Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation II

The volume includes a quite substantial section of ‘Preliminary Remarks to the First Edition (1921). There is a Foreword  to the second edition (1928), along with brief forewords to the third (1964) and fourth (1978) editions. The first Foreword  (thought it is fourth in the order of layout in the volume, sets up the distinction between commissary and sovereign dictatorship. The commissary is the earlier or classical form of dictatorship, while the the sovereign dictatorship is the later or modern version, coming  from the bourgeois age and beginning in the eighteenth century.

The commissary dictatorship refers to the appointment of a commissar to carry out a limited task for a limited period wit special powers. The origin of the commissary dictator in clear legal terms is the officer of ‘dictator’ in the Roman Republic, which Schmitt discusses in the main body of the book, where he also recognises the relevance of kings and tyrants in antiquity to the idea of dictatorial power. He suggests that the central early  modern discussion is to be found in the Six Books of the Republic (1576), which is also know as Sovereignty in English. This is not a very widely ready book in the Anglophone world, where apart from specialists in Renaissance and Early Modern thought, most writers on political thought move from Machiavelli to Hobbes, with little thought for Bodin or  indeed Grotius, and you’re certainly not likely to find him on many courses. There may be some significance here with regard to differences to in British and Continental political and legal thought at the time, but I have not really worked much on this. In any case Schmitt was inclined to think of Britain as a liberal maritime anomaly, outside the mainstream of continental states and statecraft, so Bodin may signify an important divergence for Schmitt.

Returning to the theme of dictatorship, it appears in Bodin as a limited state of affairs to be distinguished from any form of  long term sovereignty, or from any of the major state forms. It is bourgeois (presumably liberal) thought that thinks of dictatorship as sovereign, moving the model from ancient Republican Rome to the rule of Napoleon I. For Schmitt, the bourgeois-liberal thinking after Napoleon I (it is an important part of Schmitt’s historical presentation here, and elsewhere, that there was also Napoleon III, the nephew of the more famous Napoleon in the mid to late nineteenth century), undermines any distinction between Caesarism  and dictatorship. Schmitt’s point seems odd in that as he himself discusses later, the power of  Gaius Julius Caesar derived from the powers of the Roman dictator, though one might also argue that he stretched that office to its limits and beyond. Anyway, it is not as if Schmitt’s own analysis shows the concept of ‘dictatorship’ is unambiguous at any time, and as The Concept of the Political  shows, Schmitt thinks of political concepts having meaning from concrete conflictual existential situations rather than existing as abstract fixed definition .

One underlying point is that the bourgeois conception of dictatorship is one that uses the word ‘dictator’ for any leader who goes against law and procedure in some way, amongst other things Schmitt refers here to the classical political sociology of Moisey Ostrogorsky (Democracy and the Organisation of Political Parties, 1903), which includes the idea of the dictator of a party organisation, whether or not that political party has state power, rather than to ‘dictatorship’  as a state office of any kin. Another underlying point though is that there is an implicit Jacobin dictatorship in the bourgeois legal representative state.  Schmitt does  not make this explicit in any part of  Dictatorship  I have read so far, but there is some explanation in Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where Schmitt refers both to the endless discussions and committees of bourgeois parliamentarianism and to Jacobin educational dictatorship. The latter idea refers to the way in which liberal democracy requires a population with levels of education and political assumptions that tend not to be present when liberal democracy first emerges, if ever. As a result, liberal democracies are always constrained b y some underling requirement to make sure that power does not pass out of ‘liberal’ hands. Schmitt brings that up in the Foreword with regard to the idea of a permanent Jacobin dictatorship that emerged in the French Revolution, referring presumably to the notorious work of the Committee of Public safety in using terror to bring about ‘virtue’ (as defined by Machiavelli, Rousseau, Montesquieu and other sources on republicanism, the virtue of patriotism and love of law).  Schmitt is building up a picture of bourgeois liberalism as always in tension with the democratic legitimacy it wishes for, caught up in the tension between liberal forms and the content of democratic will at any one time. Liberalism sees dictatorship everywhere, also fears the dictatorship that claims to represent the whole people as a complete regime, on the model of Napoleon I, in a sovereign dictatorship, which is permanent beyond the life time of one person, unlike commissary dictatorship and implicitly rests on a kind of sovereign dictatorship itself. Liberalism fears what it creates. It is not necessary to share Schmitt’s own traditionalist conservative inclinations to appreciate the reality of the tensions he discusses.

Schmitt also brings up the Marxist idea of dictatorship as dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that this is a product of politics as philosophy of hşstory, because what justifies the dictatorship which will apparently usher in the age of socialism-communism, is that bourgeois rule is a barrier to further historical development, so that even state terror is justifiable in eliminating its possibility. He points out that the attitude of  Marx and later Marxists to proletarian dictatorship is very flexible, so that it is not a necessity for dictatorship to be the rule of a minority or violent, so long as the historical task is achieved. That is the peaceful rule of the majority can be a proletarian dictatorship if it ends the bourgeois stage of history, though there is no resistance in Marxism with regard to the violent, even terroristic,rule of a minority if necessary for the same purpose. As Schmitt also points out, the mainstream of Marxist thought itself became troubled in some part by the use of the word dictatorship to refer to collective rule. Karl Kautsky, who dominated Marxist thought before World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, raised this criticism as Schmitt points out, though what he does not make explicit is that Kautsky’s reservations set up the split between ‘social democrats’ (as Marxist dominated parties were often known) and Leninists-Communists. So the implication here is that Marxist dictatorship is incoherent, as there canon be both a dictatorship of the proletariat and a dictatorship of the revolutionary leadership.

(The above refers to:

Carl Schmitt


From the origin of the modern concept of sovereignty to proletarian class struggle 

Translated by Michael Holzel and Graham Ward

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014)



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