Carl von Clausewitz’s Non-Existent “War in the Abstract” vs. Donald Black’s “Pure Terrorism”

As is usual, I think, when we do a topic-oriented podcast as opposed to one that really focuses on a text (see also the ones on humor and fame), our episode on terrorism didn't really do justice to all the readings we as a group all read.

In particular, I feel like I need to elaborate on Jonathan's comment about "pure terrorism" from Black and how this related, as a theorizing strategy, to Clausewitz's "war in the abstract." Here's a quote from Clausewitz:


We shall not enter into any of the abstruse definitions of War used by publicists. We shall keep to the element of the thing itself, to a duel. War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a War, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavours to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance.


Violence arms itself with the inventions of Art and Science in order to contend against violence. Self- imposed restrictions, almost imperceptible and hardly worth mentioning, termed usages of International Law, accompany it without essentially impairing its power. Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the MEANS; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed, and disarmament becomes therefore the immediate OBJECT of hostilities in theory. It takes the place of the final object, and puts it aside as something we can eliminate from our calculations.


Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy withoutgreat bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in its application. The former then dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counter- acting force on each side.

This is the way in which the matter must be viewed and it is to no purpose, it is even against one's own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.

So war is, in essence, unlimited: once you've committed to it, by its essence, you do whatever is in your power, without moral compunction, to achieve its end, and the one who does the most will win. However, just a few sections later, he gives us this:


Thus reasoning in the abstract, the mind cannot stop short of an extreme, because it has to deal with an extreme, with a conflict of forces left to themselves, and obeying no other but their own inner laws. If we should seek to deduce from the pure conception of War an absolute point for the aim which we shall propose and for the means which we shall apply, this constant reciprocal action would involve us in extremes, which would be nothing but a play of ideas produced by an almost invisible train of logical subtleties. If, adhering closely to the absolute, we try to avoid all difficulties by a stroke of the pen, and insist with logical strictness that in every case the extreme must be the object, and the utmost effort must be exerted in that direction, such a stroke of the pen would be a mere paper law, not by any means adapted to the real world.

Even supposing this extreme tension of forces was an absolute which could easily be ascertained, still we must admit that the human mind would hardly submit itself to this kind of logical chimera. There would be in many cases an unnecessary waste of power, which would be in opposition to other principles of statecraft; an effort of Will would be required disproportioned to the proposed object, which therefore it would be impossible to realise, for the human will does not derive its impulse from logical subtleties.

But everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality. In the former, everything must be subject to optimism, and we must imagine the one side as well as the other striving after perfection and even attaining it. Will this ever take place in reality?

(1) War becomes a completely isolated act, which arises suddenly, and is in no way connected with the previous history of the combatant States.

(2) If it is limited to a single solution, or to several simultaneous solutions.

(3) If it contains within itself the solution perfect and complete, free from any reaction upon it, through a calculation beforehand of the political situation which will follow from it.

He then goes on to knock down claims 1-3 above, and ends up by considering war a political act, "a continuation of policy by other means:"


Such is War; such the Commander who conducts it; such the theory which rules it. But War is no pastime; no mere passion for venturing and winning; no work of a free enthusiasm: it is a serious means for a serious object. All that appearance which it wears from the varying hues of fortune, all that it assimilates into itself of the oscillations of passion, of courage, of imagination, of enthusiasm, are only particular properties of this means.

The War of a community--of whole Nations, and particularly of civilised Nations--always starts from a political condition, and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act. Now if it was a perfect, unrestrained, and absolute expression of force, as we had to deduct it from its mere conception, then the moment it is called forth by policy it would step into the place of policy, and as something quite independent of it would set it aside, and only follow its own laws, just as a mine at the moment of explosion cannot be guided into any other direction than that which has been given to it by preparatory arrangements. This is how the thing has really been viewed hitherto, whenever a want of harmony between policy and the conduct of a War has led to theoretical distinctions of the kind. But it is not so, and the idea is radically false. War in the real world, as we have already seen, is not an extreme thing which expends itself at one single discharge; it is the operation of powers which do not develop themselves completely in the same manner and in the same measure, but which at one time expand sufficiently to overcome the resistance opposed by inertia or friction, while at another they are too weak to produce an effect; it is therefore, in a certain measure, a pulsation of violent force more or less vehement, consequently making its discharges and exhausting its powers more or less quickly--in other words, conducting more or less quickly to the aim, but always lasting long enough to admit of influence being exerted on it in its course, so as to give it this or that direction, in short, to be subject to the will of a guiding intelligence., if we reflect that War has its root in a political object, then naturally this original motive which called it into existence should also continue the first and highest consideration in its conduct. Still, the political object is no despotic lawgiver on that account; it must accommodate itself to the nature of the means, and though changes in these means may involve modification in the political objective, the latter always retains a prior right to consideration. Policy, therefore, is interwoven with the whole action of War, and must exercise a continuous influence upon it, as far as the nature of the forces liberated by it will permit.


We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the Art of War in general and the Commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.

So the distinction is supposed to be one between theory and practice, and outlining the "essence" of war (or anything else) is allegedly useful before jumping into how it actually plays out in practice. This is entirely for reasons of trying to understand the phenomenon, not to make some moral distinction between the "pure" and the "real-world" forms.

Donald Black's article is a peculiar slice of the language of sociology. Here's the abstract:

Terrorism in its purest form is self-help by organized civilians who covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians. Pure sociology explains terrorism with its social geometry-its multidimensional location and direction in social space. Here I build on the work of Senechal de la Roche (1996) and propose the following geometrical model: Pure terrorism arises intercollectively and upwardly across long distances in multidimensional space. Yet because social distance historically corresponded to physical distance, terrorism often lacked the physical geometry necessary for its occurrence: physica1 closeness to civilians socially distant enough to attract terrorism. New technology has made physical distance increasingly irrelevant, however, and terrorism has proliferated. But technology also shrinks the social universe and sows the seeds of terrorism's destruction.

So all this talk of "pure terrorism" (and "pure sociology" no less!) is part of a layer of sociological jargon that is trying to abstract from messy historical details to come up with theories that cover phenomena en masse. Whether or not (for Black or for Clausewitz) this enterprise actually yields fruit is not something I feel comfortable addressing; I can say that the Black paper provides an interesting perspective in carefully distinguishing the various kinds of violence and assigning them "coordinates" of a sort, e.g. that terrorism has an "upward" geometry, unlike state cruelty, which would be "downward," and so involve, of course, different historical circumstances to set it in motion and different measures needed to combat it.

Comparing the two readings was Jonathan's idea. Nowhere in Black does it say that pure terrorism as he's defined it actually doesn't exist but is just a theoretician's oversimplification. On the contrary, I think Black would say that there is plenty of pure terrorism according to his definition, but then there are also all sorts of borderline cases where one or more of the "coordinates" isn't quite in the same place as the definition. Varying from one's classification scheme (Black) is not quite the same as having more real-world elements evidently at play in a particular conflict (Clausewitz). It's not even clear to me whether Clausewitz would admit, or see the point in admitting, that some conflicts have more of these real-world elements at play and that some others are closer to this ideal, contextless duel that he started out outlining. In a war game, yes, but not any real war, all of which involve real-world repercussions, historical baggage, effects on and by third parties, and a lot of chance elements. So to my mind, we have two kinds of abstraction, allegedly to help us understand the subject matter, but they function in different ways.

-Mark Linsenmayer

[Image note: apparently there's a web site "" which I'm sure is full of people theorizing about Clausewitz.]


  1. Nate Johnson says

    How do we define ‘upward’ and ‘downward?’ I’m inclined to think that those terms relate to power, but from the podcast and from this post, I haven’t found a these terms spelled out. They’re easy enough to get a sense of just from examples, but it’s also easy to think of cases where it’s hard to say if the ‘geometry’ is upward or downward and it would help to know what features make that distinction. (I’m trying to find this in the Black article now.)

    A case I thought up is “Bombing an Abortion Clinic.” That seems like terrorism in a pretty non-ambiguous way (even if some would argue that it’s justified). The tangle, as I see it, is that the victims do not seem ‘upwardly’ placed in regards to the violent actors. It’s possible that the victims ‘power’ comes from their ‘side’ having won elections or passed laws or because they’re supported by RvW, etc. But it’s easy to imagine the same scenario happening in a society where abortion was illegal. In that case is it still terrorism? In that case it seems there would be non-violent (legal) alternatives. Does that matter?
    Even if the bombing takes place in a society where abortion is legal, problems arise when examining intent. Is the intent of the violence to ‘terrorize’ policy makers into changing policy through the fear of constituent deaths or political fallout? It seems equally likely, if not more likely, that the intent is to ‘terrorize’ doctors into not performing abortions and ‘terrorize’ women into not seeking abortions through fear of their own deaths. In that case, I think it’s possibly problematic in identifying the geometry as ‘upward’ even at a significant slant. Also, if we’re going to say that terrorism uses fear to “compel our opponent to fulfill (the terrorists) will,” (and I feel like some similar formulation is part of our understanding of terrorism) than intent cannot be ignored: Violent actors use fear to ________. Without the ‘to _____,’ I think it starts to unravel.
    I feel like a useful statement is: Terrorists (anti-abortion group) use violence to create fear to fulfill their will (stop abortions), because they feel that no successful alternative actions are available to them (legal, for instance), and that their will must be fulfilled.
    Working from that formulation, which includes a ‘why’ for terrorism, seems like it may open the door for justified terrorism. I would speculate that this is not a good path for someone who want to keep that door closed.
    For example: Native Americans kill homesteaders to make other homesteaders afraid to settle, in order to retain their lands (and potentially lives), because they have no legal recourse, they are underpowered compared to the US military, most attempts to inflict guilt or illicit sympathy would be ineffective as they are considered inferior to the settlers, and negotiations with the US have been disastrous, and they would very much like to not have their lands take (and potentially die.)
    I’m not going say that Native American ‘terrorism’ in this case is justified, but it’s easy to see how that argument would be constructed. It’s also easy to see where arguments to the contrary could be made. Possibly there were alternative strategies that were not considered. Possibly violence against innocents is never justified and they should have let their will go unfulfilled. Possibly, in light of their ultimate failure, their violence is unjustified only because it was in vain.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      “Upward” and “downward” are supposed to relate to social class. So yes, while typically high social class=more power, this is not always the case, so even if the imperialists are outnumbered by their conquered, such that the conquered really have more power in a significant sense, action by the imperialists wouldn’t be terrorism in this sense, but rather imperialist dickishness.

      • Nate Johnson says

        I agree. Reading the article, Black seems to downplay violent acts that would seem lateral to me: Northern Ireland is something he does mention but he seems to say that there wasn’t all that much Terrorism. I’m mildly suspicious that he doesn’t count violent acts as terrorism if they seem lateral.
        To me a more likely explanation that a strict ‘upward’ geometry would be that violence against innocents is more often and more easily committed against ‘the other,’ and in most of his examples ‘the other’ is living in a higher or lower social class that ‘the us.’ There’s some of that in there to be sure, I feel like it’s possible that he’s adding an extra layer.

        Also, I agree that what you’re saying wouldn’t necessarily be terrorism. But I do think that even being outnumbered, imperialists often still had some level of power (control by other means) above the conquered or otherwise they would be thrown out or killed. If the imperialists lost all control by all other means, if they had no other way to ‘fulfill their will’ other than by creating fear through violence against innocents, even if ‘fulfilling their will’ had merely become escaping alive, I would be very very hesitant to call that terrorism, but I’m not satisfied with why I feel that way yet.
        p.s. thanks for responding Mark.

    • Nate Johnson says

      I found this:

      “Other dimensions of social geometry are relevant to the occurrence and nature of violence as
      well, such as whether a grievance is downward (against an inferior); upward (against a
      superior): lateral (against an equal); collective (by or against a group); outward
      (against a marginal); or inward (against someone more integrated).” – Black,15.

      But I found this unhelpful.

      I’m intrigued by his inclusion of ‘unilateral’ in his formulation. Although other parts leave me unimpressed. There’s a lot of explaining how Terrorism is different from other types of violence in very specific ways, but I don’t think they’re helpful distinctions and some feel arbitrary.

  2. Donald Black says

    Thank you very much for paying a bit of attention to my article called “The geometry of terrorism.” It is always nice to discover that one’s work has been noticed.

    All I wish to do at this time is to try to clarify a few small issues that have been mentioned by Nate and Mark in the comments above. One is that my concept of terrorism would exclude bombing an abortion clinic. The reason is that, as I note in the article on page 16, terrorism entails “a logic of collective liability” — which means that it does not attack the one responsible for the behavior that is deemed wrong, but instead attacks anyone in a particular social location (such as a particular nationality or religion) that is associated with the wrongful behavior. One thus attacks civilians in London because of the UK’s involvement in Iraq or civilians in Madrid because of Spain’s support of the Afghanistan invasion. By contrast, abortion clinic bombings attack the wrongdoers themselves. They are closer to assassinations than to terrorism.

    Second, when I say terrorism is “upward” I am saying that the target has higher social status than the terrorists, and I elaborate the meaning of “social status” on page 19, footnote 9.

    Third, I do not define terrorism by whether it is upward, lateral, or downward, but seek to predict and explain its occurrence with this feature of the social geometry of a grievance. The same applies to the rest of the formulation on page 19 (concerning the long social distances it traverses and its inter-collective nature). It is important that one not confuse a definition with an explanation.

    Please feel free to email me if you wish to hear my reaction to any other matters you might care to raise, including the nature and purpose of pure sociology. I do not normally read this blog (I came across this discussion by chance) — which is why I think it might be more efficient to email me. Or you could email me to let me know that you have said something on this blog that pertains to my work.

    Thanks again for your attention to my work.

    Best wishes,


    • Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

      Hi Donald,

      Thanks for writing in! I’m a little confused about the “abortion clinic” example. If a USPS postal carrier were dropping off mail at the abortion clinic at the time of bombing, and gets injured/killed as a result, would that outcome instantly revert the violent act back to terrorism?

      Or what if a patient were at the abortion clinic to receive a pap smear, or breast exam, or some other women’s health service unrelated to contraception / abortion? Would her injury/death revert the act away from assassination, and toward terrorism?

      It seems to me that the definition of “assassination” vs. “terrorism” shouldn’t hinge upon happenstance events like which bystanders happened to be in the way at the time of the violent event. Do we go by the intent of the actor? Or by the resulting consequences independent of intent? Or by the reasonable likelihood of harm to intended vs. unintended targets? Perhaps I misunderstand you entirely? (And yes, I did go back to your article at page 16 to review, but couldn’t find the answer.) Thanks in advance for any reply.

      • Donald Black says


        A system of liability is a way of determining who is held accountable for something regarded as wrong or injurious. It specifies who must “pay” for the wrong or injury. Collective liability holds people accountable entirely on the basis of their membership in a social category, such as their nationality or religion (to repeat the examples I used in my first message). The hypothetical cases you mention — the injury of a postal carrier or patient visiting about something other than an abortion when an abortion clinic is attacked — are not being held accountable for anything but are merely cases of collateral (or accidental) injury. Unlike those involved in the abortions,they are not targets of the attack.

        As I note in the article, collective liability is the kind of liability found in a riot, when people are attacked because they are members of a social category, such as members of a particular race or ethnicity. This contrasts with other forms of liability, such as the form of liability used in typical criminal cases, whereby a person is held accountable because he or she is found to have intentionally committed a crime. An attack on an abortion clinic — to punish those involved in abortions — entails a system of liability in the same family as the usual form of criminal liability.

        Modern people seem to have trouble grasping the concept of collective liability, and thus find something such as the 9/11 attacks literally incomprehensible.

        I could go into more detail about various kinds of liability, but hope I have now said enough to clarify the issue you raised.


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