ABSOLUTISM (Lat. absolutus — complete, full, independent, free from bonds, from: absolvere — to resolve, free, loosen) — a type of unlimited exercise of state power (most often monarchical, although there are other forms of government that are absolutist in character) which consists in the concentration of power in one center of decision that is formally or de facto in full possession of the instruments of power.
CHARACTERISTICS OF ABSOLUTISM. A leader possessing absolute authority stands at the head of the state. The leader is an authority not subject to any controls (for example, this is associated with the absence of legitimate states or corporations, or as in an absolute monarchy, it is associated with the limitation of political entitlements previously acquired by states or the liquidation of representational bodies in the state). In principle absolute authority is unlimited, i.e. the ruling organ is not subject to any norms of positive law apart from those of Divine Law; it is not accountable to any other state organs. It possesses full power (it shares power with no one, neither with feudal lords as in the period where small feudal estates flourished in the absence of a powerful state, nor with states or their organs as in medieval state monarchy), despite occasional real or legal limitations (e.g. in the French absolute monarchy there were the so-called fundamental laws of the monarchy). The absolute authority is the only authority in the state. Hence is it is omnipotent and encompasses all areas of social life. The entire body of laws is subordinate to it (it alone can enact positive law). All executive and judicial power, all decisions concerning war and peace, and the command of the armed forces all belong to the supreme authority. Some things characteristic of the classical form of absolute monarchy are associated with the omnipotence of absolute power: the expansion of the state's administrative operations into all domains of social, political, religious and economic life which previously did not fall under regulation. Social life is regimented in its smallest details and placed under police control (e.g. the police may intervene in the course of a legal proceeding or take over the administration of justice). The result is that this form of the exercise of power acquires the characteristics of a bureaucratic police state (characteristic of the absolutism of the Enlightenment period). The administration of the state is based on centralism and bureaucracy. The absolute ruler exercises his power with the help of a highly developed state apparatus that is subordinated to the central authority. This means that the organs of the state (officials or civil servants) does not perform their functions by their own authority, but by the authority imparted to them by the absolute authority to whom they are accountable. The ruler makes a decision and the central organs, which take the form of collegially organized counsels, may only offer advice. Centralism is not favorable to any separate bodies in the administration of the state or to decentralized forms of administration of the country, indeed to any form of self-government. This leads to the entire state's being organized according to one model that has been drawn up from above. This requires the construction of a bureaucratic hierarchy, i.e. a system of offices hierarchically subordinate to the central power. The bureaucracy is made of professional officials who sometimes can be dismissed at will, who are experts in their fields and who are constantly climbing in their careers (what may be called a bureaucratic or administrative monarchy).
In absolutism based on religious grounds the authority exercises a mandate of unlimited authority by the grace of God. The monarch is regarded as a god or as a representative of a god and this is the basis of his authority (oriental despotisms). As the highest priest, the authority has the power to intervene in all religious matters (the divine cult of authority was fully in place in Rome in the period of the principate, but elements of the cult of the Caesar were introduced in the first century A.D.; initially the senate decided to introduce worship after the death of a Caesar, but with time the Caesar was given divine worship in his own lifetime). The absolutism of the emperors was justified because they were regarded as governing in God's place. Since there is one God in heaven, so there is one emperor on earth who stands in God's place with respect to temporal affairs, who imitates God and is God's earthly image (Byzantium, the Carolingian empire and the Holy Roman Empire). Imperial absolutism was justified in law by the claim that every secular authority is subject to the Caesar. The emperor enjoyed many special rights under law (iura reservata) which served to strengthen imperial universalism from movements of decentralization. The emperor had the right to crown kings, to set slaves free, to raise men to the rank of nobility, to found universities, and to impose taxes without the consent of the states. This absolutism was justified as well by the argument that it was necessary for social order. Social order required the means typically at the disposal of a powerful authority (N. Machiavelli). Another argument for absolutism was the theory of the indivisible sovereignty of monarchical authority characterized by complete external and internal independence and the exclusive right to enact and change laws, as long as the law as in harmony with natural and divine law and the fundamental laws of the monarchy (J. Bodin, d. 1596). Besides the traditional religious justifications of absolutism, some advanced rationalistic and naturalistic arguments: the monarch possesses special knowledge and the skill of rule by virtue of God's enlightenment. The monarch is a symbol of reason. He is not bound by positive law and stands above it. His authority cannot be compared with that of any other individual or institution in the state, but he also has obligations because he must imitate God and fulfill God's revealed will (A. du Plessis Richelieu, J.B. Bossuet). Another justification for absolutism was the theory that the people gave their sovereignty to a ruler by a contract that must be observed — "pacta sunt servanda" (H. de Grot, S. Pufendorf). It was also justified — because the majority of individuals in the pre-social state of nature lack security — by the need to enter into a social contract (each person with each) in order to obtain peace. All individual rights and freedoms were irreversibly conceded to the sovereign (the Leviathan)(T. Hobbes).
With the Enlightenment came radical rationalism, progressive secularization, a crisis in the religious world-view, widespread utilitarianism, naturalism and a mechanistic outlook. Unlimited monarchical authority was no longer justified by the supernatural, but by the particular enlightenment of rulers. The enlightened monarch (enlightened by philosophers) was the "first servant of the state".
Absolutist governments aspired to subordinate matters of religious belief to themselves. The Church was included under the political structure of the state as an institution that served the interests of the state. In ancient Rome, the Caesar as the pontifex maximus was above all the priests. In Byzantium the emperor was the head of the Church, and the Christian community was one and the same as the community of the state. While the highest authority in the Church was formally exercised by the college of five patriarchs (Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem), it was de facto in the hands of the emperor: he called synods, presided over them and ratified their declarations. He also made decisions in matters of liturgy and dogma (caesaro-papism). In absolute monarchy there were attempts to subordinate the Catholic Church to the state (e.g. in France after the Concordat of Bologna in 1516 Gallicanism developed — ecclesia gallicana — which stressed the independence of the secular authority from ecclesial authority and provided a theoretical, theological and legal justification for absolute monarchy, as well as arguments for the limiting the Catholic Church's autonomy; another example is Josephism in the Hapsburg monarchy). There were attempts to take over the leadership of the Orthodox Church (e.g. in Russia, the emperor stood at the head of the Orthodox Church and directed it through the college which was subordinate to him, which was called the Holy Synod)), as well as the Protestant churches (in Germany after the Augsburg peace in 1555, the ruler's "ius reformandi" was recognized — the right to reform relations of religious denomination in their territory; in accordance with the principle "cuius regio, eius religio", the subjects were obliged to accept the faith of their ruler). The association of the authority of the state with the activity of a national Church contributed to the power of absolutist regimes.
ABSOLUTISM IN THE HISTORY OF STATES. The origins of absolutism may be found in ancient oriental despotic monarchies (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the state of Alexander of Macedonia), in which the head of state was a monarch with unlimited power unchecked by anyone, a despotic ruler. The individual subject was completely subordinate to the state. The state was governed centrally by officials under the monarch. In those conditions of economics and travel, the distance between the central government and local organs made it difficult or even impossible for state centralization to endure. This was the root of the weakness of despotic governments and the cause of their frequent collapses. In the Rome of the period of the principate (27 B.C. to 284 A.D.) and of the dominate (284-476 AD), as a result of the accumulation of republican offices (with the pretense of preserving republican institutions), the empire (imperium) with the Caesar at the head took shape. The accumulation of many offices in the hand of the Caesar assured him of the leading position over all the organs of state. The senate granted many functions (proconsular imperium, potestas tribunicia and the office of highest priest), and honorific titles (princeps senatus, father of the fatherland, August, Caesar) which became the legal basis for the Caesar's authority. From the third century onwards, legislation passed completely into the hands of the emperor. When the senate lost significance and the selection of emperor was decided by the army which imposed its will upon the senate, the power of the Caesar based on the strength of the army took on the characteristics of absolute authority. In the period of the dominate which began with Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), a new system of of offices was established based on the model of oriental despotic regimes in which the emperors exercised power limited by no one else (the title "dominus" indicated that the worship of the Caesar was connected with divine worship). The administration was based on centralized government and bureaucracy, on a planned division of the country, upon an hierarchical network of officials where one depended upon another; this assured the continuity of the organization of the state so that it could survive even if there was a problem at the highest level (thereby the organization of the Roman Empire was superior to that of the oriental despots).
After the fall of the Western Empire, the Byzantine Empire took over the idea of the empire's continuity and unity. The Code of Justinian in the sixth century described the emperor as the absolute ruler, the source of law, the supreme judge, the highest executive of the law he enacted and the commander-in-chief. Elements of the Byzantine doctrine of power had influence in western Europe where the they shaped the political thought of the Germans, as well as that of Kievan Rus, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary.
In early medieval monarchy which had a patrimonial character, the king was not only the ruler, but also the owner of the state. Hence the monarch's power was strong and rulers had a strong desire to assure the succession of the throne. The monarch's actions were subject to the law of God. His power was limited by the law of the Church and by state privileges. The extent of his power depended also upon how much support he had from the magnates; was the monarch granted them one privilege after another this would cause his power to be further limited, as was the case with Charlemagne and the Roman-German Empire (10th to 13th century). Absolutism of this type was overcome by the development of national states, the theory of the sovereignty of the state and the independence of the king's power from imperial universalism ("rex imperator in regno suo")
Beginning in the late middle ages there was a tendency to limit the privileges of states. As the result of an alliance between the bourgeoisie (in the 14th century) the power of monarchs increased (England, France et al.). The state under absolute monarchy emerged as a result of a crisis of state. Classical absolutism in its fullest form occurred in France, Russia, Prussia and other countries. The French monarchy in particular was a model for other absolutist states (16th to 18th century). Absolute governments began just after the reign of Louis XI (1461-1483); just after his death the States General were convened for the last time (1484). Absolutist regimes continued over three centuries (up to 1789). Absolute monarchy evolved and passed through periods of crisis; one such crisis was that opponents of the absolute monarch (monarchomachists) invoked the theory that resistance to tyrants is justified and appealed to the principle of the sovereignty and rights of the people (F. Hotman). After Louis XV (1643-1715), the absolute monarchy reached its highest development in which the social state system was not tolerated as something that limited the extent of the king's power. The political organization of states was completely liquidated, although the structure of state division was retained to the end of the 18th century. In France in the 18th century none of the reforms characteristic of enlightened absolutism were carried out. In Russia in the 16th and first half of the 17th century there was an increase of the monarch's power (the autocracy of Ivan IV), but despite the Tsar's de facto strong authority, the Russian state at that time did not have the features of an absolute monarchy as an enduring form of state. There were none of the economic foundations proper to this state of development nor was the state centrally and bureaucratically administered. Only in the second half of the 17th century in the reign of Peter I (in 1721 the Senate proclaimed Peter I Tsar and emperor of the All Russias) did absolutism develop in Russia, and it continued formally until the beginning of the 20th century. The construction of the apparatus of state at the central and local levels, the granting of certain judicial rights to the administration, the universal obligation to interminable military service and other reforms, especially in economics, laid the foundation for the development of a strong absolute monarchy. In Russia in the 18th century, enlightened absolutism occurred only in name. Until the fall of the First Reich in 1806 the Germans could not be united. As imperial power disappeared, many German territories became small political units with almost complete sovereignty. Some of them resembled state monarchies based on a division of power between the monarch and representatives of the state (national parliaments) and other organs. In larger states these changed over time into forms of absolute monarchy (the Hapsburg monarchy and the Prussian kingdom). Specific to Prussian absolutism was the formation of the caste of Junkers as a result of the liege lords gaining rights to the offices of district presidents (Landrats) where they administered local affairs. The Junkers were the aristocracy and minor country nobles whose major source of income was from their land holdings. They served as officers and as government officials. The close connection between the absolute monarchy and the Junkers gave Prussia a militaristic character. The regular and stable army created a bond between all the regions of the state and upheld the absolute political authority. Absolutism appeared in the Austrian lands as early as the 16th century and was strengthened by the defeat of the Bohemians in 1620, after which the resistance of the Bohemian parliamentarians ceased. In the 18th century in both these monarchies the system of enlightened absolutism developed.
Enlightened absolutism served to defend the monarchy against the radical ideas of the Enlightenment that threatened it. The defense consisted in adopting those slogans of the Enlightenment that did not attack absolutism directly and which could be used to provide a rationalization for the existing order. To this end there were social, economic and administrative reforms (e.g. in Prussia under Frederick II the condition of serfs in the country was mitigated and the monopoly of the trade guilds was limited, and in Austria under Joseph II there were agricultural reforms and self-government was introduced in the cities). One of the points in the absolutist reform was the reform of law. Reformers aimed at introducing humanitarian solutions in penal law and were concerned with the form of law as they tried to codify law. The physiocrats attempted to legitimize absolutism (despotisme légal) so that in it subjects and monarch would be subject to the same laws, while the monarch reserved the right to make changes in the law within the proper bounds.
Absolutism faced several crises. These came about by way of the liberal critique, the reception of the theory of the division and equilibrium of particular types of political power (C. L. Montesquieu), and social and economic changes. The bourgeoisie struggled for influence, which led either by revolution or evolution to the abolition of absolute governments. They were replaced by republics or constitutional monarchies in which the sovereign nation was represented by elected officials (absolutism held out longest in Russia, Turkey and Germany).
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