Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation I


From the origin of the modern concept of sovereignty to proletarian class struggle 

[with an Appendix: The Dictatorship of the President of the Reich according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution]

Carl Schmitt

Translated by Michael Hoelzel and Graham Ward

Polity Press, Cambridge


(Die Diktatur: Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveräntitätsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf, first published in 1921)

Despite decades of scholarly and more political-journalistic interest in Schmitt in the English speaking world, this is the first translation of a major text by Schmitt from quite early in his career. There are some earlier essays and texts which have yet to be published and I can only hope that it will not be long before they appear somewhere. However, I am not aware of any plans along these lines at any publisher. Anyway the publication of Dictatorship in December of last year (publishers like to put the following year books published at the end of the year, so that they will seem like recent publications for longer) was a very welcome event. It came three years after the Polity publication of Writings on War (edited by Timothy Nunan), which itself came four years after the publication of Political Theology II: The myth of the closure of any political theology), translated by the same duo responsible for Dictatorship. So congratulations to Polity on their contribution to Schmitt publication as well as to Michael Hoelzel and Graham Ward for their contributions to Schmitt translation and scholarship.

The polity volumes on dictatorship and war add up to a good rounded introduction to Schmitt, through presumably the shorter texts The Concept of the Political, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Political Romanticism and Political Theology will continues to play that role more. The trouble with this is that the shorter texts of Schmitt, certainly those four, tend to emphasise the aspect of Schmitt concerned with the exception, crisis, the enemy, and so on, when he is just as much the thinker of legality and constitutionalism rooted in traditional orders of social life. The emphasis on the more dramatic conflictual moments is not completely false to Schmitt’s thinking, but is a bit one sided, and may obscure the degree to which for Schmitt modern liberalism and use of statute law leads to the intrusion of crisis. That is Schmitt thought that the liberal emphases on individual point of view, constant legislative activity in parliaments, and constant parliamentary discussion, produced laws which more administrative measures than genuine laws, and political institutions that were too divided and self-obsessed to act as an expression of the prevailing assumptions in the community about the best forms of ordering and law. I don’t share Schmitt’s polemical stance in opposition, rather the contrary, but he is a great critic, and a critic who has influenced liberal and democratic thinkers, so should be studied carefully from a liberal point of view. With regard to gaining entry to Schmitt’s thought, a careful reading of Political Theology, putting dramatic statements about the state of exception there into historic context, is the best antidote among those four Schmitt texts, which tend to serve as the entry point.

A word on the translators is appropriate here, simply with regard to Hoelzl and Ward’s disciplinary place. Hoelzl is in a department of Religions and Theology (University of Manchester, where he is a lecturer in Philosophy of Religion) and Ward is in a faculty of Theology and Religion (University of Oxford, where he is a fellow of Christ Church and Regius Professor of Divinity). Religious and theological studies are not my area, and I am a pronounced non-believer, but if people working in these areas are are doing such important work in transmitting Schmitt then clearly there is admirable intellectual life going on significant beyond the narrower disciplinary boundaries.

What is also significant here is the importance to Schmitt of political theology and the history of the Catholic Church. As far as I can see Schmitt was not a very pious Catholic, and was perhaps more of a cultural Catholic than a real believer, but that does not lessen the importance of the Catholic background to his thinking. The importance is certainly not such that we can say he is a pure Catholic thinker or that we should try to find some Catholic message guiding every aspect of his thought, but it does mean that we should always be aware for Schmitt that the Catholic European Middle Ages was a high point with regard to integrating the orders of society, general understanding of justice, the state structure, statute laws, relations between states, and the church. Schmitt was no mere nostalgic and there so sense in his writing of a prettified organic feudal order where everyone happily knows their place. I find him less culpable from this point of view than various communitarian and christian socialist thinkers as with regard to this age, as to any other, Schmitt possesses a very acute and developed feeling for the constitutive conflicts and tensions. He also approaches the pre-Christian Roman Empire with respect, which of course fits in with a Catholic centred discourse, but Schmitt has more to say than that, and is very concerned with the republican period.

I had intended to start discussing the text of Dictatorship in this post, but the preliminary remarks kept growing and ended as a complete post. There will be at least two further posts discussing the main text

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