Lessons in the art of revolution from Sun Tsu

14 Nov

The Art of War is frequently quoted by activists, but many on the Left shy away from actively grappling with the deeper lessons of this ancient text.

Written in approximately 544 BC, The Art of War is a timeless treatise on the role of the General as protector of the State. However the principles expressed, and the systematic nature of Sun Tsu’s arguments ultimately constitute a way of thinking, or a state of mind, rather than a literal set of prescriptions such as those of later scholars like Carl Von Clausevitz. It is this almost philosophical approach to the subject that makes it so useful and broadly applicable to almost any protracted conflict, including and especially activism and political struggle.

“There is a proper season for making attacks with fire,
and special days for starting a conflagration.”

Sun Tsu writes to “those preoccupied with the welfare of the State,” and he begins at the beginning; “Warfare is the greatest affair of State, the basis of life and death, the fundamental essence of survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”

From this challenging introduction, Sun Tsu takes us progressively from First Principles to ever greater levels of detail, extrapolating the principles he has laid down. Chapters follow the natural course of any major conflict, from estimating and calculating the prospects of success to the waging of all-out total war, involving the entire State from lowest to highest, and every resource available.

Sun Tsu does not confine himself to matters pertaining only to fighting, but rather ranges from Grand Strategy to the deployment and disciplining of individual soldiers and the management of their moods and moral.

In his chapter on “Estimations”, Sun Tsu advises the reader to carefully count the costs of war before embarking upon it. Even a casual reading of his formula reveals the astonishing breadth and sweep of Sun Tsu’s mind, weighing everything from the value of the national treasure and the capacity of the populace to pay for the war, to the moral rightness of the cause and the willingness of the people to fight. If these factors are not in one’s favour, Sun Tsu makes plain, one should sue for peace and avoid conflict at all costs. Sun Tsu never minces words; “If a General follows my methods for estimation, and you employ him, he will certainly be victorius, and should be retained. If a general does not follow my methods for estimation, and you employ him, he will certainly be defeated, so dismiss him.”

Sun Tsu continuously saw every campaign and action in economic terms. Campaigning is expensive; while wars are being fought, normal life is disrupted. Every day of fighting costs money, even if the troops sit idle. Death and defeat can come as easily by running out of money as by anything the enemy might do.

“The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of
pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.”

Therefore Sun Tsu had much to say about waste and folly – he considered those who were wasteful and expended their men and resources recklessly to be fools. And, in a pattern that is often repeated, he drew the inverse corallory, that foolishness lead to waste, destruction, death and defeat. He had little time for the impatient and the reckless, and advises that those who exhibit great character defects, by flinging their men into hopeless fights should be marked as prey. Sun Tsu advocated inciting fools to destroy themselves by doing things which exposed their vulnerabilities and put them at a disadvantage. Victory after victory can be won simply by keeping one’s opponents befuddled and running, exhausting themselves through pointless activity.

Sun Tsu’s sense of economy extends even to his writing style. Almost every practical prescription made by Sun Tsu is founded upon a small handful of key philosophical principles, which if understood, would enable the wise “General” to divine what needed to be done in almost any situation, no matter how chaotic.

Sun Tsu uses single words to encapsulate entire precepts, and these words form the basis of “meditations” one may perform to gain wisdom and understanding.

One key precept is contained in the word “Deception”. Sun Tsu states categorically, “Warfare is the Tao of Deception.” He goes on then to explain how in a multitude of ways, deception can and ought to be used to trick the enemy and gain advantage, and thus assure victory. By using the word “Tao” in conjunction with this, the highest spirit or essence, he is in effect saying that no victory can possibly be won without resort to deception, not merely occassionally, but continuously.

It is worth noting here that States routinely practice deception, to the point that it is almost impossible to believe they are not lying every time they speak. From the Prime Minister, down to the lowest Policeman tricking a frightened girl into confessing to crimes she did not commit, lying and deception are the bread and butter of the State, it’s stock in trade.

“He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from
the topmost heights of heaven.”

In the same vein, the State will brook no secrets or privacy amongst its citizens, as this would allow the citizens to engage in deception, thus posing a risk to their power. So the State increasingly classifies even ordinary and mundane facts and documents as State secrets, while at the same time massively increasing surveillance on its citizens. Sun Tsu, noting this, would have considered that the State had in fact declared war on its people by this posture. And the only reasons for doing so would have been for either hope of gain, or fearfulness of loss. For Sun Tsu assumes that all action or inaction relative to the conduct of war is based on only those two motivating factors.

Contrast the deceptiveness of the State with the openness and naivity with which most activists conduct their affairs; there are few if any secrets, politics and passions are worn on the sleeve, communications are not secured, even when they are known to be spied on and recorded. We may consider this conduct “high”, “moral” or “principled”. But in war, there is no quarter given to honour or naivity. Sun Tsu would have called this reliance on mercy of our foes folly.

The failure of deception may be in part compensated for by use of the other principles Sun Tsu sets out. For many of Sun Tsu’s principles act as weights to counter advantages and relative strategic and tactic weaknesses. Where deception is not entirely possible, there is the interplay of the “orthodox” and the “unorthodox”.

Sun Tsu uses the principle of “Orthodoxy” to describe diversity of tactics, a term which today in activist circles has come to be associated with pointless anarchistic violence. To Sun Tsu however, tactics are either “orthodox”, that is, normal and expected, or they are “unorthodox”, ie they involve an element of surprise or uncertainty. Sun Tsu advocated that the orthodox and the unorthodox should be mingled and intertwined constantly, so as to prevent the enemy from anticipating one’s moves. And sometimes, even the simplest thing could contrive a sudden and unassailable advantage out of a hopeless situation.

“The highest realisation of warfare
is to attack the enemy’s plans.”

Thus the consideration of the orthodox and the unorthodox leads us to another lesson for activists; the resort to the same tired tactics, the same old marches sent down the same old routes, singing the same old songs and waving the same faded flags makes us predictable, and thus vulnerable. The insistence that street protest is the only effective form of action, an insistence that flies in the face of repeated and ever-compounding failure is an example; activists are now routinely met with overwhelming force repeatedly brought to bear as activists foolishly mount the same actions again and again and again, until the spirit of the people is completely broken. This is not the fault of the police, it is the fault of years of unimaginitive thinking on the part of organisers. There is nothing heroic about stupidity. Years of undeviating reliance on endless campaigning, against overwhelming forces, using the same orthodox tactics is and always was destructive folly according to Sun Tsu.

“When deploying the military in battle, a victory that is long in coming will blunt their weapons and dampen their ardor.”

“No people has ever profited from protracted warfare.”

“The army values being victorious, it does not value prolonged warfare.”

Sun Tsu shared a disgust of violence and the waste it entailed because he as a soldier had done violence, and was repulsed by it. It is only arm-chair warriors and those who will not actually have to fight who glory in war and wish for chaos. This is why Sun Tsu repeatedly advocated that victory should be obtained whenever possible without fighting. As in his section on Estimations, the war begins first in the mind, and is fought and won there, the rest being merely the manifestation of the genius and skill of the great General. Indeed, to the degree that bloodshed is necessary at all, Sun Tsu lays the blame at the feet of the General, and makes it plain that this resort to violence is a mark of his lack of ability. It is evidence of the General’s lacking in intelligence, that he could not figure out a way to win without violence and destruction.

“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

“Thus the highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities. This tactic of attacking fortified cities is adopted only when unavoidable.”

“Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s States without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of preservation.”

“This tactic of attacking fortified cities is
adopted only when unavoidable.”

As activists committed to political resistance, we frequently cringe and shrink back from such militaristic language, even if it is a metaphor for political struggle. Naturally, we are not advocating violence here. However the conflict we are engaged in is one which we cannot afford to lose. Certainly our enemies, those who would exploit us, and grind us to dust in poverty, or in prison are not so squeamish. The State is ruthless at times in its exercise of power. But short of violence, we must understand that our cause depends on our recognising that we are being warred upon, and that we cannot afford any longer to not study these ideas or continue as if we would somehow be protected from harm by the purity of our intentions.

We must commit ourselves to political resistance, while at the same time learning the lessons of the Art of War as if our very lives depended upon it. Because who is to say that they do not?

-Linda, Socialist Aotearoa


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