In the world of thought, Spain has often seemed to be the absentee land of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today only Unamuno and Ortega are remembered, however briefly, as figures of significance beyond the peninsula. Contemporary memory has all but completely repressed the one great exception to Spanish marginality on the intellectual stage of the continent, the extraordinary figure of Juan Donoso Cortés. Yet this was the thinker whom Metternich considered the foremost conservative political theorist and parliamentary orator of his time. Donoso exerted a profound influence not only on the Habsburg statesman and on a succession of Spanish monarchs, but on Louis Napoleon and Pius IX. Friend and confidant of the leaders of both liberal and conservative wings of French Catholicism, his speeches and writings were studied by Frederick William IV of Prussia and later by Bismarck and William I. In Russia, Nesselrode and Nicholas I were no less enthusiastic students of his ideas. Guizot, Ranke, Schelling and Comte all pored over his work and assented to themes within it. Yet in the provincial confines of the modern Anglo-American academy, Donoso—a pivotal figure in the history of nineteenth-century political ideas—has been almost completely overlooked. Until the 1990s, there was only one serious book in English on him, John Graham’s intellectual biography Donoso Cortés—Utopian Romanticist and Political Realist, published in the early 1970s. So it is welcome to have Jeffrey Johnson’s small collection of Donoso’s articles and speeches, and his promise of a new translation of Donoso’s Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.

Donoso, who could trace a remote connexion to Hernan Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, was the son of a prosperous lawyer in Cáceres, Extremadura. Born in 1809, he went to university at the age of eleven to study law, became a professor at the College of Cáceres, and was soon actively involved in Spanish politics. By the age of twenty-four he had taken up permanent residence in Madrid, in the year that Ferdinand VII—Goya’s benighted ruler—died, after blocking the succession of his ultra-conservative brother Carlos and declaring his daughter Isabella as legitimate heir, under the regency of his wife María Cristina. Rising swiftly to become the Queen’s secretary in charge of decrees, Donoso started out in the Liberal and Radical camp, ranged against the Carlist ultras on the Right who were seeking to overthrow María Cristina. In the Civil War between Isabelline and Carlist forces of the 1830s, he acted as Cabinet secretary in Mendizábal’s Radical government, supporting confiscation of monastic properties and sale of church lands to fund the military struggle. Escaping with the Queen to France after the revolutionary rising of 1840, he returned when her thirteen-year-old daughter was installed on the throne in 1843, serving as an aide to the authoritarian Liberal Narváez. Donoso was then secretary of the committee that drafted the Spanish Constitution of 1845, which lasted on and off until 1931. He held a range of other high posts as a government minister, professor of constitutional law, and parliamentary deputy. After a spell as emissary to Prussia, he became the Spanish ambassador to France during the revolutionary upheavals of 1848–49, before dying of syphilis in his early forties, in 1853.

This meteoric career, combining devotion to constitutional law and political theory on one side and extensive practical statecraft on the other, was certainly proof of exceptional gifts. Yet however brilliant or fertile Donoso’s mind, it might still be thought odd that a figure from a country as peripheral as Spain had become, by the early nineteenth century, should have held the attention of Europe’s political elites. Paradoxically, the explanation probably lies in the very symptoms of Spain’s marginality itself, amid the aftermath of the Peninsular War and the loss of its American empire: in particular, the extraordinary turbulence and ferocious cleavages in the Spanish politics of this period. Nowhere else in Europe were the divisions within the dominant classes or ruling elites as deep as in Spain, and nowhere else did various groupings in the Centre and on the Right gain such early and varied experience in mass mobilization and constitutional manipulation for political conflict, as often as not against each other. Between 1812 and 1851, conservative forces in Spain deployed at one time or another—either in internecine disputes or battles against the Left—every cluster of political symbols available in Europe: from those of the most extreme anti-modernist mediaevalism to those of radical anti-clericalism and democracy. Donoso himself played every note on this register, in the course of a career that spanned no less than four revolutionary crises—in 1836, 1840, 1847 and 1848—as well as a bloody civil war. He once remarked that ‘the historical characteristic of Spaniards is exaggeration in all things’. Certainly, few non-Spaniards could have acquired his rich practical education in the calculus of statecraft in extreme situations, in a new era of mass politics.

If such were the roots of Donoso’s reputation in his lifetime, one reason for his later obscurity was the form his writings took. He published only one book, more a propagandistic tract than a work of theory. The rest of his work is fragmentary: articles, letters and speeches which fit, in their entirety, into two volumes. All need to be read in close connexion with particular events, persons and publics in order to be fully understood. Contemporary access to his thought has therefore depended in large measure on his editors and interpreters. Unfortunately, most of these have offered only truncated or distorted versions of his contribution to the history of political ideas—presenting him as little more than an excitable ideologue of Catholic counter-revolution, an activist reactionary dedicated to eradicating every trace of the world that emerged from the French Revolution, and imposing in its stead an ultramontane absolutism upon Europe. After Donoso’s death, the adherents of this tradition did indeed claim him as their own, viewing him as the leading second-generation theorist to carry on the work of De Maistre and Bonald, handing the torch on to twentieth-century thinkers like Carl Schmitt or clerico-fascists in Austria, Portugal, Spain or elsewhere.

There is no doubt that Donoso did contribute centrally to this tradition from 1848 onwards, both by his strident calls to crush the popular risings of that year and through his influence on Pius IX, who sought and took his advice in the preparation of the Syllabus of Errors. Donoso was also an articulate champion of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which Pius would also later adopt. After the searing experience of 1848, Donoso saw the Catholic Church as a decisive bastion of order and wished to ensure that it remained tightly integrated under Rome’s absolutist leadership. In his view, this required the elimination of all centrifugal temptations within the church—any infection by the ideas of nationalism, liberalism and democracy. Catholicism remained marked by the results right down to the death of Pius XII in 1958. Today Wojtyla, setting in motion the canonization of Pius IX, seems bent on reducing the second Vatican Council to little more than a diversionary interlude in this intra-clerical tradition. Indeed, it is current Catholic controversies over the legacy of Pio Nono that seem to have prompted Johnson’s new collection of Donoso’s texts. Evidently a Catholic intellectual concerned to combat the mortmain of Pius IX, Johnson is anxious to expose Donoso’s theology and politics as dangerous totalitarianism. His long introduction focuses mainly on Donoso’s stance in Catholic disputations and his choice of texts is designed to highlight Donoso’s flamboyant role in counter-revolutionary reaction after 1848. However understandable such an emphasis is for embattled Catholic liberals, and however grateful we might be for re-publication of the inflammatory tirades that made Donoso notorious in the ‘springtime of the peoples’, the result is to downplay many of the most interesting aspects of Donoso’s thought.