The Dialectic of Position and Maneuver: Understanding Gramsci’s Military Metaphor

Reviewed by Joe

Daniel Egan, The Dialectic of Position and Maneuver: Understanding Gramsci’s Military Metaphor (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 142 pp., $28.

Daniel Egan’s new book places Antonio Gramsci’s thought firmly in the revolutionary socialist tradition. As the title indicates, Egan focuses on the famous metaphor of “war of position” and “war of maneuver” that Gramsci uses to describe the two types of strategy available to the working class in its struggle for power. Egan posits that this military metaphor has several weaknesses:

…the metaphor is problematic in a number of ways: (1) it is based on an inaccurate assessment of changes in modern warfare; (2) the imagery associated with the metaphor is sufficiently ambiguous that it fails to convey its intended meaning; and (3) the metaphor unravels the dialectical core of Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony. (38)

The most important discussion revolves around point number three. In Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony there is a careful give and take between the winning of ideological dominance by Communist-led forces within the working class and the physical winning of hegemony in society by the working class in a revolutionary upheaval. Egan argues that Gramsci uses the war metaphor with much less rigor than he brings to the analysis of consent and force in his discussion of hegemony.

For Egan, it is possible to read Gramsci’s war metaphor either in a nuanced, dialectical manner that sees the forces of consent (“war of position”) and the forces of coercion (“war of maneuver”) as different moments within a single process, or to view war of maneuver and war of position as different historical stages. The latter reading was common among Social Democratic and Eurocommunist parties and groups. They took Gramsci’s assertion of the war of position as the dominant method of struggle in the advanced capitalist “West” as meaning that the only possible strategy in these countries was a slow, gradual, often electoral strategy to achieve socialism. Egan argues that a lack of clarity in Gramsci’s writing “obscures the complexity of the relationship between force and consent that defined the foundation of his work” (45).

Egan then goes through three Marxist studies of warfare to show how consent and coercion operate in tandem. He uses studies of insurrection (particularly the writings of Leon Trotsky on the Russian Revolution), Soviet military doctrine, and guerrilla warfare to illustrate his points. In the chapter on the Russian revolution, for example, Egan shows that the Bolsheviks had to work patiently to gain leadership of the working class and oppressed masses. Without consent obtained through the radical democracy of the workers’ councils, the Bolsheviks would not have been able to lead a military-style insurrection. Overlooking the dialectical relationship of consent and coercion leads, according to Egan, to the idea that the insurrection was merely a highly centralized military operation. Centralization was an important element, but leaving out the consent and participation of the masses, it leaves “accepted as unproblematic the argument that the transition of Lenin to Stalin was a natural one” (69) rather than a reflection of the breakdown of workers’ democracy. Egan shows a similar dialectic at work in other chapters on Soviet military doctrine and guerrilla warfare.

The resolution of this problem with Gramsci’s war metaphor is not to reject the metaphor outright but to rework into it the dialectal relationship between consent and coercion. Indeed, this is how we should understand Gramsci’s intent. Egan illustrates this point by showing distortions of Gramsci’s and Lenin’s thought where Gramsci has often been relegated to the radical democracy of Post-Marxism and Lenin is thought of as rigid and dogmatic. These distortions have produced a reified idea of an opposition between the two. As a result, “there is an underappreciation of just how close Gramsci and Lenin were in terms of their revolutionary theory and practice” (116). The theory of the United Front developed in the early years of the Communist International was the basis of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. The idea was that when the immediate possibility of insurrection had passed there would be a need to work for ideological and strategic hegemony within the working class and society, so that when revolution again became possible, the Communist Party would have the opportunity to lead. 

This dialectic is always at work. As Egan points out, While it may indeed be the case that the objective realities of global capitalism do not allow at present for a political strategy based on a war of maneuver, this does not mean that strategy can focus on hegemony to exclusion of coercion or that direct challenges to the coercive power of the state must be postponed into the far future. (115)

For example, to just focus on the war of position might mean adopting primarily an electoral strategy. Underestimating the coercive power of the capitalist state has led to much peril for the left, as the core capitalist countries, particularly the US, have a long history of undermining – often violently – popularly elected governments that do not fall in line with the dictates of neoliberalism. For correct strategy we need correct theory. Egan quotes John Molyneux stating that what is needed is a version of Gramsci’s metaphor that “resists any mechanical separation of the two levels or any attempt to present them as successive stages, separate in time. The element of consent is always present in application of force, and the element of force is always present in the achievement of consent” (45). This dialectical understanding of Gramsci’s metaphor restores its revolutionary socialist core and gives us the tools necessary to organize in the present.

Reviewed by Joe Cleffie Socialist activist Philadelphia