By Ray Jones
JEAN-JACQUES Rousseau (1712-78) has long been considered to be one of the leading “philosophes” who provided the theory behind the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789 and who gave the revolutionary Jacobins their ideological basis for this world-changing event.
But these days he is largely ignored by our media and little known generally. It’s even been suggested lately by some bourgeois academics that perhaps he wasn’t so important after all.
It might be argued that Rousseau’s lack of limelight is at least partly the result of his success. Reading his main political works, Discourse on Inequality and On the Social Contract, much seems very familiar and common to the ideas we hear about us all the time – to the point of being almost boring.
They are written in relatively simple language (Rousseau was also a renowned novelist) but have been interpreted in many different ways and perhaps this hasn’t help his profile either.
But these factors surely don’t fully explain his relative neglect – after all he has been called the father of modern political philosophy.
That Rousseau was an influence on the French Revolution is undeniable. Maximilien Robespierre, a main leader of the revolution, wrote of him in his diary: “Divine man! It was you who taught me to know myself. When I was young you brought me to appreciate the true dignity of my nature and reflect on the great principles which govern the social order…”
Rousseau’s main ideas were accepted by the Jacobins: the basic equality of humans; that morality is innate within us; the importance of reason; that we originated in a “state of nature” prior to society; that society is a Social Contract that we enter into for our own good.
Perhaps Rousseau’s best known quote is, “Man was been born free and everywhere he is in chains”. This was a rallying call for the revolution and much of his writings were banned.
Rousseau believed that from a very simple society, little more than families, the development of the division of labour and private property had caused the growth of the unfair and oppressive societies he saw about him.
And although he did not think it possible, or desirable, to revert to a “state of nature” (and perhaps he didn’t think of it as an actual historical period) he believed it was possible to reorganise society and make a better world.
The object for Rousseau is to organise society so that the citizen and the magistrate complement each other, working together so that peoples’ innate morality can come through and the societies’ “General Will” could be implemented. The General Will being a collective construction not dependent on any individual but which all individuals follow for the good of all.
He believed the best form of this society would be a democratic republic – although he did not rule out other forms, even monarchy, being used in particular circumstances or a certain period of time. He also thought that it would only really work well with a small population in a small area where personal contact and communication were easy – similar to the ancient Greek states and early Rome which he, and the Jacobins thought well of.
It’s easy to see how revolutionary and incendiary these ideas were in a country still mired in the injustice and rigidity of late feudalism.
The growing petty bourgeois and intellectuals of France were groaning under the heavy taxation enforced by the King, whose failed wars had ruined the economy, while the aristocracy and the clergy paid almost nothing. The peasantry and the town poor, who were near starvation due to crop failures and oppressed by savage feudal laws and customs, were more than ready to follow them.
Rousseau’s personal example on religion was also radical. While believing in a creator God he was willing to switch from the extreme protestant Calvinism of his home city of Geneva to Roman Catholicism when he moved away and change back again when he wanted to regain his Genevan citizenship – just about as big a leap as you can make inside Christianity.
Robespierre and his supporters showed their religious rebellion by building the cult of the Supreme Being, a Deist movement, to replace the Catholicism which was a pillar of the old regime. But that did not stop him attacking those on his political left for atheism.
Clearly, for its time, Rousseau’s thinking was democratic and could legitimise the overthrow of tyrants. He supported the freedom of individuals but this freedom could only be within Social Contract and the General Will.
People who attack the General Will and the state (the “fabric of social right” as Rousseau puts it) cease to be citizens and become enemies of the state. They have declared war on it and if they are a real danger may be killed.
In May 1791, when the King was still on the throne, Robespierre made an impassioned plea against capital punishment and for the rights of the individual (to be fair most of his speeches seem to have been impassioned). In 1792 however he was arguing that then imprisoned King should not even be granted a trial but be summarily executed on the Rousseaunian grounds that the King had become an enemy of the state.
The King, he argued, had been dethroned for his crimes by the people and the General Will had been expressed. To give him a trial would be to open the matter to doubt; to do so and find him innocent would be in effect to find the people (the General Will) guilty which would be senseless. If it was not possible to find him innocent a trial would be a farce.
By 1794 Robespierre was calling in the Convention for the use of terror against the enemies of the state (the Republic) while using reason with the people. Nature, he said, echoing Rousseau, has imposed on every being the law of self-preservation. Just so with the state; the Republic must crush all internal and external enemies or be crushed. Terror is vital to insure that justice reigns: “The government of a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” And this perhaps takes this Rousseauian theory to its limit on the subject.
Marx and Engels acknowledged the dialectical style of Rousseau and his importance for the French Revolution but were doubtful about the Terror which they thought was a tactic which came from weakness rather than strength.
Basically Rousseau was an idealist who did not have materialist roots to his philosophy, He realised that people were not naturally bad or sinful but erred in the other direction in thinking they are innately moral. He saw that problems arose from the division of labour and private property but didn’t realise they were the source of the main contradiction in society.
While Rousseau’s “state of nature” and Marx’s “primitive communism” can be compared, Marx saw the progressive historical stages of society (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism) based on the means of production which Rousseau was not, understandably, able to.
Some have equated the General Will with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but the former is idealistic, semi-mystical, concept based on innate morality and a misguided idea of equality where as the latter is based on class realities and interests.
Nevertheless the ideas of Rousseau and his fellow “philosophes” served the need of the bourgeoisie in it hour of need. That they are ungratefully played down now is typical. In the same way they play down the role of Cromwell and the English Revolution, preferring to talk of the Glorious (and peaceful) Revolution of 1688.
They want to forget the revolutionary methods and theories which brought them to power and all their promises of liberty, equality and fraternity, which they have so obviously failed to deliver.