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absolutism (and absolutist state)
- any political regime in which rulers are unrestrained by custom or the rule of law, and where the exercise of power can be arbitrary.
- the doctrines justifying such a regime.
- the specific state form and related doctrines (e.g. divine right of kings) associated with centralizing European monarchies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
- (MARXISM) the form of Western European state which precedes the CAPITALIST STATE.
However, although arbitrary power and the social mobilization of subject populations (e.g. in the building of the pyramids) were a feature of such regimes, the lack of modern technologies of communication and SURVEILLANCE meant that effective power was often severely limited. Historically Western sociologists and political scientists tended to exaggerate differences between non-European and European constitutional regimes – an aspect of the general ethnocentrism of Western social science, especially in the 19th century (see ORIENTAL DESPOTISM, ORIENTALISM).
Western European absolutism was absolutist only in comparison with the feudal monarchies that preceded it and the constitutional monarchies which followed. The Marxist view is that Western European absolutism arose from a balance of power between a traditional landowning aristocracy and a rising bourgeoisie. This enabled monarchs to establish more effective central control, including codified laws, new and more effective standing armies and more efficient systems of taxation. In practice, restraints on the centralization of political power remained, associated with the continued existence of independently powerful groups and the introduction of new constitutional rights. Debates exist in sociology as to how far absolutism in Europe was an integral element in the rise of Western capitalism, and whether it should be viewed as involving the recasting of feudal aristocratic power (as for ANDERSON, 1974b) or as the onset of modern bourgeois domination (the more conventional Marxist view).
also, absolute monarchy; the last form taken by the feudal state, appearing at the time of the disintegration of feudalism and the rise of capitalist relations. From the formal juridical point of view, absolutism is characterized by the fact that the head of state, the monarch, is regarded as the chief source of legislative and executive authority, the latter being implemented by the apparatus dependent upon him; the monarch levies taxes and disposes of the state finances. Under absolutism the highest degree of state centralization under conditions of feudalism is attained; a highly ramified bureaucratic apparatus is created, with judicial, revenue-collecting, and other divisions, as well as a large standing army and police force. The activity of bodies made up of representatives of the various estates, typical of estate monarchy, either ceases or loses its former importance. The nobility constitutes the social base of absolutism. At the same time, under absolutism the state acquires a certain independence of the dominant nobility by making use of the contradictions between that class and the rising bourgeoisie, who do not yet aspire to take power but who are economically strong enough to counterpose their interests to those of the feudal lords.
At a certain historical stage, absolutism played an essentially progressive role, combating the separatism of the feudal nobility, subordinating the church to the state, destroying the remnants of political fragmentation, and in this way objectively furthering the economic unity of the country, the successful development of new capitalist relations, and the formation of nations and nation-states. Under absolute monarchy mercantilism was encouraged and trade wars were waged, directly or indirectly furthering the process of so-called primitive accumulation; during this period absolutism was supported by the rising bourgeoisie. However, absolutism worked to the advantage of the bourgeoisie only to the extent that it was in the interests of the nobility. The nobles gained additional income from the successful economic development of the country, which could only be capitalist development at that stage, in the form of tax revenues (centralized feudal rent), which increased enormously under absolutism, and directly from the quickening of economic life. The new economic resources were also utilized under absolutism to strengthen the military might of the feudal state with the aim of suppressing popular movements, which acquired great scope in this period, and of carrying out military expansion. With various modifications all the characteristic features of absolutism found in the majority of European countries reached their fullest expression in France, where the first elements of absolutism appeared at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries; it flourished primarily beginning in the time of Richelieu, first minister of Louis XIII (1624–1642), and especially in the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715). A peculiarity of English absolutism (the classical period being the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, 1558–1603) was the preservation of a parliament, the weakness of the bureaucratic apparatus on the local level, and the absence of a standing army. In Spain, where in the 16th century incipient bourgeois relations were unable to develop, absolutism in fact degenerated into despotism. In fragmented Germany absolutism took shape not on an overall national scale but within the boundaries of separate principalities (so-called princely absolutism). In the second half of the 18th century the characteristic form of absolutism in a number of European countries was so-called enlightened absolutism. The specific features of absolutism in various countries depended to a large extent on the relation of forces between the bourgeoisie and the nobility and on the degree of influence bourgeois elements had on the policies of absolutism. (In Germany, in the Austrian monarchy, and in Russia this influence was considerably less than in France or, especially, in England.)
With the strengthening of the capitalist system, absolutism, whose basic task remained the preservation of the bulwarks of the feudal order, gradually lost its progressive character and began to act as a hindrance to the further development of capitalism. In England and France absolutism was abolished during the early bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the countries of less rapid capitalist development, where the bourgeoisie, fearful of the rising proletariat, arrived at an understanding with absolutism, a gradual transformation took place from a feudal-absolutist monarchy to a monarchy of bourgeois-landlord character. For example, in Germany the semiabso-lute monarchy continued to exist right up to the bourgeois-democratic November revolution of 1918; in Russia, absolutism was liquidated by the bourgeois-democratic February revolution of 1917.
The development of feudal state forms in the period of late feudalism in the countries of the Orient has been insufficiently studied. In some countries (Japan) these forms were close to European absolutism. In a number of countries, apparently, a gradual evolution took place from despotism toward absolutism; but because of the slowed development of capitalist relations in this area, this process did not take place until the modern historical epoch, which left a decisive mark on governmental development in these countries.
REFERENCEMarx, K. Moraliziruiushchaia kritika i kritiziruiushchaia moral. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 306–314.
Marx, K. Revoliutsionnaia Ispaniia. Ibid., vol. 10, pp. 431–432.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21, pp. 171–172.
Skazkin, S. D. “Marks i Engel’s o zapadno-evropeiskom absoliutizme.” Uchenye zapiski MGPI, kafedra istoricheskogo fakul’teta, 1941, vol. 3, issue 1.
Skazkin, S. D. “Problema absoliutizma v Zapadnoi Evrope.” In Iz istorii srednevekovoi Evropy. Moscow, 1957.
Porshnev, B. F. Narodnye vosstaniia vo Frantsii pered Frondoi (1623–1648). Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Liublinskaia, A. D. Frantsuzskii absoliutizm v pervoi treti XVII v. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Liublinskaia, A. D. “Noveishaia burzhuaznaia kontseptsiia absoliutnoi monarkhii.” In the collection Kritika noveishei burzhuaznoi istoriografi. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Chistozvonov, A. N. “Nekotorye askpekty problemy genezisa absoliutizma.” Voprosy istorii, 1968, no. 5.
Ardashev, P. N. Absoliutnaia monarkhiia na Zapade. St. Petersburg, 1902.
Kareev, N. N. Zapadnoevropeiskaia absoliutnaia monarkhiia 16–18 vv. St. Petersburg, 1908.
Hartung, F., and R. Mousnier, “Quelques problèmes concernant la monarchie absolue.” In Relazioni del X congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, vol. 4. Florence, .
Molnar, E. “Les fondements economiques et sociaux de l’absolutisme.” In XII Congrès International des Sciences Historiques: Rapports, vol. 4. Vienna, 1965.
S. D. SKAZKIN
Absolutism in Russia
Establishment of absolutism in Russia was a lengthy process. The preconditions for the rise of absolutism were apparent as early as the second half of the 16th century (the strengthening of the centralization of government administration, the liquidation of remnants of the fragmentation into dependent principalities [udels], the liquidation of precedence based on rank; later, the decline in importance of the Boyar Duma, the dying out of the National Assemblies, and so on). However, the final formation and transformation of Russia into a bureaucratic and noble estate monarchy was basically accomplished in the first quarter of the 18th century. This was expressed in the replacement of prikaz offices with boards (the rise of a centralized bureaucratic state apparatus), the creation of a regular army and police force, the final subordination of the church to the state, and so on. No small role in the formation of absolutism was played by the transformation of the Russian state into the vast Russian empire. Absolutism in Russia, compared with that in Western Europe, was marked by several features. Among them was the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie, the result of a great many factors (retarded urban development because of the Mongol-Tatar invasion, the serf status of the major part of the urban and rural population, causing a slow development of capitalism, and others), which placed the bourgeoisie from the very moment of its appearance in a position of extreme dependence upon the state. The characteristics of Russian absolutism are also shaped by the fact that in Russia, in contrast to Western Europe, serfdom persisted throughout the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, along with the political predominance of the nobility, whose power rested on the serf latifundia of European Russia. These and a number of other factors contributed to the fact that in Russia the evolution of absolutism toward bourgeois monarchy proceeded very slowly. By the time of the February revolution in 1917, the process was still incomplete.
The economic development of the country forced Russian absolutism to move toward meeting some of the needs of the bourgeoisie then in formation, but these were mainly the needs that were advantageous to the nobility itself and strengthened its position in the country—for example, changing the tariff system for domestic and foreign trade protectionism and mercantilism, subsidizing industrialization, and so on. Objectively, however, this policy facilitated the formation of the bourgeoisie as a class. In addition, absolutism in Russia enjoyed, as V. I. Lenin observed, a certain degree of independence and the ability, especially from the mid-19th century on, to maneuver between the contradictory interests of the various classes. The autocracy preserved itself, Lenin wrote, “in part through the immobility of the mass of the peasantry and small producers in general, in part by balancing between counterposed interests, presenting itself to a certain extent as an independent political force” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6, p. 363).
Under the influence of the country’s social and economic development and of the revolutionary movement, Russian absolutism in the 19th and 20th centuries took “a few steps,” in Lenin’s phrase, in the direction of bourgeois monarchy. The first such step, carried out under the conditions of a revolutionary situation in 1859–61, was the peasant reform of 1861 and the subsequent bourgeois reforms (those affecting the zemstvos, the judiciary, the military, and so on). The second step, taken as a result of the revolution of 1905–07, was the Stolypin agrarian reform and the creation of the State Duma, which represented an alliance of tsarism, the large landholders, and the upper commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. However, the evolution toward bourgeois monarchy had a highly contradictory character, as illustrated by the counterreform of the 1880’s and the like. Under conditions of rising class contradictions and a growing revolutionary movement in Russia at the end of the 19th century and especially at the beginning of the 20th, reactionary features and a tendency toward Bonapartism became more pronounced in all the policies of absolutism.
Absolutism in Russia was overthrown by the bourgeois-democratic revolution of February 1917.
The question of absolutism in Russia has, by no means, been fully researched. To this day debate continues among Soviet scholars on a number of very important questions, such as the socioeconomic preconditions, the time when the transition to absolutism occurred, and its class nature. Thus, on the question of the reasons for the transition to absolutism in Russia, some historians consider it to have been connected with a sharpening of the class struggle of the broad popular masses against the class of feudalists; others see absolutism in Russia as the result of a struggle within the ruling class between the feudal aristocracy (the boyars) and the nobility (the dvorianstvo). There is also no unanimity of opinion on the question of the social nature of Russian absolutism. While the view current among scholars is that absolutism in Russia reflected the interests not only of the aristocracy but of the rising bourgeoisie as well, some historians regard the origin and essense of Russian absolutism as purely feudal in character. A number of other questions connected with the problem of Russian absolutism are also resolved in divergent ways.
REFERENCESOl’minskii, M. S. Gosudarstvo, biurokratiia, i absolutizm vistorii Rossii, 3rd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1925.
Vorovskii, V. V. “O prirode absoliutizma.” Soch., vol. 1. Moscow, 1933.
Syromiatnikov, B. I. “Reguliarnoe” gosudarstvo Petra Pervogo i ego ideologiia, part 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1943.
Iushkov, S. V. “K voprosu o politicheskikh formakh russkogo feodal’nogo gosudarstva do XIX v.” Voprosy istorii, 1950, no. 1.
Mavrodin, V. V. “Nekotorye voprosy evoliutsii russkogo samoderzhaviia v XV1I-XVIII vv.” In Voprosy genezisa kapitalizma v Rossii. [Leningrad,] 1960. (Collection of articles.)
Derbov, L. A. “V. I. Lenin o klassovoi sushchnosti i osnovnykh etapakh evoliutsii samoderzhaviia v Rossii.” In the collection Istoriograficheskii sbornik. [Saratov,] 1962.
Absoliutizm v Rossii (XVII-XVIII vv.). Moscow, 1964. (Collection of articles.)
Avrekh, A. Ia. “Russkii absoliutizm i ego rol v utverzhdenii kapitalizma v Rossii.” Istoriia SSSR, 1968, no. 2.
Cherepnin, L. V. K voprosu o skladyvanii absoliutnoi monarkhii v Rossii (XVI-XVIII vv). Moscow, 1968.
Pavlova-Sirvanskaia, M. P. “K voprosu ob osobennostiakh absoliutizma v Rossii.” Istoriia SSSR, 1968, no. 4.
Shapiro, A. L. “Ob absoliutizme v Rossii.” Istoriia SSSR, 1968, no. 5.
S. M. TROITSKII