My left-wing heresy, or, how I fell for the ‘bad guys’ of political theory

Written in the epigraph to his 1972 book Atheism in Christianity, Ernst Bloch quotes St. Augustine:

“the best thing about religion is it makes for heretics”.[1]

It is in this vein that I would consider my own approach to the study of political theory to be somewhat ‘heretical’, as I engage with theorists of the political right but identify (strongly) with the politics of the left. After all, political philosophy like religion, posits a worldview that is either accepted or rejected. A consequence of this, is that one can locate their own political understanding through recognising those who do not conform to their view (i.e. the heretic). Following in the spirit of Augustine then, I argue one can have their political beliefs strengthened through the challenge posed by the ‘unbeliever’.

Although naturally I am drawn to the political thought of Bloch (associated with the Frankfurt School), I have recently developed a keen interest for the politics of the right. My interest in the Christian critique of liberalism that started in the final year of my undergraduate degree has now reached the more specific area of conservative, Catholic anti-liberalism. The counter-revolutionary Savoyard Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) was the original architect of this branch of theology and political theory. Often writing in highly polemicized form, raging against the likes of Martin Luther and King Henry VIII of England for what he perceived as their hubristic abandonment of the supreme Papal authority in Rome.[2] He views liberalism as problematic for its absence of hierarchy, as it emphasises equality for every citizen and individual capacity to reason and so it removes the power of God here in the earthly world.[3] De Maistre took a very negative view of humanity (a ‘negative anthropology’)[4] and its ability to look after itself: he argued the necessity of God’s providence is needed to care for humanity until the return of Christ.[5] This could be mediated in the world through the divinely appointed Monarchy, which was exactly what the pro-revolutionary forces in France sought to defeat.[6] Despite de Maistre’s hope that the Monarchy would be reinstated, the liberal goals of the revolution prevailed.

However, in 2016 it has become evident that liberalism is now fragmenting, the political theory of liberalism’s critics such as de Maistre more relevant than ever before.[7] Though I am not a conservative, this does not mean that I should automatically reject my opponent’s arguments. In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, the former Labour minister/actress Glenda Jackson spoke of the need for a “mature politics”: being able to consider alternative world views demonstrates empathy, a quality which is needed if politicians want to connect with voters. At any rate, a politics wedded to purity ignores the very messy reality of life, mainly that you will encounter those who do not share your views and encounter complex questions with unclear answers. Who hasn’t been seduced by the anti-hero at some point in their life? I remember watching Pokémon as a kid and there was always a little part of me that wanted Team Rocket to win… Surely I’m not the only one who is allured to the ‘enemy’?

This brings me to my research interest in the man referred to as the Hobbes of 20th Century: Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s life epitomised controversy, particularly his involvement with the Nazi party between 1933-1936 that he was reluctant to fully own-up to (he was kicked out in 1936).[8] On this basis alone it might be questionable to merit the discussion of anyone who was associated with the politics responsible for the Shoah. But The Challenge of Carl Schmitt is testament to the left’s ability to critically engage with the politics of the right, without compromising on it’s egalitarian aims. My research interest in Schmitt will be more centred on the theological nature of his critique of liberalism. Whereas  de Maistre’s relationship to Catholicism is far more explicit, this is less clear in Schmitt and so an analysis on his theology could provide further insight into what is a major political issue of our time.

Perhaps some people wouldn’t be comfortable with engaging with the political philosophy of their opponents. But since my A-Level Religious Studies days, I have learnt what it was like to be the heretic, so I know how it feels to be somewhat ‘maligned’. In my A2 RS days I spent many of my classes as the atheist arguing with the religious students (I went to a Catholic sixth-form college but my RS class was small and mixed). At times, this was challenging, I was once told by a fellow student that she felt sorry for me because I didn’t believe in life after death, but in retrospect I see it as a failure to embrace the opportunity to critically develop her ideas. Augustine’s mantra reminds me that engaging with our adversaries can serve our causes well – I hope my research on Schmitt and Catholic anti-liberalism can go some way, if only minor, to the advancement of left-wing politics.

 

[1] See Ernst Bloch, Atheism and Christianity. 1972, epigraph.

[2] Joseph de Maistre, Letters on the Spanish Inquisition. 1843, p.9.

[3] Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions 1847, p.xiv -xx.

[4]  Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, Religion and Political Thought, 2006, p. 162.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. p. 163.

[7] ibid. p.161.

[8] See Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt: A biography. 2014.

Bibliography 

Bloch, Ernst. 1972. Atheism In Christianity. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hoelzl, Michael and Graham Ward. 2006. Religion And Political Thought. London: Continuum.

Maistre, Joseph Marie comte de. 1843. Letters on the Spanish Inquisition: A Rare Work, and the Best Which Has Ever Appeared on the Subject. Boston: P. Donahoe.

Maistre, Joseph Marie comte de. 1847. Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions. Boston: Little and Brown (Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints).

Mehring, Reinhard. 2014. Carl Schmitt: A Biography. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA:Polity.

Mouffe, Chantal. 1999. The Challenge Of Carl Schmitt. London: Verso.

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