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Friend or enemy? Reading Schmitt politically

Friend or enemy?

Reading Schmitt politically
Mark Neocleous
The debates concerning a ‘crisis’ in social theory in
recent years have been partly generated by those
socialists for whom old certainties now appear naive
and the theoretical foundations of a socialist approach
to history and society obliterated. In this context some
have looked to new approaches – discourse theory,
poststructuralism, deconstruction, rational choice theory,
to name but a few – for a way out of the crisis. My
interest in this article is with none of these. Instead I
am concerned with the process of ‘unlearning’ that has
occurred whilst the breaking with the past foundations
of socialist theory has taken place: specifically, astute
political and theoretical judgements made by socialists
of the past generation that have been forgotten. The
judgement at issue is that Carl Schmitt was a fascist. I
This has been forgotten in the attempt to utilize some
of Schmitt’s more challenging theoretical work as part
of the rethinking of socialist theory. For Schmitt is
being offered to us as one way of thinking ourselves
out of the theoretical crisis confronting us. We are told
that ‘the left can only learn from Carl Schmitt’;2 that
Schmitt’s ‘genuine analysis’ ‘enlightens US’;3 that ‘we
can learn a great deal’ from Schmitt’s critique of Parliamentary democracy;4 and that, for liberals, Schmitt can
offer the basis for a rethinking of liberalism. 5 The
crisis, then, has reached a point where fascists are being
used as the basis for a revitalized and rejuvenated
socialist political theory.

It should be stated from the outset that Schmitt is
being offered to us not because of his fascist politics
but despite it. This is done on the assumption that his
fascist politics is somehow unconnected to the profound
theoretical in sights he is said to provide on a range of
issues – the nature of the political, the importance of
constitutional legality, and the possible contradictory
tendencies of democracy and liberalism. The implication is that these in sights are far more telling than any
the Left, especially the Marxist Left, has produced. In
one sense it is the ambiguous status of socialist political
theory in general, and Marxist political theory in par-

ticular, that lies at the heart of the discussion. Writing
in Telos, the journal which has played a major role in
making Schmitt’s work available to a wider audience,
Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen claim that ‘most Marxists, neo-Marxists and liberals in this century have plodded along without a political theory strictu sensu’. In
such a situation Marxists have either underwritten some
of the worst barbarities of the twentieth century or have
come to embrace the most naive features of traditional
liberalism in the guise of post-Marxism. In this context
Schmitt’s thought ‘may well turn out to be the antidote’

needed. 6 Piccone and Ulmen express here the central
issue at the heart of the current appropriation of
Schmitt. On the one hand lies the necessity of developing a critical theory of liberal democracy, which Marxism is said to have failed to do – in effect: Schmitt is
being turned to as a means of ‘filling the gap left by the
non-existent Marxist theory of democracy’, as
Habermas puts it. 7 On the other hand, sensitive to the
fact that those who have moved out of Marxism have
often done so only to embrace a liberal pluralism indistinguishable from a range of mainstream liberal writers
and thus lacking any real radical force, Schmitt’s
critique of liberalism’s key presuppositions and central
institutions is also being appropriated.

Underlying the rehabilitation of Schmitt are thus the
tensions within Marxist political thought. The supposed
failings of Marxist theory are taken as read – its
economism and reductionism downgrades the
importance of the political, its universalism threatens
heterogeneity, its rejection of liberalism fails to do justice to the complex nature of liberal thought and consequently throws the democratic baby out with the
capitalist bath water, its class essentialism obliterates
the multi-faceted nature of political struggles – in order
for Carl Schmitt to step in and supply some of the required concepts and theoretical insights. This is because
Schmitt, supposedly unlike classical Marxism, takes the
political seriously, gives us one of the most telling critiques of liberalism, and encourages a rethinking of the

Radical Philosophy

79 (SeptlOct



questions of identity and heterogeneity and their constitutive role in democracy.

In what follows I present arguments for resisting such
an appropriation; in doing so I seek to dispel some of the
increasingly popular myths surrounding Schmitt and his
work. I first present an outline of the broad contours of
Schmitt’s work, before exploring the fascist nature of his
work in more detail. The thrust of the argument is that it
is Schmitt’s theoretical work that led him to join the
Nazi Party and that the theoretical presuppositions of his
critique of liberalism underlie an essentially fascist political project. I conclude with some comments on the
dangerous intellectual hybrid of a ‘socialist Schmittianism’ through a brief critique of those who seek to incorporate Schmitt’s work into a politics which he would
have despised. Whatever weaknesses socialist and Marxist political theory may have, the means for rejuvenating
it do not lie in Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberalism. To
think otherwise, to appropriate his arguments on the
misguided assumption that they can make a contribution
to a socialist political theory of liberal democracy, is to
engage in a wilfully dangerous illusion.

Sovereignty and the friend-enemy
At the heart of Schmitt’ s political thought lies a critique
of liberalism and parliamentary democracy; behind this
lies his conception of sovereignty. Taken together these
give us his concept of the political. Schmitt’s starting
point is his adoption of two formulations crucial to early
modern political thought but which, he claims, have
been lost in the triumph of liberalism. The first, his
understanding of sovereignty, is found in the opening
sentence of Political Theology (1922): ‘Sovereign is he
who decides on the exception.’8 For Schmitt it is this,
rather than the understanding of sovereignty as the ‘absolute and perpetual power’, that forms the insight made
by natural law theorists, and in particular Jean Bodin.

For the state of exception – a severe political or social
disturbance requiring extraordinary measures involving
the partial or total suspension of constitutional laws reveals who has the power to decide when such a decision is necessary. The second formulation is his claim
that ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of
the state are secularized theological concepts’. 9 In being transferred from theology to the theory of the state,
the omnipotent God could become the omnipotent lawgiver; typical here is Hobbes’s Leviathan.

However, the contemporaneous rise of deism and
the liberal constitutional state banished both the idea of
miracle and the concept of the exception – the jurisprudential equivalent to the miracle – from the world.


The gradual elimination of theistic and transcendental
conceptions from political thought, especially after
1848, put paid to the traditional monarchical form of
legitimacy, which found itself usurped by liberal democratic legitimacy with its principal mechanism for maintaining order – the discussion – and its central
institutional form, parliament. Invoking the Catholic
counter-revolutionary Donoso Cortes’ s characterization
of the bourgeoisie as a discussing class, Schmitt
presents the bourgeois and the liberal as committed to
endless debate. Based on the assumption that opposing
views can be reconciled, this commitment to debate
merely serves to avoid a decision on the exception. ‘The
essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious halfmeasure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a
parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.’ 10 It is
against this perceived weakness of liberalism that
Schmitt pits his decisionism.

For Schmitt, the liberal belief that politics can be
successfully conducted through discussion and negotiation, and the decision thereby avoided, is undermined
by the fact that politics is a realm of struggle. More
explicitly, it is a realm of struggle between friends and
enemies. This is the core of Schmitt’s concept of the
political: ‘the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.’ Such a distinction is concrete
and existential rather than metaphorical or symbolic,
for an enemy exists when one fighting collectivity of
people confronts another. The liberal transforms this
enemy into either an economic competitor or an intellectual adversary, in the process failing to recognize the
centrality of the state. The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political and, as the political
status of an organized people, the state must be the
ultimate authority. Thus the sovereign, as ‘he’ who decides on the exception, must be a specifically political
entity, an entity standing above all other social groupings. Liberal pluralism denies or avoids addressing this.

The pluralism of G.D.H. Cole and Harold Laski, for
example, ‘consists in denying the sovereignty of the
political entity by stressing time and again that the individual lives in numerous different social entities and
associations’. In sum, there must be one association political in nature – with the ability to define the enemy
and decide on the state of exception; to be, in effect, a
genuinely sovereign power.11
Now, for Schmitt a number of historical changes have
occurred which render the earlier liberal conception of
the state redundant. The distinction between state and

civil society in particular is an obsolete conceptual dichotomy. After 1848 ‘the qualitative distinction between
state and society … lost its previous clarity’. Failing to
recognize this, liberalism remains trapped within the distinction, neutralizing and depoliticizing a number of crucial political categories. For ‘democracy’ to be saved
(from liberalism as well as communism, a point to which
I shall return) it ‘must do away with all the typical depoliticized distinctions characteristic of the liberal nineteenth century, also with those corresponding to the
nineteenth-century antitheses and divisions pertaining to
the state-society (= political against social) contrast’ .12
The state-civil society distinction is obsolete because
there has been a shift towards the ‘total state’ and away
from the ‘neutral (noninterventionist) state’. The increasing involvement of the state in the affairs of society and the fact that everything has become potentially
political results in an identity of state and society. But
this liberal total state is total in the quantitative sense.

By reducing the state to one association amongst many,
and having the state subject to all and sundry forces of
society, the central conception of the state as a decisive
entity, capable of distinguishing between friend and
enemy, is lost. As such the quantitative total state is
unable to save democracy from the emergency situation. Only a stronger, non-neutral total state can save
democracy, a total state ‘in the qualitative sense’ in
which it is ‘especially strong’: ‘it is total in the sense of
its quality and of its energy, of what the fascist state
calls the “stato totalitario” … Such a state can distinguish friend from foe.’ 13
What does it mean to say that the qualitative total
state can save democracy? In what Habermas describes
as the really problematic move, Schmitt separates liberalism and democracy, for two related reasons.14 First,
because the liberal conception of democracy fails to
give full weight to one of democracy’s central components: the identity of rulers and ruled. Those organizing
themselves around the idea of ‘democracy’ have the
same subject – the people – and the same aim – the
identity of governors and governed. Parliament is necessary, according to the liberal, because there can be no
arena in which all the people can discuss issues at hand;
a representative body is thus established to discuss on
behalf of the people. On this reading parliament is just
a talking shop, the institutional form for discussion. But,
if ‘for practical and technical reasons the representatives of the people can decide instead of the people
themselves, then certainly a single trusted representative could also decide in the name of the same people’.

This, ‘without ceasing to be democratic … would
justify an antiparliamentary Caesarism’. The belief in

parliamentarism is thus essential to liberalism but not
to democracy; the latter is entirely compatible with
Second, the purely formal concept of equality held
by liberals, in which humans qua humans are regarded
as equal, allows for substantive difference and thus heterogeneity within the social order. Democracy, in contrast, requires homogeneity and thus the elimination of
heterogeneity. ‘A democracy demonstrates its political
power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.’ The recognition of such a potential enemy of
homogeneity refers to those internal as well as external
to the social order: ‘a democracy … can exclude one
part of those governed without ceasing to be a democracy.’ On this reading Bolshevism and Fascism are antiliberal but not necessarily anti-democratic. ‘In the history
of democracy there have been numerous dictatorships,
Caesarisms, and other more striking forms that have
tried to create homogeneity and to shape the will of the
people.’ 16 Thus it is not simply that liberalism will fail
to save democracy from the social antagonisms threatening to tear it apart; it is that only a Caesaristic dictatorship, committed to state power and substantial
homogeneity, willing to define its enemies and eliminate them should an emergency situation require it, can
save democracy.

The crisis of Weimar
It is against the backdrop of the crisis of Weimar that
the full implications of Schmitt’s work become clear.

Faced with social disorder and economic collapse, with
the political threat of communists on the one side and
Nazis on the other, key political figures in the Weimar
republic turned to Schmitt, as one of the leading constitutional theorists, for advice on constitutional and legal
matters. The increase in the number of seats held by the
National Socialists (107) and the KPD (77) in the 1930
election left Chancellor Briining without the support
necessary for his reform programme. With Briining unable to govern effectively, and with increased street action by the National Socialists, the crisis of
parliamentary democracy had reached an emergency
situation. Unwilling to decide on this state of exception,
liberalism was unable to save Weimar.

Against this, Schmitt’s account of a dictatorship that
could save the social order assumes a greater political
significance. In order to ‘save’ the social order Schmitt
argued that the president should govern through a series of emergency decrees, a procedure allowed by the
Weimar constitution. Article 48 of the constitution was
an emergency provision, allowing the president to rule


by emergency decree, with the use of the armed forces,
and to abrogate the rights laid down in other articles
(such as the right to privacy, secrecy, opinion, assembly, association and property), if a state were unable to
fulfil the wider duty to preserve order imposed on it by
the constitution. In Legalitiit und Legitimitiit (1932)
Schmitt argued that if one assumes a value-neutral
interpretation of the Weimar constitution then it would
be unconstitutional to limit a party’s equal chance to
take power legally. But the concept of ‘equal chance’

only makes sense if all parties accept the legitimacy of
the constitution. An anti-constitutional party controlling
a 51 per cent majority in the Reichstag could ban all
other parties, amend the constitution, change the election laws and dominate the bureaucracy. In other words,
it could institute a new political order through legal
means. The liberal interpretation of the constitution
lacked the resources to deal with this threat. Having
separated democracy from liberalism,
Schmitt was free to argue that the
constitution could be saved through
its democratic – that is, dictatorial measures. It is precisely this that
Article 48 appeared to allow. The
constitution could be saved, then, by
being shorn of its liberal components

and given a dictatorial reading. Thus,
through an idiosyncratic reading of
Article 48 vis-a-vis the rest of the
constitution and a politically charged
recasting of the relationship between
dictatorship and democracy, Schmitt
could present himself (and continue to
be presented, as we shall see) as
saviour of the constitution.

An example of this, and illustrating Schmitt’s importance to the
debates at the time, is Schmitt’s role
in defending Chancellor von Papen’ s
replacement of the Prussian government with a commissar ruling under
martial law in 1932. Appearing for
the Reich government in the Supreme
Court, Schmitt argued that the move
was constitutionally justified under
Article 48 on the grounds that the
state had failed in its constitutional
duty to maintain order. As Joseph
Bendersky rightly notes, Schmitt was
treating this as an explicitly political
as well as legal matter. For as Schmitt
put it, ‘there is no doubt that the


essential point of controversy in the case concerns the
political evaluation of two parties, the National Socialists and the Communist Party’ .17 The question was:

should such parties be given an equal chance? The
answer was No.

For this reason Schmitt’s current defenders claim
that, far from being a ‘genuine’ Nazi, Schmitt was
concerned to defend the Weimar constitution from its
destruction by the Nazis; hence his support for
Schleicher in opposition to Hitler, right to the very last
minute. Yet on I May 1933 Schmitt joined the Nazi
Party. It should be noted that this was not a merely
formal membership. Within days of joining he engaged
in the professional sycophancy displayed by a number
of renowned professors, not least Martin Heidegger. 18
Schmitt began by writing articles defending the oneparty state. He soon became a Prussian State Councillor, Professor of Public Law at the University of Berlin,

head of the Nazi law professors’ guild and, as such,
organizer of a conference in 1936 on ‘Judaism in Jurisprudence’ in which numerous Nazi ideologues pointed
out the dangers of Jewish thought and practice in the
legal sphere. Schmitt gave the opening and closing
speeches. He was also editor of a leading legal publication, Die Deutsche luristenzeitung, in which, as legal
justification for the Nazi murders of June and July 1934,
he insisted in August of that year that ‘The Fiihrer Protects the Law’. Anti-Semitic references started appearing in his work during his period in the party, which
proved to be a productive period – some forty or so
publications by Schmitt appeared between 1933 and
1936. In terms of his personal choices, he was a close
friend of Goring and Frank, and the only professor to
refuse to sign a petition defending Hans Kelsen from
the university pogroms of 1933. In light of this, it is
difficult to make sense of the claims that Schmitt paid
‘lip-service’ to the regime or that he merely ‘flirted’

with fascism. 19
Throughout the literature one finds a number of different ways Schmitt is defended, though these are frequently conflated. First, Schmitt’s desperate attempts to
‘save Weimar’ were grounded in his opposition to the
Nazis. Second, his joining of the Nazi Party was a mere
aberration, a personal mistake (for which he ‘suffered’

and ‘paid for’ with forty years’ silence). 20 Third, there
was a logic in joining the Nazis, in that Schmitt’s Hobbesian authoritarianism taught him that with protection
comes obedience. 21 (Schwab contends that ‘by opting
for National Socialism Schmitt merely transferred his
allegiance to the new legally constituted authority.’22)
Fourth, the Nazis themselves were suspicious of Schmitt,
and he left the party in 1936 after articles in the Nazi
press questioning the extent of his National Socialist
inclinations. In other words, Schmitt was never a bona
fide fascist. The gist of the defence of Schmitt is the
same as that made for all ‘respectable’ fascists. The
technique is either to separate a ‘pre-fascist’ from a
‘fascist’ period and downplay the latter, or to isolate the
man from his work.23 In the case of Schmitt a combination of the two is used: his decision to join the Nazis
was a personal one, at odds with his previous work.

Bendersky, for example, suggests that the decision to
support the Nazis revealed ‘a personal weakness so far
as moral principles are concerned’, while Julien Freund
claims that Schmitt ‘was unfaithful to his own ideas’ .24
However, by reading Schmitt’s decision to support
the Nazis as ‘personal’, and thus out of step with both
the theoretical contours of his work and his own political predilections, Schmitt’s defenders conveniently obliterate the theoretical as well as the political logic of

his decision. In this way Schmitt’s fascism is sidetracked by those seeking to use his work as the basis
for rethinking social and political theory. In what follows I seek to dispel the above myths by taking up
Martin Jay’s suggestion that we consider the reasons
why Schmitt could so easily ‘shift’ into supporting the
Nazi regime. 25 I agree that Schmitt’s support for the
Nazis, far from being a mere personal aberration or an
intellectual break, was in fact built into the theoretical
premisses of his work. This places him alongside
others of the conservative revolution, those reactionary
modernists who found National Socialism a compelling
doctrine and life under Nazi rule remarkably comfortable. 26 It also renders a Schmittian rethinking of socialism (and liberalism) deeply problematic.

The claim that Schmitt’s concern was to save
Weimar involves a misreading of his political concerns
in the Weimar period. To be sure, prior to 1933 Schmitt
was not calling for Nazi power, and his recommendation that the president rule through the use of Article 48
was partly geared towards halting the Nazi rise to
power. But to suggest that this was designed to save
Weimar requires a leap of imagination. It should be
noted that ‘Weimar’ here works in a catch-all fashion.

For beyond designating a particular historical period in
German history, it has a useful vacuity: instead of saying precisely what it was that Schmitt was trying to
save, the writer merely alludes to it througlt the use of
the word ‘Weimar’. The reader is then left to give the
word his or her own meaning; and of course, Weimar
is good in the minimalist sense of being ‘not Nazi’.27
When more specific, Schmitt’s defenders suggest
that he wanted to save the Weimar constitution. But
this is not true. Schmitt wanted to save certain features
of the constitution: those useful for the kind of political
order he had in mind. His argument that the constitution contained two quite different logics – one liberal,
the other democratic – was because he wanted to use
the democratic part against the liberal one. But of
course the ‘democratic’ part was for Schmitt the ‘dictatorial’ part; hence his privileging of the emergency
Article 48 over the Articles detailing the rights of citizens against the state. Schmitt had no desire to preserve
a republican form of government. 28 Indeed, the whole
thrust of his work was to use the dictatorial features of
the Weimar constitution against those socialists and
communists who wished to preserve the republic and
carry through the political project of emancipation they
saw as immanent within the liberal aspects of the constitution. What was immanent in the Weimar constitution for Schmitt, in contrast, was a commissarial
dictatorship which could be used to achieve


The fascist concept of the political
The real thrust of Schmitt’s work is the maintenance
of authority and order under strong leadership. It is
for this reason that he is commonly read as an
authoritarian conservative and why the political Right
count Schmitt as one of their own. 29 Given his
conservative authoritarianism, it is not surprising
that, as Paul Hirst puts it, faced with the choice between Hitler and what he regarded as chaos, Schmitt
chose Hitler. 30 Presenting the argument this way,
however, invites us to consider Schmitt’s ‘choice’ of
the Nazis as precisely the break that Schmitt’s defenders wish to portray. This obscures two crucial
points. First, that the thrust of Schmitt’s work prior
to 1933 had Mussolini’s Italy and Italian Fascism as
its model and, second, that Schmitt played a crucial
role in the ideological triumph of fascism by resisting Marxism and undermining liberalism. The struggle for fascism took place first and foremost as a
struggle against the Enlightenment project, or, as
Marcuse puts it, as a philosophical controversy with
rationalism, individualism and materialism,31 and it
is in his part in this struggle that Schmitt’s fundamental contribution to fascist ideology was made.

Richard Wolin has argued, correctly in my view, that
Schmitt’s concept of the political and its associated
concepts – sovereignty, friend-enemy, emergency – are
rooted in the vitalist critique of Enlightenment rationalism. 32 For Schmitt the exception is fundamental not just
because it allows the imposition of order and the assertion of authority, but also because it is more interesting
than the rule: ‘in the exception the power of real life
breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition’. 33 This allows us to rethink
some of the comments made above. The Russians are
praised not just because of their dictatorial regime, but
because of their vitality, and it is for this reason that
they are the most important enemy.34 Liberal rationalism is criticized not only because it rests on the assumption of negotiation and discussion, but because it
‘falsifies the immediacy of life’. Thus, despite his sometime socialist inclinations, Georges Sorel is praised for
taking seriously ‘the true impulse of an intensive life’

– ‘the warlike and heroic conceptions that are bound up
with battle and struggle’. And whereas Marx is criticized for remaining trapped within bourgeois rationalism, Proudhon is praised for having ‘an instinct for the
real life of the working masses’. 35 The state of exception breaks the repetitive everydayness of liberal bourgeois norms. As a moment of political peril, the
emergency situation calls forth a political authenticity.

It is thereby granted an existential significance. 36


Schmitt’s critique of liberalism passes over into political activism, action for action’s sake.

Given that ‘an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a
similar collectivity’, it is not surprising to find that inherent in the enemy concept is the idea of combat.

Schmitt continually invokes the categories of warfare as
the means of understanding the political and thus the
nature of the decision. Transposing Hobbes’ s state of
nature into the concept of the political war of all against
all – the ‘fundamental presupposition of a specific political philosophy’ – renders the political a realm of
permanent war. Liberalism is criticized for demilitarizing and avoiding ‘the definitive dispute, the decisive
bloody battle’. The political definition of the bourgeois,
then, is one who wishes to remain in the apolitical private sphere and be exempted from the danger of violent
death. The liberal and the socialist both fail to realize
that war has no normative meaning, is fought not on the
grounds of ‘humanity’ or ‘justice’ but for its own sake.

Just as a decisionist politics breaks with normativism in
political philosophy and jurisprudence, so war needs no
justification, for its existence is its justification: ‘the
justification of war does not reside in its being fought
for ideals or norms of justice, but in its being fought
against a real enemy’ Y This obliterates the liberal belief in ‘perpetual peace’ and the socialist declaration of
‘war on war’, replacing them with the fascist demand
for perpetual war, or, war and war again. 38
Schmitt’s contribution to fascist activism and
perpetual war is heightened by his concept of the total
state, which provides the basis for the struggle against
both internal and external enemies. ‘The core of the
matter is found in war. The character of total war determines the character and shape of the state’s totality. But
total war receives its meaning through the total enemy.’ 39
The total state thus becomes a self-justifying mechanism, in exactly the way the fascist state was later to do.

This makes even more telling his reference to ‘what the
fascist calls the “stato totalitario'” when explicating his
concept of the qualitative total state. Schmitt also admired Mussolini’s use of myth, which, as national and
fascist, is far superior to that found in the writings of
socialists. Approvingly quoting Mussolini’s claim of October 1922 that the Fascists have created their myth the myth of the nation – Schmitt contrasts this with the
inferior myth offered by Sorel. By placing it in the hands
of a non-political or pre-political class, the proletariat,
Sorel gives his myth an economic rather than a political
form. He fails to see that the (economic) myth of the
general strike is far weaker than the (political) myth of
the nation. 40

Italian Fascism offered Schmitt an example of a state that refused to be an
association like all the other associations.

Pace the English pluralists, and confirming his own insistence that the state which
does not stand above all other associations is one which can only fail to be the
associations, Schmitt understood Italian
Fascism as a ‘heroic attempt to preserve
and assert the dignity of the state and national unity against the pluralism of economic interests’ .41 Moreover, Schmitt’s
claim that democracy is consistent with
dictatorship, that only the latter can save
the former from collapse into chaos, and
that a dictatorial democracy structured
through a qualitative total state would be
a better and stronger one than liberal democracy, would not be out of place in
Mussolini and Gentile’s account of fascism as ‘organized, centralized, authoritarian

between quantitative and qualitative
democracy, Mussolini and Gentile point
to the way that the former, resting on an
essentially liberal individualism, equates
the nation to the majority and thus thinks
of the state numerically, as the sum total
of individuals. In contrast, a fascist qualitative democracy recognizes in theory
and seeks to realize in practice a qualitative conception of the state. 42
Now, the links between Schmitt’s work and Italian
Fascism have been registered by some of Schmitt’s
defenders. Schwab, for example, concedes that it is
Mussolini’s Italy that Schmitt takes as his model, but
suggests – presumably as some kind of exercise in damage limitation, though an odd one to say the least – that
Mussolini’s reign was neither absolute nor totalitarian. 43
But whilst it may be true that Schmitt’s work contains
none of the features which are said to distinguish National Socialism from ‘fascism proper’, namely antiSemitism and biological racism,44 it was nonetheless
the central theoretical features of his work that enabled
him to join the National Socialists without too much
difficulty. It is not that Schmitt’s joining of the Nazis
was possible, as some commentators claim, but that it
was probable given the theoretical contours of his
work. 45
When it came to defending National Socialism,
Schmitt’s concept of the total state needed little rework-

ing. In Staat, Bewegung, Volk (State, Movement, PeopIe, 1934) he claimed that the strong Nazi state would
halt the slide into a disastrous pluralism, and was at
pains to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power by stressing its legality.46 And, in a reference back to the suspension of the Prussian government by von Papen in
1932, he repeated his argument that one cannot treat
law outside of politics. The Hitler state, by explicitly
politicizing law and by refusing to accept the liberal
claim that equality before the law means that all parties
should be given an equal chance, merely put into practice the arguments Schmitt had earlier proposed as the
solution to the crisis of Weimar. 47 Indeed, he supported
the new regime’s measures before his membership of
the party. Between 31 March and 7 April 1933 he
helped draft the law empowering Hitler to appoint commissars to oversee state governments. Again, this is
entirely in line with his reading of von Papen’s 1932
struggle with the Prussian government. 48 It was equally


easy for Schmitt to rework his pre-1933 work into the
Nazi claim concerning regeneration or rebirth, part of
the palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism that
Roger Griffen has identified as the fascist mythic core. 49
Schmitt’s concern with a new form of democracy, his
desire for a revival of classical (that is, pre-modern)
political thought, and thus a rebirth of a strong form of
the political, are all consistent with fascist thought. And
it should be noted that Schmitt’s love of strong leadership and fear of ‘chaos’ was so great that he refused to
support the attempt on Hitler in July 1944, eight years
after being ‘exposed’ as a less-than-genuine Nazi. 50
It should also be recognized that Schmitt did not
treat the Communists and the Nazis with equal disdain,
as he and his defenders claim. Stephen Holmes asks the
pertinent question: in the crisis of Weimar was Schmitt
equally hostile to the KPD and the NSDAP? It is just
not credible to believe that he was. 51 The National Socialists and the Communists had very different attitudes
to the nationalism and authoritarianism which so appealed to Schmitt. They likewise had very different
conceptions of state power. Most importantly, the groups
which Schmitt most despised, the ones he feared liberalism and parliamentarism were most open to, were
groups which held universalist and internationalist values, groups claiming to seek the liberation of humanity
and to bring about a stateless society – the Communists,
not the National Socialists. 52 If nothing else, the Nazis
would prevent this. For these reasons it can be argued
that Schmitt became a National Socialist not so much
through a biological racism or anti-Semitism (though he
had no qualms about developing these traits after 1933)
but because National Socialism ‘presented itself as the
truth of the political’ .53

‘Socialist Schmittianism’, or, not
knowing your enemies
Is there, then, anything that socialists can learn from
Schmitt? The strongest attempts to do so flounder in
the face of deep contradiction. Chantal Mouffe’ s
attempt to use Schmitt to help establish the parameters
for a liberal, pluralist, heterogeneous democracy provides a good example of the problems faced by those
seeking to incorporate and reinterpret Schmitt for any
kind of left politics.

For Mouffe, because society is necessarily heterogeneous, there is no option but to embrace pluralism and
thus rethink socialism in a liberal pluralist fashion. This
means renouncing substantive rationalist-universalist
ambitions. Yet she also accepts Schmitt’s argument that
without homogeneity there can be no democracy.

‘Everything depends on how this homogeneity is conceived’, she claims. Her recourse is to reject Schmitt’s


notion of a substantive homogeneity and replace it with one
based on ‘agreement on a certain number of political principies’ , identification with which would ‘provide the common
substance required for democratic citizenship’. For this, parliament is to be ‘the place where it ought to be possible to
reach agreement on a reasonable solution’ .54 Essentially,
Mouffe wants the basis for homogeneity to be adherence
to the political principles of liberal democracy. Yet this is an
absurd position, made all the more so by being formed
through a sympathetic critique of Schmitt, for it is the way
of thinking about democracy that Schmitt most violently

Mouffe castigates other liberals for not appreciating Schmitt’s insights into the nature of the
political as a realm of struggle, calling on Schmitt’s
friend-enemy distinction as a means of distancing
her own liberal pluralism from that of Raz and
Rawls. ‘Schmitt is right to insist on the specificity of
the political association’, and his injunction to take
the political seriously means that we should not see
the state as a political community ‘on the same level
as our other forms of social integration’ .55 In similar
fashion, Richard Bellamy and Peter Baehr argue that
political liberalism might use Schmitt’s friend-enemy
distinction by adopting it and applying it to the
conflicts within civil society: the Rushdie affair is
thus read as a struggle between the friends and
enemies of literary freedom.56 But the reason Schmitt
insists on the specificity of the political, and the
reasoning behind his friend-enemy distinction, is not
because he regards the state as an institutional referee between social associations who might see each
other as opponents (and thus, in Schmittian language,
as enemies), for that would reduce him to a liberal
who just happened to be more sensitive to the necessity for state power. Schmitt’s state is necessary to
decide who is an enemy of the state, a crucial
political decision since such enemies must be fought
and eliminated on the grounds of substantial



herself from



claiming that ‘what has to be challenged … is not
pluralist democracy as such, as Schmitt would have
it, but its limitations’ ,57 and she uses Schmitt to
confirm the importance of thinking about a leftliberal politics. But what does this amount to, precisely? At best it appears that Schmitt is to be praised
for his no-nonsense approach to politics, for recognizing that society is constituted through struggle,
and that politically one has to recognize that in politics one has friends and enemies. Beyond that it is
hard to see what else Schmitt offers. Yet intelligent

socialists have always had a no-nonsense approach
to politics and, for fear of pointing to the obvious,
have been arguing for some time now that society is
constituted through struggle. In fact, as developed by
socialists this has produced far more subtle critiques
of liberalism than that offered by Schmitt. Subtle
and, if truth be told, more insightful. For Schmitt’s
analyses are often quite wide of the mark. Let me
give three examples.

First, Schmitt’s critique of liberalism is in certain
respects misguided, since liberalism has frequently
recognized the necessity of suspension of the rule of
law and of dictatorial rule in emergency situations.

John Locke, for example, concedes that ‘the laws
themselves should in some cases give way to the
executive power’ as ‘accidents’ may occur where
‘strict and rigid observation of the laws may do
harm’ .58 It is not so much that Schmitt misses this
(though that in itself is interesting); it is that Schmitt,
making a dictatorial virtue out of liberal necessity,
reifies and radicalizes the moments of decision and
unrestrained sovereignty, obliterating the necessity
for understanding why liberal political thought has
included such allowances. 59 This is linked to my
second example, which is that liberal democratic
regimes have not been slow in practice to declare
’emergency situations’ and suspend the rule of law
and basic rights. By approaching these two related
issues – liberalism’s recognition of sovereign powers
and the state of exception and the use of these within
liberal democracies – in a socialist fashion, one is
forced to confront head-on the fact that liberalism,
whilst shying away from the recognition of society
as constituted through struggle, understands that,
ultimately, state power is there for a reason: to enforce social order. States in liberal democracies never
forget this, however much liberals themselves may
sometimes do. As an existential politics, Schmitt’s
friend-enemy distinction is essentially ahistorical; it
has no means of understanding this feature of liberalism and liberal democracy.

Finally, Schmitt’s analysis appears somewhat
outdated. Parties of all political persuasions are now
given an ‘equal chance’ in liberal democracies, not
because liberals are committed to discussion, but
because they have learnt that incorporating antiparliamentary groups is a far more effective means of
maintaining power than using direct force to suppress
them. Parliament may be just a talking shop, but it
legitimizes liberal democratic regimes through the
sUbsumption of struggle. Combined with associated
institutions and processes – welfare mechanisms,

corporate organization of the economy, the use of
cultural institutions such as the media to consolidate
liberalism as the dominant ideology, the surveillance
of ‘extremists’ – this has made liberal democracy a
far more stable form of state than even its supporters
could ever have hoped. Socialists know this – independently of Schmitt’ s analyses – because whilst they
recognize with Mouffe that ‘the modern democratic
ideals of liberty and equality that constitute the
political principles of the liberal democratic regime
have provided the political language with which many
struggles against subordination have been fought and
won’ ,60 they also understand that liberalism (and, conjointly, the liberal democratic state) has been used
against struggles for liberation and for the suppression of liberties. In other words, socialists recognize
that liberalism has a history of being used against the
oppressed, and nowhere more so than in the liberal
willingness to declare a state of exception. Socialists
can grasp these points because, rather than enacting a
reactionary turn against the Enlightenment and
treating liberalism and democracy as logical contraries, as Schmitt does, they engage (or at least can and
should engage) in an immanent critique of the Enlightenment project and a dialectical assessment of
liberalism’s simultaneously radical and reactionary

The attempt to utilize Schmitt for the- rethinking
of socialist theory turns Schmitt – conservative revolutionary, fascist and an enemy of the Left – into a
debating adversary. This, as any good Schmittian
should know, is a dangerous political manoeuvre. For
if Schmitt teaches us anything, it is that we need to
know who our friends and enemies are; and if the
history of the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that fascism and its supporters are our
enemy . We forget this at our peril.

1. See, for example, Ernst Bloch, ‘Inventory of Revolutionary Appearance’ (1933), in Heritage of Our
Times, trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice, Polity Press,
Cambridge, 1991, and Natural Law and Human
Dignity (1961), trans. Dennis Schmidt, MIT Press,
Cambridge MA, 1987, pp. 149-52; Herbert Marcuse,
‘The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian
View of the State’ (1934), in Negations: Essays in
Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy Shapiro, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 3-42; Georg Lukacs, The
Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer, Merlin
Press, London, 1980, pp. 652-61; Franz Neumann,
Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National
Socialism, Gollancz, London, 1942. I have taken the
idea of an ‘unlearning’ from Bill Scheuerman, ‘Carl
Schmitt and the Nazis’, German Politics and Society




















23, 1991, pp. 71-9, p. 72, and Between the Norm and
the Exception: The Frankfurt School and the Rule of
Law, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1994, p. 7.

Paul Piccone and G.L. Ulmen, ‘Introduction to Carl
Schmitt’, Telos 72, 1987, pp. 3-14, p. 14.

Paul Hirst, Representative Democracy and Its Limits,
Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 107.

Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, Verso,
London, 1993, p. 109.

Richard Bellamy and Peter Baehr, ‘Carl Schmitt and
the Contradictions of Liberal Democracy’, European
Journal of Political Research, vol. 23, no. 2, 1993,
pp. 163-85.

Paul Piccone and G.L. Ulmen, ‘Schmitt’s “Testament”
and the Future of Europe’, Telos 83, 1990, pp. 3-34,
p. 16.

JOrgen Habermas, ‘Sovereignty and the Fiihrerdemokratie’, Times Literary Supplement, 26 September

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on
the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab,
MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1988, p. 5.

Political Theology, p. 36; also see The Concept of the
Political, trans. George Schwab, Rutgers University
Press, New Jersey, 1976, p. 42. It should be noted that
Schmitt’s Catholicism played a prominent role in his
political thought. Born to devoutly Catholic parents,
he attended Catholic schools and, between 1922 and
1928, taught in the predominantly Catholic University
of Bonn. He had close contacts with notable Catholic
politicians and organizations such as BrOning and the
Centre Party, and was deeply concerned with the place
of Catholicism in political life – witness his Romischer
Katholizismus und Politische Form, translated into
English as The Necessity of Politics by E.M. Codd,
Sheed & Ward, London, 1931, as part of the
publisher’s series ‘Essays in Order’ and for their
‘Catholic Book-a-Month Club’.

Political Theology, p. 63.

Concept of the Political, pp. 19-20, 27-9, 40.

Ibid., pp. 23-4. For a defence and rethinking of the
state-civil society distinction, rooted in a strong
concept of the political, see my Administering Civil
Society: Towards a Theory of State Power, Macmillan,
London, 1996.

Cited by J.Z. Muller, ‘Carl Schmitt, Hans Freyer and
the Radical Conservative Critique of Liberal Democracy in the Weimar Republic’, History of Political
Thought, vol. XII, no. 4, 1991, from Schmitt’s text
‘Weiterentwicklung des total en Staats in Deutschland’,
in the radical conservative Europaische Revue in February 1933.

Habermas, ‘Sovereignty and the Fiihrerdemokratie’.

Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy,
trans. Ellen Kennedy, MIT Press, Cambridge MA,
1985, p. 34.

Ibid., pp. 8-9, 16.

Schmitt, cited in Joseph Bendersky, Carl Schmitt:

Theorist for the Reich, Princeton University Press,
Princeton NJ, 1983, p. 159, emphasis added.

We have Nazism to thank for prompting a correspondence between Schmitt and Heidegger. Schmitt
sent to Heidegger a copy of The Concept of the
Political, for which the latter thanked him in a letter
closing with a comment on the ‘gathering of the
spiritual forces’ and ‘Heil Hitler’ (the letter, of 22

August 1933, is reprinted in Telos 72, 1987, p. 132).

19. The ‘lip-service’ thesis is found in George Schwab,
The Challenge of the Exception: An Introduction to
the Political Ideas of Carl Schmitt between 1921 and
1936, 2nd edn, Greenwood Press, New York, 1990, p.

101; and Joseph Bendersky, ‘Carl Schmitt at
Nuremberg’, Telos 72, 1987, pp. 91-6, p. 95. Paul
Hirst vacillates between presenting Schmitt as flirting
with evil, not flirting with evil and yet more-thanflirting with it (Representative Democracy and Its
Limits, p. 108, and ‘Carl Schmitt – Decisionism and
Politics’, Economy and Society, vol. 17, no. 2, 1988,
pp. 272-82, p. 276).

20. Bendersky, Carl Schmitt, p. 202; Hirst, ‘Carl Schmitt
– Decisionism and Politics’, p. 276.

21. Bendersky, Carl Schmitt, p. 204; Bellamy and Baehr,
‘Carl Schmitt and the Contradictions of Liberal
Democracy’, p. 177.

22. Schwab, Challenge of the Exception, p. 106. Note how
the ‘merely’ here minimizes the political enormity of
the ‘shift’, as though Schmitt were (merely) a floating
voter tired of the current government.

23. See the comments on Robert Michels and Henri De
Man in Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist
Ideology in France, trans. David Maisel, University
of California Press, Los Angeles, 1986, p. 142.

24. Bendersky, Carl Schmitt, pp. 202, 257, 287; Julien
Freund, ‘Schmitt’s Political Thought’, Telos 102,
1995, pp. 11-42, p. 31. Note how the personal
weakness is separated from the moral principles. Given
that Schmitt argued against moral principles in theory,
it seems odd that his personal lack of them is separated
from the theory in this way. For Piccone and Ulmen,
Schmitt’s ‘relation to Nazism’ is ‘less a question of
his thought than his character’ (,Introduction to Carl
Schmitt’, p. 11). In their contribution to Jeffrey Herf,
Paul Piccone and G.L. Ulmen, ‘Reading and
Misreading Schmitt: An Exchange’, Telos 74, 198788, pp. 133-40, Piccone and Ulmen separate Schmitt’s
theoretical work from his political judgements,
without ever specifying why theory and politics are
unconnected in this way (except, that is, for Schmitt’s
opportunism). Hirst reads Schmitt’s Nazi period as a
‘personal political judgement’ (‘Carl Schmitt’s
Decisionism’, Telos 72, 1987, pp. 15-26, p. 16). The
‘personal’ and the ‘political’ here are simultaneously
brought together and kept apart, obscuring the author’s
unwillingness to specify whether the decision was
either. In a reworked and extended version of this
essay, which appears as Chapter 7 of his
Representative Democracy and Its Limits, Hirst repeats
the point (p. 108), suggesting as a comparison that
‘Marx’s life was littered with political errors, as
anyone who cares to consult his work on the Eastern
Question can confirm’. But, as far as I am aware, no
one has criticized Marx – or, for that matter, defended
him – on the grounds that these were personal or even
personal political errors/judgements.

25. Martin Jay, ‘Reconciling the Irreconcilable? Rejoinder
to Kennedy’, Telos 71, 1987, pp. 67-80, p. 72, in
response to Ellen Kennedy’s forced (and rather desperate) reading of the theoretical connections between
Schmitt and some members of the Frankfurt School
(in ‘Carl Schmitt and the Frankfurt School’ in the same
issue of Telos). In doing so Kennedy joins the ranks
of Schmitt-defenders by drawing a break between

Schmitt’s pre-Nazi and Nazi work.

26. In his account of Reactionary Modernism: Technology,
Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, Jeffrey
Herf claims that Schmitt ‘joined the Nazi party in the
belief that Hitler and National Socialism were the
realization of his theory of decisionism’ (p. 44).

27. See for example Schwab, Challenge, p. 38; Bendersky,
Carl Schmitt, p. 96; Piccone and Ulmen, ‘Reading and
Misreading Schmitt’, p. l37.

28. Bendersky’s puzzlement over why Schmitt’s most
vehement opponents were the republicans underlines
Bendersky’s own confusion over Schmitt’s ‘defence’

of the republic, noted above. The republicans opposed
Schmitt for a very simple reason: they recognized him
as an enemy (Carl Schmitt, p. 99). See Scheuerman,
Between the Norm and the Exception, p. 79.

29. See David Levy, ‘Carl Schmitt as a Conservative
Thinker’, Salisbury Review, vol. 8, no. 4, 1990; Paul
Gottfried, ‘Legality, Legitimacy and Carl Schmitt’,
National Review, 28 August 1987, Carl Schmitt:

Politics and Theory, Greenwood Press, New York,
1990, and Carl Schmitt, Claridge Press, London, 1990.

30. Hirst, ‘Carl Schmitt’s Decisionism’, p. 16; Representative Democracy and Its Limits, p. 108.

31. Marcuse, ‘Struggle Against Liberalism’, p. 3. On this
point, see also Mark Neocleous, Fascism, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1997, ch. 1.

32. R. Wolin, ‘Carl Schmitt: The Conservative Revolutionary Habitus and the Aesthetics of Horror’,
Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 3, 1992, pp. 424-47, p.


33. Schmitt, Political Theology, p. 15.

‘The Age of Neutralizations and
34. Schmitt,
Depoliticalizations’ (1929), Telos 96, 1993, pp. 13042, p. 130.

35. Schmitt, Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, pp. 7071. It is worth noting that Schmitt writes this at the
time when Proudhon was widely regarded as providing
some of the theoretical foundations of fascism – as
witnessed by his appropriation by the Cercle Proudhon
and Action Fran~aise – and Sorel was being hailed by
fascists as one of the most original contributors to
fascist thought.

36. R. Wolin, ‘Carl Schmitt’, and The Politics of Being:

The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger, Columbia
University Press, New York, 1990, pp. 38-40. See also
Marcuse, ‘Struggle Against Liberalism in the
Totalitarian View of the State’.

37. Concept of the Political, pp. 28, 32, 49, 62-3, 65, 71;
Political Theology, p. 63, emphasis added.

38. I have argued this at greater length elsewhere: Mark
Neocleous, ‘Perpetual War, Or “War and War Again”:

Schmitt, Foucault, Fascism’, Philosophy and Social
Criticism, vol. 22, no. 2, 1996, pp. 47-66.

39. Schmitt, cited in Lukacs, Destruction of Reason, p.


40. Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, p. 76.

41. Schmitt, cited in Lukacs, Destruction of Reason, p.


42. Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, ‘The Doctrine
of Fascism’, in A. Lyttleton, ed., Italian Fascisms:

From Pareto to Gentile, Jonathan Cape, London, 1973,
pp. 39-67, p. 42, 50.

43. Schwab, Challenge of the Exception, p. 147.

44. See, for example, Schwab, Challenge of the Exception,

















p. 138; Bendersky, ‘Carl Schmitt at Nuremberg’, p.


See Susan Buck-Morss’s contribution to ‘Schmitt’s
“Testament” and the Future of Europe’, Telos 85,
1990, pp. 93-148, p. 105. Those such as Mouffe who
suggest that Schmitt’s approach is useful but his
solutions unacceptable fail to realize that Schmitt’s
solutions follow -logically, theoretically, politicallyfrom his premisses (Return of the Political, pp. 109,
115, 121; see also her ‘Pluralism and Modern
Democracy: Around Carl Schmitt’, New Formations
14, 1991, pp. 1-16, pp. 5, 11). This would partly
explain the contradictions in the intellectual hybrid of
a ‘socialist Schmittianism’, discussed below.

In Roger Griffen, ed., Fascism, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1995, pp. 138-9. It is significant that
Schmitt’s writings from the 1930s have yet to be
translated. One wonders why this is so. Small sections
of this particular text are also available in George
Mosse, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social
Life in the Third Reich, W.H. AlIen, London, 1966,
pp. 323-6.

See the section cited in Mosse, Nazi Culture, p. 323.

On this point compare Schmitt’s own account of this
some forty-five years later, by which time he appears
to have conveniently forgotten his own role in legitimizing the regime (Carl Schmitt, ‘The Legal World
Revolution’ (1978), Telos 72, 1987, pp. 73-89, p. 75).

Bendersky, Carl Schmitt, p. 199. Far from being forced
into supporting the regime, Schmitt went out of his
way to do so.

Roger Griffen, The Nature of Fascism, Routledge,
London, 1993.

Schwab, Challenge of the Exception, p. 147 n.11.

Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1993, p. 43.

As Bendersky’s biography makes clear, Schmitt’s
greatest fear was of the radical republicans,
communists and socialists, a fear shaped immediately
following World War I and which never left him (Carl
Schmitt, ch. 2).

For Schmitt the vision of a world without the state,
without political friend-enemy distinction and without
war is an absurd and impossible dream. It is also of
course a communist, but not fascist, one (Concept of
the Political, pp. 35, 53).

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and
Politics: The Fiction of the Political, trans. Chris
Turner, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990, p. 77. In other
words, Schmitt’s joining the Nazi Party was the
bureaucratic baptism of an already essentially fascist
argument (see Neocleous, ‘Perpetual War, Or, “War
and War Again”‘, p. 59).

Mouffe, Return of the Political, pp. 129-30.

Ibid., pp. “127, l31.

Bellamy and Baehr, ‘Carl Schmitt and the Contradictions of Liberal Democracy’, pp. 180-81.

Ibid., p. l30.

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Dent &
Sons, London, 1986, Book 11, ch. IV, p. 199. See
Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, p. 58.

See Scheuerman, Between the Norm and the
Exception, pp. 103, 132, 184.

Chantal Mouffe, ‘Radical or Liberal Democracy?’,
Socialist Review, vol. 90, no. 2, 1990, pp. 57-66,


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