The Magazine

Carl Schmitt (Part II)

It was in the context of the extraordinarily difficult times of the Weimar period that Carl Schmitt produced what are widely regarded as his two most influential books. The first of these examined the failures of liberal democracy as it was being practiced in Germany at the time. Schmitt regarded these failures as rooted in the weaknesses of liberal democratic theory itself. In the second work, Schmitt attempted to define the very essence of politics.

Schmitt's The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy was first published in 1923.* In this work, Schmitt described the dysfunctional workings of the Weimar parliamentary system. He regarded this dysfunction as symptomatic of the inadequacies of the classical liberal theory of government. According to this theory as Schmitt interpreted it, the affairs of states are to be conducted on the basis of open discussion between proponents of competing ideas as a kind of empirical process. Schmitt contrasted this idealized view of parliamentarianism with the realities of its actual practice, such as cynical appeals by politicians to narrow self-interests on the part of constituents, bickering among narrow partisan forces, the use of propaganda and symbolism rather than rational discourse as a means of influencing public opinion, the binding of parliamentarians by party discipline, decisions made by means of backroom deals, rule by committee and so forth.

Schmitt recognized a fundamental distinction between liberalism, or "parliamentarianism," and democracy. Liberal theory advances the concept of a state where all retain equal political rights. Schmitt contrasted this with actual democratic practice as it has existed historically. Historic democracy rests on an "equality of equals," for instance, those holding a particular social position (as in ancient Greece), subscribing to particular religious beliefs or belonging to a specific national entity. Schmitt observed that democratic states have traditionally included a great deal of political and social inequality, from slavery to religious exclusionism to a stratified class hierarchy. Even modern democracies ostensibly organized on the principle of universal suffrage do not extend such democratic rights to residents of their colonial possessions. Beyond this level, states, even officially "democratic" ones, distinguish between their own citizens and those of other states.

At a fundamental level, there is an innate tension between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism is individualistic, whereas democracy sanctions the "general will" as the principle of political legitimacy. However, a consistent or coherent "general will" necessitates a level of homogeneity that by its very nature goes against the individualistic ethos of liberalism. This is the source of the "crisis of parliamentarianism" that Schmitt suggested. According to the democratic theory, rooted as it is in the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a legitimate state must reflect the "general will," but no general will can be discerned in a regime that simultaneously espouses liberalism. Lacking the homogeneity necessary for a democratic "general will," the state becomes fragmented into competing interests. Indeed, a liberal parliamentary state can actually act against the "peoples' will" and become undemocratic. By this same principle, anti-liberal states such as those organized according to the principles of fascism or Bolshevism can be democratic in so far as they reflect the "general will."

The Concept of the Political appeared in 1927. According to Schmitt, the irreducible minimum on which human political life is based.

The political must therefore rest on its own ultimate distinctions, to which all action with a specifically political meaning can be traced. Let us assume that in the realm of morality the final distinctions are between good and evil, in aesthetics beautiful and ugly, in economics profitable and unprofitable. […]

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy. … In so far as it is not derived from other criteria, the antithesis of friend and enemy corresponds to the relatively independent criteria of other antitheses: good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on. 

These categories need not be inclusive of one another. For instance, a political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly. What is significant is that the enemy is the "other" and therefore a source of possible conflict.

The friend/enemy distinction is not dependent on the specific nature of the "enemy." It is merely enough that the enemy is a threat. The political enemy is also distinctive from personal enemies. Whatever one's personal thoughts about the political enemy, it remains true that the enemy is hostile to the collective to which one belongs. The first purpose of the state is to maintain its own existence as an organized collective prepared if necessary to do battle to the death with other organized collectives that pose an existential threat. This is the essential core of what is meant by the "political." Organized collectives within a particular state can also engage in such conflicts (i.e. civil war). Internal conflicts within a collective can threaten the survival of the collective as a whole. As long as existential threats to a collective remain, the friend/enemy concept that Schmitt considered to be the heart of politics will remain valid.

Schmitt has been accused by critics of attempting to drive a wedge between liberalism and democracy thereby contributing to the undermining of the Weimar regime's claims to legitimacy and helping to pave the way for a more overtly authoritarian or even totalitarian system of the kind that eventually emerged in the form of the Hitler dictatorship. He has also been accused of arguing for a more exclusionary form of the state, for instance, one that might practice exclusivity or even supremacy on ethnic or national grounds, and of attempting to sanction the use of war as a mere political instrument, independent of any normative considerations, perhaps even as an ideal unto itself. Implicit in these accusations is the idea that Schmitt’s works created a kind of intellectual framework that could later be used to justify at least some of the ideas of Nazism and even lead to an embrace of Nazism by Schmitt himself.

The expression "context is everything" becomes a quite relevant when examining these accusations regarding the work of Carl Schmitt. This important passage from the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy sheds light on Schmitt’s actual motivations:

That the parliamentary enterprise today is the lesser evil, that it will continue to be preferable to Bolshevism and dictatorship, that it would have unforeseen consequences were it to be discarded, that it is 'socially and technically' a very practical thing-all these are interesting and in part also correct observations. But they do not constitute the intellectual foundations of a specifically intended institution. Parliamentarianism exists today as a method of government and a political system. Just as everything else that exists and functions tolerably, it is useful-no more and no less. It counts for a great deal that even today it functions better than other untried methods, and that a minimum of order that is today actually at hand would be endangered by frivolous experiments. Every reasonable person would concede such arguments. But they do not carry weight in an argument about principles. Certainly no one would be so un-demanding that he regarded an intellectual foundation or a moral truth as proven by the question, “What else?”

This passage indicates that Schmitt was in fact wary of undermining the authority of the republic for its own sake or for the sake of implementing a revolutionary regime. Clearly, it would be rather difficult to reconcile such an outlook with the political millenarianism of either Marxism or National Socialism. The "crisis of parliamentary democracy" that Schmitt was addressing was a crisis of legitimacy. On what political or ethical principles does a liberal democratic state of the type Weimar establish its own legitimacy? This was an immensely important question, given the gulf between liberal theory and parliamentary democracy as it was actually being practiced in Weimar, the conflicts between liberal practice and democratic theories of legitimacy as they had previously been laid out by Rousseau and others and, perhaps most importantly, the challenges to liberalism and claims to "democratic" legitimacy being made at the time by proponents of revolutionary ideologies of both the Left and the Right.

Schmitt observed that democracy, broadly defined, had triumphed over older systems, such as monarchy, aristocracy and theocracy, by trumpeting its principle of "popular sovereignty." However, the advent of democracy had also undermined older theories on the foundations of political legitimacy, such as those rooted in religion ("divine right of kings"), dynastic lineages or mere appeals to tradition. Further, the triumphs of both liberalism and democracy had brought into fuller view the innate conflicts between the two. There is also the additional matter of the gap between the practice of politics (such as parliamentary procedures) and the ends of politics (such as the "will of the people").

Schmitt observed how parliamentarianism as a procedural methodology had a wide assortment of critics, including those representing the forces of reaction (royalists and clerics, for instance) and radicalism (from Marxists to anarchists). Schmitt also pointed out that he was by no means the first thinker to recognize these issues, citing Mosca, Jacob Burckhardt, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, and Michels, among others.

A fundamental question that concerned Schmitt is the matter of what the democratic "will of the people" actually means, and he observed that an ostensibly democratic state could adopt virtually any set of policy positions, "whether militarist or pacifist, absolutist or liberal, centralized or decentralized, progressive or reactionary, and again at different times without ceasing to be a democracy." He also raised the question of the fate of democracy in a society where "the people" cease to favor democracy. Can democracy be formally renounced in the name of democracy? For instance, can "the people" embrace Bolshevism or a fascist dictatorship as an expression of their democratic "general will"?

The flip side of this question asks whether a political class committed in theory to democracy can act undemocratically (against "the will of the people"), if the people display an insufficient level of education in the ways of democracy. How is the will of the people to be identified in the first place? Is it not possible for rulers to construct a "will of the people" of their own through the use of propaganda?

For Schmitt, these questions were not simply a matter of intellectual hair-splitting but were of vital importance in a weak, politically paralyzed liberal democratic state where the commitment of significant sectors of both the political class and the public at large to the preservation of liberal democracy was questionable, and where the overthrow of liberal democracy by proponents of other ideologies was a very real possibility.

Schmitt examined the claims of parliamentarianism to democratic legitimacy. He describes the liberal ideology that underlies parliamentarianism as follows:

It is essential that liberalism be understood as a consistent, comprehensive metaphysical system. Normally one only discusses the economic line of reasoning that social harmony and the maximization of wealth follow from the free economic competition of individuals. ... But all this is only an application of a general liberal principle...: That truth can be found through an unrestrained clash of opinion and that competition will produce harmony.

For Schmitt, this view reduces truth to "a mere function of the eternal competition of opinions." After pointing out the startling contrast between the theory and practice of liberalism, Schmitt suggested that liberal parliamentarian claims to legitimacy are rather weak and examined the claims of rival ideologies. Marxism replaces the liberal emphasis on the competition between opinions with a focus on competition between economic classes and, more generally, differing modes of production that rise and fall as history unfolds. Marxism is the inverse of liberalism, in that it replaces the intellectual with the material. The competition of economic classes is also much more intensified than the competition between opinions and commercial interests under liberalism. The Marxist class struggle is violent and bloody. Belief in parliamentary debate is replaced with belief in "direct action." Drawing from the same rationalist intellectual tradition as the radical democrats, Marxism rejects parliamentarianism as a sham covering the dictatorship of a particular class, i.e. the bourgeoisie. “True” democracy is achieved through the reversal of class relations under a proletarian state that rules in the interest of the laboring majority. Such a state need not utilize formal democratic procedures, but may exist as an "educational dictatorship" that functions to enlighten the proletariat regarding its true class interests.

Schmitt contrasted the rationalism of both liberalism and Marxism with irrationalism. Central to irrationalism is the idea of a political myth, comparable to the religious mythology of previous belief systems, and originally developed by the radical left-wing but having since been appropriated in Schmitt’s time by revolutionary nationalists. It is myth that motivates people to action, whether individually or collectively. It matters less whether a particular myth is true than if people are inspired by it.

At the close of Crisis, Schmitt quotes from a speech by Benito Mussolini from October 1922, shortly before the March on Rome. Said the Duce:

We have created a myth, this myth is a belief, a noble enthusiasm; it does not need to be reality, it is a striving and a hope, a belief and courage. Our myth is the nation, the great nation which we want to make into a concrete reality for ourselves.

Whatever Schmitt might have thought of movements of the radical Right in the 1920s, it is clear enough that his criticisms of liberalism were intended not so much as an effort to undermine democratic legitimacy so much as an effort to confront its inherent weaknesses with candor and intellectual rigor.

Schmitt also had no illusions about the need for strong and decisive political authority capable of acting in the interests of the nation during perilous times. As he remarks,

If democratic identity is taken seriously, then in an emergency no other constitutional institution can withstand the sole criterion of the peoples' will, however it is expressed.

In other words, the state must first act to preserve itself and the general welfare and well-being of the people at large. If necessary, the state may override narrow partisan interests, parliamentary procedure or, presumably, routine electoral processes. Such actions by political leadership may be illiberal, but they are not necessarily undemocratic, as the democratic general will does not include national suicide. Schmitt outlined this theory of the survival of the state as the first priority of politics in The Concept of the Political. The essence of the "political" is the existence of organized collectives prepared to meet existential threats to themselves with lethal force if necessary. The "political" is different from the moral, the aesthetic, the economic, or the religious as it involves, first and foremost, the possibility of groups of human beings killing other human beings.

This does not mean that war is necessarily "good" or something to be desired or agitated for. Indeed, it may often be in the political interests of a state to avoid war. However, any state that wishes to survive must be prepared to meet challenges to its existence, whether from conquest or domination by external forces or revolution and chaos from internal forces. Additionally, a state must be capable of recognizing its own interests and assume sole responsibility for doing so. A state that cannot identify its enemies and counter enemy forces effectively is threatened existentially.

Schmitt's political ideas are, of course, more easily understood in the context of Weimar's political situation. He was considering the position of a defeated and demoralized German nation that was unable to defend itself against external threats, and threatened internally by weak, chaotic and unpopular political leadership, economic hardship, political and ideological polarization and growing revolutionary movements, sometimes exhibiting terrorist or fanatical characteristics.

Schmitt regarded Germany as desperately in need of some sort of foundation for the establishment of a recognized, legitimate political authority capable of upholding the interests and advancing the well-being of the nation in the face of foreign enemies and above domestic factional interests. This view is far removed from the Nazi ideas of revolution, crude racial determinism, the cult of the leader, and war as a value unto itself. Schmitt is clearly a much different thinker than the adherents of the quasi-mystical nationalism common to the radical right-wing of the era. Weimar's failure was due in part to the failure of the political leadership to effectively address the questions raised by Schmitt. 


*The German title -- Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus -- literally means “the historical-spiritual condition of contemporary parliamentarianism.” The common rendering, “The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy,” is certainly more euphonious, though it is problematic since one of Schmitt’s central points in the book is that parliamentarianism is not democratic.