Translated by Simona Draghici
The following translation of a 1933 essay from Carl Schmitt appears online for the first time in commemoration of Schmitt’s birth on July 11, 1888. The translation originally appeared in Carl Schmitt, Four Essays, 1931–1938, ed. and trans. Simona Draghici (Washington, D.C.: Plutarch Press, 1999). I have broken up long paragraphs to make the text more readable.
Ten years ago, successful authors and leading personalities of all descriptions assured us that we only needed to abolish politics and the politicians, and all the difficulties would vanish. The radical “depoliticization” would have consisted in letting the technical, economic, legal, or other experts decide all the questions, which before had been considered political, on an allegedly purely technical, purely economic, purely juridical, in short, a purely “objective” basis. Between 1919 and 1924, countless articles and pamphlets heralded it as the only condition for universal happiness. In between, we met in many conferences of specialists and technicians. Mountains of valuable material and most expert reports have been stored in Geneva, Berlin, and many other cities of the globe, and the settlement of the issues has simply been buried under their kind of objectivity.
Soon it became evident that this “depoliticization” is a practical political material that is used to avoid unpleasant problems and defer necessary changes, to preserve an absurd status quo and let all determination to bring about a change fizzle out. Such disappointments with “nonpolitics” were rather likely to lead to the recognition of the fact that all problems are potentially political problems. Then we in Germany have practically gone through a politicization of every economic, cultural, religious and other sphere of the human existence in a way that would have been incomprehensible to a 19th-century mind. It came to the fore particularly after several years in which attempts were made to “economize” the state. Now the opposite happens and economy is completely politicized.
Until recently one still believed to have mastered the effective and convincing formula of the total state. Today, there are many who have already fallen out of it, refuted the “total state” and mentally got over it. Notwithstanding, just for once, let us have a look at the true situation and not at the propaganda and the literature.
There is a total state. One may dismiss the “total state” with any kind of shouts of outrage and indignation as barbaric, servile, un-German, or un-Christian, but the thing remains that one does not get rid of it in that way. Every state strives to seize for itself the power base which it needs for its political domination. To do so is actually the sure sign that it is a genuine state. Moreover, we all are impressed by the massive escalation of power, which every state is subject to nowadays through technical progress, that is, the development of the technical means of military power. The modern technical means give even to the small states and their governments the capacity to become influential to an extent that makes the old ideas of state power and of resistance to it look rather dim. Against the total state there is only one antidote, a revolution just as total. In the light of these contemporary means of power, the traditional images of public demonstrations and barricades look like child’s play. Every political power is forced to take hold of the new weapons. If it does not have the strength and the guts for that, then another power or organization will turn up, in which case, it is the political power all over again, that is to say, the state.
The development of the technical means in particular makes the influencing of the masses possible, nay, necessary. It may be as comprehensive as everything that the press and the other traditional media were capable of achieving with regard to the formation of opinions. A widespread freedom of the press still rules in Germany today. In spite of all the restrictions imposed by the state of emergency, the elbow room of the “free expression of opinions,” but in fact the manipulation of the masses through party agitation and propaganda is considerable, and nobody seems to think of a censorship of the press.
Likewise, every state must take hold of the new technical media, film, and radio. There has not yet been a state so liberal as to abstain from making claims on the contents of films, and on the cinema and the radio, in the form of an intensive censorship and control, as well. No state can afford to relinquish to others the new technical media for the transmission of news, the influencing of the masses, mass persuasion, the creation of a “public,” more exactly, a collective opinion. Thus, behind the formula of the total state, a correct awareness stands firm, namely that the present-day state has got new means and possibilities of tremendous power, the range and consequences of which we hardly suspect, whereas our vocabulary and our imagination are still deeply rooted in the 19th century.
In this sense, too, the total state is by far a stronger state. It is total with regard to quality and energy, in the way the fascist state calls itself a “stato totalitario.” By that it wants to say first of all that the new power means belong exclusively to the state and serve to increase its power. Such a state does not allow the development of any sort of forces hostile to the state, that obstruct the state and disrupt its internal life. It has no intention to hand down the new means of power to its own enemies and destroyers, and to let its power be buried under any kind of watchwords, such as liberalism, legal state, or whatever name one wishes to give them. Such a state can discriminate between friend and enemy.
In this sense, as already said, every genuine state is a total state. It is admittedly a societas perfecta, of this world for all times. The theorists of the state have long known that the political is total, and new are only the new technical means, the political efficacy of which must become clear to anyone.
At present, though, one attaches still another meaning to the phrase “total state,” and that is unfortunately the meaning by which one wants to correct the mess of today’s Germany. This kind of total state is a state which indiscriminately gets into all the spheres of human existence, a state which knows no state-free sphere anymore, because generally it cannot make any distinctions any longer. It is total in a purely quantitative sense, of mere volume, and not of intensity and political energy. The present-day multi-party state in Germany has engendered this kind of total state. Its volume has expanded enormously.
It intervenes in all possible matters, in economy and in all the other spheres of human existence. Of this Erwin von Beckerath has rightly said that the total state, in the sense of an amalgamation of state and economy, is “a reality readily available,” but that also applies to cultural and spiritual things, which one would readily claim as “purely private” matters.
Why should the state not subsidize economic, cultural and other undertakings, as each and every one of them are ultimately the state itself, by way of the party; and why should a choral society not be able to maintain good relations with the state, that is, with certain parties and funds? This precious “why not?” is the whole theory of the multi-party state and the spiritual framework of its totality. It is certainly a totality in the sense of mere volume, and it is the opposite of strength or energy. Today’s German state is total out of weakness and absence of resistance, by its inability to hold out against the assault of the parties and of organized interests. It must bow to everybody’s wishes, please everyone, subsidize everyone, and be at the beck and call of conflicting interests at one and the same time. Its expansion is the result, as already said, not of its strength but of its weakness.
A closer look, though, reveals that we in Germany do not have a total state in fact, but rather a majority of total parties, each of which seeks to achieve the totality in which to entangle their members completely, and attend on people from the cradle to the grave, from nurseries for little children, and on through bowling clubs and sports associations, to funeral and cremation societies, to provide their adherents with the correct world outlook, the right form of state, the right economic system, the right circle of friends recruited from the party, and in those ways, fully to politicize people’s lives and shatter the unity of the German people. Parties of the old liberal style, which as mere “parties of opinion” are not capable of such organization and totality, expose themselves to the danger of being crushed between the millstones of the modern total parties. The pressure for total politicization seems inescapable.
No party organization can avoid it. The ruthlessly total parties define the type and drive the parties that are only a quarter, half or three quarters total to the consistency of the successful type. Alongside of every decision of a single-minded nationalism or socialism or atheism, the maneuvered half-measures seem mere helpless pettiness.
The juxtaposition of more such total structures, which dominates the state by way of parliament and makes it the object of their compromises as long as it remains pluralistic, is the reason of that strange quantitative expansion of the state. Nowadays, a well-organized, albeit pluralistic juxtaposition of several total parties has inserted itself between the state and its government, on the one hand, and the mass of citizens, on the other, and wields the monopoly of politics, the most amazing of all monopolies. All political will, all changeover of interests, which needless to say, result in the will of the state, is directed by way of the will of a party. Only the party of today is something else than the old liberal party of opinions. As Otto Koellreuter remarked a long time ago, it is a party of activists that in cold blood use the liberal freedoms, the result of the free exchange of opinions, and all the legal means, the institutions and powers of the liberal constitution as instruments of their actions, and force the parties that have been liberal to succumb to this change that destroys the constitution. The pressure to submit to its monopoly, to which every walk of life and larger group of people are subordinate in Germany nowadays, alters and distorts all the institutions of the Weimar Constitution. As important as any economic monopoly, this political monopoly is in the possession of a series of strong political organizations which tolerate a government only on condition that the state remains its object of exploitation.
The characteristic instrument of this political monopoly—or rather “polypoly” as we are dealing with a pluralistic state—is the drawing of the list of candidates. The result of every election depends on the list of candidates. The mass of voters cannot nominate any candidate from their midst and the government lacks the most implicit and natural right of a government, namely the jus agendi cum populo. Thereupon, the large mass of the so-called “voters” and the popular will itself are entirely parceled out among some five party lists. The election is contrary to the constitution which calls for direct elections. They ceased to be direct elections a long time ago. The deputies are appointed by the party and not elected by the people. The so-called election is the mediated adherence of the “voters” to a party organization. It is generally acknowledged that nowadays any direct elections are out of the question.
I maintain, though, that the whole procedure as it is carried out these days is no election at all. What happens then? Five party lists have come out, made in the deepest secrecy and occult manner, dictated by five organizations. The masses arrange themselves, so to speak, into five ready-made pens. And the statistical result of this operation is called “election.” Who against whom? After all, one should have asked oneself this question bluntly at least once before.
Germany has been ruined by suchlike methods for forging the political will. There is a virtually fantastical opportunity to choose from among five systems, entirely irreconcilable, fully antagonistic, in a pointless juxtaposition, each total and self-contained, with five antagonistic ideologies, types of state, and economic structures. Several times a year, a nation must choose from among five organized systems, each of which is total and intent to the end to abolish and annihilate the others: in this way, for instance, it has to choose between atheism and Christianity, and at the same time, between capitalism and socialism, and almost as simultaneously, between monarchy and republic, between Moscow, Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and the Brown House, and other friend-enemy alternatives, similarly incompatible, backed by hardened organizations.
Whoever realizes what that means will no longer expect such a procedure to bring about a majority, loosely held together, capable of action and suited to shape a political will. Such a procedure means only that the will of the people will be diverted at the source into five channels and in five different directions, so that it may never flow together in one stream. The result is always a nation split into different sections with five different political systems and organizations, which in their incoherent, nay, inimical juxtaposition seek to defeat or dupe one another, and incapable of any positive work, deal only in negatives, and only meet at point zero, once at the most, in such matters as votes of no-confidence, demands of amnesty or the modification of the constitution through the bill of December 17th, 1932 regarding the representative of the President of the Reich.
With such methods for forging the political will, we find ourselves inside a state quantitatively total and which can no longer make any distinction either between economy and the state or between the state and the various walks of individual and social life. The election is no more an election, the representative no longer a representative as the constitution thinks of him. He is not the free person, independent of and above party interests, advocating the well-being of all, but rather a functionary that marches in formation, receives his orders outside parliament, and for whom such things as the debates in the plenary sessions of the parliament must look like an empty farce. As there is no representative of the represented, so too the parliament is no parliament any more. With its simultaneous impotence and subversive negativity, such a parliament weighs on the democratic system of the Weimar Constitution as a physically and spiritually sick monarch on the institutions and the stability of a monarchy. The present-day German Reichstag (Assembly of Deputies) is no Reichstag as meant by the Weimar Constitution, the present-day German Reichsrat (the Upper House) is no Reichsrat as meant by the Weimar Constitution, because there the regional governments meet more as business people than it is normal, and the Land of Prussia, that is two thirds of the German Reich, is represented by a former minister, relieved from his post in a previous, managerial government. Nor is the vote of no-confidence a vote of no-confidence in the sense given to it by a parliamentary system of government, because nowadays it has neither the ability nor the willingness to form a responsible government, capable of action.
All these constitutional institutions have become redundant and quite distorted. All legal powers, the very possibilities of interpretation and the arguments have been turned into tools and are used as tactical means in the struggle carried on by one party against another and by all of them against the state and the government. Were it not for one of the last pillars of the Weimar constitutional order, the President of the Reich, with his authority from before the pluralist time, that has stood firm so far, it is quite probable that the chaos would have been here in all its obtrusiveness and outward manifestation, and any pretense of order would have disappeared.
First published in the February 1933 issue of Europaïsche Revue, pp. 65–70. Reproduced in Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar–Gent–Versailles, 1923–1939 (Hamburg, 1940), pp. 185–90.
1. This whole introductory paragraph is rather puzzling by its incoherence, so uncharacteristic of Carl Schmitt. One way to unravel it is the following: a state is strong when it enjoys political power fully, is able to maintain it and even increase it by making the most of the modern technological means not only militarily, but also as effective factor in the transformation of the human psyche. In international relations, technology has rendered not only the size of a country irrelevant to its power, but also the old doctrines of the state. A strong state, though, is not one and the same as a total state, but a necessary condition of the latter. The state is the organ of political power, the site for its accumulation and its practice. On the other hand, the curt statement that a total revolution is the only antidote against a total state just makes a splash, unconnected with the rest, it is never resumed and pursued. It may refer to the opposite notion of a state become total through weakness, through its eagerness of being everything to everybody and which can be saved only by a complete overhaul.—Trans.
2. This remark is still valid at the end of the 20th century.—Trans.
3. While in the previous article  Schmitt was talking of a state that became total by making all the spheres of human activity its concern, on the one hand, and on the other, of the new political parties which he described as autonomous mass movements that were total in their pursuit of a full integration of their membership, here he tries a new approach in terms of quantity and quality. He came to think that he had found a more adequate formula for the restoration of national unity and the elimination of the overall weariness in the Fascist doctrine which itself had been inspired by the model of the absolute monarchy of earlier centuries. So he associates the cultivation of a generalized political will and the kindling of the necessary energy for its materialization with quality, whereas the scope of state interference and patronage to the limit under the pressure of the mass movements are regarded as mere quantity. The pairing is not conceptually productive, because the opposites are each taken from a different existential sphere, that is to say, they are not mutually exclusive, nor can one be understood as the negative of the other. Hence the repetitions of the statement without further elaboration. It shows the impasse which he reached in his reflection on the relationship between the structure of the state as he had envisaged it and the mass movements which were a relatively new phenomenon. That intellectuals like him could think that eventually they could capitalize on the energy and the determination of the strongest among the latter [The NSDAP—Ed.] to the benefit of the state only shows how romantically utopian their practical calculations were. As far as I am aware, I do not think that Carl Schmitt ever admitted it even to himself.—Trans.
4. This idea of a total state is brought over from his longer essay Legalität und Legimität (Legality and Legitimacy), published several months earlier.—Trans.
5. Here Schmitt resumes the idea of the transformation of society into state, discussed in the preceding article , and renders it more precise by bringing the political mass movements into the conflict. While he insists on the process of deterioration of the power of society turned state, he stops short of taking the ongoing dialectical conflict to its logical conclusion, and point to the prospective appropriation of the state by one of the mass parties at the expense of the others, and its own transformation into the state.—Trans.
6. It refers to the authority of the people to act. The phrase agere cum populo meant to address the people in a public assembly in order to obtain their approval or rejection of a particular matter.—Trans.