These considerations on the position of the Revolution and of Catholic thought concerning forms of government may lead some readers to inquire whether dictatorship is a revolutionary or a counter-revolutionary factor.
To provide a clear answer to this question—to which many confused and even tendentious replies have been given—it is necessary to make a distinction between certain elements indiscriminately linked in the idea of dictatorship as public opinion conceives of it. Mistaking dictatorship in thesis for what it has been in practice in [the 20th] century, the public sees dictatorship as a state of affairs in which a leader endowed with unlimited powers governs a country. For its good, say some. For its harm, say others. But in either case, such a state of affairs is still a dictatorship.
Now, this concept involves two distinct elements:
—the omnipotence of the State;
—the concentration of state power in the hands of a single person.
The public mind seems to focus on the second element. Nevertheless, the first is the basic element, at least if we see dictatorship as a state of affairs in which the public authority, having suspended the juridical order, disposes of all rights at its good pleasure. It is entirely evident that a dictatorship may be exercised by a king. (A royal dictatorship, that is, the suspension of the whole juridical order and the unrestricted exercise of public power by the king, is not to be confused with the Ancien Regime, in which these guarantees existed to a considerable degree, nor, much less, with the organic medieval monarchy.) It is also entirely evident that a dictatorship may be exercised by a popular chief, a hereditary aristocracy, a clan of bankers, or even by the masses.
In itself, a dictatorship exercised by a chief or a group of persons is neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary. It will be either one or the other depending on the circumstances that gave rise to it and the work it does. This is the case whether it is in the hands of one man or in the hands of a group.
There are circumstances that demand, for the sake of the salus populi, a suspension of individual rights and a greater exercise of public power. A dictatorship, therefore, can be legitimate in certain cases.
A counter-revolutionary dictatorship—a dictatorship completely oriented by the desire for order—must have three essential requisites:
- It must suspend rights to protect order, not to subvert it. By order we do not mean mere material tranquility, but the disposition of things according to their end and in accordance with the respective scale of values. This is, then, a suspension of rights that is more apparent than real, the sacrifice of juridical guarantees that evil elements had abused to the detriment of order itself and of the common good. This sacrifice is entirely directed toward the protection of the true rights of the good.
- By definition, this suspension is temporary. It must prepare circumstances for a return to order and normality as soon as possible. A dictatorship, to the degree it is good, proceeds to put an end to its very reason for being. The intervention of public authority in the various sectors of the national life must be undertaken in such a way that, as soon as possible, each sector may live with the necessary autonomy. Thus, each family should be allowed to do everything it is capable of doing by its nature, being supported by higher social groups only in a subsidiary way in what is beyond its sphere of action. These groups, in turn, should only receive the help of their municipality in what exceeds their normal capacity, and so on up the line in the relations between the municipality and the region or between the region and the country.
- The essential end of a legitimate dictatorship nowadays must be the Counter-Revolution. This does not mean a dictatorship is normally necessary for the defeat of the Revolution. But, in certain circumstances, it may be.
In contrast, a revolutionary dictatorship aims to perpetuate itself. It violates authentic rights and penetrates all spheres of society to destroy them. It carries out this destruction by sundering family life, harming the genuine elites, subverting the social hierarchy, fomenting utopian ideas and disorderly ambitions in the multitudes, extinguishing the real life of the social groups, and subjecting everything to the State. In short, it favors the work of the Revolution. A typical example of such a dictatorship was Hitlerism.
For this reason, a revolutionary dictatorship is fundamentally anti-Catholic. In fact, in a truly Catholic ambience, there can be no climate for such a situation.
This is not to say that a revolutionary dictatorship in one or another country has not sought to favor the Church. But this is merely a question of a political attitude that is transformed into open or veiled persecution as soon as the ecclesiastical authority begins to hinder the pace of the Revolution.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution (York, PA: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), pp. 20-23.