Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation X.1

Chapter 4

The Concept of Sovereign Dictatorship

First part of my account, quite a lot of historical exposition and digression as in previous posts, and re-explanation of what I think needs to be remembered here.

This chapter is much more concerned with history than with political theory, in comparison with the previous chapter. The major reference in history of political thought, or something close, is Emmanuel Sièyes, author of What is the Third Estate?, which is not very well known to English readers, but can be found easily online, as here. It is something between a pamphlet and a book, advocating that the third estate should be taken as the nation, written shortly before the French Revolution, which indeed played a major role in a historical process that achieved Sièye’s desired outcome. For those completely ıunfamiliar with the language of early modern and medieval political representation, I should something about what ‘third estate’ means (though I have already addressed the issue in posts on Dictatorship).

The assemblies called, with varying degrees of willingness by medieval monarchs, recognised three essential parts of the population of the domains of that monarchy: aristocracy, church, commoners. Commoners meant the town merchants and the gentry, that is those from propertied landed families below the ranks of the aristocracy, but who dominated local communities. There was no interest in the origin of the estates in representing the peasants and urban workers beyond the sense in which they might feel represented by the presence of the people they recognised as leaders in society in these assemblies. The estates in England were known as the parliament, and evolved bit by bit into the UK Parliament as we know it.

At the same time as Parliament was strengthening its powers in England (the early modern period) and power was being exercised  by the ‘third estate’, House of Commons, continental monarchies were tending to avoid calling the estates and were certainly not tacitly handing over some share in power to the third estate, even if composed exclusively of those one might think had a natural stake in maintaining the social order of things, or something very close to it.


It is worth going over this bit of historical sketching again, because Schmitt concentrates on England and France in this chapter. Naming the English/British state of the time is lightly awkward, because Schmitt is discussing the time of Cromwell, which precedes the union of Scotland and England under one parliament, as well as under one monarch, so parliament was only for England (taken to include Wales) and constitutional arrangements in England were not the same as in Scotland. For this reason  I shall stick to talking about England, despite the apparent dismissal of Scotland and forgetting of Wales, because that was how it worked then, roughly speaking.

Ireland just presents another complex case, which I cannot get into here, though the  period Schmitt refers to is the period in which all Ireland was finally completely incorporated into a British state system dominated by England (a rather slow process that began in the twelfth century, when England itself might be regarded as an appendage of a Norman-Angevin empire in western France, and in another oddity of history, though the 1169 first intervention in Ireland is usually described as Norman, the King of that time, Henry II, is known as the first post-Norman king, as a Plantagenet, and sometimes as an Angevin).

The point I am working up to here is that Schmitt discusses Oliver Cromwell as an important figure in the emergence of the modern version of dictatorship. As mentioned in previous posts, Schmitt regards Cromwell as a commissary (servant of a sovereign body) rather than sovereign dictator, because of the ending of the system with his death. This is a rather ambiguous situation because Cromwell did appoint a successor, his son Richard, to serve as Lord Protector after his death. However, he did not accept the title of king, or the guarantee of dynastic succession associated with such a title. At least in Schmitt’s presentation, Richard Cromwell appears to be a contingent successor rather than a necessary dynastic successor. The sense of contingency is enhanced by the speed and ease with which Richard abandoned the office and powers of Lord Protector, when it became clear that his father’s system was crumbling. He was allowed to live out his days unmolested as a member of the gentry in eastern England.

Schmitt gives some sense of the difficulties of Cromwell’s rule in that Cromwell only became Lord Protector, because rule by Parliament in the Commonwealth period of 1649-1653 did not work very well, and the obvious solution was for Cromwell to come out of the shadows as the de factor power in the land arising out of his control of the military after leading parliamentary armies to victory, to become Lord Protector. Cromwell made a number of attempts to rule through parliaments constituted to his liking, their failure, the inevitable reversion of powers to Cromwell, and the periods of unchallenged rule without parliament show that Cromwell was sovereign. Despite his frustrated wish to find a parliament he could work with, his sovereignty came in his own mind from God, as Cromwell justified and explained his actions with regard to what he thought would please God (as far as I can see an entirely sincere claim, Cromwell was what we would now call a ‘born again Christian’, and the ‘born again’ process was deep and intense).

Schmitt is quite restrained in his account here, and even seems sympathetic with Cromwell the conscientious individual, but he makes it clear that Cromwell was a Puritan Christian and clearly expects his readers to make a connection between the subjectivity of Protestant Christianity compared with Catholicism. He is building a picture of the development of modern sovereign dictatorship from the decay of the Catholic world of laws and governments ordered by enduring hierarchies, customs and laws.

To be continued. Next post will get onto the French Revolution and the Committee of Public Safety as well as concluding the comments on Cromwell.


(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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