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ABSOLUTISM Among the "ism"-neologisms which have been popular since the 18th century "absolutism"is one of the latest. As a theological term it was already known in the middle of the 18th century in England, but as a political expression it was not used until the changes in language which occurred in the course of the French revolution. But it was not until the restoration of the absolute monarchy in Spain (1823) that "absolutism" was commonly used as a political catch-word throughout Europe. Various English, French and German encyclopedias evidence the rapid spread of the political neologism "absolutism" spread quickly since the middle of the 1820s, and it was well establ ished in Europe's political semantic by 1830. Like other coinages on "ism" the catchword "absolutism" was not precisely defined, and various political schools used it as a polemic slogan.

Liberals employed the term most effectively, asserting that an irreconcilable fight raged between two political systems since the American and the French Revolution, a struggle of absolutism and constitutionalism. In a liberal perception, absolutism was not confined to a single governmental form. The French re volution demonstrated that political freedom was threatened not only by monarchical absolutism but also by democratic absolutism. As a consequence of the experiences with the Jacobin terror and the constitutional fixation on the "principle of monarchy" after the Carlsbad Decrees (1819), liberal criticism of absolutism tended to be pro-monarchist and anti-democratic during the 1820's and 1830's.

This liberal conception was especially opposed in Germany by rightist political thinkers of the Restoration. German discourse in this matter was mainly influenced by J.H. de Maistre, L.G. de Bonald, A. Müller and K.L. von Haller. Its anti-liberal tenets were especially publicized in Germany in the Berliner politsches Wochenblatt (1831-1841). Absolutism was represented here as a consequence of the Enlightenment's replacement of Christianity as the commonly agreed source of rights by the concept of enlightened natural law. Absolutism was also believed to be a consequence of the rise of the modern centraliz ed state since the 16th century and the destruction of the Medieval civil order based on clear hierarchies and estates. According to this rightist interpretation of absolutism, the French Revolution did not aim at the abolishment of absolutism as such, rather, what transpired was friction between the monarch and the people over absolute sovereignty. By erecting the "Republicanism," the Napoleon's "imperialism" and "constitutionalism," Frenchmen simply replaced monarchical and ministerial absolutism with dif ferent varieties of "liberal-absolute system of representation."

This Christian-Romantic concept of absolutism demonstrates that anti-constitutionalism is not necessarily absolutism, as the liberals imagined. Also, the Restoration, from a Christian-Romantic perspective, did not mean the return to the pre-revolutionary system of absolute monarchy but rather to surmount its weaknesses. The Romantic critics of absolutism during the Restoration and the liberals agreed on the matter of a priori right as founded in either Christianity or in enlightened natural law. However, liberals tried to surmount absolutism with a developmental concept of constitutionalism, whereas the Christian-Romantics of the Restoration clung to a backwards-oriented concept of utopia rooted in revived Christianity and a monarchy of estates founded on Medieval social concepts. A precise definition of "absolutism" in contrast to "despotism" remained difficult, as much for liberal views as for the radical democratic or conservative interpretation of absolutism. Despite various attempts to draw a distinct line between the two terms "despotism" and "absolutism," in general usage the semantic differentiation was not sharply marked.

Increased concern for pauperism and the rise of the working-class movement motivated Saint-Simonism and parts of the Hegelian School to introduce a new aspect into the political debate that transcended predominate constitutional discourse and enlarged it with the "social question." Liberals saw the rising proletariat as the potential basis of a dangerous new form of absolutism. In 1828 Charles de Rémusat perceived a double threat to liberalism in "theological or industrial absolutism," and on the eve of the 1848 revolution, the liberal middle-class Deutsche Zeitung feared a possible "bond between absolutism and the proletariat." Liberals in the St. Pauls Church vehemently criticized radicals' demand of universal suffrage, pointing to recent experiences in French history, liberals charged it helped to destroy freedom and to make possible Napoleon's absolutism. According to Stephan Born, liberals coined the new catchword "workers' despotism" which quickly spread in France and Germany during 1848.

However, this polemic was no longer anti-constitutional. During the 1820's and 1830's controversy raged between liberal constitutionalism and conservative anti-constitutionalism, but during the 1840's and especially since 1848, a consensus on constitutionalism existed above most important political controversies, and discussion shifted to the method for institutionalizing constitutionalism. The general acceptance of constitutionalism as a political paradigm meant an end to liberals' monopoly in interpreting the meaning of constitutionalism and marked the beginning of new discourse on constitutional issues. In this context, the meaning of the terms "absolutism" and "despotism" shifted as a reflection of contemporary developments in France and in Germany. In 1868, Prevost-Paradol in La France nouvelle attacked Napoleon III's plebiscitary Bonapartism as "democratic despotism," and in Prussia liberal Constitutionalists denounced conservative constitutionalism as absolutism. In 1858 liberal L.K. von Aegidi in the Preussische Jahrbücher censured the form of conservatism theoretically espoused by F.J. Stahl that sanctioned "princely absolutism under constitutional forms."

While the term "absolutism" remained a commonly used pejorative political catchword in western European political discourse, especially in France and England, in Germany it had already become a historical term and revaluated since the 1830's. This difference in meaning originated in the spread of the philosophical system of German Idealism of Schelling, Hegel, Krause which regarded as the central philosophical problem the question of the appearance in history of the "absolute" (God, the absolute substance). Especially after Hegel's representation of the state as an appearance of the "absolute," the historical era of absolute monarchy was regarded as an early form of the modern state. At the end of the 1830s there was already a self-contained Hegelian historical concept of absolutism as the first phase of modern "state creation" (Staatsbildung) which Hegel specifically distinguished from the French "history of the third estate" and the Whig's "parliamentary history" as a historical concept of a German variant of the national state. After the 1848 revolution national liberals and the Prussian school of historians popularized throughout Germany the Hegelian School's interpretation of historical absolutism. But it was only at the turn to the 20th century that early research on absolutism framed the discussion about the historical concept of the "age of absolutism" in the terms generally understood today.

Reinhard Blänkner


Bänkner, Reinhard "Absolutismus" und "moderner Staat": Eine begriffsgeschichtliche Studie zur Geschichtswissenschaft und zur poli tischen Theorie in Deutschland 1830 bis 1890 Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993.

Bonney, Richard "Absolutism: what's in a name ?" French History I (1987) 93 -117.

Dubois, Jean Le vocabulaire politique et social en France de 1869 - 1872 Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1962.

Groh, Dieter "Cäsarismus" in: Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe O.Brunner, W.Conze, R.Koselleck (eds.) Stuttgart: Klett, 1972.

Mönch, Bernhard "Der politische Wortschatz der französischen Restauration in Parlament und Presse" Diss. phil. Bonn, 1960.

Richter, Melvin, "Absolutism" in: Blackwell's Encyclopedia of Political Thought D. Miller (ed.) Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Vierhaus, Rudolf, "Absolutism" Marxism, Communism and Western Society New York: Herder & Herder, 1972, I.

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