1. 1 | Theories of Sovereignty
In general, sovereignty means the supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which any
independent state is governed; supreme political authority; the supreme will; paramount
control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration; the self-sufficient
source of political power, from which all specific political powers are derived; the international
independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs
without foreign dictation; also a political society, or state, which is sovereign and independent.
The power to do everything in a state without accountability, to other countries, to execute and
to apply them, to impose and collect taxes and levy contributions, to make war or peace, to
form treaties of alliance or of commerce with foreign nations.
The concept of ‘sovereignty’ is one of the most complex, with many definitions, some are
totally contradictory. Usually, sovereignty is defined in one of two ways. The first definition
applies to supreme public power, which has the right and, in theory, the capacity to impose its
authority in the last instance. The second definition refers to the holder of legitimate power,
who is recognized to have authority.
When national sovereignty is discussed, the first definition applies, and it refers in particular to
independence, understood as the freedom of a collective entity to act. When popular
sovereignty is discussed, the second definition applies, and sovereignty is associated with
power and legitimacy.1
There are various definition of sovereignty which has been defined by academicians and
philosophers they are as follows:
In political science, sovereignty is usually defined as the most essential attribute of the state in
the form of its complete self-sufficiency in the frames of a certain territory that is its
supremacy in the domestic policy and independence in the foreign one.2
“Acquisition of Territorial Sovereignty” Retrieved from
Jane Perlez and David Rohde, Pakistan Pushes Back Against U.S. Criticism on Bin Laden, N.Y. Times,
May 3, 2011, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/ world/asia/04pakistan.html]
2. 2 | Theories of Sovereignty
John Bodin defines sovereignty “The supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained
Grotius defines sovereignty as “The supreme political power vested in him whose acts are not
subject to any other and whose will cannot be overridden”.
Also definition of Sovereignty by Soltau is “Final legal coercive power by the state”.
Essential Elements of Sovereignty
Therefore, essentials of Sovereignty can be summarized as well as understood from the
above mentioned definitions of sovereignty through following points:
(i) An element of the state;
(ii) Ultimate will of the state;
(iii) Authorized coercive power of the state;
(iv) Absolute laws;
(v) It lies within an individual; and
(vi) Absolute and unlimited authority
Theories of Sovereignty
In order to be treated as state several elements are required and sovereignty is perhaps the most
important element. But it is one of the most controversial topics. The liberals, conservatives,
socialists all types of thinkers view it in their own respective ways and this finally has resulted
in different concepts about it. The interesting fact is that large number of scholars and political
scientists disapprove sovereignty of state as it curtails the liberty of individuals and they are
Their belief is that instead of arguing for concentration of power at a single center it is better to
decentralize it. Sovereignty means centralization of power and it runs counter to the progress
of civilization and progress. In this spirit Laski once said it would be of lasting benefit to
political science if the whole concept of sovereignty were surrendered.
Ashley Deeks, “Pakistan's Sovereignty and the Killing of Osama Bin Laden” retrieved from
3. 3 | Theories of Sovereignty
But the same author in the same book has offered us another view which says that the theory of
sovereignty is the theory of political organization. Now, if we decide to surrender sovereignty
the only alternative left to us is to dismantle political organization which is an impractical
Marxist Theory of Sovereignty
Elements of Marxist Theory of Sovereignty:
It is very difficult to state precisely the Marxist approach to the doctrine of sovereignty. It is
difficult, because neither Marx nor Engels has analyzed it. From Marx’s political philosophy
we can single out certain elements of sovereignty. Some of these are:
(i) In capitalist society the state is an instrument of exploitation;
(ii) The instrument is used by the capitalist class and this class is economically dominant
(iii) In the Western concept of political theory political sovereignty is located in the state;
(iv) Since the capitalist class uses and controls the state, in real situation, the sovereign
power is exercised by the capitalist class;
(v) The capitalist class does not directly rule and control the state machinery; and
(vi) It sends its representatives to the various branches of government such as legislature,
➢ How the State Exercises Sovereign powers?
The implementation of sovereignty in a capitalist state runs through several stages. Apparently
the state is the real actor. The policies, laws, administration etc. are promulgated either in the
name of state or by the state itself. The state is the repository of the supreme coercive power
and this power is applied by the state to ensure obligation from the citizens.
The sovereign power of the state is absolute. Although in a capitalist state there are many
institutions and organizations who act independently the application of coercion has different
dimension. It is primarily used by the capitalist state to suppress the demands of the working
class and common people.
4. 4 | Theories of Sovereignty
Moreover, the institution and organization mainly represent the interests of the ruling class or
elite groups or powerful pressure groups and these do not have any relationship with the
interests of the common people.
Thus, we can hold and express the view that according to the Marxists the sovereignty in a
capitalist state closely consistent with the Hobbesian concept of Sovereignty and not the
popular one as explained by Rousseau. It is also legal sovereignty, because the sovereignty is
constituted according to the constitution or law.
The chief concern of the Hobbesian sovereignty was to maintain law and order and to ensure
peace and security. The sovereignty of the capitalist state, Marx believed, aimed at ensuring
law and order and to suppress popular agitation.
➢ Relative Autonomy of State and Sovereignty
In our analysis of the Marxist theory of state we have seen that the capitalist class plays the
most crucial role in the various activities of the state and the state is to same extent an umpire
or acts as an instrument. It has also been said that the state has least freedom in its activities.
It cannot normally go against the dominant class. But the relative autonomy of state explained
by many and largely popularized and strongly advocated by Poulantzas (1936-1979) offers us
a variant role of state which throws some light on sovereignty.
Poulantzas observes that within a capitalist state there are many organized and disorganized
groups who frequently struggle amongst themselves. Even the economically dominant class is
not homogeneous; rather it is faction-ridden. In such a situation the state is to act as an umpire
and it must show, at least outwardly, that it is neutral. This induces the state to exercise its
power to a certain extent independent of all groups and factions and at the same time get the
scope to exercise sovereignty.
The state maintains a social connection in a class-divided capitalist society and under such
circumstances the possibility of exercising sovereign power gets additional encouragement. So
it is not true that in a capitalist society the state is a puppet and everything is done by the
dominant class in the name of state. Poulantzas has explained it in his famous book Political
Power and Social Classes (1968).
5. 5 | Theories of Sovereignty
➢ Sovereign State is an Illusory
David Held gives the following considered opinion:
“For Marx and the subsequent Marxist tradition, the very idea of sovereign state is to a large
extent illusory” (emphasis mine). We believe that this estimation about Marxist doctrine of
sovereign state is perfectly correct. Marx and his orthodox followers had no intention to
analyze the theory of sovereignty in a methodological way.
It is not the state that controls the socio-economic order, that is, politics is not the determiner of
economic and other affairs of the state. Rather the reverse is true. The socio-economic order
determines everything (including political affairs) of the state. This aspect has in recent years
been thoroughly investigated by many and amongst them Keohane and Nye are prominent.
Their book Power and Interdependence: World Politics is Transition (1977), explaining
Keohane and Nye’s viewpoint Held observes that there is a clear “gap between the political
authority and the actual economic system of production distribution and exchange which in
many ways serves to limit or undermine the actual power or scope of national political
Keohane and Nye have reached this conclusion after thoroughly studying the working of
world’s several capitalist states. Ralph Miliband also has said that “in a capitalist state the
economy exercises the supreme power. We are thus confronted with two views about Marxist
theory of sovereignty, one by Poulantzas and the other by Miliband”.
But in ultimate analysis it is illusory. Illusory in the sense that it is very difficult to form any
definite idea about the concept of sovereignty from the vast literature of Marx and Engels. If
we look at the views of Gramsci and Poulantzas, it can be said that “Poulantzas is a new
Gramscian thinker”. We shall find that state plays an important role and it can be interpreted
as sovereign power.
But large number of recent thinkers is of opinion that economic forces settle everything in the
state and if anything is to be called sovereign power, it is the economically dominant class. But
here again we are faced with a dilemma. Defined and explained properly, economic system
cannot be called a sovereignty. Moreover, this class has never been found to declare that.
6. 6 | Theories of Sovereignty
Hence what about the sovereign power? It is no doubt an illusion. Even if the view of
Poulantzas is accepted the illusory aspect of sovereignty remains unaffected.
When the different groups and factions of the powerful class are at loggerheads the relative
autonomy of state opens the way for exercising sovereign power. It is, again, a very weak
argument. When the dominant class is free from conflicts, sovereign power is exercised by this
class. Hence there is a confusion about the exact location of sovereign power in Marxism.
7. 7 | Theories of Sovereignty
Salmond’s Theory of Sovereignty
According to Salmond the theory of sovereignty may be reduced to the following three
fundamental propositions. He regards the first of these propositions as correct and the second
and third without any solid foundation.
The three propositions are as under:
Sovereign power is essential in every state. Every political society involves the presence of a
supreme power whose will ultimately prevails within that community.
That power may even be semi-sovereign and dependent for according to Salmond,
“There is nothing to prevent sovereignty which is thus essential from being wholly or partly
external to the stale. In all cases sovereign power is necessarily present somewhere, but it is
not in all cases to be found in its entirety within the borders of the state itself.”
Sovereign power is indivisible. Every state necessarily involves not merely sovereignty, but a
sovereign, that is to say, one person or one body of persons in whom the totality of sovereign
power resides. Austin observes that in each state there is one person or defined group which is
politically supreme, and one only.
It has, however, been criticized on the ground that the rule does not hold good in the case of
England, where sovereignty is divided into legislative sovereignty (the Crown and the two
Houses of Parliament) and the executive sovereignty (the Crown); before the Parliament Act,
1911, there was also judicial sovereignty (the House of Lords).
Sovereign power is unlimited and illimitable. Not only is sovereign power uncontrolled and
unlimited within its own jurisdiction, but that jurisdiction is infinite in extent.
It is true that sovereignty cannot be subordinated to any other power; but it would be incorrect
to say that it is unlimited in its compass. There are de facto and dc jure limitations.
8. 8 | Theories of Sovereignty
The power of the sovereign is limited by the extent of the physical force which he can
command and is also limited to the extent to which the subjects are willing to submit to his
dominion. It is possible that sovereign power may be legally controlled within its own sphere.
The courts of justice have the power to declare whether a certain action falls or does not fall
within the scope of the Slate authority according to the Constitution, e.g., in India it is
recognized on all hands that, subject to the provisions of the constitution, an enactment,
whether provincial or central, cannot transgress the fundamental rights guaranteed by the
Constitution of India.
Even in the United States of America neither Congress nor any state legislature possesses
unrestricted powers. They are incapable of altering the constitution which has established
The constitution can be amended only when a majority of three-fourths of the state legislatures
ratify the amendment after the same has been proposed by a two-thirds majority of the
Congress. The sovereignty as such does not vest in Congress; it is the composite body
mentioned above which has absolute power to alter the constitution and possesses unlimited
➢ No Law Without a State and Sovereign Power
A law in the proper sense of the term, observes Holland, is a general rule of human action,
taking cognizance only of external acts enforced by determinate authority, which authority is
human, and, among human authorities, is that which as paramount in a political society.
It is thus a general rule of external human action enforced by the sovereign political authority.
All other rules for the guidance of human action are called laws merely by analogy; and any
propositions which are not rules for human action are called laws by metaphor only.
The sovereign part of the Stale is omnipotent. It is the source of all law. In private law the State
is indeed present, but it is present only as arbiter of the rights and duties which exist between
one of its subjects and another. In public law the Slate is not only arbiter, but also one of the
Holland observes that in legislation, both the contents of the rules are devised and legal force
is given to it, by acts of the sovereign power which produce “written law”.
9. 9 | Theories of Sovereignty
All the other law sources produce what is called unwritten law to which the sovereign authority
gives its whole force, but not its contents, which are derived from popular tendency,
professional discussion, judicial ingenuity, or otherwise, as the case may be.
Rules thus developed obtain the force of law by complying with the standard which the States
exacts from such rules before it gives them binding force.
It rightly follows from the above that apart from the existence of State, and of a sovereign
power within it, there can be no law.
➢ Theory of Sovereignty in a Federal Constitution
The English Parliament is the supreme power so far as its legislative functions are concerned.
The Courts obey its legislation and there is no power which can override, curtail or prescribe
But in a federal constitution like that of the United States neither legislatures of the slates, nor
the federal legislatures, nor the executives of slates, or federation, possess unrestricted power.
Their authority is defined in the constitution. The constitution is as such inanimate and can
exert no power. The sovereignty can, therefore, not reside in the constitution. In the Australian
sense, therefore, the sovereignty resides only in the amending body, which has uncontrolled
and absolute authority and enjoys the power to change the constitution.
As such it may be said that in the United States the sovereignty is vested not in Congress but in
a majority of three-fourths of the slate legislatures which can ratify the amendment after the
same has been proposed by a two-thirds majority of the Congress.
It is the composite body which has absolute power to alter the constitution and possesses
unlimited legislative power. Dr. Jethro Brown, however, offers a simple explanation by saying
that the Stale, as a corporation, is sovereign, and it acts through a variety of agents to express
10. 10 | Theories of Sovereignty
Austin’s Theory of Sovereignty
In the 19th
century the theory of sovereignty as a legal concept was perfected by Austin, an
English Jurist. He is regarded as a greatest exponent of Monistic Theory. In his book ‘Province
of Jurisprudence Determined (1832) Austin observed’ “if a determinate human superior, not in
the habit of obedience to a like superior, receives habitual obedience from the bulk of a given
society, that determinate superior is sovereign in that society and that society (including
superior) is a society political and independent.” To Austin in every state there exists an
authority to whom a large mass of citizen show compliance. This authority is absolute,
unlimited and indivisible.
Austin’s theory of sovereignty depends mainly upon his view on nature of law. According
to Austin “Law is a command given by a superior to inferior” the main tenets of Austin’s
theory of sovereignty are as follows:
1. Sovereign power is essential in every political society
Sovereignty is a person or body of persons. It is not necessary that sovereign should be a single
person. Sovereignty may reside in many persons also. Austin explains that a ‘Sovereign is not
necessarily a single person, in the modern western world he is rarely so; but he must have so
much of the attributes of a single person as to be a determinate.’ To Austin state is a legal
order, in which there is a supreme authority, which is source of all powers. Sovereignty is
concerned with man, and every state must have human superior who can issue commands and
create laws. Human laws are the proper subjects of state activity.
2. Sovereign power is indivisible. Division of sovereignty leads to its destruction. It cannot
3. The command of sovereignty is superior to over all individuals and associations.
Sovereign is not bound to obey anyone's order. His will is supreme. There is no question
of right or wrong, just or unjust, all his commands are to be obeyed.
4. Austin’s theory says that the obedience to sovereign must be habitual. It means that
obedience should be continuous. He also includes that is not necessary that obedience
should come from the whole society. It is sufficient, if it comes from the lay majority of
people. Obedience should come from bulk of the society otherwise there is no
11. 11 | Theories of Sovereignty
In brief we can say that sovereignty according to Austin is supreme, indivisible and
Sir Henry Maine gives the example of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He pointed out that the
Maharaja could have commanded anything. The smallest disobedience to his command would
have been followed by death or mutilation. In spite of this, the Maharaja never once in all his
life issued a command which Austin could call a law. The rules which regulated the life of his
subjects were derived from their immemorial usage.
Secondly, Austin says that the sovereign is possessed of unlimited powers, which is again not
acceptable. It is possible only in theory not in practice.
Laski points out that “no sovereign has anywhere possessed unlimited power and attempt to
exert it has always resulted in the establishment of safeguards.”
Thirdly, Austin says that sovereign is indivisible. All powers must be centered in the hands of
one person or a body of persons called sovereign. But this has been also disproved by Federal
system of governments. It is characteristic of federal state that power must be divided between
the federal government and its units.
Austin’s theory is criticized further on the grounds of his definition of law. Austin defines law
as ‘command given a superior to inferior’. This is also not true. No sovereign can ignore the
existence of customary law, which has grown through usage in every country.
It seems to be that Austin’s theory may not be accepted as valid for political philosophy. His
legal theory of sovereign narrows down ‘the meaning of vital terms.’ It should, however be
admitted that as an analysis of strictly legal nature of sovereignty. Austin's theory is clear and
12. 12 | Theories of Sovereignty
Austin’s Theory of Sovereignty
The pluralist theory of sovereignty was a reaction to Monistic or legal theory of sovereignty.
To monistic theory state is “supreme association and all other associations are the creation of
state and their existence depends on the will of the sovereign power.”
The pluralist theory rejects this and tries to establish that there is no single source of authority
that is all competent and comprehensive.
Laski says that sovereignty is neither absolute nor a unity. It is pluralist, constitutional and
responsible. State has no superior claim to an individual’s allegiance. It can justify itself as a
public service corporation. State exists to coordinate functions of human association in the best
Another exponent of pluralist theory Robert M. Maclver propounds that “state is one of the
several human associations, although it exercises unique functions. Important feature of the
state is supremacy of law.”
Pluralists believe that state enjoys a privileged position, because of its wider jurisdiction,
which covers all the individuals and associations within its boundary. This does not mean that
it is superior to other associations. It is also true that state has power to punish those who deny
its command, but that does not mean that it is absolute. The state must justify the exercise of its
special powers. Pluralist is divided and limited.
The pluralist also rejects the distinction between state and government. They insist on a
realistic political science and consider the distinction between two as artificial.
The pluralists are not against the state but would discard sovereign state with its absolute and
The chief tenets of pluralist theory of sovereignty are as follows:
1. Pluralist sovereignty deals with political aspects of sovereignty.
2. State is arbiter over conflicting interests of different associations.
3. State should compete with other human associations to claim superior authority.
4. State was not absolute or supreme legally.
5. State is not the only source of legislation or law.
6. Law is very antithesis of command.
7. The state is both the child and parent of law.
8. State and government are not different.
13. 13 | Theories of Sovereignty
The pluralist theory of sovereignty is also not free from criticism. Critics maintain that without
establishment of a classless society, sovereignty can neither be divided nor be limited. In order
to limit the sovereignty of the state there must be a classless society.
The demands for freedom from different associations also are criticized. Division of
sovereignty among different associations is not only impossible but also improper. The
pluralist view will lead to political anarchy and social instability.
The pluralist limits the sovereignty in order to maintain independence of individuals and other
associations, however in order to maintain the rights of the individuals and associations, the
state must have sovereign power. The interest of individuals and associations, will conflict and
the state will be helpless if it does not prosses sovereign power.
In spite of all these criticisms it cannot be denied that the pluralist theory of sovereignty
protested the rigid and dogmatic legalism of the Austin’s theory of sovereignty. It supports
humanist and democratic ideas. It challenged the concept of unlimited sovereignty.
This theory also pointed out the importance of other associations. Only state is not important
but in society there are also many other associations, which play important role in its
development. At last we can say that the greatest contribution of this theory is that it gave state
a human face and checked it from being a threat to the liberty.