War Anarchic: Defining War

The following piece was originally published at the blackstarwritings blog and is the first part of a continuing series on war and anarchism.

The subject of warfare has been one that I have held a great interest in for some time. With roots in early humanity about five thousand years ago, it is a factor that has influenced not only human beings but the entire world. It has been the subject of analysis and theory by men, quite literally, over the course of human history. From Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, Jomini, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Mao, Che Guevara, and countless others who have contributed to it, through its perpetuation and theoretical discussion, war has had as many commentators and participants as one might find studying the theory and application of art.

However, I find something lacking in the majority of the analysis presented on warfare, both historically and theoretically. Definitions for warfare can vary widely from time, place, and point of view creating a nexus of sometimes similar and yet quite different ways of defining and understanding warfare. However, within this nexus exists a particular notion about warfare that seems to pervade its study. That being a particularly hierarchical approach to the theory of warfare.

One of the earliest to write about the subject of war was Sun Tzu, a military general under the king of Wu around the 5th century. The very first line from their book “The Art of War” under the chapter titled “Laying Plans” states:

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the state.

A simple statement, yet profound in its implications. One of which being that the governance of warfare is specifically a concern for that of state authority. It is something that is considered not only vital to the state in that warfare is what allows for the imposition of state will against those who would seek to harm or destroy that will, but also in the sense that the knowledge and skill of conducting warfare must be kept within the hands of the state itself, otherwise such knowledge could be used against it despite its own will.

Carl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831) would agree with this general sentiment, both the usage of war to compel others to do our will, but also in that war is the concern of the state:

Violence, that is to say, physical force (for here there is no moral force without the conception of state and law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object.1

I do not mean to make any direct comparisons between the theories of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, as these two individuals lived in different times and places, as well as approaching warfare in almost entirely different ways. However, the consistent theme of warfare as the concern of the state, knowledge of war held within a hierarchical position, is a thread that connects the two theoretically. I would go so far as to argue that almost the entirety of war theory is concerned with a hierarchical, statist application of warfare.

Even among the radical left, the purveyance of hierarchical war theory dominates the discourse. One of the most popular writers on the subject of guerrilla warfare, Mao Tse-Tung, wrote much on the need for cooperation between the professional revolutionary army and the spontaneous guerrilla formations of the people. However, as much as Mao may have understood the need for such cooperation with respect to the fighting capabilities of the average person, he did so with the emphasis that ultimately the tactical and strategic decisions remained within the hierarchy of the Red Army itself:

(3) In the enemy’s rear, we choose some young, strong, and courageous elements among the local population and organize some small groups who will accept the leadership of the experienced and trained persons we send out or of experienced persons whom we had trained previously in the place in question. The secret activity of these small groups involves moving from their own area to another one, changing their uniforms, unit numbers, and external appearance, and using every method so as to cover their tracks to the utmost.

(5) Guerrilla units can be classified according to their nature. Those formed of selected volunteers are called special guerrilla units. Those organized generally from a part of our army are called basic guerrilla units. Those organized from the local population are called local guerrilla units. When basic and local guerrilla units engage in combined actions, they are subject to the unified command of the commander of the basic unit.2

Essentially the command of the ad-hoc guerrilla formations was to be subjected to the hierarchy of the Red Army. Encouragement of self-organized guerrilla formations was less out of principle per se, and more out of tactical and strategic necessity. Even then, such self-organized forces were not meant to be permanently so and their integration into the command of the Red Army was seen as vital for cohesion within the burgeoning Communist state.

Some have seen the violence of the state, whether through acts of war or policing, and have chosen to reject violence as a whole outright. Based on what has been discussed so far, this may seem like a fairly logical conclusion. If one seeks a society free from oppression, then one would want to see an end to the violence perpetrated by the state and, therefore, reject violence to moralistically stand above the violence of the state. However, the ironic paradox of this approach is that, in rejecting violence, one ends up inherently legitimatizing state violence:

A colorful, conscientious, uncompromising, passive protest in front of a military base that does not threaten struggle with the police protecting the military base’s boundaries, nor promise midnight visits by saboteurs, only improves the PR image of the military, for surely only a just and humane military would tolerate protests outside their front gate. Such a protest is like a flower stuck in the barrel of the gun. It does not impede the ability to fire.3

So long as opposition to the state remains nonviolent, it will continue to legitimize the state’s centralization of violence. If we seek to appeal to the morality of the state, we are assuming that the state is a generally benevolent institution and that current systems of oppression are simply moralistic defects of the state, rather than inherent characteristics of a hierarchical system of authority. The problem with nonviolence is that it takes for granted the very systems that in many ways either cause or inflame oppression and domination generally.

So we find ourselves at what appears to be an impasse. On the one hand, it seems that war is largely the concern of hierarchical forces, while the rejection of it paradoxically reinforces war. Which begs the question, in what way are we to understand war? As stated from the beginning, war has held many sorts of definitions and does not hold a generalized understanding. However, within that paradigm, there exist certain threads of continuity between theoretical forms of war. Not enough to unite them into a generalized theory, but enough to unify them on certain basic, theoretical grounds. We have already identified one common thread, that being hierarchy of war. However, I am of the idea that another thread exists, one that for our purposes poses a much greater possibility of understanding the root commonality within war. From this common thread, I hope to extrapolate a new, specifically anarchist, historical and theoretical analysis of war.

Let us return briefly to Clausewitz. In the formerly mentioned quote, Clausewitz, in defining war, does so as “. . . the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will . . .” specifically through the application of violence. Here, war is not simply a fight between two singular individuals, but rather, groups of people. These groups both attempt to use violence in order to force the other into submission by the more coercive group. As such, I contend that war can best be understood as the mutual, collective violence by groups of peoples against one another.

From this basic definition of war, we can both break with the hierarchical understanding of war, without necessarily contradicting the greater body of war theory as such. In breaking with the hierarchy of war, we are able to forge a new analysis of war, one that specifically lends its focus to the struggles of peoples against oppression and domination throughout history. From the earliest slave rebellions, to the collective struggles of women, indigenous populations, peasant revolts, worker uprisings, piracy, peoples revolts, riots, and insurrections that have been used by the oppressed to wage their own wars against their oppressors.

That is why I have chosen the title “War Anarchic” in order to describe the theoretical lens under which I hope to understand the long historical struggles, the ways in which peoples have throughout the ages waged war for their own freedom, struggling against the various social, political and economic hierarchies of their times. The title is not to imply that such struggles were specifically anarchist in their nature, though some much closer to our own time could be defined as such. Rather the “Anarchic” nature of these wars is present in that they specifically are collectively violent struggles against a dominating, hierarchical force in order to secure some sense of what we would understand in some sense to be freedom and equality, at least in the terms that would be understood in their own historical context.

This to me is the ultimate goal of this War Anarchic. To provide a historical continuity to the ways in which people, throughout history, have waged war against systems of oppression and domination in their own times to that of our own. In doing so, I hope to create a body of theoretical, historical knowledge that can be drawn from in order to better begin to understand how it is that we, at least theoretically, might wage war against our own systems of domination and oppression today.

  1. Carl von Clausewitz. “What Is War?” On War, 1873, pp. 1–2.
  2. Mao Tse-Tung.“Basic Tactics: IV Organization.” Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 1937
  3. Peter Gelderloos. “Nonviolence is Statist.” How Nonviolence Protects the State. Detritus Books, 2018.
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