Book Summary: Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political / Carl Schmitt


View of the Initial Situation 1808-13

Schmitt writes, “the initial situation for our consideration of the problem of the partisan is the guerrilla war that the Spanish people waged against the army of a foreign conqueror from 1808 until 1813. In this war, a people—a pre-bourgeois, pre-industrial, pre-conventional nation—for the first time confronted a modern, well-organized, regular army that had evolved from the experiences of the French Revolution. Thereby, new horizons of war opened, new concepts of war developed, and a new theory of war and politics emerged” (p.3). For a complete theory of the partisan, Schmitt argues, “it is important to recognise that the power and the significance of his irregularity has been dependent on the power and significance of the regularity he challenges. Precisely this regularity of the state, as well as the army […]” (p.3). Theory of the partisan is important in the sense that it brought a theory of war in the second half of the 20th century. The theory, however, can be traced to Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War and formula of “war as the continuation of politics” “whose logic has been pursued to its end by Lenin and Mao Tse-tung” (p.8).

In the established laws of war by the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), Schmitt sees “success” as they “dominated the military conduct of European land war during World War I” (p.9) — and proceeds to call them “classical” because “they recognize clear distinctions, above all between war and peace, combatants and non-combatants, enemy and criminal. War has been waged between states, between regular state armies, and between sovereign bearers of a jus belli [right to war], who also in war respected each other as enemies, did not discriminate against each other as criminals, so that a peace treaty was possible and even constituted the normal, self-evident end of war. Given such a classical regularity—as long as it actually held sway—the partisan could be only a marginal phenomenon which in fact he was even during World War I” (p.9).

The Horizon of Our Investigation

As stated before, in the classical laws of war of European international law, there was no place for the partisan. In other words, “war remains bracketed, and the partisan stands outside of this bracketing” (p.10). And being outside this bracketing “now becomes a matter of his essence and his existence. The modern partisan expects neither law nor mercy from the enemy. He has moved away from the conventional enmity of controlled and bracketed war, and into the realm of another, real enmity, which intensifies through terror and counter-terror until it ends in extermination” (p.11).

According to Schmitt, there are two types of war that concerns the idea of the partisan: civil war and colonial war. So partisan warfare was spread in many parts of the word, beginning in China and other countries who sought to defend themselves from Japanese invasion. Also, with the help of modern technology, the partisan grew even stronger, more agile and had more means to communication. Thus, it became apparent that what Napoleon ordered to General Lefevre on September 12, 1813 was true: “in fighting the partisan anywhere, one must fight like a partisan” (p.13).

Partisan: Word and Concept

In this part, Schmitt attempts to draw an outline on the concept of the partisan. He proposes four features of the partisan that “ranges from the guerrilla of Napoleonic times to the well-equipped partisan of the present day, from Empecinado via Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi-minh to Fidel Castro” (p.22).

Firstly, the partisan is an irregular fighter. “The regular fighter is identified by a soldier’s uniform, which is more of a professional garb, because it demonstrates the dominant of the public sphere. […] The enemy soldier in uniform is the actual target of the modern partisan” (p.14). Secondly, Schmitt sheds light on the political character of the partisan. “The partisan fights at a political front, and precisely the political character of his acts restores the original meaning of the word partisan. The word derives from party, and refers to the tie to a fighting, belligerent or politically active party or group. These ties to a party become especially strong in revolutionary times” (p.15). Third comes the mobility of the partisan which “is even more intensified through technicization and motorisation” (p.16). And lastly, the partisan has a telluric character, which indicates his tie to “the soil, to the autochthonous population, and to the geographical particularity of the land—mountain-ranges, forests, jungles, or deserts—[…]” (p.21). Thus, “with these four criteria—irregularity, increased mobility, intensity of political engagement, and telluric character—[…] we have outlined conceptually the horizon of our investigation” (p.22).

View of the Situation in International Law

In this part, Schmitt investigates the shift from the 1907 Hague Convention to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and how partisans fit within these changes. According to Schmitt, with 1949 Geneva Conventions “ever more categories of belligerents now are considered to be combatants. […] Many comrades-in-armed, who were considered to be partisans, now are equated with regular combatants, and have rights and privileges. In fact, they no longer can be called partisans. Yet, the concepts still are unclear and vague” (p.23). Whereas in the 1907 Hague Convention “four classical conditions for an equation with regular troops—responsible officers, firm and visible shambles, open display of weapons, observance of rules and application of laws of war—were upheld rigidly” (p.24); “the 1949 Geneva Conventions widened the circle of persons equated with regular fighters, above all in that members of an ‘organized resistance movement’ were equated with members of militias and voluntary corps, and in this way were granted the rights and privileges of regular combatants” (p.25). Also, since the protection of civilian populations in militarily occupied areas is required, the population becomes partisan’s best friend while he disturbs the order, transport, and supply in the area while being hidden by the indigenous population.

Another thing to note is that, with the changes introduced in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, “resistance fighters, who earlier were treated as partisans, are equated with regular troops if they are organized” (p.27). Also, any resistance to occupying powers (like the one of the partisan), as long as it springs from respectable motives, is “considered to be not illegal. Nevertheless, the occupying power is justified in using repressive measures In this situation, a partisan does not become actually legal, but also not actually illegal. He proceeds at his own risk, and, in this sense, is treated as being risky” (p.27).

Schmitt ends the introductory chapter by praising the 1949 Geneva Conventions’ humanitarian development by giving humanity to the enemy and its introduction of the clear distinctions between war/peace, military/civilian, enemy/criminal, etc, while also noting that “these essential distinctions are loosened or even challenged, the door is opened for a type of war that consciously destroys these clear separations. Then, many discretely stylised compromise norms appear only as the narrow bridge over an abyss, which conceals a successive transformation of concepts of war, enemy, and partisan” (p.32).

Development of the Theory

Prussian Incompatibility with the Partisan

”In the 19th century, the Prussian-German army became the most famous and exemplary military organization in the European world” (p.34). And in this part, Schmitt briefly touches upon the Prussian encounter of the partisan.

“The German soldier met the Franc-tireurs in France, in the autumn of 1870, and on September 2 achieved the great victory over Napoleon III’s regular army near Sedan. Had the war been fought according to the rules of classical, regular army warfare, one could expect that after such a victory the war would have ended and peace would have been declared. But instead, the vanquished French imperial government was dismissed. The new republican government under Leon Gambetta proclaimed national resistance against the foreign invader: ‘all-out war’. In ever greater haste, it continually conscripted new armies and threw new masses of badly-trained soldiers onto the battlefield” (p.34-35).

Even though both the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions tried to address the problem, “the partisan is still the one who refuses to carry weapons openly, who fights from ambush, and who uses the enemy’s uniform, as well as true or false insignias and every type of civilian clothing as camouflage” (p.37).

The Partisan as a Prussian Ideal in 1813 and the Turn to Theory

Schmitt touches on a manifesto of enmity against Napoleon published by the Prussian king’s edict which called to partisan warfare. “Every citizen, according to the royal Prussian edict of April 1813, is obligated to resist to the invading enemy with weapons of every type. Axes, pitchforks, scythes, and hammers are expressly recommended. Every Prussian is obligated to refuse to obey any enemy directive, and to injure the enemy with all available means […]” (p.43). However the edict was changed three months later and was cleansed of partisan dangers.

And with the emergence of highly-educated military men like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz, along with the aroused national feelings, “the partisan was discovered philosophically, and his theory became historically possible” (p.44).

From Clausewitz to Lenin

In the 18th and 19th centuries, “the classical, fixed concept of the political was based on the state of European international law, and had bracketed war in classical international law, i.e., had made it purely state war. Since the onset of the 20th century, this state war with its bracketing has been destroyed and replaced by wars of revolutionary parties. For this reason, we use the following heading: ‘From Clausewitz to Lenin’” (p.49).

For Marx and Engels, “contemporary revolutionary war is no barricade war in the old style” (p.49). Instead, they believed in a completely non-partisan revisionism in which a proletariat majority would win in the bourgeois democracy, turning the social order to a classless society. But it was no so with Leninwho recognized the inevitability of force and bloody, revolutionary civil war and state war, and thus also approved of partisan warfare as necessary ingredient of the total revolutionary process” (p.49) and who was a great expert on and admirer of Clausewitz. “For Lenin, only revolutionary war is genuine war, because it arises from absolute enmity. Everything else is conventional play […] By comparison with a war of absolute enmity, the bracketed war of classical European international law, recognising accepted rules, is similar to a duel between cavaliers seeking satisfaction” (p.51-52). So, for Lenin, the question was: “Is there an absolute enemy, and if so who is he?” (p.52). And the answer was obvious, it was the bourgeois social order. “The irregularity of the class struggle challenges not only a line, but the whole structure of political and social order” (p.52-53).

From Lenin to Mao Tse-tung

For Stalin, the fundamental concept of partisan “was that they must fight behind enemy lines, consistent with the maxim: in the rear, partisans; at the front, fraternization” (p.55). And so he linked the strong potential of national and homeland resistance with the aggressive type of the international communist world revolution—and this linkage dominates the partisan warfare around the world.

Schmitt writes, “the greatest practitioner of contemporary revolutionary war became as well its most famous theoretician: Mao Tse-tung” (p.55), whose theory of war is a systematic continuation of Clausewitz’s concepts. “The characteristic picture Mao provides is found in the following comparison: ‘In our war, the armed people and the small partisan war on one side, and the Red Army on the other, is comparable to the two arms of a man or, to put it more practically: the morale of the people is the morale of the nation in arms. For this reason, the enemy is afraid’” (p.56).

What distinguished Mao from Lenin is that Mao’s revolution was more tellurically based and there was a concerted factor with reference to the partisan. Schmitt quotes Ruth Fischer’s explanation of the difference. “The Russian Bolsheviks of 1917, from a national standpoint, were a minority ‘led by a group of theoreticians whose majority were emigres.’ In 1949, the Chinese Communists under Mao and his friends had struggled for two decades on their own national soil with a national opponent (the Kuomintang) in an enormous partisan war” (p.57) with the organisational competence “to plant [their core principles] in a peasant milieu, and there to develop them further in a new and unforeseen way” (p.58).

For Mao, “peace today is only a manifestation of real enmity” (p.60) and he countered various types of enmity, “which intensified into absolute enmity: racial enmity against the white, colonial exploiter; class enmity against the capitalist bourgeoisie; national enmity against the Japanese intruder; and the growing enmity against his own national brothers in long, bitter civil wars” (p.59).

From Mao Tse-tung to Raoul Salam

In this last part of the chapter, Schmitt introduces us to the French General Raoul Salam who was active in North Vietnam and Algeria and who eventually established a Secret Army Organization (the OAS: Organisation d’Armee Secrete), pursuing systematic terrorist actions against both the Algerian enemy and the Algerian civilian population, as well as against the civilian population of France. Schmitt draws our attention to how “the war in Indochina (1946-54) was the ‘ideal example of a fully developed modern revolutionary war’” (p.66) which people like Salam became acquainted with and also approached it as a “psychological” warfare too.

Aspects and Concepts of the Last Stage

In this final chapter, Schmitt distinguishes four different aspects in order to gain a few clear concepts: the spatial aspect; destruction of social structures; the interlocking global-political context; and finally, the technical-industrial aspect.

The Spatial Aspect

”Completely independent of the good or ill will of men, of peaceful or hostile purposes and goals, any enhancement of human technology produces new horizons and unforeseeable changes in traditional spatial structures” (p.68). And in partisan warfare, “a new, complicated, and structured sphere of action is created, because the partisan does not fight on an open battlefield, and does not fight on the same level of open fronts. He forces his enemy into another space. In other words, he displaces the space of regular, conventional theatres of war to a different, darker dimension—a dimension of the abyss, in which the proudly-worn uniform [of the conventional soldier] becomes a deadly target” (p.69-70). And the irregularity of the partisan changes both the tactics and the strategies of regular armies as, Clausewitz recognized, a few partisans who dominate a given terrain can claim the right to be called “an army”.

Destruction of Social Structures

”The partisan, who displaced the technical-military consciousness of the 19th century, suddenly reappeared as the focus of a new type of war, whose meaning and goal was destruction of the existing social order. This becomes obvious in the changed practice of hostage-taking” (p.72). So, to the partisan, every soldier of the regular army, every man in uniform is a hostage. Thus, “a few terrorists are able to threaten great masses. Wider spaces of insecurity, fear, and general mistrust are added to the narrower space of open terror, creating a ‘landscape of treason’” (p.73).

The Global-Political Context

When there is a context in which international and supranational control has its own interests involved, “the partisan then ceases to be essentially defensive. He becomes a manipulative tool of global revolutionary aggressively” (p.74). In some way, being the irregular fighter he is, “the partisan always depends on assistance from a regular power” (p.74) because the partisan is dependent on “the constant help of a community that is in a technical-industrial position to provide him with the newest weapons and machines” (p.75). A significant point Schmitt makes is that “the powerful third party not only provides weapons and munitions, money, material support, and all types of medicine, he also creates the type of political recognition that the irregular fighter needs in order not to be considered in the unpolitical sense of a thief or a pirate, which here means: not to sink into the criminal realm. From a longer perspective, the irregular fighter must be legitimated by the regular, and this means two possibilities are open to him: recognition by an existing regular power, or achievement of a new regularity through his own power. That is a difficult alternative” (p.75).

The Technical-Industrial Aspect

”The partisan also participates in the development, in the progress of modern technology and its science. […] Both he and his enemies keep step with the rapid development of modern technology and its type of science” (p.76). However, Schmitt questions whether the partisan will cease to exist due to the rapid advancements in warfare technology. “What is one to make of him in the age of atomic weapons of mass destruction? In a thoroughly-organized technical world, the old, feudal-agrarian forms and concepts of combat, war, and enmity disappear. That is obvious. But do combat, war, and enmity thereby also disappear and become nothing more than harmless social conflicts? When the internal, immanent rationality and regularity of the thoroughly-organised technological world has been achieved in optimistic opinion, the partisan becomes perhaps nothing more than an irritant. […] In a technologically-focussed fantasy, he is neither a philosophical, a moral, nor a juridical problem, and hardly one for the traffic cop” (p.77). Schmitt also brings up the question: would happen if the “partisan succeeds in adapting to the technical-industrial environment, avails himself of the new means, and becomes a new type of partisan?” (p.78-79). From another perspective, in a warfare with weapons of mass destruction, will the few men that survive bring forth a new type of partisan that adds a new chapter to world history with a new type of space-appropriation?

Whatever the case, “despite all further progress, thins will remain as before. Technical-industrial progress will create only a new intensity of new appropriations, distributions, and productions, and thereby only intensify the old questions” — perhaps appropriating warfare to planetary dimensions.

Legality and Legitimacy

By returning to the case of Salan, Schmitt re-questions the concepts of legality and legitimacy while shedding a light on the supremacy of the legal government. “Perhaps that all will change when the state ‘withers away’. In the meantime, legality is the irresistible functional more of every modern state army. The legal government decides who is the enemy against whom the army must fight. Whoever claims the right to determine the enemy also claims the right to his own new legality, if he refuses to recognize the enemy determined by the former legal government” (p.84).

The Real Enemy

Schmitt reflects on Salan’s case, “Salan considered the Algerian partisans to be the absolute enemy. Suddenly, a much more serious, more intensive enemy appeared at his rear—his own government, his own commander-in-chief, his own comrades. Suddenly, he recognized a new enemy in his comrades of yesterday. That is the core of Salan’s case. The comrades of yesterday were revealed to be the more dangerous enemy. There must be a confusion in the concept of the enemy, which is related to the theory of war” (p.85-86). Then, Schmitt provides other cases of history that signify how the question of the real enemy was a core yet an obscure question, influencing Clausewitz of the concept.

Turning back to his own narration of the emergence of the partisan, Schmitt asks: “How was it possible that the partisan, who in the 17th century had sunk to the level of a Picaro, and in the 18th century was a light troop, for a moment, at the turn of the century (1812-13), appeared to be a heroic figure, and then, in our time, over 100 laters, even became a key figure of world history?” (p.88); and answers by arguing that “the irregularity of the partisan remains dependent on the meaning and content of a concrete regularity” (p.88). When the regularity of Napoleon’s army defeated the regular Spanish army, the game of irregulars emerged. And with Lenin, all traditional bracketing of war was destroyed. “War became absolute war, and the partisan became the bearer of absolute enmity against an absolute enemy” (p.89).

From the Real Enemy to the Absolute Enemy

Before Lenin, the partisan had a real but not an absolute enemy. “That follows from his political character. Another limitation follows from the telluric character of the partisan. He defends a piece of land with which he has an autochthonous relation. His fundamental position remains defensive, despite the intensive mobility of his tactics” (p.92). However, Lenin, “as a professional revolutionary of global civil war, went still further and turned the real enemy into an absolute enemy” (p.93).

Schmitt then turns our attention to these concepts within the framework of weapons of mass destruction. “Concretely, this means supra-conventional weapons presuppose supra-conventional men, not only as a postulate of a far-distant future, but as an existing reality. Thus, the ultimate danger exists not even in the present weapons of mass destruction and in a premeditated evil of men, but rather in the inescapability of moral compulsion. Men who use these weapons against other feel compelled morally to destroy these other men […] they must declare their opponents to be totally criminal and inhuman, to be a total non-value” (p.94).

Lastly, Schmitt explains how only the denial of real enmity paves the way for the destructive work of absolute enmity. “In 1914, the nations and governments of Europe stumbled into World War I without real enmity. Real enmity arose only out of the war, when a conventional state war of European international law began, and ended with a global civil war of revolutionary class enmity. Who can prevent unexpected new types of enmity from arising in an analogous, but ever more intensified way, whose fulfilment will produce unexpected new forms of a new partisan?” (p.95).

Schmitt ends the book with the following: “The theoretician can do no more than verify concepts and call things by name. The theory of the partisan flows into the question of the concept of the political, into the question of the real enemy and of a new nomos of the earth” (p.95)

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