In keeping with our previous discussions of contemporary European New Right authors, one name often discussed as an ENR influence, the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, can be highlighted. Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) is mostly remembered for his understanding of a political theory grounded in the distinction between a nation and its common enemy, and abstractly, as the perennial friend-enemy dichotomy. For Schmitt, the political (in his sense) was fundamental, and in fact subsumed all other social-cultural manifestations. We encounter his mature thinking principally within the pages of The Concept of the Political (with The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations), and it is probably safe to say that it is both the work most often read as an introduction to his thinking, and the one most often cited in general commentary. The Concept of the Political is a rather brief work, about 80 pages, originally published in 1927, followed in 1932 by an amended second edition, and, in 1933, a third revision. The current American edition from University of Chicago Press includes Leo Strauss' Notes on the Concept of the Political, written in 1932.
When approaching Carl Schmitt it is almost expected that a writer qualify whatever follows. In a recent (2011) edition of Schmitt's Political Romanticism, Graham McAleer wants to know, “Who was Carl Schmitt?” In response we find it possible to choose one, or perhaps all: an arch-revolutionary, a Catholic conservative, a fascist, or simply an opportunist. 1 As to be expected, Schmitt's case is remarkable for the animosity afforded not only him, personally, but at least as much an animosity directed toward his stated conception of the political, a grounding counter to our time's prevailing liberalism (liberalism taken in a 17th century philosophical and later Enlightenment derived sense, and also a more modern social-totalitarian sense). The former animosity is, of course, most attributable to Schmitt's clerking for the National Socialists, the extent of which has been openly, if not always honestly, debated. However, as with another contemporary German thinker, Martin Heidegger, this association alone will serve in many minds to forever sully both his name and his scholarship, and make whatever he wrote unworthy of serious review. This would be unfortunate because whatever else he may have been, un-serious was not an attributable characteristic.
The present overview does not turn one way or the other on Carl Schmitt's questionable day-job, and by analogy one might, perhaps, think it unfortunate that he was not a supporter of ally Stalin, or simply a hack apologist for a brutal regime, such as Edgar Snow. In that case no one would ever have much minded, since we all understand that either Russian Soviet, or Chinese Communism, started with good intentions, but somehow became misguided, and along the way maybe simply misunderstood as their principals moved toward the starvation and murder of millions of innocents. Such associations, however, hold out at least the possibility of forgiveness—in our liberal world it can't be otherwise. So much the worse for Schmitt, as we face the self-evident social fact that National Socialism was, and will always be, the greatest political evil. And those associated with its particular kind of evil can never be reclaimed, or rehabilitated, we are not inclined to think. At the same time we must conclude this historical episode by pointing out that after a year in prison, and after interrogations, etc., the Allied Nuremberg tribunals could find nothing particularly egregious to hang on Schmitt (or for him to hang on), and he was subsequently released under his own recognizance. 2 Nihil obstat.
Heinrich Meier serves as Professor of Philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany, and also as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago. His Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, The Hidden Dialog (University of Chicago Press, revised paper edition, 1996) was originally published in German, but has since been translated into English, along with other major languages, including Chinese. His study highlights the intellectual tragedy of the political, where friend and enemy are really more alike than not, but who are nevertheless forced by the very political conceptions that they attempt to uncover, into abandoning whatever common ground they once had.
Meier shows how Schmitt's greatest intellectual “collaborator,” the German Jewish political thinker, Leo Strauss, influenced his thinking in ways that allowed his views to mature apart from any concrete personal interaction—a collaboration not localized, but one separated by distance engendered by political enmity. Professor Meier demonstrates how Schmitt understood and embraced his intellectual colleague's critique, in spite of Schmitt's participation in events, and Strauss' removal from them. In fine, the two nevertheless engaged in an “esoteric” or, as Meier puts it, a hidden dialog.
This ostensibly unlikely pairing (ostensible only if one forgets what each was attempting to explicate—that is, the nature of the political) manifests outwardly in other peculiar similarities. Like Schmitt, Leo Strauss himself brought on an almost uncontrolled, passionate vehemence among many observers, both from the political left and right. Strauss is often viewed as the “father” of American neoconservatism, and is typically held by certain anti-neocons in almost an Aristophanean-Socratic fashion: in other words, as a corrupter of the young and impressionable, and the destroyer of tradition. Among the left he exists as the Siva of modern liberalism. One notable example among many that we may cite is the extreme effect Strauss had on libertarian economist (and sometimes “philosopher of freedom”) Murray Rothbard, who, in a more charitable moment, called Strauss' methodology “incredibly absurd.” 3 Rothbard's judgment, of course, turned in part on Strauss' explication of “esoteric writing,” an idea made (in)famous in Persecution and the Art of Writing. Here, the chief idea is that due to external cultural (political, social, religious) exigencies, authors attempting to confront heretical (and hence dangerous) questions must write carefully, and must often disguise their real intentions in order to avoid trouble. But is this really such an odd supposition?
Heinrich Meier demonstrates how Carl Schmitt, due to his own exigencies, was unable to exoterically collaborate with Leo Strauss, but at the same time used Strauss' criticisms to modify and refine his own thinking. Meier undertakes a textual analysis of the Concept's three revisions, and shows how, esoterically, the revisions fit nicely with Strauss' Notes. Background is established by three letters Strauss wrote to Schmitt. In a letter dated March 1932, Strauss offers his “most heartfelt thanks” for the former's support. In September 1932 Strauss discusses specific problems he found within Schmitt's essay, while in July of 1933 Strauss wrote to Schmitt inquiring whether the latter would offer an introduction allowing Strauss to participate in a critical edition of the works of Thomas Hobbes. All letters were unanswered, yet Schmitt kept them throughout his life.
In other correspondence (italics in original), a friend to Strauss wrote,
“Whether C. Schm. can answer at all is the question! I regard his present position as absolutely impossible. I do not know if you have the picture. Regarding that, too, I will write in my next letter, which I will not send via Germany.”
Later, the friend writes,
“Regarding C.S., it can be said that he is joining the crowd in an inexcusable way. In the official position he holds, no doubt he cannot very well answer...And I would certainly not write to him again.”
For his own part, Strauss (May, 1935) wrote that Schmitt, “meanwhile had become a National Socialist,” and could “adduce the mitigating circumstances that after all he could not possibly allow himself to acknowledge his dependence on a Jew.”
Nevertheless, there can be no mistake about the relationship. Professor Meier writes of communication from Schmitt's friend, jurist Gunther Krauss. Krauss, in 1932-33, worked with Schmitt,
“on a dissertation on the Protestant ecclesiastical lawyer Rudoph Sohm; later, Krauss was Schmitt's assistant at the University of Berlin. In 1988 he informed me that Schmitt, referring to the Notes, had commented: You've got to read that. He saw through me and X-rayed me as nobody else has.”
It is from this setting, then, that Dr. Meier discusses in detail how Schmitt acknowledged, if not his dependence, at least his intellectual debt to the political enemy, the Jew, Leo Strauss.
1. Political Romanticism, Transaction Publishers, 2011, ix.
2. A brief introduction to Schmitt at Nuremberg can be found here: http://www.telospress.com/main/index.php?article_id=191&main_page=news_article and http://www.theoria.ca/theoria/archives/2005/12/carl-schmitt-at-nuremberg.html
3. Murray N. Rothbard vs. The Philosophers: Unpublished Writings on Hayek, Mises, Strauss, and Polanyi, Ludwig von Mises Institute, p. 96. Rothbard's critique is hardly scholarly, but more a polemic. At the same time, one may reasonably question Rothbard's own philosophical acumen. For a brief insight into Rothbard as philosopher one may investigate the blog of a real philosopher: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/rothbard-as-philosopher.html. The point is not to debate the issue of Rothbard, but only to offer an example of the kind of effect that the topic of Leo Strauss sometimes engenders.