Althusius and Federalism as Grand Design
Daniel J. Elazar
At the very beginning of his classic study of the Israeli kibbutz as a model for
the reconstruction of society along cooperative lines, Martin Buber described
the proper social order as a consociatio consociationum, deliberately selecting
Johannes Althusius' formulation as the starting point from which to develop his
own realistic utopia.1 Bernard Susser has described Buber's politics as anarcho-federalism.2
In that light it is clear why Buber found the kibbutz, as a voluntary commune,
the first building block in what he hoped would be a comprehensive cooperative
society linking social and political institutions in the manner described by Althusius.
In 1973, I interviewed Jovan Djordjevic, the doyen of Yugoslav political scientists,
a close associate of Marshall Tito, and author of the various Yugoslav and republic
constitutions during the first three decades of the present Yugoslav regime.
In our discussion, Professor Djordjevic indicated how much the construction
of that regime had been influenced by Althusian ideas and models.3
Somewhere between Buber's utopian vision and the effort to concretize Althusian
models in Yugoslavia is the theory of consociationalism developed by Arend Lipjhart,
Gerhard Lembruch, and others.4 Borrowing that distinctively Althusian term,
the consociational theorists attempted to explain what is in effect a non-territorial
federal division of powers that constitutes a democratic alternative to either
Jacobin or majoritarian democracy and to demonstrate how that model has been
applied in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria
and Israel, among others. Studies of consociational democracy in action have
repeatedly demonstrated that consociational arrangements work best and are longest-lived
where they are combined with territorial federalism, in other words where both
dimensions of the Althusian solution grand design are present.5
As Althusius himself was careful to acknowledge, the first grand federalist
design was that of the Bible, most particularly the Hebrew Scriptures or Old
Testament.6 For him, it also was the best -- the ideal polity based on right
principles. Biblical thought is federal from first to last -- from God's covenant
with Noah establishing the biblical equivalent of what philosophers were later
to term natural law (Genesis, Chapter 9) to the Jews' reaffirmation of the Sinai
covenant under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah thereby adopting the Torah
as the constitution of their second commonwealth (Ezra Chapter 10; Nehemiah
Chapter 8). The covenant (Latin: foedus from whence federal) motif is central
to the biblical world view, the basis of all relationships, the mechanism for
defining and allocating authority, and the foundation of the biblical political
The biblical grand design for humankind is federal in three ways: (1) It is
based upon a network of covenants beginning with those between God and man,
which weave the web of human, especially political, relationships in a federal
way -- that is through pact, association and consent. In the 16th century, this
world view was recreated by the Reformed wing of Protestantism as the federal
theology from which Althusius, the Huguenots, the Scottish covenanters, and
the English and American Puritans developed political theories and principles
of constitutional design.
(2) The classic biblical commonwealth was a fully articulated federation of
tribes instituted and reaffirmed by covenant to function under a common constitution
and laws. Any and all constitutional changes in the Israelite polity were introduced
through covenanting and even after the introduction of the monarchy, the federal
element was maintained until most of the tribal structures were destroyed by
external forces. The biblical vision of the restored commonwealth in the messianic
era envisages the reconstitution of the tribal federation. Certain of the American
Puritans and many Americans of the Revolutionary era among others, were inspired
by the Biblical polity to seek federal arrangements for their polities.
(3) The biblical vision for the "end of days" -- the messianic era
-- not only sees a restoration of Israel's tribal system but what is, for all
intents and purposes, a world confederation or league of nations, each preserving
its own integrity while accepting a common Divine covenant and constitutional
order. This order will establish appropriate covenantal relationships for the
entire world. Kant's and Buber's grand designs draw heavily on that vision.
In some respects, all subsequent federalist grand designs until Proudhoun's
in the mid-nineteenth century are derived from or somehow related to that scriptural
precedent. This is true even though there were distinctions between Jewish and
Christian, Catholic and Protestant, and religious and secular grand designs
within the biblical tradition. A grand design in this sense is a comprehensive
proposal for developing the ideal polity that will function in harmony with
the principal forces in the universe. It is meant to provide a basis for organizing
all aspects of the polity and its social order in the manner of Scriptural law
and teachings. Moreover, it must be comprehensively federal; that is to say,
every aspect of the polity is to be informed by federal principles and arrangements
in the manner of the network of biblical covenants. Third, it should attempt
to be realistic, that is to say, grounded in a realistic understanding of human
nature, its limits and possibilities.7
Each grand design is created out of a series of building blocks or self-governing
cells from the smallest, most intimate connections to the universal commonwealth,
each of which is internally organized and linked to the others by some form
of consensual relationship. Each is oriented toward some higher end of human
harmony to be attained in the fullness of time. Finally, each grand design in
some way combines the political and the redemptive or religious dimension as
well in the quest for the good commonwealth if not the holy one. A federalist
grand design is one in which the universe is understood in federalistic terms
and the comprehensive polity is constructed accordingly.
Following through on this classification, Althusius must be considered a figure
located at the intersection of the major trends of Western culture. One of the
Protestant Christian grand designers, he straddled the Reformation and the opening
of the modern epoch. Accordingly, he made an effort to synthesize and somewhat
secularize Reformed Protestant thought on the ideal polity and to push it in
concrete, practical directions.
The road to modern democracy began with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th
century, particularly among those exponents of Reformed Protestantism (later
rather mistakenly referred to as Calvinism) who developed a theology and politics
that set the Western world back on the road to popular self-government, emphasizing
liberty and equality.8 While the original founders and spokesmen for Reformed
Protestantism did much political writing, their writing was either theological
or polemic in character. Only at the end of the first century of the Reformation
did a political philosopher emerge out of the Reformed tradition who built a
systematic political philosophy out of the Reformed experience by synthesizing
the political experience of the Holy Roman Empire with the political ideas of
the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism. That man, Johannes Althusius,
presented his political philosophy in a classic work, Politica Methodice Digesta,
first published in 1603 and revised in final form in 1614.
Althusius' Politics was the first book to present a comprehensive theory of
federal republicanism rooted in a covenantal view of human society derived from,
but not dependent on, a theological system. It presented a theory of polity-building
based on the polity as a compound political association established by its citizens
through their primary associations on the basis of consent rather than a reified
state, imposed by a ruler or an elite.
In the ensuing struggle over the direction of European state-building in the
17th century, the Althusian view which called for building of states on federal
principles, as compound political associations, lost to the view of Jean Bodin
and the statists who called for the establishment of reified centralized states
where all powers were lodged in a divinely-ordained king at the top of the power
pyramid or in a sovereign center. While Althusian thought had its exponents
until the latter part of the century, after that it subsequently disappeared.
It remained for the Americans to invent modern federalism on the basis of modern
individualism and thus reintroduce the idea of the state as a political association
rather than a reified entity.
In the 19th century, one party of German thinkers seeking the unification of
Germany on federal principles, epitomized by Otto von Gierke, rediscovered Althusius.9
There, too, however, Germany's movement toward reified statehood and finally
totalitarianism left Althusian ideas out in the cold.
Althusian ideas remained peripheral even to students of modern federalism since
modern federalism, was so strongly connected with the principle of individualism
that there was no need to consider the Althusian effort to deal with the problems
of family, occupation, and community along with individual rights in establishing
political order. Only recently, as we have come to see the limits of unrestrained
individualism, both philosophically and practically, have political scientists
begun to explore problems of liberty in relation to primordial groups -- families,
ethnic communities and the like. Here it was discovered that Althusius had much
to offer contemporary society.
Martin Buber was perhaps the first to suggest how Althusian ideas could serve
20th century man, in part basing his political works on Althusius. Carl Friedrich,
the great academic exponent of German liberalism, revived academic interest
in Althusius with his publication of the Politics in its Latin version with
an extensive introduction.10 More recently, various scholars such as Frederick
Carney (who translated the major part of the Politics into English), Patrick
Reilly and Thomas Heuglin have explored Althusius' ideas.11 In his native Germany
there has been a renewed interest in Althusian ideas as a foundation for German
federal democracy.12 In Yugoslavia Althusian influence has been a powerful counterweight
to Communism as the basis for introducing a measure of republican liberty.
There is some dispute among scholars regarding the relationship between Althusius
and federalism. Otto von Gierke, the first scholar to try to restore Althusius
to his rightful place in the history of political thought, saw him as essentially
a medievalist, seeking to reconstruct medieval corporatism for a post-medieval
and changing time. Carl Friedrich, on the other hand, the most important figure
in the twentieth century Althusian revival, viewed Althusius as the forerunner
of modern federalism. Today, Patrick Reilly and to some extent Thomas Heuglin
follow the Gierkian approach, while Frederick Carney and this writer follow
that of Friedrich.
As a student of federalism in all its forms and a federalist, I would suggest
that it is necessary to look to Althusius not only in historical perspective
as a transitional figure from medieval corporatism to modern federalism, but
as a source of ideas and models for a post-modern federalism. Pre-modern federalism
had a strong tribal or corporatist foundation, one in which individuals were
inevitably defined as members of permanent, multi-generational groups and whose
rights and obligations derived entirely or principally from group membership.
Modern federalism broke away from this model to emphasize polities built strictly
or principally on the basis of individuals and their rights, allowing little
or no space for recognition or legitimation of intergenerational groups.
A post-modern federalism must reckon with one of the basic principles of post-modern
politics, namely that individuals are to be secured in their individual rights,
yet groups are also to be recognized as real, legitimate, and requiring an appropriate
status. Althusius is the first, and one of the few political philosophers who
has attempted to provide for this synthesis. Needless to say, his late-medieval
thought cannot be transposed whole into the post-modern epoch in the latter
part of the twentieth century. But in part because he wrote in a period of epochal
transition from the late-medieval to the modern epoch, much of his system, its
ideas, and even its terminology, may be adaptable or at least form the basis
for a post-modern federalism. This paper does not pretend to be able to make
that adaptation or synthesis. At most it will suggest some lines of thought
and investigation that can lead us in that direction.
Here we can only outline some of the salient points in Althusius' thought.
1) The foundations of Althusius' political philosophy are covenantal through
and through. Pactum is the only basis for legitimate political organization.
More than that, Althusius develops a covenantal-federal basis that is comprehensive.
Not only is the universal association constructed as a federation of communities,
but politics as such is federal through and through, based as it is on union
and communication (in the sense of sharing) as expressed in the idea that its
members are symbiotes.
Althusius' dual emphasis on federalism as a relationship and on sharing as
the basis of federal relationships has turned out to be a basic axiom of federalism.
While there can be different forms of a federal relationship and sharing can
be expressed in different ways, federalism remains essentially a relationship
and sharing its guiding principle. The polity, then, is a symbiotic association
based upon symbiosis and constituted by symbiotes through communication.
2) Althusius deals with the problem of sovereignty, then becoming the critical
juridical problem for modern federalism, by vesting it in the people as a whole.
On one hand this is what makes the good polity a res publica or commonwealth.
On the other it also makes it possible to be a consociatio consociationum, a
universitas composed of collegia, since the people can delegate the exercise
of sovereign power to different bodies as they please (according to their sovereign
The problem of indivisible sovereignty raised by Jean Bodin became the rock
upon which pre-modern confederation foundered. The modern state system was based
on the principle of indivisible sovereignty which in an age of increasingly
monolithic and energetic states became a sin qua non for political existence.
Thus the medieval world of states based on shared sovereignty had to give way.
It was not until the American founders invented modern federalism that a practical
solution to this problem was found enabling the development of modern federation
as a form of government. Althusius provided the theoretical basis for dealing
with the sovereignty question over 175 years earlier (no doubt unbeknownst to
them) and gave it the necessary philosophic grounding.
The revival of interest in Althusius in our time has accompanied the revival
of possibilities of confederation. The European Community is the leading example
of post-modern confederation; there are now three or four others as well. Although
Althusius himself does not develop a theory of confederation per se, his particular
kind of federal thinking in which he sees his universal association as constituted
by comprehensive organic communities has clearly had something to contribute
to an emerging post-modern theory of confederation.
Althusius further understands political sovereignty as the constituent power.
This is at once a narrower and more republican definition of sovereignty whose
plenary character is harnessed as the power to constitute government -- a power
which is vested in the organic body of the commonwealth, i.e., the people. Moreover,
once the people act, their sovereignty is located in the jus regni, the fundamental
right/law of the realm, namely the constitution.
This Althusian concept has important implications for contemporary international
law which is grappling with the problem of how to mitigate the effects of the
principle of absolute and undivided sovereignty inherited from modern jurisprudence
in an increasingly interdependent world. Even where the principle is not challenged,
the practical exercise of absolute sovereignty is not longer possible. Moreover,
there are an increasing number of situations in which even the principle cannot
be applied as it once was. One way out in such cases has been to vest sovereignty
in the constitutional document itself, that is to say, in what Althusius would
refer to as the jus regni. Vesting sovereignty in a constitutional document
is entirely consonant with a covenantal federalism.
3) Althusius serves as a bridge between the biblical foundations of Western
civilization and modern political ideas and institutions. As such he translates
the biblical political tradition into useful modern forms. In this he must be
contrasted with Spinoza who a few years later in his Theological Political Tractate
makes the case for a new modern political science by presumably demonstrating
that the biblical political tradition applied only to ancient Israel and ceased
to be relevant once the Jews lost their state (unless and until the Jewish state
was restored). Althusius confronts the same problems of modern politics without
jettisoning or denying the biblical foundations. In part this rendered him less
useful during the modern epoch when his unbending Calvinist emphasis on the
necessary links between religion, state and society, ran encounter the development
of the modern secular state.
The Althusian version of the Calvinist model of the religiously homogeneous
polity is not likely to be revived in the post-modern epoch. On the other hand,
we are beginning to recover an old understanding that no civil society can exist
without some basis in transcendent norms which obligate and bind the citizens
and establish the necessary basis for trust and communication. The connection
between the decalog and jus as both law and right, while hardly original to
Althusius, may offer possibilities for renewed development in our times. Althusius
adopts a conventional understanding of the two tables of the Decalogue of his
time, namely that the first table addresses itself to piety and the second to
justice, both of which are necessary foundations for civil society.
4) Very important in this connection, is Althusius' development of the concept
of jus regni, which he derives explicitly from the biblical mishpat hamelukhah
(law of the kingdom), enunciated in I Samuel 10 and elsewhere, to serve as constitution
of the universal association, at one and the same time establishing the constitution
as a civil rather than a religious document, yet one which has its source in
or at least is in harmony with divine and natural law. This is precisely the
task of the mishpat hamelikah which constitutes a civil law separate from the
Torah but in harmony with it.13 While contemporary political scientists emphasize
the secular character of modern constitutionalism, examination of most contemporary
constitutions reveals that they reflect the same combination of claims, namely
linkage to transcendent law, more often divine than natural, yet human artifacts
that are civil in character.14 While in recent years we have made considerable
advances in developing an understanding of constitutional design, in doing so
we have neglected this linkage and its implications for right law that Althusius
calls to our attention.
5) While Althusius was clearly a product of his times and the ideal state of
his design is one which reflects the class and reference group structure of
16th century German society, it is significant that Althusius leaves open the
possibility for democracy as we know it, including female participation in public
life and office-holding, and a more classless and egalitarian basis for participation
generally. Since I do not have a sufficient command of the Latin text to properly
explore the issue, I cannot say whether Althusius has an esoteric as well as
an exoteric teaching, but this suggests that there may be a hidden dimension
to be explored in the Politics and Althusian thought generally. Nor is the federal
aspect insignificant here. Althusius suggests different forms and extents of
participation in the different arenas of government as one possible way to extend
participation in public life to groups heretofore disenfranchised in the world
that he knew.
A contemporary Althusian politics should address itself to the same possibilities;
for example, direct democracy for the most local assemblies, somewhat indirect
democracy for county institutions, and republican or representative government
for what Althusius would have called provincial and we would call state land,
or cantonal institutions, and for the universal association or general government.
6) Althusius recognizes the modern distinction between public and private realms,
yet also preserves the connection between them. In this respect, he, like the
moderns who were to follow him, breaks with classic nations of the all-embracing
polis to recognize the legitimacy of a sphere of private activity that is constitutionally
by right, thereby preventing totalitarianism. Yet he recognizes the connection
between the simple and private dissociations of family and collegium and the
mixed and public associations of city, province and commonwealth. Indeed the
relationship between private and public spheres and associations is a major
concern of his as it is increasingly to those of us who must reckon with the
realities of the post-modern epoch in which everything is tied into everything
One of the advantages of the modern epoch was that it was possible to more
sharply separate the public and private spheres because it was a period which
fostered increased distance between them. This is no longer the case as the
postmodern communications technology requires more Althusian communication,
that is to say, as everything impinges upon everything else, more sharing is
necessary. Althusius' emphasis on the existence of both natural and civil associations
in the private sphere reflects his emphasis on what we would call the natural
right of association. The family is a natural association based on two relationships:
conjugal and kinship. Since the nuclear family is a conjugal relationship, even
it is covenantal. Naturally the collegium or civil association in both its secular
and ecclesiastical forms is covenantal.
Mixed and public associations are equally covenantal with the city as a covenantal
republic formed of a union of collegia, the province a covenantal union of cities,
and the commonwealth a covenantal union of provinces (this is so even though
Althusius talks of the rights of the province as an arm of the commonwealth
and not simply a union of cities). Covenant for Althusius are the ways in which
symbiotes can initiate and maintain associations. They are products of both
necessity and volition.
7) Althusius' definition of politics as the effective ordering of communication
(of things, services and rights) offers us a starting point for understanding
political phenomena that speaks to contemporary political science. This leads
us to the second half of Althusian thought: that dealing with statesmanship,
prudence and administration. It would be possible to say of the second half
of Althusian teaching that it is general to all of politics and not specifically
to federalism, except that this would do violence to the first half of Althusian
teaching which sees all politics as federal politics.
1. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).
2. Bernard Susser, "The Anarcho-Federalism of Martin Buber", Publius
9 No. 4 pp. 103-116.
3. See also Juoan Djordjevic, "Remarks on the Yugoslav Model of Federalism",
Publius 5, No. 2 (Spring 1975), pp. 77-78.
4. See Arend Liphart, Consociational Democracy, World Politics 21 (1968/69),
5. See Federalism and Consociationalism (a special issue of Publius) 15, No.
2, Center for the Study of Federalism, Temple University and North Texas State
University (Spring 1985).
6. No adequate discussion of the federal dimension of the biblical world view
is presently available. Two of the best available treatments of this point are
to be found in the works of Althusius and Buber. See, for example, Johannes
Althusius, Politics, trans. Frederick Carney (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964) and
Martin Buber, Kingship of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1967). This writer
has treated the subject in "Government in Biblical Israel," Tradition
(Spring-Summer, 1973) and "Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political
Tradition," Jewish Journal of Sociology (June, 1978). The Israel-based
Workshop in the Covenant Idea and the Jewish Political Tradition sponsored by
the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Bar-Ilan University Department
of Political Studies and its American-based counterpart, the Workshop on Covenant
and Politics sponsored by the Center for the Study of Federalism, are probing
that issue among others. The principal work on the former is available in Daniel
J. Elazar, Kinship and Consent, The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary
Manifestations (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America and Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs, 1983). The principal work of the latter is available in
Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid, eds. Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism
(Lanham, Md.: University Press of America and the Center for the Study of Federalism,
7. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Federalism as Grand Design (Lanham, MD: Center
for the Study of Federalism and University Press of America, 1987).
8. Cf., for example, R.H. Murray, The Political Consequences of the Reformation
(New York: Russell and Russell, 1960).
9. Otto Von Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Ages. Translated with
and Introduction by F.W. Maitland (Cambridge, England: The University Press,
1900); reprinted 1968.
10. Carl J. Friedrich, ed. The Politica Mehodice Digesta of Johannes Althusius
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932).
11. Frederick Carney, trans., Johannes Althusius Politics, Boston: Beacon Press,
1964; Thomas Heuglin, "Johannes Althusius: Medieval Constitutionalist or
Modern Federaist?" Publius 9 No. 4 (1979): 9-42; For a different perspective
on Althusius, see: Patrick Riley, "Three Seventeenth Century German Theorists
of Federalism: Althusius, Hugo and Leibniz" in Publius 6 No. 3 (1976):
12. See the work of the Johannes-Althusius-Gesellschaft e. V.
13. On mishpat hamelukhah, "king, kingship: The Covenant of Monarchy,"
in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 10 (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972) pp. 1019; also see:
Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization
from Biblical Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)
Part I Epoch IV.
14. See Albert Blaustein, and Gilbert H. Flanz, Constitutions of the Countries
of the World (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1984).
Inserito da: Veronesi in data 6/1/2005, 13:36
Scritto in Inglese per la parte Federalismo di Internet Padano
Modifica questo articolo