A brief analysis of Carl Schmitt’s notion of ‘the political’.
Translated by Roger Adwan
The following text is taken from Alain de Benoist, View from the Right, Volume II: Systems and Debates.
Carl Schmitt1 is among the authors and theoreticians of the German Right whose attitude towards National Socialism was, at the very least, subtle. In his now classic work entitled Die konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918–32 (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1974), which he dedicated to the various German nationalistic currents of the interwar period, Doctor Armin Mohler2 mentions Schmitt as one of the leading figures of the ‘conservative revolution’, alongside five other ‘outsiders’: Ernst Jünger and his brother Friedrich Georg, Hans Blüher, Oswald Spengler and Thomas Mann.
With his wide forehead, thin lips, and wilful wrinkles around the outer corners of his eyes, Carl Schmitt, now eighty-nine, evades all categorisation.
This Westphalian man is a native of the Trier region and has some additional family ties to the Lorraine area. He was once the disciple of sociologist Max Weber and taught at the university in Greifswald, Bonn and Berlin. In addition to this, he participated in the political life of the 1930s. In 1936, having been criticised by certain factions of the National Socialist movement, he renounced all non-professorial activity.
In 1945, he was targeted as a scapegoat by certain compromised academics and arrested by the allies. His case was, however, dismissed. He now leads a withdrawn life in his native town of Plettenberg and continues to publish.
His first works were of a legal nature. Nevertheless, from 1918–1920 onwards, he gradually became known as a political thought specialist. Just like Max Weber, Schmitt was, at the time, openly opposed to the Weimar republic and targeted the Versailles Treaty with sharp criticism. Translated into French with a delay of more than forty years, Der Begriff des Politischen (The Concept of the Political) is a text that dates back to this very period. Shortly after its publication in 1927, it resulted in intense controversies involving notable personalities such as Leo Strauss, Martin Buber and Karl Löwith, and has since remained one of the fundamental works of German political science.
Schmitt reproaches the Weimar Constitution for being ‘almost too perfect juridically and simultaneously too magnificent to remain political’. This criticism summarises the essence of his argumentation, an argumentation that is based on the distinction between the ‘statal’ concept and that of the ‘political’.
The two conceptions had, for a long time, been indistinguishable: ‘There was indeed an age when the identification of the “statal” and “political” notions was justified’, which is why the analysis of the political phenomenon has mostly been reduced to a general theory of the state (the allgemeine Staatstheorie). However, says Schmitt, ‘the notion of state presupposes a concept of the political’. For politics is not merely a consequence of the state. Its existence, in fact, precedes the latter’s. Since man leads a social life, every society is necessarily characterised by political organisation. As for the state itself, it is but one of the means to achieve such organisation. The state is thus not a timeless historical necessity, but a specific ‘means of existence’ (a state). Political activity could indeed take place outside the statal framework, and likewise, politics could endure even if the state were to vanish.
The Mistake of ‘De-Politicisation’ and Its Consequences
In the preface that he wrote for this book, Mr Julien Freund,3 who works as a professor at the University of Strasbourg and has authored a book entitled L’essence du politique4 (Sirey, 1965), explains how a state can cease to be political: ‘It is impossible to express a genuinely political will if one has, in advance, renounced the use of normal political means, namely power, constraint, and in exceptional cases, violence. To act politically is to exercise authority and manifest power. Otherwise, one runs the risk of being removed by a rival power which intends, by contrast, to act in a fully political manner’.
‘Every policy, in other words, implies power and constitutes one of the latter’s imperatives. Consequently, the act of excluding the exercise of power from the very outset by reducing a government, for instance, to a mere meeting place or a mere arbitration body mirroring the function of a civil tribunal is synonymous with acting against the very law of politics. The very logic of power demands that it be powerful and not impotent. And since politics essentially necessitates power, any policy that relinquishes the latter through weakness or legalism thus ceases to be truly political: it no longer fulfils its normal function, having become incapable of protecting the members of the collectivity that has been entrusted to it. The issue is thus not for a given country to have a juridically flawless Constitution, nor for it to seek an ideal form of democracy, but to grant itself a regime that is capable of responding to specific difficulties and maintaining order, while simultaneously generating a consensus that remains favourable to all innovations with the potential to resolve the conflicts that inevitably surface in every society’.
This approach is tantamount to distinguishing political authority from political substance. The decadence of the liberal state during the 19th century and the rise of technocracy and ‘management policy’ have both accelerated the process. When the state ceases to be political, its authority vanishes. Its substance, however, endures.
This substance thus floats, lacking any and all institutional support. It becomes the prey and focus of competing ideological pressure groups, which replace the state so as to make genuinely political decisions, attempting to take control of statal means in order to implement these decisions by imposing their own organisations. As a result, the domains that had hitherto been reputed to be neutral (religion, culture, arts, education, and the economy) ‘lose their neutrality insofar as this word is synonymous with an absence of ties to both the state and to politics’. It is these metapolitical domains that subsequently embody the ideal scope of political action. And it is this shift in the political enactment field that triggers the illusion of ‘de-politicisation’.
Such is indeed the situation that characterises our age, an age in which the state gradually withers away (particularly under the influence of American conceptions of governance) and the belief according to which economics has henceforth ‘replaced’ the political aspect only leads to having the control and exercise of a genuine political function fall into the hands of non-statal powers (since politics is seen as subordinate to economics, just like the latter is subordinate to the social domain, resulting in a complete reversal in the traditional order that defines these three functions).
Although it would be tempting to define politics through its substance, it would mean falling into Aristotle’s erroneous approach, as he attempted to delineate its metaphysical ‘essence’. Schmitt’s purpose is both more modest and more ambitious. The aim, writes Mr Freund, is to ‘determine the criterium, meaning the sign, that allows us to recognise whether an issue is of a political nature or not, thus enabling us to discern what is purely political, independently from any other connection’.
Friend and Foe
This fundamental connection, this identifying criterium relating to every strictly political dynamic, lies, according to Schmitt, in one’s aptitude to distinguish friend from foe (the Freund-Feind Theorie). In the political field, this distinction is as fundamental as that between the beautiful and the unsightly in aesthetics, the good and the evil in the moral domain, and so on. ‘All in all, the political criterium lies in the possibility of having any opposition evolve towards an extreme conflict in which enemies confront each other’, Freund writes. The archetypal political decision is thus that of designating one’s ‘public enemy’ (hostis, meaning someone who, for reasons that have no bearing upon morals or legality, acts as everyone’s foe, and must not be confused with one’s private enemy, inimicus). As for true political authority, it is the one that possesses the means to attack this foe or to defend itself against him.
Whether the enemy is menacing or not is of little importance. ‘In terms of a definition, it is enough for him to be someone characterised by a particularly pronounced Otherness and foreignness, both of which define his very existence, and for potential conflicts with him to be perfectly conceivable should worst come to worst, conflicts that could neither be resolved through a set of pre-established general norms nor through the judgement pronounced by any third party that is acknowledged as being uninvolved and impartial’. Clausewitz’s5 proposal, according to which ‘war is merely the extension of politics, but with the selection of different means’ (as stated in Vom Kriege6), thus finds itself inverted.
‘A world from which the contingency of genuine struggle has been completely eliminated and banned, a planet that has been pacified once and for all, would be a world devoid of all differentiation between friend and foe, and thus a world without politics’. It would be a world whose appreciations no longer have any value or significance, a world unable to evolve further, lacking creative tensions and condemned to repeat itself indefinitely and ‘ruminate’ the same moment over and over again. Such a world would be drained of all history.
The troubling perspective of ‘exiting history’ fuelled the German generation of 1914–1918, the very same generation that wondered about its own position in the universe and read the works of Spengler and Rathenau.7 Its anguish in the face of a rising and soulless quantifying technology was justified, ‘for it fed upon an obscure feeling stemming from the very logic of the neutralisation process’, declares Carl Schmitt.
In 1927, however, Schmitt expressed his conviction that this process was nearing its end, precisely because it eventually managed to attain technology. ‘It is only in a temporary fashion that one can consider this century to have been one of technology, in accordance with the state of mind that pervades it. The final judgement will only be passed when one has determined which type of politics is powerful enough to bend the modern world to its will and what actual rallying of friends and foes has taken place in this new domain’, Schmitt wrote.
We have reached an age characterised by its utter ignorance of the classical distinctions between war, peace and neutrality, between politics and economics, military personnel and civilians, combatants and non-combatants; the only exception lies in the difference between friend and foe, whose logic presides over its birth and determines its very nature.
The consequences are fearsome. The very notion surrounding the existence of ‘international bodies’ whose authority surpasses the sovereignty of states and which are responsible for ‘interpreting the law’ implies that it is necessary to ‘demonstrate’ to everyone that it is the enemy that is actually in the wrong. As part of this universalistic perspective, one’s adversary must thus be declared an outlaw, meaning literally inhuman. He can therefore no longer be respected while one struggles against him; instead, he can only be hated, for he has become the embodiment of evil. The limitless power entailed in the various means of destruction is echoed by the utter devaluation of one’s enemy, whose extermination is ‘justified’ once his absolute worthlessness has been established. By the same token, the fundamental differences between war and peace and the civilian and military domains no longer apply. All wars are of a global nature and can be undertaken at any given moment. And as the political is invaded by the moral, the hour of the partisan is suddenly upon us.
The Partisan Theory
In his Partisan Theory, a lecture delivered in Spain back in 1962, Schmitt demonstrated that the appearance of the ‘revolutionary combatant’ corresponded most perfectly to what he himself had predicted. For a partisan is not merely someone characterised by the methods that he chooses to use. He also embodies the very political function which regular institutions no longer perform. ‘He engages in combat by aligning himself with a certain policy, and it is the very political aspect of his action that highlights the original meaning of the term “partisan”’. While soldiers fight because their duty is to wage war (regardless of their personal convictions), partisans fight because they believe their struggle to be justified. A partisan’s revolutionary awareness is expressed through ‘complete requisition’. It was Che Guevara8 who once said: ‘The partisan is the Jesuit of war’.
Another specific trait characterising our age lies in the fact that the state, which has all the necessary means of power at its disposal, is no longer a genuine political authority, whereas the partisan, who acts as the incarnation of political substance, seeks to appropriate the means that he lacks through those of his own actions.
The impact that Carl Schmitt has had in the space of half a century has been a considerable one. He has been a source of inspiration for many Rightists (including Armin Mohler), Leftists (such as Kirchheimer), and even the Maoist Schickel.
This fact, however, has not sheltered him from criticism. Mr Maurice Duverger,9 who, at least in Mr Freund’s view, has probably never read any of Schmitt’s works, has opted to treat him with disdain. Others have reproached him for giving the enemy precedence over one’s friends (or ‘comrades’), an accusation to which Schmitt responded as follows: ‘This objection disregards the fact that, as a result of dialectical necessity, the development of any judicial concept stems from its negation. The root of both criminal action and criminal law does not lie in deeds, but misdeeds. And yet, would anyone ever speak of a positive conception of such misdeeds, or of the primacy of crime?’
As everyone is well aware of, the foremost principle of a ‘Machiavellian’ attitude is to boisterously manifest one’s disapproval of Machiavelli. Carl Schmitt makes the following reasonable remark, including it as a footnote in his book: ‘Had Machiavelli truly been Machiavellian, he would have authored an instructive literary work instead of his Prince, ideally an anti-Machiavellian one’.
The Concept of the Political, followed by The Partisan Theory, works of Carl Schmitt, Calmann-Lévy, 331 pages.
Originally published in the magazine Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (vol. LVIII, 1927), The Concept of the Political was already partially translated into French in 1942, under the title ‘Considérations Politiques’10 (Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence). In Germany itself, it was reedited into its 1932 version after the war (‘Der Begriff des Politischen’, Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1963).
Further works by Carl Schmitt have been either published (or republished) quite recently: Politische Romantik, Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1968), Legalität und Legitimität (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1968), Gesetz und Urteil (C. H. Beck, Munich, 1969), Der Hüter der Verfassung (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1969), Die Geistesgeschichliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1969), Politische Theologie II (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1970), Verfassungslehre (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1970), Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum (Duncker u. Humblot, Berlin, 1974).
1 TN: Carl Schmitt (11th July, 1888–7th April, 1985) was a conservative German jurist and political theorist whose thoughts revolved around the effective wielding of political power. His work has been a source of great influence on subsequent political theory, legal theory, continental philosophy and political theology. Despite their impact, his thoughts are considered controversial due to his alleged close cooperation with and juridical-political support of Nazism; as a result of this, he is often referred to as the ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’.
2 TN: Armin Mohler (12th April, 1920–4th July, 2003) was a Swiss-born Right-oriented political author and philosopher associated with the Neue Rechte (New Right) movement.
3 TN: Julien Freund (8th January, 1921–10th September, 1993) was a French philosopher and sociologist. He was labelled an “unsatisfied liberal-conservative” by Pierre-André Taguieff; his work as a sociologist and political theorist is an extension of Carl Schmitt’s.
4 TN: The Essence of the Political.
5 TN: Carl Philipp Gottfried (or Gottlieb) von Clausewitz (1st June, 1780–16th November, 1831) was a Prussian general and military theorist who emphasised the ‘moral’ (meaning, in modern terms, psychological) and political aspects of war.
6 TN: On War.
7 TN: Walther Rathenau (29th September, 1867–24th June, 1922) was a German statesman who served as Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic.
8 TN: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (14th June, 1928–9th October, 1967) was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader, diplomat and military theorist.
9 TN: Maurice Duverger (5th June, 1917–16th December, 2014) was a French jurist, sociologist and politician.
10 TN: ‘Political Considerations’.