especially important when the proletariat has at last
conquered the institutions of civil society and solidified a new counter-hegemony. At this point there
remains the climactic attack on the state fortress: the revolution of spirit now gives way to the revolution
in arms. (Femia, 1987: 206207)

To call the state a fortress appears to undermine the identification of hegemony as the inner for-
tifications; it is a peculiar military strategy that targets the inner fortifications before attacking
the outer fortifications. Adamson expresses a similar confusion. After defining war of position as
a fundamentally new theory of revolution in which the dictatorship of the proletariat loses its
Leninist connotations and arrives instead only in a majoritarian form, as an ascending historical
bloc which is becoming a state (Adamson, 1980: 225), he then adds that [i]f the war of movement
is still relevant at all, it is somehow preliminary; the only decisive battles are those in the war of
position (Adamson, 1980: 226). Here, Adamson seems to accept the conception of the state as an
outer set of fortifications which must be breached first before arriving at the hegemonic core, but
this undermines the argument that the protracted struggle against this core is the decisive struggle
only after which comes a supplementary war of maneuver. Buci-Glucksmann, in her discussion
of the war of position, identifies it as a strategy

that starts by occupying the buttresses of the state, its organizational reserves. This new type of class
struggle bases itself on the massive structures of the modern democracies, which form the trenches and
fortifications in the war of position. (Buci-Glucksmann, 1980: 281)

She goes on to say that there may be conditions in which a supplementary war of maneuver is
necessary, but only after the successful completion of the war of position:

Under different conditions, and in different modalities, it is still necessary to smash the state. But the
state that has to be smashed will already be a state that has been transformed, deprived of its historical
basis, with its mechanisms and hegemonic apparatuses undermined by a balance of forces unprecedentedly
favorable to the people. (Buci-Glucksmann, 1980: 281)

With this level of ambiguity, the distinction between war of maneuver and war of position becomes
highly problematic. The significance of Gramscis work for revolutionary strategy in advanced
capitalism is based on a clear distinction between war of maneuver and war of position. For
Gramsci, a political struggle directed at the state requires one form of strategy, while one directed
at the cultural hegemony of the ruling class requires another. However, it is not clear from his com-
ments on the state-civil society relationship how subordinate classes can choose between one or the

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534 Critical Sociology 40(4)

other strategy. For Boggs, the distinction between war of maneuver and war of position reflects the
difference between the classical Leninist model of minority revolution [based on] the superim-
position of a new order from above, which cannot help but take on a mechanistic and elitist char-
acter (Boggs, 1976: 115) and a model of revolution which he labels Gramscian which is
infinitely more complex and multi-dimensional, with more of a popular or consensual basis
(Boggs, 1976: 115). Femia likewise identifies Gramscis analysis of revolution as the abandon-
ment of the hallowed Bolshevik model (Femia, 1987: 53). If the war of maneuver/war of position
dichotomy is called into question, the dramatic counter-position of a revolution led by a vanguard
party and one based on a Gramscian counter-hegemony becomes less significant. How can the war
of maneuver be consigned to a relatively subordinate place and the war of position elevated to a
fundamental principle, not merely a contingent, tactical necessity (Showstack Sassoon, 1987: 197,
200) without there being sufficient clarity about the strategic aims of each form of war?
In addition, the fact that there is a Marxist literature on war which might be relevant for under-
standing Gramscis analysis of revolution has yet to be addressed in a sustained manner. With the
existence of a Marxist literature predating Gramsci that makes explicit use of war of maneuver/war
of position, acknowledgement of Gramscis influence on revolutionary theory cannot itself be
based on the novelty of these concepts. In examining how the Napoleonic revolution in warfare as
articulated by Clausewitz and Jomini served as the foundation for the classical Marxist analysis of
revolution, it is clear that it is the modern war of maneuver, not the pre-modern war of position,
which is associated with complexity. In the pre-Napoleonic war of position, war was generally
limited in scope: The Army, with its fortresses and some prepared positions, constituted a State in
a State, within which the element of War slowly consumed itself (Von Clausewitz, 1982: 383). In
contrast to a war of position, in which troops were organized in relatively rigid formations which
operated best over open fields, war of maneuver allowed for the more flexible organization of
troops and their more effective use of uneven terrain. With its reliance on citizen armies (e.g. the
leve en masse), it is the modern war of maneuver that is total war, requiring a military strategy
that is inseparable from a protracted process of constructing consent within multiple bases of

War had again suddenly become an affair of the people, and that of a people numbering thirty millions,
every one of whom regarded himself as a citizen of the State By this participation of the people in the
War instead of a Cabinet and an Army, a whole Nation with its natural weight came into the scale.
Henceforth, the means available the efforts which might be called forth had no longer any definite
limits; the energy with which the War itself might be conducted had no longer any counterpoise, and
consequently the danger for the adversary had risen to the extreme. (Von Clausewitz, 1982: 384385)

Clausewitz continues:

[S]ince the time of Bonaparte, War, through being first on one side, then again on the other, an affair of the
whole Nation, has assumed quite a new nature, or rather it has approached much nearer to its real nature,
to its absolute perfection. The means then called forth had no visible limit, the limit losing itself in the
energy and enthusiasm of the Government and its subjects Thus, therefore, the element of War, freed
from all conventional restrictions, broke loose, with all its natural force. (Von Clausewitz, 1982: 386)

That is, the very things which Gramsci scholars point to as evidence of a fundamental shift in
revolutionary strategy the greater complexity of a political strategy requiring initiative among the
masses for a protracted struggle over multiple bases of power are, from a militarist reading of
war of maneuver/war of position, characteristic of war of maneuver. Gramscis use of the military

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Egan 535

metaphor is narrower than that of classical Marxists in that, while continuing to identify war of
maneuver with a military strategy for revolution, he redefines war of position in a non-military
manner (i.e. ideology); war is metaphorical in terms of a strategy of position but literal in terms of
a strategy of maneuver. To the extent that war of maneuver is used by Gramsci metaphorically it
is associated more with tactics than with strategy. In contrast, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky express
more completely the complexity of the strategy of war of maneuver by retaining the understanding
of maneuver found in Clausewitz and Jomini.
Indeed, if we accept, as did the classical Marxists, Clausewitzs and Jominis statements on the
political nature of war, then the very separation of strategy into military (war of maneuver) and
political (war of position) forms is inappropriate::

Once we grasp the nature of politics as an organized movement which concentrates the coercion of social
relations, we can see why the two moments of the dual perspective interpenetrate at every level. Since
consent is a response to coercion, the passive moment of politics involves a recognition of realities, the
winning of support from the masses Yet consent also involves a response to coercion, a counter-coercion
of its own and hence the element of position passes into the element of maneuver Maneuver, without
position, is the untenable abstraction of a pure coercion; a war of position on its own implies the
mechanical hypostasis of the moment of consent. (Hoffman, 1984: 148149)

Hoffman illustrates this by reference to the way in which Marx and Engels, in The Communist
Manifesto, speak of both the overthrow of capitalism (war of maneuver) and the long development
of democratic inroads on the power of capital (war of position). Likewise, Anderson (1976) pro-
vides a detailed analysis of the significance played by the concept of hegemony in Russian social-
democratic strategy from the late 1890s to 1917. In what is generally taken as the classic statement
of the strategy of the vanguard party, Lenins What Is to Be Done? (Lenin, 1969), Lenin states
clearly the necessity to work for the liberation of all oppressed classes and groups, not just the
working class. Such a broad based movement requires the integration of hegemonic struggle with
insurrectionary struggle in order to create the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peas-
antry. If armed struggle is not to degenerate into terrorism, military strategy must be informed
from the very beginning by political strategy. It is thus not the case that military action is a tactical
concern subsumed within the more political-cultural strategy of war of position, but rather that the
military and the political-cultural are inseparable parts of a dialectical process of revolutionary

The military metaphor has played a central role in Gramscis social theory. The significance which
Gramscis analysis of war of maneuver/war of position has come to take in contemporary left
social theory and political strategy is due in large part to the power of this metaphor. War of maneu-
ver has come to be associated with a relatively one-dimensional strategy of military insurrection,
while war of position is seen as a more complex, multi-dimensional strategy of political-cultural
change. Indeed, I would argue that this metaphor is central to the assumed counter-position of a
contemporary Gramscian model of revolution to a Leninist model whose time has passed.
However, the failure to address critically the origins and nature of this metaphor has been an
important weakness in commentary on Gramsci. War of maneuver/war of position are terms with
very specific histories, particularly within classical Marxism, that have their origin in modern mili-
tary theory arising from the Napoleonic era. Leaving this history unexamined has two important

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536 Critical Sociology 40(4)

consequences. First, given the ambiguities within Gramscis analysis of the state-civil society rela-
tionship, the application of Gramscis military metaphor is likewise ambiguous. A political strategy
which targets the state as part of the outer trenches must necessarily be different from one that
sees the state is part of the fortress. In the absence of clarity on the nature of the states relation-
ship to civil society, it is not clear what kind of war will be decisive. In addition to being prob-
lematic theoretically, this ambiguity carries considerable risks for radical social movements and
revolutionary politics. Political strategy which misidentifies the nature of the enemys power is
likely to be defeated, deflected, or absorbed and thus rendered harmless.
Second, the kind of political strategy most often associated with Gramsci, the war of position,
is in many ways more closely associated with the military theory of war of maneuver. In using
war metaphorically in the context of a positional strategy but literally in terms of a strategy of
maneuver, Gramsci has created a situation that by definition separates war (maneuver) and politics
(position) and dilutes the metaphor that is so central to his theory. Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, in
contrast, offer a more complex understanding of the relationship between the war of maneuver and
war of position, the result of their more grounded analysis of military theory in the construction of
their social theory. In contrast to the spatial distinction between Russia and the West that is at the
heart of Gramscis analysis of war of maneuver and war of position, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky
argue that strategy can shift between war of maneuver and war of position over time and even
within a given conflict. As a result, their military analysis provides for a more completely dialecti-
cal understanding of war of maneuver/war of position than does that of Gramsci.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit

1. Jomini (1977: 12) has a similar conception of war as a means of conducting politics, but it is not expressed
as concisely as Clausewitzs statement.

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