BOOKS: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
CARL SCHMITT, By Paul Gottfried
, June 5, 2004
By Paul Gottfried
Claridge PressCarl Schmitt is one of those figures whose reputation has waxed and waned, both during his life, and since his death well after World War II. Dismissed as an ultra-rightist by the Left, his writings lived to be taken up by Gramscists and Maoists from the 1960s to the 80s. Now a new book, reviewed by Edmund Fawcett in a recent Times Literary Supplement (April 9, 2004), has just appeared. So Schmitt, once again, is in vogue.
I found Fawcett's two-page TLS
review almost unreservedly hostile - but even worse, concentrating upon a short period in Schmitt's life when he made some disastrous choices and wrote, regrettably, foolish things, such that his intellectual reputation appeared to have been destroyed. But if that were all one needed to say about Schmitt, the wonder is that anyone in 2004 would write a long review of the life and thoughts of this man.Important figure
In fact, it was by no means all and Paul Gottfried's earlier little book, which I'm reviewing now, shows why many people regard the German as interesting, important and sui generis.
Carl Schmitt was born on the edge of the German Rhineland in 1888 into a Franco-German Catholic family. He was a lifelong Catholic conservative and supporter of the Germany's Catholic Centre Party until 1933, a critical but steady supporter of the Weimar democracy almost till its end.
A major figure in German and European thought until World War II, Schmitt was an interpreter of constitutions and constitutional and international law - a legal and political historian, a social and political philosopher, an historian of ideas. The questions he posed, in epigrammatic form, give some of the flavour.
Thus (paraphrasing Fawcett):
Question 1. Why are liberal democracies slow to defend their values against enemies who do not share them?
Question 2. Why do the passions of nation and creed seem always to catch liberals off guard?
Question 3. How effective can liberals be in mass democracies where reasoned argument among informed individuals is so much less persuasive than myth?
Fawcett thinks that Schmitt could never decide which one of his complaints against liberalism was graver: that it failed to assure order and prevent war, or that its ideals of toleration and prosperity had neutered modern man and robbed him of fighting spirit.
(There is no contradiction here: the second condition produces the first.)
The fact is Schmitt was never a liberal but a conservative. Never an optimist: but almost invariably a pessimist. He found the liberal agenda implausible and in a world of increasing conflict and struggle, liberals were impotent observers, and parliaments simply talking-shops. Parliament should be isolated from democracy. His experiences of Weimar Germany only confirmed his scepticism about the rationality or the morality of man, and man's need for myths and a strong leader.
Perhaps his earliest target was political romanticism, widely accepted from the French Revolution onwards. Schmitt thought that romantic writers treated politics as mere occasions for rhetorical outbursts, whether it be Novalis celebrating the vanished Middle Ages or Adam Mueller mumbling about an alliance of throne and altar.
Romantics raised politics to an object of "aesthetic sentimentality". They claimed to be captive to a superhuman enthusiasm, the political world being their opportunity to express their innermost souls. All of this is inconsistent with true political understanding; nothing to do with sober analysis.
Romanticism was like ectoplasm - it could be twisted into any shape. When the French Revolution was on, it was revolutionary. When the Revolution ended, it became conservative; and reactionary when times were reactionary.
It lent itself to fascist and Nazi ideologues, it served with anarchism and nationalism - the myth of the revolution as Sorel puts it - and we now have it as the core of infantile communism, green pantheism and militant enthusiasms of every kind. It infiltrated religion - including the Catholicism of Schmitt's day - and he pursued it there.
On the other hand, Schmitt celebrated the Church as a mainstay of public order amid fallen men.
He said the Church conferred juridicial order and symbolic structure on the human soul without "the fanatical savagery of mere prophetic religion" as Paul Gottfried puts it in this book.
And, it challenges the "economic, technical rationalism of the modern era, which incited selfish passions". This is in contrast to the Catholic Church which formulates publicly-oriented laws and challenges the economic, technical rationalism of the modern era, which promotes an amoral materialistic version of individualism. The modern economy "serves any demand, always with the same precision whether the public clamour for silk worms or poison gas".
Deism and liberalism had developed together; both saw the world as a self-improving process propelled by fixed material laws. Liberals hoped for a world without conflict - except in the marketplace - and the ritualised give and take of Parliament.
They were no match for radical democrats with their political theology of pantheism and the popular will being the Will of God.
As to the increasingly dominant belief that there must no longer be political problems, only organisational/technical and economic/sociological tasks ... the kind of economic technical thinking that prevails today is no longer capable of conceiving a political idea. Schmitt indicts Marxists, Socialists and Anarcho-Syndicalists, American financiers and industrial technicians alike, for this.
Schmitt saw the Weimar Republic slowly break down as two anti-democratic, anti-constitutional forces - Communism and Nazism - deliberately made the Reichstag unworkable, with his own Catholic Centre Party stupefied into inactivity.
He backed Hindenburg as president ruling by decree as a constitutional dictator, not for six months spells, but indefinitely until the threat of Nazism passed. But, Hindenburg, on other advice, appointed Hitler as Chancellor, and the deluge followed.
Heidegger suggested Schmitt join the Nazi Party: Schmitt did, began extolling their virtues, but by 1937 was already criticising them so he was dropped. But he still found himself driven out of academic and political life in post-war Germany, where he remained. A crass, foolish denouement for such a man.
But his analysis was taken up by Maoists and Gramscists, and by conservatives in Spain and Italy - and by both sides in America, such was the fertility and relevance of many of his critiques.
There are numerous other parts of Schmitt's work to be found in Paul Gottfried's book - e.g., on war, religion, international law and human nature, which I found mordant, prophetic and fascinating. His message is for today.