Agonistic Politics

Thirty years ago Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was hardly visible on the American intellectual horizon, and the rare mention of his name in scholarly publications was usually dismissive.  After all, Schmitt was a Nazi, a Catholic extremist, and an inveterate enemy of the liberal order.  Today, Schmitt’s major works are available in English translation, and a torrent of commentary across the political spectrum has attempted to defend or refute Schmitt’s provocative theses.  But even among those who seek to malign his political thought, there is a growing consensus that Schmitt’s attacks on the foundations of liberal modernity are too incisive to dismiss.  From the left-liberal perspective, Schmitt is a devil who must, at all costs, be confronted and contained.  On the right he is often considered too tainted to embrace openly, yet too brilliant to ignore.  Unlike his fellow Nazi Martin Heidegger, who has been largely rehabilitated by his academic admirers, Schmitt remains a toxic intellectual substance.

Reinhard Mehring’s biography (published in German in 2009) is nothing if not thorough, and is the first to make use of Schmitt’s heretofore untranscribed Weimar diaries.  While Schmitt’s childhood is given cursory attention, his adult years are meticulously chronicled, with particular attention devoted to his intellectual and political development.  What emerges...

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