Perry Anderson: Lineages of the Absolutist State

Writing from a scrupulously Marxist perspective, Perry Anderson provides a wide-ranging overview of the transition of various feudal orders into absolutist monarchy. Before going into a number of Anderson’s arguments, it may be worthwhile to make a small clarification as to the nature of Anderson’s Marxist thought as in recent times the usage of the term Marxism has become heavily polluted by Western, CIA funded “Marxist” thought which has moved it from a class basis, to a cultural basis.

Anderson’s analysis is probably better described as class analysis. Anderson reviews the development of absolutism from the assumption that class, and in particular the feudal nobility based on feudal agricultural forms of surplus appropriation, was a driving force of absolutist governmental formation. As a result, Anderson squarely places the absolutist state as being a creation in the service of feudal nobility; a tool of the dominant class as per Marx and Lenin’s et als theoretical assumptions. The issue with this is that his book largely undermines this approach as he is constantly having to recount countless examples of this absolutist state not only failing to act in the interests of this feudal nobility, but actually in direct conflict with it, something which is unavoidable when you have to recount history as it occurred. It is only when Anderson comes to an analysis of the development of Austrian Absolutism that his argument along these lines becomes somewhat clearer, yet, I would argue, still fails.

The development of Austrian absolutism is an anomalous example in the development of European Absolutism. Key to this state of affairs was the general heterogeneous territories which the Hapsburg’s ruled over. Covering Austria, of course, as well as Bohemia, varying parts of Hungary, and other territories now part of such countries as Italy and Germany (this is discounting the Western possession such as Spain and the Americas which we shall get to later), the Habsburgs ruled over differing medieval orders with nobility of differing strengths and possessing differing feudal rights and obligations. The result was a failure to bring all of these territories into a unified taxation regime, a unified conscription regime, and a unified legal and monetary order in general. In Hungary the nobility held a strong hand by virtue of being able to call in Ottoman forces against the Habsburgs, in Bohemia the nobility had been wiped out following the Battle of White Mountain and almost completely replaced by a foreign nobility of Italians, Irish, Germans, etc. basically the mercenaries and adventurers who had come to serve the Habsburgs and been rewarded with land, and who proved to be very disloyal to the Hapsburgs at later dates, deserting en masse during the War of the Austrian Succession. Unfortunately, it was this territory which formed the productive core of the empire, and not Austria proper. Later this productive primacy would shift to the Hungarian territories.

The lack of unified nobility sharing a language, rights, duties, and collective interests, and what Anderson calls an espirit de corps resulted in a number of developments which led to the Habsburgs being unable to centralize fully. Firstly, they could not develop an effective military corps which in other orders was staffed by noble officers, even if the troops were often mercenaries. Secondly, this again transferred over into government where there was a significant lack of nobility in service to the monarchy. Often, at quite late dates, this was still taken up by Church officials (such as Jesuits), at others by the “upper-middle class of the towns”. The result, in Anderson’s assessment, was an absolutism which ended in “debacle” because it “transgressed the collective interests of the class which Absolutism historically functioned to defend.” It is at this point when Anderson’s argument is clearest that it can be seen that there are significant problems with his thesis due to the underlying class model he is employing. Primarily, if, as with class analysis, the State is a mere tool of the dominant class interests, then why is there any kind of conflict between the State and the nobility at all. It seems very clear that the State is trying to engage in a process of centralization within Perry’s analysis, and that this centralization is being mediated by classes given they need to be incorporated and called upon as agents of centralisation, but that it is not being driven or controlled by it. In other words, we have a clear case of Jouvenelian based neoabsolutist analysis providing a far more coherent and clear account for what Anderson is noting.

This failure of class analysis becomes even clearer in all of the other examples provided by Anderson where he is forced into making very weak arguments to salvage the class based nature of his analysis, due to the fact that his entire analysis stands or falls on the Absolutist state being one and the same with the nobility. So where he gets to such rebellions as the Catalonian Republic Revolution, the Neapolitan Revolution, the Estates Revolt in Bohemia, and the Great Rebellion in England, he actually states the following:

[They] all had, in very different proportions, something of this aspect of a nobiliary revolt against the consolidation of Absolutism. Naturally, this reaction could never become a full-scale, united aristocratic onslaught on the monarchy, for the two were tied together by an umbilical cord: nor was there any case of a purely noble revolt in the century. The characteristic pattern was rather an overdetermined explosion in which a regionally delimited part of the nobility raised the banner of aristocratic separatism, and was joined by a discontented urban bourgeoisie and plebian mobs in a general upheaval.

This is followed by an explanation of sorts that:

Their ultimate defeat was a central episode in the difficult travail of the whole class in this century, as it slowly transformed itself to fit the new, unwonted exigencies of its own State power. No class in history immediately comprehends the logic of its own historical situation, in epochs of transition: a long period of disorientation and confusion may be necessary for it to learn the necessary rules of its own sovereignty. The Western nobility in the tense age of 17th century Absolutism was no exception: it had to be broken in to the harsh and unwanted discipline of its own conditions of government.

So, in effect, the nobility had to beat itself senseless for its own good which is a coherent explanation or sorts if the nobility = the Absolutist state, but it is patently absurd if this assumption is discounted: Something which Anderson refuses to do, despite making such ridiculous arguments as the above, or that found in the following rather incredible passage on French absolutism:

The higher nobility was forced to reside at Versailles…and divorced from effective lordship over its territorial domains. These measures…did not alter the objective bond between the aristocracy and the State, henceforward more efficacious than ever in protecting the basic interests of the noble class.

And then we have the following:

Fittingly, the historical collapse of the French Absolutist State was tied directly to the inflexibility of its feudal formation. The fiscal crisis which detonated the revolution of 1789 was provoked by its juridical inability to tax the class which it represented. The very rigidity of the nexus between State and nobility ultimately precipitated their common downfall.

This inability to disentangle the State as an actor in its own right, and to consider it in a Jouvenelian light as subject to influences of a non-class based nature is the great flaw of Anderson’s work because despite these (unfortunately frequent) diversions into incredible logical acrobatics to paint the Absolutist state as being a vehicle of the nobility, it is a fantastic piece of scholarship. Anderson has a keen eye for the role of centralization in the development of the State and he does have an argument that this centralization could not have been achieved without a noble class to man the structures at key points, and that it couldn’t have been completed with their support and, as such, without being in alliance with the nobility in a way. This aspect of the work marks it as a classic in my eyes.

Take for example Anderson’s analysis of the initial success, and then ultimate failure, of the Habsburgs in centralizing their Spanish territories.  It was, as with its Eastern possessions, a great failure of the Habsburgs that they couldn’t centralize the underlying structures of their territorial holdings. It was the ready supply of bullion from the Americas which allowed them to centralize on a basis which did not require this internal reorganization. This money allowed the Habsburgs a level of autonomy of action in relation to the nobility not seen by other monarchs who would have been unable to raise funds with which to centralize without basically begging from their nobility. This autonomy gave the Spanish an early lead in centralization and gave them a military lead, but this only spurred their competitors to follow suit and centralize based on their own resources, obviously as a result of being unable to access American gold. French and English reorganization of an internal and more robust nature followed and its success was based on the threat posed by this initial Spanish centralization: a clear example of the impetus supplied by geopolitical threats.  And this internal reorganization was far more stable and far more significant in the long run than the Habsburg’s attempt, an attempt which ultimately collapsed with the loss of Spanish bullion.

Over in the East, Anderson’s analysis is no less excellent. The many different examples he provides vary only in so much as the relative strength of the nobility varied, and this was largely a result of geopolitical factors in many cases. I have previously mentioned the example of the Hungarian nobility which could call in Ottoman support, be we also have this in the example of the Polish nobility which was unique among the European orders in that it managed to resist the creation of an Absolutist State down to its complete destruction as a republic of sorts. The Polish nobility managed to constrain centralization quite well, and even the repeated invasions by Sweden, Russia, and the rest of its neighbor’s didn’t push the nobility to embrace a centralized monarchy. Every trick seems to have been employed to avoid centralisation, including the familiar example of setting up a foreign monarch who would have been left with no power base within Poland. This intransigence marked the total failure of the Polish State and led to its partition. In contrast, the Swedish invasion of Northern Europe which failed to stimulated centralization in Poland did do so in Prussia with the Hohenzollern’s creation of a standing army and in Russia with the reforms taken by the Tsar.

What is very strange about Anderson’s geopolitical recognition is that this again doesn’t fit with his class analysis. Anderson contention with regards to the Eastern Absolutisms is that they developed in direct response to Western challenges, and that these moves towards centralization were marked by different class influences and conflicts as a result of the more backward nature of feudal formations in the East. What would be far easier to say, but something not allowed by his class analysis, would be that monarchical centralization in the East, as in the West, was marked by a necessary element of bargaining between the central Power and the subsidiaries which colored the various centralization. This places the locus away from the class itself as being a driver and merely makes the class one element within a complex interplay of factors. So, whereas Anderson continuously makes a large deal of the fact that Eastern Absolutist States removed the coercive ability of the nobility vis a vis the peasantry, but replaced this with the State enforcement of serfdom, this becomes less a case of the State being a tool of the dominant class, but more as being an entity whose actions are colored by the dominant class because of contingency, something which is overridden in instances when the geopolitical needs of the central Power override the potential conflict created by disregarding the dominant class. Something which occurs, as noted by Anderson, in the case of the abolition of serfdom in Prussia following the victory of Napolean at Jena in 1811, and in Russia following defeat in Crimea in 1861.

Another and deeper criticism that can be made of Anderson’s class analysis is that class analysis clearly requires that classes are in themselves spontaneous and form irrespective of authority. So, if, for example, Anderson makes the case that the State, or central Power creates classes, then class analysis fails quite spectacularly. How can the State be a tool of the dominant class if it created the dominant class and creates all subsequent classes? But this is something which I will argue does come through from Anderson’s own work. One example is provided by his analysis of the actions taken by these Eastern European Absolutist States to alter the very nature of the nobility beneath them. Arguably, yes the nobility continued to be land based, so if you wish to classify the land owning class as simply that, a land owning class, then there wasn’t any change, but the nature of this ownership did change, repeatedly, and at the instigation of the Tsar or the Elector, or whomever was in the central position. At one time they enforced (and created) serfdom, at others they abolished it. Sometimes this would cycle. At other times they would disperse land on one basis, then another at other times. Again, in the case of Bohemia, the entire noble class was replaced. And it was the central power which brought into being an understanding of ownership which was simplified, unified and universalized in the form of capitalist ownership and the expansion of monetary forms of relationship which thus created the bourgeoisie.

Despite these, criticisms of the class analysis, it is a book well worth your time.