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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemy

[by Marc Opper]

The decision to go to war is one with which political leaders have grappled from time immemorial. An integral part of that decision involves an assessment of the political, economic, and military parameters by and belligerents of both themselves and their rivals. In Book I of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides two speeches, one each by the leaders of Sparta and Athens, that reflect what was probably the consensus view of each side in the period immediately prior to the war [1]. In this post I use these speeches as a means to consider how political leaders perceive the world around them and draw on some examples temporally and geographically far-removed from Greece to illustrate the importance of ideology in shaping the decision to go to war and decisions on the strategies belligerents adopt in their pursuit of their goals.

Following the outbreak and conclusion of hostilities between Athens and Corinth over the latter’s colony Corcyra (1:24-1:54) and a series of conflicts between Sparta’s allies and Athens, the Spartans held an assembly of the Peloponnesian League at which they discussed the possibility of going to war with Athens. After speeches from both the Corinthians and the Athenians, the Spartan king Achidamus delivers a speech in which he does not foreclose the possibility of conflict, but emphasizes the importance of undertaking comprehensive preparations for a conflict against

…a people who live in a distant land, who have also an extraordinary familiarity with the sea, and who are in the highest state of preparation in every other department; with wealth private and public, with ships, and horses, and hoplites, and a population such as no one other Hellenic place can equal, and lastly a large number of tributary allies. (1:80:3)

He asserts the importance of monetary resources and states that

war is a matter not so much of arms as of money, which makes arms of use. And this is more than ever true in a struggle between a continental and a maritime power. First, then, let us provide money, and not allow ourselves to be carried away by the talk of our allies before we have done so: as we shall have the largest share of responsibility for the consequences be they good or bad, we have also a right to a tranquil inquiry respecting them

He strikes a remarkably humble tone when he states that

In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school. (1:84:4)

The Spartans acknowledge their inferiority in resources and manpower in comparison to Athens, but believe those deficiencies can be overcome through adequate preparation.

The Athenian king, Pericles, is more verbose in his assessment of Athens and Sparta and far more confident than Achidamus:

As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks upon each other. Powers of this description are quite incapable of often manning a fleet or often sending out an army: they cannot afford the absence from their homes, the expenditure from their own funds; and besides, they have not command of the sea. Capital, it must be remembered, maintains a war more than forced contributions. Farmers are a class of men that are always more ready to serve in person than in purse. Confident that the former will survive the dangers, they are by no means so sure that the latter will not be prematurely exhausted, especially if the war last longer than they expect, which it very likely will. In a single battle the Peloponnesians and their allies may be able to defy all Hellas, but they are incapacitated from carrying on a war against a power different in character from their own, by the want of the single council-chamber requisite to prompt and vigorous action, and the substitution of a diet composed of various races, in which every state possesses an equal vote, and each presses its own ends, a condition of things which generally results in no action at all. The great wish of some is to avenge themselves on some particular enemy, the great wish of others to save their own pocket. Slow in assembling, they devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come of his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (1:141:2-7)

The contrast between Achidamus and Pericles is stark because while the latter takes a more comprehensive view of the strengths and weaknesses of his side while the former dwells on the strengths alone. I wish to draw on an example relevant to my own work to show what how these different styles of analysis worked elsewhere.

Mao Zedong is rightly credited as being one of the most effective insurgents in modern history. The ability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to withstand assaults from the Japanese military in Northern and Central China during the Second World War (1937-1945) and its subsequent victory over the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang, KMT) demonstrated the wisdom of Mao’s strategic and political approach to revolutionary guerrilla warfare. The CCP’s post-1937 successes were in stark contrast to its complete defeat in Southern China, where between 1927 and 1934 it led an insurgency against the KMT.

The CCP’s failure in Southern China was a product of the overconfidence of the CCP’s leadership in its political and strategic position vis-à-vis the KMT. The CCP saw rural Chinese society as consisting of five socio-economic classes: (1) landlords, (2) rich peasants, (3) middle peasants, (4) poor peasants, and (5) rural laborers. Poor peasants were the numerical majority in the countryside and the CCP-established regime in Southern China, called the Chinese Soviet Republic, was established on a foundation of poor peasants and rural laborers. The CCP leadership believed that their allies in the countryside far outnumbered their enemies and that the force of their numbers and their zeal for revolution would be sufficient overcome the resistance of the KMT.

In 1925, Mao surveyed the fabric of Chinese society and asked: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?”

All those in league with imperialism – the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, and the reactionary intellectual class, that is, the so-called big bourgeoisie in China – are our enemies, our true enemies. All the petty bourgeoisie, the semiproletariat, and the proletariat are our friends, our true friends. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, its right wing must be considered our enemy; even if it is not yet our enemy, it will soon become so. Its left wing may be considered as our friend – but not as our true friend, and we must be constantly on our guard against it. How many are our true friends? There are 395 million of them. How many are our true enemies? There are one million of them. How many are there of these people in the middle who may either be our friends or our enemies? There are four million of them. Even if we consider these four million as enemies, this only adds up to a bloc of barely five million, and a sneeze from the 395 million would certainly suffice to blow them down. [2]

Though Mao’s own positions evolved considerably after this early analysis, those of his peers (and those who were in charge of the CCP at the time) did not [3]. The course of the revolution in Southern China ultimately proved the CCP wrong. The CCP’s myopic focus on the advantages of its own position and its unwillingness to countenance its potential and actual weaknesses drove it to double-down on strategies that were counterproductive to its cause. Its focus on poor peasants alienated both the rural middle class and rural elites, two crucial groups who eventually defected to the KMT when the CCP’s military was defeated.

The CCP’s military defeat was a product of similarly myopic thinking. Militarily, the CCP initially combined a number of tactics pioneered by Mao Zedong: (1) “strengthening the defenses and clearing the fields” (jianbi qingye); evacuating civilians from areas within striking distance of KMT forces, removing any food or livestock of which the KMT could make use, and destroying infrastructure critical to the KMT war effort such as roads and bridges. It then (2) lured the enemy into areas under its control (youdi shenru), but did not initially engage. Instead, it waited for them to disperse and then overpowered smaller units and attacked KMT reinforcements. After Mao was removed from his post by his political rivals within the CCP, the Red Army adopted conventional tactics, concentrating its forces and sending them into pitched battles of attrition against conventional KMT forces. The results were catastrophic and eventually sent the CCP on a 9,000 kilometer retreat known as the Long March.

After Mao took control of the CCP, he undertook a comprehensive reform of Party policy [4]. The philosophical foundation of Mao’s approach to both military and political policy is “On Practice,” a 1937 essay in which Mao states in no uncertain terms that

Marxists hold that man’s social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world…If a man wants to succeed in his work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, he must bring his ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond, he will fail in his practice. After he fails, he draws his lessons, corrects his ideas to make them correspond to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success; this is what is meant by ‘failure is the mother of success’ and ‘a fall into the pit, a gain in your wit.’ [5]

Mao’s statements may seem like common sense, but Mao did more than enumerate a dialectical relationship between theory and practice; he institutionalized them in the CCP and the Red Army. As a result, generals and commanders could utilize the tactics that best fit the situation they faced and administrators could formulate policy that both adhered to the spirit of the CCP’s United Front policies and conformed to local conditions [6]. At the CCP center, Mao and his colleagues emphasized the importance of formulating policy based on a comprehensive and realistic analysis of the CCP’s political and military programs. The rejection of dogmatism at the center was mirrored at the local level, ensuring that sober analysis rather than blind faith guided the implementation of policy.

Fellow contributor Cheryl Rofer highlighted the stark disjunction between the perceptions of American policymakers in the run-up to the Iraq War and the reality of the war and occupation on the ground and the perception of Russian policymakers prior to their intervention in Syria and the reality on the ground. The verdict has yet to be written on the latter, but analyses of the US’s intervention in Iraq have rightfully condemned the US’s complete lack of proper planning. Optimistic assessments by men like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney (both quoted by Cheryl in her post) are illustrative of an approach to strategic analysis that overestimates advantages and minimizes potential problems. While that may not guarantee ultimate defeat in a war, it is certainly not a recipe for success.




[1] In his introduction to The Landmark Thucydides, Victor Hanson notes the tension between “contrivance (‘to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them’) and historical exactitude (‘adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said’)” in the speeches Thucydides includes in The Peloponnesian War. Accepting that the contents may not be verbatim transcripts of what the orators said, Thucydides includes the speeches to which I refer in this post as a means to illustrate, among other things, the beliefs and preferences of the main actors in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Edited by Richard Crawley. New York: Free Press, 1996, pg. xv-xvi, xxii-xxiii.

[2] Mao Zedong. 1925. “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society.” In Stuart R. Schram and Nancy J. Hodes, eds. Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949: Volume II: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994. Pg. 249.

[3] This period in Chinese history is best covered by Womack, Brantly. The Foundations of Mao Zedong’s Political Thought, 1917-1935. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1982. See also Rue, John E. Mao Tse-Tung in Opposition, 1927-1935. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. Huang, Philip C. C. “Mao Tse-Tung and the Middle Peasants, 1925-1928.” Modern China 1, no. 3 (1975): 271–96.

[4] The best account of Mao’s rise to power after the Soviet period is Gao Hua ??. Hong taiyang shi zenyang shengqi de: Yan’an zhengfeng yundong de lailong qumai [How the Red Sun Rose: A History of the Yan’an Rectification Movement]. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2000.

[5] Mao Zedong. 1937. “On Practice.” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. 1. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1961. Pg. 296.

[6] For a general discussion of the United Front, see Van Slyke, Lyman P. Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. For a discussion of the United Front in practice during the Second World War in Northern China, see Selden, Mark. China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.

4 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemy”

  1. Neville Morley Says:

    Thucydides’ speeches get debated endlessly – there are still, believe it or not, historians who want to claim that they’re basically accurate records, despite what T himself says about them. I’d basically go with your reading, that these are means of showing the ideas, assumptions and even characters of the speakers, and to some extent of the people they’re addressing. However, I’d add that it’s become conventional to read the speeches in the context of subsequent events, rather than in isolation, and that seems to be particularly relevant to the contrast you draw here between Archidamus and Pericles. There’s a whole book by Edith Foster arguing that the latter only *appears* to have a better grasp of his situation because he weighs up pluses and minuses, but actually – as subsequent events show – he’s overly optimistic about Athens’ position, as a result of imperial arrogance.

  2. T. Greer Says:

    That last Mao 1937 quote is extraordinary given just how unhinged some of his policies would become from reality they would become 20 years later.

  3. Zen Says:

    My impression of Mao’s radical phases is that while his ideological extremism was genuine, it also was conveniently subordinated to his tactical needs to maximize his personal power and standing. These periods seemed to coincide with the need to get rid of party rivals and just like Stalin chiding his murderers for being “dizzy with success”, Mao would make a U-turn and undercut the radicals he unleashed and bring back “rightists” like Deng or delegate more powers to the “moderate” Zhou En-lai

  4. Marc Opper Says:

    His ideological extremism from the Great Leap Forward until his death was genuine, but his moderation in this period was equally genuine. When Mao wrote “On Practice” and led the CCP in its policy moderation he was responding to complete defeat of an extremely radical leftist line that characterized CCP governance in Southern China from 1927 (and especially 1931) to the collapse of the Chinese Soviet Republic in 1934. Though the title and argument of Rue’s book is a bit dramatic (“Mao Tse-tung in Opposition”), it does reflect Mao’s relative marginalization during the Soviet period. At the time, Mao was in the countryside undertaking detailed surveys of rural conditions and arguing (albeit in private and in carefully-selected company) that the radicalism of the CCP’s policies at the time (espoused by a group of Moscow-trained CCP members called the “28 Bolsheviks”) was counterproductive. Mao’s victory over them at the Zunyi Conference and the consolidation of his power thereafter institutionalized an approach to policy formulation and implementation that was sensitive to local needs.

    It is a sad irony that such a manifestly successful approach to revolution was discarded by Mao in the lead-up to the Great Leap and, of course, during the Cultural Revolution.

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