Monist And Pluralist Theories Of Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty is a modern concept, born with the modern State. The ancient Greeks knew that there was a “supreme power” in the State, but they did not analyse it further. The Roman jurists and thinkers declared it to be the supreme authority of the emperor. Among the medieval Muslims, Ibn Khaldun was the first thinker who made the concept of sovereignty the basis of the power of the ruler, which rose and fell with his dynasty. In medieval Europe, they believed in “two swords”, that is, the secular power of the king and the spiritual power of the Pope.


The king, however, did not possess supreme power, for he shared it with his powerful feudal lords: he was only the first among equals. But two causes in early modem Europe gave rise to the concept of the State as well as to the concept of sovereignty. They were, firstly, the crisis of monarchy in France and later in England and other European States, and secondly, the Reformation or the religious revolt, which split European Christianity into two warring sects of the Catholics and Protestants, which further aggravated the monarchical crisis. In the sixteenth century, the French kings, who sought to unite France under their sole authority, were engaged in campaigns against the feudal magnates who refused to submit to the centralised authority of the king.

They were further instigated to revolt by Protestantism, which had spread among them. It was in this dual crisis of political authority of the “new French monarchy” that the concept of sovereignty was born. It was propounded by Jean Bodin, who championed the cause of centralised authority of the “new monarchy” in France. He sought to strengthen the king against both the Church and the feudal nobility. In his book entitled Six Bookes of a Commonweale, written in 1576, he said: “It is clear that the principle mark of sovereign majesty is the right to impose laws generally on all subjects regardless of their consent.

If he is to govern the State well, a sovereign prince must be above law.” Thus Bodin declared sovereignty not only the power to make law, but also to be itself above law. However, Bodin added that the sovereign power of the king is limited by the Law of God and Law of Nature. Bodin was the first political thinker to equate sovereignty with power, and not with the need for justice or the like.

It was Thomas Hobbes, however, who carried the concept of sovereignty to its logical conclusion. He too found his country, England, involved in a civil war. He propounded a theory of sovereignty which he l>elieved would restore peace and tranquillity to his troubled country. He presented it in his book, Leviathan, written in 1651. He declared that the power of the sovereign to make law is supreme, absolute, unlimited and imprescriptible, and it cannot be limited by considerations of religion, church, morality, loyalty, etc. Indeed, morality is what the law declares it to be. There is not good or evil except what the law says and law is nothing but the command or word of the king. It is only by recognising the supremacy of the royal power that peace could be restored to England. Thus was born the monistic theory of sovereignty.

During the next three centuries after Hobbes, the monist theory of sovereignty was accepted by all political thinkers of modern Europe. They only tried to find where the supreme power lay, that is, whether in the king, parliament or with the people, e.g. Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty, or Hegel’s theory of State absolutism. The monistic theory received its most precise and strict exposition at the hands of John Austin in the middle of the nineteenth century, which was the high level mark of this view of sovereignty.

During the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, a new view of sovereignty was propounded, namely the pluralist view. According to it, sovereign power in the State does not and should not reside at one centre, but at several centres of authority. The reason is that modem society consists of several other groups and associations beside the State, which are at least as important and as supreme in the lives of their members as is the State.

In the USA, the federalists also attacked the monist theory and asserted that the federating units in a federation possess equal sovereignty with the central or federal government. Thus both the political pluralists and the federalists asserted that sovereignty must be viewed as a pluralist, not monist, phenomenon. It means that sovereignty is not absolute, unlimited and indivisible: instead, it is limited and divisible.

From about 1950, the concept of sovereignty was attacked from an altogether different angle. The behaviouralist political scientists of America discarded the concept of sovereignty as unscientific, just as they have also discarded the use of the term “State”. In place of sovereignty, they use the term “power”; just as in place of the “State”, they use the term “political system”.

We shall first discuss the monist theory, as expounded by Austin, then the pluralist attack on it and, finally, we shall briefly consider the behaviouralist repudiation of the concept of sovereignty.



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