Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation XI

Chapter 5

The Custom of People’s Commissars During the French Revolution


Chapter 6

Dictatorship in Contemporary Law and Order: The Stare of Siege


After going rather slowly through earlier chapters and engaging in a good deal of digression and repetition of a kind I thought necessary to really communicate the historical pattern and assumptions about history that inform Schmitt, I’m going to get through the last two chapters at a comparative gallop. The Appendix will be considered in the next post.

In chapter 5 Schmitt is concerned with the French Revolution, as indeed the title suggests, with most emphasis on measures taken round the attempts flight of the royal family from France, which is a convenient point to concentrate on with regard to the progress of the French Revolution to an urge for a constitutional monarchy working with an elected law making body, resting on a good deal of violent social tension to a period of concerted state violence against enemies real and imagined, which has become the model of anti-constitutional authoritarianism, itself followed by attempts at restraining revolution culminating with the personal rule of Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul and the Emperor. Schmitt moves about through this history to emphasise the ways in which commissary dictatorship reaches some kind of extreme limit during the ‘Terror’ of the Committee for Public Safety, and the ways in which the kinds of exceptional powers used by the Committee become part of the ways in which a more conservative state creates and maintains order under its own authority.

Chapter 6 really expands that shifting about through the history of Revolutionary and Bonapartist France into a shifting about through history since the late eighteenth taking on developments mostly in France, Britain and the United States,  and some reference to the German kingdom of  Prussia. Though the subtitle of Schmitt’s book refers to proletarian class struggle, the discussion of Marxism and Bolshevism is very brief. As a whole these two chapters lack some of the readability of the earlier chapters, which engage with a great overarching moment of European history from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries.

The last two chapters feel more scrappy, incoherent and unsatisfying in comparison. Whatever happened to a full account of Marxist Proletarian Dictatorship and Lenin’s implementation of it in Russia? My belief is that this suits Schmitt’s enterprise, which is to suggest some kind of European (including America) decline from the time of Enlightenment liberalism, though with earlier roots. If there is no compelling account of Proletarian Socialist Dictatorship as an endpoint of European history, that is because the whole idea fails to provide any resolution to European history, negative or positive.

The Marist idea of a history ending dictatorship in which the evil of politics and state power consumes itself in a final apocalypse burning the remnants of class society away, is for Schmitt just another move of state power and political struggle, which repeats a Jacobin French Revolutionary move from commissary to constitutional dictatorship, which is never consummated. For Schmitt constitutional dictatorship means the rule of the nation or people that overrides the limits of law and constitutionalism. As Schmitt explains in chapter four though, the instrument of constitutional dictatorship never gives up the the idea that it is answerable to the National Convention and the laws passed by that convention, even if it is engaged in an apocalyptic project of destroying the enemies of virtue and reason, and any concrete phenomenon which impedes the purity of reason and virtue.

The constitutional dictatorship is an inherently failed project, a limit that can never be reached. I do not remember Schmitt saying this anywhere in the text, but I suggest it is the necessary outcome of reading and interpreting the text, in just a modest sense of interpretation concerned with finding internal consistency. The Bolshevik and Jacobin goals of constitutional dictatorship are only achieved in comparatively petty acts of dictatorship, which can be found within conservative and liberal order, even if not as intensely as in Jacobin and Bolshevik dictatorship. In practice, the goal of constitutional dictatorship tends to lead to methods of dictatorship in conservative and liberal states through ideas of martial law, state of emergency, and state of siege. These are reactions to and imitations of Jacobin and Bolshevik dictatorship.

The limited acts of dictatorship carried out by liberal and conservative regimes may themselves be repugnant to the Jacobin type constitutional dictators, since the idea of limited powers for state officials to ignore laws and constitutional provisions, just do not allow enough power, and tend to be directed against the kind of unruly popular acts that Jacobins thought they could use and direct towards their more grand ends. Schmitt gives examples of various kinds of how constitutional regimes, more conservative and more liberal, find it necessary to allow for exceptional powers. Schmitt thinks the model for this is martial law, which in giving military authorities special powers to deal with situations of violence, to some degree separates the working of civil political power from dictatorship, though also brings out something necessary to the stability and continuity of constitutional order.

Special powers for the military define certain situations as states of war, implicitly or explicitly, and provide a pretext for suspending the power of the courts, in the same that courts are nor used to punish soldiers for ‘murder’ in relation to killing in  a battle while in uniform and under military command. Schmitt’s account creates layers of approbation and rejection for exceptional state powers, in which they are seen as the product of a break down of traditional forms of pre-liberal order, but then necessary to protect the order that does exist, and a rejection of ‘constitutional dictatorship’, which nevertheless accepts the need for a concrete sovereignty able to destroy its enemies as part of there being order.


Next post, the Appendix ‘The Dictatorship of the President of the Reich according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution’.

After finishing the Appendix, I will post some overall thoughts on the book.


(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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