Most of the 18th-century political theorists with the biggest reputations come from rather out-of-the-way places, at least in geopolitical terms: Vico from Naples; Hume and Adam Smith from Edinburgh; Rousseau from Geneva; Kant from Königsberg. But because the 18th century was also, in the end, an Age of Revolution, its two most important political thinkers do not really belong in this club of international superstars. One, James Madison from Virginia, is more than just a superstar in the United States. He is one of the secular gods of the American Republic, the architect of its Constitution and the author of many of the Federalist Papers written in its defence, including ‘Federalist No. 10’, which is one of the Republic’s holy texts. This makes the rest of the world uncomfortable, and Madison’s ideas can often seem too American to be true (in contrast to Rousseau, whose ideas can often seem too true to be Swiss). The other, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès from Provence, is not mistrusted outside his native France so much as ignored. Even in France he is more of an intellectual curiosity than an object of reverence. The French Republic has had too many constitutions, too many false gods and too many false dawns to go in for the hero-worship of its founding fathers that gives Americans such satisfaction. Sieyès contributed to some of the shortest-lived of those constitutions, and he was responsible for more than one of the false dawns. Nevertheless, he was a political thinker of genius, one to compare with any of the great names of the 18th century. And he understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the new world that both the American and French Revolutions helped to create.
Another obstacle to a wider appreciation of Sieyès’s ideas in the English-speaking world has been his name. Not Sieyès, though that is tricky enough (it should be pronounced something like seeay-ez, but in English it more often comes out as c-s, like the gas), nor Emmanuel Joseph, but Abbé. Where he is known, he is almost always known as the Abbé Sieyès, which he became when he was ordained at the age of 24, in 1772. His formal education had taken place at a seminary in Paris, and then at the Sorbonne, where he read theology. His public life began when, as secretary to the Bishop of Chartres, he was appointed vicar-general of the diocese in 1780, and his involvement in local government started in 1787, when he became a representative of the clergy in the provincial assembly of Orléans. None of this helps his claim to be taken seriously as a theorist of modern politics, and the unsuspecting reader could be forgiven for fearing the worst. But Sieyès was not a religious man, and his work is free of theological speculation; it is entirely, almost shockingly, worldly. The Church was a career for him, until 1788, when he discovered his true vocation, which was politics.
The event that made him was the decision of Louis XVI to convene the Estates-General, in a desperate attempt to resolve the financial crisis that was threatening to bankrupt the French state. It had not met since 1614, and no one, including Louis and his advisers, knew what to expect from it this time, though almost everyone had their hopes (Louis hoped for new taxes, the various estates for new rights). Sieyès had no such hopes, because he did not believe the realm should, or could, be divided into three estates, each with separate rights of representation. For Sieyès, only the third estate counted, and the nobility and the clergy had no rights separate from those of the people. By the logic of this argument, there was no such thing as the realm, since the realm was made up of the three estates; instead, there was only something called the ‘nation’, which was constituted by the 25 or 26 million individuals who inhabited it. During the last six months of 1788, Sieyès wrote three pamphlets in which he pursued this line of thought as far as it would go. The second of them, entitled What Is the Third Estate?, was published in January 1789, when it caused a sensation. When one reads it now, in this excellent new edition by Michael Sonenscher, where it appears for the first time in English alongside the other pamphlets Sieyès wrote in 1788, it is still easy to see why. It is not a beautiful or polished piece of writing, it is poorly organised and it is probably too long for what it has to say; but it is thrilling in its remorselessness.
Sieyès steadfastly refused to shirk any of the implications of his argument. He begins with three questions, which became the best-known things he ever wrote: ‘1. What is the Third Estate? – Everything. 2. What, until now, has it been in the existing political order? – Nothing. 3. What does it want to be? – Something.’ If the answer to the first question was correct, then the answer to the second question was irrelevant, which made the answer to the third question a big mistake. Other champions of the people were hoping that the calling of the Estates-General would be an occasion for the third estate to assert itself against the other two, to make something more of itself. But if the people were everything, then it made no sense to demand that they should be better represented within an assembly of the nation. They had to be the whole of that assembly. The obvious rejoinder to this is that one estate cannot be the whole of an assembly made up of three estates. Sieyès’s reply could hardly have been clearer: ‘The Third Estate, it is said, cannot form the Estates-General all by itself. Very well! So much the better! It will form a National Assembly.’ And this, thanks to Sieyès, is what happened.
He made it happen from within the Estates-General, to which the third estate of Paris elected him. Once there, he presented on 10 June and 15 June 1789 the two motions that brought about the transformation of the Estates-General into a National Assembly, so initiating the French Revolution. As an elected representative of the people, Sieyès revealed himself to be a successful political opportunist, but he was no orator. He owed his place in the chamber to his three pamphlets, which had made him famous. They do not read like election addresses – they are too intellectually fearless for that – but they do read like the work of someone for whom political thought is a matter of real and almost desperate urgency. In this respect, they are nothing like the Federalist Papers, which had appeared in New York only a year previously. Though these too were motivated by urgent questions, and though they were explicitly written for an election (in order to persuade the people of New York State to ratify the new Federal Constitution), they are marked by an air of measured calm, which explains much of their enduring appeal. There is no sense of desperation, but a steady confidence in the power of good arguments, from the people with the best ones. As a revolutionary, Sieyès reads less like Madison, and more like Lenin – not the Lenin of 1917 but the Lenin of 1905, during the first, aborted Russian Revolution, when he was driven almost to distraction by the unwillingness of his fellow Marxists to seize the moment and make something happen. For most of Lenin’s revolutionary colleagues in Russia, the 1905 Revolution wasn’t quite right – it had come too soon, they hadn’t had enough time to prepare, the situation on the ground was too confusing, none of the necessary institutions was in place, much better to wait for the right moment. Their tactics, Lenin said, were like the famous advertisement for fly powder: just catch the fly, then sprinkle it with the powder, and the fly will die. Sieyès, like Lenin, believed in upending all available stocks of fly powder on the old regime, and seeing who was left standing. ‘A privileged class,’ Sieyès wrote, ‘is like a pestilence upon the nation.’ In a related image, also somewhat Lenin-like in its apparent ruthlessness, he responded to the anxieties of those who wondered what would happen to the first two estates if the third estate became everything: ‘It is like asking what place a malignant tumour should have in the body of someone who is ill, as it devours and ruins his health. It simply has to be neutralised.’
Yet despite all this, and despite the claims of some Marxists that Sieyès provides a naive foreshadowing of their own doctrines (just replace ‘third estate’ with ‘proletariat’ in each of his three celebrated questions), the significance of his writings lies in their conceptual underpinnings, which are nothing like Lenin’s. What they are most like, in fact, are the ideas that lie behind the Federalist Papers. Sieyès was not conscious of any intellectual debt he owed to the Americans, in part because he disagreed with them on many of the details of their Constitution, but mainly because he claimed that his own ideas long predated the crisis of the French state, or even of the American colonies. He had come to his conclusions about the basic problems of politics in the early 1770s, he said, and hadn’t shifted. These conclusions revolved around a single word: representation. Sieyès believed that representation was everywhere in the modern world, not just in political life, but in all those social relations that relied on individual human beings acting for each other in various ways: in law, in trade, in manufacturing, in education, in family life, in all the ‘activities that support society’. But this great social network of representation posed a problem for politics. Socially, representation is plural, because different individuals have different representatives for their different activities – different lawyers, tradesmen, suppliers, teachers, parents and so on. But politically, representation is single, because politics presupposes the single entity of the state. The problem, therefore, was how to find a scheme that could do justice both to the plurality of social representation and the singularity of political representation. It is the basic problem of modern politics: how to keep a diverse society going without the state falling apart.
One answer was to try to make sure that political representation broadly reflected society at large. This was essentially the argument of the American Anti-Federalists, for whom, as one of their number put it: ‘The very term, “representative”, implies that the person or body chosen for this purpose, should resemble those who appoint them – a representation of the people of America, if it be a true one, must be like the people.’ In particular, political representation should reflect the different orders and classes of people who make up a given society – not, in America, nobles and priests, but farmers, manufacturers, artisans, merchants and so on. But there are two difficulties with this argument. First, any political assembly based on the representation of different social groups is liable to be fractious and the discussions within it uninspiring, as the representatives refer back to the particular interests of their electors. A dynamic politics required what Sieyès called ‘genuine representatives instead of simple vote-carriers’. Second, representation by reflection offered at best only a reflection of certain broad blocks within society; it did not reflect the genuine plurality of individual interests and relationships. Sieyès believed, as much as any of the American founding fathers, that the only things that counted in politics were individuals and their personal experiences: ‘Mark well,’ he once wrote, ‘the only real happiness is that of individuals.’ Seeking to represent them as types of individual was therefore self-defeating: the best you got was a crude caricature of social diversity on the one hand, and politically isolated individuals on the other. The only apparent alternatives, however, were equally unpalatable. To represent France as 25 or 26 million separate individuals was to invite chaos, while any attempt to represent the people simply as a single, unified whole gave too much power to the people’s representatives. Political representation that did not take account of the diversity of social representation was an open invitation to tyranny, as the French experience after 1789 made abundantly clear. Sieyès saw the truth of this argument in principle long before the Jacobins demonstrated it in fact.
The one thing worse than these different kinds of misrepresentation was the crude and hideous combination that existed in France before 1789. The system of estates was a grotesque, medieval parody of social diversity, while the power of the king, as the sole representative of the unified state, went unchecked and unspecified – no one could say where it ended. There were, of course, more subtle combinations than the French one, and the British constitution seemed to many, including many in France, to point the way forward, with its more pragmatic mixture of king, lords and commons. But the British example was never going to work for the newly independent Americans, and it didn’t work for Sieyès either. If the genius of the British system was that the people had a single representative assembly in the House of Commons, what right had the king and the lords to interfere in the legislative process? If, on the other hand, the king and lords also represented the people, on what basis did they make that claim? ‘Whatever goes into a legislative body is competent to vote on a people’s behalf only insofar as it is entrusted with their proxy,’ Sieyès wrote. ‘But if there are no free, general elections, where is the proxy?’ The people could not be represented in their own, separate chamber, and still allow unelected others to speak for them. Yet if no one else would speak for the people, apart from a single chamber of their representatives, who could prevent those representatives from tyrannising the people in their turn?
Sieyès saw that there was only one way out of this mess of unpalatable choices and unsustainable combinations. The people had to be represented as a single entity, and not divided up into estates or orders or classes; but they had to be represented as a single entity in different ways. The answer to the problem of modern politics lay in the flexibility of the concept of representation, and the most important task of modern political theory was to distinguish the different ways in which the people might be represented. The first, most important distinction was between the representation of the people in their capacity as a ‘constituting power’, and in their capacity as a ‘constituted power’. This meant that the people had to have representatives capable of drawing up a constitution and also to have representatives capable of acting for them within the terms of that constitution; more important, it meant that these two sets of representatives could not be the same. The National Assembly of 1789 was to be a representation of the people in their ‘constituting’ capacity – its job was to establish a new constitution for the French state. The authority of this constitution would derive from the fact that it came from the people’s representatives, specifically authorised for that purpose. To the objection that the National Assembly of 1789 had not been authorised for that purpose – it was, after all, the old assembly of the third estate under a new name – Sieyès replied that somebody had to do it, because France needed a new constitution, and moreover it was not possible to wait for formal authorisation, because France lacked a new constitution. This is how it goes with constitution-making: it is unconstitutional. What mattered for Sieyès was that the new constitution should allow for the representation of the people by bodies other than the constituting one. In particular, the people needed separate representation by a legislature and by an executive, and also, potentially, by some kind of constitutional jury to resolve disputes between the two; these would be the ‘constituted powers’. Some of these representatives might be directly elected, some indirectly elected, and others simply appointed. None could claim the sole authority of the people, but all could claim in one way or another to be the people’s representatives.
A constitutional gathering acting in the name of the people but not instructed by them; a constitution that produced a separation of powers but presupposed no separation of estates or orders; a mixture of directly elected, indirectly elected and appointed representatives – this was a case that was also being made at roughly the same time on the other side of the Atlantic. The circumstances were very different, but the basic insight was not: political singularity and social diversity could be reconciled if a single people were represented in diverse ways. It meant a clean break with the idea of representation as a reflection of the people at large. It also meant greater freedom for the people’s representatives to tell the people what was good for them. For both the Federalists and for Sieyès, the most urgent matter on which the people needed to be guided by their representatives was the question of debt. The popular view of debt, then if not now, was that it was a bad thing, and to be avoided at all costs. The Federalists were worried that representatives acting under instructions from the voters, in a legislature with sole authority to speak for the voters, would try to abolish the debts people already had, and try to prevent the state taking on new ones, including a new national debt. For Sieyès, during the winter of 1788-89, the stakes were even higher. He was terrified that the King himself would renege on his debts, and that the people’s representatives would not try to stop him. The profligacy of the King and his Court had produced the crisis of the state’s finances, and it was tempting to think that the King should pay the price for this – with a bankruptcy. Sieyès was adamant that this was a temptation that had to be resisted at all costs. In the first to be written (though the last to be published) and most passionate of his three pamphlets, he argued that a bankruptcy would ruin not the King, but the French nation, which meant it would be the ruin of the people themselves. The spectacle of a bankrupt King, and the discomfort of those who had grown rich off him, might provide some temporary relief, as Sieyès understood: ‘The highway robbery perpetrated by speculators on the funds,’ he reassured his readers, ‘offends me as much as it offends you.’ But it would not be the King, nor even the speculators, who really suffered. A bankruptcy would fall most heavily on the King’s creditors, including many members of the third estate, who might not have to pay new taxes, but who would be receiving no more income from their government bonds. The destruction of the King’s credit would not go unnoticed by his foreign enemies either. England, Sieyès predicted, would certainly attack a bankrupt France, knowing that she had no credit in the money markets, and no ready sources of income to pay for her defence. What choice would the people then have, except to agree new taxes in order to provide the nation with the means to fight? A king with no credit will always require more money, but a king with no credit need have no compunction about how he gets it. A royal bankruptcy, Sieyès declared, would be ‘the ruin of all hope’. But it would not be the ruin of the regime. Instead, ‘its hand would be free to use the great mechanisms of fear and money, and again it would be able to spread them around with profusion.’
So, the people had no choice but to service the King’s debts. Yet this was an abhorrent idea, because it meant that the people would pay the price for the King’s irresponsibility. The only solution was for the people not merely to service the debt, but to bite the bullet and adopt it as their own, and this is what Sieyès advocated. The third estate, acting for the entire Estates-General, should ‘adopt the debt in the name of the nation’. If the debt belonged to the people themselves, then the state’s finances might finally acquire some stability as expenditure came into line with income. But the people themselves could not take the decision to adopt the debt. It had to be done on their behalf, by their representatives. If such a decision were left directly up to the people, or to representatives awaiting their instructions, then it would be funked, because the prospect of more debt, and someone else’s debt to boot, would frighten them off. Only if the nation had an assembly capable of taking such a decision for it would the difficult decisions be made. Yet the assembly that institutes a national debt cannot also be the one that decides how the money is raised or how it is spent – that would take the people back to where they were under the King, responsible once again for someone else’s spending habits. Different representatives, answerable to the people in different ways, have to decide on questions of taxation and expenditure, and on much else besides, including the root cause of most taxation and most expenditure, which is war and national security.
It is a powerful argument but it is not a simple one, and it can look somewhat paradoxical. The people need to be united in order to save the state for themselves, but they cannot act for themselves in order to save the state. The people must be represented as though they possessed a single identity, but maintaining that identity requires that they should not be represented in only one way. Sieyès’s genius through 1788 and early 1789 was to take this complicated argument and make it straightforward, obvious, unarguable. It is an achievement to compare with that of the authors of the Federalist Papers, who were attempting much the same thing. It was only after his triumph of June 1789 that the complications returned, as Sieyès struggled to turn the people’s constituting power into the correct arrangement of constituted powers for the new state. In this struggle his divergence from the American constitutional model became clear. He was adamantly opposed to an executive power of veto, which he thought would make a mockery of the distinction between executive and legislature. He believed in a separation of powers, not a balance of powers, which he called ‘a vicious idea’. Moreover, the powers Sieyès was willing to grant the executive were far less extensive than the powers of the American presidency. The Great Elector, as Sieyès called his head of state, was primarily a symbol of the unity of the nation; he would have the real and not simply symbolic power to appoint ministers, but certainly no power to make appointments to a supreme constitutional court. In America, the President decides on war but it is up to Congress to make the formal announcement; Sieyès believed that the legislature should make the decision, and the executive simply the declaration. Sieyès was opposed to a Bill of Rights, believing that the people needed no separate rights when they had a constitution; this was a battle the American Federalists fought and lost.
Above all, Sieyès did not believe in the idea of federalism itself. France had to be, in the famous phrase, une et indivisible, which was consistent with the people being represented in different ways, but not in different places. Though the Federalists successfully asserted the rights of central government, the question of the rights of the people’s representatives in the various states remained unresolved, including the great unspoken question of their right to secede from the Union, which was to haunt the Republic years later. Sieyès insisted that the constitution of the new French state had to include a redivision of the country into a series of 83 departments that cut across the traditional boundaries of local government, and undermined them. Local assemblies and larger provincial assemblies existed in order to move men, money and votes upwards to the centre, and to organise the administration of national laws that came back down. They were to be, Sieyès wrote later, ‘more than confederated states; they are true, integral and essential parts of one and the same whole. This observation is important so that one never compares us with the United States of America.’
Yet the most important difference between Sieyès and the Federalists is not one of substance, but one of timing. The formulation by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of an intellectual defence of the new American system of representative government came at the end of the revolutionary process, and in the aftermath of the drawing up of a new Constitution. Sieyès set out the core of his ideas at the very beginning of his Revolution, before there was a constitution or even a constitutional assembly to defend. It is one of the tragedies of the French Revolution that the best ideas – the most far-sighted as well as the most flexible – came first, while it is one of the saving graces of the American Revolution that the best ideas came last. Having got their Constitution up and running, the three authors of the Federalist Papers were able to reap the benefits: Jay went on to be the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court; Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury; and Madison became the fourth President of the United States. Sieyès spent the years between 1789 and 1799 trying desperately to find a constitution that worked, and trying to find the politicians who could make it work. He was still trying in the summer of 1799, when he was elected to the Executive Directory in Paris and given one last chance to reform the Constitution in order to save the nation, which was by then under severe threat both from within and without. He decided that the existing regime in Paris had to be overturned, in order to see off the threat of a resurgent Jacobinism and to provide him with the political security to proceed with his reforms. He organised a coup, but realised he needed a general to guarantee its success. By chance, Napoleon Bonaparte had returned to France from Egypt in October 1799, and Sieyès decided, after some hesitation, that he had found his man. On 10 November power was transferred from the legislature into the hands of a provisional Consulate, consisting of only three members, including both Sieyès and Bonaparte (the third was a man named Ducos). A new Constitution did emerge before the end of the year, but by then Bonaparte had asserted himself, and it was his Constitution, formally enshrining the power of the new Consulate, with Napoleon at its head. Sieyès had lost. He retired from public life, though Napoleon tried to bring him back, saddled with the unenviable reputation of being the man who had started the French Revolution, and the man who had ended it.
Sieyès was no revolutionary terrorist, but it is easy enough to see his various constitutional experiments as opening the door to those who were. It is also easy to parody him as a super-rational fantasist, playing with abstract schemes of government while the real and bloody business of politics went on unchecked and unnoticed. This in contrast to the American Founders, whose reputation has long been as supreme pragmatists, sensitive to political reality, cautious, modest, but ruthless in their determination to make their preferred scheme stick. The American Constitution has lasted for more than two hundred years, while none of Sieyès’s got off the ground, so who is to argue? And yet, if you look at the history of the last two hundred or so years, Sieyès was right about more things than Madison was. For example, he realised early on that no system of government that sought to preserve both social diversity and political unity could survive without political parties to animate it. ‘The existence of two parties,’ he wrote, ‘is inseparable from any kind of representative system.’ Madison accepted there would be parties, but wished to limit their effects, as dangerous to representative government. Yet Madison’s version of representative government could not have survived without political parties, which have seen it through its various crises. The most serious of these, including both the Civil War and the Great Depression, helped to transform Madison’s original constitutional settlement into something more like a national representative system as envisaged by Sieyès: bureaucratically centralised, dominated by party and funded by a large national debt (in this respect, Hamilton was closer to Sieyès than Madison was). But the office of President, as it has developed through these crises, has come to exercise powers that go well beyond those Sieyès would have approved: interfering in all aspects of government, making wars, opposing laws, drafting budgets, curtailing rights, and all the while choosing the judges who can decide whether or not this is constitutional. The ability of the legislature to act as a national forum for the nation’s combined interest has been usurped by the executive, in ways that Sieyès’s constitutional schemes sought to forestall. Meanwhile, the consequent pressure on the executive to respond directly to the twists and turns of public opinion has grown, in ways that Sieyès could have predicted.
Sieyès did not advocate a presidential system. Indeed, he believed for a while that the best figurehead for the new French state would be a king. Unfortunately, the only king available at the time was Louis XVI and Sieyès had to make the best of it. This accommodation with the monarchy earned Sieyès a further reputation as someone less than fully committed to the principles of the republic. But in an exchange of letters with Tom Paine, the most fashionable political theorist of the day, he defended himself against the charge that in the great struggle between republicanism and monarchy, he was on the wrong side. These letters are reproduced alongside the pamphlets of 1788-89 in the Political Writings. The exchange took place in the summer of 1791, following Louis’s secret flight to Varennes and subsequent arrest, which had left his supporters among the Revolutionary leaders looking rather exposed. Sieyès had already been subject to a fierce attack in the Parisian Jacobin club, first from Robespierre, then from Danton, and he took the opportunity of Paine’s letter to defend himself. Paine had written in response to Sieyès’s declared preference for a monarchical form of government, reminding him that ‘it is against the whole hell of Monarchy that I have declared war.’ To ‘the misery of Monarchy’ Paine directly opposed ‘the Republican System’, which he defined ‘simply as a Government by Representation’. For Sieyès this was a horrible confusion of terms. The representative system could not be identified with a particular form of government, but only with the idea of constitutional government itself – it was the case, he maintained, that ‘every social constitution of which representation is not the essence, is a false constitution.’ The argument between republicans and what Sieyès called ‘Monarchicans’ (presumably to distinguish them from dyed-in-the-wool monarchists) was not about the principle of representation, but about its form, and in particular the form it should assume in the executive branch of government. Sieyès supported monarchy because he believed it was useful to have ‘an individual of superior rank, in whom is represented the stable unity of the government’, able to appoint ministers and to monitor their independence. By contrast, his republican opponents (he had in mind Robespierre and Danton as much as Paine) wanted an executive council at the head of the state, directly answerable to the people or to the single chamber of a popular legislature. Sieyès believed that this would result in a concentration of what he called ‘irresponsible power’, and he was right. But his tone was conciliatory – ‘They are for the public interest,’ he wrote, somewhat nervously, ‘and certainly we are so, too’ – which is understandable given the circumstances.
Sieyès’s preference for monarchy over Jacobin republicanism was motivated more by a suspicion of what he called ‘crude democracy’ than by any attachment to the person of the King. When it became clear just how inadequate Louis was to fulfil the role of Great Elector in the new constitutional scheme, Sieyès readily abandoned him, and as a member of the National Assembly he voted for the King’s execution in 1793 (which meant that, as a regicide, he had to go into exile in Brussels following the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815). In fact, he never really settled how the position of Great Elector at the summit of the executive should be occupied, or by whom. He was certainly unlucky in the cast of characters the Revolution offered him, from the tyrant he was stuck with at the beginning to the tyrant he wound up with at the end. The Americans, by contrast, were remarkably fortunate in whom they had available. If ever a new nation was blessed with an individual of superior rank, in whom could be represented the stable unity of the government, it was America, in the person of George Washington. The three Presidents who followed him – Adams, Jefferson, Madison – were all lucky men (of the founders, only Hamilton’s luck ran out, when he was fatally wounded in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr in 1804); equally, America was very lucky to have them. Timing, luck, circumstance were all against Sieyès’s schemes for France, and instead France got the Terror, and then the chaos that followed the Terror, and then the arbitrarily imposed order that followed the chaos.
France also got, as a result of these experiences, a different conception of representative politics from the one Sieyès had championed. As Michael Sonenscher explains in his brilliant, difficult introduction to this edition, the French experience of politics in the late 18th century produced an alternative version of liberal politics for the 19th century. This version of liberalism is usually associated with Benjamin Constant (like Rousseau a peripatetic Swiss émigré who eventually found his voice in France). Constant argued, with Sieyès, that modern politics is impossible without representation, because modern citizens do not have the time or the inclination to take many political decisions for themselves, and are better off leaving those decisions to others whom they appoint. But Constant had a more straightforward conception of what was involved in popular representation than Sieyès. He believed that the people’s representatives would always seek too much power if the people were not vigilant, and that the great danger of modern politics was that the comforts of modern living would lead individual citizens to neglect politics altogether, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by their politicians. As a result, Constant advocated a system of direct elections where possible, and more popular participation in politics between elections, through the exercise of what he called ‘public opinion’ – in newspapers, debating societies, political clubs and so on. He worried that a more indirect and complex system of representation of the kind advocated by Sieyès was likely to lead to apathy rather than engagement.
Unlike both Sieyès and Madison, who believed in their different ways that the people’s representatives could keep an eye on each other, Constant believed that it was up to the people to keep an eye on their representatives. Yet this argument for popular participation risked excluding the people in other ways. Because Constant supposed that the system of political representation had to be monitored from the outside, it made sense for him to prefer an executive body that did not represent the people to one that did – in this way, the executive could protect the people against the legislature. In 1815, during Napoleon’s One Hundred Days, Constant was persuaded to draw up a new ‘liberal’ constitution for the old Emperor. This Constitution entrusted Napoleon with executive power precisely because he ‘transcended’ the system of popular representation, and would therefore be able to preserve the people from the excesses of their representatives. One obvious problem with this arrangement is that it implied that the people were better off entrusting power to someone they hadn’t chosen for themselves, which rather went against the presumption in favour of popular election. The other problem was that it meant trusting Napoleon. Sieyès at least had the excuse in 1799 that Bonaparte was a relatively unknown quantity. In 1815 Constant should have known better.
The broader difficulty with Constant’s conception of representation is that it invites people to get involved in politics while also inviting them to hold something back. Vigilance requires a certain amount of suspicion, and suspicion usually means keeping your distance. In this respect, France has followed Constant more than it has followed Sieyès. The Constitutions of the various French Republics have inclined towards relatively straightforward and direct forms of popular representation (either parliamentary or presidential), accompanied by injunctions to the people to get involved. The French people, meanwhile, have organised themselves into a variety of entrenched interest groups in order to keep their politicians in check. This corporatist style of politics reinstates the idea that society consists of a number of different orders (farmers, workers, students etc), without returning to the view that representative politics should ‘reflect’ the full range of these orders. Instead, a system of direct popular representation is forced to seek a series of accommodations with society at large. The paradox of Constant’s liberalism is that the more straightforward the representation of the people, the less straightforward the politics that results.
In Britain, incredibly, we still have that strange, hybrid form of popular representation that Sieyès described and dismissed in 1789. We have a single, popularly elected chamber to represent the people, an executive drawn from that chamber to act in the name of the people, an unelected second chamber to look out for the people’s wider interests, and a monarch to embody the people’s enduring identity. The current occupants of the executive branch are reluctant to allow direct elections to a reformed House of Lords because they are worried that this will challenge the popular authority of the Commons. Yet they cannot explain how an entirely appointed chamber can speak for the people in the legislature – if there are no free, general elections, as Sieyès said, where is the proxy? It is perfectly possible, as other states have found, to have two directly elected chambers, but only if you have a written constitution as well, in order to establish that sovereignty resides with the people as a whole, and not with any particular ‘constituted power’.
Meanwhile, written constitution or not, Britain is finding, along with France and the United States, that people are losing interest in representative politics. Turnout is on the decline everywhere, and many citizens are starting to wonder what their elected representatives are for. For Sieyès, the guiding principle behind any satisfactory representative system was the idea of the nation. The French people had a clear political identity because they constituted a nation, just as the French nation had a stable political character only when it was constituted by its people. It is not clear that this is true any more. The idea of the nation-state is under threat, from broader political and social interests. The question no one has yet resolved is whether it is possible to transcend national politics while still retaining the coherence of a popularly constituted representative system. Contemporary democratic theory has for the most part studiously avoided this question, preferring to concentrate on academic schemes of deliberative democracy and international justice. But this is the question that matters. If politics is to move beyond the nation-state, we are at the beginning and not the end of the political revolution that will bring this about. A well-known recent book on Europe by an American – Larry Siedentop’s Democracy in Europe – whose title apes that of a better-known earlier book on America by a European (Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) posed the question: ‘Where are our Madisons?’ But it is not another Madison we need. It is another Sieyès.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.