Reviewing "The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy"

Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus (also known as “The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” in English) is a 1923 treatise by German jurist Carl Schmitt, primarily concerning the history, evolution and crisis of the fundamental ideas of Parliamentarism. The title can be roughly translated as “The Intellectual-Historical Situation of Modern Parliamentarism” though it should be noted that geistesgeschichtlich is a very German term which lacks a proper English equivalent (in Swedish I would have used the far more apt idéhistorisk).

This one’s been on my list for some time; I recently tried to read Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, sadly to no avail (it was quite long and quite boring). Following that failure, I picked up The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy in German.

Before I examine the book and it’s interesting (and surprisingly topical) ideas, two big fat disclaimers are in order.

First off, Carl Schmitt was a prominent (and perhaps also opportunistic, but accounts and interpretations vary) member of the Nazi Party, and his legal expertise contributed not insignificantly to Hitler’s rise to power. For instance, Schmitt’s very Nazi-friendly interpretation of the Enabling Act of 1933 may well have allowed Hitler to eradicate all opposition more smoothly than would of otherwise been the case, and his 1934 article “Der Führer schützt das Recht” in Deutsche Juristen-zeitung (in which he passionately defended Hitler’s extrajudicial purging of Röhm, the SA-leadership and incidentally anyone else Hitler had a bone to pick with) can be counted among one of the most twisted legal think-pieces I have ever read. For these actions, there is no defense; he should have known better.

It may also be mentioned that he refused to participate in the Allied de-nazification program following the war, though I am more inclined to forgive his stubborn unrepentance than his actions during Hitler’s rule.

Secondly, German is not my native language. I’m reasonably proficient, but reading an older work like this is not easy, and I frequently had to look up words and refresh my grammar whilst trying to penetrate it. Any horrendous mistranslations, stupid mistakes or plain misunderstandings are entirely on me, and don’t take my word on the book as a gold standard. I’m merely trying to account for the thoughts I had and the conclusions I drew while reading it.

Alright, with that said - let’s talk about Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus.

The Fundamental Principles of Parliamentarism (and other related forms of representative governance)

The fundamental principles or ideas of Parliamentarism, as Carl Schmitt understands them, are discussion and publicness (Diskussion und Öffentlichkeit). Parliamentarism (and other, closely related forms of government) may very well be justified on other grounds, such as that there is no better form of government (“Was sonst?”), but the spirit of the system, the essential thought which construct it’s core, is a belief in the power of discussion and publicness to generate truth and sound governance. In the following I will refer to both these principles jointly as das Diskussionsprinzip (the principle of discussion), partly out of convenience but mostly because German is just a rad cool-sounding fucking language.

Das Diskussionsprinzip in particular interested me, and Schmitt makes a big point of how discussion is not the same as negotiation (Verhandlung). In a discussion, each man uses the weapons of logic, thought and evidence to convince the other side of the righteousness of his cause; it’s a struggle between opinions (Kampf des Meinungs). In a productive discussion, both sides are open to the possibility of being wrong, and act accordingly; in good faith, and with openness to new ideas. The reasoning behind this Kampf des Meinungs is in turn rooted in the Liberal idea of the Marketplace of Ideas going back to John Stuart Mill, and regards a free exchange of thoughts and opinions as the best way to both exterminate untruth and to find out what is right and good, whether in governance and in society at large. Even if das Diskussionsprinzip fails to produce agreement, which is often the case, at least it leaves both sides smarter than they were before, and with a new-found respect for the views of the opponent.

All this stands in stark contrast to a negotiation. Fundamentally, in a negotiation, no party is really open to changing their mind or yielding an inch, because a negotiation revolves around getting as much as possible from the other guy, not “finding out the truth.” Hell, the optimal result of a negotiation is basically akin to a robbery or a fraud, where you sucker the other chump into giving up absolutely everything whilst getting nothing in return; even if it’s a fact that most negotiations end with both parties having given something up. Negotiation is thusly a struggle between interests (Kampf der Intressen), not a struggle between ideas. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that such a battle can often leave one side feeling bitter and angry, thirsting for revenge, and soon thereafter, the words “civil war” can be heard whispered in the wind.

In order to ensure that the struggle between opinions does not devolve into a struggle between interests, Schmitt holds that a certain amount of homogeneity, or rather, lack of heterogeneity, is needed. A conversation requires a common language, and without the cooperation and coordination inherent in certain common viewpoints, norms and abilities, das Diskussionsprinzip inevitably gives way to differing interests, which in turn leads to negotiation.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Scott’s writings on the subject of conflict theorists and mistake theorist, and if so I am equally sure you can see the fairly obvious parallels. Last but not least, I am certain you prefer the mellow air of discussion to the harsh smoke of negotiation.

But Carl Schmitt takes these ideas one step further. Das Diskussionsprinzip is not only a way to view society, but a principle of utmost importance, upon which most Western countries have chosen to base their entire system of governance. Not only this - without das Diskussionsprinzip, if the principle is rendered a mere formality, set aside or otherwise not respected, Parliamentarism in itself becomes inherently empty and unsustainable.

The Degeneration of das Diskussionsprinzip and the Consequences Thereof

Schmitt is highly critical of the Parliamentarism of his time. In his view, the representatives and Parties of the Weimar Republic and other Western democracy have in actuality abandoned das Diskussionsprinzip. Instead, decisions and policy are negotiated in smoke-filled rooms by politicians, in a way that is in direct conflict with das Diskussionprinzip, and in Schmitt’s view party-politics have shown themselves to be at odds with both publicness and discussion.

Here Schmitt’s authoritarian outlook shines through, and he suggests in the foreword to the second edition that the proper cure to the ailments of Parliamentarism might well be the adoption of “other forms of democracy,” such as Caesarism or dictatorship; a government of one man, who both responds reactively to and actively stakes out the Will of the People.

The Incompatibility of Liberalism and Democracy

One central theme in the book, which Schmitt returns to again and again, is the important distinction (and division!) between Parliamentarism/Liberalism (or other forms of liberal representative governance) and Democracy. He writes:

“Es kann eine Demokratie geben ohne das, was man modernen Parlamentarismus nennt und einen Parlamentarismus ohne Demokratie; und Diktatur ist ebensowenig der entscheidende Gegensatz zu Demokratie wie Demokratie der zu Diktatur.”

“There can exist a Democracy without that, which one calls modern Parliamentarism, and [likewise] a Parliamentarism without Democracy; and dictatorship is just as little the decisive opposite of Democracy as Democracy is to dictatorship.”

Schmitt identifies Democracy partly as an identity between the governed and the governors, but also as a government which strives towards realizing the Will of the People, in a sort of Rousseauian-but-not-really, volonté générale sort of way. Democracy is something more than a “system for counting secret ballots”, and a democratically elected Parliament is no guarantee for democracy. In short:

“Der Wille des Volkes kann durch Zuruf, durch acclamatio, durch selbstverständliches, unwidersprochenes Dasein ebensogut und noch besser demokratisch geäussert werden als durch den statischen Apprart, den man seit einem halben Jahrhundet mit einer so minutiösen Sorgfalt ausbildet hat.”

“The Will of the People can be expressed through acclamation, acclamatio, through self-evident and not-argued-against presence, just as well or even better than through the static apparatus, which has been constructed with such meticulous care for more than half a century.”


That’s a wall of text, but what does it leave us with? It’s pretty obvious his ideas lend themselves uncomfortably well to National Socialism, but is there nothing here for anyone else?

Well, I would say that Schmitt is fundamentally correct about das Diskussionsprinzip being an absolutely fundamental basis for Liberal Democracy. Nurturing and maintaining das Diskussionsprinzip; not only in Parliamentary practice, but in civil society as well, is essential to the wellbeing of any such government.

It is obvious that as important as das Diskussionsprinzip is, it is also frail. It’s enough for a small group to adopt a confrontational stance in order to turn the entire societal conversation from a Kampf des Meinungs into a Kampf der Intressen, and Schmitt correctly recognizes that a certain amount of homogeneity is required for such a system to function.

Many, I dare say most, of the emerging democracies in Africa failed owing to a lack of faith in das Diskussionsprinzip brought on by just such a lack of homogeneity. Indeed, if there are several ethnic or cultural groups in a country, why wouldn’t the majority group just rob the rest, or at least force them indentured servitude through taxation and oppression? The only thing that can truly prevent heterogeneous societies from instantly turning every group into a selfish “negotiator” is an unwavering faith in discussion and publicness; in an unselfish belief in government by discussion, in das Diskussionsprinzip.

The same tendency towards conflict theory can be seen in modern Feminism and SJW-ism; Feminism in particular started out with a strong struggle-between-opinions-spirit, that revolved around convincing men to give women the rights they deserved, but has lately taken on a more struggle-between-interets-spirit, wherein men in general are seen as opponents to be overcome rather than conversational partners one must convince.

Schmitt’s belief in a division between Liberalism and Democracy is also interesting. Together with certain facts I’ve been able to acquire through David King’s “The Trial of Adolf Hitler” and William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” about the Courts of the Weimar Republic (whose unjust, biased judgements in favour of Nazi street-rabble strongly contributed to Hitler’s rise to power) have somewhat led me to question the total separation of powers.

However, I do not share Schmitt’s view that a Democracy cannot be sustained and the will of the people only realized through dictatorship - on the contrary, history shows that when small groups of people seize power, the ideas they seek to realize are seldom the same as those found among the general populace. In his (deeply understandable and relatable) disdain for seedy party-politics and the degeneration of Parliamentarism, Schmitt fails to realize that a dictatorship would be just as hostile to the Will of the People as modern Parliamentarism. I believe it is through proper incentives that the Will of the People can be channeled into actions by the ruling class.

Had he looked past this primarily emotional response, perhaps he would not have so soon given his support to a man such as Hitler; but alas, we can only speculate.

In short, the ideas of Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus have strengthened my belief in the need for cultural homogeneity, but also hardened my conviction against dictatorship and other forms of authoritarian governments.

I hope you found this little review interesting, and if you have any questions regarding the book, let me know.