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Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan and the Stability of the Nation-State

The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

Since the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty in the West has been imagined in terms of the nation-state and its ability to provide a universal basis for political relations both within state boundaries and in relations with other similarly organized entities. On the one hand, the nation-state originates as a means of overcoming the religious civil wars, and its establishment coincides with the attempt to relegate theological disputes to a private sphere that does not threaten the structure of the state. In this way, the state as opposed to the church becomes the primary form for defining the political. On the other hand, the development and stability of the nation-state system seems to have been inextricably linked to the dynamic of colonialism. As Carl Schmitt lays out in The Nomos of the Earth, the establishment of a jus publicum europaeum that created guidelines for limiting war between European states was accompanied and indeed predicated upon a complementary establishment of the amity lines that distinguished Europe from the rest of the world as the place of such limited war as against the “freedom” of the spaces beyond the line in which restrictions on warfare did not apply. For Schmitt, the relationship between these two dynamics, the coalescence of nation-state relations in Europe on the basis of a limitation of war and the establishment of unlimited war in those areas outside of Europe without nation-state structures, has not been coincidental but in fact constitutive for both the rise of the West and the structure of international relations in the modern world.

But if, as his earlier work suggests, the primary control on state power would not be another state but the consent of the people that is required in order for the sovereign to maintain power, then ideological presuppositions of an order such as the jus publicum europaeum are crucial for its survival. Schmitt has argued that the main threat to this system has been the rise of movements such as communism, but also liberalism itself, that reintroduce ideological appeals and thus theological questions into the establishment of political structures. But it may be that the nation-state does not embody a rational basis for politics that is able to eliminate theological questions as a reason for political conflict. Rather, the nation-state may contain within itself an implicit theological structure in the way that it defines religious conviction as a private rather than a public issue. If this is the case, then the nation-state system is also a particular one that could face an ideological challenge. Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan indeed considers this possibility, but here too, Schmitt retains a consciousness of the ideological issues but also tries to maintain the objectivity of a materialist approach that privileges the issue of land. What I would like to argue is that Schmitt’s focus on the land obscures the much more important issue of the structure of the public sphere that is at stake in a case of real enmity such as in a revolution, civil war, or colonial occupation.

In Theory of the Partisan, Schmitt distinguishes between three kinds of enemy: the limited enemy, the real enemy, and the absolute enemy. The limited enemy is the enemy of a limited war within the system of the jus publicum europaeum, a war that follows certain rules like that of a duel and in which disputes within an existing order are resolved. As Schmitt shows in The Nomos of the Earth, this kind of limited war is only possible in a context in which the European state system can distinguish itself as system, on the one hand internally from a religiously oriented organization of the political order and externally from total war in the colonial sphere. This limited war breaks down as soon as the French Revolution and Napoleon put into question the organization of the political order of the jus publicum europaeum. Napoleon was a real enemy for this political order, and the wars against Napoleon could consequently become partisan wars.

Here the key point is that the irregularity of the partisan was not just the irregularity of the skirmisher nor of the criminal. While the skirmisher simply conducts a different type of tactical warfare along with a regular army, the criminal only seeks personal gain without any ideological agenda. In contrast to these two forms of irregularity, the Spanish guerilla attacked the structure of political order and thus of the public sphere being established by Napoleon. Schmitt notes the centrality of the attack on the very existence of a particular public sphere: “The regular fighter is identified by a soldier’s uniform, which is more of a professional garb, because it demonstrates the dominance of the public sphere. The weapon is displayed openly and demonstratively with the uniform. The enemy soldier in uniform is the actual target of the modern partisan” (Schmitt 14). The distinction between regularity and irregularity lies in the regular soldier’s domination of the public sphere. If the soldier in uniform is the target of the modern partisan, it is because this partisan is fighting to establish an alternative public sphere with different rules for determining who the legitimate political actors are. The parties to this struggle to determine the public sphere are consequently real enemies for Schmitt because there can be no compromise in such a conflict. There can only be one organization for the public sphere in a particular time and place, and a disagreement about its structure can only be resolved in such a way that one of the parties will be excluded from the newly established or reestablished public sphere.

Schmitt dates the birth of the partisan with the Napoleonic wars because Napoleon’s armies themselves attacked the structure of the public sphere that dominated the previously existing European state order of the jus publicum europaeum. The French Revolution transforms war from something that takes place between ruling families within a single organization of the public sphere to something that is carried out between nations. But by making nationalism into such a key factor in war in order to create his large citizen armies (in contrast to the aristocratic focus of the officer corps in previous wars and in other armies), Napoleon created a link between war and individual sentiment. In doing so, Napoleon’s armies gave birth to the partisan to the extent that, once the link was forged between war and individual nationalist sentiment, this sentiment could become the basis for defining or redefining a political collective based on common (nationalist) sentiments. Partisans are linked to each other based on their convictions, but this focus on convictions is already a key part of Napoleon’s army. Though Schmitt identifies the Spanish guerillas opposing Napoleon as the first partisans, their appearance is a result of their acceptance of Napoleon’s focus on the nation as the locus of political identity.

The key conflict in the Napoleonic wars was between a public sphere organized around feudal and church hierarchies on the one hand and the new republican structures created through the French Revolution that defined political identity in terms of the nation. In many ways the military structures of the ancien régime were organized in order to defend the feudal and church hierarchy all across Europe against the common people. In this context, the wars between ruling houses were fought as limited ones, because none of the parties to war sought to overturn the system of order. As a revolt of the masses against this entire system of order dominated by the aristocracy and the church, the French Revolution was an attack on the regularity of the ancien régime and therefore a kind of all-out war that did not obey the rules of the feudal order and indeed sought to destroy those rules. The partisan character of Napoleon’s campaigns was a consequence of the ideological situation of French republicans fighting against a form of regularity that was grounded in an older, feudal order of politics. Napoleon was not simply engaging in a war within this earlier mode of politics, but was attempting to do away with this mode of politics entirely. Therein lay the partisan character of his situation, which then led to the irregular military tactics. As Schmitt notes, “A Prussian officer from that time saw Napoleon’s whole campaign against Prussia in 1806 as merely ‘partisan warfare on a grand scale'” (Schmitt 4). This conflict about the structure of political order, rather than about a particular military technology, creates the possibility of the partisan, who does not recognize the regular order as a legitimate one, even when it has won the regular war.

The difficulty that Napoleon eventually encountered was that his redefinition of war as a war of the people against the aristocratic order was so successful that it established the idea of the people as the basis of political identity all over Europe. But in order for the people to become the locus of political identity, there needs to arise a new form of regularity, that is, a new organization of the public sphere. The people cannot exist as an abstract entity nor as a kind of self-evident ground. The destruction of the ancien régime could not result in a kind of pure humanity but meant the establishment of a new order with a new representational structure that was based on the nation. But the establishment of national identity that came with the elimination of the aristocratic order meant that Napoleon’s armies immediately became the army of a foreign nation in Spain and in Germany once they had succeeded in occupying them.

The birth of the partisans who fought against Napoleon were predicated on his success in redefining political identity in terms of the people and thus of national identity as the representational form of the people. When Schmitt writes that “The new art of war of Napoleon’s regular army originated in the new, revolutionary form of battle” (Schmitt 4), he is describing the change in the representational basis of political identity in terms of the consequences for military organization, in which the new armies are no longer hierarchical structures in which officers are opposed to common soldiers but rather citizen armies that are motivated by national spirit.

This ideological situation in which the partisan seeks to establish a new structure of the public sphere leads to the circumstance that the partisan always must be linked in some way, either through military support or through a vision of the future, to a regular organization: “the armed partisan remains dependent on cooperation with a regular organization” (Schmitt 17). The tie to regularity is a tie to an alternative vision of the public sphere that would then be the basis of the regularity that does not yet exist but is being envisioned by the partisan. Without the tie to regularity, the partisan does not represent an alternative order and thus cannot make any claim to ideological legitimacy for guerilla tactics. The partisan is only irregular to the extent that s/he represents an excluded notion of the public sphere that either already exists in some other place or can be imagined for the future. Without this alternative vision, there would be no partisan but rather only a criminal (Schmitt 90–92).

Schmitt outlines two ways of understanding partisan war that he defines as real enmity and absolute enmity. He distinguishes betwen the two by insisting that a key characteristic of the partisan is the partisan’s telluric character, that is, the relationship to the land that makes the true partisan always a defender of local territory rather than an attacker or invader. By contrast, the new “motorized” partisan who is motivated by communist ideology knows no bounds and is no longer purely defensive but rather seeks to totally obliterate the enemy and create total wars and an absolute enmity that Schmitt seeks to distinguish from the real enmity of the local partisan (Schmitt 92–95).

But the example of the Napoleonic wars demonstrates how this distinction between real and absolute enmity will always break down. The Napoleonic era saw two forms of partisanship. The first set of partisans were the armies of the French Revolution, who sought to overturn the ancien régime in France. The regularity of this ancien régime was the target of attack for the French republican partisan armies, and they were as such local partisans with real enemies. But because the ancien régime in France was implicated in an entire context of international relations, the fall of the ancien régime in France became a threat to its structures all over Europe. The French republican armies began to fight an ideological war that required the elimination of all those who supported the ancien régime‘s definition of the public sphere, both in France, for example in the Vendee, and outside of France in other areas of Europe. The local war immediately became an ideological war because the existence of a republican public sphere in France threatened to reorganize the public sphere all across Europe in terms of republican and then of national identity. Because a particular structure of the public sphere has implications for the way the international public sphere is organized, the distinction between real enemies and absolute enemies will always break down.

Schmitt’s commitment to trying to limit the violence of war means that he tries to defend real enmity as a kind of defensive war against a foreign occupier. But this defense of real enmity is in fact a defense of the nation-state system with its particular organization of friends and enemies in terms of nation-state boundaries. But wars between nations in this system would in fact be limited wars to the extent that they would all recognize the legitimacy of the nation-state and its basis for legitimacy. In this sense, we could define World War I as a limited war that did not seek to establish a new basis for the public sphere but whose goals were in fact limited ones. By contrast, communist revolutions did put into question the entire nation-state system and could then be considered a kind of real war that tried to set up new structures for the public sphere. The end of these aspirations has brought us back to a nation-state sytem, and the only clear alternatives at present are those international Islamic ideologies that seek to transcend nation-state relations by establishing an Islamic public sphere.

Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2007).

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