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Weimar Philosophy in China

December 28, 2010

A few weeks ago, Mark Lilla published a very interesting piece on Chinese engagement with Western political theory (subscription required, but if you search for the title you’ll find the full article reposted in English to a number of Chinese message boards). The two choices which stood out to Lilla – the enigmatic Leo Strauss and the infamous Carl Schmitt.

The argument deserves quotation at length:

Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the pace and character of China’s economic modernization, and the perception that it is neoliberalism at work, these ideas of Schmitt seem beyond wise; they seem prophetic. For the left, he explains, without appeal to Marxism, why the distinction between economy and politics is false and pernicious, and how liberalism functions as an ideology, ignoring or explaining away phenomena central to political life. His idea of sovereignty, that it is established by fiat and is supported by a hidden ideology, also helps the left make sense of the strange hold free-market ideas have on people today and gives them hope that something—a disaster? a coup? a revolution?—might reestablish the Chinese state on foundations that are neither Confucian, Maoist, nor capitalist. (This is where the mystique comes in.)

Students of a more conservative bent actually agree with much of the left’s critique of the new state capitalism and the social dislocations it has caused, though they are mainly concerned with maintaining “harmony” and have no fantasies (only nightmares) about China going through yet another revolutionary transformation. Their reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other states—challenges heightened today by global market forces and a liberal ideology that idealizes individual rights, social pluralism, and international law. Like Schmitt, they can’t make up their minds whether liberal ideas are hopelessly naïve and don’t make sense of the world we live in, or whether they are changing the world in ways that are detrimental to society and international order. These students are particularly interested in Schmitt’s prescient postwar writings about how globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict (this was in 1950) and how terrorism would spread as an effective response to globalization (this was in 1963). Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met.

Readers of this blog might have seen my speculations about applying Schmitt’s above-mentioned theory of Groβraum to China’s rise. Lilla argues that the sort of “brutal modern statism” that Schmitt endorses is likely insufficient to satisfy a new generation of Chinese elites. Instead, he argues that Strauss provides a sounder moral foundation for a future Chinese government and better builds off the Chinese political tradition:

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret….

But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history.

Lilla seems to see Strauss as not just the morally superior choice for the future leaders of China, but also the more likely one. Certainly, this presentation of Strauss seems more in line with the grand traditions of classic philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, and the other Ancients. Yet while Strauss saw the Moderns and Machiavellianism as just as susceptible to the permanent problems that the Ancients encountered, he had little confidence in what would replace Modernity’s groaning intellectual edifice. Nihilism and the reactionary politics with which both Strauss and Schmitt were familiar seemed outcomes just as likely.

That both Strauss and Schmitt were, in many ways, products of Germany and the aftermath of its Weimar crisis, should sober those enthusiastic for whatever regime follows the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party. Lilla alludes to Chinese disillusionment with liberalism, but seems to frame this only as a problem for a Schmittian, not a Straussian Chinese elite. Schmitt saw a great gulf between democracy and liberalism, and committed a great many pages to explaining how the dictatorial sovereign could guard the former against the threat of the latter. Strauss, despite his vehement opposition to communism, would not share the enthusiasm for liberalism or democracy of his supposed neoconservative acolytes.

We should temper the enthusiasm amongst Western policymakers and intellectuals with the knowledge of what the Communist Party might give way to. Abbott, in the speech just linked to, seems to assume democratization will bring an inherently pluralistic and deliberative manner to resolving Chinese political disputes, and thus to its outlook on international relations. Yet history is strewn with examples of democratization leading to something different from the ideal-type liberal democratic regime. The sort of “no true Scotsman” arguments with which we have retrospectively re-coded regimes such as late 19th and early 20th century Germany and Japan clouds the historical instances and  future possibilities of democratization yielding illiberal regimes.

Observers should anticipate the collapse of the PRC – if it occurs anytime soon – with caution. Nobody should look forward to spinning history’s roulette wheel with exuberance. There is no reason to think China will simply become an enormous, continental Taiwan or Hong Kong. Why are Westerners so confident a democratic China would be more enduring than the Taisho period, Weimar government, or Kerensky’s Provisional Government? The democratization of post-Soviet Russia should be similarly harrowing – a contest between gangsterism and nationalism that resolved in an anti-liberal hybrid regime would be among the best, not worst case outcomes.

The unfortunate reality is that while Strauss might be more philosophically respectable, it may well be Schmitt whose ideas triumph in China, either under the auspices of a new generation of reactionary Party members or a faction which emerges to bring order to what will probably be a chaotic and unstable post-communist regime. While thoroughly anti-liberal and authoritarian, Schmitt’s ideas are also modern, practical, and relevant, and not necessarily incompatible with whatever Chinese students learn from Strauss. Strauss was not a straightforward thinker, and he also flirted with authoritarianism in his earlier works. Strauss may well lead to a great engagement with the great philosophical traditions in China. Whether that engagement is a prelude to rejecting Schmitt and the modern theories of statism for something more amenable to the modern liberal West remains unknown.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2010 9:18 am

    Interesting post.

    I agree that an anti-liberal reaction is to be expected and that Schmitt’s ideas are likelier. A democratic China would run the risk of losing non-Han provinces and Schmitt would certainly be more appealing for those in China who fear a Soviet style disaggregation of the PRC.
    Also, Strauss puts too much emphasis on the preservation of the conquests of the liberal revolutions and that’d not suit Beijing too well. Certainly the Chinese could not go around fighting for democracy given that unlike the US, China cannot engage in offshore balancing.

    What I am unsure of, is the choice between these two authors. Isn’t it more logical that the Chinese simply come up with a philosophy of their own?
    Also, Schmitt’s totalitarianism would not be compatible with a ‘global’ China – which Beijing would have to be, given its need to compete in a multipolar world…

  2. December 29, 2010 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the comment.

    I think the whole idea of fighting for democracy might need some reinterpretation to separate what Strauss talked about from what his followers took away from it. Strauss fiercely opposed the USSR (In some of his papers he said nuclear war would be preferable to surrender) and wanted the West to endure, but I’m not so sure this was out of any great love for the liberal democratic model in particular. (There was an interesting letter I saw somewhere where Mearsheimer, discussing the Iraq war with some pro-war Straussians at Chicago, basically concluded Strauss would not have supported the Iraq war, and most of the Straussians agreed! )

    Certainly I don’t think the Chinese would take away that kind of crusading attitude from Strauss, more likely many of the favorable comments Strauss made about aristocracy and the like will sink in.

    And I agree that whatever we see emerging in China will be, in large part, a Chinese creation. Nevertheless, there will certainly be some Western influences. But part of the legacy of communism and one-party rule has been government coercion against the formation of a new ideology rooted in Chinese thought specifically. Given the philosophical bankruptcy of the PRC and the increasing engagement between Chinese thinkers and the rest of the world, some degree of Western imprint is likely.

    I would not be surprised if China could adopt Schmittian principles without becoming totalitarian. In his pre-1933 writings, Schmitt sometimes wrote of a totalitarian state as impossible to some degree. More likely the key takeaway from Schmitt would be a strong executive able to step outside the constitution during the state of exception/emergency to hold the state together and oppose liberal negation.

    • December 29, 2010 5:08 pm

      The problem I see with Strauss is his construct of the moral society and the elite’s duty to make it cohesive through a manicheist narrative.
      Granted that the US is especially prone to moral interventions but if the Chinese are so susceptable to nationalist rhetoric, wouldn’t they be vulnerable to a Straussian rally-to-the-flag policy?

      I also think that many of the aspects of Schmitt that you mention are already in place via the CCP and the government has sought to base many of its policies since Deng, in traditional Chinese thought – namely neo-Confucianism.

      I honestly see China’s political future as more of an evolution (as in RoK, Taiwan) rather than a revolution, which is what would be necessary for the next generations to completely do away with the PRC.

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