Hubertus Buchstein on the Heuss Professorship and Otto Kirchheimer

RM: How did being at The New School at different points in the 1990s influence your research?

HB: When I came back in 1994, already everything here was on email. I thought I was a cutting-edge person back in Germany because I had a computer! I was writing a book on secret and public voting. The experience at The New School inspired me to do research on the influence of the internet on democracy.

At that time, the internet seemed to mean that everything is connected somehow, every voice can be heard. This idea is very close to the normative idea of deliberative democracy by Habermas. I was critical to these claims, particularly with regard to what happens to communication when you don’t see the other person. It’s much easier to get angry, to get echo chambers, and it raises questions about the reliability of sources. The article “Bytes that Bite”, which came out in 1996, is still one of the most popular pieces I have published.

Inspiring experiences like this are is part of why I stayed connected to The New School, and got connected to other universities nearby. We didn’t had this as much in Germany, the intense discussions in my subfield of political theory and the history of ideas. In addition, I always had the feeling at The New School that there’s a real connection between theory and political practice. Like what Elzbieta Matynia did [with the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies] and the Global Dialogues Fellows. There are people from all these countries talking, trying to understand each other, and all are political active.

RM: Your year as a Heuss Professor coincides well with your main project right now on Otto Kirchheimer, a German political scientist who taught at The New School. Was that planned?

HB: Well, I started this Kirchheimer project in 2015, two years before I knew about the Heuss. The project intents to collect his work – his main published and unpublished papers –  in six volumes. Kirchheimer was born in 1905 and had studied with Carl Schmitt, later a leading Nazi legal theorist. Kirchheimer was also close connected to the Frankfurt School during their exile in New York. His work on party politics is still read and very much quoted; he was the inventor of the term ‘catch-all party.’ So when I was informed about my Heuss Professorship, I was thrilled because this would give me the chance visit the archives in new York for the project. Si I had spent some time in The New School archives last year, which was great. The people there are so helpful it’s amazing!

I was mainly trying to figure out how it happened that Otto Kirchheimer ended up at the New School in 1954. He was in Germany working until 1933, he fled to Paris to escape the Nazis terror, he had no real job there. Then he made it to the United States in 1937 working with the Frankfurt School group and finally got a job with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington in 1944, later at the State Department. It took him until 1954 to get a professorship, which was here, at the New School.

In my research I went through New School committee and subcommittee minutes and reconstructed the meetings. You know, some of the meeting notes are in German, because all their members had been refugees from Nazi Germany. Reading through the minutes was a good way to get a feeling for the internal constellations at the New School in those days: who likes whom, about appointments, who gets what and when and why and for what. They hired Kirchheimer not only because of his outstanding work, but also because they hoped that he, with his connections to the State Department, would bring in some research money. Well, Kirchheimer used the time to get research grants – but for himself only. He had one fellowship after another and he wrote a wonderful book, Political Justice, for which he is still famous and which was just reprinted again by Princeton University Press.

The reason Kirchheimer left The New School sounds weird from today’s point of view. In those days, it was part of the contract with the Graduate Faculty, that if you teach here, you have to live in New York City. They didn’t want you to commute because you should be part of the Village. But Kirchheimer lived in Washington with his wife and kid, and he always found some excuse about why he couldn’t move. Then after he finished Political Justice, he got an offer from Columbia University, which didn’t care if you commuted or not. Kirchheimer left the New School, but he remained in very close contact with some os his former collegues until his death. Some of them he had known since the late 1920s in the Weimar Republic.

The Kirchheimer Edition has made very much progress so far. Volumes 1-3, with his early writings and his work at his time with Frankfurt School, were published in 2017 and 2018. Volume 4 on Political Justice will be coming out in October. My work in New York was focused on Volume 5. It will contain his late writings on political parties mainly and should come out next year. I wrote a draft of the introduction for Volume 5 during my stay here, and it includes a lot of footnotes from The New School archives. I also went to SUNY Albany and the Grenander Center [the M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives] to go through his papers and his letters. The Columbia University archive also had some material.