Book Excerpt: The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship

The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship

By Colm Gillis

KDP, 2016



The Overthrow of the Bourbons and Dictatorship



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The French authorities – almost as if to underline the point that dictatorial powers punctuate passages of democratic freedom – adopted a crisis instrument soon after overthrowing the last Bourbon king. Before the time of the French Revolution, dictatorship was something found only in the history books. This is significant and, as noted by Rossitter: “No civil institution of crisis government existed under the ancien régime.” [3] None! … not one … not under Louis XIV, not with Cardinal Richelieu pulling the strings, not with Louis XVI when he spent four years in political limbo. [4] So, the inauguration of ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’ was also the birth of modern dictatorship in France.
Specifically, it was France’s turmoil after the revolution that led to the development of the state of siege, an emergency weapon retained to this day. [5] A precise articulation of this emergency instrument within the French legal code took a long and winding road, however, and although origins of the state of siege were in 1791, it took about six more decades before the state of siege was fully integrated into the legal system.
In 1791, it was stipulated by statute that in the event of an enemy attack, responsibility for the maintenance of order in some areas would pass from the civilian authority to the military one. But this transference of responsibility was only to be for military outposts and hence the state of siege did not represent anything radically at odds with the spirit of the Revolution. That this was the case can be further understood if we consider the fact that the state of siege came as one part of a legal ‘package.’ The state of siege was distinguished from a state of peace and
a state of war; the state of peace was merely a legal way of denoting a normal situation, and the state of war was where the military and civilian authority would share responsibility in wartime. [6] So, there was nothing unusual with the state of siege because, wherever troops are stationed, military jurisdiction will apply and, even in the absence of war, you can punish a soldier like you wouldn’t be able to punish a civilian. A state of siege did ‘exactly what it said on the tin’ and it was a réel condition, i.e. there was a correspondence between the name and the situation it targeted. A siege situation meant that a siege was officially declared. Even the places where the law was to be enforced were enumerated (there were one hundred and sixty-eight overall.) [7]
Implicit in the structure of the legality concerning normal and exceptional situations was an acknowledgement that things must continue in war as they had done in peacetime. Such a perspective was somewhat of a hangover from the Bourbon era where little, if anything, changed legally whether there was a conflict or a normal situation. There obviously was an idealism which asserted that the government must always act legally and with due respect for the rights of the citizenry.
During the first years of the French Revolution – and bear in mind that the King was still the highest authority during part of this time – measures were taken which were dictatorial but these extraordinary measures were prosecuted through commissars. These commissars operated in a legal vacuum because they were helping to institute structures of the new order and so appeared outside of the normal workings of the legal system. Commissars were sent abroad to French colonies as well as at home and had wide-ranging powers, effectively becoming a ‘thought-police’ at times. [8] There was well-documented dissatisfaction with the Revolution and, while the state of siege was nothing out of the ordinary as regards the normal workings of law, measures of an entirely political nature were adopted to prevent counter-revolutionary forces from gathering by dispensing commissars to ‘affected areas.’ Individuals could no longer merely obey the law and live free from retribution: on the contrary, their political views could be subject to suspicion. In the chaos of the changes France was undergoing, the dispatching of commissars became unwieldy. Between 1792-1793, commissars were appointed by the National Convention. These joined other commissars who were appointed by the army, legislature and executive, with the Convention’s commissars later coming under the supervision of the notorious Committee of Public Safety. A complex and haphazard network of commissars was formed that nonetheless was artful in repression and counter-revolutionary tactics. About the only limit on the commissars initially was with respect to national finance, but this barrier was removed at a later stage. After 1793, the sheer intensity of the actions of these commissars was virtually limitless. Along with the volume of work and pace of change came centralization. Commissars helped the National Convention achieve what must have seemed at the time to be an almost demonic megalomania unbridled by any norms. [9]


[3] Constitutional Dictatorship: Constitutional Government in the Modern Democracies Clinton L. Rossitter (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1948); p. 129.
[4] Here, we have to be careful not to project our own views of the State onto the French monarchy pre-revolution. Monarchies are family affairs and instead of parties going at each other trying to impose their own agenda, it is fair to say that king, nobles, church and people ‘grew’ together as ‘France.’ And, while the king could do absolutely anything in theory, his authority was severely limited by his status as a father of the nation. Fathers simply don’t do what they want or they cease to be fathers.
[5] Since WWII, France has attempted not to use this device. Instead, a ‘state of emergency’ is more often declared. The reason is more one of political taste than anything else and there is little difference between the two.
[6] State of Exception Giorgio Agamben (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 2005) p. 5.
[7] Constitutional Dictatorship Rossitter; pp. 130-131; Dictatorship: From the Origin of the Modern Concept of Sovereignty to Proletarian Class Struggle Carl Schmitt, Michael Hoelzl, Graham Ward (Trans.) (Polity Press, Malden, MA, Cambridge 2014); p. 158
[8] As an example of the heavy-handedness, in 1792 after the executive was suspended, citizens were obliged to obtain a certificate demonstrating their sense of civic virtue. Another thing to note is the nature of commissars: they are virtually equivalent to commissioners. Their power is delegated and they are like an officer in an army who has to take a strategic location. The detail of their task isn’t spelled out but the task itself is made clear and their commission depends on completion of this task.: Dictatorship Schmitt; pp. 134-135.
[9] Ibid.; pp. 132-145.

Excerpted from The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship by Colm Gillis. Copyright © 2016 by Colm Gillis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.


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