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Juan Donoso Cortés

Juan Donoso Cortés, marqués de Valdegamas, 1809–1853

1,308 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Along with Count Joseph de Maistre and Viscount Louis de Bonald, Juan Donoso Cortés, the Marquis of Valdegamas, is part of the triad of the great counter-revolutionary thinkers of the 19th century whose message is still relevant today. In Italy, those aspects of Donoso Cortés’ teachings that are most important in our eyes are hardly known.

The Italian translation of his Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism was recently republished. Although this text was regarded as his principal work, this is not the place to find his most valuable points of reference; the book is far too full of often tedious considerations typical of “lay theology” which is based heavily on the dogmas, ideas, and myths of the Catholic religion, which does not alter the fact that several of his positions could have been situated in a wider framework that is “traditional” in the higher sense. What one should retain from this book is primarily the idea of a “theology of political currents”: Donoso affirms that there is inevitably a hidden religious (or antireligious, “diabolic”) dimension to various ideologies over and above the external, purely social aspects that enjoy a kind of primacy in the eyes of the majority of today’s specialists.

Beyond what he says about Catholicism, Donoso Cortés’ critique of liberalism more or less repeats the discoveries of the men of the conservative and counter-revolutionary Right, led by Metternich (who was an admirer of Donoso) regarding a fatal chain of causes and effects. The liberalism of the time, bête noire of the Continent’s conservative regimes, was a way of clearing the road; Marx and Engels ascribed to it the function of destroying all preceding traditional institutions, while announcing cynically that “the rope was measured” and “the hangman was at the door.” The hangman corresponded to the next step of subversion, socialism and communism, which, supplanting liberalism, would continue and complete the work of destruction. Donoso saw socialism as an inverted religion; its force—he wrote—is due to the fact that it contains a theology, and it is destructive because it is a “satanic theology.”

But the lessons of the Essay are far less important than those of Donoso’s other writings, especially his two famous speeches to the Spanish Parliament, which contain historical analysis and prognostication of almost prophetic lucidity. The revolutionary movements of 1848 and 1849 alarmed Donoso. He foresaw a fatal process of social leveling and massification supported by technological progress and the development of communications. Donoso even made the extraordinary prediction (given the time it was formulated) that Russia (which was then Tsarist) and not England (which was blamed for exporting the subversion inherent in liberalism) would be the center of subversion by linking revolutionary socialism to Russian politics (a prediction verified only in our time with the advent of Soviet Communism). On this point, Donoso agreed with the great historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his essay Democracy in America had seen Russia and America as the principal centers of the processes of subversion.

Donoso had a presentiment of the acceleration of events, the approach of the moment of “radical negations” and “sovereign assertions” (llega el dia de las negaciones radicales y de las afirmaciones soberanas); the moment that everything regarded as progress in the technological and social field can only favor. He also guessed that massification and the destruction of old organic articulations would lead to forms of totalitarian centralization.

For Donoso, the situation seemed so bad that solutions were hardly possible. Donoso noted the decline of the age of monarchical legitimism, because “there are no longer any kings; not one of them has the courage to be a king other than by the will of the people.” In addition, following Maistre, he held that the essence of sovereignty, of the authority of the State, is the power of absolute decision, without any higher authority, in a manner analogous to papal infallibility. This is why he dismissed bourgeois parliamentarism and liberalism, the “class that discusses”—that is unable to rise to equal the situation at the decisive time.

In this context, however, Donoso also recognized the danger of a new Caesarism, in the deleterious sense of boundless power in the hands of private individuals without any higher legitimacy, exerted not on a people but on anonymous masses. He predicted the arrival of a “plebeian of satanic grandeur” who will act in the name and cause of a sovereign who is not of this world. But since any legitimist conservatism seemed no longer to possess vital force, Donoso sought a substitute that could be used to bar the way of the forces and powers rising from the depths. Thus he became the defender of dictatorship as the counter-revolutionary idea and the antithesis of anarchy, chaos, and subversion—but only as the last resort or for want of anything better. But he also spoke about a dictadura coronada. The expression, undoubtedly, is strong; it implies the antidemocratic “decisionist” idea. It recognizes the need for a power that decides absolutely (which for Maistre is the essential attribute of the State), but on the level of a higher dignity, as the adjective coronada indicates.

It is nevertheless true that any concretization of this theory encounters obvious difficulties. In Donoso’s time, dynastic traditions still existed in Europe, and the theory in question could only have been applied if one of the representatives of these traditions had revived the old maxim rex est qui nihil metuit (“the king is he who fears nothing”). Certain forms of authoritarian constitutionalism, in particular Bismarck’s Germany, could take the same form. But in a system where dynastic traditions have been deposed or have disappeared, it is not easy to find a concrete point of reference to reinforce the dignity of “dictadura,” which is what Donoso explicitly called his aims, seeing it as a political solution.

Moreover, today it seems quite clear, because we have seen the actual birth of authoritarian regimes to dam up disorder and anarchy, although on the model of the “regimes of the colonels,” which generally lack the higher dimension of the counter-revolution.

Donoso knew how to pose problems of fundamental importance in a pregnant manner, while predicting situations in the process of ripening with precision. Problems, however, that the course of time makes less and less susceptible of true solutions, those that correspond to sovereign assertions in opposition to radical negations. Donoso died in 1853 at the age of only 44. But he could fully decipher the dreadful portents represented by the first European crises in 1848 and 1849 long before their general consequences became really visible.

In spite of the interest that he stirred during his lifetime, only a few years after his death, Donoso was practically forgotten in Europe, and his name was added to the superb troop of unsung 19th century mavericks who were subjected to a conspiracy of silence. Only more recent events were to again draw attention to him. In an excellent book, Donoso Cortés in gesamt­europäischer Interpretation [Donoso Cortés: A Pan-European Interpretation] (1950), Carl Schmitt emphasized that of the two antagonistic currents of Donoso’s time—socialist revolution and counter-revolution—the first experienced subsequent systematic developments while the latter did not.

Schmitt’s remark was made in 1950. But since then, the situation has fortunately changed, with the formation of an intellectual Right and the renewal of the idea of Tradition. And today Donoso Cortés is a source of useful topics of reflection in the eventuality of the very moment of absolute decision about which he had spoken.

Source: Julius Evola, “Donoso Cortés,” in Explorations: Men and Problems, trans. Philippe Baillet (Puiseaux: Pardès, 1989).

Translator’s Note:

The principal works of Donoso Cortés in English are:

Donoso Cortés: Readings in Political Theology

Selected Works of Juan Donoso Cortés

Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism

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One Comment

  1. White Republican
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    R. A. Herrera’s Donoso Cortés: Cassandra of the Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) is a useful short biography. It is one of the few works in English that deal with Donoso Cortés in detail, and new copies might still be available from book dealers. Donoso Cortés is also the subject of one or two chapters in Philippe Baillet’s Pour la contre-révolution blanche (Akribeia, 2010).

    Julius Evola’s essay “Historiographie de Droite” in Explorations: hommes et problèmes would make a good sequel to this article.

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