Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation Vib

Second Part of Third Post, on Chapter Two

The Practice of Royal Commissars until the Eighteenth Century 

The chapter is divided into two sections, Ecclesiastic and Royal Commissars and Excursus on Wallenstein as Dictator, at this point I am dealing with the second section only.

There is a Catholic versus Protestant aspect to Schmitt’s view of sovereignty and justice as a concrete unity versus liberal formalism and individualism. Schmitt’s comments on Samuel von Pufendorf,  have to be seen in the religious context that Pufendorf was Protestant. In his general view of early modern legal and political thought, Schmitt presents Protestant thinkers like Grotius (The Nomos of the Earth) who was a major Protestant theology,an as well as a political thinker, Pufendorf (The Nomos of the Earth), and Hobbes (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes) who was perhaps just not very Christian but in a way shaped by English Protestantism, as splitting a presumed Catholic unity of formal sovereignty and concrete sovereignty, even where Schmitt appears to be in accordance with their leanings towards absolutist doctrine of state sovereignty.

There is a lot of misunderstanding around about this anyway. Schmitt’s attitude to Hobbes and Pufendorf is not premised on thinking they went some of the way, but not far enough in demanding unrestrained arbitrary sovereignty for the state, which is one presumption around, but a belief that they had an inhuman and immoral belief that formal sovereignty, the right to sovereign power, could be detached from the human and moral purposes of sovereignty. One may of may not find Schmitt’s theories of sovereignty an adequate basis for individual rights and restrained government, and I have doubts myself, but one should not mistake the exact nature of his argument, or his reasons for criticising the liberalism he thinks is the outcome of Protestant subjectivity and legal formalism.

Schmitt brings in Oliver Cromwell and Maurice of Orange-Nassau as examples of military commanders accused of dictatorship in the seventeenth century. He does this very briefly and I’m adding some relevant detail to explain the point of doing so. The comparison is odd in that these figures did exercise something like sovereign dictatorship. Maurce, hero of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule and a distinguished general of the time, did take power from the more republican-representative aspects of the Dutch Republic, in a coup against Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, himself a distinguished figure in the Dutch Revolt and early modern republicanism. It is significant here that Maurice’s coup was patly based on tension between the most radical Protestants, that is Calvinists, and relative moderates that is Arminians. The House of Orange, which provided a kind of hereditary military command, or semi-monarhcy for the Dutch Republic supported the Calvinists and the republicans/civil merchant class politicians tended to be linked with Arminianism.

Maurice’s coup was temporary in that on his death, the previous system in which merchant class representatives gave political leadership re-emerged, and in that respect Maurice belongs to the class of ‘commissary dictators’ rather than ‘sovereign dictators’, because his dictatorship was only temporary even if lasting for the whole of his own life. Oliver Cromwell was a roughly parallel figure, commanded the parliamentary army in the English Civil Wars/Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and like Maurice was one of the great commanders of his time. He was also linked with the more radical Protestants, the Puritans, against the rising Arminian influence of the reign of Charles I. In the case of England, the Puritans were the ones linked with parliamentary power. However, the period of strongest parliamentary power after the overthrow of Charles I, the Commonwealth period, was not a great success and Cromwell as the real strongman of the state became Lord Protector for life.

The title passed to his son, but Richard Cromwell had little aptitude for dictatorial rule, or political power of any kind, and was easily pushed aside so that Charles II could be crowned. Again in Schmitt’s terms, Cromwell was a commissary rather than sovereign dictator, if only just. So Schmitt is making the point that there is no sovereign dictatorship in the seventeenth century. He is also suggesting that it is in Protestant countries that the shift towards constitutional dictatorship is taking place, as commissary dictatorship is stretched to its extreme limits, by figures who like the great historic model of absolute personal sovereignty, Julius Caesar evidently hoped to institute a permanent system.

A small but necessary criticism of the translation is that Maurice of Orange-Nassau (also known in English as Maurice of Orange or Maurice of Nassau) is referred to as Moriz von Orange, which is very strange. An internet search suggests that the translation is the only instance of the use of this way of referring to Maurice. In German he is Moritz von Oranien and he in Dutch he is Maurits van Nassau. This switching between Orange, Nassau and Orange-Nassau is rather strange and I can’t find an explanation. Maurice belonged to the House of Orange-Nassau but for other princes, only Orange is used, why there is so much play with the two titles in his case is mysterious to me.

(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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