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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 283-302

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Maistre, Donoso Cortés, and the Legacy of Catholic Authoritarianism

Alberto Spektorowski

According to the late Isaiah Berlin, the origins of fascism can be found in Joseph de Maistre's political thought. 1 This well-known thesis was anticipated by Carl Schmitt, a conservative Catholic intellectual who served as one of the most prominent jurists of the Third Reich. He rescued the intellectual contributions of Joseph de Maistre and Donoso Cortés from obscurity by identifying them as the forerunners of his own non-normative theories of dictatorship. I suggest that by advancing such a claim Carl Schmitt paved the way toward a theoretical understanding of the notion of political authoritarianism characterized by what he defined as "non-normative decisionism." By interpreting Maistre and Cortés in this way, Schmitt was preparing his own political shift away from Catholic conservatism towards political authoritarianism, fascism, and National Socialism. At the same time, by removing the legitimacy of political decisionism embedded in traditionalist political thought, he eliminated the possibility of that middle road between fascism and liberalism known as traditionalist authoritarianism.

The purpose of this study is to represent the Maistre-Donoso Cortés theoretical synthesis, in contrast to the thought of Carl Schmitt, as the cornerstone of a type of traditionalist political authoritarianism which paradoxically opposes Schmitt's idea of authoritarian rule. I suggest that Maistre could hardly be considered a non-legitimate decisionist or a prophet of fascism, since despite surpassing Maistre's defense of monarchical restoration, Donoso Cortés could hardly be connected to Schmitt's fascist decisionism. Moreover, precisely the model of traditional authoritarianism advocated by Maistre and [End Page 283] Donoso Cortés—or what I have labeled the synthesis of the Church and sword—not only did not generate fascism but because of its reliance on Providential legitimacy and the idea of transcendence, set an epistemological barrier against fascist development. For both Maistre and Donoso Cortés, in other words, the notion of legitimacy was never ignored.

At first sight this claim, which releases Maistre and Donoso from any connection to non-normative decisionism and fascism, could be interpreted as a suggestion that the two theorists prefigured the idea of Christian Democracy of modern times; but nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to other conservatives who endorsed democratic theory, Maistre and Donoso did not believe that any society could exist without authoritarian rule. However, there is a great difference between their traditional authoritarianism and secular authoritarianism. Traditional authoritarianism is based on Providential legitimization, the only source of legitimacy recognized by Maistre and Donoso. Although neither Maistre nor Donoso Cortés construed traditional authori-tarianism as a government of priests, they distinguished between political and religious authority and rejected the idea of political authority as severed from moral "religious" legitimacy. This is very different from secular authoritarianism which is a modernist reaction against liberal "chaotic" society emerging from the democratic revolutions and which leads to fascism, the worst type of modern dictatorship. Thus traditional authoritarianism should be distinguished from and even opposed to fascism, which epitomized a modern form of populist authoritarianism and is the highest representation of Schmitt's theory of the idea of non-normative decisionism. Although both authoritarian formulas are anti-liberal and anti-democratic, the ideological roots and political implications of both trends should be differentiated, just as scholars differentiate between liberal and social-democracy or between Marxist-Socialism and Lenin-ism. 2

Maistre's intellectual activity is exemplified by his reaction to the bland, naturalistic optimism of the Enlightenment, whose validity the fashionable philosophers of the age, particularly in France, seemed to take wholly for granted. He identified the central sin of modern thought as the belief that the world could be understood by the sovereign human mind, and he perceived the dissolution of social bonds in the Europe of his time as a deviation from the divine injunction of society. Protestantism encouraged human pride to revolt against authority. Philosophy and science continued along the...


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