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REVIEWS

Jeffrey P. Johnson, ed., Selected Works of Juan Donoso Corts


Greenwood Press: Westport 2000, 55 hardback
144 pp, 0 313 31397 0

Peter Gowan

A SPANISH SINGLETON
In the world of thought, Spain has often seemed to be the absentee land of
Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today only Unamuno and
Ortega are remembered, however briefly, as figures of significance beyond the
peninsula. Contemporary memory has all but completely repressed the one
great exception to Spanish marginality on the intellectual stage of the continent,
the extraordinary figure of Juan Donoso Corts. Yet this was the thinker whom
Metternich considered the foremost conservative political theorist and parliamentary orator of his time. Donoso exerted a profound influence not only on the
Habsburg statesman and on a succession of Spanish monarchs, but on Louis
Napoleon and Pius IX. Friend and confidant of the leaders of both liberal and
conservative wings of French Catholicism, his speeches and writings were studied by Frederick William IV of Prussia and later by Bismarck and William I. In
Russia, Nesselrode and Nicholas I were no less enthusiastic students of his ideas.
Guizot, Ranke, Schelling and Comte all pored over his work and assented to
themes within it. Yet in the provincial confines of the modern Anglo-American
academy, Donosoa pivotal figure in the history of nineteenth-century political ideashas been almost completely overlooked. Until the 1990s, there was
only one serious book in English on him, John Grahams intellectual biography
Donoso CortsUtopian Romanticist and Political Realist, published in the early
1970s. So it is welcome to have Jeffrey Johnsons small collection of Donosos

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articles and speeches, and his promise of a new translation of Donosos Essay on
Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.
Donoso, who could trace a remote connexion to Hernan Corts, the conqueror of Mexico, was the son of a prosperous lawyer in Cceres, Extremadura.
Born in 1809, he went to university at the age of eleven to study law, became a
professor at the College of Cceres, and was soon actively involved in Spanish
politics. By the age of twenty-four he had taken up permanent residence in
Madrid, in the year that Ferdinand VIIGoyas benighted rulerdied, after
blocking the succession of his ultra-conservative brother Carlos and declaring
his daughter Isabella as legitimate heir, under the regency of his wife Mara
Cristina. Rising swiftly to become the Queens secretary in charge of decrees,
Donoso started out in the Liberal and Radical camp, ranged against the Carlist
ultras on the Right who were seeking to overthrow Mara Cristina. In the Civil
War between Isabelline and Carlist forces of the 1830s, he acted as Cabinet secretary in Mendizbals Radical government, supporting confiscation of monastic
properties and sale of church lands to fund the military struggle. Escaping with
the Queen to France after the revolutionary rising of 1840, he returned when
her thirteen-year-old daughter was installed on the throne in 1843, serving as an
aide to the authoritarian Liberal Narvez. Donoso was then secretary of the committee that drafted the Spanish Constitution of 1845, which lasted on and off
until 1931. He held a range of other high posts as a government minister, professor of constitutional law, and parliamentary deputy. After a spell as emissary to
Prussia, he became the Spanish ambassador to France during the revolutionary
upheavals of 184849, before dying of syphilis in his early forties, in 1853.
This meteoric career, combining devotion to constitutional law and political
theory on one side and extensive practical statecraft on the other, was certainly
proof of exceptional gifts. Yet however brilliant or fertile Donosos mind, it
might still be thought odd that a figure from a country as peripheral as Spain
had become, by the early nineteenth century, should have held the attention of
Europes political elites. Paradoxically, the explanation probably lies in the very
symptoms of Spains marginality itself, amid the aftermath of the Peninsular
War and the loss of its American empire: in particular, the extraordinary turbulence and ferocious cleavages in the Spanish politics of this period. Nowhere
else in Europe were the divisions within the dominant classes or ruling elites as
deep as in Spain, and nowhere else did various groupings in the Centre and on
the Right gain such early and varied experience in mass mobilization and constitutional manipulation for political conflict, as often as not against each other.
Between 1812 and 1851, conservative forces in Spain deployed at one time or
anothereither in internecine disputes or battles against the Leftevery cluster of political symbols available in Europe: from those of the most extreme
anti-modernist mediaevalism to those of radical anti-clericalism and democracy.
Donoso himself played every note on this register, in the course of a career

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that spanned no less than four revolutionary crisesin 1836, 1840, 1847 and
1848as well as a bloody civil war. He once remarked that the historical characteristic of Spaniards is exaggeration in all things. Certainly, few non-Spaniards
could have acquired his rich practical education in the calculus of statecraft in
extreme situations, in a new era of mass politics.
If such were the roots of Donosos reputation in his lifetime, one reason
for his later obscurity was the form his writings took. He published only one
book, more a propagandistic tract than a work of theory. The rest of his work
is fragmentary: articles, letters and speeches which fit, in their entirety, into
two volumes. All need to be read in close connexion with particular events,
persons and publics in order to be fully understood. Contemporary access to
his thought has therefore depended in large measure on his editors and interpreters. Unfortunately, most of these have offered only truncated or distorted
versions of his contribution to the history of political ideaspresenting him as
little more than an excitable ideologue of Catholic counter-revolution, an activist
reactionary dedicated to eradicating every trace of the world that emerged from
the French Revolution, and imposing in its stead an ultramontane absolutism
upon Europe. After Donosos death, the adherents of this tradition did indeed
claim him as their own, viewing him as the leading second-generation theorist to
carry on the work of De Maistre and Bonald, handing the torch on to twentiethcentury thinkers like Carl Schmitt or clerico-fascists in Austria, Portugal, Spain
or elsewhere.
There is no doubt that Donoso did contribute centrally to this tradition from
1848 onwards, both by his strident calls to crush the popular risings of that
year and through his influence on Pius IX, who sought and took his advice in
the preparation of the Syllabus of Errors. Donoso was also an articulate champion of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which Pius would also later adopt.
After the searing experience of 1848, Donoso saw the Catholic Church as a decisive bastion of order and wished to ensure that it remained tightly integrated
under Romes absolutist leadership. In his view, this required the elimination
of all centrifugal temptations within the churchany infection by the ideas of
nationalism, liberalism and democracy. Catholicism remained marked by the
results right down to the death of Pius XII in 1958. Today Wojtyla, setting in
motion the canonization of Pius IX, seems bent on reducing the second Vatican
Council to little more than a diversionary interlude in this intra-clerical tradition. Indeed, it is current Catholic controversies over the legacy of Pio Nono that
seem to have prompted Johnsons new collection of Donosos texts. Evidently a
Catholic intellectual concerned to combat the mortmain of Pius IX, Johnson is
anxious to expose Donosos theology and politics as dangerous totalitarianism.
His long introduction focuses mainly on Donosos stance in Catholic disputations and his choice of texts is designed to highlight Donosos flamboyant role
in counter-revolutionary reaction after 1848. However understandable such an

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emphasis is for embattled Catholic liberals, and however grateful we might be


for re-publication of the inflammatory tirades that made Donoso notorious in
the springtime of the peoples, the result is to downplay many of the most interesting aspects of Donosos thought.
For despite his efforts to forge a Catholic political ideology in his dying years,
Donoso was not principally an ideologue at all. He moved between many different public positions and was quite ready to be on good terms not only with
spokesmen of the extreme Right, but also prominent Liberals. Prior to 1848 his
mentor was none other than Guizot, a Protestant to boot. He was a close confidant of the leader of French liberal Catholicism, Montalembert, as well as a
friend of his conservative opponent Veuillot. He favoured mutual independence
of Church and State, supporting not only the disamortization of church lands in
Spain, but the abolition of tithes as well. Nor was he in any way an enemy of the
rise of industrial capitalism. His concern was to ensure that it was accompanied
by a countervailing doctrine, capable of insulating the social order against the
corrosive effects of a pure logic of the market: a desire that was perfectly understandable to conservative Liberal figures of the epoch like Gladstone or Guizot.
Nor was Donoso a die-hard defender of aristocracy; he considered its Spanish
incarnation corrupt and irresponsible. His ultramontane opinions, furthermoreunlike De Maistreswere not theocratic: they were confined to the need
for a papal monopoly of doctrine within the Church and a Catholic imposition of
dogma on the masses, without usurping the role of the secular European states.
Donoso should be remembered above all as a programmatic and strategic
thinker, rather than as a social theorist or political philosopher. His overriding
concern was how to maintain the established social order against its enemies.
That made him an anti-revolutionary in the same sense as Guizot, Gladstone or
Tocqueville, for all of whom 1848 was a traumatic shock. Donosos forte was his
ability to dramatize a range of practical responses to the dangers from below,
as political advice available to the party of order, whether liberal or conservative.
He saw clearly, and sought to explain to others, that the rule of law was not an
end in itself, but a means to preserve a social system. In abnormal situations,
consequently, legal norms had to be suspended and a commissarial dictatorship along Roman lines temporarily installed to restore order. He thereby helped
to establish the modern normative theory of the state of emergency, a commonplace of contemporary liberal jurisprudence. Donoso pointed out that in such
crises swift, decisive action was needed to break the enemy to pieces, of which
voluble debaters and commentatorsla clase discutidorawho imagined that all
political antagonisms could be resolved by argument, were typically incapable.
In feebler demotic form, the characteristic dismissal of the chattering classes
by Thatcher or Blair originates here.
Donoso, acutely aware that socialism was the mortal enemy of the bourgeois
order in Europe, believed that the anti-democratic liberalism of his time, how-

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ever congenial in other respects, offered no effective protection against it, as a


form of politics that could neither crush the masses nor appease them. But he
also rejected the main conservative platform of the periodthe cause of legitimism. He could see that the dynastic claims of European monarchs to hereditary
domination no longer generated adequate political energy. Entirely new programmatic directions were needed to fight the threat of socialism. Donosos
growing interest in political Catholicism sprang essentially from this. He rightly
grasped that Catholicism represented a genuine political resource for the new
age of mass politics, able to seize the imagination of the masses in a way that
neither liberalism nor monarchism ever could. Even more boldly, he urged
the need for a turn towards plebiscitary democracy as well. Insisting that there
was no reason why the banner of democracy should be raised only by the Left,
Donoso argued that it could and should be seized by the forces of order, in the
battle against it. This was the crucial insight whose adoption by Louis Napoleon
led to the Second Empire, and by Mussolini and Hitler, later, to the Third Rome
and Third Reich.
Donoso combined his advocacy of both Catholic and plebiscitary routes to
the masses with a third appeal: the need for a programme of social welfare.
Even before 1848 he was encouraging Pius IX to develop a positive social doctrinethemes which would finally come to fruition under Leo XIII at the end
of the century. Into the Spanish Constitution of 1845 he inserted a declaration
that the poor had an indisputable right to expect the state to relieve their sufferings, in the name of the brotherhood of all Spaniards. If the socialists were
ever successful, he insisted, it would be due to the understandable impatience of
the impoverished at the extravagant wealth and greed of the richas he warned
Mara Cristina: the Spanish nation is lost, if a violent end is not put to the misbegotten inclinations of the comfortable classes, that can plunge us all into an
abyss. He urged Napoleon III to launch a substantial social programme and was
dissatisfied with his failure to do so. But Donosos message that measures of
social welfare were essential to buttress the reign of capital did not go unheeded.
It was Bismarck who learnt from him here.
Surveying the inter-state system in Europe at mid-century, Donoso showed
characteristic perspicacity in his evaluation of the ambiguous potentials of
nationalism. On the one hand he appreciated the value of nationalist ideology as
a political arsenal for disciplining the masses and fighting socialism. But at the
same time he was extremely hostile to the prospect of nationalist power politics
and any notion of the unlimited right of a national will. He foresaw the danger
that here might lie a dynamic capable of destroying the European bourgeois
order, and even in 1848 expressed the fear that if Prussia were to unify Germany
on a nationalist basis, the whole of Europe could be unbalanced and plunged into
a devastating war. With extraordinary prophetic power, Donoso even predicted
that a European World War might lead to the dominance of a communistic

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Russian state, which would in turn itself eventually disintegrate. Amidst these
forebodings, England appeared to him as a potential saviour. He was a great
admirer of the English Parliament of his time, holding it up as a model of dictatorial oligarchy, and thought England could stop the slide towards European
socialismalbeit only temporarily, since it lacked the Catholic doctrine that
alone could thwart the pride and barbarism of socialism. Nevertheless, he had
some hope in Newman and the Oxford Movement as sources of future conversion. Pending that, however, he advocated a coming-together of Catholic Europe,
in an order that would not abolish nation-states but draw them into a common
defence of Christian values against the threat of socialist revolution.
Donoso is often seen, reasonably enough, as an intellectual ancestor of fascism. But he can just as well be viewed as a precursor of postwar Christian
Democracy, and its role in the construction of the European Communitya
progenitor of Adenauer and De Gasperi as much as Dollfuss or Franco. Not all
of his ideas belonged to him alone. In Prussia, Radowitz too understood the
potential of plebiscitary democracy; in Spain, Balmeswho influenced Donoso
in a number of respectswas another pioneer of Catholic social doctrine. But
the Extremaduran lawyer and orator was unique in his ability to unite the central issues of his time in a comprehensive set of recipes for the ruling order.
Donoso belongs to a family of political thinkers who have played an absolutely
central role in the making of modern Europe, yet whose names are almost
entirely ignored in histories of political ideas: professional specialists in statecraft advising public office-holders. After 1848, and still more 1870, with the
rise of mass democracy, such figures retired from public view into the closed
world of European administrative elites. Their characteristic candour and lucidity could no longer openly be displayed. Donoso Corts was the last virtuoso on
a continental stage, before the curtains were discreetly drawn.