Dictatorship : Andreas Kalyvas

Artur Barrio / Situação T/T1
Artur Barrio / Situação T/T1

Dictatorship : Andreas Kalyvas


“Dictatorship,” Vladimir Lenin wrote a century ago, “is a big word, and big words should not be thrown about carelessly.”1

Lenin may have been wrong on many things, but he was certainly right in this case. Dictatorship is indeed a “big word” or, to be more precise, a master concept, a concept with a pivotal, continuous presence in political thought, with a long, elaborate history from its ancient origins in republican Rome to the last century and beyond. Its enduring, decisive presence is manifested by its multiple historical trajectories, its nearly global geographical dispersion, its broad political diffusion, and its various ideological appropriations, such as the modern political divide between Left and Right. All the while, the concept of dictatorship exercised a formative influence on the constitutional structure of the liberal representative state to such an extent that even a moderate and sober figure like John Stuart Mill declared,

I am far from condemning, in cases of extreme exigency, the assumption of absolute power in the form of a temporary dictatorship. Free nations have, in times of old, conferred such power by their own choice, as a necessary medicine for diseases of the body politic which could not be got rid of by less violent means.2

This central, lasting presence of dictatorship in the history of political theory invites three main claims.

First there is the historical and conceptual co-evolution of dictatorship and republicanism. The clear correlation between this concept and the republican political imaginary is indicated by the fact that the former was invented and incubated within the latter and rose and evolved along and in causal connection with it. Dictatorship is a creation and an effect of republicanism (both ancient and modern) or, to put it more forcefully, it is constitutive of republicanism to the degree that it provides its condition of possibility. And so, as dictatorship is intrinsic to and co-original with republicanism it must be recognized and treated as a thoroughly republican concept.

Second, I argue that dictatorship retains most of its conceptual unity, core meaning, and political logic across its long conceptual history. This stands in contrast to some all too familiar and conventional accounts that emphasize its ruptures and shifts. These accounts are strongly influenced by Carl Schmitt’s famous thesis that the modern concept represents a break from its ancient, classical formulations, a break occurring sometime between the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, from the French to the Russian revolutions.3

Notwithstanding certain noticeable transformations and innovations as well as the shifting normative attitudes associated with them, the concept appears remarkably resilient and consistent over time, surprisingly uniform and stable, defying established temporal periodizations and historical taxonomies. Conceptual resilience is a fundamental property of dictatorship. 

Thirdly, dictatorship designates a specific political rationality, a distinct technology of power, that is, a biopolitical paradigm of ruling that introduces and prioritizes the logic of security and safety above all. The function and objective of power is to protect, defend, and safeguard life. In that, the concept describes an archetypal apparatus of security that takes its exemplary and most developed form in the institutions, practices, and discourses of emergency powers in the modern state. It is both a prefiguration and a manifestation of a statist imaginary of power. Dictatorship, therefore, describes the bipolitical kernel of the modern state. It is a bio-statocentric concept.


Before discussing these three claims regarding the republican formation of dictatorship, its resilient conceptuality, and its biopolitical and statist disposition, I propose the following formal definition of the general concept of dictatorship:

Dictatorship names a special modality of political power, temporarily released from various limits, for the purpose of securing preservation and survival during an apparent (real or supposed) urgent and exceptional situation of an existential threat, usually understood in terms of (external) war and (internal) sedition.

This is undoubtedly a cursory definition, but it nevertheless consists in four constitutive significations, what Antonio Vázquez-Arroyo has insightfully referred to as “sedimented determinations,” which provide the concept’s semantic unity, analytical consistency, and political singularity.4 Actually, all four significations have remained constant in organizing and reproducing its conceptual intelligibility throughout its long history despite its diverse manifestations and actualizations. 

First, there is the central idea of preservation and survival as the supreme finality of dictatorship. This concept describes a politics of preserving something, conserving, maintaining, protecting and defending it against perceived threats of destruction and annihilation. It does not really matter ‘who’ or ‘what’ must be preserved and safeguarded. It can and has been the Republic, the People, the Nation, the State, the Public Interest or the Common Good, Rights natural or otherwise, a Class or a Race, Liberty, even a Revolution. What matters is that something’s sheer existence is identified as worthy of preservation and thus elevated to a primary and unconditional objective of political power irrespective of its concrete identity or particular content. Preservation becomes the highest, ultimate end of politics, an end in and for itself. With dictatorship, politics is reduced to nothing else than salvation and the absolute imperative of survival prevails over any other principle, value, consideration, norm, or law.

Accordingly, this absolute primacy of preservation necessarily demands that power is temporarily relaxed from established controls and instituted constraints, becoming unmixed and unbound, that is, detached from anything that could potentially compromise its operations and effectivity, its ability to secure life. A surplus and an excess of power, mostly in the form of an executive and/or military command, is recommended as the necessary means for the realization of the final end of preservation. Such a surplus presumes a departure from laws and legality, morality, religion, customary practices, and everyday habits. This is the famous principle that necessity (understood as preservation) knows no law. The politics of dictatorship gave birth to and affirmed this repeatedly throughout its various and multiple formulations.

In addition to the absolute end of preservation and the means of unlimited or unmixed power, there is a third sedimented determination in the form of an exception. Famously, and controversially, the problem of dictatorship is the problem of an exception to the extent that the concept designates an exception to a norm, an abnormal and extraordinary situation, a threshold, a borderline case, in short, a state of emergency. Clearly, the exception is always treated as a momentary case of extreme peril, a crisis of unprecedented urgency, understood existentially as a danger of extinction, a threat to the very order of things. What is specific to dictatorship, therefore, is that its functioning is always exceptional in relation to established norms, everyday life expectations, and ordinary practices. 

Finally, dictatorship expresses an ambition and a hope that the exceptional politics of survival can be managed, brought under the control of a juridical arrangement, a rational framework, or a political will, and thus regulated and contained. Either by constitutional mechanisms, virtuous leaders, vigilant citizens, wise legislators, courageous generals, or skillful vanguard parties, the promise that defines the horizon of expectations of dictatorship is that the exceptional situation of an existential crisis will be mastered, that is, dealt with and resolved in a rational, organized, and efficient fashion, prudently, with care, so that preservation is secured and the end of survival achieved. There is a radical instrumental logic that informs this aspiration to control and regulate the unpredictable nature of the exception, which reveals the presence of a rational instrumentality and a technical methodology at work in the conceptual and political structure of dictatorship.


Let’s begin at the beginning. All four sedimented determinations that define the concept of dictatorship and disclose its political logic are already present in the original ancient Roman invention, “the prototype” for all modern forms of emergency institutions.5 The absolute primacy of preservation, the necessity of unmixing power, the exception to the norm, and the rational management of a crisis were all brought together to constitute the Roman emergency institution and the republican concept of dictatorship.

It is with the ancient Romans and in the republican idiom that dictatorship enters the political lexicon. “A wise invention of the Roman Republic,” as Schmitt observed, and an expression of “the splendid political genius of the Roman people,” as Clinton Rossiter asserted, dictatorship’s origins are traced immediately after the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud and the abolition of monarchy by the new ruling patrician class sometime during the very early years of the republic around the turn of the sixth century B.C.7 This was a critical time for the newly established but fragile nascent republican order that was struggling for stability and legitimacy. The origin of dictatorship is situated in this volatile post-monarchical context at a perilous foundational juncture amidst an intense crisis over its survival and identity, internally fractured by civic discord and plebeian unrest and threatened externally by the aggression of neighboring cities. As an effect of a profound and generalized crisis associated with the foundation of the Roman republic, dictatorship was from its very beginning designed as an exceptional instrument for exceptional situations.   

From a formal standpoint, the Roman dictator was a temporary, commissioned, short-term special but legal magistrate with extraordinary powers of command (imperium) intended to defend the city against external wars (Dictatura rei gerunda causa: “dictatorship for getting things done”) or internal seditions (Dictatura seditionis sedantae causa: “dictatorship for suppressing seditions”) and justified in the name of the people’s safety (Salus Populi Suprema Lex).8

The mode of authorization, appointment, scope, functions, and duration were defined and regulated by public law (lex curiata).9 For instance, the appointment process was initiated by the senate: when it determined that the city was in grave danger, it would demand the consuls to nominate a dictator with absolute powers (maius imperium) for a period lasting as long as the crisis but never longer than six months. During this period, the authority of the normal magistracies could be suspended along with some of the liberties and protections of the citizens. These suspensions most notably included the right to appeal (provocatio ad populum) and the tribunician veto. Their authority could be subordinated to the command of the dictator so that power relaxed from the restraints of law and the checks of the mixed regime could use any means necessary to defeat the enemy, end the existential threat, and restore the constitutional order. Overall, as many as ninety dictators have been recorded for a period of four and a half centuries, from 501 B.C. to 44 B.C., the year of its formal abolition by the Lex Antonia de Dictatura in Perpetuum Tollenda in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination (who at the time held the title of dictator in perpetuity) – with an important hiatus in the second century when the institution seems to have fallen into desuetude until the early first century.10

A venerated and much praised institution, dictatorship enjoyed a legal, political, and symbolic preeminence in the Roman republic. One reason for this manifest superiority could be the result of two parallel events occurring at the moment of appointing a dictator. On the one hand, upon appointment in grave emergencies, the dictator assumed executive powers far superior than any other magistracy, overriding them all, everywhere, and all the time.11 He turned ordinary magistracies into subordinates he could force into resignation.12 On the other hand, during the emergency, the republic suspended legislation and the principle of collegiality as well as transferred most judicial powers to the dictator’s hands, who enjoyed unrestricted powers of coercitio.13 This double process is reflected in how dictatorship affected the constitutional separation of civil and military authority in the Roman republic. This separation was expressed through the distinction between imperium domi (civil power) and imperium militiae (military power). The former was exercised within the boundaries of the city, and the latter outside them. Within the city, power was limited and circumscribed by institutional checks such as collegiality, the tribunitian veto, competitive elections, and the alternation of magistrates. Outside, the imperium was unlimited and absolute, similar to the command of a general on campaign. Dictatorship entails the suspension of this separation.14 Hence, with the Romans, emergencies were dealt with a temporary concentration of executive and judicial powers in a single magistracy whose holder acted as a supreme military commander within and outside the city.15 It was a primarily martial office devised to save the city from extreme threats with the use of force and violence. As such, according to Rossiter’s apt formulation, it converted the Roman republic into “an armed camp governed by an independent and irresponsible general.”16

As an extraordinary but legal device for exceptional times of crisis that occurred with a suspension of the law in order to free power from legal constraints, the history and politics of Roman dictatorship represents an ambitious attempt to constitutionalize the exception and bring it under the control of law. It identifies the republic’s aim to respond legally to unpredictable threats and to propose constitutional remedies to emergency situations. But beneath its formal characteristics and notwithstanding its institutional composition, dictatorship was predicated on two essential features.

The first is carefully illustrated by the Greek historian of the first century B.C., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose discussion of dictatorship remains the most detailed and comprehensive account of all the surviving ancient sources. He explicitly describes this emergency institution as an instrument of class politics that aimed at repressing the social struggles of the plebeians, their seditious politics, and their strategy of secession.17 He associates the creation of dictatorship with social conflicts, the balance of power between contending classes, their strategic reasoning and self-understanding of their socio-economic interests, and, in particular, the political, legal, and democratic advances the poor were making after the abolition of kingship. In his elaborate historical narrative, dictatorship appears from its very beginning as an aristocratic apparatus of repression deployed against domestic turmoil with the task of protecting and preserving the authority and supremacy of the patricians and their newly established aristocratic republic.18 Livy as well, but to a lesser extent, commented on the political logic and class composition of ancient dictatorship, used in part to safeguard the aristocratic structure of the republic by quelling the many and the poor to the benefit of the few and the rich.19 As Montesquieu reiterated several centuries later, “To defend themselves, the patricians were in the habit of creating a dictator – which succeeded admirably well for them.”20 This was especially true for the first two centuries of the Roman Republic, which were characterized by a highly polarized society, widespread exclusions, divided by the problem of the debts and land inequality, shaken by plebeian mobilizations, and ruled through patrician arbitrariness. The republican birth of dictatorship, therefore, is firmly situated in this fragile post-monarchical context of intense social and political struggles. Dictatorship, in short, originated with class conflict and this is reflected in its recurrent depictions as an aristocratic instrument devised to suppress domestic discord and preserve the political power and socio-economic privileges of the ruling class.  

Second, as a patrician weapon in the battle against the plebs, Roman dictatorship expresses a very distinct understanding of conflict. Both Cicero and Livy described this emergency office as a remedy for the diseases of sedition, secession, and factionalism, which endanger the health and life of the republican order. Cicero compared sedition to an “illness” and the seditious city to an “invalid when the illness becomes severe” in order to claim that situations of intense conflict “implore the assistance of one man” because “a sick man” is “more advantageously entrusted to … a single physician (medico).”21 For Cicero, the dictator is like a doctor and dictatorship a medicine for a collective body in distress and in urgent need of a cure that will secure its preservation and save its life, for, as he insisted, “security prevails over caprice.”22 Likewise, Livy compared the plebeian struggles to the “internal dissension of the body members (intestina corporis sedition)” and portrayed domestic conflict as a “disease of the commonwealth” that “was not one that could be cured by ordinary remedies.”23 As he forcefully put it,

Just as when a man was sick, any disorder, however slight, was felt more than a worse one would be by a healthy man, so now when a city was sick and suffering, any untoward occurrence should be gauged not by its intrinsic importance but by the enfeebled condition of the Republic, which could endure aggravation. And so, they had recourse to a remedy … the creation of a dictator.24

A manifestation of corruption and degeneration, internal strife was regularly depicted as the symptom of a deeper disorder, a malady with a name, that of a popular government or a democracy, which described an extreme pathological condition that afflicted the collective body of the republic, threatened its existence, and stood in urgent need of an exceptional cure that only the Senate could administer by means of dictatorship. Hence, the polemical quality of the concept and its antagonistic disposition were partly determined in opposition to democracy and its endemic tendencies to stasis and sedition. Accordingly, Dionysius of Halicarnassus evocatively redefined dictatorship as “a medicine for the malady of civil conflict [διχοστασίαν φάρμακον],” namely, “the only remedy for every incurable ill, and the last hope of safety when all others had been snatched away by some crisis.”25 For, as he recorded from a senatorial debate, the dictator who is “being invested with absolute and irresponsible powers, will cut off the diseased part of the city and will not permit that which is as yet uninfected to be contaminated.”26

As a pharmakon, dictatorship introduced a biopolitical language that framed the end of politics as consisting in the preservation of life and the making of a healthy collective body (corpus respublicae). In these ancient conceptualizations, the Roman emergency institution appears as an exceptional medicine that removes the disease of antagonism from the city, restores its unity and order, relieves society from division, and protects the body of the republic from decline, dissolution, and death. A common theme that runs throughout Cicero, Livy, and Dionysius is the biopolitical definition of dictatorship in terms of an extraordinary means for curing the city from the lethal malady of discord and for restoring it back to its healthy, harmonious and peaceful constitution.


This biopolitical model of security politics originally introduced with the ancient concept of dictatorship was revived and reaffirmed by Niccolò Machiavelli’s 1532 reflections on the Roman republic, where he discussed this emergency office in the context of a general prudential rule on how to cure a disease: one always “should consider well the strength of the malady, and if you see you have enough to cure it, set yourself at it without hesitation.”27 This axiom was put to use in his description of the republican institution as a “remedy for urgent dangers” and “extraordinary accidents” that tend to ruin republics.28 The Florentine enthusiastically recommended the cure of dictatorship to the moderns because, he claimed, as a remedy it “always did good to the city” and praised it as one of the main causes of Rome’s greatness.29 In fact, the centrality that dictatorship attained in the modern lexicon, from James Harrington and Algernon Sidney to Baruch Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is primarily due to Machiavelli and his neo-republican resurrection and vindication of the ancient institution.

Machiavelli’s appropriation, defense, and diffusion of dictatorship had an innovative aspect. While he emphasized its constitutional dimension and recognized its intrinsic bond with the mixed regime and its complex and slow institutional structure that prevents it from responding quickly and efficiently to unpredictable threats and extraordinary accidents, he put forward a new argument by associating the imperative of existential preservation with the strategy of imperial expansion, so that by increasing in size a republic overcomes the natural tendencies of corruption and decline.30 In the absence of dictatorship, he asserted,6 the Republic would have remained small and weak because either its external enemies would have defeated it, or it would have ruined itself by failing to redirect its internal conflicts outwards through constitutional channels. Tellingly, for Machiavelli, dictatorship consists of a dialectic of preservation that integrates the dynamics of domestic discord and the politics of imperial enlargement, thus blurring the distinction between inside and outside as it emphasizes the necessity of dictatorship in the absence of which a republic is condemned to decay. For, he argued, republics without this emergency institution necessarily perish. 

Dictatorship, therefore, procures speed and unity to power in exceptional moments of crisis by suspending the mixed constitution of public authority and concentrating power to such a degree that it amounts to a temporary resurrection of monarchy. As he explains, the Roman dictator could “decide without any consultation and execute his decisions without any appeal.”31 Hence, for Machiavelli, dictatorship represents a revival of “kingly power” (Regia potestà) for a short period of time and by law.32 However, this monarchical presence did not trouble him much since, as he argued, the constitutional limits imposed on dictatorship made it impossible for anyone to abuse the increased powers of this office. Besides, it is better to temporarily enlist the powers of a king, according to the law and only for exceptional threats, than to rely on irregular, extra-constitutional, and arbitrary initiatives that could produce tyrannical temptations and undermine the established legality.33 Simply put, “those republics that in urgent dangers do not take refuge either in the dictator or in similar authorities will always come to ruin in grave accidents.”34 With this rigorous reasoning and general conclusion, he affirmed the inherently republican character of dictatorship, an indispensable component of the Roman legacy, thus elevating it to a constitutive political, institutional, and normative feature of modern republicanism.

This pivotal position of dictatorship was upheld and further asserted by later republican thinkers, such as Spinoza and Rousseau who, following in Machiavelli’s footsteps, confirmed its centrality for the modern republic with a similar political logic that assigned an absolute, unconditional priority to sheer survival and self-preservation. Tellingly, in his incomplete political treatise, Spinoza directly associated the idea of the best regime-form with the imperative of security. As he forcefully put it, the highest aim of society and “the purpose of civil order…is nothing other than peace and security of life,” adding that “[f]or a civil order that has not removed away the causes of seditions…is little different from the mere state of Nature, where every man lives as he pleases with his life at risk.”35 Spinoza’s reflections on dictatorship developed within this broader realist, post-Hobbesian framework defined by the supreme end of a secure life and were meant to address a “matter of the greatest importance,” that is, when “no provision has been made against this danger [i.e., conflict], the state will not be able to endure by its own strength, but only by good fortune.”36 Dictatorship is introduced as “a proper remedy…applied to counter this evil” of the dissolution of the government. The collapse of the state depends on its own ability to secure self-preservation. 37

But his views depart at least in one crucial respect from Machiavelli’s theory of dictatorship. While the Florentine praised wholeheartedly the Roman institution and saw no flaws whatsoever in its ancient design, Spinoza disliked its strong personalistic dimension and warned against the monarchic character of the dictator’s command. “[S]ince this dictatorial power is in essence regal,” he cautioned, “the state cannot occasionally turn into a monarchy, even for ever so short a time, without endangering its republican constitution.”38 Echoing earlier similar concerns by Harrington who had addressed this problem with his idea of a Dictator Oceana,39 Spinoza proposed as a “proper remedy” for “the safety and preservation of the republic” a revised and modified version of dictatorship, an improved model of emergency power, with an additional line of defense against the autocratic nature of the ancient type: depersonalization. He invested the “dictatorial power” (Dictoria postestas) to a council of syndics, primarily collective and plural in composition and perpetual in tenure, “with this in view, that the sword of the dictator should be permanently in the hands not of any natural person but of a civil body, whose members would be too many to make it possible to divide among themselves command of the state or to conspire together in any crime.”40 This collective dictatorship was assigned the key tasks of countering the evil of disintegration, suppressing wickedness, eradicating vices, responding to grave emergencies and existential crises, restoring unity, harmony, security, and peace, and ultimately preserving the aristocratic form of the republican state.41

With this recommendation, Spinoza elaborated a proto-theory of emergency government, taking the concept of dictatorship to a new level of theoretical and institutional sophistication. His anticipatory idea of a crisis cabinet was formative for subsequent theories. He even alluded to a new role for this collective emergency body when he attributed to the dictatorship of the syndics the power and responsibility of bringing the republic back to its first beginnings, to its original foundations, and restoring it to its initial principles. Now, perhaps for the first time, the concept of dictatorship acquired a meaning of refounding and became a force that revisits the founding moment of the republic and thus a force of reform.

And yet, despite these two important innovations, Spinoza’s revised version remains firmly situated within the republican tradition as all four sedimented determinations that defined ancient dictatorship are intact and retain their centrality: the absolute primacy of survival and self-preservation, the necessity of concentrating and centralizing power beyond ordinary limits, the exception to the norm, and the rational-legal management of an emergency. They are all operative in his discussion of the dictatorial prerogatives of the council of syndics.

In his 1762 ambitious and influential rewriting of republicanism, Rousseau too affirmed all four determinations of dictatorship and asserted its indispensable place in a free republic. He strengthened its basis of justification by reiterating the absolute primacy of safety and salvation, codified in the principle “that the state shall not perish” as a highest, overriding political value.42 This justification rested on his anatomical and biopolitical understanding of political community:

The body politic, just like the body of a man, begins to die as soon as it is born and carries within itself the causes of its destruction … It is not within men’s capacity to prolong their life, it is within their capacity to prolong the State’s life as far as possible by giving it the best constitution it can have.43

In summarizing his political project, he added that, “By the social pact we have given the body politic existence and life: the task now is to give it motion and will by legislation. For the initial act by which this body assumes form and unity still leaves entirely undetermined what it must do to preserve itself.”44 This foundational task of politics defined in terms of an absolute commitment to the preservation and protection of the body politic is once again predicated on the priority of the exception over the norm, that is, security over liberty and especially, as he emphatically put it, in “times of pressing peril,” when there are “rare and manifest cases,” circumstances of “the greatest dangers,” which can lead to “the ruin of a State in crisis.”45 When such exceptional cases of existential threat occur, the inflexibility, generality, and formality of established laws with their slow pace become an obstacle that could destroy the body politic of the republican state.46 Laws that are instituted for normal times prove to be dangerous impediments to the effective protection of the state. Hence, the rule of law is sacred, Rousseau famously preached, “except when the salvation of the fatherland is at stake.”47 Once again, for republicanism, considerations of self-preservation trump the principles of equal autonomy and the rule of law since “there are extreme evils that render violent remedies necessary.”48 Dictatorship is the ultimate and foremost violent remedy to any serious threat confronting the very existence of the republic.49 What the dictator has to do only during critical times is, therefore, defend the life of the political body in all possible ways and by any means necessary.

Faced with great dangers, generically described as unpredictable events that disturb public order and might cause the ruin of the state and the death of the political body, the republic has recourse to “a Dictator,” who as “a supreme chief” and “a man above the laws,” can silence them and suspend the sovereign authority of the people and their legislative power in the name of public safety (salut publique).50 Following the Roman example, Rousseau emphasized how this dictatorial emergency institution is a delegated power, an “important commission” juridically regulated, constitutionally bounded, and ascribed with clear and specific objectives and limits.51 And like Machiavelli, he not only did not consider dictatorship to be dangerous for public freedom but admired Roman ingenuity for devising such a wise, useful institution. In fact, he argued, the collapse of the Roman republic could have been averted if the Romans had made more frequent uses of dictatorship. He attributed the fall of the republic to the sparing recourse to this emergency office during the civil wars that shook the city and blamed the Romans for “this error” that “caused them to commit great mistakes.”52 Absent the dictator, he concluded, no republic can be maintained and preserved.

Rousseau never addressed, however, the vexing issue of the authority that has the competence to declare an emergency and appoint a dictator. Not only did he not specify which institutional instance of his model republic could declare the emergency; he also evaded describing the constitutional process by which this commission was conferred.53 Since his updated republican theory dispensed with the senate and the consuls, there were only two institutions left to decide this question:54 either the legislative body, that is, the citizens’ general assembly (the sovereign) or the executive as a collective delegated body (the government).55 Rousseau abstained from identifying the proper procedure and appropriate authority probably because he remained undecided on the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the state of emergency. His passing reference to the need for “extraordinary assemblies that may be required by unforeseen circumstances” is highly suggestive in this respect.56 Is the state of emergency one of these unexpected situations that fall within the jurisdiction of the extraordinary assemblies? Do the sovereign people extraordinarily decide when the state is in peril? But if the people decide the exception in an extraordinary assembly and suspend their sovereign power in a concrete situation, this would imply that the general will does not “apply to all” and has no general object, since the dictator is exempt from the law (above the law) and the emergency refers to a particular case and not to a general juridical norm. Therefore, their decision does not correspond to the general will as “it loses its natural rectitude when it tends toward some individual and determinate object.”57 For Rousseau, “any function that relates to an individual does not fall within the province of the legislative assembly” and as the sovereign “cannot elect a king,” it logically follows that it neither can nor should appoint a dictator by “a special act.”58

These questions and shifting positions indicate a profound tension between popular sovereignty and dictatorship in Rousseau’s theory of constitutional emergency. It is a tension that indicates a radical difference between the republican (the biopolitical logic of dictatorship) and democratic (the egalitarian logic of popular self-government) dimensions located at the center of Rousseau’s ambiguous and ultimately contradictory political project.


The intimate affinity between the republican emergency institution and the principle of self-preservation during exceptional times of crisis sparked an intense debate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the entwinements of monarchy, sovereignty, and dictatorship and about the ultimate ends of politics as such. This debate had momentous implications for the rise of the modern theory of the state, its philosophical foundations, and its biopolitical apparatus of security. The important but largely forgotten dispute initiated by Jean Bodin involved, among others, Hugo Grotius, Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel Pufendorf.59

Briefly stated, this debate revolved around a crucial question Bodin raised in 1576 about the monarchical character of dictatorship and the temporary manifestation of kingship in a republican government during an emergency, which several ancient historians and modern republicans had acknowledged.60 While discussing the comparative weaknesses and merits of the three canonical regime-types, Bodin put aside his well-known distinction between sovereignty and commission to draw attention to a striking similarity between dictatorship and monarchy.61 By appointing a dictator, whom he defined as a “magistrate who had absolute power for a limited time to dispose of all the affairs of the commonwealth,” the Romans inadvertently admitted “that an absolute power united in one person is more eminent and of greater effect, and that the same power imparted to two, three, or many lords, or to a whole community, declines and loses its force.”62 This appeal to the absolute power of the One in times of crisis provided Bodin with the critical resources to rethink the authority of the Roman dictator, who even if he was appointed by the mandate of a superior, hence a delegated magistracy, and limited by an expiration date, still enjoyed the temporary possession of an absolute command whenever the republic was facing threats to its self-preservation.63 In so arguing, he exposed the King’s presence inside the Roman emergency office. Whereas most ancient and modern republican thinkers were well aware of this presence, yet not particularly perturbed or puzzled by it, Bodin was the first of the moderns to have initially pulled the thread of dictatorship until it unraveled the entire institutional fabric of the republican mixed constitution with its checks and balances, laying bare its veiled monarchical core. By reinterpreting dictatorship as an attenuated expression of regal power, “absolute power for a limited time,” he inferred that whenever a city rushes frightened for protection to a dictator, it falls back on a king and consequently it inadvertently admits the necessary superiority of monarchy over a republican constitution.64

But if that is the case, Grotius reasoned half a century later – radicalizing Bodin’s polemical interpretation and bringing it to its logical conclusion against the French jurist’s intentions – it must follow that the attributes that dictatorship and monarchy share in common originate from the same source of sovereign power.65 He went a step further to maintain that the Roman dictator was not solely “a sort of temporary Monarch” but primarily a “temporary Sovereign.”66 For Grotius, the dictator enjoyed “real sovereignty for a Time.”67 And although he recognized the commissarial nature of dictatorship that deprives it of the perpetual quality of sovereignty, he retorted that it still retains the defining attributes of indivisibility, as long as it is not subject to appeal, and of supremacy, as all other offices remain subordinated to its superior authority. He emphasized that for the limited period of its duration, dictatorship could resort to all the acts of sovereignty. Namely, the dictator possessed the same powers and had the same effects as a sovereign, that is, his “acts are not subject to another’s Power, so that they cannot be made void by any other human Will.”68 While in office, the Roman dictator ruled and commanded “without consulting anyone, or being accountable for his conduct, above the People, and no more dependent on them, during the Time fixed, than a Prince established for Life”; “nothing he had done could be annulled by any other Power”; “there was no Appeal to the People”; his “Edict was held as sacred”; and “Neither was any Security but in a careful Obedience.”69 He explained that

the nature of moral things is known by their operations, wherefore those powers, which have the same effects should be called by the same name. Now the dictator during his whole time in office exercised all the acts of civil government, with as much authority as the most absolute king; and nothing he had done could be annulled by any other power.70

For Grotius, temporal limitations did not change the fact that, for the duration of his term, the dictator was invested with the absolute power of a sovereign king, which could not be revoked or vetoed by any other authority. Consequently, he confidently asserted, by a “temporary Right,” dictatorship possessed for a time “as much Authority as the most absolute King.”71 “Thus,” he concluded, “among the Romans, the Dictator was Sovereign for a Time.”72

This re-interpretation of dictatorship as a time-limited sovereignty, that is, an expression of sovereign power for exceptional times of crisis, had some far-reaching implications. For instance, as dictatorship is a temporary power of command, sovereignty, respectively, is a permanent command. Accordingly, the description of the republican concept of emergency as temporary sovereignty suggests likewise that sovereignty is a perpetual dictatorship. Hence, by defining dictatorship in terms of sovereignty, Grotius made possible the definition of state sovereignty in terms of dictatorship. This reciprocal definitional relationship blurred the two concepts in a way that shaped the theory of the modern state in the language of absolute command as the only effective means for permanently securing preservation, repressing disorder, and protecting life against the ever-present possibility of conflict and war, depicted often but not exclusively as a normless state of nature, that is, as a permanent state of exception. The concepts of sovereignty and statehood came to be defined according to the logic of dictatorship and the paradigm of security. As such, this early modern debate on sovereignty and dictatorship is enormously instructive for a number of interrelated reasons:

1. It illustrates how with the development and modern diffusion of republicanism, the Roman concept of dictatorship had a decisive influence on the form and content of politics to the degree that the principle of state sovereignty, its ground of justification, was explicitly defined in terms of a “Salus Populi Suprema Lex.”73

2. It exemplifies the genealogy of biopolitical power from antiquity to modernity through the discourses of dictatorship and the primacy of security and preservation, that is, the superiority of securing life, which became formalized as a “Right of Security” that all states possess by natural right and entitles them to do whatever is necessary to preserve themselves from threats and injuries, both internal and external, domestic and foreign.74

3. It reveals how the underlying assumptions and objectives that framed the problem of state sovereignty were derived from and depended on the political logic of dictatorship. The philosophy of the modern state was elaborated in terms of the Roman emergency institution whereby politics is reduced in the final instance to the mere realization of a safe and secure life and to the underlying natural right to self-preservation, especially when faced with conflict, war, and an ever-present violence, often conceived of as a violation of right. In fact, the modern theory of the state-form is an elaborate reworking and reconstruction of the four sedimented determinations and constitutive significations that have over time organized the conceptual intelligibility of dictatorship. In this sense, the modern state appears as an amplified simulacrum and enlarged copy of a permanent republican state of emergency.

In the long history of dictatorship, the 1918 Soviet Constitution occupies a prominent (but also an ambiguous and dramatic) position. For the first time ever since the ancient Roman Republic and after a gap of twenty centuries dictatorship was once again formally included in the constitutional fabric and legal structure of a political order. In both cases and notwithstanding some crucial differences, the concept was codified in the juridical form of a constitutionally organized political authority. While in the ancient instance the institution of dictatorship was regulated as an integral part of Roman public law by the means of a lex dictatore creando, in the modern case it was article 2, section 9 of the fundamental law of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic that established the dictatorship of the proletariat as the defining form of the transitional proletarian state.75

However great the differences between the two cases in legal construction, constitutional form, political intentions, and institutional detail, their proximity is not purely coincidental or, for that matter, inconsequential and therefore cannot be easily disregarded as is often done. Quite the contrary. The doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat that the Bolsheviks formulated and implemented around the time of the October Revolution finds its origins in ancient Rome and its political logic can be traced in the evolving republican model of the state of emergency.76 This continuity, for instance, is indicated in a remarkable passage from one of the many speeches Lenin gave during the celebrations for the first anniversary of the revolution in November 1918:

It is clear that this past year has been one of genuine proletarian dictatorship. This concept used to be mysterious book Latin, a mouthful of incomprehensible words. Intellectuals sought an explanation of the concept in learned works, which only gave them a hazy notion of what the proletarian dictatorship was all about. The chief thing that stands to our credit during this past year is that we have translated these words from abstruse Latin into plain Russian. During the past year the working class has not been engaged in idle philosophizing, but in the practical work of creating and exercising a proletarian dictatorship, despite the excited mental state of the intellectuals.77

This passage is remarkable for several reasons. First, it describes the main achievement of the first year of the revolution in terms of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This concept epitomizes the world-historical significance of the Russian revolution and is acknowledged as an essential component of the Bolshevik party. Second, it deliberately contextualizes the proletarian dictatorship in terms of its Latin origins and Roman history. Third, the obscure and imprecise meaning of the concept, its forgotten truth, hidden and distorted by scholarly books, is finally revealed and disclosed in the concrete political activity of the Bolsheviks and the working class. Fourth, through this revolutionary activity, a new practical form of dictatorship is proposed, an improved and higher version that claims to have perfected and thus to have surpassed the ancient original republican model.

Any attempt to explore the critical implications of Lenin’s statement for the broader political and conceptual trajectory of dictatorship must necessarily begin with this ambitious Bolshevik act of translation. For one thing, as a translation of the Roman concept, the doctrine of proletarian dictatorship fully shares the former’s obsession with self-preservation and survival, accords a similar primacy to absolute power during exceptional moments of an existential crisis, describes an exception to the norm, and expresses a like commitment to instrumental rationality and a utilitarian logic. When treated as an offspring of republicanism, the Bolshevik appropriation of the Roman model of emergency politics appears to inaugurate one of the latest, most formative, eventful, and tragic episodes of its long history. What is of special relevance, therefore, is an understanding of how and in what ways the concept of dictatorship was theorized, enacted, and reimagined by the Bolshevik revolutionary theory and practice. How, in other words, dictatorship and revolution became intertwined and mixed, their distinctions blurred and fused in the process of a translation whereby a republican patrician emergency institution provided the conceptual resources, semantic language, and political means to think of modern plebeian revolutions. For one, this paradoxical encounter invites the question of how the two concepts became associated in the first place and what this encounter reveals about dictatorship, its history and politics, its effects and legacies. Furthermore, what impact did this emergency model have on the modern revolutionary experience, its actualization and unfolding, its accomplishments, contradictions, and failures? How did it shape the Bolshevik vision of insurrectional practice and revolutionary politics? What, in short, are the broader consequences of the Bolshevik thesis that dictatorship is the necessary condition for social revolution?78

Undoubtedly, Carl Schmitt’s writings during the early Weimar years were profoundly affected by such questions and had a lasting influence on the problem of dictatorship as well as its modern transformation.79 His theory of “sovereign dictatorship,” for instance, is a direct reaction to the Soviet revolution with major ramifications for a historical comprehension of the general concept of dictatorship.80 But Schmitt’s approach was primarily oriented to emphasizing the discontinuity and innovations brought about by the Russian Marxists as he accentuated the conceptual rupture accomplished by the Bolshevik translation of the Roman term. As he was more interested in the differences between the old commissarial, restorative, and constituted character of the classical republican model and the new sovereign, revolutionary, and constituent features of the Bolshevik reappropriation, he was inclined to underplay the surviving traces and living reminders that had not only endured in the new conceptualization but were reactivated during the October revolution.

Going beyond Schmitt, therefore, I want to emphasize the lines of continuity and the threads running from antiquity to modernity, linking the Roman with the Bolshevik doctrine of dictatorship, the residual traces of the former remaining operative in the latter. As a Bolshevik work of translation, the idiom of the revolutionary proletarian dictatorship inscribed the political logic of the republican emergency model with its four sedimented determinations in the emancipatory ideal of a social revolution that held out the promise of abolishing class domination and economic exploitation from human history. With this republican inscription, the revolutionary project of social emancipation came to occupy a normless zone of emergency, an abnormal state of exception, defined by the existential conflict between two hostile social classes, a class civil war, a war for supremacy, survival, and ultimately for life itself. The post-republican Bolshevik theory of revolutionary dictatorship was forged for civil wars, cases of radical politicization, and the exceptional circumstances of a “life and death struggle of classes” that could only be resolved with the destruction of one of the two contending parts.81 This formulation of the revolutionary idea in the language and logic of an emergency-as-civil war was proclaimed in unequivocal terms at the 1905 third congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, which stated that the transitional period between capitalism and communism “can be only a dictatorship, that is, not an organization of order but an organization of war.”82 Here, one finds again in the Bolshevik translation signs of the Roman precedent, as the dictatorship of the proletariat comes to correspond to an emergency depicted as a temporary state of civil and international war.83

For Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, the proletarian dictatorship was a temporary rule exercised during the exceptional times of a social revolution by one class against another with a fullness of state power unbound by established laws and positive norms aiming at suppressing the enemy, crushing all resistance, and achieving victory. In this respect, their project of translation seems to have followed quite closely the Roman tradition in that they recognized in absolute power and coercive repression a defining attribute of dictatorship. As a distinctive concept, Lenin argued, it “means unlimited power based on force and not on law” because “authority – unlimited, outside the law, and based on force in the most direct sense of the word – is dictatorship.”84 He emphasized time and again this dimension of dictatorship and insisted that 

[t]he scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more or less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term dictatorship has no other meaning but this.85

In the political theory of Bolshevism, this concept is foremost a description of state power based directly on violence, force, and terror during exceptional moments of extreme conflict and great peril. It is an “autocratic,” “iron rule.”86 Trotsky’s succinct definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat is one of the most suggestive:

the concentration of state power in its entirety in the hands of the proletariat and the setting-up for the transitional period of an exceptional regime – a regime in which the ruling class is guided, not by general principles calculated for a prolonged period, but by considerations of revolutionary policy.87

As an emergency government during a transitional period of civil war, proletarian dictatorship returns to the Roman concept to translate it from “the standpoint of the proletariat” in terms of a revolutionary regime.88 Although the transformation of dictatorship from an emergency institution to an exceptional regime indicates important formal differences between the republican and the Bolshevik versions, the Marxist translation reproduces and renews the classical maxim that exceptional circumstances of internal and external warfare call for the extraordinary means of a centralized, unlimited power in the interest of eliminating an abnormal situation.89 In this respect Bukharin’s formulation is particularly intriguing because it consists in a strong repudiation of Hans Kelsen’s legal positivism and abstract normativism while explicitly endorsing Schmitt’s theory of decisionism:

Dictatorship in general, and the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular…implies a special factor of disconnection even in its own laws. In accordance with the ‘dictates of the moment’ it lays down what must be the suitable actions from the standpoint of its tasks. It decides above all. This bareness of function, and heightened ‘freedom of action’, this twofold purpose, are particularly characteristic of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which come forward with the visor of history thrown open.90

This definitional emphasis on a unified repressive force relaxed from legal constraints and controls during an exceptional moment of an existential crisis points to the primacy of the military logic of dictatorship in a way that is not at all dissimilar from the Roman original version of the republican state of emergency. That ancient dictatorship was in origin a military office is shown by the title of the dictator’s subordinate, ‘master of horse’ (magister equitum), and by the initial title of the dictator, magister populi, that is, master of the citizen army.91 This military function was a pragmatic and instrumental response to the need to have a unified command in war (external and internal). As a supreme device of repression, institutionally engineered for situations of warfare, dictatorship necessarily militarized political contestation. Not only did it criminalize conflict and militarize the city, but it also transformed the political adversary into a hostis, a public enemy against whom the dictator could legally apply the law of war in full force.92 In a revolutionary state of emergency, likewise, as Lenin concurred, the first priority of the proletarian dictatorship is the “military suppression of the bourgeoisie.”93

The sheer coercive aspect of the proletarian dictatorship that seeks to ‘ruthlessly’ repress a class enemy during a civil war designates one primary signification of the revolutionary state of emergency but is by no means the only. In addition to this purely military objective, where “only force can be the deciding factor,” the proletarian dictatorship converts the art of insurrection into a new form of political rationality, a technique of revolutionary governmentality whose aim is to ensure that the revolution shall not perish. A new power is invented and deployed for the protection and survival of the revolution.94 The greatest of all the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship is to defend the revolution and as such it inaugurates the ‘securitization’ of revolutionary politics, that is, its contamination by the dictatorial logic of emergency. By reactivating this republican logic in the specific context of a revolutionary insurrection, the Bolshevik theory gave birth to a ‘Raison de Révolution,’ according to which the exercise of power is released from legal, normative, and moral constraints for the purpose of protecting the revolution from all external and internal threats.95 The security of the revolution is the true objective and final end of proletarian dictatorship: Salus Revolutionis Suprema Lex.

The safety of the Revolution, le salut révolutionnaire, is elevated to a supreme law. This is the meta-principle, the ultimate ground upon which rests the new revolutionary legitimacy of the proletarian dictatorship. It was first proclaimed by the Russian Marxist Georgy Plekhanov in 1903 during the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party when the dictatorship of the proletariat became officially grafted onto the party program and emphatically restated by Lenin in 1917 a few weeks after the successful seizure of power.96 This principle, that the safety and security of the revolution is the supreme law, speaks to the biopolitical truth of the Bolshevik idea of the proletarian dictatorship that actualizes the republican paradigm of emergency as a political remedy and a cure, that is, a pharmakon, devised for a sick and corrupted political body infected by the disease of class disorder.

In this normless, violent zone of absolute combat, of the revolution as “a war of extermination,” where life itself becomes the only finality of politics, the central task of the proletarian dictatorship, as Lenin defined it in highly dramatic terms, its “main and fundamental task, is to save the life of the workers, to save the workers, for the workers are dying.”97 The basic aim of the Bolshevik theory of the revolutionary exception boils down to saving the working class from physical extinction, “to “keep the workers alive for the next few years” because according to the Bolshevik rationality,

[t]he primary productive force of human society as a whole, is the workers, the working people. If they survive, we shall save and restore everything…if we save the working people, if we save the primary productive force of human society – the workers – we shall recover everything, but if we fail to save them, we shall perish.98

“But in order to save the working class,” Lenin concluded, “it is necessary to have the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only means” for the working class to have a chance at surviving the revolutionary wars.99 The preservation of the life of the worker, the sheer physical existence of the proletarian body becomes the necessary condition for the completion of all the other revolutionary tasks. In Trotsky’s less dramatic words but with equal urgency, the same supreme imperative defines the goal of the proletarian dictatorship: “first of all to afford the working class the very possibility of living – though it be in the most difficult conditions.”100 It is this biopolitical dimension of the dictatorship of the proletariat – the dictatorship of a dying class that desires to live and to fight for its survival by any means necessary in the extreme situation of a revolutionary emergency – which sustains the military, economic, political, and ethical objectives of the transitional and temporary passage from capitalism to communism.

The working class must survive, or else the revolution will perish. This biopolitical content of the dictatorship of the proletariat radicalizes the task of dictatorship and explains the new Bolshevik techniques of revolutionary governmentality. They are preannounced in Lenin’s admonition:

…amidst the conditions prevailing in an absolutely exhausted, ruined, starving, and dying country, the class struggle must inevitably assume a different form. It is no longer a class struggle for a share of the results of production, it is not a struggle to take charge of production…but a struggle to save the workers from starvation…This is a fact. We must sacrifice everything to save the lives of the workers.101

Such an extreme situation requires extreme measures. The dictatorship of the proletariat not only disenfranchises the bourgeoisie by depriving it of all its political and civil rights. It also initiates a “thoroughly cleansing of society” in order to “conquer these survivals of the accursed capitalist society, these dregs of humanity, these hopelessly decayed and atrophied limbs, this contagion, this plague, this ulcer that socialism has inherited from capitalism.”102 To save the life of the worker, the proletarian dictatorship “must clean the land of Russia of all vermin, of fleas – the rogues, of bugs – the rich and so on and so forth.”103 It must “exercise control over the parasites, the sons of the wealthy, the swindlers, and other guardians of capitalist traditions.”104 As a modern cure against social division and class conflict, the Bolshevik dictatorship developed its own medicine against its class enemy, including a variety of elaborated techniques and methods: special and strict surveillance; deportation and internment; imprisonment; compulsory labor; and “yellow tickets” after serving time, so that everyone shall keep an eye on “harmful persons”; and, if needed, extra-legal executions on the spot.105

As such, the real principle and ultimate objective of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Salus Revolutionis Suprema Lex, which is revealed in the concrete situation of a radical revolutionary exception, amounts to the inescapable fact and absolute priority of mere life and sheer physical survival – the necessity of staying alive, ius necessitatis. And of course, as Trotsky concluded, “necessity knows no law.”106


Although the conceptual history of dictatorship was significantly transformed by the Bolshevik appropriation, its intrinsic association with the republican theory of politics was neither severed nor put into question. On the contrary, it remained as strong as ever. Over time the concept adapted to and evolved in different circumstances and various forms, diversified and multiplied, took on a new life of its own, metastasized, and found new unexpected hosts in the modern state and the proletarian revolutions. This diffused and unprecedented influence across the political spectrum profoundly shaped the making of political modernity. In fact, as modern politics came hand in hand with the republican form, dictatorship emerged as a constitutive attribute. Hence, the republican legacy of dictatorship is historically associated with the modern victory of the centralized state, its executive power and the security apparatus, with vanguard parties and their global spaces of revolutionary exception, with emergencies and crises. Paradoxically, Roman dictatorship came to define both the statist spirit and the revolutionary consciousness of modern politics by identifying the primordial desire for security and survival as the foundation of political community.

This republican concept is ultimately aporetic in how it destabilizes key assumptions, commitments, and assertions of political modernity by casting a permanent shadow over democratic forms of collective life and emancipatory popular experiences. A borderline concept, it interrogates and unsettles modern notions of freedom, equality, citizenship, law and rights. As dictatorship relativizes them in the name of a secure and safe life, they appear conditional and negotiable, secondary and subsidiary, even derivative. The long history of dictatorship paints a disquieting and disturbing image of politics; a politics that periodically has recourse to enhanced centralized executive powers and military means, an apparatus of security that subordinates freedoms and protections to safety and survival. For, according to the biopolitical logic of dictatorship, it is in the final instance the imperative of sheer existence that must be defended and protected at any cost, which determines the content, meaning, and end of politics.

This logic, in its various currents, forms, and incarnations, has been keen to stress the primacy of preservation and mere life over liberty, that is, to reduce power to the extreme exigencies of fear and insecurity. It evokes the specters of disorder, violence, and downfall as ever-present possibilities of the political. Its radically instrumental and utilitarian logic is predicated on and justified by a politics of fear that mobilizes anxieties of survival and self-preservation when faced with political discord, intense conflict, and radical contestation. Freedom, therefore, is conditional, depending on internal pacification, geared to coercion in order to silence dissension and impose stability and uniformity from above. This enduring republican presence of dictatorship in theory and practice keeps undermining popular demands of a free life that democracy strives to embody and enact.


Andreas Kalyvas is Associate Professor of Political Science at the New School for Social Research.



Published on February 27, 2022

1.Vladimir Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” [April 28, 1918], vol. 27 in Collected Works, trans. Clemens Dutt (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 265.

2. John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government [1861] (New York: A Liberal Arts Press Book, 1958), 42. For a later liberal appropriation and definition of dictatorship, see Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy [1942], (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 296.

3. For such accounts, starting with Carl Schmitt’s influential interpretation, see his Dictatorship: From the Origin of the Modern Concept of Sovereignty to Proletarian Class Struggle [1921], trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Polity Press, 2014), xxxvii-xlv, 80-131. Briefly put, there are three distinct versions of the discontinuity thesis. The first emphasizes the distinction between the restorative vs. revolutionary concept of dictatorship; the second focuses on the difference between dictatorship as a temporary constitutional state of emergency vs. dictatorship as a form of government such as a military dictatorship; the third version highlights the conceptual blurring between dictatorship and other family concepts, like tyranny, autocracy, totalitarianism, despotism, etc. For these three versions, see Franz Neumann, “Notes on the Theory of Dictatorship,” The Democratic and Authoritarian State. Essays in Political and Legal Theory, ed. Herbert Marcuse (New York: The Free Press, 1957), 233-256; Giovanni Sartori, “Dittatura,” Enciclopedia Del Diiritto, eds. Guido Landi and Franco Piga (Varese: Giuffrè Editore, 1964) 356-372; Ernst Nolte, “Dictatur,” Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, eds. Otto Brunner, Wener Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, vol. 1 (Stuttgard: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1972), 900-924; Norberto Bobbio, Democracy and Dictatorship: The Nature and Limits of State Power, trans. Peter Kennealy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 158-166; Herfried Llanque and Marcus Münkler, “Dictatorship,” Der Neue Pauly: Enzyklopädie der Antike, eds. Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, and Manfred Landfester, vol. 15 (Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2002), 64-75; Wilfried Nippel, “Dictatorship,” The Classical Tradition, eds. Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 267-268; Wilfried Nippel, “Saving the Constitution: The European Discourse on Dictatorship,” Il Pensiero Politico, 33 (2012): 29-50; Andrew Arato, “Conceptual History of Dictatorship (and its Rivals),” Critical Theory and Democracy: Civil Society, Dictatorship, and Constitutionalism in Andrew Arato’s Democratic Theory, eds. Enrique Peruzzoti and Martín Plot (New York: Routledge, 2013), 208-280.

4. Antonio Vázquez-Arroyo, “Universal History,” (Political Concepts Conference, New York, 15 March 2018).

5. Oren Gross and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Law in Times of Crisis: Emergency Powers in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 17.

6. Schmitt, Dictatorship, 1; Clinton Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies [1948] (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004), 15.

7. Livy dates the creation of dictatorship to 501 B.C. while Dionysius of Halicarnassus pushes the date three years later to 498 B.C. Livy, History of Rome, vol. 1, trans. B.O. Foster (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), II.38, 275-277; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, trans. Earnest Cary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), V.70-77, 211-237. See also Cicero, The Republic, trans. Clinton Walker Keyes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), I.40, 93-95.

8. Polybius, Histories, vol. 2, trans. W.R. Paton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), III.86-87, 211-213, 215; Livy, History of Rome, II.31, 321; Cicero, Laws, trans. Clinton Walker Keyes, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), III.3, 467; Emperor Claudius, “On the admission of Gallic citizens to Roman offices,” Frank F. Abbott and Allan C. Johnson, Municipal Administration in the Roman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1926), 351. On the distinction between dictatorship for external and internal threats, see Gregory K. Golden, Crisis Management during the Roman Republic: The Role of Political Institutions in Emergencies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 11-41.

9. Livy, History of Rome, vol. 1, II. 38, 277. The special character of dictatorship was attested to by its unique features when compared with all the other Roman magistracies and public offices. It was the only office with a personalistic character since the dictator had no colleague precisely because he represented the utmost unity of military command; there were no elections as the position was filled by appointment; the powers of dictatorship were immune from the provocatio, i.e., from the right of appeal to the people; and all other magistracies submitted to the dictator’s command.

10.For a list of all the recorded dictators, see Arthur Kaplan, Dictatorships and the “Ultimate Decrees” in the Early Roman Republic 501-202 B.C. (New York: Revisionist Press, 1977), 169-173. For the formal abolition of dictatorship by Marcus Antonius, see Cicero, Philippics, trans. Walter C.A. Ker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), I.3, 23; I.13, 50-53; II.36.91-92, 154-155; II.45.115, V.4.10, 265; Livy, History of Rome (Summaries), CXVI, 147; Appian, The Civil Wars, trans. Horace White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913), III.25-37, 562-565, 22-23; Dio Cassius, Roman History, vol. 4, trans. Earnest Cary (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 400-401.

11. Cicero, Laws, III.3.9, 467; The Digest of Justinian, vol. 1, trans. Alan Watson (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), I.2, 5; Clinton Walker Keyes, “The Constitutional Position of the Roman Dictatorship,” Studies in Philology, 14:4 (1917): 298-305.

12.Polybius, Histories, vol. 2, trans. W.R. Paton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), III.87, 215; Livy, History of Rome, III.29.2-3, 99; V.9.6, 33; Cicero, The Laws, III.3.9, 467; Kaplan, Dictatorships and the “Ultimate” Decrees in the Early Roman Republic 501-202 B.C., 4; Frank Adcock, Roman Political Ideas and Practice (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1959), 9.

13. Stuart E. Staveley, “The Constitution of the Roman Republic 1940-1954,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 5:1 (1956), 107.

14. Kurt von Fritz, The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis of Polybius’ Political Ideas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 210-212; Fred K. Drogula, “Imperium, Potestas, and the Imperium in the Roman Republic,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 56:4 (2007), 419-452.

15. Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press, 1999), 110; Claude Nicolet, “Dictatorship in Rome,” Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism, eds. Peter Baehr and Melvin Richter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 266.

16. Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship, 25.

17. For a discussion of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ history of Roman dictatorship and its theoretical and political significance, see Andreas Kalyvas, “The Tyranny of Dictatorship: When the Greek Tyrant Met the Roman Dictator,” Political Theory, 35:4 (2007), 412-42.

18. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, vol. 5, trans. Earnest Cary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), V.70-7, 211-37.

19. For instance, see Livy, History of Rome, vol. 1, II.18, 277; II.29-30, 313-315; Livy, History of Rome, vol. 2, VI.15, 247, VI.37-8, 323-331.

20. Montesquieu, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline [1734/1748], trans. David Lowenthal (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1965), 88. Similarly, Adam Ferguson described the Roman dictatorship primarily in terms of a patrician class instrument “devised to repress the disorders which broke out among the people and to unite the commonwealth against its enemies” (Adam Ferguson, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic [1783], vol.1 [Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1851], 7). In his famous treatise on civil society he argued that “the dictatorial powers, which, in free states, are sometimes raised to quell insurrections, or to oppose other occasional evils, appear, under a certain extent of dominion, at all times equally necessary to suspend the dissolution of a body, whose parts were assembled, and must be cemented, by measures forcible, decisive, and secret” (Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767], ed. Fania Oz-Salzberger [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 257).

21. Cicero, The Republic, I.40, 93-95.

22. Cicero, The Republic, I.40, 93-95.

23. Livy, History of Rome, II.32, 325; III.20, 73.

24. Livy, History of Rome, Book XXII.8, 227.

25. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, VI.38, 353; V.77, 235.

26. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, VII.56, 311.

27. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996) I.33, 73.

28. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I.34, 74.

29. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I.34, 74 (emphasis added).

30. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book I.33, 73.

31. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I.33, 71.

32. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book I.34, 75. For an unconvincing attempt to exorcise the monarchical presence in Machiavelli’s theory of dictatorship, see Pasquale Pasquino, “Machiavel: dictature et salus republicae,” Raison(s) d’Etat(s) en Europe: Traditions, usages, recompositions, ed. Brigitte Krulic (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 10-34.

33. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book I.34, 75; I.36, 76-77. For Machiavelli as a thinker of constitutional dictatorship, see Carl J. Friedrich, Constitutional Reason of State: The Survival of the Constitutional Order (Providence: Brown University Press, 1957), 27-30; Marco Geuna, “Machiavelli and the Problem of Dictatorship,” Ratio Juris 28:2 (2015), 226-241.

34. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I.34, 75 (emphasis added).

35. Baruch Spinoza, A Political Treatise, in Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 699.

36. Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 747.

37. Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 747.

38. Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 748.

39. James Harrington, The Art of Lawgiving in The Political Works of James Harrington, ed. James Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 672-673; James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, ed. James Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 130-133; Kalyvas, “The Sublime Dignity of the Dictator: Republicanism and the Return of Dictatorship in Political Modernity,” Annual of European and Global Studies 2 (2015): 88-91.

40. Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 748.

41. Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 747-748, 749.

42. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Writings [1762], ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 138.

43. Rousseau, Social Contract, 109. For Rousseau’s conception of the body politic and its relationship to dictatorship, see David Bates, States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 171-214.

44. Rousseau, Social Contract, 66 (emphasis added).

45. Rousseau, Social Contract, 138; Rousseau, Considerations of the Government of Poland and on its Projected Reformation [1772] in The Social Contract and Other Writings, 219. For the concept of ‘republican exceptionalism,’ see Nomi Claire Lazar, States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 24-26, 32-36.

46. Rousseau, Social Contract, 138.

47. Rousseau, Social Contract, 138 (emphasis added).

48. Rousseau, Considerations of the Government of Poland, 219. On Rousseau’s contradiction between the supremacy of law and the survival of the state, see François Saint-Bonnet, L’État D’Exception (Paris: PUF, 2001), 274-275, 280-281.

49. Rousseau, Social Contract, 138. On this point, see David Bates, “Rousseau and Schmitt: Sovereigns and Dictators,” Thinking with Rousseau, eds. Helena Rosenblatt and Paul Schweigert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 289.

50. Rousseau, Social Contract, 138-139.

51. Rousseau, Social Contract, 140.

52. Rousseau, Social Contract, 139.

53. Rousseau, Social Contract, 140. Schmitt saw this problem in Rousseau’s theory of dictatorship and correctly noted that “How volonté générale suspends itself in a case of emergency is a mystery, and even more so is the question of where an executive organ should get the authority for such a suspension” (Schmitt, Dictatorship, p. 106).

54. On the absence of the senate and the consuls from Rousseau’s republican theory, see Pasquale Pasquino, “Between Machiavelli and Carl Schmitt: Remarks on Rousseau’s Dictatorship,” Storia del pensiero politico, 2:1 (2013): 150.

55. Schmitt, Dictatorship, 106.

56. Rousseau, Social Contract, 111.

57. Rousseau, Social Contract, 62.

58. Rousseau, Social Contract, 67, 138. Ten years later, in his 1772 reflections on the government of Poland, Rousseau shifted course and rejected dictatorship altogether as he came to recognize its destructive nature. Rousseau, Considerations of the Government of Poland, 219.

59. Llanque and Münkler, “Dictatorship,” 65; Nippel, “Saving the Constitution: The European Discourse on Dictatorship,” 36-37; Kalyvas, “The Sublime Dignity of the Dictator, pp. 84-95; Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Marc de Wilde, “Silencing the laws to save the fatherland: Rousseau’s theory of dictatorship between Bodin and Schmitt,” History of European Ideas (2019): 1-19. This dispute also implicated the doctrine of Reason of State and its main proponents, such as Giovanni Botero, Scipione Ammirato, Gabriel Naudé, and von Chemnitz.

60. Jean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale [1576], trans. Richard Knolles, (London: Impensis G. Bishop, 1606), 85-86, 715-717.

61. On Bodin’s shifting position regarding the sovereign authority of dictatorship, see Benjamin Straumann, Crisis and Constitutionalism: Roman Political Thought from the Fall of the Republic to the Age of Revolution(Oxford University Press, 2016) 282-283, note 17.

62. Jean Bodin, On Sovereignty, ed. Julian Franklin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 2; Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, 716.

63. Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, 715. This polemical reasoning led him to reconsider the Roman emergency office as a kind of “sovereign Monarch” who was called in times of crisis and disorder. For an incisive discussion of Bodin’s reasoning, see Julian Franklin’s “Perpetuity as a Criterion of Sovereign Status” in his Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 109-111. Hobbes came extremely close to Bodin’s position with his definition of Roman dictatorship as “temporary Monarchy.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1651], ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 133; Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen [1642], eds. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 99.

64. Bodin, On Sovereignty, 2; Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, 545. For Bodin, although the Romans were famous for their abhorrence and hate of all Kings, they decided to make the dictator a temporary ruler with absolute powers to help them overcome great perils. By so doing, they inadvertently demonstrated that Republicanism is a proof of monarchy.

65. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace [1625], bk. 1, trans. Richard Tuck (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), 271.

66. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 271, 283.

67. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 283. On Grotius’ discussion of dictatorship, see Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign, 70-84.

68. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 259.

69. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 271-272.

70. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 282-283.

71. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 280, 283.

72. Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 280.

73. Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations [1672], VII.9, 595.

74. Emer Vattel, The Law of Nations [1758], II.4, 288.

75. Livy, History of Rome, II.18, 275-277; Mommsen, Le droit public romain, vol. 3 (Paris: Thorin et fils, Editeurs, 1893), 163. For a copy of the first 1918 Soviet Constitution, see https://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1918/index.htm.

76. I say the Bolsheviks because neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels proposed a consistent or general theory of dictatorship. Marx, who seems to have invented the term in 1850 mentioned it only a few times, four or five, briefly and sporadically, including in his private correspondence. Engels, likewise, sparsely used it and although he sought to clarify it theoretically against some early criticisms he never provided a systematic or comprehensive conceptualization. It is to the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and mostly to the Bolshevik faction that we owe the first general theory of proletarian dictatorship. Among the leading Bolsheviks, not only Vladimir Lenin, but also Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Radek, systematically debated this concept, theorized it, defended it against its critics, and boldly claimed to have reached a truly and genuinely scientific definition.

77. Lenin, “Speech at a Ceremonial Meeting of the All-Russia Central and Moscow Trade Union Councils” [1919], vol. 28 in Collected Works, ed. Jim Riordan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 131; Lenin, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky” [1918], vol. 28 in Collected Works, 293; Lenin, “Speech at the Opening Session of the First Congress of the Communist International” [1919], vol. 28 in Collected Works, 455-456; Lenin, “A Great Beginning” [1919], vol. 29 in Collected Works, 420.

78. The Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party agreed at its second congress in 1903 to include in its program the concept of the dictatorship of the proletarian, which thus became part of the official doctrine: “A necessary condition for this social revolution is the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, conquest by the proletariat of such political power as will enable it to suppress any resistance by the exploiters.” No other Social Democratic party at that time had done this until the creation of the Communist parties of the Third International. See 1903: Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, ed. and trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 1978).

79. Schmitt, Dictatorship, xxxix-xlv; Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Representative Dictatorship[1923], (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988) 51-64; Carl Schmitt, “Diktatur,” Staat-Großraum-Nomos: Arbeiten aus den Jahren 1916–1969 (Duncker & Humblot, 1995), 32-37.

80. Schmitt, Theory of the Constitution, 109-111; Schmitt, Dictatorship, 203-204; Schmitt, “Diktatur,” 35.

81. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 27, 47, 60, 61, 63; Bukharin and Preobrazhensky “Communism and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” 10; Lenin, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegate Kautsky,” 279.

82. Lenin, “Report on the Question of the Participation of the Social-Democrats in a Provisional Revolutionary Government,” chap. 13 in The Third Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., April 12 (25)- April 27 (May 10), 1905, vol. 8 in Collected Works, trans. Bernard Isaacs and Isidor Lasker, ed. V.J. Jerome (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), 385. From this Bolshevik reinterpretation of the republican distinction between the norm and the exception, Trotsky drew the logical consequence with unambiguous clarity: “in the civil war we destroyed White Guards in order that they should not destroy the workers. But as we have to strive for the preservation of human life with arms in our hands, it leads to the destruction of human life.” Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 54.

83. Kamenev, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 10. Also, see Karl Radek, Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism, (Detroit: The Marxian Educational Society, 1921), 24.

84. Lenin, “Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship,” 347, 351; Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” [1918], vol. 27 in Collected Works, 267.

85. Lenin, “Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship,” 353.

86. Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” 264-265;

87. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky [1920], (London: Verso, 2007), 21 (emphasis added).

88. Lenin, “Draft (or Theses) of the R.C.P.’s reply to the Letter of an Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany” [1920], vol. 30 in Collected Works, 340-341.

89. Lenin, “The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” [1919], vol. 30 in Collected Works, 269.

90. Nikolai Bukharin, “The Theory of Proletarian Dictatorship and Scientific Communism,” Marxism and Modern Thought (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1935), 82 (emphasis in the original with a footnote on Schmitt).

91. Cicero, De Re Publica, 95; Cicero, De Legibus, 467; Giuseppe Valditara, Studi sul magister populi. Dagli ausiliari militari del rex ai primi magistrati repubblicani (Milano: Giuffré, 1989).

92. Mommsen, Le droit public romain, vol. 3, 187.

93. Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” 265.

94. For the art of insurrection, see Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection” [1917], vol. 26 in Collected Works, 22-27; Leon Trotsky, “The Art of Insurrection,” History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008) 740-763.

95. On this point, see also Mao Tse-Tung, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People,” On Practice and Contradiction, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2007), 133.

96. For Plekhanov’s speech during the sixteenth session on July 30, 1903, see the minutes from the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in 1903: Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, trans. Brian Pierce (London: New Park Publications, 1978), 220. For Lenin’s reaffirmation of this principle fourteen years later see his “Plekhanov on Terror” [December 23, 1917], vol. 42 in Collected Works, 48. For Plekhanov’s speech, see Theodore Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, ed. and trans. Joel Carmichael (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 325; J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 123; Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 236; Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1963), 242; Hal Draper, The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987), 68-73.

97. Lenin, “First all-Russia Congress on Adult Education” [1919], vol. 29 in Collected Works, 364.

98. Lenin, “First all-Russia Congress on Adult Education,” 364.

99. Lenin, “The Heroes of the Berne International” [1919], vol. 29 in Collected Works, 398.

100. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism.

101. Lenin, “The Heroes of the Berne International,” 398; Lenin, “First all-Russia Congress on Adult Education,” 365.

102. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” 479; Lenin, “How to Organize Competition” [1917], vol. 26 in Collected Works, 410.

103. Lenin, “How to Organize Competition,” 414.

104. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” 479.

105. Lenin, “How to Organize Competition,” 414; Lenin, “Thesis of the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International” [1920], vol. 31 in Collected Works, 186-7; Lenin, “Political Report of the Central Committee of the R.C.P” [1922], vol. 33 in Collected Works, 283; Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” 264.

106. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 65.