Nat Winn: Our enemies are human: Mao against Carl Schmitt

From Nat Winn at Kasama Project:

Posted by Nat Winn on Thursday, 10 April 2014 in Theory

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….

- See more at: Kasama project

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