As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Linas Jokubaitis looks at Joseph Bendersky’s “Carl Schmitt and the Conservative Revolution” from Telos 72 (Summer 1987).
In his last book, Political Theology II, Carl Schmitt wrote that some books are fated to become academic legends, but contrary to the etymological meaning of the word Legende, they are not read, only cited. He knew that his persona was surrounded by many mythologies and that after his death an even greater complex of mythologies would develop around his personality and works. Today there seems to be no end to the multiplication of legends about Schmitt. Joseph Bendersky’s essay “Carl Schmitt and the Conservative Revolution” is a meticulous attempt to understand if there is any truth in the popular legend, according to which Schmitt belonged to a diverse group of intellectuals who were labeled as conservative revolutionaries.
Today there are many scholars who think that Richard Wolin, in his article “Carl Schmitt: The Conservative Revolutionary Habitus and the Aesthetics of Horror,” has proved that Schmitt was a conservative revolutionary. Bendersky shows otherwise. Bendersky makes his position very clear: “Carl Schmitt has been depicted long and inaccurately as one of Weimar’s foremost conservative revolutionaries. In the early literature he was not merely categorized as a thinker belonging to that “motley” group of writers associated with the conservative revolution; he was identified directly with neo-romanticism, irrationalism, völkisch thinking, and the call for a vague “national revolution” (27).
It could be argued that one of the best introductions to the thought of conservative revolutionaries is Leo Strauss’s lecture On German Nihilism. The Jewish philosopher argued that “the prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as material merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and very decent, if very young, Germans. They did not object to that prospect because they were worrying about their own economic and social position; for certainly in that respect they had no longer anything to lose.”
The Weimar Republic was disintegrating before the eyes of conservative revolutionaries, and they fully embraced the advice of Nietzsche: “that which is falling should also be pushed.” These intellectuals were not united by any positive aspirations. They shared the disgust with the modern world and more concretely with Weimar Republic, which they saw as the embodiment of everything that had went wrong with the West. One of the leading conservative revolutionaries, Ernst Jünger, must have felt that Bakunin’s war cry—”the passion for destruction is a creative passion”—expressed his feelings and those of his comrades very accurately.
According to Armin Mohler, conservative revolutionaries were united by their common intellectual descent from Nietzsche, whom he called “the father of conservative revolutionaries.” This intellectual genealogy made it difficult for Mohler to argue that Schmitt belonged to this group of thinkers. He admitted that Schmitt had a kind of “anti-Nietzsche affect” and considered him to be an “impressionist,” and that that “impressionism” for Schmitt was a curse word.
It is strange when John P. McCormick, one of the leading experts in Schmitt studies, writes in his highly acclaimed book Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism that “despite the critically rational moments of Schmitt’s analysis, he succumbs to the Nietzschean reversion to myth in an attempt to fend off the encroachments of a demonized technology.” Schmitt was never interested in Nietzschean myths, although he had words of praise for George Sorel and his theory of political myth.
What are the sources of the legend that depicts Schmitt as one of the leading conservative revolutionaries? Bendersky points to the sources of this misunderstanding: “this kind of interpretation has hitherto been based on two sources, both secondary. The first is the books by Christian Graf von Krockow and Jurgen Fijalkowski. The second is monographs on the conservative revolution.” (29)
Bendersky noted that the works of Waldemar Gurian and Sigmund Neumann have revealed a fundamental difference between prewar ant postwar interpretations of Schmitt’s oeuvre. During the short life of the Weimar Republic, Schmitt was not associated with conservative revolutionaries; on the contrary the public considered him to be a Catholic thinker and an advocate of the Republic. The legend that Schmitt was a conservative revolutionary was born only after the Second World War.
However, there are some elements in Schmitt’s writings that made him popular among conservative revolutionaries and which show at least some spiritual affinity with this movement. “In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” This excerpt from Political Theology sounds like a motto of conservative revolutionaries. Schmitt’s scathing critique of the modern world in his book on Theodor Däublers “Nordlicht,” his embrace of decisionism, the positive evaluation of Sorel’s political theory of myth, and his attack on the “anti-religion of technicity” force us to reconsider the possibility that Schmitt might have been an “honorary member” of the conservative revolution.
Schmitt enjoyed an asymmetrical relationship with conservative revolutionaries. He was often admired by them, but he did not pay much attention to their theories and aspirations: “the fact that Schmitt’s writings were quite influential on the right does not in itself confirm that he was a conservative revolutionary, since his work influenced writers of very diverse political persuasions. Moreover, neither the study by Sontheimer nor that of Mohler explains whether Schmitt’s scholarly arguments and concepts were utilized in the form he understood them or in distorted or vulgarized forms” (36).
Bendersky wrote “Carl Schmitt and the Conservative Revolution” in 1987. Four years later Schmitt’s Glossarium was published. This posthumous publication revealed his intense dislike of the conservative revolutionaries and everything for which they stood. He kept his distance from this movement because of its neopagan and sometimes simply nihilistic worldview.
Jünger spoke for conservative revolutionaries when he said that they were the sons and grandsons of godless men. Regarding this question, Schmitt wrote: “I am Catholic not only by confession but also by historical origin, if I may say so, by race.” Schmitt and the conservative revolutionaries were at one in criticizing certain aspects of modernity, but these attacks came from completely different and irreconcilable positions.
Indignation is a bad counselor, but it is very hard to avoid it in any attempt to deal with the figure of Carl Schmitt. Bendersky’s essay is written sine ira et studio, without vagueness and unnecessary speculations. Here facts speak, and Bendersky is not trying to create his own Carl Schmitt. Despite the solid proofs he presents, the legend that Schmitt was one of the leading conservative revolutionaries lives on. In Glossarium Schmitt wrote “Don’t give your enemies the chance to grasp you. As long as they do you wrong, they have not grasped you.” Today we can say with certainty that Bendersky’s article has brought us closer to grasping this enigmatic thinker, and that it remains useful for friends and enemies in their attempt to grasp this sphinx of political theory.