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Our enemies are human: Mao against Carl Schmitt

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Our enemies are human: Mao against Carl Schmitt

 I wrote this essay around the time when the Iraq war was in full gear. I post it hear as part of the dialogue that we have had recently on Kasama about revolutionary strategy and communist orientation, particularly the recent pieces by Enaa on Blanqui and his Rock beats scissors piece.

Here I look at the German political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt and his ideas about the distinction between friend and enemy and contrast them to Mao's understanding of friends and enemies and the actual experience of the Chinese revolution. Carl Schmitt had a strong influence on the Nazis and at one point joined them as they rose to power. Some leftists have argued that there are things we can incorporate from his prolific body of work but this has been contested by others like Zizek. Some of that is touched on here.  

The paper was an academic paper, though I was never too good at sticking to academic concerns. At the time I wrote it part of my goal was to persuade academics to look more at Mao tse-tung’s political theory (something still needed) and that comes out a bit at the end of the piece. I was also just coming into familiarity with thinkers like Zizek and Badiou. Believing the piece still has some theoretical value, I’m posting the pieces here slightly edited from its original edition, warts and all. I think the points made about the period of the Iraq War regarding how we can conceive of friend and enemy still hold up in today's international situation.

 by Nat Winn


This essay is a response to a challenge posed by the Marxist cultural studies scholar John Hutnyk to Jacques Derrida in his book Bad Marxism - Capitalism and Cultural Studies.(1) My understanding of Hutnyk’s book is that it is a challenge to left scholars to develop theory that can be used in practical struggles against capitalism. Particularly he calls for a new Marxism, a Marxism that “declares itself open to critique.”(2)

In a book, then, that challenges many of the theoretical currents on the academic left; Hutnyk explores Derrida’s engagement with Carl Schmitt and Mao Tse-tung in Derrida’s book The Politics of Friendship.(3) In looking at the evolution in Schmitt’s conception of the friend and enemy distinction as the essence of the political from The Concept of the Political to Theory of the Partisan, Derrida makes the assertion that “With Mao Tse-tung it (the myth of the national and autochtonomous partisan) represents a new stage in the history of the partisan, and therefore in the process of rupture with the classical criteriology of the political and that of the friend/enemy grouping.”(4) Hutnyk’s problem with Derrida around this engagement is Derrida’s reluctance to dig deeper into this “rupture” and engage with its theoretical consequences and usefulness. Instead Derrida focuses on the role of technologies in conceptualizing the political and Hutnyk argues that this leads to a determinism centered on speed. Hutnyk poses the challenge to Derrida:

Why speak so much of Marx and so much less of Mao if Mao’s ‘partisan rupture’ is so important even as a critique of Schmitt? In the Politics of Friendship, where Derrida talks of the technological speed break of the new partisan, instead of knowing who the enemy is, and other certainties, he seems to accept that ‘today’ cannot be understood. He is content to make an aside about being ‘ready to listen to this screaming chaos of the “voiceless”’ Voiceless because of an uncertainty, chaos because to ‘talk politics’ one must swallow ‘all the assurances of clear cut distinctions”’ and so, I guess like Mao, know who is ‘the enemy’ at any given time. Derrida is reluctant to do this, and instead of – as might have been expected – making some comment on Mao’s essay ‘On Contradiction’, which at the very least applies some dialectical sophistication to the ‘assurances’, offers rather a further extended aside devoted to computer espionage bugs, spy networks, cryptography, cybercrime and the ‘hopeless debate’ in the US about communications technology and privacy.(5)

My essay seeks to go where Hutnyk feels Derrida did not. It will examine the evolution in Schmitt’s conception of the friend/enemy distinction and the partisan in relation to this evolution. It will then look at Mao’s understanding of the friend/enemy distinction and how this differed from Schmitt’s understanding. In comparing these conceptions it will also compare the metaphysical existentialist methodology of Schmitt and the dialectical materialist methodology of Mao.

Carl Schmitt's concept of the political

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.(6)

This sentence sets the framework for Schmitt’s concept of the political in his classic work The Concept of the Political. For Schmitt this was a criterion and not a substantial definition or one with content. The friend/enemy distinction corresponded to the antithesis of other “relatively independent criteria” such as good and evil in the moral sphere or beautiful and ugly in the sphere of aesthetics.(7) Furthermore, any antithesis, be it religious, moral, economic, or ethical that is strong enough to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy transforms the antithesis into a political one.(8) Schmitt points to the example of Marxists who take the class struggle seriously and are able to win people to consider the capitalist as an enemy. When this happens the antithesis between classes ceases to be economic and becomes political. Also if a religious group begins to wage wars against other religious communities it thus becomes a political entity.(9)

For to the enemy concept belongs the ever present possibility of combat…The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing…War is the existential negation of the enemy.(10)

The Concept of the Political  was written when Schmitt still held to the concept of decisionism. Whoever was able to control the ability to conduct or stop a war constituted the political entity in a given society. For instance, if a trade union or a religious organization were able to stop the state from conducting a war then the state was no longer the fundamental political entity. That character would belong to the given collectivized group who determined whether or not to fight. This group has the real power to decide who the enemy is. Schmitt states in defense of this concept that pacifism would become political only if its hostility towards war were strong enough to drive pacifists to go to war with non-pacifists.(11)

While denying that war is the aim or purpose of the political, Schmitt says that as an ever present possibility war is the leading presupposition “which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking” thereby creating “a specifically political behavior.”(12) Schmitt thus concludes that in a world in which there is no possibility to wage war the distinction between friend and enemy would become impossible and thus there would be no politics.(13)

The juridic formulas of the omnipotence of the state are, in fact, only superficial secularizations of theological formulas of the omnipotence of god.(14)

The political entity is by its very nature the decisive entity, regardless of the sources from which it derives its last psychic motives. (15)

These two sentences demonstrate the relativism and the philosophical idealism of Carl Schmitt at the time of this essay. The substance is not important. All that matters in conceptualizing the political is that entity, regardless of its ideas or “psychic motives”, which is practically able to decide on war. It is a conception that does not concern itself with the material conditions that lead individuals or communities to take up particular ideas and to live and die for them; it is a conception of the political that deals specifically with form. This conception encompasses a dichotomous relationship between certain spheres as mentioned above (ie. good and evil in the moral sphere) but it fails to examine the dialectic between ideas and society. For this reason the political resides only in abstract antagonisms and can never be transformed into a non-antagonistic form because its essence is the friend and enemy distinction. This formalistic approach weighs heavy on Schmitt’s critique of liberalism and his understanding of the break down of the Eurocentric order that I will speak of below. 

Schmitt's critique of liberalism

An important part of Schmitt’s conception of the political was the idea of an internal and an external in the formation of a sustainable order. With the distinction of friend and enemy as the essence of the political there is an understanding that there is an enemy or an external that is existentially determined by the substantive political entity. The enemy can be both an internal other such as the Jew in Europe or an external other such as the non- European colony or even another European state. Schmitt’s problem with liberalism is that it does not have a conception of the other, it is a humanitarian theory and thus there is no conception of the political or the other. Liberalism embraces the rights of each and every individual and sees the state and the political as problematic and interfering. The liberal concept seeks autonomy for the individual to own property and to engage in trade with other individuals. In this respect a liberal conception of the state is as a place where ideas are debated. Economically there is competition between individuals of a nature that is not antagonistic; that does not include the possibility of war and therefore there is no friend/enemy distinction in the political sense as understood by Schmitt.(16)

Nomos of the earth

 In his post World War II work Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum Schmitt puts forward that the Europeans had succeeded in creating a global order based on the European concept of the state that lasted from the 16th to the end of the 19th century. This order contained an internal and an external aspect based upon the division of the European states that were regulated by an international law that effectively ended civil war and established the rules for laws between states and externally free spatial areas (the world outside of Europe) that were open for appropriation. This international spatial order began to break down with the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine and was effectively destroyed by World War II. The establishment of the United States and the Soviet Union as world powers failed to create a new global order particularly because both powers had universalistic worldviews and thus failed to have any conception of the other. This created an evolution from a conception of the “real enemy” with which war could be regulated to the “absolute enemy” which must be totally annihilated.(17) It is from this thesis that we move into Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan.

Theory of the partisan

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.(18)

This is the last sentence of Schmitt’s essay on the partisan and as one can see it ties together his historicist political project. In this work Schmitt traces the history of the partisan or irregular fighter from Spanish partisans fighting Napoleon to the Algerian guerillas and the dissident French general enemy Raoul Salan. It is through this history that we watch the evolution from the real enemy to the absolute enemy. From Schmitt’s understanding, the rise of the revolutionary communist Lenin marks a turning point.

Since the onset of the 20th century, this state war with its bracketing has been destroyed and replaced by wars of revolutionary parties.(19)

Schmitt says that Lenin was the first person to conceive of the partisan as a significant force for revolutionary war on both the national and international fronts. He sought to make the partisan an “effective instrument” for the goals of international communism.(20) Schmitt cites an article Lenin wrote in the Russian periodical The Proletarian titled “The Partisan Struggle” to back his argument and also cites Lenin’s engagement with Carl von Clausewitz’s classic On War to argue that it was Lenin’s insistence on partisan war and his cognizance of the enemy that distinguished him from the social democrats of his time and was the “secret of Lenin’s enormous effectiveness.”(21) Schmitt asserts:

His understanding of the partisan was based on the fact that the modern partisan had become the true irregular and, thereby, the strongest negation of the existing capitalist order; he was called to be the true executor of enmity.(22)

I take this to mean that the partisan fighter by destroying the bracketed war, by an international force of irregulars fighting for a universal cause, the social structure based on the state representative of the bourgeoisie is systematically being broken down.
From the contribution of Lenin to the notion of the partisan, Schmitt moves to Mao Tse-tung. Mao’s notion of a nation at war where the partisans make up nine tenths of the fighting force also borrows from the military ideas of Clausewitz but goes beyond what the Prussian war strategist could have imagined. The term “nation at war” was first used by the Prussian General Staff during the Napoleonic wars. Mao uses the term in his 1938 work “Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War against Japan.”(23) Unlike the professional revolutionaries Lenin and Mao, the professional officer Clausewitz considered war to be clearly separate from peace. In this regard Mao went even beyond Lenin in including the population in war and thus “made it possible for him to think the partisan through to the end.”(24) Schmitt explains:

Mao’s approach is as simple as it is effective. War has its meaning in enmity. Because it is the continuation of politics, it also encompasses politics, at least the possibility that there is always an element of enmity; and if peace contains the possibility of war (which, from experience, unfortunately is the case), it also contains a factor of potential enmity. The question is only whether enmity can be bracketed and regulated, ie., whether it is relative or absolute. That can be decided only by the belligerents at their own risk. For Mao who thinks as a partisan, peace today is only manifestation of real enmity. Enmity also does not cease in so-called cold war, which is not half war and half peace, but rather a situation of enmity with other than open violent means. Besides, only weaklings and illusionists are able to be deceived.(25)

Here there is a sought of instrumentalist argument made by Schmitt. While it is true that the international communist movement sought to put the bourgeoisie out of existence, it is also the goal of the international communist movement for the proletariat to go out of existence. The goal for communists is in fact a world without classes. It does not follow from this that Mao or Lenin devalued, or to be more specific, dehumanized the enemy. For this is Schmitt’s main argument; that universal aims lead to a devaluation of the enemy and the end of a bracketing of war, and thus the goal of both sides becomes total annihilation. The problem is that neither the writings of Lenin, nor Mao support Schmitt’s argument. In fact they refute it, as do the actions of the partisans during the civil war and the anti-Japanese war led by Mao.

Schmitt does go onto to speak of the evolving nature of the partisan from telluric to motorized. He raises the specter of the technologically sophisticated partisan and its possible use of nuclear weapons. While these are very real concerns and history since Schmitt has wrote Theory of the Partisan have born out the truth of his speculations, the main argument, the point about the distinction between real and absolute enemy is where we can see problems. Derrida chose to engage Schmitt from the point of his analysis of technology and speed and he was left in an abyss. This is why he was criticized by Hutnyk. From hear we will deconstruct Schmitt’s thesis by looking specifically at Mao’s understanding of the friend and enemy distinction in politics.

Mao's thinking on friends and enemies

We can see philosophically when looking at how Mao understands the particularity of contradiction that Schmitt’s conception of the absolute enemy in relation to the Marxist-Leninist partisan is at best on shaky ground. After explaining the universality of contradiction in his essay “On Contradiction” and that all processes and things contain contradictory aspects within them, Mao goes onto explain that the contradictions within each thing are particular to that thing and make that thing’s identity.(26)Throughout this rich essay Mao draws on very practical experience from the Chinese revolutionary period beginning in 1911 to show the significance of his understanding. In explaining what he understood as China’s bourgeois democratic revolution, Mao lists many of the different contradictions that existed:

...there exist the contradiction between all the oppressed classes in Chinese society and imperialism, the contradiction between the great masses of people and feudalism, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the contradiction between the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other, the contradiction between the various reactionary ruling groups, and so on. These contradictions cannot be treated in the same way since each has its own particularity; moreover, the two aspects cannot be treated in the same way since each aspect has its own characteristics.(27)

In this approach we see the dialectical relationship between the universal and the particular and the necessity to grasp the particular aspects of particular things or processes. Nowhere within this approach do we see a call for the annihilation of all social groups except the proletariat or even the call for the annihilation of the bourgeoisie per se.

Mao also speaks of the changing relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang. From the period of 1921-1927 there was a united front between the CCP and the Kuomintan. Mao saw the Kuomintang that represented the bourgeoisie, as “revolutionary and vigorous,” and the united front as an “alliance of various classes for the democratic revolution.”(28) Certainly it would go against all logic to form an alliance of this sought with a force you have absolutely devalued and dehumanized. At the very least you would not speak of them with this sought of respect. Mao went on to explain that after 1927 the Kuomintang became a “reactionary bloc of the landlords and big bourgeoisie.”(29) After the so-called Sian Incident in which a Kuomintang general kidnapped the leader of the Kuomintang and forced him into an alliance with the CCP, the Kuomintang’s direction changed again and there was cooperation between the two parties in fighting against Japanese imperialism even while the the two sides (CCP and Kuomintang) still occasionally clashed.(30)

From looking more closely at Mao’s essay on dialectical materialism and specifically on the nature of contradiction in relation and juxtaposed to Carl Schmitt’s conception of the political and the friend enemy distinction we get a much richer understanding of what John Hutnyk meant when he referred to Mao’s “dialectical sophistication” in answering the question of who is the enemy at any given time. From the reading of Mao’s essay we get a clearer understanding of what Ernesto Laclau justifiably remarks is the “rigidity with which he (Schmitt) presents this distinction (the real against the absolute enemy) that is at the root of the limitations of Schmitt’s essay.”(31)

Laclau argues that the very concept of a generalized notion of war that the real enemy idea involves “requires us to move in a variety of directions” that Schmitt fails to explore.(32) Laclau explains:

A consideration of these aspects involves rethinking the effects of a generalized notion of war: possibility of a multiplicity of enemies- whose consequences, as we have pointed out paradoxically lead to a limitation of hostility- and the possibility also of a more diversified vision of the forms of articulation between differential and equivalential logics.(33)

While Laclau uses Gramsci as an example to make his point, certainly Mao in 1938 is grappling with similar complexities and answers with his own sophisticated clarity.(34)

Slavoj Zizek also takes issue with Schmitt’s formal method of conceptualizing the political. Zizek argues that Schmitt actually tries to disavowal the political by attempting to “depoliticize the conflict by bringing it to its extreme, via the direct militarization of politics.”(35) To Zizek there is an attempt on the part of Schmitt to “resolve the deadlock of the political through its false radicalization,” by formulating the idea of the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ or the absolute enemy.(36) The clearest indication of this for Zizek comes when Schmitt argues for the primacy of inter-state politics over internal politics or antagonisms within a given social sovereign. Schmitt thus disavows “the internal struggle which traverses the social body.”(37) In warning of the dangers of a left appropriation of Schmitt, Zizek argues that the left in contrast to Schmitt should “insist on the unconditional primacy of the inherent antagonism as constitutive of the political.”(38)  By insisting on the primacy of the inherent antagonism, there is a political necessity not to clamor to the national banner and in fact there is a compulsion to align with external forces who share similar inherent antagonisms. In effect this method serves an international politics that at the same time is focused on inherent contradictions in particular countries.

Schmitt’s formalist approach simply lacks the intricate dynamism with which Mao is able to weave through a complicated and always changing cauldron of contradictions both within China and internationally. Mao understood the distinction between friend and enemy in a dialectical and not in a dogmatic and reductionist way and this is why he was able to lead a successful revolutionary movement. 

Mao and Schmitt, theory wielded for opposite purposes

It should be said here that Mao Tse-tung and Carl Schmitt wielded theory and their conceptions of the friend/enemy distinction for completely different reasons. Schmitt was interested primarily with law and social order. He was disappointed that the Eurocentric order that he believed had been created and lasted for three centuries was coming and had in fact come apart. Schmitt thus contemplated a new social order. In doing this he was not very concerned with substantive dilemma such as the existence of classes or other forms of unequal relations. Throughout much of his work he is drawn to Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which people sacrificed freedom for security. Thus for Schmitt what mattered in maintaining some form of social order was internal unity and a recognition of the distinction between this internal unity with an outside, an external other that did not share the same rights, which did not conform to the same order as the internal.

In contrast with Schmitt’s desire to understand order and to maintain it Mao was concerned with destroying the social order that had existed when he was alive. This desire for social transformation was based on the Marxist understanding that the current society was divided into antagonistic and unequal classes and that based on this fundamental contradiction many other unequal conditions such as the relations between men and women or imperialist states and colonies existed. Mao, similar to the Bolshevik revolutionary Lenin sought to apply Marxism to the given social conditions that existed in the time and place where he was attempting to make revolution. In applying Marxism to the conditions of a colonized nation and also to military strategy Mao sought to transform the social conditions which existed, not to preserve them. Thus unlike Schmitt, Mao was very concerned with the substance of the political, including the social antagonisms between class, gender, and nation. He sought to mobilize all positive factors to make a revolution and to lead in creating a radically different social order.

If Mao represents a new stage in the history of the partisan, then Hutnyk is right that it must be more thoroughly engaged how he in fact understood what he was trying to do and also how he understood the friend/enemy distinction. In looking more closely at Mao’s conception of the dialectic between the universal and the particular and also at the complexity with which he understood the motion and development of revolutionary war and how he chose friends and enemies at different stages within this process; it becomes clear that Schmitt’s abstract conceptions about real and absolute enemies fail to get at the whole story.
Even in the current world situation where international communism is significantly less of a threat and there is a rise of partisan tactics that on the surface appear more like the type of political situation that Schmitt predicted, when we look just a little bit below the surface we see a much more complex dynamic. In short we see a world that is as complex and dynamic as the world described by Mao. For instance in Iraq we see a situation where different Islamic fundamentalist forces fight one another, some of which are cooperating with the United States, some of which see the United States as an enemy. This is a situation which is constantly in motion with distinctions of friend and enemy changing constantly. What about the friendship of Venezuela and Iran? These "friends" share hostility with the United States while one is led by a secular left populist and the other is an Islamist theocratic state. Are the two friends actually ideologically destined to be “absolute” enemies?

No one can be certain about how the current world political contradictions will resolve themselves and Schmitt looks correct in describing a transitional political situation bereft of a world social order. However, Laclau’s criticism of the “rigidity” and “limitations” of Schmitt’s understanding of the distinction between the real and absolute enemy are justified mainly because of Schmitt’s instrumentalist notion of the structure of inter state war and his “disavowal” of antagonisms within states and the self restraint of non-state actors.(39) In another comment Laclau points out:

… once the war is a civil one- even at the international level- there is no destruction of an enemy that is not, at the same time, construction of a new order. And this order is not instrumentally linked to the group that originally constructed it but becomes part of the identity of that group. We have to add to this that the multiplicity of struggles we have seen operating at the national level operate also in the international scene…War is a phenomenon larger than inter-state confrontations.(40)

All this points to a conception of the political that goes beyond formal descriptions and gets into the substance of real world contradictions and the need to articulate what groups are ready to mobilize against and in support of. In this regard while Mao can be said to have been responsible practically for the rupture in the conception of the political, it also quite important what he contributed theoretically.




1. John Hutnyk, Bad Marxism- Capitalism and Cultural Studies (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 57-112.

2. Hutnyk, 192

3. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 1997)

4. Derrida, 141; Hutnyk, 107

5. Hutnyk, 108; see Derrida, 141-144

6. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 26.

7. Schmitt 1996, 26

8. Schmitt 1996, 37

9. Schmitt 1996, 37

10. Schmitt 1996, 32-33

11.Schmitt 1996, 36-39

12. Schmitt 1996, 34

13. Schmitt 1996, 35

14. Schmitt 1996, 42

15. Schmitt 1996, 43-44

16. Schmitt 1996, 69-79

17. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2003), see especially 140-322.

18. Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2007), 95.

19. Schmitt 2007, 49

20. Schmitt 2007, 49

21. Schmitt 2007, 49-52

22. Schmitt 2007, 52

23. Schmitt 2007, 56

24. Schmitt 2007, 57

25. Schmitt 2007, 59-60

26. Mao Tse-tung. “On Contradiction,” in Slavoj Zizek presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction (London: Verso, 2007), 72-87.

27. Mao, 78-79

28. Mao, 82-83

29. Mao, 83

30. Mao, 83

31. Ernesto Laclau, “On “Real” and “Absolute” Enemies,” CR: the Centennial Review 5, no.1 (January 1, 2005): 1-12.

32. Laclau, 11

33. Laclau, 12

34. Laclau, 11-12

35. Slavoj Zizek, “Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics,” in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, ed. by Chantal Mouffe (London: Verso, 1999), 29.

36. Zizek, 29

37. Zizek, 29

38. Zizek, 29

39. Laclau, 11; Zizek, 29

40. Laclau, 11





Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship. London: Verso, 1997.

Hutnyk, John. Bad Marxism- Capitalism and Cultural Studies. London: Pluto Press,


Laclau, Ernesto. “On ‘Real’ and ‘Absolute’ Enemies.” CR: the Centennial Review 5, no.

     1 (January 1, 2005).

Mao Tse-tung. “On Contradiction.” In Slavoj Zizek presents Mao: On Practice and

     Contradiction. London: Verso, 2007.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,


Schmitt, Carl. The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum

     Europaeum. New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2003.

Schmitt, Carl. Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the

     Political. New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2007.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics.” In The Challenge of Carl

     Schmitt, edited by Chantal Mouffe. London: Verso, 1999.




Nat Winn has not set their biography yet


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