Carl Schmitt and civil war
Carl Schmitt is relevant – this is my basic premise. There are many fascinating theorists, some perhaps more fascinating than Schmitt, but the basic premise of relevance cannot be applied to all of them equally. Schmitt’s relevance is not something that can be easily explained in a post. But there is an interesting anecdote recounted by George Schwab (his translator into English), that even mentioning Schmitt’s name in academic debates/arguments would be met with “hostility” up until the 1970s (The Challenge of the Exception). I am not going to explain the relevance as such; instead, it is perhaps better to go over a particular issue in Schmitt that has had relatively little attention. And specifically the issue of civil war. Perhaps by going over what Schmitt has to say on civil war, his relevance will become clearer.
In this post I will deal with his The Concept of the Political (Amazon) as it is considered his primary text (his magnum opus if you will), even though I am not entirely convinced that that is the case.1
The citations below are from the 2007 Expanded Edition of The Concept of the Political (it includes the commentary by Leo Strauss, a must read!, and Schmitt’s The Age of Neutralisations and Depoliticisations), published by The Chicago University Press.
APA: Schmitt, C. (2007). The Concept of the Political. Expanded Edition. (G. Schwab, Trans.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Why a concern with civil war?
Schmitt’s interest in civil war is not a clear one, and not without contradictions. It is important to note, for instance, that until the second edition of his treatise there was absolutely no mention of civil war in The Concept of the Political; and it is questionable whether there would be any mention were it not for Hans Morgenthau’s comments in 1929. This is crucial, before preparing the paper for a treatise in 1932, Schmitt had solely the international arena in mind – the move towards domestic political antagonisms only appears from communication with Morgenthau. As Meier notes: “Schmitt speaks of war seventy-seven times . . . civil war does not occur once [in 1927 version]” (Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss). Morgenthau’s comments are very interesting. He detects a flaw in Schmitt that is generally overlooked (even in the adaptation), namely that the notion of intensity of the relation between friend and enemy is one that can equally be applied to domestic politics – it is natural for Schmitt to take this over and include the notion of civil war. But Morgenthau in fact goes a little further, he claims that Schmitt misses why domestic politics is less prone to dispute than international arena.
Let’s back up a little. For Schmitt in 1927 there is only a political differentiation on the international arena – domestic politics is wholly neglected/ignored. In 1932, after Morgenthau’s comments, civil war starts playing a role (as the citations in this post testify). Morgenthau detects that Schmitt’s view of intensity of the relation between friend and enemy is downplayed in the domestic sphere, but Schmitt has no realisation of why this is the case. Morgenthau does have one: namely, the domestic sphere is “elastic” – there is a “system of norms” that is lacking internationally, but that is present domestically. If we take US example, this becomes quite clear. There is something that we understand as American, we may disagree what that is, we may fight about it publicly (the word ‘patriotism’ comes to mind), but we generally accept the ‘American’ character of one another – regardless of how immensely different we actually are. This is entirely missing in Schmitt precisely because of his philosophical anthropology – man in innately bad/sinner/wicked/etc. His reliance on Hobbes leads him to understanding the friend-enemy relation in terms of intensity and thereby of the potentiality of conflict. (I should note that Morgenthau returns to Schmitt later in his career and is closer to the ‘intensity’ reading, but that is currently unimportant, because I am more interested in civil war right now).
So the following citation is one of those adapted to Morgenthau’s comments:
The intensification of internal antagonisms has the effect of weakening the common identity vis-a-vis another state. If domestic conflicts among political parties have become the sole political difference, the most extreme degree of internal political tension is thereby reached; i.e., the domestic, not the foreign friend-and-enemy groupings are decisive for armed conflict. The ever present possibility of conflict must always be kept in mind. If one wants to speak of politics in the context of the primacy of internal politics, then this conflict no longer refers to war between organized nations but to civil war.
For to the enemy concept belongs the ever present possibility of combat. All peripherals must be left aside from this term, including military details and the development of weapons technology. War is armed combat between organized political entities; civil war is armed combat within an organized unit. A self-laceration endangers the survival of the latter. The essence of a weapon is that it is a means of physically killing human beings. Just as the term enemy, the word combat, too, is to be understood in its original existential sense. It does not mean competition, nor does it mean pure intellectual controversy nor symbolic wrestlings in which, after all, every human being is somehow always involved, for it is a fact that the entire life of a human being is a struggle and every human being symbolically a combatant. The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy. It is the most extreme consequence of enmity. It does not have to be common, normal, something ideal, or desirable. But it must nevertheless remain a real possibility for as long as the concept of the enemy remains valid. (pp. 32-3)
When domestic political difference reaches an intensity ‘normally’ present internationally, then we reach civil war. Despite my allusions, a conception of enmity is not the crucial one (and yes, I am aware that enmity has played the predominant role in secondary literature). What stands out is, again, the actuality of the political difference. The ‘ever present possibility of combat’ – this is why Schmitt emphasises the ‘original existential’ meaning of combat. What else is combat, Schmitt claims, than a physical death? – poetic/symbolic death is meaningless.
- I am not convinced for several reasons, but the main reason is that it does not elucidate ‘the political’ sufficiently, and only mentions a basic category. The same themes dealt with in The Concept of the Political are present in his other works (especially The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Political Theology, and Dictatorship), and are dealt with more clearly there.