The Left Should Have Nothing to Do With Carl Schmitt

The Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt opposed liberalism in favor of an authoritarian politics based on singling out the enemies of the state. His ideas are incompatible with democracy, equality, and socialism.

Weimar reactionary Carl Schmitt (R) together with writer Ernst Jünger (L) in Rambouillet, France, 1941.

Among polite company, Carl Schmitt, the ultrareactionary political philosopher, jurist, and unrepentant Nazi from 1933 until his death in 1985, was long regarded with the contempt he deserved. Whilst Schmitt’s defenders have sometimes portrayed his Nazism as a regretful but largely opportunistic and short-lived episode in a long and complicated career, his own repudiation of Nazism was always qualified.

By August 1945, three months after Germany’s surrender, Schmitt was at work drafting a legal opinion in defense of Nazi businessmen against the accusation that they had helped to prepare their nation for a war of aggression. Though he was unequivocal in his condemnation of the genocide committed by the Nazis — crimes of “rawness and bestiality” exceeding the “normal human capacity of conception” — he insisted that the capitalists supportive of the regime were innocent.

Under detention by American soldiers, Schmitt would water down his condemnation of the Nazi genocide, arguing that the Third Reich’s crimes were not any worse than the allies’ firebombing of Nuremberg. From his jail cell, he complained that he had “not yet once spoken with an American, but only with German Jews,” and imagined his own imprisonment as cosmic retribution for God’s decision to allow “hundreds of thousands” of Jews to be killed. Free from captivity, Schmitt would live the rest of his life in relative obscurity, visited often by conservative intellectuals and jurists and supported by a pension provided by industrialists thankful for his loyalty.

Schmitt has gone on to enjoy somewhat of a renaissance across the political spectrum. Noted reactionaries like Richard Spencer, Peter Thiel, Curtis Yarvin, and Adrian Vermeule have embraced him, and so, too, have figures on the Left, including Chantal Mouffe, Antonio Negri, and Giorgio Agamben. What unites this eclectic club is a recognition that, despite Schmitt’s reactionary politics, his critique of liberalism offers insights worth taking seriously.

Who Was Carl Schmitt?

As a lawyer, jurist, and political theorist, Schmitt was, perhaps, the most famous intellectual on the reactionary right in the Weimar Republic. He was the author of almost fifty books and pamphlets on topics ranging from romanticism in politics to dictatorship and international law, a concept which he argued obscured the role of powerful nations in setting the terms of the global order. A leading enemy of Weimar democracy, he initially opposed Nazism, but after 1932, Schmitt supported the rise of Adolf Hitler.

In the postwar era, Schmitt the man fell more or less into obscurity, barred from teaching due to his refusal to engage in the denazification process. During this period, he continued to engage in the intellectual laundering of Nazism’s reputation. He defended his own actions under the Reich regime, supported fellow former Nazis, and nurtured a new generation of right-wing German intellectuals behind the scenes.

Despite his horrifying political views, Schmitt was an undeniably sophisticated thinker. His most famous contribution to political theory was the “friend-enemy distinction,” outlined in his 1932 The Concept of the Political. There he asserted that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”

The German jurist was a serious theorist of democratic constitutionalism, the nature of sovereignty, and the conflicts between liberalism and democracy. In all of his political commitments, whether to political Catholicism, the Weimar-era Conservative Revolution, the presidency of Paul von Hindenburg, Nazism, or the postwar Franco regime, Schmitt was guided by a revulsion to liberalism.

At its core, Schmitt observed, liberalism is marked by fundamental contradictions between its claims to political tolerance and its need to defeat its enemies. Over the course of its history, this contradiction has played out consistently in two ways. Either nonliberal forces have dissolved liberalism because it was too caught up in endless debates about how to respond to violence against it and thus unable to defend itself against challengers, or, if liberalism was dominant enough to defend itself against challengers, it pursued its challengers with dogmatic zeal, forcing them to accept its universal and humanizing worldview or face annihilation. The two faces of liberalism — impotent pluralism and authoritarian universalism — were therefore, Schmitt argued, inherently contradictory.

What was worse, liberalism’s desire to remove more and more issues from the realm of the political by subsuming them under the rubric of rights or hiding them behind technocratic forms of management and “neutrality” was antidemocratic. These obfuscations, Schmitt argued, concealed new relations of domination hidden behind liberalism’s legal edifice.

Should We Reclaim Schmitt?

Schmitt’s hostility to liberalism’s hypocrisies and perceptiveness about its limits has long drawn left-wing thinkers to his work. The allure of the elegant and charismatic writer’s oeuvre is undeniable. His analysis and concepts provide the intellectual instruments to challenge the dominance of a liberal technocratic mode of thought that seeks to depoliticize some of the most important political questions by delegating them to unaccountable public agencies, the courts, or central banks insulated from popular power. In an era in which a bungled global response to economic, ecological, and public health crises have discredited the notion that a just international order could plausibly come into existence, the attractiveness of his work is clear.

But how far can Schmitt’s politics, whose defining features are antipathy to mediation and support for decisionism, be reconciled with a politics of the Left which recognizes that democracy and emancipation are two sides of the same coin? Few of Schmitt’s contemporaries went further to advancing an alternative that grappled seriously with his critique of liberalism than Hermann Heller, a German Jew who fled his home in 1933, before dying the same year in exile in Spain.

Like Schmitt, Hermann Heller’s perspective on politics was fundamentally shaped by the experience of the Weimar Republic. Like his opposite number, Heller recognized the need to forge a coherent political community from the fractured and polarized ruins of German society. In his 1928 essay “Political Democracy and Social Homogeneity,” he argued that the purpose of politics has always been the maintenance of “the unity in the plurality that since Machiavelli has been called the state.”

Schmitt was, Heller argued, quite correct in his claim that the state had a duty in extraordinary circumstances to vanquish its external and internal enemies in order to maintain its unity. “A state abolishes itself if it forbids the use of deadly force in all circumstances, or fails to shoot when its representatives are under fire from within or without.”

This fundamental fact did not, however, mean that politics could simply be reduced to the struggle for domination between friends and enemies, or that political unity was simply based on the victory of one group of friends over another. Such a position was inherently contradictory because it suggested that the foundation of a stable polity could be achieved only through the hegemony of one group over all others. This would, however, entail the elimination of pluralism — and thus politics as such — in favor of (implicitly ethnic and racial) political homogeneity. It would follow that

the establishment and existence of political unity would be something altogether unpolitical. Schmitt sees only the accomplished political status; but this is not something static; on the contrary, it is something that daily has to be formed anew, a daily plebiscite.

Ultimately, the only friend-enemy distinction capable of withstanding the Schmittian state’s totalizing drive for homogeneity would be the international conflict between nations. There war, rather than politics, could keep alive the conflict on which the state depended.

It is precisely this authoritarian hostility to politics which makes Schmitt’s writing so amenable to the reactionary right and disqualifies it from productively informing the project of social democracy. Central to right-wing politics is a quest to create a homogenous and well-ordered society through the repression of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities ordered around the governance of a strongman.

Through the demonization of enemies at home and abroad, Schmittian reactionary politics seeks to create a unified nation in which authentic politics gives way to a politics of authoritarian seizure of power in the name of democracy. The endgame of the Schmittian defense of authentic, as opposed to technocratic, political contestation is ironically a closing off of the sphere of political conflict through the construction of a new authoritarian order. Rather than being a defense of politics, Schmitt’s ideas are more hostile to political struggle than the legalistic liberalism he decries, Heller argued.

The aim of this politics is to initiate an existential conflict between true citizens and an alien other that would then culminate in the purification of society by an authoritarian regime. In contrast, Heller argued that true democracy could be founded only upon acceptance of the tension between pluralism and democratic unity. Politics could not be put to an end through political struggle. For Heller, the key to democracy was the establishment of a basic unity that provided the framework within which contestation, confrontation, and dispute could nonetheless take place. This would preserve the domain of politics without dissolving the state into a relentless struggle for power.

This, Heller argued, was the promise of parliamentary democracy, maligned by Schmitt as merely a politics of unending discussion. Instead, Heller argued,

Intellectual history shows as the basis of parliamentarism the belief, not in public discussion as such, but in the existence of a common foundation for discussion and thus in the possibility of fair play for one’s internal political opponent, in the relationship with whom one thinks one can exclude naked force and come to agreements.

Only through the formation of what he termed a “We Conciousness,” or a collective recognition that shared values and a mutual commitment to the common good are the basis of a political community, could democrats maintain this sense of fair play. A just society required “a certain degree of social homogeneity without which the democratic formation of unity is impossible.” This could only be ensured if people identified with the symbols, institutions, and representatives of the state.

A lack of identification, Heller observed, was precisely the root of the crisis of interwar democracy, as it is the root of the crisis of contemporary democracy. Though the rise of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism could be temporarily arrested through immediate action, only a broader revivification of the democratic culture and the social homogeneity at its foundation could bring the crisis to a permanent end.

This is not a hollow call for people to change their behavior. Rather, Heller’s point was that democracy was rooted in a bedrock of associational institutions — without which political freedom could not flourish — without allowing these institutions to devolve into sectional interests deleterious to democratic unity. Only then could democracy’s defenders solve the “awful question . . . raising its Medusa’s head — the question of how one can affirm today’s democracy in the midst of these huge class and racial conflicts.”

What Heller did not advocate, however, was simply resuscitating civic nationalism to provide coherence to a liberal society, as thinkers like Francis Fukuyama and Yascha Mounk have done in recent years. Rather, he held that the project of rescuing the common foundation of democratic self-government was necessarily economic in character. He therefore advocated the transformation of the bourgeois liberal state into a “social Rechtsstaat,” a state governed by the rule of law but oriented toward the provision of social equality.

Faced with the choice between Rechtsstaat or dictatorship, as Heller argued in the essay of the same name, it was the responsibility of the Left to overtake the form of the bourgeois democratic state and turn it to egalitarian ends rather than see it overtaken by fascist dictatorship in service of capital. As he wrote in “Political Democracy and Social Homogeneity,” it was the duty of the state to ensure not only formal equality before the law but a minimum of material and political equality, without which “the most radical formal equality becomes the most radical inequality, and formal democracy becomes the dictatorship of the ruling class.”

As the legal theorist David Dyzenhaus has argued, Heller is often forgotten because his arguments are so rooted in the political experience of the Weimar-era Social Democratic Party. This is also one of the great advantages of his work. The abstract political anthropology of friendship and enmity offered by Schmitt offers a template easily transferable onto disparate political situations. The generality of these assertions can lead leftists to mistake them for a useful universal guide to politics.

Ultimately, Schmitt’s ideas are merely elaborate justifications for war, dictatorship, and oppression. In their place, we should turn to Hermann Heller’s concrete articulation of a politics of social equality, developing our ideas, as he did, through an engagement with actual politics and its complexities to rescue democracy from the merciless logic of the friend-enemy distinction and transform relentless antagonism into a robust democratic pluralism.