The Imperative Mandate: from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune
By Pierre-Henri Zaidman
Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserts that “the idea of representatives is modern. It comes from the feudal government. In the ancient reliquaries and in the monarchies the people never had representatives; the word “representative” was not known”. However, historians have found that in some ancient peoples, in the Frankish monarchy or among various religious orders, there were occasional and rudimentary provisions for representatives. Representation only gained political significance with feudalism. This meaning of the terms “Representation” and “Representative” is obviously very different in form and meaning from that of the revolutionaries of 1789.
In the Greek and Roman cities, the citizens’ assembly governs itself, because of their small size, they do not need to elect governments. And if the idea of representation is used in Roman law, it only designates a technique of private law.
In public law, it does not apply in principle.
In the French society of the Ancient Regime, there is a representation of social groups with the lords and the king. In accordance with the technique of private law, the representatives have a mandate to defend the interests of the local communities of which they are the spokesmen but without being able to act according to their own will; they are bound by the promise, express or tacit, to act in place of those who mandated them by a delegation of power, if necessary for a particular task in which case one is dealing with an “Imperative Mandate “ (a mandate that is obligatory or from specific instruction).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the precursor
We find the idea of mandate in Rousseau who, rejecting the national representation advocated by Montesquieu, prefers sovereignty: “Sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be alienated; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will is not represented […] The deputies< of the people are not and cannot be its representatives, they are only its commissioners; they cannot conclude anything definitively. Any law which the people have not ratified is null and void. […] The English people think they are free; they are very much mistaken; they are free only during the election of the members of parliament; if they are elected, they are slaves, they are nothing.” It is clear, in the eyes of Rousseau, that when the legislative power “can only act by deputation, the inconveniences outweigh the advantages; “At the moment that a people gives itself representatives, it is no longer free. There is no need for representatives because they can only divide what is united, thus destroying sovereignty. The territorial and socio-demographic reality of modern states imposes that the legislative power “can only act there by deputation.” And, to prevent the corruption that always threatens representatives, Rousseau advocates the institution of imperatives such as “the delegate”*, always “under the eyes of his constituents”, “cannot do anything contrary to their express will”.
The question of direct democracy arose during the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin thought about the means of mandating deputies and controlling their activity, without any result. James Madison’s The Federalist contains some hints of parliamentary tyranny, but the American Independentists are mainly concerned with the relationship between the states and the rulers who must be able to resist the “disorderly passions” and the “ephemeral illusions” that can seize the people, pure privilege “of the deliberate and deliberate judgment of collectivism”.
* The French word used is “nonce” for “nuncio”, a papal delegate.