Book Reviews, Charles, Political Discussion & Analysis
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Political Romanticism (Carl Schmitt)

To my excitement, Carl Schmitt is coming back into fashion, or at least into notice. Last week, for example, an excellent piece by the Swedish renegade leftist Malcolm Kyeyune received wide attention. It revolved around Schmitt’s concept, from The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, that when a regime must prove its legitimacy empirically, it is doomed. Kyeyune concluded that, just as the “bourgeois kings” of Schmitt’s analysis were doomed because they had lost intrinsic legitimacy, so has, and is, our own regime. Now I wish I had thought of and made that point in my own recent review of that book. Ah well. Instead, today you will have to be satisfied with my reflections on another book, Schmitt’s first, Political Romanticism.

I am now working my way through all of Schmitt’s works that have been translated into English (having already completed The Crisis and the much later Theory of the Partisan). Schmitt was not an ideologue, so his thoughts over the decades contained multitudes and did not maintain total consistency, though his mature works are all opposed to the liberal tradition that dominated Europe during his lifetime (1888–1985). He was willing to take his anti-liberalism quite far—famously, he toadied to the National Socialists for a brief period, before being cast out for being an opportunist, and was fortunate not to suffer worse ill consequences. Political Romanticism, however, is not on its face a book about liberalism or anti-liberalism; unlike some of Schmitt’s later work, it is hard to tell from the pages of the book what the politics of the author are. Instead, it’s an extended attack on nineteenth-century romanticism, in particular in the person of Adam Müller, for the sin of refusing to engage in politics or to choose among alternatives, justifying that refusal as a higher commitment to aesthetics.

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I was somewhat annoyed by this 1986 translation (the only one in English, though Lars Vinx, a professor at Cambridge, has recently translated some more obscure Schmitt works, so maybe he will offer new translations of the well-known works). Not because it’s a bad translation—that I can’t tell, since most of the German I used to know I’ve forgotten. Rather because of its terrible footnotes. First, the translator, Guy Oakes, admits he failed to include most of Schmitt’s own footnotes. And second, no new explanatory footnotes are included, which would have greatly helped the reader navigate the obscurities in Schmitt’s writing for the modern reader. Much of the book is taken up with extended discussions of people of whom you have likely barely heard, or of whom you have not heard at all. At least I hadn’t heard much about many of them, and I’m pretty well informed. No doubt new footnotes would have made the translator’s job more burdensome, but lack of them means the reader has to spend a lot of time with reference works to understand much of Political Romanticism.

Anyway, in the same way as all Schmitt’s works, this book rewards hard work. As with Theory of the Partisan, it seems at first glance that much of the analysis is tied to a specific time and place, but it actually has far broader applicability. Political Romanticism was published in 1919 (and revised in 1925, from which this translation was made). In many of Schmitt’s works the then-current political situation seeps in, but not here, despite that Schmitt was studying in Munich in 1919, and lived through the Communist revolt there. Nor does he touch on the Weimar constitution, also promulgated in 1919. Rather, the focus is on the early nineteenth century—with implications, as I say, for both Schmitt’s own time and ours.

Perhaps because of Schmitt’s relative youth (he was thirty-one in 1919), he takes a more polemical stance in this book than in his later, more famous, works. His core complaint about romanticism is that it relativizes all thought; it rejects a metaphysical core and substitutes aesthetic judgment. If he were alive today, he might criticize romanticism as a precursor of liquid modernity, Zygmant Bauman’s term for the dissolution of any solid core of our society and its replacement by ever-shifting and personalized beliefs.

The translator, Oakes, claims in his long but not-very-good Introduction that Schmitt’s attack on political romanticism is an attack on liberalism. His theory is that the liberal state introduced the rule of law and a private sphere, both of which are necessary for romanticism to flourish. But this is obvious tripe; both the rule of law and the private sphere long antedated liberalism, and in fact are the crucial markers of Western Christendom. Moreover, even if it were true that romanticism relies for its existence on the rule of the law and the private sphere, something Schmitt does not say or even imply, the mere fact of an attack on romanticism on other grounds does not make it a concealed attack on those underlying supports. Oakes is, however, as we will see, not wholly wrong when he says that Political Romanticism is “a critique of the metaphysical and metapolitical bases of modern liberalism.”

Schmitt spends the first part of the book (and much of his lengthy Preface to the 1925 edition) talking about romanticism itself. This is somewhat of a challenge, because romanticism is notoriously protean, and differed over time and, especially, among countries. (Schmitt ignores English romantics, focusing only on the Germans and the French.) Romanticism isn’t just smelling the flowers and admiring medieval castles, nor is it a reaction against rationalism. “[T]he romantic attempts to define everything in terms of himself and avoids every definition of himself in terms of something else.” Nor is it tradition, or an opposition to established power. After rejecting various such definitions, Schmitt defines romanticism as a type of occasionalism.

In theological terms, occasionalism is the doctrine that all events, no matter how small, are the direct result of an act of will by God. (This is often found in branches of Islam, but rarely in Christianity.) Schmitt precisely defines romanticism as “subjectified occasionalism”—God disappears, and every event, even the tiniest, becomes an opportunity for the romantic to produce an aesthetic, emotional feeling, the existence of which has no other meaning or importance. The world is viewed through this prism, which means to the romantic, “the world is only occasional, a world without substance and functional cohesion, without a fixed direction, without consistency and definition, without decision, without a final court of appeal, continuing into infinity and led only by the magic hand of chance.” Occasionalism denies “calculable causality, and thus also every binding norm.”

What the romantic pursues most of all is a synthesis, a harmony of opposites that displaces the need to make choices. “In the absence of the occasionalistic displacement into the higher, subjective creativity that resolves all antitheses in a harmonious unity, there is no romanticism.” Beautiful phrases lovingly crafted hide that this is a waste of time and a way to avoid commitment by talking all the damn time. (Schmitt really despises trite, meandering talk; I wonder if he was unpopular at cocktail parties, although he was very well-connected and was socially adept, so maybe he could talk about the weather when he had to.) In the same way, the romantic does not, cannot, hold to any fixed position; he may support the revolution today, and the counter-revolution tomorrow, seeing no contradiction, only a romantic flow of occasions. “Because the concrete point around which the romantic novel develops is always merely occasional, everything can become romantic. In such a world, all political or religious distinctions are dissolved into an interesting ambiguity. The king is a romantic figure as well as the anarchist conspirator, and the caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem. Here everything can be substituted for everything else.”

Of great importance, this way of viewing the world exalts the individual. Traditions and hierarchies are as nothing in this view, instead, we have the romantic “endless conversation” with no fixed points and no conclusions. This is atomizing. What romanticism offers is unlimited possibilities. This is an approach that fundamentally opposes reality, and ensures that a prime motivator of a romantic’s actions is to stave off the need to make a choice. For the romantic, what he feels, the aesthetic experience of emotion, is the most important thing. Schmitt would see the logical endpoint of this today, where the individual is paramount, feelings are everything, and emotivism is one of the prime drivers of politics, both on the Left and the Right, though more on the Left.

Quite a few pages are taken up with precise discussion of how the romantics thought and behaved, analyzing their antecedents, use of language, and so forth. (Interestingly, in passing, Schmitt cites Victor Klemperer for a philological point; Klemperer became famous much later for his diaries of life as a Jew in the Third Reich.) We get attacks on Müller from every angle, along with some on Friedrich Schlegel for good measure, and these attacks are used to repeatedly flog romanticism as a whole. “The rootlessness of the romantic, his incapacity to hold fast to an important political idea on the basis of a free decision, his lack of inner resistance to the most powerful and immediate impression that happens to prevail at the time—all these things have their individual reasons.” But they are not good reasons.

After this relentless barrage, which includes memorable phrases such as “the effeminate raptures of those two bourgeois literati Schlegel and Müller,” Schmitt turns to the specific political implications of romanticism, which is after all the main point of the book. (But not before he tells us that Müller’s “amoral appreciation of everything . . . his effeminate passivity . . . . and his emotional pantheism . . . . can probably be explained in an individual-psychological fashion as well, as a consequence of his feminine and vegetative nature.” Ha ha.) In any case, the “essence of [romanticism] is passivity.” A romantic outlook makes one incapable of choosing a moral, or legal, position. This can be aesthetically pleasing, part of the “endless conversation,” but it is totally lacking in political productivity, in the real world, where such decisions must be made in order for society to function. Here Schmitt swings into high gear, castigating Müller and his kind by comparison with thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Louis de Bonald, and Joseph de Maistre, who in the mind of some bear indicia of romanticism, but in fact are not political romantics at all.

The result is that the romantic denies the importance of justice, a focus on which is “the most important source of political vitality.” Instead, they substitute inconsistency, “though with splendid words about the necessity of [their] position.” They “speak and float in the beautiful movement of a social conversation.” This produces “moral helplessness in the face of each new impression” and makes necessary political life impossible. “An emotion that does not transcend the limits of the subjective cannot be the foundation of a community . . . [N]o society can discover an order without a concept of what is normal and what is right. Conceptually, the normal is unromantic because every norm destroys the occasional license of the romantic.” The essence of the romantic is “the renunciation of every active alteration of the real world.” Everything is fragmentary for the romantic, capable of being part of some higher synthesis, the achievement of which is so eagerly sought. No side needs to be chosen; there is always more talking to do. Schmitt does make some allowances—not every person who has a heightened aesthetic sense is such a useless political romantic; there are also romantic politicians, who rather than seeking a higher harmony that erases making distinctions and choices, inform their moral choices with an aesthetic sense (Schmitt gives the interesting example of Don Quixote).

What is the application of all this today? At first glance, not much. Romanticism is no longer a relevant current of intellectual thought. Or is it? Some elements of romanticism are visible in the thought of today’s Left, notably the importance of subjective feelings. Schmitt refers to romanticism as an “emotive response to political events,” which sums up much of our politics today. But I think that is a secondary element of today’s Left, and also affects the Right, because it is the end product of the hyper-feminization of much of our society. The primary markers of the Left are, as I have noted many times and stole from Roger Scruton, are a simultaneous exaltation of total autonomy, emancipation from unchosen bonds, and of total equality, where no excellence can be permitted. To some extent, the rejection of norms that necessarily characterizes romanticism in Schmitt’s analysis fits precisely with the modern Left, but their reason for rejecting norms results from the demand for emancipation at any societal price, not from a refined aesthetic calculus. And the Left is very much interested in political decisions and choices, in altering the real world, not in the romantic search for a higher synthesis that removes thought to a more abstract plane.

As Gopal Balakrishnan points out in his analysis of Schmitt’s thought, The Enemy, Schmitt is usually associated with the anti-Weimar Conservative Revolutionaries, but at this point, similarities were hard to discern. Yes, Schmitt expresses some contempt for the liberal bourgeois view of life, but that criticism could be Left as much as Right. German Romanticism was something very important to many of the Conservative Revolutionaries, such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, reinforcing that this book can be taken in part as an attack on the German Right of 1919. Schmitt’s later turn to the intellectual Right was thus perhaps not preordained.

No doubt annoying Schmitt, the reaction to the 1919 publication of this book was a resurgence of interest in Müller; Schmitt’s Preface to the 1925 edition notes this, and denies that he’s responsible just because he “discussed an insignificant and questionable personality such as Adam Müller in far too much detail.” Nor did Schmitt return much, if it all, to the themes of Political Romanticism in his later thought. Yet this book is important because it begins Schmitt’s analysis of politics, which he extended to great benefit. Visible here are the roots of Schmitt’s later thoughts on decisionism, on the need for a choice between good and evil, and other crucial views. Also visible is Schmitt’s antipathy toward unmoored individualism, which became more important in his thinking over time. It is explicitly present in the Preface, where he notes that “The ultimate roots of romanticism and the romantic phenomenon lie in the private priesthood.” He is not attacking Protestants; what he means is “romanticism makes the individual [the bourgeois world’s] own point of reference, and imposes upon it the entire burden that otherwise was hierarchically distributed among different functions in a social order.” This leads to “despair,” and certainly, what we can see all around us is despair resulting from the destruction of an organic social order.

Thus, even if Schmitt did not intend to attack the Left, much of this book reads as an assault on elements of Left thought as they have developed in the past one hundred years. That alone makes it fun, and while this book is often overlooked, and I’m not sure it’s essential reading, it’s not a waste of time.


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18 Comments

    • Tool says

      It seems to me that there is no plot to change America, at least nothing halfway competent, so much as we are living through the endgame of all democratic regimes. Some form of identity politics will always destroy a democracy, because it is a democracy and that’s just what has ALWAYS happened. Did America really think she would escape that fate? The Founders certainly we’re not that optimistic. Read what Madison has to say in Federalist no 10. Then read it again and ask yourself if Madison really believed there was a meaningful diff between a democracy and a ‘republic.’

      Sir Charles is one of the very few people out there who recognize that democracy as we practice it today will have to be substantially modified (to put it euphemistically) before identity politics can be effectively eliminated. It annoys me that the number of people in America who recognize this truth could probably fit in an elevator with enough room to socially distance. Most people on both right and left simply assume that there is a way forward on the basis of democracy. This is a lie.

      • Tuckle Carlton says

        “Identity politics” is a nominal label misapplied as pejorative to the natural state of man.
        The opposing premise that the “individual” is in unmediated dialogue with the absolute is the principal problem destroying western european derived nation states.
        The likelihood of boomers, whose lard butts occupy our most august seats of authority, recognizing this problem and reversing course to address it is nill.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Interesting, but it appears to fight the Left from within the existing frame, which has proven to be a total failure as a strategy.

      • Charles Haywood says

        Ah, I see Tool has already made this point, with more detail, but in essence the same.

  1. SabaMesa says

    Thanks for the breakdown of Schmitt’s thoughts on Romanticism. While I imagine his understanding of romanticism is based in a particular historical context, I think his overall assessment of romanticism is wrong. Romanticism was a reaction to the enlightenment reductionism, but not a rejection of rationalism and order. You might look into Barfield for more on this.

  2. Vxxc says

    I have suggestions on where you can find The Great Man.

    “Yeah, it hurts. I feel you. We all lost friends. Had our brothers return home mangled and broken. Was it worth it? No. But those are sunk costs, so we might as well look at what we gained from the experience.

    >They made a generation of us very, very fucking dangerous. We, especially the Enlisted class, learned how to make war in a manner not seen for decades. Perhaps ever. . Think of the GWOT as the history’s biggest training exercise. It was said in antiquity that any training that didn’t kill one out of a thousand was insufficient for training warriors. True. Now it wasn’t a deal that shed our weak. We lost some of our absolute best and brightest, which adds to the pain. But it made even the mediocre of us far better than we would have been. Even if you got fucked up yourself, you learned invaluable lessons first hand you can teach the youth. You have value in your brain alone that is beyond price. Bill Gates, with all his fortune, couldn’t buy the experience you carry in you everyday.”

    https://off-the-reservation.com/2021/08/18/generation-gwot-and-the-fall-of-afghanistan/

    Did I mention we’re angry?
    I’m actually Cold Forged a few years now.
    So its more like capacitance.
    A battery.

    I don’t think we can be bought off by the nice people at the VA though.

    Oh, and the Republic is dead, so released from Oath. A relief really.

    • Charles Haywood says

      This is probably the practical question, or set of questions, more than any other, that matters. How many such men are there? Will they take action? Under what circumstances? Can that be stopped?

      • Vxxc says

        As to how many, many millions more than they have, moreover we’re all quite as dangerously skilled as he says. We are also angry with cause for some time. As to stopping- Not started Ser Charles, so there is nothing to stop. Fighters can’t defect to Facebook comments, nor consider it, yet those who would be free or at least free from insanity seem to think that whats easily said is easily done; SO nothing is done. Free speech works against us all here , for it provides a vent and the illusion of choice. No, it is merely peasants grumbling.

        Veterans are hard nosed and practical.
        Not Romantic in any way.

        Action requires organization. Organizing means risk. Risk checks organizing, check and mate for status quo. Despite status quo being very weak, resting mostly on payoffs and deceit. They can rely on few who know the sword whether soldier, veterans or police. In a test not enough.

        A potential force of great power quite atomized. There is one more problem besides nothing to defect to – legitimacy to act. Without leaders – we’re there now – any motive or justification to act would have to come from the People themselves, and again the people have none of the above either. It must now be questioned the People’s stomach for a fight….which is nil.

        The problem of attempting to raise a mass of those who just want to be left alone is at present they are all alone and atomized, and prefer to avoid any real trouble. Check and mate to status quo.

        But if there were a resourced body of men to lead and rally to… its over fast for the status quo.

        • Vxxc says

          Short answers; there are many, moving none could stop them, but my fellow Americans you are too selfish and spineless to save, sorry.

          You just want to be left alone- then no common good is possible. Alone it is.

          And how can we trust you?
          I don’t.

          • Dutch says

            I have to believe that, sooner or later, people will put themselves in motion to make major changes. Like birds mummering in a flying flock, skilled and angry people will know what they need to do, when the time comes. The pot boils, and the efforts to separate and atomize people fail, sooner or later. It’s not like things will be organized in a top-down fashion, but rather that movements and ad-hoc organization will bubble up from below and locally. Very frightening to think about how it all might play out, but it is what it is, and it will go as it does. Like so many events of history, things and forces quietly get put in motion, and then they play out as they must. It feels very much like we are close to passing from the less visible precursors to the impossible-to-ignore resolutions.

          • Tuckle Carlton says

            Rhetoric is a bit over the top, friend. The error is in your thinking. There is neither spontaneous nor a priori order. Thus the failure for it to materialize among fellow americans is error in your assumption, not their essential character.

        • Achille says

          @Vxxc I once read that the left is comfortable with gradation while the right is more binary–it’s either on or it’s not. I think there is truth in this and it explains much.

          As for what the right needs now, I would say:

          * Leaders who are incorruptible (therefore excluding politicians) and savvy (more Athena than Mars)
          * A simple, core set of new ideas (like Foundationalism)
          * Great art and symbols
          * Stirring music (this especially)

          A big problem is that these have to arise in a very hostile information warfare environment, and while the anglophone world is collectively losing its mind.

          • Charles Haywood says

            [Apologies for the late approval of this comment; I missed it had gone to spam.]

            Interestingly, just five minutes ago I amused myself by looking up how Spotify classifies music. It apparently has a machine-learning, human-curated system, that has something like 2000 different genres. One is “Epicore”–stirring music!

  3. “Schmitt does make some allowances—not every person who has a heightened aesthetic sense is such a useless political romantic;”

    This is an important distinction. Edmund Burke is the key example here. He wrote On the Sublime and the Beautiful and is rhapsodic about the defense of the queen of France in his book on the Revolution. But he does not approach politics as a matter of his individual feelings. Rather, he analyzes what every healthy person feels, using introspection.

    Seeing yet another Worthy House Carl Schmitt review, I’m starting to think maybe I should read him, despite my fear of teutonic verbosity. I found Political Theology online at https://ia902804.us.archive.org/14/items/carlschmittpoliticaltheology/Carl%20Schmitt%20-%20Political%20Theology.pdf, perhaps useful for others who feel like me.

  4. Dutch says

    As to the private sphere, the evolution of such a thing in the last century has been profound. Long ago, people mostly living in small towns had not much of a private sphere. Everyone knew everyone else around them quite well. Flight to a big city or another small town far away was the solution for those needing to escape. Then came the mid-20th century, and big city or suburban anonymity became more the norm. A private sphere was easy to maintain, even living closely in the midst of others.

    Then came the 21st century and the on-line phenomenon. Now not only can one broadcast one’s own musings to the whole world, the world can closely monitor one’s private browsings and judge one’s comments, e-mails, and texts. Even privacy of association is doomed. The quick and profound evolution of the private sphere has to be one of the more fundamental unsettling elements of our times.

  5. Tuckle Carlton says

    It can be difficult for Catholic Realists to authentically grasp things without projecting their chosen frame. Schmitt in 1919 would have been criticizing a late Romanticism but the key sentence above is the importance of Romanticism to German Conservatives. If one tries to shoehorn Romanticism into “the subjectivity of today’s Left”, its character and importance to German conservatives would be mysterious.

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