So powerful is the civilizing genius of European man that, for a brief time, we even managed to tame war itself. But not all wars could be civilized, only those between civilized European states. The rules of war did not apply to wars against non-state actors, such as colonial wars against savages, civil wars and revolutions in which the state is up for grabs, and irregular warfare against partisans or guerrillas, which is the subject of Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan  (1962).
Theory of the Partisan & The Concept of the Political
Schmitt subtitles Theory of the Partisan, an “Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political,” thus linking it to his classic treatise The Concept of the Political  (1932), in which Schmitt both defines the political and defends it from forms of anti-political utopianism.
For Schmitt, the political arises from the fact of human diversity: there are many different peoples and subgroups with distinct identities and ways of life that can, in principle, conflict with one another. These differences give rise to enmity, which is a serious matter because it can lead to war. Politics arises out of enmity, and one of the chief aims of politics is to manage enmity. For Schmitt, therefore, the political does not refer to routine “domestic” politics but rather to grander, potentially bloody affairs: foreign policy, warfare, civil war, and revolution. Domestic relations can become political in Schmitt’s sense if they become sufficiently polarized, but they cease being domestic if they give rise to civil war or revolution.
Schmitt defends the political against anti-political forms of utopianism, including liberalism, anarchism, pacifism, and global capitalism. Of course in ordinary parlance, these are “political” ideologies, but in Schmitt’s sense of the political they are anti-political because they aim at the elimination of enmity, the underlying condition of which is diversity. Such utopianism is doomed, however, because utopians have enemies too, namely political realists like Schmitt and all those who wish to preserve their distinct collective identities from global homogenization.
Furthermore, Schmitt argues that attempts to eliminate enmity actually intensify it, for the enmity between finite peoples can be contained by the rules of warfare and concluded by a treaty of peace. Utopians, however, claim to fight in the name of all humanity. Their enemies are thus the enemies of humanity. But one cannot sign a peace treaty with the enemies of humanity. Thus war can only end with the enemy’s defeat and complete annihilation as an independent people, whether through assimilation or outright extermination.
Theory of the Partisan is a commentary on The Concept of the Political insofar as civilized warfare, one of the great achievements of European politics, is defined in contradistinction to non-civilized warfare, including partisan warfare, which Schmitt examines in detail, for it not only throws light on the nature of civilized warfare but also on its collapse into the uncivilized warfare of the 20th century and beyond.
For more on The Concept of the Political, click here .
Limited & Unlimited Warfare
The rules of European limited or “bracketed” warfare evolved slowly over centuries, establishing clear distinctions between war vs. peace, combatants vs. non-combatants, and enemies vs. criminals. Schmitt’s point of departure, however, is the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815, the post-Napoleonic restoration which codified what he calls the “classical” laws of limited warfare, which remained in effect to the end of the First World War.
Regular warfare is waged between state actors that recognize one another as bearers of a jus belli, the right to conduct war. The other side of the jus belli is the right to conclude peace. Bearers of the jus belli are not criminals; otherwise it would not be possible to conclude peace with them. A criminal must simply be defeated and destroyed as an independent agent if not altogether.
The rules of regular warfare did not apply to what Schmitt calls “colonial warfare,” which is directed against peoples who were regarded as savages and sometimes against other European colonizers.
When European powers wished to conclude peace with savages whom they could not destroy, they were capable of recognizing them as sovereign peoples, e.g., the Maori in New Zealand and the various Indian tribes of North America, which were treated as nations that could sign treaties. They may have been conquered peoples, but they were still recognized as peoples.
Of course, unless they are assimilated or exterminated, conquered peoples remain distinct peoples whether or not they are recognized as such by their conquerors. Anti-colonial warfare is simply a matter of a conquered people re-asserting its sovereignty and fighting to regain its independence.
Schmitt’s notion of colonial warfare seems to subsume all wars of conquest and assimilation or extermination, in which the enemy ceases to exist as a distinct people—even a conquered people—and a bearer of the jus belli. One cannot sign a peace treaty with an enemy that no longer exists, which is the only possible end of “unlimited” warfare.
Civil war is a war between multiple parties for control of a single state. Each party demands to be recognized as a state actor, but it cannot extend that recognition to its rivals, which have to be treated as rebels and criminals. Civil wars end when one party is left in control of the state and the others are dissolved or destroyed. If the parties to a civil war recognize each other as legitimate state actors, this amounts to the partition of the state, in which case we no longer have a civil war, but a war of partition or secession.
A revolution is pretty much the same thing as a civil war. When a civil war begins, the party in power regards its rivals as revolutionaries who seek to overthrow it, and when a revolution is launched, the outcome is generally decided by civil war, unless the existing state is too weak to resist and simply collapses or the revolutionaries are so weak that they can be quashed simply by the police.
The American Revolution was not really a revolution or a civil war but an anti-colonial war of secession. The American Revolutionaries never contemplated overthrowing George III altogether. They merely wished to secede from his empire. Indeed, the American revolutionaries had to recognize the legitimacy of the British throne, because the colonies needed the British to recognize them back, as legitimate states with which a peace treaty could be concluded.
Regular & Irregular Troops
Theory of the Partisan is based on two lectures delivered by Schmitt in March of 1962 in Franco’s Spain. Because of his Spanish audience, Schmitt begins his discussion of partisan warfare with the Spanish guerilla war against Napoleon from 1808–1813.
The term “partisan,” however, appears as early as 1595, in French decrees regarding enemy invasions which use the terms “partisan” and “parti de guerre” (p. 17, n23). In his Translator’s Introduction, G. L. Ulmen quotes Johan Heinrich Zedler’s 1740 dictionary definition of Parthey, Parti:
. . . a group of soldiers on horseback or on foot, which is sent out by a general to do damage to the enemy by ruses and speed, or to investigate his condition. . . . It has to have valid passports, letters of marque, or salviguards, otherwise they are considered highway robbers. The leader of such a party is called a Partheygänger [party-follower] or partisan. (p. X.)
Here we have two of the chief characteristics of the partisan in Schmitt’s terms: (1) the partisan is an “irregular” soldier, which means that he has an ambiguous legal status vis-à-vis regular soldiers, hence the risk of being treated as a mere criminal and the need to maintain some connection to regularity in order to avoid summary execution, and (2) the partisan is characterized by mobility and guile.
Partisan warfare played a large role in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), particularly in the American theater, where it was known as the French and Indian War. The partisan techniques of the French and Indian War were later used to great effect by the colonists in the American Revolutionary War.
Johann Ewald (1744–1813), who fought in Europe in the Seven Years’ War and in America during the Revolutionary War as a company commander in the Hessian Field Jaeger Corps, published a treatise on partisan warfare in 1785 entitled Über den kleinen Krieg (On Small War), which has been translated as Treatise on Partisan Warfare .
Four Characteristics of the Partisan
Schmitt discusses four traits of the partisan: (1) irregularity, (2) “intense political engagement,” (3) tactical versatility and speed, and (4) a “telluric” character.
Irregularity: Regular troops have four main traits: (1) responsible officers, (2) symbols that are visible (uniforms, flags) and fixed (one cannot wear enemy uniforms or fly enemy flags), (3) open display of weapons, and (4) observance of the rules of warfare, which would include, for example, taking prisoners and tending the wounded. Irregular or partisan warfare violates some or all of these rules, particularly the second and third.
Political Engagement: The original sense of “partisan” is simply someone who participates in warfare in an irregular way. Soldiers, of course, participate in warfare, but they are supposed to, so they are not called partisans. But when somebody participates in warfare who should not, such as an armed peasantry, they are called partisans. When regular soldiers participate in warfare in an irregular fashion, they are called partisans as well.
Schmitt, however, wishes to characterize partisans as political partisans, by which he means they fight for a particular political ideology. Of course ideological partisans, such as Marxist guerrillas and Muslim jihadists, have been very prominent since the Second World War. But I see no reason why partisans need necessarily to be particularly politically conscious or engaged, for they can simply fight to repel invaders from their homelands.
Schmitt claims that the political engagement of the partisan is one of the marks distinguishing him from a mere member of a criminal gang. But one could say the same thing about the partisan who fights merely for hearth and home.
Tactical Versatility and Speed: Partisans are often characterized as “light” troops: lightly armed, lightly armored, and lightly provisioned. Partisans travel and fight light because they put a premium on speed, which gives them a tactical advantage when engaging heavily armed regular troops. Partisans are also characterized by strategic flexibility, moving rapidly from attack to retreat. To offset the advantages of more heavily armed opponents, partisans also use guile, disguising themselves as civilians or even as enemy soldiers, carrying concealed weapons, laying traps and ambushes, etc. Schmitt saw that all of these traits can only be enhanced by technological progress, particularly in transportation and communications.
“Telluric” Character: Schmitt also characterizes partisans as having a “telluric,” i.e., earth-related, character. Specifically, the partisan is tied to his homeland, which he defends from invaders. Schmitt, however, recognizes that the partisan loses his telluric character if he is committed to an aggressive global ideology (e.g., Communism, Islam, liberal democracy) and takes advantage of modern advances in transportation and communication.
Guerrillas, Terrorists & Mercenaries
There is no real difference between a partisan and a guerrilla. The Spanish word for partisan warfare, “guerrilla,” simply means “small war.” In Spanish, guerrilla fighters are called “guerrilleros,” but in English as early as 1809, they were called “guerrillas.”
What is the relationship of partisan warfare to terrorism? Schmitt does not deal with this question, but I would like to suggest an answer that is consistent with his position. It is very tempting to conflate partisans with terrorists, since the terrorists we see on TV fit the partisan model. But that strikes me as a mistake.
The distinctive trait of terrorism is that it does not respect the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Terrorists target non-combatants in order to terrorize them, in the hope that it will demoralize their enemies and break their will to fight.
Thus defined, there is no necessary connection between terrorists and partisans. Terrorism can be used both by regular armies and partisan groups. Indeed, states rather than partisans are the greatest terrorists of all, because they have the greatest capacity to do violence. The pinnacle of terrorism, thus far, are Anglo-American innovations: the mass killing of enemy civilians through starvation and disease imposed by economic blockades and “sanctions” and through incineration by atomic and conventional bombing.
The conventional image of mercenaries, like that of terrorists, makes it easy to confuse them with partisans as well. But what distinguishes mercenaries is not their manner of waging war but their motive. Mercenaries fight for money. They will fight as regular troops or irregular troops, if the price is right. Furthermore, although mercenaries can operate like partisans, they lack the telluric character and political commitment of partisans. If a mercenary fights for his own homeland or a cause in which he believes, that is merely an accident of commerce.
Prussians & Partisans
The second chapter of Theory of the Partisan, entitled “Development of the Theory,” opens with a discussion of the relationship between the Prussian military and partisan warfare. According to Schmitt, the Prussian military was intensely committed to the classical rules of regular warfare. But because of this commitment to regular warfare, the Prussians reacted with particular savagery toward partisans.
This was the case during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). After Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan, his government was overthrown, and the new republic under Leon Gambetta proclaimed a war of national liberation against the Prussians, including widespread partisan warfare, which the Prussians fought savagely to suppress with summary executions, hostage taking, and reprisals against civilians. One wonders if the same dynamic led to similar anti-partisan measures on the Eastern Front in the Second World War.
But Schmitt points out, ironically, that the Prussians were no strangers to partisan warfare. Even Otto von Bismarck himself, when facing defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, wanted to “mobilize the underworld” (Archeronta movere), “to take every weapon in hand to be able to unleash the national movement not only in Germany, but also in Hungary and Bohemia” (Bismarck quoted in Schmitt, p. 40). In the end, however, Bismarck triumphed through classical limited warfare.
The Prussians also contemplated partisan warfare in 1812–1813, when the Prussian General Staff decided to mobilize the people in the struggle against Napoleon. The Prussian Landsturm (national militia) edict of April 21, 1813, signed by the king himself, ordered every subject to resist the enemy with every available weapon, explicitly mentioning axes, pitchforks, scythes, and hammers. Subjects were ordered not to cooperate with enemy attempts to restore public order. The Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon was expressly invoked as the model. The end of national liberation “sanctifies all means” of resistance. A few months later, however, the edict was purged of all partisan elements and resistance was assigned to the regular army.
From Limited to Total War
The example of the Franco-Prussian War makes it clear that limited warfare is a product of monarchy, specifically of feudal monarchy. In monarchical systems, kings and their cabinets fight wars over honor, territory, and wealth. Wars are simply duels and jousts writ large, which makes it possible to keep them contained. Both parties to the duel, moreover, follow the same code of honor. They recognize one another as being worthy opponents and worthy friends when the contest has ended. The feudal model allows the defeat of an enemy without his destruction as a distinct political entity. The defeated ruler simply bends his knee to the victor, swears fealty, and pays tribute. The classical limited European war thus takes on a ritualistic or game-like quality, much like the Aztec “wars of the flowers.”
When the Prussians defeated Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, according to the rules of limited warfare, he should have retained his sovereignty and signed a peace treaty. But before that could happen, Napoleon III was overthrown by a popular government which launched its people’s war against Prussia.
In short, if limited warfare goes along with the principle of monarchy, unlimited warfare—including partisan warfare—goes along with the principle of popular sovereignty. For example, when kings, their cabinets, and their armies fight wars, it is possible to make neat distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. But when peoples fight wars—by means of mass levees and partisan tactics—the distinction between combatant and non-combatant is no longer so clear.
Furthermore, as the examples of the Napoleonic Wars and the Austro-Prussian War indicate, kings and their cabinets, when faced with defeat within the rules of limited warfare, are not above the temptation to appeal to the people and license partisan warfare. Thus when war loses its game-like quality and gets existentially serious—a matter of survival for whoever wages it—then limited warfare goes out the window, the underworld is mobilized, and all hell breaks loose.
Granted, partisan warfare existed before the rise of popular sovereignty, but whenever the people make war, they are performing sovereign functions. Thus partisan warfare is implicitly revolutionary. This may be why the Prussian monarchy ultimately resisted using partisan warfare, for once the principle of popular sovereignty is established, monarchy’s days are numbered.
According to Schmitt, the man who saw this most clearly was Vladimir Lenin, who was a careful student of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831). In his notes on Clausewitz’s On War , Lenin distinguished real war (Voina) from mere military play (Igrá). Limited warfare is mere play because it is not existentially serious. Yes, people die in limited wars, but the state actors do not; the fundamental political system remains intact.
Lenin, of course, was a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the existing system, and revolution has never been a form of limited warfare. Revolution has always had the utmost existential seriousness, because one can win only by destroying all other pretenders to sovereignty. Furthermore, Lenin was a Communist revolutionary. He fought in the name of the people, through totally mobilizing the people, which makes it difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Finally, Communism, like Islam and liberal democracy, is a universal political ideology, which means that it denies the legitimacy of all other forms of government all over the globe. Such an ideology can lead only to unlimited, global warfare until all distinctions are obliterated.
Types of Enmity
The friend-enemy distinction is the foundation of the political. In war, the enemy is obviously the most important category. Schmitt distinguishes at least four different types of enemy in Theory of the Partisan: (1) the legal enemy vs. (2) the real enemy, and (3) the relative enemy vs. (4) the absolute enemy.
One of the functions of the sovereign is to declare the enemy. This is the legal enemy. However, enmity is not merely conventional. There are real enemies and real friends based on real conflicts and harmonies of interest. Thus the legal enemy can be different from the real enemy. For example, in 1812, Prussia was allied with Napoleon against Russia. Thus, legally speaking, Russia was the enemy and France the friend. However, in terms of fundamental values and interests, France was the true enemy and Russia the true friend. Thus, in December of 1812, the Prussian General Hans von Yorck, who commanded the Prussian division of Napoleon’s army in Russia, defected to the Russians. In a letter to his king, Frederick William III, Yorck asked the king to decide whether to condemn him as a rebel for usurping his sovereign role of determining the enemy or to ratify his decision by moving against the real enemy, Napoleon.
For Schmitt, the relative enemy is the enemy of a limited, bracketed war, i.e., the sort of enemy with which one can make peace. The absolute enemy is the enemy in a colonial, civil, or revolutionary war, i.e., an enemy with which one cannot make peace and who must therefore be destroyed as a distinct being, either by absorption or extermination.
Morality & Enmity
Civilized war is not the same as moralized war. In fact, civilized war is rather morally cynical. States can make war and peace out of the basest of motives. If you shoot 10 innocent hostages in reprisal for one murdered soldier, you are civilized. If you shoot 11, you are a barbarian. But in spite of this moral cynicism, bracketed warfare did serve the higher good by making it possible to limit the scope of warfare and conclude wars with peace.
According to Schmitt, injecting morality into warfare merely intensifies enmity thus widening the scope and prolonging the duration of warfare. We cannot afford this in a world with weapons of mass destruction:
. . . 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 a moral compulsion. Men who use these weapons against other men feel compelled morally to destroy these other men as offerings and objects. They must declare their opponents to be totally criminal and inhuman, to be a total non-value. Otherwise they themselves are nothing more than criminals and brutes. The logic of value and non-value reaches its full destructive consequence, and creates ever newer, ever deeper discrimination, criminalizations, and devaluations, until all non-valuable life has been destroyed. (p. 94)
The Future of the Partisan
Schmitt’s nightmare, like Heidegger’s, is the fulfillment of our ongoing “progress” toward a completely homogenized, global technological civilization. His deepest hope seems to be that the partisan, because of his telluric nature, can resist this future: “. . . the partisan, on whose telluric character we have focused, becomes the irritant for every person who thinks in terms of purpose-rationality and value-rationality. He provokes nothing short of a technocratic affect [by which Schmitt seems to mean “rage”]” (pp. 76–77). (Interestingly, in his later writings, such as “The Origin of the Work of Art” and “The Thing,” Heidegger also appeals to the telluric as a force of resistance to the technological drive toward complete transparency and availability.)
Schmitt’s hope is that globalization and homogenization will not be completed because they will give rise to partisans who will resist the process in the name of their own particularity: their distinct homelands, cultures, and ways of life. Schmitt also hopes that partisans will appropriate modern technology to resist modern technocracy, that they will turn every modern “advance” into a new means and opportunity for resistance. In a rather apocalyptic, Road Warrior turn of imagination, he even speaks of partisans who will spring up after a nuclear war or other form of catastrophic civilizational collapse to inaugurate a new phase of world history.
Schmitt’s great fear, however, is that even the telluric, identitarian nature of the partisan can be coopted by the technological world system. For example, he devotes a great deal of space to discussing the development of Marxist theories of guerrilla warfare from Lenin to Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, noting how masterfully Communists were able to exploit even rooted and nationalistic partisans in order to advance a homogenizing global ideology.
* * *
Theory of the Partisan is a melancholy little book, by turns illuminating and obscure, nostalgic and revolutionary.
On the one hand, Schmitt clearly mourns the loss of classical bracketed warfare. In a rare moment of petulance, he blames Lenin for “blindly” destroying “all traditional bracketing of war” (p. 89). With all due contempt for Lenin, in this case he was not blind. His eyes were wide open.
Lenin saw quite clearly that classical bracketed warfare was a relic of the age of monarchy, and although it was indeed civilized, it was never all that serious. It was merely the expression of the petty politics of prestige and dynastic intrigue: the game of thrones.
The game of war never replaced real war. It simply drove it to the margins. Real war is existentially serious: the stakes are global and the penalty for loss is biological extinction. This is what Nietzsche called “Grand Politics.” This is our fight, and we need to see it for what it is, with eyes unclouded by nostalgia and tears.
On the other hand, Schmitt’s vision of the identitarian partisan has genuine revolutionary potential. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of identitarian partisans are the defenders of biological rather than cultural diversity: Greenpeace, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, and sundry freelance monkeywrenchers, tree-spikers, and animal protectors and liberators. These partisans take their telluric rootedness seriously. When white racial preservation inspires the levels of organization, idealism, and moral and physical courage displayed by partisans of trees, birds, and lab rats, I will no longer fear for our future.
1. Carl Schmitt: Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2007).
2. Johann Ewald, Treatise on Partisan Warfare, ed. and trans. Robert A. Selig and David Curtis Skaggs (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991).