Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation XIII

Concluding Comments

This has gone on longer than I expected, and posts so  far must total about 10,000 words, which is maybe a bit long for anyone just looking for a concise summary and overview. I hope the more detailed approach, with historical digressions where I found them  useful will be of benefit to some with regard to reading and contextualising Schmitt. The publication of the book is a step forward for English language commentary on, and understanding of Carl Schmitt, and I think it deserves to be widely read by anyone with some interest in Schmitt.

The most appropriate point for reading might be immediately after reading other early texts, which are all bit shorter. That means Political TheologyConcept of the PoliticalCrisis in Parliamentary Democracy, and  Political Romanticism. Like all these texts, it certainly benefits from some grasp of European history since the sixteenth century, and ideally the thirteenth century. It would be slightly odd to be interested in Schmitt and not acquire some basic knowledge of that history, but if you have developed an interest in Schmitt and are very fuzzy in these matters, now is the time to get into the outline of European history, with particular emphasis on those moments, which particularly interested Schmitt, which are generally significant in any case.

Those moments and aspects are: state system of Medieval ‘Christendom’ (with reference to Catholic western and central Europe), the adoption of Roman law by monarchies and the church, the medieval ‘estate’ system in politics, the apparent centralisation of monarchies and church, the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years War (mostly in Germany but bringing in most of Europe), early modern ‘absolutist’ monarchies, the English Civil War (a way of referring to more than war and which affects Scotland and Ireland as well as England), the rule of Oliver Cromwell in England (alone with Scotland and Ireland), classical/Enlightenment liberalism, the French Revolution, the 1848 Revolution (particularly in France, though is a cross European movement), the rise of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte after the 1848 Revolution, nineteenth century liberalism including the rise of representative government, the Bolshevik October Revolution in France, Weimar  Germany, the rise of Fascism in Italy (as an example of the rise of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes in Europe of the twenties and thirties). If any of this is unfamiliar, internet searches are a great first step for increasing familiarity, followed up by reading of any relevant books that look particularly introductory or readable or which just catch your imagination for some reason. I don’t want to put anyone off reading Schmitt who doesn’t know much of this history, but I remember reading classics of political thought and being frustrated when I couldn’t pick up on historical references, and if you are interested in a historical approach to political thought, reading history should be part of that interest. If you are starting to read Schmitt but are weak in this knowledge, try checking online every unfamiliar reference, which might slow down your reading, but should develop your historical sense by significant degree.

What my reading of Dictatorship has added to my own thinking on Schmitt is an even more enhanced sense of his ambiguity. The shifting about between a very sovereigntist hierarchical kind of conservatism and liberalism, here mostly with regard to Montesquieu, is stimulating if not entirely convincing. How convincing it is may depend on what one makes of Montesquieu. If Montesquieu is seen as definitely monarchist and as definitely emphasising the more traditionalist hierarchical aspects of aristocracy and other institutions under monarchy, then Schmitt’s position may seem relatively close to the ‘real’ Montesquieu. However, even those people are likely to find Schmitt’s argument that Montesquieu is explaining a form o sovereign unity, which can quickly switch to ‘dictatorship’ to defend itself, questionable and maybe the most likely to find it questionable, since they are inclined towards a very fastidious constitutionalist limit power version of Montesquieu.

These  doubt around Schmitt’s reading of Montesquieu can be seen in the context of Schmitt’s polemical style of thinking and writing. That is certainly not to say that Schmitt is a propagandist or vulgar abusive kind of writer. Far from it, though moments of passion do erupt. His ideas are always a least a little too deviant from any rigid program, a bit too unsettling to the dogmatic believer in anything. The polemic in Schmitt is a concern with the life of ideas, ideas which are basic to common existence in human societies, the changes in those ideas over time and what is also revealed about those ideas in their convict with other ideas. There is something very open and challenging about Schmitt’s simplifications and schematisations, because it is a very mobile shifting process, in which there is always a new formulation, a new conflict, or a new accommodation about to appear.

My knowledge of Schmitt’s biography inclines me to regard him as personally lacking in a strong sense of moral responsibility and accountability, as someone who thought his failings could be justified by his intellectual life. He told an American war crimes investigator that he was just a scholar at his desk during the National Socialist era, which is is quite an evasion, particularly regarding 1933 to 1936 and the nearest he came to an apology for his anti-Semitism and compromise with totalitarianism was to take up approvingly the thought of the Jewish Marxist aesthetic and cultural thinker, Walter Benjamin, in his own book on tragedy, Hamlet or Hecuba, which is a kind of return of a favour, since Benjamin had referred to Schmitt in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Still if one  is going to limit one’s sense of moral accountability to acknowledging an intellectual debt to those whose persecution one had endorsed, that is a great tribute from a man who was undoubtedly  great in the quality of his political thought and his passion for political ideas, if not in  every other respect.


(The above refers to:

Carl Schmitt


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

Translated by Michael Holzel and Graham Ward

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014)


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