Written by Vladimir Moss



     One of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a man who also prefigured the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment. On the one hand, he was a social contract theorist, a man of reason and science. On the other hand, he was a prophet of the Romantic Will in its collective, national form – what he called the General Will.

     We have seen that while the French Enlightenment philosophers were admirers of English liberalism, they still believed in relatively unfettered state power concentrated in the person of the monarch. That way, they believed, the light of reason and reasonableness would spread most effectively downward and outward to the rest of the population. Thus their outlook was still essentially aristocratic; for all their love of freedom, they still believed in restraint and good manners, hierarchy and privilege. Perhaps their Catholic education had something to do with it. Certainly, however much they railed against the despotism of the Catholic Church, they were still deeply imbued with the Catholic ideals of order and hierarchy. 

     However, Rousseau was different; he believed in power coming from below rather than above. Perhaps his Swiss Calvinist upbringing had something to do with that; for, as he wrote, “I was born a citizen of a free State, and a member of the Sovereign [i.e. the Conseil Général] of Geneva, which was considered sovereign by some”.[1] Certainly, the mutual hatred between Voltaire and Rousseau reflected to some degree the differences between the (lapsed) Catholic and the (lapsed) Calvinist, between the city fop and the peasant countryman[2], between the civilized reformer and the uncouth revolutionary. 

     Rousseau set out to inquire “if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration”.[3] He quickly rejected Filmer’s patriarchal justification of monarchy based on the institution of the family: “The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. The children, released from the obedience they owed, and the father released from the care he owed his children, return equally to independence. If they remain united, they continue so no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention… The family then may be called the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children; and all, being born free and equal, alienate their liberty only to their own advantage.”[4]

     This argument is not convincing. First, a child is neither free at birth, nor equal to his father. Secondly, the bond between the father and the son continues to be natural and indissoluble even after the child has grown up.[5]

     Next, Rousseau disposes of the argument that might is right. “To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will – at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?… What kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so… Obey the powers that be. If this means yield to force, it is a good precept, but superfluous: I can answer for its never being violated. All power comes from God, I admit; but so does all sickness: does that mean that we are forbidden to call in the doctor?… Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers.

     “Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”[6] 

     Here we find the social contract. But Rousseau quickly disposes of the form of contract proposed by Hobbes, namely, that men originally contracted to alienate their liberty to a king. This is an illegitimate argument, says Rousseau, because: (a) it is madness for a whole people to place itself in slavery to a king, “and madness creates no right”; (b) the only possible advantage would be a certain tranquillity, “but tranquillity is found also in dungeons; but is that enough to make them desirable”[7]; and (c) “if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born men and free.”

     In any case, “to renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties… Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts… so, from whatever aspect we regard the question, the right of slavery is null and void, not only as being illegitimate, but also because it is absurd and meaningless. The words slave and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive. It will always be equally foolish for a man to say to a man or to a people: ‘I make with you a convention wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I shall keep it as long as I like, and you will keep it as long as I like.’”[8]

     We may interrupt Rousseau at this point to note that his concept of freedom, being “positive” rather than “negative”, led to very different consequences from that of the English empiricists or French philosophes. Freedom was for Rousseau, as for Kant, the categorical imperative, and the foundation of all morality. “Both Rousseau and Kant,” writes Norman Hampson, “aspired to regenerate humanity by the free action of the self-disciplined individual conscience”. Rousseau’s concept of freedom “rested, not on any logical demonstration, but on each man’s immediate recognition of the moral imperative of his own conscience. ‘I hear much argument against man’s freedom and I despise such sophistry. One of these arguers [Helvétius?] can prove to me as much as he likes that I am not free; inner feeling, more powerful than all his arguments, refutes them all the time.’”[9]

     Rousseau’s conscience was to him both Pope and Church: “Whatever I feel to be right is right, what I feel to be wrong is wrong; the best of all casuists is the conscience… Reason deceives us only too often and we have earned all too well the right to reject it, but conscience never deceives… Conscience, conscience, divine instinct, immortal and heavenly voice, sure guide to men who, ignorant and blinkered, are still intelligent and free; infallible judge of good and ill who shapes men in the image of God, it is you who form the excellence of man’s nature and the morality of his actions; without you, I feel nothing within that raises me above the beasts, nothing but the melancholy privilege of straying from error to error, relying on an understanding without rule and a reason without principle.”[10]

     Now conscience, according to Rousseau, was likely to be stifled by too much education and sophistication. So he went back to the idea of the state of nature as expounded in Hobbes and Locke, but invested it with the optimistic, revolutionary spirit of the Levellers and Diggers. Whereas Hobbes and Locke considered the state of nature as an anarchic condition which civilization as founded on the social contract transcended and immeasurably improved on, for Rousseau the state of nature was “the noble savage”, who, as the term implied, had many good qualities.[11] 

     Indeed, man in the original state of nature was in many ways better and happier than man as civilized through the social contract. In particular, he was freer and more equal. It was the institutions of civilization that destroyed man’s original innocence and freedom. As Rousseau famously thundered: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains!”[12] 

      This idea did not stand the test of experience. “Among those who believed in Rousseau’s ideas,” writes Fr. Alexey Young, “was the French painter Gaughin (1848-1903). So intent was his commitment that he abandoned his family and went to Tahiti to find Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’. But, to his great dismay, he discovered that Rousseau’s conception was an illusion. ‘Primitive’ man could be just as cruel, immoral and heartless as men under the influence of the civilized world. Seeing this, Gaughin was driven to despair…”[13]

     Since man is born free, according to Rousseau, and his conscience is infallible, the common man is fully equal as a moral agent to his educated social superiors and should be entrusted with full political power. Thus the social contract should be rewritten to keep sovereignty with the ruled rather than the rulers. For Hobbes, the people had transferred sovereignty irrevocably to their rulers; for Locke, the transfer was more conditional, but revocable only in exceptional circumstances. For Rousseau, sovereignty was never really transferred from the people.

     Rousseau rejected the idea that the people could have “representatives” who exerted sovereignty in their name. “Sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be alienated… the people’s deputies are not, and could not be, its representatives; they are merely its agents; and they cannot decide anything finally. Any law which the people has not ratified in person is void; it is not law at all. The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”[14] Thus representative government is “elective autocracy”.

     Essentially Rousseau wanted to abolish the distinction between rulers and ruled, to give everyone power through direct democracy. The citizen can exercise this power only if he himself makes every decision affecting himself. But the participation of all the citizens in every decision is possible only in a small city-state like Classical Athens, not in modern states. Thus Rousseau represents a modern, more mystical version of the direct democratism of the Greek philosophers. He echoes Aristotle’s Politics: “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” But the emphasis now is on equality rather than liberty…

     Now there was a modern state that seemed to promise the kind of mystical, direct democracy that Rousseau pined for – Corsica, which in 1755 threw off the centuries-old yoke of Genoa and created its own constitution. “In Corsica,” writes Adam Zamoyski, “Rousseau believed he had found a society untainted by the original sin of civilization. In his Project de constitution pour la Corse, written in 1765, he suggested ways of keeping it so. ‘I do not want to give you artificial and systematic laws, invented by man; only to bring you back under the unique laws of nature and order, which command to the heart and do not tyrannize the free will,’ he cajoled them. But the enterprise demanded an act of will, summed up in the oath to be taken simultaneously by the whole nation: ‘In the name of Almighty God and on the Holy Gospels, by this irrevocable and sacred oath I unite myself in body, in goods, in will and in my whole potential to the Corsican Nation, in such a way that I myself and everything that belongs to me shall belong to it without redemption. I swear to live and to die for it, to observe all its laws and to obey its legitimate rulers and magistrates in everything that is in conformity with the law.’”[15]

     Now one of the problems of democracy lies in the transition from the multiple wills of the individual citizens to the single will of the state: how was this transition to be effected without violating the will of the individual? Rousseau recognised this problem: “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the social contract provides the solution.”[16] 

     This is a major, indeed insuperable problem for most liberal theorists insofar as they recognize that individuals have different interests and wills. So any single decision expressing the collective will of the state will inevitably be in the interests of some and not of others. For Rousseau, however, it is less of a problem insofar as he holds a more optimistic view of human nature. For him, since each individual has an infallible conscience, if he finds and expresses that infallible conscience, his will will be found to coincide with the will of every other individual. This general will will then express the will of every citizen individually while being common to all. “Each of us comes together to place his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will, and we in a body admit each member as an indivisible part of the whole. This act of association produces a moral and collective entity… As for the associates, they all take on the name of the people when they participate in the sovereign authority, and call themselves specifically citizens and subjects when they are placed under the laws of the State.”[17] 

     On which Voltaire commented: “All that is wrong. I am certainly not prepared to hand myself over to my fellow-citizens unreservedly. I am not going to give them the power to kill me and rob me by majority vote…”

     The transition from Voltaire to Rousseau, from the worship of the individual will to the collective, or general will of mankind, is also the transition from liberal humanism to socialist humanism. As Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo Sapiens as a whole. Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans. According to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because it privileges qualities of humans over their universal essence. For example, when the rich are privileged over the poor, it means that we value money more than the universal essence of all humans, which is the same for rich and poor alike.”[18] 

     Rousseau’s general will, being a kind of universal essence, is not the will of the majority; for that will is by definition not the will of the minority, and the general will must embrace all. Nor, more surprisingly, is it the will of all when all agree; for the will of all is sometimes wrong, whereas the general will is always right. “The general will is always upright and always tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people always have the same rectitude. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad. There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.”[19]

     The general will is a mysterious entity which reveals itself in certain special conditions: “If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good.”[20] In other words, when the self-interest of each citizen is allowed to express itself in an unforced manner, without external pressures, a certain highest common denominator of self-interest, what Bertrand Russell calls “the largest collective satisfaction of self-interest possible to the community”[21], reveals itself. Thus the general will is the wholly infallible revealed truth and morality of the secular religion of the revolution. 


     What are the conditions for the appearance of the general will? The fundamental condition is true equality among the citizenry, especially economic equality. For where there is no equality, the self-interest of some carries greater weight than the self-interest of others. This is another major difference between Rousseau and the English and French liberals. They did not seek to destroy property and privilege, but only to prevent despotism; whereas he is a much more thorough-going egalitarian.

     This first condition is linked to a second condition, which is the absence of “partial associations” or parties. For the wills of partial associations, which come together as expressing some common economic or class interest, conflict with the will of the community as a whole. For “when intrigues arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular. It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to make itself known, that there should be no partial society in the state and that each citizen should express only his own opinion.”[22] A third condition (here Rousseau harks back again to Athens) is that the citizen body should consist only of men. For women, according to Rousseau, are swayed by “immoderate passions” and require men to protect and guide them.

     Such a system appears at first sight libertarian and egalitarian (except in regard to women). Unfortunately, however, the other side of its coin is that when the general will has been revealed – and in practice this means when the will of the majority has been determined, for “the votes of the greatest number always bind the rest”, – there is no room for dissent. For in joining the social contract, each associate alienates himself, “together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others. Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the unions is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decided between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical. Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over which he does not acquire the same right as he yields over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has…”[23]

     “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free…”[24] 

     Forced to be free – here the totalitarian potentialities of Rousseau’s concept of positive freedom become painfully clear. Thus of all the eighteenth-century philosophers, Rousseau is the real prophet of the revolution. The others, especially Voltaire, paved the way for it, but it was Rousseau who gave it its justification, its metaphysical, quasi-mystical first principle.

     But the most striking characteristic of this principle, considering it was proclaimed in “the Age of Reason”, was its irrationality. For the general will was not to be deduced or induced by any logical or empirical reasoning, nor identified with any specific empirical phenomenon or phenomena. It was not the concrete will of any particular man, or collection of men, but a quasi-mystical entity that welled up within a particular society and propelled it towards truth and righteousness. 

     This accorded with the anti-rational, passionate nature of the whole of Rousseau’s life and work. As Hume said of him: “He has only felt during the whole course of his life.”[25] Thus while the other philosophers of the Age of Reason believed, or did not believe, in God or the soul or the Divine Right of kings, because they had reasons for their belief or unbelief, for Rousseau, on the other hand, religion was just a feeling; and as befitted the prophet of the coming Age of Unreason, he believed or disbelieved for no reason whatsoever. So religious belief, or the lack of it, was not something that could be objectively established or argued about.

     True, in his ideal political structure, Rousseau insisted that his subjects should believe in a “civil religion” that combined belief in “the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent divinity that foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract and the law”.[26] If any citizen accepted these beliefs, but then “behaved as if he did not believe in them”, the punishment was death.[27] However, the only article of this faith he argued for was the social contract…

     As Barzun writes: “Rousseau reminds the reader that two-thirds of mankind are neither Christians nor Jews, nor Mohammedans, from which it follows that God cannot be the exclusive possession of any sect or people; all their ideas as to His demands and His judgements are imaginings. He asks only that we love Him and pursue the good. All else we know nothing about. That there should be quarrels and bloodshed about what we can never know is the greatest impiety.”[28]

     Superficially, this irrationalist attitude seems like that of Pascal, who said: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason is ignorant”. But Pascal, while pointing to the limits of reason, did not abandon reason; he sought the truth with every fibre of his being. Rousseau, on the other hand, in both his life and his work, appeared quite deliberately to abandon reason and surrender himself to irrational forces. In these forces he saw freedom and nobility, while others saw only slavery to the basest instincts. The revolution would soon allow the world to judge the truth for itself...


     Eighteenth-century ideas about society, wrote L.A. Tikhomirov, though pagan and materialist in essence, can nevertheless not be understood except in the context of the Christian society that Western Europe still was – or, more precisely, “a Christian society, but one that has renounced Christ”, to use Aksakov’s phrase. This is especially true of the idea of the general will. Thus “in the very concept of the 18th century about society there is a clearly materialised reminiscence of the Church. From the Church was copied the idea of society as a certain collectivity defined exclusively by the spiritual nature of man. The cosmopolitanism of the new society, its mysterious people’s will, which as it were saturates it completely, which in some incomprehensible way rules all while remaining infallible in all its private mistakes, - all these are echoes of the Christian Church. They are in all points ‘the Kingdom that is not of this world’, which is squeezed into, without being contained in, the bounds precisely of ‘this world’… 

     “Contemporary society, torn apart by this basic contradiction, is not conscious of it intellectually and even denies it. The materialist understanding of life is so strongly rooted that people for the most part are simply incapable of seriously paying attention to the action of the spiritual element. ‘What contradiction is here?’ they say. ‘In truth, the valuable element of Christianity is constituted by its moral concepts and its lofty conception of personality. And it is this that the new era has held onto. It has cast out only the outdated, mystical element of Christianity. Isn’t that natural? Isn’t that how all progress comes about in the world, holding on to everything valuable from the past and throwing out the unnecessary old rags?’ In this, however, the present age is mistaken. It doesn’t understand that it is impossible to throw out the mystical principles from Christianity without thereby destroying the social significance of the personality created by it. Historically Christian moral concepts have to the highest degree exerted a positive influence on earthly, social life. However this takes place only when the Christian remains completely a Christian, that is, when he lives not for this earthly life, and does not seek the realisation of his ideals in this life, does not put his soul into it. It turns out completely differently if the Christian remains without guidance by Divine authority, without a spiritual life on earth and without this spiritual activity of his having its final ends beyond the grave. Then he remains with infinite demands before an extremely finite world, which is unable to satisfy them. He remains without discipline, because he knows nothing in the world higher than his own personality, and he bows before nothing if for him there is no God. He is not capable of venerating society as a material phenomenon, nor bow down even before a majority of personalities like his, because from their sum there still emerges no personality more lofty than his own. The lot and social role of such a person is extremely unhappy and harmful. He is either an eternal denier of real social life, or he will seek to satisfy his strivings for infinity in infinite pleasures, infinite love of honour, in a striving for the grandiose which so characterises the sick 18th and 19th centuries. The Christian without God is completely reminiscent of Satan. Not in vain did the image of unrestrained pride so seduce the poets of the 18th century. We all – believers or non-believers in God – are so created by Him, so incapable of ripping out of ourselves the Divine fire planted by Him, that we involuntarily love this spiritual, immeasurably lofty personality. But let us look with the cold attention of reason. If we need only to construct well our earthly, social life, if nothing else exists, then why call those qualities and strivings lofty and elevated which from an earthly point of view are only fantastic, unhealthy, having nothing in common with earthly reality? These are the qualities of an abnormal person. He is useful, they will say, for his eternal disquietude, his striving for something different, something other than that which is. But this striving would be useful only if his ideals were basically real. But the disquietude of the Christian deprived of God knocks the world out of the status quo only in order to drag it every time towards the materially impossible.

     “They err who see in the 18th and 19th centuries the regeneration of ancient ideas of the State. The pagan was practical. His ideals were not complicated by Christian strivings for the absolute. His society could develop calmly. But the lot of a society that is Christian in its moral type of personality, but has renounced Christ in the application of its moral forces, according to the just expression of A.S. Aksakov, will be reduced to eternal revolution. 

     “This is what the 18th century’s attempt to create a new society also came to. Philosophy succeeded in postulating an ideal of society such as a personality forged by eighteen centuries of Christian influence could agree to bow down to. But what was this society? A pure mirage. It was constructed not on the real laws and foundations of social life, but on fictions logically deduced from the spiritual nature of man. Immediately they tried to construct such a society, it turned out that the undertaking was senseless. True, they did succeed in destroying the old historical order and creating a new one. But how? It turned out that this new society lives and is maintained in existence only because it does not realise its illusory bases, but acts in spite of them and only reproduces in a new form the bases of the old society. 

     “It is worth comparing the factual foundations of the liberal-democratic order with those which are ascribed to it by its political philosophy. The most complete contradiction!

     “Rousseau, of course, was fantasising when he spoke of the people’s will as supposedly one and always wants only the good and never goes wrong. But one must not forget that he was not speaking of that people’s will which our deputies, voters and journalists talk about. Rousseau himself grew up in a republic and he did not fall into such traps. He carefully qualified himself, saying that ‘there is often a difference between the will of all (volonté de tous) and the general will (volonté générale).

     “Rousseau sincerely despised the will of all, on which our liberal democratism is raised. Order and administration are perfect, he taught, only when they are defined by the general will, and not by the egoistic, easily frightened and bribed will of all. For the creation of the new, perfect society it is necessary to attain the discovery and activity precisely of the general will.

     “But how are we to attain to it? Here Rousseau is again in radical contradiction with the practice of his disciples. He demands first of all the annihilation of private circles and parties. ‘For the correct expression of the general will it is necessary that there should be no private societies in the State and that every citizen should express only his own personal opinion’ (n’opine que d’après lui). Only in this case does one receive a certain sediment of general will from the multitude of individual deviations and the conversation always turns out well. With the appearance of parties everything is confused, and the citizen no longer expresses his own will, but the will of a given circle. When such individual interests begin to be felt and ‘small societies (circles, parties) begin to exert influence on the large (the State), the general will is no longer expressed by the will of all’. Rousseau therefore demands the annihilation of parties or at least their numerical weakening. As the most extreme condition, already unquestionably necessary, it is necessary that there should exist no party which would be noticeably stronger than the rest. If even this is not attained, if ‘one of these associations (parties) is so great as to dominate all the others, then the general will no longer exists and the only opinion that is realisable is the individual opinion.’

     “In other words, democracy, the rule of the people’s will, no longer exists.

     “Just as decisively and insistently does Rousseau demonstrate that the people’s will is not expressed by any representation. As a sincere and logical democrat, he simply hates representation, he cannot denounce it enough. When the citizens are corrupted, he says, they establish a standing army so as to enslave society, and they appoint representatives so as to betray it. 

     “He also reasons about representative rule in the section on the death of the political organism. Neither the people’s autocracy, he says, nor the people’s will can be either handed over or represented by the very nature of things.

     “It is not difficult to imagine what Rousseau would have said about our republics and constitutional monarchies, about the whole order of liberal democratism, which is maintained in existence exclusively by that which its prophet cursed. This order is wholly based on representation, it is unquestionably unthinkable without parties, and, finally, the administration of the country is based unfailingly on the dominance of one or another party in parliament. When there is no such dominance, administration is ready to come to a stop and it is necessary to dissolve parliament in the hope that the country will give the kind of representation in which, in the terminology of Rousseau, there exists no people’s will, but only ‘individual opinion’.

     “And this political system, as the height of logicality, is consecrated by the all-supporting fiction of the people’s will!…”

     Thus Rousseauism is not democratic in the usual sense. “Properly speaking, the principle of the people’s will requires direct rule by the people. Even on this condition the principle would not produce any good results. In Switzerland there is the right of appeal to the people’s vote (referendum) and the presentation of the basic laws for confirmation to the direct vote of the people. No useful results proceed from this for the reasonableness of the law; moreover, the practice of such luxury of democratism is possible only in very unusual circumstances. In essence this is a system of ‘self-indulgence’, and not a serious resource of legislative construction.

     “But the most important question is: what is this ‘people’s will’? Where, and in what, does it really exist? The people firmly wants one thing: that things should go well. A people with a history, which constitutes something united in distinction from its neighbours, which has not yet been shattered into insuperably hostile groups, has another will; that affairs in the country should go in a familiar spirit to which it is historically accustomed and which it trusts.

     “And then in the innumerable individual cases from the solution of which the government is formed, the people has no will except in extreme cases – such as war or peace or the handing over of its salvation to such-and-such a popular person…. But in the everyday questions of government there is no people’s will. How can I have a will in relation to that of which I have no comprehension? In every question a few think well, a few think something, and 99 out a hundred – exactly nothing. Ivan has some understanding of one question, but Theodore not, while on another Theodore has some ideas, but Ivan not. But in each case there is the huge majority that understands nothing and has no other will except that everything should go well.

     “It is from this majority that they demand that it should express its own opinion and its own will! But, you know, it’s simply comical, and besides harmful. Let us suppose that there are a hundred people who understand the given question, and several million who do not. To demand a decision from the majority means only to drown the hundred knowing voices in the hundreds of thousands who have no thoughts on the matter!

     “The people, they say, can listen to those who know; after all, it wants the best for itself. Of course. But the people who are knowledgeable are, in the first place, occupied with their work, which is precisely why they are familiar with the question; secondly, they by no means exercise their capabilities in oratory or the technique of agitation. In connection with the art of stultifying the crowd, flattering it, threatening it, attracting – this disastrous, poisonous art of agitation – people will always be beaten down by those who have specially devoted themselves to political intrigue. And people are specially chosen to be intriguers, they are suitable for this trade because of their innate capabilities; they then exercise their capabilities; and then finally they are shaped into a party… But how is the man of action to fight against them? This is quite impossible, and in fact the people that is placed in this situation always goes, not for those who know, but for those who are skilled in political intrigue. It plays a most stupid role and cannot get out of it, even if they are completely aware of their stupid situation. I, for example, completely understand the role of the political intriguer and despise it, but if they were to force me to give my vote for measures which I am personally unable to weigh up myself, then of course I have not the slightest doubt that I would be fooled, and crafty people would shield me from the people who know and are honourable. 

     “Such is the reality of the people’s will. It is a toy of crafty people even if we have unmediated rule by the people. But unmediated rule by the people is practically impossible. It is impossible to collect, and it is impossible to turn the whole people into legislators. Somebody has to sow the bread and work in the factories. Finally, everyone has his own private life, which is dearer to him than politics. In generally, one has to resort to representation. 

     “Theoretically this is senseless. One can hand over one’s right as a citizen. But one cannot hand over one’s will.  After all, I’m handing it over for future time, for future decisions, on questions that have not yet arisen. Therefore in choosing a deputy, I give him the right to express that will of mine that I do not yet myself know. Electing representatives would have a realisable meaning only if I were to hand over my right as a citizen, that is, if I simply said that I entrust the given person to carry out my political affairs and that I will not quarrel with or contradict whatever he does lawfully until the end of his term of office. But such a handing over of the very right of the people’s autocracy is the idea of Caesarism, and not parliamentarism…

     “…A parliamentary deputy is obliged to express another person’s will. For a man with his own ideas this is not at all enticing, quite the opposite. He will enter a Constitutive Assembly, but not a parliament. He will rather remain at his own work and with his own ideas… Generally speaking, for a person who is able to make his own way in something more useful, the significance of being a deputy is not enticing. Moreover, it requires such external capacities as most of the best people do not have. Glibness of speech, pushiness, a capacity for intrigue, superficial convictions. Such are the people elected for the trade of representation…[29] 

     “In general, in laying claim to the deputyship, I must join some party. I will be pushed forward not by the people, but by the party. I will be obliged to it for everything, I will depend on it, I will have to take it into account. The people is – for him who is being elected – the last thing to worry about. It has to be incited to give its vote, but it is not at all necessary to learn what its vote is. The election campaign is a hunt for votes, but in no way a poll of the people. Hares are not asked whether they want to land up on the table, they are caught; their own desires are interesting only in order to clarify how precisely they can best be caught. That is exactly how interested they are in the people during elections.

      “And so the candidacies are put forward. Noise, fuss, walls plastered with proclamations and names, journeys, conferences, false rumours, mutual slanders, loud words, avaricious promises, promises that are consciously false, bribes, etc. The people goes crazy: before it knew little, now it cannot make out anything at all. The greatest art of this hunt does not consist in a preliminary preparation of the people, but in some concluding surprise, which will snatch away votes at the last minute without giving time to think again. Finally the triumphant moment has arrived, the votes have been collected and counted, the ‘will of the people’ ‘has said its word’, and the representatives of the nation gather in the Palais Bourbon.

     “What happens then? During the elections they still had to reckon with the voters. But having received the votes and gathered in the palace, the representatives of the people can completely forget about it right until the approach of the following elections. During this period they live exclusively their own party’s life, developing all the qualities of cliquishness. The deputy, who in theory represents the will of the voters, has real obligations only in relation to his party… “[30] 

     For, as Benjamin Disraeli said: “Damn your principles. Stick to your party…”


August 31 / September 13, 2017.



[1]Rousseau, J.J. The Social Contract, book I, introduction; in The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Penguin, 1993, p. 181.

[2]Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 384.

[3]Rousseau, op. cit., I, introduction; p. 181.

[4]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 2, p. 182.

[5]Rousseau has another, more facetious argument against Filmer: “I have said nothing of King Adam, or Emperor Noah, father of the three great monarchs who shared out the universe, like the children of Saturn, whom some scholars have recognized in them. I trust to getting thanks for my moderation; for, being a direct descendant of one of these princes, perhaps of the eldest branch, how do I know that a verification of titles might not leave me the legitimate king of the human race? In any case, there can be no doubt that Adam was sovereign of the world, as Robinson Crusoe was of his island, as long as he was its only inhabitant; and this empire had the advantage that the monarch, safe on his throne, had no rebellions, wars, or conspirators to fear” (op. cit., I, 2, pp. 183-184).

[6]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 3, 4; pp. 184, 185.

[7]By contrast, the French Prime Minister after the Restoration, François Guizot, placed “the great tranquillity” at the core of his vision of the good society. See George L. Mosse, The Culture of Western Europe, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988, p. 144.

[8]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 4; pp. 186, 189.

[9]Hampson, The First European Revolution, 1776-1815, London: Thames & Hudson, 1969, pp. 181, 32.

[10]Rousseau, in Hampson,  op. cit., pp. 32, 34.

[11]The term “noble savage” first appears in 1672 in John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (Act 1, scene 1):

I am as free as Nature first made man

‘Ere the base Laws of servitude began

When wild in woods the noble Savage ran.

[12]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 1; p. 181.

[13]Young, The Great Divide, Richfield Springs, N.Y.: Nikodemos, 1989, p. 21.

[14]Rousseau, op. cit., III, 15; p. 266.

[15]Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, pp. 22-23.

[16]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 6, p. 191.

[17]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 6.

[18]Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Mankind, London: Vintage, 2011, p. 258.

[19]Rousseau, op. cit., II, 3, p. 203.

[20]Rousseau, op. cit., II, 3, p. 203.

[21]Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen Unwin, 1946, p. 725.

[22]Rousseau, op. cit., II, 3, pp. 203-204.

[23]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 6; pp. 191-192.

[24]Rousseau, op. cit., I, 7; p. 195. More gently put, the people must be trained “to bear with docility the yoke of public happiness”.

[25]Russell, op. cit., p. 717.

[26]Rousseau, op. cit., p. 286; quoted in Gascoigne, op. cit., p. 214.

[27] Bamber Gascoigne, A Brief History of Christianity, London: Robinson, 2003, p. 214.

[28]Barzun, op. cit., p. 387.

[29]Cf. Madame Germaine de Stael: “In a democratic state, one must be continually on guard against the desire for popularity. It leads to aping the behaviour of the worst. And soon people come to think that it is of no use – indeed, it is dangerous – to show too plain a superiority over the multitude which one wants to win over” (On Literature and Society (1800), in Barzun, op. cit., p. 451). (V.M.)

[30]Tikhomirov, “Demokratia liberal’naia i sotsial’naia” (“Liberal and Social Democracy”), in Kritika Demokratii (A Critique of Democracy), Moscow, 1997, pp. 116-119, 165-170.

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