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  • Mouffe and Schmitt
  • James Wiley (bio)
Chantal Mouffe, The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (Verso: 1999)

Suddenly, it seems, we are in the middle of a Carl Schmitt revival. Previously under taboo, the controversial jurist and former Nazi has already been rehabilitated in Germany. Derrida’s Politics of Friendship (which devotes several chapters to Schmitt) furthers his rehabilitation in France. It is well underway in North America and the U.K. in the pages of Telos, new English translations of Schmitt’s works, the University of Chicago Press’s reprinting of The Concept of the Political, and in Mouffe’s previous The Return of the Political. Her new anthology, The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, makes available to Anglophone readers perspectives on Schmitt from German, French, Italian, Greek and Argentine writers, as well as a translation of one of Schmitt’s essays on pluralism and the state. Those are its strengths. The weaknesses of the collection are that it assumes that readers already know a lot about Schmitt and it is too narrowly focused on Schmitt’s “challenge” to liberalism—which I think overlooks the real source of interest in Schmitt.

The essays by Jean-Francois Kervegan on Schmitt’s conception of international relations and by Grigoris Ananiadis on Schmitt’s view of the relationships between sovereignty, dictatorship, democracy and the political are the most informative and insightful ones about Schmitt. Other essays on Schmitt in relation to Marx, Weber and European juridical science are suggestive, if somewhat tedious. Schmitt’s 1930 essay, “Ethic of State and Pluralist State,” is instructive because it reveals that his concept of “the political” originally developed in opposition to French syndicalism and British pluralism, rather than against liberalism.

The ubiquitous Slavoj Zizek contributes the most interesting essay to the collection. It begins with a dense psychoanalytic interpretation of post-Kierkegaardian theology, but in the second half Zizek develops an explicitly left-wing conception of the political as an “inherent antagonism” involving “the paradox of a singular which appears as a stand-in for the Universal.” From this perspective, Schmitt’s friend- enemy conception of the political appears as a reactionary attempt to suppress or depoliticize this inherent antagonism.

The anthology could have used a longer introduction explaining who Schmitt was, why he is controversial, and the main lines of interpretation of his work (e.g., Schmitt as fascist, as realist, as Catholic “political theologian”). Instead, Mouffe insists on narrowing the focus to Schmitt’s critique of liberalism. This critique was the least original aspect of Schmitt’s thought. (The opposition of democracy to liberalism described in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, for example, is quite old and Schmitt drew explicitly from Weber, Ostrogorski, Michels, and Mosca.) The opportunistic effort to find a “hook” for the anthology in liberalism is unfortunate because it limits the appeal of the collection. Readers who are interested in Laclau and Mouffe’s radical democracy project will be left wondering if Mouffe has retreated to liberalism pure and simple.

I think the fascination with Schmitt (as with Machiavelli) lies in his explicit engagement with political crises and in the wide scope of his political interests. Schmitt writes about sovereignty, emergencies, dictatorship, the relationship of politics and the state to law and constitutions, spatial order, the conflict between land and sea powers, the relationship of politics to theology, and the differences and conflicts between democracy, liberalism and pluralism. As the social democratic contributions to the collection by Paul Hirst, David Dryzenhaus, Ulrich Preuss (and for that matter Mouffe herself) make clear, these are not topics that liberals, socialists or radical democrats want to take seriously. This means avoiding not only “the Challenge of Carl Schmitt,” but the challenge of politics.

James Wiley

James Wiley recently completed his doctoral dissertation, The Political Imagination: The Concept of the Political and Its Theorists , at The Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail address is


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