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  • On “Real” and “Absolute” Enemies
  • Ernesto Laclau (bio)


The interest of Carl Schmitt's Theory of the Partisan is that it throws new light on central categories with which we have been familiar since the publication of his classical study, The Concept of the Political, in 1928. What the work we are now considering adds to that book is a new emphasis on political subjectivity and new precisions on the links between war and politics, together with a differentiation between various kinds of hostility. It is to this differentiation that my commentaries will be mainly addressed, but before that I will briefly describe the logical sequence of the main categories of Schmitt's theory of the partisan.

Schmitt starts by pointing out a momentous event that took place in European military history: the emergence of an irregular kind of warfare whose first expression was the Spanish partisan resistance to the Napoleonic armies between 1808 and 1813. At the epicenter of this new phenomenon we find the revolutionary restructuration of the art of war brought about by Napoleon, who broke with all the classical rules of the military art as they had been codified in the eighteenth century. Schmitt [End Page 1] quotes a Prussian general as saying that the Napoleonic campaign against Prussia in 1806 had only been a partisan operation on a big scale. The Spanish example, however, was not widely followed in Northern Europe except for the brief guerrilla war in Tyrol in 1809, and the long conflict was finally settled at the battle of Leipzig by a classical confrontation between regular armies. The restoration brought about by the Vienna Congress codified, inter alia, the rules of war between European States, rules that established neat distinctions between war and peace, between those engaged in the war and the civilian population, and between an enemy and a criminal. These rules dominated European history until the First World War, which started as a pure inter-State conflict in the most traditional sense, and whose nature was only modified by its revolutionary sequels.

It is this set of neat distinctions that the figure of the partisan starts blurring. Firstly, the popular resistance to an occupying power does not allow for a clear distinction between peace and war. Secondly, the partisans are an irregular force: they are part of the civilian population but participate in the armed struggle. Thirdly, the partisan, given his political motivation, cannot be assimilated to a criminal, yet he has no definable military status.

Schmitt gives several examples of appeals to the civilian population to resist foreign invaders. In German history he can only quote an edict from the Prussian king in 1813 that specifically refers to the Spanish precedent and calls on the population to be armed by any means and to disobey any orders coming from the invading power. This edict did not have any major effect or continuity, but in the case of Russia the partisan phenomenon—as described, for instance, in Tolstoy's War and Peace—went much deeper and was decisive in the defeat of the Napoleonic armies. Stalin also called for partisan action against the German invasion, and in China and Indochina the partisan war was not, of course, a secondary phenomenon, but the main component of the military action.

There are four aspects of the partisan's identity that Schmitt especially underlines: its irregular character—the partisan has no uniform—its already mentioned political motivation, its high degree of mobility, and its telluric belonging, which anchors him to the land and governs the whole [End Page 2] logic of his behavior. In some sense the partisan's presence is suspended between legality and illegality, and this is shown in the hesitations of the international legislation dealing with his status. The classical laws on war as stated by the ius publicum europeum—and restored by the Vienna Congress—did not leave any space for the recognition of the legality of the partisan, who either is considered some kind of light troop belonging to the regular army or is assimilated to a criminal hors la loi. The legal war took place between princes and regular armies. The historical evolution since the Franco...


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