Theory of the Partisan Paperback – 1 Jan 2007
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Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), one of the great legal and political thinkers of the 20th century, thought long and hard about the role and significance of war. He saw how the international law of the Eurocentric era of world history began to falter at the end of World War I and foundered at the end of World War II. Following World War II, belligerent acts around the world began to assume a distinctly partisan character, and the belligerents were increasingly non-state actors. His Theory of the Partisan originated in two lectures that Schmitt delivered in 1962, which addressed the transformation of war in the post-European age. Schmitt concludes Theory of the Partisan with the statement: "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." Theory of the Partisan analyzes a specific and significant phenomenon that ushered in a new theory of war and enmity. It contains an implicit theory of the terrorist, which in the 21st century has ushered in yet another new theory of war and enmity. Consequently, this work is not only of historical interest, but is relevant to contemporary political and military developments and concerns.
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From these beginnings Schmitt traces the History and Theory of the Partisan in a very terse manner. (Schmitt's book, really only an essay, is only 95 pages long.) After the defeat of Napoleon the victors, at the Congress of Vienna, "reestablished the concepts of European laws of war." However, as Schmitt points out, with "the introduction of compulsory military service, all wars become in principle wars of national liberation..." Thus Schmitt implies that to lose a war now means to lose the right to be a self-determining people. Since every war is now, at least potentially, a fight for national survival, there can be (in fact) no more limited wars... Naturally, along the way, we learn something of civil wars and colonial wars, both of which always had a partisan presence. Our author also reminds us that the Russian Empire, throughout the 19th century, fought various irregular wars against numerous mountain people it sought to subdue.
Russia is important to Schmitt's thesis because it is from Russia (i.e., from Lenin and Communism) that, according to our author, a most pernicious form of Partisan warfare (communist internationalism) would eventually arise. Schmitt reminds us that Napoleon also fought partisans in Russia, and that Napoleon also lost there. In frustration, Napoleon reportedly said, that "in fighting the partisan anywhere, one must fight like a partisan". But who is the Partisan? Anyone? No. Early on in this essay Schmitt concedes that one can say that 'to be a man is to be a fighter', and adds that "the consistent individualist does indeed fight on his own terms and, if he is courageous, at his own risk. He then becomes his own party-follower. (p. 19)" Though noting this possibility he dismisses this anarchy vaguely as merely a "sign of the time".
So then, who are the Partisans that we are to be interested in? Schmitt defines them thusly, they are:
1. Irregular Troops (no uniforms, weapons hidden, e.g.)
2. Mobil (flexibility, speed, the ability to quickly attack and retreat)
3. Intensely Political (unlike, say, pirates, - who are really only unpolitical 'businessmen'!)
4. Telluric (a local movement, rooted to a given 'land')
Or, at any rate, that is who Schmitt wishes they were. You see, the partisan "changes his essence once he identifies with the absolute aggressivity of a world-revolutionary or a technicistic [sic] ideology. (p. 20)" But of course the 'old-school' partisans described above will always be with us. "For at least as long as anti-colonial wars are possible on our planet, the partisan will represent a specifically terrestrial type of active fighter." So, you see, it is not only communist universalism that is changing the nature of the Partisan (for the worse), but progressive technocratic modernity itself. Modern weapons and communications allow telluric partisans to be easily used as pawns in the various chess matches of the Great Powers. But who really is using whom? ...Huh? Don't the Great Powers, especially the nuclear powers, seemingly by definition, always have the "upper hand"?
...So it would seem. But the following remark of Schmitt does make one wonder:
"...belligerent actions after 1945 had assumed a partisan character, because those who had nuclear bombs shunned using them for humanitarian reasons, and those who did not have them could count on these reservations - an unexpected effect of both the atomic bomb and humanitarian concerns. (p. 24)"
The Geneva Conventions (which "widened the circle of persons equated with regular fighters [...] and in this way [the partisans] were granted the rights and privileges of regular combatants") and nuclear weapons had the unexpected side effect of placing the Partisan at the center of World History. What no great power dared to do on its own could now be done by surrogates fighting for them. If this book were written only yesterday, instead of originating in talks delivered in the early sixties and first published then too, Schmitt would undoubtedly here say something smart about the Soviet Union destroying itself in Afghanistan fighting 'partisans' armed by America, only so the latter could then be slowly consumed in a war with its own creatures. - But that is exactly what is so astonishing about this book! At the height of the cold war Schmitt foresaw, however darkly, the utter futility of being a 'superpower'. And he sees this at a time when the 'best and the brightest' in both camps (i.e., that is, capitalists and communists) were certain that they were in a bi-polar world and that it was either "them or us"; but Schmitt, virtually before anyone, realizes that it could be neither ...and no one.
The second chapter presents a brief history of the development of the theory of the partisan. We are told that the Germans historically were allergic to Partisan warfare. But we also learn of the importance of the Prussian Landsturm Edict of April 1813 ("this document is a Magna Carta of Partisan Warfare") which was changed three months later ("cleansed of all partisan dangers") even though Napoleon had not been defeated (p. 43). But that is not the end of it. Schmitt points out that while the partisan efforts of the Spanish and the Russians were, let us say, 'pre-enlightened' (if not anti-Enlightenment!), the Landsturm Edict is a result of the Enlightenment itself! Here the Partisan became, "philosophically accredited and socially presentable." (p. 47)
"Berlin in the years 1808-13 was infused with a spirit that was thoroughly consistent with the philosophy of the French Enlightenment, so consistent that it was the equal of it, if not allowed to feel superior to it. [...] The nationalism of this Berlin intellectual stratum was not just a matter of some simple or even illiterate people, but rather of the educated elite. In such an atmosphere, which united an aroused national feeling with philosophical education, the partisan was discovered philosophically, and his theory became historically possible. (p.44)"
What is important to note here is that what had previously been merely and purely telluric pre-theoretical partisan resistance movements first became theorized by the political Right in the German Enlightenment. Churchill somewhere remarked that the Germans, "transported Lenin in a sealed train like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia." One of the burdens of Schmitt's essay is to indicate that this 'plague' was in reality of an Internationalist Partisan character, and that it was, ultimately, a product of the German Enlightenment! But today we know even more than that; we know that, as plagues are wont to do, it survived the death of its host (i.e., the USSR) and became that free-floating phenomenon we call 'terrorism'.
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. Clausewitz, a product of this Berlin Enlightenment, in "1810-11, had given lectures on guerilla warfare at the General War College in Berlin [...]." But Prussia chooses to not carry out an insurrectional war as many enlightened reformers had hoped. In the end, Clausewitz "remained a reform-minded professional officer of a regular army of his time, who could not let the seeds that we see here be developed to their ultimate consequences. (p. 46-47)"
Schmitt tells us that this development "required an active professional revolutionary." That would be Lenin. He was "the first to fully conceive of the partisan as significant figure of national and international civil war, and he sought to transform the partisan into an effective instrument... (p. 49)" of the USSR. Lenin, of course, realizes that all partisans are not equal. As Schmitt observes, for Lenin if "partisans are controlled by the Communist Central Committee, they are freedom fighters and glorious heroes; if they shun this control, they are anarchistic riffraff and enemies of humanity. (p. 50)" This, of course, is the (in)famous 'they may be bastards, but they are our bastards' rationale that was the common tactic of both sides throughout the cold war era. One could perhaps say that Schmitt's essay is a meditation on how 'the bastards' emerged as a power in their own right...
Lenin read Clausewitz quite seriously and annotated him in his notebooks. According to Schmitt, Lenin uncovers the primacy of the 'Friend-Enemy' distinction in this reading. Of this Schmitt says, that for "Lenin, only revolutionary war is genuine war, because it arises from absolute enmity. Everything else is conventional play (p. 52)" Unless war is based on 'absolute enmity' with the bourgeois it is merely play. This is why, for Lenin, any partisan resistance outside of the control of the communist party is such a contemptible thing. It is only a game! This "bracketed war and prescribed enmity [of International Law] were no longer any match for absolute enmity. (p. 54)"
And here we have reached what for me is the heart of the problem of the Partisan. The theory of the Partisan has pre-modern, modern and postmodern moments. In its pre-modern form it is not a theoretical problem; in fact, it just says 'No!' to Enlightenment Theory. In its modern form it is a problem; it has been thoroughly theorized and 'universalized'. This means that it overturns the structures of International Law, the old 'European System', in favor of another Order, a (communist) Utopia always yet to come. We have moved from 'prescribed enmity' to 'absolute enmity'. But, I would argue, this is not the worst of it. Partisanship, after the collapse of the USSR, retains a negative 'universalism' in that one can now foment partisan war against anyone! Absolute Enmity can now be aimed at anything...
Now, perhaps, I may be permitted at this point to end with a digression. Several people have asked me why I bother to read Schmitt, who is, after all and as I hope we all know, a former Nazi. The Rabbi Jacob Taubes was asked that question too. He provides an answer in Appendix A of his excellent book, "The Political Theology of Paul". First, he mentions that the hard and fast lines between Left and Right that we see today were not so clear before the Nazi's came to power. Indeed, both extremes shared an almost equal contempt for bourgeois democracy.
The great Marxist Critical Theorist Walter Benjamin, for instance, was quite enamored of Schmitt and, in December of 1930, sent an admiring letter, with a copy of his 'Trauerspielbuch' to Schmitt explaining that he made free use of several of his works. When Taubes (much later) asked Adorno about the letter he was told no such letter exists. Of course, Adorno later admits it was 'misplaced'. Taubes intends for us to understand that this misplacing was a matter of political convenience; when one builds a shrine one typically excludes unpleasant materials...
Next, Taubes mentions that Alexandre Kojève had the highest regard for Schmitt. (Kojève's 'Existential-Marxist' Hegel interpretation has influenced almost everyone in Continental Philosophy. Also, Kojève -not Fukuyama- is the true origin of the so-called 'End of History' debate.) In 1967, after giving lectures at the Free University of Berlin, Kojève announces "I'm going to Plettenberg", which is where Schmitt lived. More surprising than that (though, I believe, not mentioned by Taubes in this book), Kojève will say that Schmitt is the only one 'worth talking to' in Germany!
Now, that does seem rather extravagant!; - the admirer of Stalin and the ex-Nazi in embrace. But as Taubes indicated, the anti-bourgeois extremes are often in practical, if not theoretical, agreement. Indeed, Kojève and Schmitt had been carrying on a lively correspondence since the fifties. But the meeting of these two in 1967 intrigues me. This essay on the Partisan was already published. It is quite likely that Kojève and Schmitt discussed it. Now, what would they have said about it?
Well, what I believe both Kojève and Schmitt glimpsed in the figure of the Partisan was the vanishing of Reason from History. For the one this meant the impossibility of (Hegelian) Knowledge, while for the other this meant the impossibility of Political Order. Yes, Kojève is a Universalist while Schmitt is a Particularist. For Kojève, Knowledge (in the Hegelian sense) can only be achieved when Humanity becomes One. Ultimately, this is why, for him, History must End in the Universal Homogenous State; it is a technical requirement of Absolute Knowledge! But, as Taubes correctly points out, Schmitt is a Jurist, not a Philosopher. His problem is not Knowledge, - his problem is Order. For Schmitt, Political Order is, and can only be, a relation between separate and distinct parts. I believe that for for Schmitt, Universalism (the 'Oneness of Man' and the Universal State) is Chaos. (-That is because there are here no 'parts' to Order. Or, if you prefer, no enemies whose interactions are ordered through Law.)
Okay, but if Kojève and Schmitt are almost mirror opposites how is it that I imagine that they are both opposed to the Partisan? Well, the 'Partisan Wars' that began in the late twentieth century, and still continue, are perhaps the only real material force opposing the globalization that leads to Kojève's Universal State. But why would Schmitt oppose that? - He is an anti-Universalist! Because partisan warfare, once theorized (that is, universalized and modernized), becomes unending and all-consuming; in practice (and especially today, after the collapse of the USSR), the Partisan can (or will) oppose anything. Not only any Empire, but any State, is a potential target of a Partisan War. (In the late Twentieth Century the Partisan Oppositional stance has been Universalised!) Thus our contemporary (post)modern world, under the sign of the Partisan, slowly swirls towards Chaos. Both (Universal) Knowledge and (Political) Order are ever more swiftly becoming impossible...
A friend of mine once told me that this meeting between Kojève and Schmitt in '67 was a 'feast of thought'. ...No, I think it is far more likely that it was a wake. One imagines the Philosopher Kojève and the Jurist Schmitt staring into the gathering gloom, sharing a mournful brandy, toasting the impending deaths of their respective dreams... And (or so I imagine) all subsequent history has been a verification of the long, drawn out deaths (of Universalism and Order) that they first glimpsed two generations ago in the figure of the Partisan.
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