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11 July 2014

Carl Schmitt

Remembering Carl Schmitt (11 July 1888 - 7 April 1985)

Alex Kurtagic

Carl Schmitt was born 126 years ago today. He was a German jurist, philosopher, and political theorist, who wrote on the effective exercise of political power. As such, he has proven one of the most important 20th-century figures in legal and political theory. Though he was active in National Socialist Germany, and theorised the legal and political basis for the authoritarian state, his influence has been strong among Left-wing intellectuals, such as Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Slavoj Žižek. The classical liberal Friedrich Hayek and the conservative Leo Strauss were also influenced by Schmitt.

Schmitt was the son of Roman Catholic parents. His father was a minor businessman. He studied law in Berlin, Munich, and Strassbourg, where he took his state examinations and later earned his Habilitation. In 1916, he volunteered to fight in the Great War, following the end of which he lost his religion, describing his Catholicism as 'displaced' or 'de-totalised'.

During the Weimar period, Schmitt did not support the National Socialists. However, he joined the NSDAP a few months after Hitler's government took power. During the National Socialist period, he was appointed State Councillor for Prussia, Professor at the University of Berlin, and Editor-in-Chief of the Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung. All the same, and despite developing legal and political theory that supported National Socialist policies, he ran into trouble with the SS, who spent a year investigating him, suspecting him of being an ideologically unsound opportunist. This led to his losing his prominent positions in 1936. Fortunately for Schmitt, he enjoyed support from Hermann Göring, who put an end to the harassment and averted further reprisals.

Captured by the Americans in 1945, Schmitt was held in a prison camp for a year. He was allowed to return home in 1946, but he obstinately and unrepentantly resisted all attempts at denazification, which permanently barred him from academia. Despite his exclusion from mainstream intellectual life, Schmitt remained active in his studies of international law, receiving visitors, and, in 1962, lecturing in Spain, which resulted in his Theory of the Partisan. He also enjoyed support from West Germany's conservative intellectual establishment until his death, as well as from underground sources.

Schmitt is notable for his reflections on dictatorship and the 'state of exception', his criticism of liberal practices and parliamentary democracy, his idea of the incompatibility between liberalism and democracy, his theorising of the concept of the political (the friend and enemy distinction), his survey of the Eurocentric global order and its contribution to human civilisation, his comprehensive theory of the relationship between aesthetics and politics (opposing those of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, from the Frankfurt School), and his theory of the partisan (which implies also a theory of the terrorist).

Schmitt's thought remains, clearly, very relevant today. He would probably have classed various aspects of the enforcement of political correctness and the response to Islamic terrorism by Western democracies as a form of commissarial dictatorship. The latter involves the declaration of a state of exception in order to preserve the existing legal order, rather than to replace it with another. Notable also is that Schmitt's 'state of exception' responded to Walter Benjamin's concept of pure or revolutionary violence, which is outside legality, by bringing violence under the realm of legality. This state of exception turns out to be the norm, rather than an anomaly, in modern nation states, which is why Schmitt must be taken seriously.

But perhaps a key to understanding why Carl Schmitt has not been totally ignored or marginalised by academics today, even though academia is in the grip of a Freudo-Marxian scholastic orthodoxy, and the political establishment is dominated by a liberal consensus, is that he was a critic of liberalism, something that was also the case with Marxism. Of course, Schmitt was a critic of both, but the Left has evidently found his critiques of liberalism useful enough to learn from and be informed by his political theory. Mauss and Cristi, for example, take Schmitt as illustrating the relationship between liberalism and political authoritarianism. Conservatives, more sympathetic to Schmitt, find his analysis of liberal constitutionalism during the Weimar period insightful, and thus argue it should be separated from his later writing. Establishment intellectuals, in sum, ignore him at their peril.

We previously reproduced three essays on Carl Schmitt:

Today we are reproducing

Michael O'Meara authored a major introductory essay to our edition of Francis Parker Yockey's The Proclamation of London (2012). Yockey was heavily inspired by Carl Schmitt's political theory.


Further Reading:


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