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Hypermodern Political Strategy

A hypermodern position arising from the Benko Gambit

A hypermodern position arising from the Benko Gambit

Aron Nimzowitsch was a brilliant chess theorist who broke new ground in the 1920s with his treatise: My System. The system he proposed has become the most famous exposition of what is known as the Hypermodern school.

Positional play, the notion that there are important long term strategic ramifications to the current static conditions of the board was then a relatively recent development. Basically, the idea is that the static features determine what kind of tactics become available, and that fortune would favour the astute positionalist with excellent tactical opportunities. The school was practically founded by Willhelm Steinitz in the late 1800s, but was promoted in a very formulaic way by his acolyte Tarrasch.

Nimzowitch took the principles of positional play very seriously, but decided to develop them in a radically new fashion. The core of his idea was to allow the opponent to take the centre – during this time, behind the lines, black would focus long range and mobile attacks on whites weaknesses. When the centre overextended itself, the positional collapse could be rapidly overtaken. It was time to rush in with mobile forces to deal decisive blows.

Chess is in fact a highly assymetric sport, even though this asymmetry appears quite subtle to the novice player. The hypermodern approach, it turns out, suits black better than white. The reason for this is that black simply does not have time to conclusively take the centre, and so must content itself with either contesting from a point of weakness, or hoping to find a more clever way to force hyper-extension of whites forces.

Politically, the vast majority of the population can be said to occupy a position that suits itself to a hypermodern approach. The centre is quite obviously occupied, so a rush for space is simply not possible. In this way we can see an interesting parallel between ideas from the hypermodern school of chess and Gramsci’s notion of the war of manoeuvre versus the war of position – ideas themselves borrowed in analogy from Carl von Clausewitz treatise on warfare.

Since space is already filled, there can be no rush to fill it up. Instead mobility must be subtle, and it must occur behind the lines of a positional orientation. Long term vision means setting up the terrain to ensure that tactical possibilities will open up later.

This analogy can also bring insights when we view revolution through its lens. Revolutions are essentially events in which the centre collapses. However, this centre never collapses simply from the full scale assault from the fringe; no revolution in modern history has been so. Instead, the centre has to have its forces in a complete disarray, and in this disorientation, well placed forces are able to displace the centre.

The Russian revolution gives us a very good example of such a situation. The Tsar was in a war which was leading to horrible losses. The economy was in very serious trouble and every report of new losses at the front caused a decay in the moral support of the troops who would soon be marched out to the front. Only at the point that the military personnel were completely uninterested in following orders, and many sections were threatening direct revolt with or without the Bolsheviks, did a revolution occur.

Since the proletariat is playing without the centre, and generally with quite meagre forces – materially much weaker – any sort of revolutionist approach is suicidal or impossible. Generally it is simply impossible because most people are not up for suicide.

The population does not make revolutionary situations. Instead, this role must fall to the ruling class. They must become disorganised, over-extend from the centre, blunder, and leave quite terrible weaknesses which can be taken advantage of.

This does not, however, mean actionless waiting for us. Our task is to attempt to set up the terrain to suit ourselves. It is to set up the terrain to allow mobility behind the lines. It is to set up permanent bases of power which can be utilised tactically when openings exist. It means attempting to encourage the hyper-extension of power that weakens the centre. In short, we have our work cut out for us.

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About Gavin Mendel-Gleason

An ex-patriate American living in the land of leprechauns. Former anarchist, present mass partyist, but always committed socialist. Has been accused of menshevik centrism and even *gasp* Bernsteinism.
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5 Responses to Hypermodern Political Strategy

  1. yeksmesh says:

    A few comments.

    First your statement that the ruling class makes revolutions instead of the proletariat is just as well a rhetorical statement comparable to the one of the proletariat making the revolution, revolutions are made through a combination of internal structural conditions, weakness and strengths of both the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces and international pressures. All of these elements engaging with eachother and impacting eachother.

    Secondly first you suggest that an insurectionary approach is suicidal a statement that you and your co-conspirators have also argued in other articles, but then you seem to suggest that you still want an insurectionary approach by capturing the center, only this time by preparing better. Which one is it then?

  2. It’s not a rhetorical statement to say that the ruling class make revolutions. It’s really the historical case that you can’t have a revolution unless the ruling class has decided to go into hyper-extension of their own forces. This sort of over-extended advance is actually a very rare occurrence and not something that we control at all. It’s a combination of circumstances that we might take advantage of, but not something we can do ourselves. We can attempt to encourage over-extension but we have to do it while simultaneously shoring up our own forces. It’s not an over-extension if in fact the opposition can over-run you and completely demolish you. That’s simply a full frontal charge by superior forces, leaving you completely destroyed. The fact is that our forces are neither coordinated, nor well positioned. We have been playing blind and without a strategy against a player who has already taken the centre. Advance of any kind now is an advance of our own defeat.

    The ruling class now may be arrogant, having take the centre and not even knowing what to do with it after our last tactical defeat. I think that might actually be true, but that does not change the fact of our disorganised position.

    I think Kautsky’s maxim sums it up best: “We are a revolutionary party, not a revolution making party”. We can’t make the conditions of revolution in and of ourselves — it is completely dependent on the counter moves by the ruling class. Rabinowitch similarly describes the Russian revolution as having been entirely avoidable, had the ruling class but made accommodations to alleviate the pressures which caused it.

    The ruling class could, if you were to make significant socialist advances in a democratic state, attempt to have a coup to eliminate those advances, as occurred in Chile. If such a thing occurred then you could (and should) use revolutionary counter-measures to stop them from doing so. Such was the effective position of the CNT when they attempted to defend against a coup brought about by right wing forces.

    Short of a scenario of that type however, an overly revolutionist orientation can become highly problematic for the reason that it can divert you from setting up the position necessary to win in the event such a situation occurs. Currently the revolutionary socialist organisations do not build the mass movement necessary to induce hyper-extension or the ability to combat it once it occurs. Instead they focus on small, pure, political sects which can do absolutely nothing, while espousing a pure revolutionary ideology. This doesn’t create the position or mobilise actors for attack.

    The insurrectionary approach is suicidal in that, because we do not have a strategic position which suits tactical play; it simply can’t be done in our current context. That does not mean it can never be done under any circumstances. It means it can’t be done in our context. If we look at Cuba, we see the success of a war of manoeuvre, but that kind of opening can not occur in Ireland in the present circumstance, so any attempt to replicate Foquismo would be utterly futile.

    Our current task is much more subtle. We have to gain a position that will enable tactical possibilities. Those possibilities will be slight advantages – even slivers of advance that might mean pass pawns or doubled pawns for our adversaries. These are not big and surprising moves, but they are necessary to win.

  3. yeksmesh says:

    Yes I never doubted that the position of the ruling class is important (although you make it seem more like we need to wait until they make some wrong moves, while I think the position of power of the ruling class is more linked to their capacity to mobilize and unite different elite groups and command international support), I said that turning around the horribly over focused maxim of “the proletariat makes the revolution” to “the ruling class makes the revolution” is again heavily reductionist, and probably a rhetorical device. To which I countered that revolutions are caused by a complex combination of factors not just one.

    And it would have been more useful if you had put your view on the usefulness of revolution up in the first place as it is kinda contradictory at the moment (or I might just be too focused on small little details).

    Also Cuba was quite a bit more than simply a guerilla collumn dropped in the middle of nowhere building up forces and kicking out the batista regime, as it was a complex combination of both rural and urban resistance groups, quite a few being well implanted and building up forces for decades. In essence historiography on Cuba has basically disproven foquismo rather than proven.

  4. yeksmesh says:

    And I forgot to put up some other stuff.

    First most radical leftist groups although arguing for the need of a small well disciplined group that is politically cohesive generally also argue for the creation of a larger more politically diverse mass organisation, so your position is not necesarily in opposition to a decent bunch of radical leftist groups.

    Secondly have you read the works by Charles Tilly, like “from mobilization to revolution” as it should go into some of the stuff on the buildup of power by both the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces.

  5. Jacob Richter says:

    Comradely Greetings,

    It’s good that you bring up Kautsky the Marxist, but I think you’re relying too much on ruling class focus. Back in the day there wasn’t much distinction between regime change and a genuine revolutionary period for the working class.

    Unfortunately, these days, there is a distinction, a notable one being the regime change atmosphere of May 1968 in France. It is true that broad classes don’t make the conditions for regime change, and that this is almost always due to ruling-class blunders. However, it is grassroots organizational capacity and self-institutional capacity that make the difference between a genuine revolutionary period and dime-a-dozen regime change.

    It is more accurate to say these days that “We are a revolutionary party, not a regime change-making party” to take into account these developments and fundamental differences.

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