Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation VII

Chapter 3

The Transition to Sovereign Dictatorship  in Eighteenth-Century State Theory

There is a different kind of historical background background in this chapter from previous chapters, that is the argument is less tied up with particular events, persons, and institutions. Schmitt is focused on the major legal and political institutions of one country France, and a clear  contrast in political and legal thought between two widely read thinkers of Great Classic status. The contrast is between Montesquieu and Rousseau and the clarity is a bit obscured by discussion of less well known figures, particularly the Swiss-French Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, who is very little known in the anglophone world and is only a little better known in France as far as I can see.  I don’t think my taking time to find out more about Mably will greatly help comprehension of Schmitt’s overall argument, so I will leave that to one side.

The main context Schmitt brings in is a well known story about eighteenth century France, and which is familiar to anyone with any idea about eighteenth century European history, since this was certainly one of the times in which France could claim to be first in the ranking of continental European powers, though falling behind Britain as a commercial and colonial power. The story is one of the increasingly absolutist monarchy, though Schmitt avoids the most misguided vulgarised conceptions on this score, and it is fundamental to his whole argument that he does.

It is, I suppose uncontroversial to say that this is a time when the political supremacy of the monarchy with regard to any other power source, the increasing  administrative power of the state, and the erosion of localised privileges, customs, and exceptions were all realities. However, as Schmitt points out, this was in no way a time of an at will personal despotism over every aspect of French society. On the issue of the ‘commissar’ (the underlying issue of special powers for centrally appointed commissars as ‘commissary dictatorship’ as an instrument of sovereign power), these existed at that time as ‘intendants’, who had powers delegated from the monarchy with regard to collection of taxes, and other administrative functions.

They were not, however, part of a sovereign dictatorship, since the king shared power with local ‘parliaments’. Unfortunately the translators err on this issue, or so I believe. They write it as ‘parliament’, which has some historical and linguistic justification (there was a time when ‘parlement’ was standardly translated as ‘parliament’ now means an elected parliamentary body), but tends to confuse the unwary. The ‘parliaments’ of medieval and early modern France were not representative bodies in the sense of the English and then British Parliament. Members were not voted into office, they were regional and city judges, providing the highest instance of justice within that jurisdiction, and registered royal edicts, which was necessary for them to be recognised as laws.

The more extreme and vulgar images of eighteenth century absolutism suggest a virtual elimination of these institutions, but though their power relative to the power of the monarchy declined over all, that is a not a completely straight line of decline, and they continued to exist and continued to have a role in representing localised elite views until the French Revolution. As they were inevitably composed of the aristocracy, most famously Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède, and Montesquieu in the eighteenth century, they were a kind of local assembly of the aristocracy. Their mix of formal judicial powers and less formal political powers confirms Schmitt’s analysis earlier in the book of the medieval attitude in which all political power is understood as a form of legal power, and the growth of the centralised state was tied up wit the revival of Roman law and the use of judges in state and administrative tasks. In the case of eighteenth century France, we can see that the power-law fusion was also a way of limiting central power.

The essence of the French monarchy was that the power was divided between monarchy and the estates for Schmitt and he quotes the ultra-monarchist Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald, someone else little known outside France, and only a bit better known in France, but nevertheless one of those writers Schmitt appears to see as a precursor. Schmitt’s point in bringing up Bonald is very much to suggest that conservative-tradionalist-monarchist thinking is about a division in powers, not a defence of dictatorship-despotism-tyranny. He seems to be arguing for what Germans know as a state of estates, though the real division in Schmitt is not between monarchy and distinct estates, but between monarchy and that hereditary class (though also open to those who impressed the monarchy with their administrative skills of financial capacity to offer bribes) dominant in the interpretation of law and the giving out of justice.


(Commentary on Chapter 3 to be continued soon)


(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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