The Schmitten Left


Alan Wolfe argues that while the left has adopted Carl Schmitt‘s theoretical anti-liberalism, it is the American right that is putting theory into practice.

According to Wolfe’s article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water’s edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency — conservatives always find cases of emergency — the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.

American conservatives who bothered to read the article didn’t think the argument worked. NRO’s Jonah Goldberg suggested that if you "spend half an hour trolling for websites fully loyal to the Democratic party… you will find a moral absolutism and dualism of the Schmittian variety oozing out of every page view."

Bloggers like Russell Arben Fox, Jacob Levy, Eric Grey, and Matt Yglesias weren’t overly impressed either. Some thought that Wolfe’s analysis of right wing politics only made sense if Schmitt was right.

Wolfe has trouble understanding why so many leftists are fascinated with a strident anti-semite and Nazi like Schmitt. He suggests that Schmittian leftists are attracted to his stress on the use of power in politics and his opposition to liberalism. He worries that after the collapse of communism these leftists have adopted an ‘anyone but John Stuart Mill’ approach.

Troppo’s Mark Bahnisch has written an academic paper on Schmitt’s ideas (pdf). Personally I’m not familiar enough with Schmitt’s work to have a clear opinion on many the issues Mark raises so I’d welcome comments. I’m sure Mark would too.

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Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Some nice synergies with my thesis emerging here…

I think Wolfe is dead right. There is a direct link between Schmitt and Strauss (the two corresponded at length) and the neo-conservative power politics version of big government conservatism is quite Schmittian.

Schmitt has been attractive to the left (partly through the dissemination of his work by the journal Telos, partly through commentary by Jacques Derrida) for a long time. Italian Marxists in the 1960s, participants in the May 68 events, German student radicals all used Schmitt’s theory and in some cases drew on his personal encouragement.

His thought has also been influential in German constitutional jurisprudence, Italian northern separatism and the EU constitution. Thinkers like Habermas have fought his legacy while acknowledging his influence, particularly that of Schmitt’s “The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” on his own “Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”.

The best book on Schmitt’s many trajectories in post-war political thought and life is by Jan-Werner Mueller:

The reasons why Schmitt is attractive to the Left are:

(a) his devastating critique of liberalism (possibly the most hard to refute of all such critiques);

(b) his revival of the notion of politics.

There are significant parallels between Schmitt and Gramsci (as well as the Hungarian Marxist Lukacs) in seeing politics as a contest for hearts and minds and a war of position rather than as merely a procedural process.

Chantal Mouffe is probably the best Left writer on Schmitt. Mouffe calls for a reinvigoration of the democratic tradition and a new radical democracy. Schmitt is revamped (as I’ve also done in my paper) to reintroduce the aspect of contestation and agonism into Left politics. Mouffe also calls for the Left to hold Liberals to their ideals, an important call at this point in history.

Mouffe’s edited book “The Challenge of Carl Schmitt” is worth a look:

As to Schmitt’s Nazism, as I stated in my original post, it is to be deplored and I deplore it. I read Schmitt partly as an observer, and partly as a symptom of the horrors of the long twentieth century. But as Mueller argues, liberals can benefit from sharpening their arguments against those of their most cogent and deadly adversaries. I also think debates about the politics of theory have to be conducted with great care and prudence. I am in no sense a Schmittian. However, I do believe some of his thinking about politics is capable of re-appropriation.

Perhaps his greatest insight, which as you note, Don, he shares with Machiavelli (and indeed Weber) is that politics is a means. What the end is – well, that’s up to us. Derrida’s success in ‘The Politics of Friendship’ in grafting a Levinasian ethics of the other onto Schmitt’s thought about the friend/enemy distinction is a case in point. Emmanuel Levinas was a Jewish philosopher whose ethical thought in the shadow of Auschwitz is both difficult and inspirational:

I don’t know how much chance I’ll get to participate in this discussion, but I do indeed welcome views. I’ll leave the debate at this point and end this very long comment (for which I offer my apologies) with this observation from Jacques Derrida about Schmitt:

“Lucidity and fear not only drove this terrified and insomniac watcher to anticipate the storms and seismic movements that would wreak havoc with the historical field, the political space, the borders of concepts and countries, the axiomatics of European law… etc. Such a ‘watcher’ would thereby have been more attuned than so many others to the fragility and ‘deconstructible’ precariousness of structures, borders and axioms that he wished to protect, restore and ‘conserve’ at all costs.”

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, I think I remember reading you have an interest in critical theory. Tracy Strong comments in his introduction to Schmitt’s ‘The Concept of the Political’ that all the Frankfurt School praised Schmitt in his Weimar period, particularly Walter Benjamin whom I wrote about in an earlier post:

The key article is by Ellen Kennedy, ‘Carl Schmitt and the Frankfurt School’ in Telos 71 (Spring 1987).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gary Sauer-Thompson has a number of entries about Schmitt on his page:

2022 years ago

Don and Mark;

I would like to understand more about the theory of politics, I really would! But faced with the last sentence of the hyperlink .pdf;
“This contributes to an exploration of the utility of a post-structuralist political analytic that comes to grip with the multiplicity of political antagonisms constructed agonistically through rhetoric.”

I find it totally incomprehensible and am unable to understand more than a couple of words. Is this common amongst the uninitiated, or am I just thick ?

2022 years ago

OOps, that should read ‘the hyperlink .pdf abstract”, I never really got into the paper.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Wouldn’t worry too much, Woodsy. As a genre, academic writing I guess is supposed to take for granted the understanding of certain terms and concepts so that you can see how you can tweak them/take them further. I’d write very differently for another audience.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

See my latest post for an attempt to write intelligibly about politics (don’t know if I’ve succeeded though!):