Written for a German class a few years ago during my obsession with Muntzer. There is some material that is untranslated, that I can provide translations for if there is the interest.
Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein
“Our sabotage organizes the proletarian storming of heaven. And in the end that accursed heaven will no longer exist!
Modern sovereignty can be defined by a dialectical process of revolutionary crisis and the deflection of that crisis into colonial expansion. In this sense, the dialectical process gives capital a unique ability to productively subsume its crisis into itself. The process rebounded back on itself in the First World War. Mass death left the laboratory of the colonies and entered Europe proper. All of the techniques that defined World War I were first tested in the colonies. The explosive violence that defined that war destroyed the easy progressive teleology that even was starting to impact the workers movement. The immediate response was a series of failed uprisings that marked the first years after the war. The specific aftermath that I am interested in is the collapse of the Wilhelmite German State after World War I and the failed revolutionary insurrection afterwards.
The impact of the war and the insurrection led to a radical philosophical shift in two significant thinkers, Ernst Bloch and Carl Schmitt. Ernst Bloch’s Jewish messianism took on an increasingly radical turn as he turned increasingly towards a radical marxist politic. At the same time, Carl Schmitt moved away from a neo-Kantian interpretation of legal theory towards a radical authoritarianism defined by decisionist, rather than a normative, definition of sovereignty. These shifts also produce the work that both figures are best known for. Although the two figures are defined by substantial political differences, their political transformations are defined by a revolutionary energy that I want to conceptualize as the ‘schwarmgeistig.’
This concept, which I draw from Bloch’s book on Munzer, is tied to a self-destructive quality that I want to argue is immanent to the process of capital itself. It represents the self-destructive element in the structure that Marx continually pointed to. We can see this expressed best in the end of the first chapter of the manifesto which itself is a translation of these theological concerns. “Mit der Entwicklung der grossen Industrie wird also unter den Fussen der Boureoisie die Grundlage selbst hinweggezogen, worauf sie produziert und die Produckte sich aneignet. Sie produziert vor allem eignen Totengraber. Ihr Untergang und der Sieg des Proletariats sind gleich unvermeidlich.” I want to first begin by looking at what that might mean a revolutionary politic, before shifting to the way that Ernst Bloch explores the concept in Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution. I will end in the ways that Carl Schmitt theories attempt to return to the policies of the Absolutist State in order to nullify this radical possibility.
To understand this notion of the schwarmgeistig, the element of religious fanaticism, of utopian dreaming in the turmoil of revolutionary movements, I want to turn to a passage in Anson Rabinbach’s theorization of the Messianic. Rabinbach points out.
"The apocalyptic element involves a quantum leap from present to future, from exile to freedom. This leap necessarily brings with it the completed destruction and negation of the old order. Messianism is thus bound up with both violence and catastrophe. Scholem has emphasized the importance of this aspect of the Messianic idea to underscore the contrast between “the destructive nature of the redemption on the one hand and the utopianism of the content on the other.” This tension, which the Marxian idea of “transition” only weakly captures, is the essence of the apocalyptic vision of catastrophic upheaval as the handmaiden of redemption. In history this image constantly recurs, appearing in the creation of the revolutionary calendar of 1793, in the Munster Anabaptists destroying the records of the old church, Komsomol youth disinterring the bones of the Saints in the Russian revolution, or the specter of the Maoist Red Guards demolishing the ancient art works of Confucian China—each symbolizes a total destruction of the prior age as the precondition for the full restitution of the Messianic period."
This description brings in the two elements that I want to tie in with this concept of the schwarmgeistig, this concept is produced in the dialectical relationship between the destructive power of the apocalypse and the redemption contained in the figure of a utopian future on the other hand. The notable quality of the violence can be found in the fact that it is enacted in the open. Revolutionary transformation is supposed to occur through its very performance. It evokes the notion that, “the people are good, but the magistrate is corruptible,” which acted as a constant irritant to Carl Schmitt. At the same time, the violence can not be explained in instrumental terms. It opens up the world to a general economy of expenditure that places those in the more limited economy of instrumentality in a state of both bewilderment and horror.
This motif is a reoccurring one, but the moment that both Bloch and Schmitt focus on is the explosive conflicts of the wars of religion. This places the notion of the “schwarmgeistig” within the conflict that led to the creation of the secular. I want to understand it as a border concept, one that is defined by a whole series of translations that occur in that period. In this, I take seriously the statement made by Carl Schmitt, when he states, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development… but also because of their systemic structure.” Schmitt is recognizing that the concepts of god that defined this period were always also concepts of society at large. In this sense, the notion of the ‘schwarmgeistig’ could be translated into a secular term such as the militant, but this translation misses out on the radicality of such a figure. At the same time, one cannot collapse it entirely into the transcendental concept of messianism, both because of its tendency to mystify the discussion, and because not all the figures in this category embrace that transcendental notion.
This concept can neither be tied to the Enlightenment, nor can it be described as a sort of archaic holdover from an earlier time. Instead, it charts another genealogy of modernity, one that is defined by defeat, and allows for the more limited transformation that occurred in the Enlightenment. Paolo Virno perhaps captures this best when he refers to Spinoza’s multitude as a sort of archive of civil liberties. The moment of the wars of religion becomes significant because it both represents the most open expression of this tradition, and points to a contingent element in the creation of Enlightenment rationality. For the most part, this trajectory remains either hidden or disguised in translated forms. Bloch codes this deformity under the term “slave talk,” which he links both to readings of the Bible and to certain literary traditions. In his book, Atheism in Christianity, Ernst Bloch points to this tradition.
The fact remains, however, and nothing can detract from it, that thinking men, as such, were refusing to be priest-ridden any more. Long before simple, devout feelings had grown rusty, long before the real Enlightenment, pamphlets against the clergy and their lies were going the rounds among the peasants, complaining about the miserable swindling and deception of the poor. The real complaint was about the way the Scriptures were twisted to serve the exploiters and drudge-merchants, but these pamphlets also show the common man’s will to speak for himself: he has finished with being struck across the mouth. The peasants, however, were defeated, and their place was taken by the rationalistic bourgeoisie: in their Enlightenment the will to come of age became an all-consuming
Bloch is making an argument for the existence of another critical network of knowledge, one that created the logic for a form of counter-governance in a negative form. It placed the structures of legitimization into question, while positing the possibility of a different structure of society. One can turn to a comment made by Foucault in a talk on critique to get the full meaning of this. “Not wanting to be governed was a certain way of refusing challenging, limiting (say it as you like) ecclesiastical rule. It meant returning to the Scriptures, seeking out what was authentic in them, what was really written in them, what was really written in the scriptures. It mean questioning what sort of truth the Scriptures told, gaining access to this truth of the scriptures in the Scriptures and maybe in spite of what was written, to the point of finally raising the very simple question: were the Scriptures true?” Foucault is reading this in the tradition of the Enlightenment, while Bloch is arguing that it can already be found in a crude form in this peasant circulation.
Bloch’s reading of Thomas Munzer in his book Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution charts how this alternative network found its way into the daylight, if briefly, with the coming of the reformation and the printing press. The book acted as a sort of companion piece to his more famous text, Geist der Utopie, and Bloch always saw them as companion pieces. Geist der Utopie was Bloch’s critique of a trajectory of Enlightenment thought including music and the German philosophical tradition defined by Kant and Hegel. Although still concerned with the utopian impulse, Bloch made a significant shift in the archive he examined, moving from the dominant thought of the Enlightenment to the legacy of a defeated radical tradition in the Reformation. He looked at both how Munzer was produced in this tradition and at the way that the image of Munzer traveled
Bloch links Munzer to this specific history in his description of Munzer’s influences, both its tradition of conspiracy and its tradition of oppression. It links his thought not so much to Luther’s reformation, but to a tradition of mystical thought and conspiracy. For example, we find this description early in the book,
“Die garende Zeit zog an, jung fur sich, boll ungekannter Dinge, das Land lag wach, ruhelos, wie voraufgeschickt, wanterten Boten, Kundschafter, Prediger umher. In den Waldtalern des Harz waren ohnedies geisslierishe Lehre, Erinnerung an die Feme noch lebendig.” Munzer, a product of the poor and outcast, was also intimately aware of its networks of knowledge, of its secret histories and of the attempts to repress it. This plays an important double feature for the production of the movement that Bloch describes. It both allowed for Munzer’s critical reading of the scriptures in order to challenge the ruling authorities both religious and secular, and for him to have the critical mass support in order to do so.
However, it would be incorrect to define Bloch’s understanding of Munzer as merely being defined by his production in a certain environment. It is also related to a concept of inwardness that Bloch links to the Utopian in his previous book. “In the end, however, after this internal vertical inner movement: may a new expanse appear, the world of the soul, the external, cosmic function of utopia, maintained against misery, death, the husk realm of the mere physical nature.” The ‘authentic’ knowledge of the self allows for the question of the ‘We’ to be answered according to Bloch. Bloch reads this inwardness in Munzer, an inwardness that stands on the borderline between the mystical and the autistic. Bloch points to this in the words of Munzer himself. Munzer states, “Was Bibel, Bubel, Babel, man muss auf ein Winkel kriechen und mit Gott Reden” Munzer’s mysticism goes beyond the critical reading practices of Luther towards a reading of one’s interiority, an interiority that he felt had a privileged position in understanding the truth of what preceded him, the essence of several generations of mysticism. The inwardness contained in this statement holds both of the notions of besessen together, possession and madness
Like Bloch, I take the singularity of Munzer seriously, and I take the singularity of the community that Munzer operates in seriously, doing so produces the preconditions for the concept that I want to develop. But the relevance that Munzer has for the concept of the ‘schwarmgeistig’ that I want to develop lay less in those singularities than in the way that history has been taken up, both by revolutionaries and by counter revolutionaries. Bloch points the way to this in his chapter, “Munzer als Gestalt und Gegenwart.” The chapter opens by discussing the difficulty of getting at the essence of the significant individual. He links it to a similar blindness that Nietzsche sees, “Unerkennbar liegen wir uns selbst noch im blinden Flick.” He eventually argues that the ability to put together an honest answer to this involves a serious transformation. We can see this in the following passage.
“Andereseits freilich tont der bedeutende Mensch, aus der Erscheinung zurucktretend, zugleich als Mundstuck, Antenne, Mandatar: und so dunkel er wird, so ist doch Bessenheit darin. Auch Munzer ist besessen, und nicht das Charakterologische also, sondern das Nachwirkende, Allbetreffende, zur Legende Taugliche, der Schein uber seinem Haupt schiesst an Munzer, dem Mandatar, zum halbwegs moglichen Bild zusammen.
A reasonable picture of Munzer’s importance can only be created by stripping away his individuality, and looking at him as a representative figure. This accomplishes two significant goals. First, it strips away the ability to individualize, and therefore pathologize Munzer. Bloch argues that Munzer’s “ist besessen, und nicht das Charakterologische.” If there is a madness involved, it is both collective and political. At the same time, it points to the quality that Munzer takes on as a “Gestalt.” We can link this up to the notion of the ideal type that Weber develops, but that is too secular a concept for this phenomenon. The Gestalt is theorized as a light over his head that flashes up periodically. This light can either be read in terms of an aura or a halo, but either way it keeps us out of the disenchanted world that Weber inhabits.
This figure flashes up in the revolutionary movements of 1848, returning as the figure of primitive revenge and redistribution to the poor. It taken up major political thinkers including Engels, Seidemann, Kautsky, etc. Munzer becomes the figure of ‘schwarmgeistig’ par excellence not because of an individual uniqueness, a uniqueness that has eroded over time. All of the physical features that are typically used to describe the man can be questioned. But instead he becomes a significant figure because he is repeatedly re-imagined. This re-imagination returns repeatedly to the fact that the current organization of the world only exists because of the active destruction of its alternatives. It points to a continual lack of completion of this project, a horizon, which may not lead to its inevitable end, but does point to the fact that it is not itself inevitable.
We can track the phenomenon negatively as well through the attempts to neutralize it. I propose that we make that effort through the figure of Carl Schmitt. Translator George Schwab attempts to pay tribute to Schmitt by linking him to the figure of Thomas Hobbes, referring to him as the Thomas Hobbes of the 20th century. Although I am not nearly as generous a reader of Schmitt as Schwab, I think that we should take him seriously. Just as Hobbes theorized the absolutist Leviathan state in order to suppress the radical forces that exploded out of the wars of religion, Schmitt tried to return to this stronger decisionist notion of the sovereign in order to suppress the revolutionary upheaval that defined the end of the First World War. The state of exception became the protection of a homogeneity that is much more contingent due to this upheaval. He also attempted to do this on practical grounds in his interpretation of article 48 in the Weimar Constitution, the emergency clause.
The opening statement of Political Theology is perhaps the most defining one. Schmitt states, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” This statement defines the figure of the sovereign by two capabilities, both what constitutes the exception to the order of things, and when to suspend the rules in order to preserve them. This state of exception is precisely the opposite of “anarchy and chaos” because “order in the juristic sense still prevails even if it is not of the ordinary kind.” The law is defined by this constant need to neutralize various crises that put it in jeopardy. In this sense, Schmitt returns to the absolutist concept that Hobbes conceptualizes, a state that mirrors the sovereign god, and a state that attempts to neutralize an essentially evil man.
Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of Article 48 became the most practical way that he attempted to preserve this order. Schmitt’s interpretation depended on a reading of the article that most legal scholars could except. He repeatedly tried to expand the powers of both the presidency and the points at which the president could claim a state of exception. Schmitt attempted to use this as a basis of closing off the electoral system to those who wanted to destroy that system. This led to his support of both the creation of a state of exception by President Hindenburg and later by the NSDAP.
In this sense, perhaps we can conceptualize the ‘schwarmgeistig’ against what Schmitt is describing as the task of the sovereign. Just as the sovereign is defined by decision rather than as the sole legitimate source of violence, the schwarmgeistig can be defined by the ability to escape this decision rather than as the figure that contests the monopolization of violence, although the question of violence is implicit in both formulations. Schmitt tracks this as it shifts from the realm of the theological, to the realm of the political, to the realm of the economic. Each act of neutralization creates another space of the political decision and contestation. For Schmitt, this acts as a sort of horizon, the creation of an exteriority that makes “all law” into “situational law.” But from the other side, it points to the contingency of the current order of things, one that can be changed.
It is in this terrain of contingency that I want to end this essay. In his last writings, Louis Althusser attempts to conceptualize a new type of materialist philosophy, one that he calls “the materialism of the encounter.” Within it, he makes an attempt to rethink the dual concepts of contingency and necessity. “It is only after the world is constituted that the realm of reason, of necessity, and of sense is established…. Rather than thinking of contingency as a modality of necessity or as an exception to necessity, one ought to think of necessity as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies.” To invoke this notion of contingency is to embrace a continual potentiality that exists within the seemingly uniform space of necessity. The schwarmgeistig points back to the contingency and potentiality by its continual return.