April 1, 2023

The Political Theory Of Myth (Carl Schmitt)

Editors note: Carl Schmitt’s “Die Politische Theorie des Mythus” (“The Political Theory of Myth”) , published in 1923, is one of his most important early essays and came out about the same time as his book Political Theology, his most well-known text. It is translated here for the first time into English.

The essay, which focuses on his often unacknowledged early interest in the radical French anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel, indicates Schmitt’s curiosity concerning the radical new social movements that were emerging in the early 1920s, particularly Russian Bolshevism and Mussolini’s brand of Italian fascism. Sorel’s writings, especially his Reflections on Violence, are often considered to be an inspiration for fascism, though they amounted more to a critique of Marxism, which had been domesticated prior to World War I in the movement known as “social democracy”, which became the prime mover in engineering the German surrender to the allies in 1918 and setting up the Weimar republic. In his “Political Theory of Myth” Schmitt betrays himself as an admirer of the then competing and inchoate radical anti-parliamentary social movements (including Bolshevism), touting Sorel’s preoccupation with the “irrationalist” notion of “myth” as a necessity for revolutionary action. It has even been suggested that Schmitt’s celebrated concept of the “state of exception” (Ausnahmenzustand) may have been lifted, at least in part, from Sorel.

The Political Theory of Myth” also implies that any political theology must begin with a motivating form of mythic thinking, though Schmitt does not actually say that. In any event, it is an often overlooked part of Schmitt’s literary remains that clarify the sources of his most well-known thought project.

This piece will be followed on occasion by translations of some of Carl Schmitt’s other shorter works that are not yet familiar to Anglophone readers.

It needs to be re-iterated here that if we are ideally going to focus our attention on current philosophical and political trends, we need to take into consideration present day parliamentarianism and the power of the parliamentary idea. If the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat still harbored the possibility of a rational dictatorship, the doctrines of direct action are all more or less consciously based on a philosophy of irrationality. In reality, as was the case with Bolshevik rule, it became apparent that very different currents and tendencies could coexist in political life. Although the Bolshevik government suppressed the anarchists for political reasons, the set of issues to which the Bolshevik argument actually applies harbors decidedly anarcho-syndicalist ideas. That the Bolsheviks used their political power to stamp out anarchism does not eliminate their kinship with them any more than Cromwell’s suppression of the Levellers severed his connection with them. Perhaps Marxism appeared so unrestrained on Russian soil precisely because in this situation proletarian thinking was finally freed from all their links with the Western European tradition and from  the very moral and educational heritage in which Marx and Engels still quite naturally had steeped themselves.

The theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat in its official capacity today would be a splendid example of how a rationalism conscious of its own historical antecedents succumbs to the use of force. We can also find countless parallels to the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793 with respect to attitude, argumentation, organizational and administrative measures. The entire propaganda and instructional organization constructed by the Soviet government in the so-called “Proletkult” is a glorious example of radical educational dictatorship. But this alone does not explain why the ideas of the industrial proletariat in modern cities were able to achieve such prominence on Russian soil. The reason lies in the fact that new, irrationalist motives for the deployment of force have been at work. Not the kind of rationalism that turns from an extreme exaggeration into its opposite, fantasizing about utopias, but a new weighting of rational thinking in general, a new belief in instinct and intuition, one which eliminates all belief in the importance of discussion while also rejecting it, substituting therefore for education on the whole an educational dictatorship.

Among writings on the theory of direct action only Enrico Ferri’s “revolutionary method” became known in Germany thanks to the translation by Robert Michels (in Grünberg’s collection of the main works of socialism). The following explanation is based on Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, which discloses the intellectual and historical context most clearly. This book also has the advantage of numerous original historical and philosophical aperçus and openly acknowledges its spiritual ancestors – Proudhon, Bakunin and Bergson. Sorel’s influence is far greater than meets the eye, and is certainly not over yet. Although Benedetto Croce said of Sorel that he had given the Marxist dream a new shape, the democratic idea had finally triumphed among the working class. After the events in Russia and ltaly it will no longer be possible to accept this inference with certainty. The backdrop to Sorel’s reflections on violence is a theory of immediate concrete existence, adapted from Bergson and applied to problems of social life under the influence of two anarchists, Proudhon and Bakunin.

For Proudhon and Bakunin, anarchism means a struggle against any kind of systematic unity, against the centralizing uniformity of the modern state, against professional parliamentary politicians, against bureaucracy, the military and the police, against the belief in God that is perceived as metaphysical centralism. The analogy between the two concepts of God and state was imposed on Proudhon under the influence of Restoration philosophy. He gave it a revolutionary, anti-statist, and anti-theological twist that led Bakunin to draw out its ultimate logic.  Concrete individuality, the social reality of life, is violated in every comprehensive system. The fanaticism for unity characteristic of the Enlightenment is no less despotic than that of modern democracy. Unity is slavery.  All tyrannical institutions are founded on centralism and authority, regardless of whether they are sanctioned by universal suffrage, as in modern democracy.  

Bakunin characterizes this fight against God and state as a battle against intellectualism and against the traditional form of education in general. He sees – with good reason – intellectualism a pretension to be the head and brain of a movement, thus installing itself as a form of new authority. Science also has no right to rule. It is not life, it creates nothing, it constructs and maintains, but it only understands the general, the abstract and sacrifices the individual fullness of life on the altar of abstraction. Art is more valuable for human life than science. Statements of this kind by Bakunin are surprisingly consistent with Bergson’s thoughts and have rightly been emphasized..

The importance of the trade unions and their specific means of struggle, especially the strike, is recognized as the immediate, immanent life of the working class itself. Thus, Proudhon and Bakunin became the fathers of syndicalism. From this tradition, based on arguments he drew from Bergson’s philosophy, Sorel’s ideas arose. At its heart is the theory of myth. It represents the strongest alternative to absolute rationalism and its dictatorship, but it also is a doctrine of immediate, active decision-making, in contrast with relative rationalism implicit in the whole ensemble of ideas involving fair and balanced reasoning, public debate and parliamentarism.

When it comes to the capacity for action and grand heroism, all great historical activity lies in the equal capacity for myth. Examples of such myths, for Sorel, include the idea of fame and great names among the Greeks, or the expectation of the Last Judgment in ancient Christianity, the belief in the “vertu” and in revolutionary freedom during the French Revolution, the nationalist enthusiasm during the German Wars of Independence of 1813. In the power of myth lies the criterion for whether a people, or another social configuration, has a historical mission and whether its historical moment has arrived.  It is from authentic life instincts, not from reasoning or the contemplation of one’s own purpose, that great elan, great moral decision, and great myth spring. In exercising direct intuition an exuberant crowd engenders the mythical image that propels their energy forward, affording them the strength for martyrdom and the courage to employ violence. Only in this way does a people, or a class, become the engine of world history.

Where this is lacking, no social and political power can be maintained, and no mechanical apparatus can construct a dam unless a new one stream of historical life breaks forth. Thderefore, everything depends on where nowadays this capacity for myth and this vital force really dwells. It is certainly not to be found in the modern bourgeoisie, that class of society that is made degenerate by fear for their money and property, morally fractured by their own skepticism, relativism and preference for parliamentarism. The form of rule for this class, the form of modern democracy, is simply a “demagogic plutocracy”.  So who is the bearer of the great myth today? Sorel tries to prove that only the socialist masses of the industrial proletariat still have a myth, namely in the general strike, in which they believe.

It is far less important what the general strike really means today than what belief the proletariat associates with it, what deeds and sacrifices it inspires, and whether it is able to bear forth a new morality. Belief in the general strike and in the tremendous catastrophe that it will bring about for the whole of social and economic life is therefore key the life of socialism. It arose from the masses themselves, from the immediacy of industrial proletarian activity, not as an invention of intellectuals and writers, not as a utopia (because, according to Sorel, utopia is a product of the rationalist  spirit that depends entirely on a mechanical scheme to master life).

From the standpoint of this philosophy, the bourgeois ideal of peaceful consensus, in which everyone finds their advantage and everyone does good business, becomes a product of cowardly intellectualism – the contentious, transient, parliamentary negotiation appears as a betrayal of the myth and of the great enthusiasm on which all things depend. The mercantile idyll of equilibrium is opposed by another image, the warlike notion of a bloody, devastating, and decisive battle. In contradistinction to parliamentary constitutionalism this image appeared in 1848 from both sides: from the side of the traditional order in keeping with the conservative sensibility, represented by the Catholic Spaniard Donoso Cortes, and in radical anarcho-syndicalism in Proudhon.  

Both are decisive. All the Spaniard’s reflections revolve around the great struggle (la gran contienda), around the terrible catastrophe that is imminent and which can only be enabled by the metaphysical cowardice of a contentious liberalism.  Likewise, Proudhon, for whose thought here the essay La Guerre et la Pais (“War and Peace”) is illustrative, speaks of the Napoleonic assault that annihilates the opponent, the Bataille Napoleonienne. According to Proudhon, all acts of violence and violations of rights that are part of the bloody struggle are in the view of history ultimately vindicated. “There comes a day of radical negation and sovereign affirmation”.  No parliamentary discussion can stop it. The people, propelled by their instincts, will smash the lectern of the sophists. All the presumed utterances of Donoso, which really are the voice of Sorel, correspond to that of the anarchist, who stands on the side of the instincts of the people.

For Donoso, radical socialism is something greater than the liberal inclination for compromise, because it harks back to the ultimate issue. It offers a definitive answer to radical inquiry, because it has a theology.  Specifically Proudhon is Donoso’s opponent here, not because he was the most frequently mentioned socialist in 1848, against whom Montalembert had made a famous speech in parliament, but because he represents a radical principle.  The great Spaniard grew desperate in the face of the Legitimists’ stupid ignorance and the cowardly cunning of the bourgeoisie. Only in socialism did he still see what he called “instinct” (el instincto), from which he drew the conclusion that in the long run all parties work for him.

In this way the contradictions take on a spiritual dimension and often have a downright eschatological tension. Unlike the dialectically informed tension of Hegelian Marxism, it becomes a matter of immediate, intuitive violence and mythical isymbolism. From the lofty perch of his Hegelian training, Marx was able to treat Proudhon as a philosophical dilettante and demonstrate how badly he had misunderstood Hegel. Today, a radical socialist would be able to show Marx, with the help of a philosophy that is distinctively modern today, that he was merely a schoolmaster thoroughly mired  in his inflated, intellectualistic estimation of Western European bourgeois education, whereas the poor, despised Proudhon at least had the instinct for the real life of the laboring masses. In Donoso’s eyes Proudhon, the socialist anarchist, was an evil demon, a devil, and for Proudhon, the Catholic is a fanatical Grand Inquisitor of whom he seeks to make light.  It is easy to see today that the same opponents were actually on the same page, and that everything else was a kind of makeshift indifference.

Again, Sorel takes all the warlike and heroic ideas associated with struggle and battle seriously. They are the great impulses of an intense life. The proletariat must take the class struggle seriously, as a real struggle, not as a catchphrase for parliamentary speeches and electoral campaigning. The proletariat understands class struggle as an instinctual matter, rather than simply construing it as an intellectual problem. It forges a great myth that gives it the courage for a decisive battle.

There is thus no greater danger to socialism and its idea of class struggle than professional politicians engaging in parliamentary business. They dissipate the great enthusiasm into gossip and intrigue, and squelch all genuine instincts and intuitions from which moral resoluteness springs. The value of human life does not come from reasoning; it arises in a state of war in men who, animated by sweeping mythical visions, enter into battle. It depends on d’un etat de guerre auquel les hommes acceptent de participer et qui se traduit en mythes precis (Reflections on Violence,  p. 319). Martial, revolutionary ardor and the expectation of a tremendous cataclysm exemplify the intensity of life and move history. But the impetus must come from the masses themselves.  Ideologues and intellectuals cannot invent it. This is how the revolutionary wars of 1?92 came about. This is how the epoch that Sorel celebrates with Renan as the greatest era of the 19th century, namely the German Wars of Independence of 1813. All heroism arises from the irrational life energy of an anonymous mass.

Any rationalist interpretation would betray the immediacy of life. As mentioned, the myth is not a utopia, which a product of rational thinkin and leads at most to reforms. One must not confuse the martial spirit with militarism.  Above all, the use of force by this philosophy of irrationality wants to be something other than dictatorship. Like Proudhon, Sorel hates all intellectualism, all centralization and uniformity, and yet, like Proudhon, demands the strictest discipline and morality. The great battle will not be a work of scientific strategy, but an “accumulation d’ex ploits heroiques” and an unleashing of the “force individualiste clans les masses soulevees” (Reflections on Violence, p. 326). The creative violence that breaks out of the spontaneity of theenergized masses is consequently something other than dictatorship.

According to Sorel, rationalism and all the monisms that follow it, centralization and uniformity, as well as the bourgeois illusions of the great man, belong to dictatorship. Its practical result is systematic subjugation, judicial cruelty, and a mechanical instrumentality. The dictatorship is nothing but a military-bureaucratic-police apparatus conveyed by a rationalistic spirit. The revolutionary resort to violence by the masses, on the other hand, springs from immediate life, often wild and barbaric, but never systematically cruel and inhuman.The dictatorship of the proletariat means a repetition of 1793 for Sorel, as well as for everyone who sees the intellectual-historical connection.

When the revisionist Bernstein expressed his opinion that this dictatorship would probably be that of a club of orators and authors, he was referring to the events of 1793., and Sorel replies to him that the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat is a legacy of the ancien regime. As a result, a new bureaucratic and military apparatus supplants the old, as the Jacobins did. That would be a new form of domination by intellectuals and ideologues, but not proletarian freedom. Engels, who said that the dictatorship of the proletariat would be like 1793, is also a typical rationalist in Sorel’s eyes. Rather, the mechanistically concentrated power of the bourgeois state is replaced by creative proletarian violence, and “force” by “violence”. It is  an act of war, not a juridical and administratively measure.

Marx was not yet aware of the distinction, because he was still learning about traditional political thought. The proletarian non-political syndicates and the proletarian general strike are specifically new methods of struggle, which ensure that a re-enactment of the old political and military interventions becomes well-nigh impossible.  The only danger for the proletariat is that it lets parliamentary democracy take its means of struggle out of its hands and paralyzes them {Reflections on Violence, p. 268).

If one were allowed to counter such a decidedly irrationalist theory with arguments, one would have to point out several inconsistencies, not errors in the sense of formal logic, but rather inorganic contradictions. At first Sorel tries to maintain the purely economic basis of the proletarian point of view and, despite some objections, always takes Marx as his point of departure. He hopes that the proletariat will mobilize a morality of economic productivity. The class struggle is one that takes place on an economic foundation with economic means. In the previous chapter it was shown that Marx, out of systematic and logical necessity, pursued his adversary, the bourgeois, into the economic arena. So here the enemy has stipulated the terrain on which to fight, and also the weapons, that is, the structure of the argument. If one follows the bourgeois into the economic arena, one will also have to go along with him in respect to democracy and parliamentarism. Moreover, without the economic-technical rationalism of the bourgeois economy, one will not be able to maneuver, at least for the time being, within the economic arena.

The mechanism of production created during the capitalist eon has a certain rational lawfulness to it. From myth one can certainly muster the courage to smash it, but if it is to be sustained, if production is to be increased even further, which Sorel naturally also wants, the proletariat will have to renounce its myth. Like the bourgeoisie, the proleteriat will fall into a rationalistic and middling mythlessness on account of the superiority of the production mechanism. Here Marx was also more consistent in a key sense because he was more of rationalist. But from the irrational point of view it was a betrayal to want to be even more economical and even more rationalist than the bourgeoisie. Bakunin felt that to be absolutely correct. Marx’s education and manner of thinking of remained in the bourgeois tradition, so that he became intellectually dependent on his adversaries. Nevertheless, precisely through his theory of the bourgeois, he has done indispensable work for the myth along the lines of Sorel.

The great psychological and historical significance  of the theory of myths cannot be gainsaid. The theory of the bourgeois, undertaken with the means of Hegelian dialectics, also served to paint a picture  of an enemy  on which all the affects of hate and contempt could amass. I believe the history of this image of the bourgeois is as important as the history of the bourgeois itself. A satirical figure first created by aristocrats is continued in the 19th century by romantic artists and Dititians. Ever since Stendhal all writers hated the bourgeois, even if they made their living from them, or if they churned out popular books for  a bourgeois public, like Murger with his Boheme.

More important than such caricatures is the contribution of socially degraded geniuses like Baudelaire, who always breath new life into the image. This figure, created in France by French authors in regard to the French bourgeoisie, is considered by Marx and Engels to be a kind of  world-historical construction. They look upon it as the last representative of a humanity divided into classes, the last enemy of humanity altogether, the last odium generis humani. Thus, the picture was infinitely expanded and carried further to the East against an exquisite, not simply world-historical, but also metaphysical background. Here it could obtain new life to, and receive new life from the Russian hatred of the complexity, artificiality, and intellectuality of Western European civilization. All the energies that created this scenario came together on Russian soil. Both the Russian and the proletarian now saw in the bourgeois the incarnation of everything that with a deadly mediocrity aimed to shackle their way of life.

The image had migrated from west to east. Here, however, a myth took hold, one which no longer grew purely out of class struggl, but carried strong nationalist elements. As a kind of testament, Sorel included an apology for Lenin in the last edition of his Reflections on Violence in 1919. He calls him the greatest theoretician that socialism has ever entertained since Marx, and compares him as a statesman with Peter the Great, albeit with the proviso that today, conversely, a Western European intellectualism no longer infiltrates into Russia. On the contrary, the proletarian use of force here has achieved at least one major result, namely, that Russia has become Russian again, Moscow the capital again, and that the Europeanized Russian upper class, who despises their own country, has been destroyed.

The proletarian use of force has made Russia Muscovite once more. In the mouth of an international Marxist, this is a strange form of praise, for it shows that the vigor of nationalism is greater than that of the myth of class struggle. The other examples of myths mentioned by Sorel, in so far as they come from modern times, also prove the superiority of the national. The revolutionary wars of the French people, the Spanish and German struggles for freedom against Napoleon, are symptoms of a national energy. In national feeling, various elements are at work in the most varied ways among different peoples: the more natural conceptions of race and descent, a terrisme apparently more typical of Celto-Romanic tribes. Language, tradition, awareness of a common culture and education, a sense of a common destiny, a consciousness of difference per se – all this is now moving towards a national pride rather than class antagonisms.

The two can converge, as exemplified by the friendship between the martyr of the new Irish national consciousness, Padraic Pearse, and the Irish syndicalist Connolly, both of whom died as victims of the Dublin uprising in 1916. A common ideological opponent can also bring about a strange coincidence: the rejection of Freemasonry by fascism, together with the hatred of Bolshevism, against this “most perfidious betrayal of the working class by a radicalizing bourgeoisie”. But where there has been an apparent conflict between the two myths, the national myth has triumphed to this day.

Italian fascism painted a horrible picture of its communist enemy: the Mongolian face of Bolshevism; it has proved more effective than the socialist image of the bourgeois. So far there has been only one example of democracy and parliamentarism being cast aside by a deliberate invocation of myth, and that is the irrational power of the national myth. In his famous speech of October 1922 in Naples, before the March on Rome, Mussolini said: “We have created a myth, the myth is a belief, a noble enthusiasm, it need not be a reality, it is an impetus and a hope, faith and courage. Our myth is the nation, the great nation, which we want to make a concrete reality.” In the same speech he calls socialism an inferior mythology. The intellectual significance of this example is so great because national enthusiasm on Italian soil had a democratic and parliamentary-constitutional tradition and the national unification of Italy came about under democratic ideas.

The theory of myth is the sturdiest expression of how obviously the relative rationalism of parliamentary thought has been diminished  The discovery of the irrationality of the mythical, in its hostility to authority and unity, could not prevent anarchistic writers from collaborating on the basis of a new authority, a new sense of order, discipline, and hierarchy. The likely danger of these irrationalities is immense. Ultimate connections, at least some remnants of which still exist, are dissolved in the pluralism of an incalculable number of myths. For political theology this is polytheism, just as every myth is polytheistic. But as opposed to a worthy idealistic tendency, one cannot ignore it.

Perhaps parliamentary optimism hopes to put this movement into perspective as well and, as in fascist Italy, to put up with everything until it is discussed again, perhaps also to put the discussion itself up for discussion, provided that it is only discussed. But it will not be sufficient if, after such attacks on its foundations, parliamentarianism can only point out that there is still no substitute for it, if it is only able to counter the anti-parliamentarian ideas with its “parliamentarianism – what else”?

Translated by Carl Raschke

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