Book review: Europe: Early Modern and Modern

Gopal Balakrishnan. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt. New York: Verso. 2000. Pp. vi, 312. $40.00

One of the more fascinating developments in European intellectual history in recent years is the revival of interest in the work of Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), the long-lived political thinker, legal scholar, and erstwhile “crown jurist” of the Third Reich (as he was called by a Nazi newspaper in 1933). In the context of the worldwide rightward trend of the past twenty-five years, his appeal to fellow conservatives is not particularly surprising, but his favorable reception on the left has been rather unexpected (notwithstanding the fact that Georg Lukács wrote a largely positive review of Politische Romantik [1919] in 1928 and Walter Benjamin acknowledged his intellectual debt to Die Diktatur [1921] and Politische Theologie [1922] in 1930). Gopal Balakrishnan explains his appreciation for a thinker whose political values were so different from his own: “The shrewdest insights into democracy are not always made by friends of the people . . . Those who thought of democracy as a dangerous, overreaching and unstable political system, even from an enemy perspective, have more to say about the meaning of radical democracy than an effete, incorporated and culturalist Left” (pp. 263, 265). While Schmitt almost invariably sided with the right in the class wars of the 1920s and 1930s, he was also a radically unconventional thinker who frequently and sometimes abruptly changed his positions as he grappled with the problems of popular and state sovereignty and sought viable responses to the threats of proletarian revolution, the disintegration of the state, and civil war in the highly polarized and rapidly changing political conditions in Germany after World War I. Because of his characteristically plain-spoken and openly political engagement, a study of his theoretical works can provide not only useful insights into the history of his times but also, as Balakrishnan argues, some orientation in the present crisis of worldwide capitalist predation unconstrained by effective political opposition.

The great merit of Balakrishnan’s thoughtful and thorough intellectual biography is that it grounds Schmitt’s ideas both in his personal experiences and in the political developments to which he was responding. While sharply critical of many of Schmitt’s ideas and interpretations, Balakrishnan takes them seriously and contends with them on a high intellectual level. Proceeding chronologically, Balakrishnan persuasively demonstrates that Schmitt’s interventionist texts must be seen in relation to his actual political allegiances at the time of writing as well as to his previously held positions. Because of this careful interweaving of textual critique with an analysis of Schmitt’s motives and intentions against the background narrative of political events (a method Balakrishnan calls “diachronic contextualization” [p. 3]), this book offers not just a convincing interpretation of the development of Schmitt’s ideas but also an illuminating perspective on the problems of Weimar constitutionalism and the weakness and eventual collapse of the republic.

Without downplaying Schmitt’s later notorious collaboration with Nazism, Balakrishnan suggests that he “stumbled into the Hitler era” (p. 175), disappointed by the failure of Franz von Papen’s and Kurt von Schleicher’s efforts to head off the Nazis by authoritarian means. While Schmitt was critical of the Weimar constitution from the start and favored a stronger executive, Balakrishnan points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s his constitutional critiques had their source in his hope of strengthening the republic, not overthrowing it. His leading role in the legal defense of Papen’s takeover of the SPD-led Prussian state government in July 1932 was motivated not only by hostility to the left but by his hope of preventing the Nazi plurality in the Prussian parliament from gaining power. Although Schmitt admired Italian fascism, he had not previously considered a one-party state workable in such a highly developed country as Germany. When the die was cast, however, he jumped onto the Nazi bandwagon, joining the party in May 1933, shortly before a moratorium on party memberships was imposed. Despite his subsequent determined efforts to put his theory of decisionism (as opposed to normativism and legal positivism) into the service of the Nazis and his adoption of anti-Semitism, his earlier writings and associations with Jewish scholars were used against him by hardliners in the party who successfully blocked his rise in the Nazi legal hierarchy in the later 1930s.

Balakrishnan rejects both the widely held view that Schmitt was only an unprincipled opportunist without any consistent political philosophy and the opposite charge, made in different versions by the German scholars Heinrich Meier (Die Lehre Carl Schmitts) in 1994 and Andreas Koenen (Der Fall Carl Schmitt) in 1995, that behind Schmitt’s changing political allegiances lay an extreme antimodernist Catholic fundamentalism committed to realizing theological principles in the political sphere and restoring the medieval German empire. In the Weimar years at least, according to Balakrishnan, Schmitt’s ideas owed very little to the theological traditions of the church. He viewed Catholicism as a “complex of opposites” whose universality enabled it to embrace and conciliate diverse schools of thought, thus constituting a safeguard against political or sectarian fanaticism and providing a model for mediating political and international conflicts in postwar Europe. While Balakrishnan is quite sympathetic to Joseph Bendersky’s interpretation of Schmitt as a beleaguered conservative nationalist (in Carl Schmitt: Theorist for the Reich [1983]), he denies that Schmitt was ever first and foremost a “nationalist,” and he chides Bendersky for “often downplaying the extremely unusual, radical side of his mind” (p. 269, n. 1), Schmitt, like so many other Germans in the Weimar era, was outraged by the Versailles Treaty and Allied military efforts to enforce it, which in his view contributed to the weakness of the republican constitution by undermining the sovereignty of the state. But what strikes Balakrishnan as compelling about Schmitt’s pre-Nazi texts is precisely their distance from the usual völkisch line. In the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Schmitt did assume that democracy requires a certain homogeneity to be effective, but he denied that this homogeneity could be defined in ethnic or racial terms, or indeed along any one dimension, such as common language.

Schmitt’s assertion of the sovereign authority of the state and its right to identify and suppress its internal and external enemies has obvious appeal to conservatives and is currently invoked to justify the suspension of civil liberties in the war against terrorism. Schmitt’s reception on the left is more complicated and ambiguous. The book’s title—a reference to Schmitt’s famous friend-enemy distinction, but one that does not specify who the enemy is (for Schmitt in the 1920s it was the proletariat)—reflects Balakrishnan’s ambivalence. For him, Schmitt is important for the questions that he raises and the problems that he diagnoses, not the authoritarian solutions that he proposes. No doubt Schmitt’s tough-minded understanding that a liberalism that serves only to rationalize economic self-interest and anchor privileges in law is a threat to democracy helps to account for his open-minded reception on the left in an era in which liberalism and democracy are often equated as a matter of course, and democracy seems everywhere to be losing ground. Schmitt’s recognition of the irreducibly political nature of interpretations of the law and of constitutions and his critique of the illusion that politics could be rendered superfluous in a system governed only by technocratic market rules have obvious relevance in an era of rampant privatization, corporatization, standardization, bureaucratization, and deregulation. Schmitt affirmed “the political” as a necessary corrective to the almost religious belief in technology as the means of solving social problems in an “age of neutralizations and depolitizations.” Balakrishnan hopes to mobilize Schmitt’s theoretical insights to reinvigorate a pusillanimous and demoralized left. If in domestic politics Schmitt’s works challenge neo-liberal (or neo-conservative) consensus politics, the ideas he developed in protest against the victor powers’ efforts to limit German sovereignty through international law in the aftermath of World War I have relevance to contemporary international relations as well. Schmitt typically confronted lofty ideals with hard reality. “International law is suspect for Schmitt not because it is universal in scope, but, rather, because it never will be, since powerful states or whole alliances of states will either have their privileges esconced in international law, or evade its jurisdiction on what they deem to be vital matters of security” (p. 267).

This book will not end the controversy on the value of Schmitt’s writings, the soundness of his ideas, or his standing in intellectual history. But readers of all political persuasions can benefit from reading Balakrishnan’s conscientious and challenging scholarly study.

Roderick Stackelberg
Gonzaga University