Imagine, if you will, the following: you face every king’s worst nightmare. Rebels weave plots of revolt, while at the same time foreign foes menace your frontiers. You have a choice: do you march out to confront the invaders, root out the seditious conspiracy, or try to do both at the same time? Many lives rest on this decision.

As always, the specific details of your situation are the most crucial, but it’s still possible to draw some lessons from history. Let’s start with the Roman emperor Claudius II Gothicus, the first of the Illyrian soldier-emperors who rescued Rome from the Crisis of the 3rd century. Ascending to the purple in 268, Claudius found himself ruling over less than a third of the Roman empire. The ineffective emperor Gallienus had lost Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania to rebels led by Postumus, while the East fell under the sway of Zenobia’s Palmyrene empire. These separatist factions had emerged because while the central imperial authority floundered, Postumus and Zenobia’s husband Odaenathus had provided the protection services expected of a government, Postumus by fending off the Franks, Odaenathus defeating the Persians. At the same time, Germanic barbarians raided Claudius’ empire without interference. Upon Claudius’ ascension, Hispania defected back to him, but he still had three enemies to fight.

Claudius decided that the external enemy, the Goths, was a greater threat and focused his attention upon them. Taking enough Gallic territory to reestablish land communications with Hispania, Claudius marched his army into the Balkans, where he met and defeated the barbarians in battle. Though Claudius died of plague after only two years as emperor, his lieutenant Aurelian continued his policy, first repelling the barbarians and then reuniting the empire.

(As an aside, the fate of Aurelian’s successor Tacitus is illustrative of the principle that a ruler should be of a kind with the ruling class. Tacitus was the only civilian emperor during this period, and while he would have been a superb ruler in the 2nd century, in the 3rd the army had grown dramatically in power and authority. It is a testament to Tacitus’ quality that he nonetheless proved an able emperor, but it did not take long for the stress and strain of corralling his troops to overwhelm the old man. The soldier-emperors did not face the same difficulties in command and so proved more successful.)

The lesson from Claudius seems to be that external foes should be prioritized over domestic ones, but we should be careful before taking this as our conclusion. The antagonism between the three empires—Claudius’, Postumus’, and Zenobia’s—was low-intensity. Indeed, the two separatist states claimed legitimacy on the basis of providing defense against the barbarians. As long as Claudius focused his attention on the barbarians, he could enjoy a relatively free hand. Afterward, Aurelian prioritized the Palmyrene empire on the grounds that it would be the tougher nut to crack and the Gauls would not be able to make much headway against his Western forces—a calculation which proved correct.

So, you should march against the greatest threat first? Well, yes, but that doesn’t answer the question; it only rephrases it: who’s the greater threat, the foreign enemy or the domestic?

Let’s consider a more complex case: Sulla during the 80s B.C. During this period, Sulla found himself in an exceedingly precarious position wherein one false move, one dramatic failure, would have spelled doom for him and his party. In the first place, Mithradates overrunning Anatolia and Greece. On top of that, the populares had become violent and dangerous, to the point of chasing Sulla through the streets of Rome trying to kill him. Sulla had a powerful and loyal army, but most of his allies were some combination of untrustworthy and incompetent, and Sulla himself couldn’t be in two places at once. He had to choose whom to fight first.

Sulla’s solution to his dilemma was a very careful balancing act based on dealing with not the greatest, but rather the most immediate threat first. Either the populares or Mithradates was perfectly capable of destroying Sulla if he let them, so whichever was closer at hand was the one who faced his wrath. There is a crucial difference, however, between Sulla’s treatment of his domestic and foreign foes, at least until Mithradates was quelled: he only faced the populares when he had no other choice. Had Sulla not marched against Rome to remove Sulpicius, he would have been murdered; had he not dealt with Fimbria in Greece, he ran the risk of being trapped between two hostile armies. But when Cinna cut of his supplies and left him stranded, Sulla did not sail back to Italy right then. Rather, he finished the war with Mithradates first; only after the foreign foe was vanquished did he return to deal with his domestic rivals.

The conclusion that the foreign enemy has priority holds, but with the caveat that the domestic enemy sometimes makes addressing him first an unfortunate necessity. Two powerful enemies are invariably more dangerous than one, and emerging victorious in such a contest is far from trivial. Sulla and Mao Zedong could pull it off; Raoul Salan could not.

The last two, Mao and Salan, arrest the attention of Carl Schmitt in Theory of the Partisan. The essay itself concentrates on the legal aspects of partisan warfare and how they have evolved, touching also upon the partisan’s place in military theory. What he identifies, however, is an upheaval of the old juridical landscape, the collapse of the old order and, hopefully, the rise of a new one. This is not the only time Schmitt points out the cracks in firmament: in The Concept of the Political, he made it clear that there are new kinds of enemies, ones the state, in particular the liberal state, are unable to combat effectively.

Up to this point, we’ve been using the word “enemy” as though we know exactly what it means and entails: our enemy is one with whom we are locked in deadly combat, one whom we are prepared to kill and who (presumably) reciprocates. This is indeed the definition Schmitt uses, and it certainly applies to all our examples, but there is something hidden in this definition. Notice the use of the plural, “we.” Schmitt returns to Latin and explains the two words which come down to us as “enemy”: inimicus and hostis. An inimicus is a “private enemy”, whereas a hostis is a “public enemy.” The man whom I oppose is inimicus; the man whom we oppose is hostis.

Who is “we”? Who is this “public” which can have enemies above and beyond, or even in contradistinction to private citizens? And just who is a private citizen, anyway? The answers to these questions are crucial; for instance, if one considers spaces as their operational political concept, then the distinction between public and private evaporates, and hostes merge with inimici. For Schimitt and for us, however, a public is a specific kind of Männerbund, a “fighting collectivity,” a group of men bearing arms together and in common purpose. Alas, there does not exist in modern English a good word for this concept, so we must coin a new one. For this purpose, I submit “Volk.”

Now, the German language itself makes a certain breed of leftist apoplectic, and “Volk” is all but verboten in the current vernacular. We must be clear about the signification of this word. Volk is a German cognate, meaning simply “folk”, a group of people with a shared identity. In the present day, it has a rustic connotation. An older meaning, however, is a people collected in military fashion, as an army. The Latin populus has the same meaning and experienced the same evolution, originally having a martial connotation and becoming a more pacific term over time.

The importance of Mark Yuray’s observations concerning Männerbünde cannot be overstated, and consideration of Völker broadens and deepens those insights. Männerbünde are the primordial social unit while Völker are the irreducible political unit. Neither is historically prior to the other: the original Männerbünde were Völker and vice versa. Only with the development of civilization does the distinction become operationally meaningful.

Völker are political entities for a very simple reason: a cohesive band of armed men is capable to seizing whatever power and wealth it wishes with little difficulty unless opposed by a similar body. This remains as true today as it did thousands of years ago, though the technology of war has changed a great deal. It is military technology which determines the internal organization of a Volk, that is, its constitution. In settled societies, there is invariably a warrior class which enjoys special privileges. In ancient poleis, the warrior class was identified with the demos, the citizenry, which was subject to mandatory military training and service; in medieval Europe and feudal Japan, the knightly and samurai classes fulfilled the same role. Training for combat requires time and money, two things which the bulk of any but the wealthiest societies can ill afford to spend; food and shelter are typically more pressing concerns.

Close students of history will here remark that not all societies are ruled by a warrior class, examples being the imperial bureaucracies of China and Rome and the civilian aristocracy of the modern West. Still others will notice that even within a Volk there is an aristocracy, the true elites of a society. Understanding these two phenomena becomes possible when we consider two factors. The first is that even warriors do not devote all their time to training and fighting, often spending the bulk of their time engaged in farming or craftsmanship or some other productive activity. The Spartans and the samurai are anomalies; most Völker were less professional.

The second factor is the importance of officers in military organization, leaders and organizers, shepherds of the people, in Homer’s phrase. Decisions often need to be made which are inconvenient to broach to the entire Volk, and once those decisions are made, someone must convince the Volk to go along with them. The officer class is the aristocracy of the Volk, and the aristocracy must produce the officers of the Volk. These aristocrats needn’t all be warriors—indeed, civilian officers are just as important as military ones for large and complex societies—and not all officers need come from the aristocracy—indeed, merit should allow some soldiers to rise through the ranks—but whatever class provides the bulk of the officers is ipso facto the aristocracy.

The precise nature of the aristocracy varies, once again, with the available military technology. Ancient republics were led by wealthy landowners who could afford superior arms, training, and even horses; knights and samurai were the same, though their wealth was typically a grant from an even wealthier landowner. In the Roman and Chinese empires, officers required considerable administrative competence as well as military skill and so were bureaucrats as much as soldiers. Among mercenaries—Völker without any fixed territory or source of income—tactical prowess and skill at negotiating with employers won rank and station. Before WWI in the West, officers came from the aristocracy of wealth, possessing either superior birth or education, or both, and commanding respect by their natural superiority backed up by personal courage. Officers stood in front of their men, led charges in person, and died at atrocious rates.

But let’s return to the original problem and see what we can apply in the real world today. Now, there is a major problem, one even greater than choosing which foe to fight first: we are in no position to decide that question, or even to determine whether it should be raised. Donald Trump might find these ruminations of immediate, practical value, but the rest of us will not. What we can do is give some explanation to the tripartite dictum “Become worthy; assume power; rule.”

Across the spaces of the world battles rage, from the bathrooms to the newsrooms and everywhere in between. We command no men; no battalions heed our orders. And none should. We are not worthy of command. We must improve ourselves before we can hope to lead others.

The way we do this, and the way we prove our worth, is by carving out our own spaces and ruling them well. Your Männerbund, your family, your home, yourself: these you must cultivate and protect from harm. Study the ways of our ancestors; practice virtue; guide others to do the same. By these deeds you demonstrate your worth; by these deeds you assume power within your own space; by these deeds you rule your realm well.

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  1. Funnily enough, I just uploaded an audiobook of Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political” on the same day this was posted. Serendipity indeed!

  2. Good concluding remarks to a worthy discussion.

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