Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

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