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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 teaching.

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 will).

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 else.

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), pp. 208-225.

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, 1984).

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): 7-42.

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).

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