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Schmitt and/against Bakunin

While academic commentators have expended much effort on the Carl Schmitt industry
over the past 25 years, English-language publications have tended to disregard the traces
running through Schmitt's formative 1920s writings that indicate he was in many ways
writing against Bakunin in particular and anarchism more broadly.
The Commentators
Heinrich Maier has written convincingly of what he described as the hidden dialogue
between Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss around The Concept of the Political. And Giorgio
Agamben has written more speculatively of an indirect dialogue between Schmitt and
Walter Benjamin through the Weimar years, with Dictatorship, Political Theology and the
book on Hobbes from one side and The Origin of German Tragic Drama and the Critique
of Violence to the other.
Another parallel encounter appears to be hidden in plain sight: Schmitt's recurring
commentary on the challenge of Mikhail Bakunin. Despite the traces even to the
borrowing of the very title Political Theology - such a disreputable source seems to
attract little comment. As an agitator and occasional journalist Bakunin neither sought nor
left a respectable theoretical edifice and so may be perceived nowadays by the academic
more as historical event than as worthy interlocutor.
Paul Gottfried doesn't mention Bakunin by name in his Thinkers of our time: Carl Schmitt
but does note that Schmitt was reacting to attempts to eliminate politics in favour of the
administration of economic and social problems, attempts common to American
financiers, industrial technicians, Marxist socialists and anarcho-syndicalist
revolutionaries1 (quoting Political Theology).
In The Enemy, an extensive biography of Schmitt, Gopal Balakrishnan makes minimal
mention of Bakunin, only in the context of a diatribe 2 quoted by Schmitt. Bakunin stands
only as a Russian atheist, the enemy of a Western Europe under Russian eyes.
Heinrich Maier in his book on Schmitt and Strauss does however draw attention to
Bakunin's significance to Schmitt's Political Theology. 3 And Reinhart Mehring is clearer
on the crucial identification of anarchism and Bakunin as the enemy.4
1 Paul Gottfried, Thinkers of our time: Carl Schmitt, Claridge Press, 1990, p15
2 Gopal Balakrishnan, The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt, Verso, 2000, p61
3 Heinrich Maier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: the hidden dialogue, University of Chicago Press, 1995,
p75-76
4 Reinhart Mehring, Carl Schmitt: A Biography, Polity Press, 2014, p128 & 151

The texts
In the Dictatorship book of 1921, Schmitt's historical review of what he terms
commissarial and sovereign dictatorships concludes with discussions of Sieys' pouvoir
constituant and pouvoir constitu and then the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. This
subject coverage is as would be expected of the time and place of writing, in the context of
the experience of Eisler, Landauer and Mhsam and the 1919 Rterepublik in Munich. In a
long footnote, however, Schmitt discusses rationalist theories of unfolding progress before
digressing to counterpose anarchist and syndicalist positions, regarding Sorel's violence
creatrice of a pouvoir constituant as demonstrating intuition of its historical significance. 5
This extending distinct interest becomes clearer the following year in Political Theology.
The link should be evident, as the book title deliberately appropriates that of Bakunin's
1871 The Political Theology of Mazzini and the International. And yet neither the
Introduction nor the Foreword of the English edition mention that.
Chapter 4 of Political Theology, first published separately, is generally presented as if
purely extolling the early nineteenth century counter-revolutionary positions of De Maistre
and Donoso Corts against modern liberalism.
But its textual construction is more complex. To one side is the world of liberal democracy,
including its socialist form: the endless conversation of representative politics, the belief
in an educative process, the communicative rationality wrapped around liberal freedoms.
Standing against that is not merely the counter-revolutionary reaction, though, but also that
politics which sets itself against state tutelage and progress. Here is to be found not only
the reactionary for whom the state serves as bulwark, but also the anarchist for whom the
state is the apex of oppressive power. These positions are stark. Between them is no
possible synthesis through endless conversation, only the intense struggle of an either/or.
Schmitt moves adroitly from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and the
emergence of administrative-technical political economy, tendencies he regard as
exhibited in syndicalism as much as in the emerging welfare states. This he sees as
evasion of politics as decision, its dissipation into the economic mundane.
Successively, Schmitt sets reactive positions about: government authority, opposition to
liberalism and its organic evolution, dictatorial decision versus insurrectionist anarchism.
But it is here that he introduces another modality which will become key to later texts.
5 Schmitt, Dictatorship, Polity Press, 2014, p280

Suddenly anarchism is asserted to carry a belief that people are by nature good. Curiously,
Schmitt hangs this on an adapted Jacobin quotation: The people are good but the
magistrate is corruptible.6 In Bakunin's depiction of a whole pyramid of oppression
(theology morality politics) Schmitt sees a rejection of moralism and political decision in
favour of immediate natural life and unproblematic concreteness. 7
In closing the chapter, Schmitt bypasses the positions of political economy to take up
Corts' view of an ultimate political battle of authority versus anarchy. He characterising
the anarchist position: that every government is a dictatorship and that right emerges by
itself if the immanence of life is not disturbed by the claims of the would-be governor,
before concluding nicely that Bakunin had to become in theory the theologian of the antitheological and in practice the dictator of an anti-dictatorship. 8
Schmitt will later adopt Hobbes' man is a wolf unto man for his de-moralised
anthropology of good/evil. Anarchists deploy a similar awareness of the ubiquity of
potential evil/danger, which might be characterised as man with positional power is a wolf
unto man. If the anarchist position is one of crowdsourced control against this possibility
of power as corrupter, then it is effectively already a position of the collective restrainer,
and certainly not one of faith in intrinsic good. But Schmitt requires of anarchism that it
plays an absolute far-side role. That its purported axiom of goodness blurs into a wariness
of man as potentially evil is inconvenient for his presentation, as he wants or needs to
impugn a position of radical good. This becomes clearer in the subsequent
anthropological turn in The Concept of the Political.
At this point, Hugo Ball, the ex-Dadaist, is arguably crucial as the transmission line and
source for material through which Bakunin became emblematic of a dangerous politics for
Schmitt. In Roman Catholicism and Political Form, also in 1922, Schmitt presents
Catholicism's principle of representation ...very clearly in opposition to the presently
dominant economic-technological thought. 9 The Workers' Councils fall under that antirepresentational thought, with their insistence that delegates are only agents, carriers of an
imperative mandate and so administrative servants of the production process. 10 Schmitt
sees a convergence, such that American financiers and Russian Bolsheviks find
themselves together struggling for economic thought, that is to say struggling against
6
7
8
9
10

Schmitt, Political Theology, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p55


Political Theology, p65
Political Theology, p66
Schmitt, Rmischer Katholozismus und politische Form, Klett-Cotta, 2008, p14
Rmischer Katholozismus, p45

politicians and lawyers.11 If economic-technological liberalism implies that Neither people


nor objects need a 'government' if the economic and technical mechanism is left to follow
its intrinsic rhythm,12 he regards that as leading to anarchism. Again in the culminating
pages, Bakunin appears as a Russian berserker whose barbaric untamed instinct
harnesses the force of the lumpen-proletariat. The atheistic socialism of the anarchist
Russian stands as adversary to the European Christian tradition. Chronologically and
interrogatively, this is possibly the most complex point in the encounter, as Schmitt was
drawing heavily on conversations with Hugo Ball and material that Ball had collated in his
draft Bakunin Brevier on his own journey from Bakunin to Catholicism. 13
When the following year Schmitt wrote on what has been translated as The Crisis of
Parliamentary Democracy, once again a fourth and final chapter goes beyond party
political manoeuvring. Sorel is the primary focus of the chapter on Irrationalist Theories of
the Direct Use of Force, particularly his Reflections on Violence, but Schmitt again
returns to Proudhon and Bakunin, and the latter's attack on the metaphysical centralism
of belief in God 14 as underpinning all institutions of the modern state. Bakunin gave the
struggle against God and the state the character of a struggle against intellectualism and
against traditional forms of education altogether. He saw Bakunin's affirmation of the
unmediated immanent life of the working class extending as the basis for syndicalism. In
that this consists a direct, active decision it is the mirror image of Schmitt's search for
decisive authority.
Once more, the translator's introduction is silent on this chapter.
Even The Concept of the Political in 1927 is haunted by anarchism. The distinction of the
political from the state in the early sections promotes a wider dynamic and intensification
of the political which breaks the bounds of political party manoeuvring. In section 7,
Schmitt returns to the topic of anarchism. This is the point at which Leo Strauss saw the
text as turning from its original thesis,15 towards a sudden drive to make the Hobbesian
view that man is a wolf to man determinant in all politics. Once again Schmitt proposes
that anarchism posits people as good (rather than corruptible by institutional power), but
extends this to also cover the inherent anti-statism of the economic liberals: The part of
11 Rmischer Katholozismus, p22-3
12 Rmischer Katholozismus, p60
13 Nachwort to Hugo Ball Michael Bakunin, Ein Brevier, Wallstein, p553

14 Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy,MIT Press, 1988, p67


15 Leo Strauss Notes on The Concept of the Political in The Concept of the Political, University of
Chicago Press, 1996, p104

the theories and constructions which presume people to be good is liberal and in a
polemical way directed against state meddling, without actually being anarchist. With open
anarchism it is readily apparent how closely belief in natural good is bound up with the
radical rejection of the state, such that one leads to the other and they support one
another. For liberals, people's goodness is nothing but an argument with whose help the
state is made to serve economic life, saying only that economic life has its own order, and
the state is carefully subordinated within limits. 16
This critique directed at anarchist and libertarian positions in section 7 serves as a
preamble for the wider critique of the depoliticisation in the individualism of liberal thought
in section 8.
And again, in the 1929 text on The Age of Neutralisations and Depoliticisations, Schmitt
disparages the spirit of technicity, which has led to a mass belief in an anti-religious
activism of this world and comments that as yet nobody has constructed an economic
order guided by technicians other than one which is rudderless and directionless. Even
Georges Sorel did not remain an engineer, but became a cleric. 17
Place and time
The first twenty years of 20th century radical thought are mired in inconvenient
strangeness. The anti-parliamentarianism, the syndicalist turn and then accommodation
with corporatism in writers such as Michels and Sorel, the mix of lifestylism and
economism at Ascona, in Silvio Gesell or the Kibbo Kift: all appear as an expanse of boggy
marshland beside what in retrospect are viewed as the main currents of regressive and
progressive modernism, in Bolshevism, Nazism and the New Deal and the eventual
victor of capitalist modernism's creative destruction.
The creative destruction celebrated by Bakunin and Sorel is a singular event. In that
respect it falls short of the dynamic of Schumpeter's creative destruction, instead indicating
a subsequent stasis in both senses: an unchanging achieved social peace and also
building frustration verging on civil war. Here again is the challenge of the political, a
challenge which could have been to anarchism.
But this is not what Schmitt follows through. Strauss rightly pointed to this (re-)introduction
of a non-moral good and evil as a reflection moving in the opposite direction of the
Concept of the Political text. It re-theologises but also serves as an amalgam
16 Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, Duncker & Humblot, p56
17 Der Begriff des Politischen, p84-5

condemnation of economic liberalism, accused of the same tendency as anarchism.


Recall also that when Schmitt adapted the line that The people are good but the
magistrate is corruptible from the Jacobin Declaration of 1793 and set against that as the
axiomatic anarchist position, he did not quote its preceding statement that the law must
defend public and individual liberty against the authority of those who govern. But even
so, the implication remains that this economic libertarian position is also in his sights.
Schmitt's political theology involves a concrete order that is a long way from Hayek's
vision of a custom-based nomos upon which myriad independent transactional decisions
are made.18 Schmitt wants to preserve a theological position even without morality and
decision as a diktat (what Strauss called transprivate obligation 19) rather than ubiquitous
transaction.
The case of Schmitt and the anarchists involves two sets of manoeuvres, separated by 70
or more years. There is that by Schmitt to frame his emerging political theology against
what he saw as the immediate threat of the anarchist rejection of separate political power.
Then there is the subsequent oversight by the commentators whose omissions leave
whole chapters on which there is nothing to be said, missing crucial dynamics.

18 Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Routledge, 2013, p68


19 Strauss Notes on The Concept of the Political, p104