Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation X.2

Chapter 4

The Concept of Sovereign Dictatorship

Second part of my account. Less historical digression and repetition of previous key points than the last post.

Schmitt’s account of the rule of Oliver Cromwell in seventeenth century England (and other nations in the relevant state system) suggests a drift from a commissary dictatorship rooted in the ancient Roman understanding of  dictator as serving the sovereignty power to accomplish limited and defined tasks on behalf of that power, towards a sovereign dictatorship that represents the dark side of bourgeois Enlightenment liberalism, or what is wrong with liberalism from Schmitt’s traditionalist conservative point of view.

The emergence of sovereign dictatorship comes out of a tension Schmitt outlines between laws and the norms that justify both obedience and enforcement with regard to laws. This is clearly an issue for all political systems, which as Schmitt recognises (if not entirely explicitly) was first made really clear by Rousseau in The Social Contract. Schmitt seems both to credit Rousseau with making the problems with the justification of law clear and to regard him as opening the way for sovereign  dictatorship. However, Schmitt does not descend to some of the more ridiculous polemics in which Rousseau is held to be directly responsibly for the Jacobin Terror in the French Revolution and all the varieties of modern totalitarian politics.

Sovereign dictatorship fort Schmitt comes from a power that is the power of what constitutes law and just the power of the constituted laws themselves. The sovereignty of a power that is constituting of laws is the power to override laws and make laws, without regard to the constraints followed by constituted powers within laws. The Jacobins of the French Revolution draw on Sieyès (as in the author of What is the Third Estate?) and Rousseau’s Social Contract  in their efforts to make law and virtue coincide, to make the general will (Rousseau) and the third estate-the nation (Sieyès) truly sovereign.

Since the people are often lacking in sufficient virtue, special measures should be taken. Tis seems to me more easy to justify with reference to Montesquieu’s account of republic than with reference to Sieyès or Rousseau, and indeed the most famous Jacobin advocate of terror after Maximilien de Robespierre, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, did exactly that. Of course Montesquieu probably did not mean to justify a later reign of terror, initiated by the Committee for Public Safety, when he discussed the Ancient Roman tendency to rely on the accusations of citizens, because citizens were naturally virtuous, but he did argue that a properly constituted republic would rely on state trust in accusations. This is possibly a bit awkward for Schmitt’s presentation of Montesquieu as a classic advocate of traditionalist monarchy, but is not in itself fatal.

Anyway, behind the thoughts of the Jacobins about terror and virtue is the continuing development of the constituting power as what shows itself in sovereign dictatorship. Schmitt notes ways in which the Committee for Public Safety in France still remained in some degree within the limit the limits of commissary dictatorship. The Committee regarded itself as defending the sovereignty of the National Convention, not as usurping that sovereignty, and it was not the only committee answerable to the Convention and that had special powers.

However, the National Convention always unanimously supported the decisions of the Committee for Public Safety, at least until the Coup of Thermidor (Thermidor was a month in the revolutionary calendar, that is the new calendar the French republicans though appropriate to the new age of justice and reason), so during that time the Committee was in practice exercising sovereignty and even adopting that kind of super-soveriegnty identified by Schmitt as sovereign dictatorship in which the power of constituting laws overwhelms laws themselves.

The non-recognition of the de facto sovereignty of  the Committee by those involved and the very temporary nature of the situation nevertheless means it was not a full sovereign dictatorship, and can be said to remain with the limits of commissary dictatorship. Schmitt’s account while careful about labels and definitions is aimed to give a negative impression of the ways that Protestant thought and Enlightenment liberalism challenge the layers of of custom, laws, sovereignty, religion, and institutions, accumulated in traditionalist Catholic monarchical Europe.

The heterodox elements of early modern Catholicism, particularly Occasionalism (the philosophical position according to which God arranges the consistency of mental perceptions with the general structure of the universe, which lack a natural physical connection) are also at fault in Schmitt’s thinking. Political Theology is also relevant here. There is an ambiguity in Schmitt’s thinking, which I’ve already alluded, in which he both welcomes the greater clarity about the gap between laws as what is constituted and the power to constitute them. His own account suggests that Medieval Catholic thinking was lacking in that it reduced political power and administrative acts to judicial power. The liberalism taken as the enemy is what makes clearer what sovereignty is and what state power is. Indeed the idea of a political enemy, important to Schmitt’s thinking (particularly The Concept of the Political and its much later sequel Theory of the Partisan) itself becomes clearer in the French Revolution and the attitude of the Committee for Publşc Safety with regard to defending the rule of reason.

(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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