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Last of the enlightened despots: a comparison of President Mikhail Gorbachev and Emperor Joseph II.


The historical and political climate that prevailed within Austria during the reign of Joseph II finds certain, significant parallels with the climate that prevailed within the Soviet Union during the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev. While many specific conditions, policies, and results of these two societies and leaders are not historically compatable, the general approach and tone of their respective leadership share striking characteristics. The "Age of Enlightenment" may have come to the Soviet Union two centuries later than it came to the Austrian Empire, but the role of political leadership in both cases reveal a similarity that may yet emerge again within the present, and constantly changing, world. Thus it is interesting to compare these two important political figures and consider which (if either) one of them best merits the historical title of "last" of the "enlightened despots."

Although the concept of the benevolent and paternalistic ruler is a recurrent theme throughout history, the popular image of the "enlightened despot" resulted from both a distinct age and a specific movement of eighteenth century Europe. The contradiction posed by this ostensible oxymoron becomes especially significant when considered within the context of the rise of that emerging liberal theory with which it is historically associated.


Different philosophers have associated the characteristics of wisdom with strong and decisive rule in a way that has made them appear to be mutually supporting (and, perhaps, even mutually indespensible) "virtues" for the guidance of political leadership. Both the Platonic ideal of the "philosopher king" and the Confucian concept of the "sage ruler" have emphasized (though in theoretically different ways) the desirability of a society that defers unquestionably to the authority of the one who is best suited to govern. Such leaders should, presumably, be able to use the knowledge that they possess for the greater benefit of all.(1) Such leaders need, therefore, unchallenged power in order to apply that knowledge, just as the Hobbesian ruler requires complete obedience from all individuals within society if order, stability, and prosperity are to be realized.(2)

Although there is no monolithic understanding of the philosophical foundation of the Enlightenment, the liberal preoccupation with the concepts of freedom, reason, power, and individualism are certainly among the most consistent ideals shared by those leaders who could be defined as "enlightened despots."(3) But the popular image of the "enlightened despot" - the supreme ruler inspired and guided by the ideas and values of the European Enlightenment - poses an awkward philosophical contradiction. The developing liberal tradition that served as the foundation for the eighteenth century Enlightenment emphasized the role of the individual within society - a role that demanded limitations upon the power that any government normally might exercise. Such limitations ought to be inconsistent, however, with the position and role of the autocratic (especially hereditary) ruler, such as the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor.(4)

Many theorists have tried to reconcile this apparent contradiction. Perhaps the most renowned of these theorists is the eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who wrote in loyal defense of the rule of his sovereign, King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The capacity of all individuals to attain enlightenment through the application of reason is, for him, a crucial requirement. However, members of society who have not had great experience with the control and direction of the political life of society need guidance if their capacity for autonomous choice is not to be misled towards the support of yet another form of stifling tyranny.(5) Thus there is a distinction made between public and private freedom. The development of individual freedom, autonomy, and enlightened activity can be achieved only if society is guided by someone who can overcome the limitations and prejudices through which the potential of the mass of society (who previously have known nothing but the control of both public and private action, as imposed from above) is necessarily restricted.(6)

Rather than the term "enlightened despotism," some authorities prefer the term "enlightened absolutism." The concept of the "despot" raises, for them, an image of individual rulers who act wantonly and arbitrarily, while they feel that "absolutist" rulers are those who, strictly speaking, are politically unrestricted but may feel bound by some sense of law and the rights and interests of individuals within their respective societies.(7) Furthermore, there is a need to appreciate the specific reference that the term "enlightened" raises. Thus Fritz Hartung asserts that "[e]fforts to increase the powers of the state by improving the administration and army, by increasing income by a purposeful cultivation of the economy along mercantistic lines, cannot be taken as marks of enlightened absolutism.... We will be able to arrive at a workable definition if we use the term 'enlightened' in the usual sense ... [that] would characterize enlightened absolutism as a form of government strongly influenced by philosophy, especially the political philosophy of the enlightenment."(8)

One reason why the term "despot" may invoke a more negative connotation than "absolutist" is because of the ancient origin of that former term. Within the Greek city-states it originally was applied to the head of a household - one who was responsible for the control and well being of his extended family, including slaves. This person also represented the family's interests within the broader community, so that he exercised authority over (what might loosely and, perhaps, anachronistically be called) the "public," as well as the "private," aspects of the lives of its members.(9) On the other hand, the term "absolutist" might appear to refer to a purely political figure, whose interests are focused exclusively upon matters of government.(10) Given the liberal emphasis upon the limitation of governmental activity to those "public" matters which affect the greater good of society, and the greater emphasis upon the freedom of the individual regarding private matters, it is possible to understand why the term "despot" could conjure an image of paternalistic control which might be considered to be contrary to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Nonetheless, these European rulers may have perceived themselves in such a manner - that is, they may have regarded themselves as providing enlightened guidance to their "children" who, otherwise, would suffer from ignorance and exploitation.(11) Therefore, while some scholars might prefer to use the term "enlightened absolutist," the term "enlightened despot" may be more accurate - despite the manner in which it appears to contradict (at least symbolically) the liberal values which these rulers sought to promote.

The advancement of an "enlightened" society requires more than simply the advocation of certain ideals; it also requires a radical restructuring of society in order to facilitate that ultimate advancement. Such restructuring requires a strong authority if it is to be successful in overcoming the sort of entrenched opposition that is bound to react against such broad changes within society. John Gagliardo notes how Voltaire associated royal French policies in 1765 with the ideals of the philosophes through such a necessarily forced manipulation of the traditional institutions of government. He concurs with Voltaire on that point, observing that "[t]o a degree, the philosophes were right. Monarchs with other reforms in mind did indeed recognize administrative reorganization as a measure necessary to accommodate such reforms; they saw, too, that the strengthening of their sovereign authority against traditional corporate groups was a prerequisite for any policy that might adversely touch the self-interest of those groups."(12)

The philosophy of the Enlightenment represented the final, and most effective, challenge to the perspective that viewed society as an organic whole rather than as an association of individuals. It was, in fact, the anti-feudal theory of liberalism - except that it did not share the liberal perspective of Locke or Montesquieu which insisted that some sort of formally prescribed limitations be placed upon government if these values and principles of liberal individualism were to achieve fulfillment. In his introduction to Locke's Second Treatise of Government, C.B. Macpherson provides an excellent summation regarding this essential difference.

As a liberal ideology, it [Locke's theory] had almost everything that could be desired. It starts with free and equal individuals none of whom have any claim to jurisdiction over others: this is a characteristic and essential assumption of the proponents of a liberal as opposed to a feudal or patriarchal or absolutist state. It acknowledges that these individuals are self-interested and contentious enough to need a powerful state to keep them in order, but it avoids the Hobbesian conclusion that the state must have absolute and irrevocable power: it does this by attributing to men a moral capacity to discover and generally stay within a natural law which forbids harming others: this too is essential to the liberal case, and of course is flattering and agreeable.(13)

One of the most active contributors to this theoretical background of the Enlightenment were the "physiocrats." The physiocrats focused upon the need for economic reform through a rejection of artificial restraints and a promotion of individual freedom and autonomy. They directly addressed this conflict between the individual search for moral guidance and the need for centralized authority in order to define and impose that guidance. They objected to any form of "arbitrary" government, but believed, nonetheless, in the ultimate need for strong, central authority in order to preserve and promote individual liberty against potential interests that could dominate a legislature and, ultimately, prove to be both dangerously capricious and overwhelmingly powerful. "To these philosophers it seemed better that the promulgation of the laws should be entrusted to a monarch rather than a legislature; for if all the legislators thought alike, one head would do as well as many; whereas if the legislators differed, it would prove that they were not equally enlightened. So with the exception of one or two of their number ... the Physiocrats agreed in favoring that form of government which is known as enlightened despotism."(14)

Enlightened despots might accept an idea of self-imposed restraints that allow individuals to protect their property and engage in moral discovery, but they would not accept formal political restraints imposed upon them in order to guarantee that those ends are met. Individuals are not only in need of having their contentious behavior regulated, but they also are incapable generally of exercizing a "moral capacity;" to do so would undermine their continued attachment to that social and political order of which they are the most suitable apex and the essential guiding force. Enlightened despots may have rejected the substance of feudal political and social thought, yet, as a guiding principle of government, the concept of enlightened despotism "... strove to alleviate the inadequacies and hardships of the system, but it lacked the courage to draw the full consequences if its ideas, and to overthrow the whole existing social order."(15)


The historical title "last of the enlightened despots" has been assigned variously to the French Emperor Napoleon I, the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, and his predecessor and older brother, Emperor Joseph II.(16) Of these three rulers, the one to whom this title is, arguably, most accurately applicable might well be Joseph. From the time of his coregency with his mother, Maria Theresa, Joseph had set himself the task of applying the liberal ideals of his youth toward the reform of imperial government. The ambitiousness of his goals, the tenacity with which he pursued them, the failure of that pursuit when he overreached himself, and the ultimate vindication of many of his ideals long after his death, have made Joseph a conspicuous figure of this age.(17) But if he is regarded as the "last" of these eighteenth century rulers, it would assume that the age of the Enlightenment is complete.

While both the age of the Enlightenment and the age of the enlightened despot formally ended with the advent of the nineteenth century, its legacy was not visited upon all European societies with equal effect. This absence was true especially in terms of Russian society, where a traditionally conservative, and nearly medieval, autocracy persisted until the twentieth century. The revolutions of 1917 failed to establish a liberal democratic system within that country, and, instead, actually reinforced the conservatism of the former czarist regime with a nominally Marxist, structurally autocratic political system. It was within this system that the young Mikhail Gorbachev prepared for eventual rule.

Like Joseph II, the young Mikhail Gorbachev benefited from an education that was not truly liberal in character but which, nonetheless, exposed him to liberal ideas and concepts that seemed new and innovative.(18) Joseph, as heir to the Hapsburg throne, responded to this stimuli with bold plans for future political, economic, and social reforms. He was taught to doubt the ability of representative assemblies to promote the "general good," since those bodies appealed to a variety of specific interests, all of whom competed with each other for dominance. However, his rule should be limited by a respect for the fundamental basis of these diverse interests, especially in terms of the rights of property.(19) Joseph's respect for the ideal of tolerance also was established early in his life, especially as informed by the teachings of Montesquieu. However, the writings of the Italian scholar Muratori also played a prominent role in the development of Joseph's approach to governments - one that stopped short of a complete restructuring or replacement of the traditional political, social, and religious order, for "... Muratori, benevolent, tolerant, and enlightened though he was, remained a loyal Roman Catholic priest, essentially concerned to reform the Church from within ..."(20)

Although Gorbachev had to contend with a relatively precarious rise through a Soviet system that demanded a conspicuous aherence to the orthodoxy of the status quo, he was also motivated by his educational experiences to consider a future in which his youthful idealism could be implemented. He was fortunate in the fact that his legal education provided exposure to the ideas of political and legal thinkers as diverse as Seneca, Ulpian, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Jefferson.(21) Many of these theorists were emphasized in the lectures of Professor Stepan Kechekyan, a distinguished scholar who taught a course on political ideas and had, himself, been educated prior to the Russian Revolution. Gorbachev was reportedly "'impressed by those other ideas.'"(22) Nonetheless, Gorbachev essentially remained committed to the fundamental principles of Marxism, a perspective which he (as his fellow student, Zdenek Mlynar, recalled) "'... took very seriously.... We were convinced that Marxism was the final answer that would change the world.... In order to be a true reforming communist, you have to have been a true Stalinist.'"(23)


Both Joseph and Gorbachev eventually would ascend to their respective positions of leadership with an agenda that called for radical change but also called (perhaps paradoxically) for a reaffirmation of the traditional political order. The pursuit of these reforms would elevate their respective status and power but, also, ultimately would confound them and undermine their respective positions and power. First, the introduction of policies that encouraged the expression of ideas helped to unleash other reform elements - including those activists who demanded faster, more radical, and more fundamental change than either leader was willing to conceed. Second, their respective desires to invoke liberal principles in order to change their societies clashed with their respective desires to maintain many essential and traditional features of their societies as based upon competing philosophical visions - in the case of Joseph, conservative absolutism and, in the case of Gorbachev, Marxism. Third, both leaders suffered from the inability to suppress the reaction against reform by members of an elite who benefited most from the former status quo and, thus, felt most threatened by these respective "revolutions."

Both men were smitten by liberal ideas, but not necessarily by liberal democracy. Joseph wanted to liberalize the imperial government, but he had no desire to replace it, nor to democratize the highest offices and positions of the state and society - especially his own. He realized that, in order to modernize and improve his state, he needed to harness the fullest potential from all of his subjects, and that such an endeavor necessitated granting them greater freedom and personal autonomy and treating them with greater respect and equality. But such actions had practical, as well as idealistic, motivations. "His reforms were without exception functional in nature, meant to assure the smoother performance of the State, which Joseph, like the majority of his royal contemporaries, had come to regard as the summum bonum."(24)

Gorbachev wanted to liberalize both the structure of government and the Communist Party. He demonstrated a genuine belief in some application of democratic principles, but he also portrayed little desire to jeopardize those traditional positions of power through which he had come to initiate and direct his centralized reforms. "From 1987 democratisation became the cardinal value of Gorbachev's reforms. The nature of this democratisation, however, remained ambiguous. Democracy was to be grafted onto a [centrally controlled] system rather than acting as its successor."(25) The dominance of both the Communist Party and the Soviet state were meant to remain essentially unchallenged; democracy would encourage greater success for Soviet society through an increased sense of individual participation and efficacy.(26) While his desire to improve the condition of the people over whom he ruled was a genuinely idealistic one, there clearly were practical reasons for, and limits to, such reforms. "While by 1990 the reforms had restored a sense of democratic proceduralism to government, what was achieved was dearly not liberal democracy.... The constitutional reforms under Gorbachev were designed to institutionalise the reform process instituted from above, but their major drawback was that they failed to provide an effective mechanism to institutionalise political activity from below."(27)


Joseph's policies delighted many of the "philosophes" and other advocates of liberal reform of the late eighteenth century. However, these reforms did not challenge his own institutional authority in any significant manner. Among the reforms that he initiated were the "Urbanian Law," which reduced and regulated serf labor (and which was enacted while he was still co-regent with his mother), the creation of a commission of jurists to reform and codify imperial law, the promotion of capital development in order to promote trade and circumvent the restrictive regulations of the guilds, the abolition of serfdom, a relaxing of the laws against censorship, and the issuance of an "Edict of Toleration" that extended freedom of religion and conscience throughout Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia(28) - even though he was, at the same time, "Vicar of Christ, Advocate of the Christian Church, and Protector of Palestine ... and the Catholic Faith."(29)

While Joseph's reforms delighted many people abroad, they confused, angered, or alarmed many people at home. Some advisors warned him that, if religious tolerance was granted too quickly and implemented too widely, the result could be a sudden inundation of disparate and conflicting sects that could undermine the stability of society. This feeling was prevelant especially outside Austria, such as within Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands.(30) Many nobles, especially in Hungary, complained bitterly that the restrictive regulation, and then the abolition, of the institution of serf labor undermined their traditionally protected agrarian economy and threatened the position of the nobility throughout the empire.(31) Many Roman Catholics (laity as well as clergy) were vehemently opposed to a policy of religious tolerance that threatened the secure and dominant position of the Church. In particular, Joseph wished to make the Church a mere "department of the state," and he could not understand the "ridiculous enthusiasm" shown by the populace for the historic visit made by Pope Pius VI to Vienna "... in a vain attempt to check his ecclesiastical reforms."(32)

Joseph's visit to Italy in 1782, although made in response to Pius' visit earlier that year, allowed the emperor to test the popularity of his views beyond the borders of his empire. His trip was both a political and a personal success. He won papal consent to state appointments of bishops throughout his realm, and he enjoyed a seemingly widespread expression of acclaim among the Italian populace - especially in Rome.(33)

Joseph's attitude towards his imperial domain was based upon considerations of progressive development and consolidated rule. While trying to extend his revolution throughout the empire he also tried to centralize authority and strengthen his control over these disparate lands. While his reforms met popular approval in Austria and the other hereditary Hapsburg lands, they often met resistance in the non-German speaking parts of his empire.

This ethnic discontent found strong expression in Hungary, while Wallachia, Lombardy, Silesia, and Bohemia also experienced ethnic conflicts in relation to these reforms. However, Joseph experienced his most pressing imperial concerns, in this respect, within the Austrian Netherlands. Many of the cities there enjoyed their own charters that reflected the economic and cultural interests of their respective political and economic elites. Much of the objection to Joseph's reforms was not related to their specific content but to the fact that they were being imposed from Vienna. Nationalism proved to be an irresistable force for uniting political forces opposed to Joseph's constitutional changes with those religious concerns who already were engaged in an attempt to prevent Joseph's subjugation of the Church and its institutions, especially among his subjects within the Austrian Netherlands.(34)

Eventually, Joseph became overwhelmed by the forces that he had released. Besides his reforms at home, he also pursued ambitions in the area of expanding the borders and influence of his territorial realm. The overextension of his military resources, as well as his ill advised campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans (in support of an alliance with the Russian Empire), weakened his position at home.(35) Joseph's boyhood idol, the Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, was alarmed by Joseph's alliance with the Russian Czarina Catherine the Great and the obvious attempt to isolate his own position within central Europe. Frederick prompted rebellion within the Holy Roman Empire among the various constituent German states.(36) The Hungarian nobility took advantage of Joseph's misfortunes and instigated rebellion against him in Hungary, where ethnic desires for independence were revived.(37)

Ultimately, these forces proved to be too strong for Joseph to resist, and he repealed all of his reforms outside Austria except for his edicts of religious toleration and state control of ecclesiastical property. Soon thereafter, weakened by the strenuous efforts required by his complex and ambitious political, social, religious, economic, and military agenda and depressed by his apparent failures, Joseph died and was succeeded by his brother, Emperor Leopold I, who moderated his deceased brother's surviving reforms.(38)


The most significant similarities between the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev are not found within their specific backgrounds, ideas, and policies, but within their general motivation and approach to the concept of radical reform within an autocratic state. It would be tempting, for example, to compare, in detail, the specific roles played by their respective principal advisers: the Austrian Chancellor and Foreign Minister, Prince von Kaunitz, and the Soviet Foreign Minister (and, later, President of the independent Republic of Georgia), Edvard Shevardnaze. However, such a comparison would miss the broader, and more significant, point of historical and political comparison. Both leaders offer examples of the attempt to reconcile centralized political authority with the promotion of liberal values of tolerance, individual freedom, and personal autonomy. Both leaders pursued the vision of bringing their respective societies to a thoughtful and inspired future.

Like Joseph II, Mikhail Gorbachev was stimulated by the education and social environment within which he grew and developed, both personally and politically. Just as Joseph had been formally educated under the strict and traditional supervision of the Jesuits, and had been groomed to accept positions of varying and increasing responsibility, so too was Gorbachev subjected to the rigorous and orthodox educational and professional guidance of the Soviet state and Communist Party.(39) Within six years he rose from a relatively minor post in Sevastopol to the highest ranks of the Party. During the rule of Yuri Andropov he was entrusted with enormous responsibility in various areas of foreign and domestic policy, including his traditional area of agriculture. With Andropov as his mentor he became a dominant figure within the Party generally, and the Central Committee in particular, while completing his education as a future reform leader.(40)

The cornerstone of Gorbachev's formal domestic policies were commonly grouped under the general headings of "glasnost" (or, in English, "openness') and "perestroika" (or "restructuring") and directed towards those two broad and complementary goals in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. Together they provided as explicit an appeal to the ideals of liberal tolerance as ever was preached by the various philosophical prophets of the Enlightenment. These broad policies were implemented within specific reforms that frequently were applauded by advocates of reform and, to a lesser extent, the general public. "But the applause was accompanied by a wariness, understandable in light of Soviet history, that unless perestroika established institutional guarantees to safeguard the cultural horizons expanded by glasnost, the astonishing revelations of glasnost would be ephemeral."(41)

Gorbachev initiated reforms that repealed repressive censorship laws, allowed for widespread expressions of religious activity (especially, but not exclusively, regarding Orthodox Christianity), and encouraged the development of political and cultural expression in the media, the arts, and in the streets. At the same time he reformed the bureacracy, made the Party more receptive to its membership, and gave increasing legislative responsibility to the formerly powerless Supreme Soviet.(42)

One area of reform that was especially revealing regarding both leaders was the reform of the respective legal and judicial systems. In both cases these were reforms that did not necessarily attract a great deal of attention, yet the apparent sincerity of these legal and judicial reforming efforts indicate the depth of the desire for reform shared by both leaders. Attention to principles such as the rights of the accused, access to legal counsel, court restructuring, and the need for clear and consistent rules of jurisprudence (consistent with the broader civil law tradition) offer a strong indication of the genuine inspiration that liberalism and other "enlightened" ideas concerning the law provided, under different circumstances, for Joseph and Gorbachev.(43)


Gorbachev pursued an ambitious foreign policy which he, like Joseph, linked to the overall success of his reform program.(44) Like Joseph, he initially sought to strengthen the coordination of state activities in order to give greater unity and practical effect to his social and economic reforms.(45) Furthermore, he, like Joseph, sought to disentangle himself from an alliance that tended to divert the resources of his empire and weaken his position at home. "The broken and dependent economies of the Eastern bloc were an obvious burden to Moscow. Gorbachev was retreating from Europe, and he had to figure out how to take the U.S. military presence along with him."(46)

Unlike Joseph's relationship with the Holy Roman Empire, the role of the Warsaw Pact was far from an anachronistic one. However, Gorbachev calculated that the drain posed by Soviet maintenance of that system was, inevitably, just as debilitating and ultimately harmful as any attempt by Joseph to challenge Frederick the Great openly in order to exert a substantive influence over the effectively independent states of Germany.(47) Furthermore, freeing himself from the entanglements of Eastern Europe would allow Gorbachev, like Joseph, to gain popularity elsewhere and focus attention on areas of foreign policy where he could exert a greater influence and enjoy more meaningful success.(48)


Discontent over both Joseph and Gorbachev sprang from three sources: the masses who were confused and wary of quickly changing events; those elites who felt that these leaders did not offer enough reform, or who felt that reform was proceeding too slowly; those entrenched elites who saw these reforms as a threat to their power, privilege, and position within society. This latter source proved to be especially troublesome for both leaders. Joseph had to contend with the Church (both within and without Austria), especially the opposition of bishops and other ecclesiastical figures as well as the aggressive activities of those same intelligent, committed, and energetic Jesuits who had offered him much of his early educational training.(49) This opposition was exaccerbated by the effect that it had upon the large numbers of Joseph's Roman Catholic subjects, whose continued strong loyalty to the Church in the face of the scepticism of the Enlightenment was apparent during the visit of Pope Pius VI.

This latter source also included, for Joseph, those members of the entrenched nobility who depended upon serf labor and the old agrarian order through which they attempted to ensure their already precarious prosperity and position within society. The opposition of the Hungarian nobility to this reform (although they objected to his other reform policies as well) was particularly strong, especially as it was able to utilize the force of ethnic sentiment and national prejudices in destabilizing Joseph's programs in that part of his diverse empire.

Gorbachev had to contend with his own experience of opposition from privileged elites who felt threatened by the replacement of the old order with a new vision of society. The two most prominent sources for this elite opposition came from members of the entrenched state bureaucracy and the senior membership of the Communist Party.(50) Bureaucratic intransigence provided the most sustained form of elite opposition that Gorbachev experienced.

Skillful in protecting their position and privileged status, the bureaucrats quickly discovered the vulnerable points of perestroika and developed an effective system of resistence. On the one hand, they endorse perestroika vocally and publicly, sometimes with greater zeal than Gorbachev himself... On the other hand, they conduct a tacit and discreet, yet stubborn and highly effective, resistance to the same reforms .... On such occasions as these, bureaucracy changes from being merely a burden and a 'braking mechanism,' as Gorbachev himself occasionally terms it, into a lethal threat to perestroika.(51)

However, it was members of the upper ranks of the Party who felt the most threatened by Gorbachev's reforms and, ultimately, staged the coup that, while unsuccessful, weakened Gorbachev's position so irretrievably that it largely hastened the demise of both his political power and the Soviet Union itself.

Joseph also found that he faced the disapproval of those groups and individuals who felt that he did not proceed quickly enough with his program of reforms. Thus he was beseiged from both sides of the political and social spectrum. Such disapproval was especially apparent among influential European thinkers who originally had influenced and encouraged Joseph and who helped to define the philosophy and politics of the Age of Enlightenment.(52)

Gorbachev found that he faced similar criticism, although, in his case, the unrest was primarily internal. Ironically, many of those individuals who were most outspoken in their belief that Gorbachev's reforms were inadequate were those who benefited most from his policies - especially in the area of public expression. However, the most notable opposition came from political leaders within the various republics, whose desire for greater economic control and free market solutions was reinforced by historical resentment of Russian dominance of the Soviet system - in much the same way as Hungarian economic discontent was bolstered by historical resentment of Austrian political domination. Expanded press freedom gave greater scope to expressions of varied ethnic identity and nationalism, while placing greater responsibility upon local and regional officials to address the demands of a populace which resented central Soviet control and Russian dominance. "Prior to Gorbachev, republic party leaders were Moscow's men on the scene, ready to do Moscow's bidding and to use force to impose central policy. Now, in the absence of coercion, they must represent the population, thereby giving national content to the pseudo-institutions that Stalin created and setting the stage for imperial devolution."(53)

Of course, the most vocal and effective of these critics was the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. Although it was he who led the fight to crush the 1991 coup attempt of the rebellious Party elites, it also was he who demanded the final elimination of the Party and the centralized control which it represented. It may be possible to argue that Yeltsin used popular support, not as a democrat who regards democracy as an end in itself, but as a populist who uses it as a form of political leverage against a personal opponent.(54) In such a way ethnic and nationalist conflict may have been exploited by Gorbachev's various opponents, so that his ambiguous approach to the concepts of nationalism and Soviet democracy may have contributed further to the failures of his policies and his ultimate political demise.(55)

Finally, both leaders were confronted by the uncertain, and often negative, reaction of the mass populace of their respective societies. In Joseph's case the edicts of toleration created an atmosphere of uncertainty among those of his subjects who traditionally looked to the omnipresent power of the Church as a source of continuity and moral authority. Furthermore, the newly freed serfs found that the material conditions of their lives had not necessarily improved with the advent of social freedom. They posed a potentially volatile problem that was exaccerbated by generally increasing problems within the economic climate throughout central Europe at that time. Joseph's reforms also united disparate groups in opposition to him as demands for more meaningful economic reforms (especially within the area of industrial development) were not answered with the sort of alacrity that the situation seemed to warrant.(56)

Likewise, Mikhail Gorbachev faced increasingly widespread demands for greater economic and political reforms - especially in terms of the lifting of governmental restrictions, the decentralization of economic control, and radical improvements in industrial capacity and the economic infrastructure of the entire society. Yeltsin's campaign to initiate such reforms within the Russian Federation proved to be irresistable to a workforce that had grown weary of material shortages, poor quality goods, a seemingly stagnant economic system, and concerns about the availability of food and other staples of life. This final source of opposition proved to be too much for Gorbachev, who finally conceeded to the various republics their demands for the dismantling of the centralized Soviet state and its final abolition in favor of complete sovereignty for the republics and the creation of a loose confederation known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.(57)


Both leaders tried to overcome ethnic divisions with appeals to universal values that had proved to be irresistable throughout most of the modern industrial world.(58) One of the great miscalculations of the Enlightenment was the inability of its prophets to appreciate the strength of nationalism and other ethnic sentiments, and the ability of these sentiments to resist the intellectual force and idealism with which liberal values were supposed to be able to transcend them.(59) Both Joseph and Gorbachev were genuinely inspired by that liberal vision. But the Age of Enlightenment eluded the Russian Empire (and its institutional heir, the Soviet Union) for nearly two centuries - despite the tentative attempts at internal reform that were made by Catherine the Great and some of the later Romanov czars.(60)

However, in both cases, once these reforms were begun these respective enlightened despots ultimately became overwhelmed by a progression of events that these revolutionary actions had initiated. The ultimate course of reform developed at a pace that neither leader could anticipate nor control. They unleashed volatile forces that had been building for some time and which they were unable to subdue. With the embracing of liberal values comes the acceptance of pluralism, and with pluralism comes a tendency towards decentralization.(61)

This movement also provoked a counterrevolutionary (some might say "conservative") response from those elements in society for whom change poses a real, or at least a potential, threat. In the end, as Joseph and Gorbachev discovered, when substantial reform is pursued, often no one will be completely satisfied. For Joseph this fact eventually resulted in a widespread reaction regarding his policies within the Austrian Netherlands, in which "[f]inalement toute la population se groupa contre Joseph II."(62)


If both of these leaders could be described, to some extent, as idealistic liberals, they were not necessarily liberal democrats. In almost Hobbesian fashion they believed in the need for a strong, central, and overarching authority if society were to develop properly and safely.(63) Joseph ultimately fell victim to the reactionary demands of the entrenched aristocracy, while Gorbachev survived the counterrevolution, only to find himself left behind by those same forces that he had originally unleashed.

Democracy and radical reform have not always been, historically, the most compatable of concepts.(64) These two individuals sought to direct and control the course of "revolution." Despite the apparent contradiction of the term, an enlightened despot is a ruler who wants to insure that a particular liberal vision remains complete and is implemented, within society, intact. Thus, according to these broad criteria, Mikhail Gorbachev qualifies as an enlightened despot. The conditions within which he rose to power, the influences (especially philosophical ones) upon his personal and political development, and the obstacles (systemic, external, and self-imposed) that he incompletely overcame, reflect a pattern of personal rule that can be found among certain eighteenth century rulers, such as Emperor Joseph II. As with all of these leaders, his historic place within his society can be regarded as a transition between an old, repressive order and a new (though uncertain) and, ultimately, democratic order.

In terms of the magnitude of the history that he helped to summon, President Mikhail Gorbachev may well be truly the last of this special breed of political figure. If nothing else, he was the catalyst that brought together those forces that finally allowed the Age of Enlightenment to arrive within the "Empire of All the Russias." Perhaps he was, indeed, the "last" of the "enlightened despots!"


1. Plato, The Republic, edited and translated by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 105-111; Frederick Sontag, "The Analects of Confucius: The Universal Man," Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 17(4) (December 1970): 427-435.

2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by C.B. Macpherson (London: Penguin Books, 1985), pp. 223-239.

3. Among those authorities who have attempted to place the idea of enlightened rule within its philosophical context (including the specific variations of that context) are John G. Gagliardo, Enlightened Despotism (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1967), pp. 60-85, Leonard Krieger, An Essay on the Theory of Enlightened Despotism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 17-45, and Hamish H. Scott, "The Problem of Enlightened Absolutism," in Enlightened Absolutism, edited by H.M. Scott (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), pp. 1-36.

4. See, for example, Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, translated by Fritz C.A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), pp. 11-35; For a classical exposition of this theme, see John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, edited by Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 73-91.

5. Immanuel Kant, "The Nature of Enlightenment," translated by Lewis White Beck, in Enlightened Despotism: Reform or Reaction?, edited by Roger Wines (Boston: D.C. Heath and Co., 1967), pp. 13-15.

6. Kant, in Wines, ed., p. 15.

7. Fritz Hartung, "A Definition of Enlightened Despotism," in Wines, ed., pp. 28-31; Walter Hubatsch, "The Nature of Absolutism," in Wines, ed., pp. 10-13; Scott, pp. 1-36; The conceptual distinction between an "absolutism," defined as an informally limited autocracy, and "despotism," defined as an unlimited autocracy, is theoretically and historically examined in Leonard Krieger, Kings and Philosophers (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), pp. 242-247.

8. Hartung, in Wines, ed., p. 28.

9. This was the sort of leadership which the "philosopher king" was expected to exercise, and it appears to have been based, at least in part, upon this example. For a discussion of Plato's views on despotism, see George H. Sabine and Thomas L. Thorson, A History of Political Theory (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), pp. 71-74.

10. For an argument regarding this limitation upon the concept of governmental authority in general, see Michael Oakeshott, "On Being Conservative," in Dogmas and Dreams: Political Ideologies in the Modern World, edited by Nancy S. Love (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1991), pp. 111-132.

11. Ironically, this view may have been prompted by the writings of Thomas Hobbes regarding the need for unlimited sovereign authority in order to protect the interests of society against its own violence, uncertainty, and instability. For a consideration of this view, see C.B. Macpherson's introductory remarks in Hobbes, pp. 30-63.

12. Gagliardo, p. 61.

13. C.B. Macpherson, "Editor's Introduction," in Second Treatise of Government, edited by John Locke (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980), p. xxi.

14. Geoffrey Bruun, The Enlightened Despots (New York: Holt and Co., 1929), pp. 28-29.

15. Hartung, in Wines, ed., p. 29.

16. For the arguments in support of, and against, this view in terms of Napoleon, see Pieter Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against, translated by Oliver Renier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 15-34.

17."After the reaction under Metternich had passed away, the reforms of Joseph II were one by one restored, and the revolutionaries of 1848 laid a wreath of greatful acknowledgment upon his tomb," Will Durant and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 366.

18. Both Joseph and Gorbachev succeeded individual leaders (Empress Maria Theresa and President Yuri Andropov, respectively) who were, themselves, moderate reformers and prepared their successors to follow a similar path. However, neither of the two previous rulers anticipated the extent to which their political heirs would pursue such reform. For a summary of the respective programs of these "moderate" reformers, see George P. Gooch, Maria Theresa and Other Studies (New York: Archon Books, 1965), pp. 146, and Jonathan Steele and Eric Abraham, Andropov in Power (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), pp. 152-208.

19. Derek Beales, Joseph II, Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 61-62.

20. Beales, Vol. I, p. 162.

21. However, one author warns that the "imprint" of this education may not have been as profound as most other scholars appear to accept, Dmitry Mikheyev, The Rise and Fall of Gorbachev (Indianapolis: Hudson Institute, 1992), pp. 20-22.

22. Robert G. Kaiser, Why Gorbachev Happened (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), p. 21.

23. Kaiser, p. 29; See also Mikheyev, pp. 20-25, 47-50.

24. Paul P. Bernard, Joseph II (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968), pp. 140-141.

25. Richard Sakwa, Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985-1990 (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 192.

26. However, Gorbachev shared an orthodox Marxist cynicism which regarded the democracy of capitalist countries as a tool through which the bourgeoisie manipulated the electoral process and, thus, legitimated their own dominance as a class. For Gorbachev, a true democracy would need the guidance of the Communist Party in order to overcome this class bias, Mikheyev, p. 47.

27. Sakwa, p. 193.

28. For a description of these, and other, specific reform policies of the coregency and reign of Joseph II, see Beales, Vol. I, pp. 458-480, Paul P. Bernard, Jesuits and Jacobins: Enlightenment and Enlightened Despotism in Austria (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), pp. 168-178, and Ernst Wangermann, From Joseph II to the Jacobin Trials (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), pp. 5-55.

29. William Coxe, A History of the House of Austria, Vol. III (New York: Arno Press, 1971), p. 493.

30. Bernard, Joseph II, pp. 106-111; J. Franck Bright, Joseph II (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970), pp. 189-193.

31. Bright, pp. 209-220; Wangermann, pp. 49-55.

32. Sir Nicholas Henderson, "Joseph It," History Today, 41(3) (March 1991), p. 24.

33. Bernard, Joseph II, pp. 115-116; It may be interesting to compare (although only loosely) this foreign relations strategy regarding the papacy with the historic visits of Mikhail Gorbachev to Pope John Paul II, in which the former tried to win favor with the latter - especially in terms of his policies of domestic religious tolerance and international disarmament. However, the traditional suspicions of the papacy against both the Soviet Union, in particular, and secular political and economic forces generally (especially as they effect the religious domain of a society) were not abandoned entirely by John Paul or the Vatican hierarchy. This suspicion included concerns regarding the relationship of various neo-Marxist ideas to certain aspects of neo-Thomist "liberation theology" as advocated by certain activists within the Church in Latin America. This relationship and general "rivalry" between the Roman Catholic pontiff and the Soviet leader (as well as between the Holy See and western capitalism) is addressed in Malachi Martin, The Keys of This Blood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 17-54.

34. Bright, pp. 189-208 describes the ultimate failure of Joseph's attempts to impose these reforms upon Belgian (i.e. Austrian Netherland) cities.

35. S.K. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor (New York: Robert O. Ballou, 1934), pp. 162-168.

36. See, for example, Paul P. Bernard, Joseph II and Bavaria (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), pp. 134-150.

37. Bright, pp. 208-218.

38. Bright, pp. 218-222.

39. Mikheyev, pp. 44-46; Gail Sheehy, The Man Who Changed the World (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), pp. 49-82.

40. Baruch A. Hazan, From Brezhnev to Gorbachev (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 148-149.

41. Josephine Woll, "Glasnost: A Cultural Kaleidoscope," in Five Years that Shook the World: Gorbachev's Unfinished Revolution, edited by Harley D. Balzer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), p. 105.

42. For a detailed description of these reforms, see Thomas H. Naylor, The Gorbachev Strategy (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1988), pp. 23-51, and Sakwa, pp. 138, 102-125.

43. Paul P. Bernard, The Limits of Enlightenment: Joseph II and the Law (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), pp. 1-24, including a consideration of Joseph's "imperfect" adherence to this sort of reform, despite his genuine desire to promote it, pp. 121 - 124; David M. Simmons, "Recognition of Illegalities: Proposals for Reforms in the Soviet Criminal Justice System Under Gorbachev, Glasnost, and Perestroika," The American University Journal of International Law, 5(1) (Spring 1990), pp. 921 934; Peter H. Solomon, Jr., "The Role of Defense Counsel in the USSR: The Politics of Judicial Reform Under Gorbachev," Criminal Law Quarterly, 31(1) (December 1988), pp. 76-91.

44. See, for example, Jerry Hough, "Gorbachev's Politics," Foreign Affairs, 68(5) (Winter 1989/1990), pp. 26-41.

45. Naylor, pp. 51-178.

46. Sheehy, p. 222.

47. Bernard, Joseph Hand Bavaria, pp. 134-150.

48. Naylor, pp. 121-147; Sheehy, pp. 202-229.

49. Bernard, Jesuits and Jacobins, pp. 168-171; Gooch, pp. 6-8.

50. An excellent source that explores this internal struggle is Baruch A. Hazan, Gorbachev and His Enemies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990), pp. 1-38, 212-264.

51. Hazan, p. 215.

52. This problem is addressed indirectly in Bernard, The Limits of Enlightenment, pp. 121-124, and Ernst Wangermann, "Joseph II: Determined by Circumstances," edited by Wines, pp. 45-46.

53. Paul Goble, "Imperial Endgame: Nationality Problems and the Soviet Future," edited by Balzer, p. 97.

54. This conclusion would likely be strongly denied by Dmitry Mikheyev, who writes a glowing assessment of Yeltsin's background and motives and characterizes him as a true "revolutionary," Mikheyev, pp. 143-147. Throughout his book, Mikheyev acknowledges the fact that his perspective differs profoundly from most scholarly assessments regarding Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

55. This relationship between glasnost and perestroika, on the one hand, and the theoretical concepts of nationalism and democracy, on the other hand, is addressed in Marjorie Mandlestam Balzer, "Nationalism in the Soviet Union: One Anthropological View," Journal of Soviet Nationalities, 1(3) (Summer 1990): 1-17, Goble, in edited by Balzer, pp. 91-104, and in W.H. Lewis, "Gorbachev and Ethnic Coexistence," Comparative Strategy, 8(4) (Fall 1989): 399-422; Other political leaders have succumbed to the idealistic belief that liberal values can unify societies, despite nationalist tensions, and also believe that they can subsume ethnic and nationalist identities through the propogation of broad, philosphical ideals, such as Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Le Federalism et la societe canadienne-francaise (Montreal: Les presses de l'Universite de Montreal, 1968), pp. 202-212.

56. Jacques Godechot, Les Revolutions: 1770-1799 (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de la France, 1963), pp. 109-112.

57. Kaiser, pp. 11-20.

58. This general historical problem is addressed indirectly in Lewis, pp. 399-422.

59. See, for example, F.G. Whelan, "Population and Ideology in the Enlightenment," History of Political Thought, 12(1) (Spring 1991): 35-56.

60. Bruce Lincoln, The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia (Dekalb: Northevn Illinois University Press, 1990), pp. 1135; Alfred J. Rieber, "Alexander II: A Revisionist View," Journal of Modern History, 43(1) (March 1971): 42-58.

61. Gorbachev experienced particular trouble with the Soviet intelligestia in this respect, Mikheyev, pp. 130-143.

62. Godechot, p. 110.

63. This view of the supreme sovereign was considered to be an essential component of a society within which the individual could flourish. For a more detailed consideration of this particular development of liberal thought, see Sabine and Thorson, pp. 422-440.

64. This view is addressed and critically challenged in C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 93-115.

James T. McHugh is an assistant professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is also Coordinator of the Legal Studies Program. He came to Roosevelt after completing his doctorate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. His research interests include philosophy and comparative history, as well as the political science fields of constitutional and public law, comparative politics, and political theory.
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Author:McHugh, James T.
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Date:Jan 1, 1995
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