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Rousseau's Form of Socialism

Mises Daily: Tuesday, September 22, 2009 by

bust of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Bust of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

[From The Socialist Tradition: Moses to LeninDownload PDF]

Fortunately, we are here concerned with only one side of Rousseau — assuming, indeed, that it is possible to detach for consideration one aspect of his legacy. Rousseau was primarily a writer on politics, concerned, after the manner of Hobbes and of Locke, in explaining the origins of government by reference to a mythical Social Contract, the terms of which may of course be varied, according to the deductions it is desired to draw from it.

He was also a writer, and a writer of influence, on education, though he would doubtless have been a rash parent who sent his daughter to any Ladies' College conducted by Rousseau. He was a prophet of sentiment and sensibility. For that matter, he had views on music. Doubtless even in the most versatile there is a unity linking divergent activities. In the present case, the significance of Rousseau in the development of socialist thought is to be found in the combined and pervasive influence of all his writings on succeeding generations.

Yet, within the space here available, it may be permissible, if scarcely defensible, to look on the Contrat Social as belonging rather to the history of political thought; and, accordingly, in searching for his contribution to socialist thought, we shall confine ourselves to those writings which are more exclusively occupied with the perpetual themes of socialist discussion. Briefly, this comes down to a consideration of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men, an essay which was not awarded the prize for a dissertation on this subject by the Academy of Dijon.

But before proceeding to the Discourse on Inequality, it may be permissible to glance at the earlier essay to which the Academy of Dijon did award its prize, thereby suddenly making Rousseau a celebrity. The subject prescribed for this essay was, "Whether the restoration (rétablissement) of the Sciences and the Arts had contributed to the purification of manners?" There is a traditional tale that when Rousseau indicated his intention of competing for the prize, he was warned by a wise acquaintance that if he wished to have any chance of success, he would have to answer the question in the negative, since all the other candidates would be found ranged on the other side.

The authenticity of the story may be assessed by Rousseau experts. It is probably entirely apocryphal; but any examiner of experience will acknowledge, in his cups if not at other times, that if of fifty competing essays, forty-nine say the same thing with varying degrees of lucidity, and the fiftieth says something wholly different, this last cunning candidate has an initial advantage out of all proportion to his deserts, if only because of the difficulty the examiner has in arranging the other forty-nine in ascending order of demerit.

In any case, whether because he conscientiously so believed, or because he was instigated by Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Rousseau elected to denounce the baneful influence of the Sciences and of the Arts. As the outlook disclosed is fundamentally the same as in the more effective, but unsuccessful, later essay, it is as well to read the two together.

Later Rousseau affected to regard his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts as mediocre. In substance it is; but there is a certain bravado about this violent and monstrously one-sided attack on civilization and all its works, which doubtless made it an arresting production on its first appearance, and which obviously carried the Academicians of Dijon off their feet. There is a considerable kinship with the later Discourse, and here already it is obvious that the theme closest to Rousseau's heart is that of inequality and the loss of freedom.

The Sciences, Literature, and the Arts, we are told, stifle in men the sentiment of that original liberty for which they seem to have been born, and make them love their bondage.[1] The Sciences and the Arts owe their origin to our vices, and we should be in less doubt as to their advantages if they sprung from our virtues. In explanation he argues that astronomy was born of superstition; eloquence, of ambition; geometry, of avarice (a dark saying, unless he refers to the "mensuration" of our possessions); physical science, of a vain curiosity;[2] and all are the offspring of human pride.

Here we touch the fundamentals of theology, for is there not high authority for the view that Pride is not only the fundamental sin, but the only sin, of which all other sins are merely allotropic modifications? Moreover, this defect in the origin of the Sciences and the Arts is reflected in their aims and objects. What would be the good of jurisprudence without the injustice of man? Where would history be, if there were no tyrants, wars, or conspiracies?

In an illuminating question which goes to the root of Rousseau's thought or prejudices in these matters, he asks, "Who would wish to pass his life in sterile contemplation, if each of us, thinking only of the duties of man and the needs of nature, had time only for the fatherland, for the unfortunate and for his friends?"[3] The Sciences, born in idleness, in turn nourish idleness and the vices that spring therefrom. Rousseau, it will be observed, was not the man to allow a regard for truth to deprive him of his paradox.

But, worst of all and most specifically suggestive of the later Discourse, all these things lead to inequality. With the development of the Sciences and the Arts, tribute is no longer paid to virtue but to ability:

We no longer ask of a man if he has integrity, but if he has talents; nor of a book if it is useful, but if it is well written. Rewards are showered on intellect, and virtue remains without honor. There are thousands of prizes for les beaux discours, none for les belles actions.[4]

So far as there is an ideal here, it is that of a primitive life, so fully occupied with the claims of the fatherland, the unfortunate, and one's friends, that there is no leisure left over in which to become vicious; for an advance beyond this point means the development of opportunities for manifesting superiority based on intellect in place of an imaginary condition of equality in which virtue alone is held in honor.

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, dating from 1754, Rousseau gives a philosophy of history, resting on a condensed account of the development of the human race, and the whole essay is saturated with that passionate hatred of inequality which may not unfairly be regarded as the dominant feature of his character. It is almost unnecessary to say that for Rousseau's history there is not the faintest shadow of a particle of evidence. Nor does Rousseau claim that there is; he is indeed engagingly ingenuous on this point. "Here," he says, addressing Man at large — "here is your history as I have thought it was to be read, not in the books of your fellows, who are liars, but as it is to be found in Nature, which never lies."[5] Such a procedure without doubt greatly simplifies the writing of history. In fact, Rousseau is merely imagining what it is convenient to imagine; and, viewed in the cold light of reason, his account of the life of primitive man at times borders on the grotesque and ludicrous.

"Rousseau, it will be observed, was not the man to allow a regard for truth to deprive him of his paradox."

The Discourse falls into two parts, of which the first is devoted to the fairy tale of Rousseau's primitive man, and the second to the departure, with increasing acceleration, from that happy state. As Rousseau sees him, primitive man takes his fill beneath an oak; he quenches his thirst at the nearest stream, and he finds his bed at the foot of the tree which has given him sustenance; and thus are all his needs satisfied.

In this condition, having regard to the rigors of the seasons (for it cannot always be pleasant to sleep, nude, beneath a sheltering oak); having regard likewise to the needs of defense or escape in the matter of beasts of prey, man is, and must be, robust and strong; so also is his progeny. He must use his body, his arms and his legs for everything. When he learns to use an axe, a ladder, a sling, a horse, the convenience is bought at the price of a diminution of strength or agility. Nor does he fear wild animals at this stage; he is a match for them, and if need be, he can climb a tree.[6]

Apart from such dangers of the jungle, there are other ineluctable enemies — natural infirmities, infancy, and old age. Infancy, of course, is not an infirmity peculiar to man; but on the whole, our remote ancestors scored over other animals by reason of the greater capacity which the female of our species has in carrying about her young.

In the matter of old age, Rousseau draws a most rosy and optimistic picture of how things used to be. In old age, the need of victuals diminished with the power of getting them — a singularly beneficent arrangement on the part of Providence; and thus in the absence of gout and rheumatism (unknown to la vie sauvage) old people get snuffed out without anyone perceiving that they have ceased to exist, and almost without their noticing it themselves — "ils s'éteignent enfin, sans qu'on s'aperçoive qu'ils cessent d'être, et presque sans s'en apercevoir eux-mêmes."[7] One would naturally expect that their extinction would be more obvious to the survivors than to the deceased.

As for our other maladies — the rough-and-tumble of a panel practitioner's life — Rousseau indicts society for its sins, and argues that most of our misfortunes are our own work, and that practically all could have been avoided, if we had adhered to the "simple, uniforme, et solitaire" manner of life prescribed by Nature. As will be seen presently, it is the word solitaire that is here the most significant. The history of human diseases is best obtained by tracing the development of civil society.

In Rousseau's primitive paradise, no surgeon other than Time is needed to cure a fractured limb; no treatment is necessary other than leur vie ordinaire; and all this is accomplished without the patient being tormented with incisions, poisoned with drugs, or wasted with fastings. If primitive man has nothing to hope but from Nature, he has on the other hand nothing to fear but his own illness. So much for the advantages of medical benefit.[8]

Rousseau's dissertation on the origin of language hardly concerns us, except in so far as the conditions of his problem throw light on his conception of the life of the natural and primitive man. For the surprising view emerges, as indicated in the word solitaire already emphasized, that Rousseau's primitive men hardly ever met. It is Rousseau's first difficulty in the matter of the origin of language: how could a language arise, or be regarded as necessary among men who had no communication with each other, nor any occasion to have such communication? For in that early phase of human society, any encounter was fortuitous and ephemeral.[9]

It is indeed fundamental to the development of Rousseau's ultimate thesis, that Nature has taken no trouble to bring men together on the basis of their mutual needs: "sociability" is not a quality prepared by that mysterious eighteenth-century divinity called Nature. In this primitive condition man had no need of man, and Rousseau intends to emphasize that we must, for our salvation, return to this state of affairs. But though primitive man thus wandered about, forever solitary except for casual and transient encounters, he was not miserable; for what kind of unhappiness could properly be attributed to a "free being, whose heart is at peace, and whose body is in health"?[10]

"Law for Rousseau is essentially a device whereby those in possession protect themselves against the 'have-nots.'"

It follows that in this strange world where individuals can, at most, salute each other in passing, where no moral relationships or acknowledged duties unite them, it is impossible to speak of men as being either good or bad. In this lonely and solitary world, no question of virtue or vice can arise. Somewhat oddly, however, and on rather insufficient grounds, Rousseau allows primitive man to have "Pity," which is the source of all social virtues. It is this "Pity" that in a state of nature takes the place of laws, of morals, and of virtue.[11]

Clearly also this elimination of the primitive man's fellows delivers him from many of our present-day shortcomings. Having no relationship with others, he knows nothing of vanity, or esteem or contempt for others. Even the sexual instincts, in these happy days, occasioned no jealousy. Rousseau distinguishes between that love which consists in the satisfaction of a physical need, and that love which, if it is permissible to paraphrase, results from the frills which civilization has added. It is in this type of love alone that jealousy may arise. The primitive man knows only the first kind of love: "toute femme est bonne pour lui," and again, "Ie besoin satisfait, tout Ie désir est éteint."[12]

Thus for primitive man the happy generations passed — an endless wandering in the forests, "without industry, without speech, without domicile, without war as without union, without any need of his fellows, or any desire to injure them." If any discoveries were made, "the art perished with the inventor" in a world where there was no education or progress, and where each succeeding generation set out from the same starting point.[13]

Rousseau's description of the blessedness of primitive man has been summarized in some detail, because, fantastic as it may be, it is of the essence of his view of things, and it colors his later account of the fall of man from this high estate. At this point, however, it is sufficient to draw attention again to the most astonishing feature in this most astonishing reconstruction of history. The foundation and reason for primitive man's happiness lies in the fact that he had no need of his fellows, in fact had no dealings with his fellows, whom, indeed, to all intents and purposes he never met. Man was never so happy because man was never so much alone.

The second part of the Discourse is devoted to tracing the growth of inequality in place of these primitive egalitarian conditions. It opens with a purple passage which has been so often quoted that its further quotation is almost inevitable:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say: "This belongs to me," and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would have been spared the human race by him who, snatching out the stakes or filling in the ditch, should have cried to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and that the earth belongs to none."[14]

This first unrecorded enclosure was the beginning of property; but in fact it was a culminating point rather than a point of departure. Already, ways and means had been found to take such precautions as were necessary for safety. There had been discoveries and inventions; fire had been brought to earth; the bow and the arrow, as well as hooks and snares for catching animals, had been contrived. All this gave man a sense of superiority over other animals, and implanted in his heart "the first movement of pride."[15] Thus, in the triumphant and unseemly gloating of the hunter over his victim, we find the far-off roots of human inequality.

With this also came the distant foreshadowings of cooperation. There were occasions — admittedly rare — when l'intérêt commun justified primitive man in counting on the assistance of his fellows. How these ultra-individualistic nomads came to conceive of such a thing as the "common interest" is, however, not explained. In such a case they united "by some sort of free association which was binding on none, and which lasted only so long as the transitory need which had occasioned it."

Clearly, however, we have reached a stage when man is not quite so solitary as he once was: the bloom is off the peach. For such occasional acts of mutual assistance as these, no more highly developed language than that of crows or monkeys would be necessary.[16]

In this imaginative history of the human race, the great turning point, with ramifications in many directions, came when man ceased to sleep "under the first tree," and made some semipermanent shelter or hut, with branches and mud as their basic constituents. For here you have the beginning of the home. Rousseau's primitive man had been extraordinarily successful in shaking off the casual women whom he encountered. But now, enclosed in the same hut, are man and woman, parents and children.

Doubtless with this transition, as Rousseau acknowledges, there came the sweetest sentiments known to man, conjugal and paternal love; but he is able to compile an alarming series of items to be entered on the debit side. Women became sedentary, clinging to the hut, and thus there resulted a division of labor. Also men and women alike became softer, losing something of their ferocity — although in the previous paragraphs Rousseau's primitive man had been depicted as anything but ferocious.

Among men living in adjacent huts, language perforce had to arise. More significant is the fact that mere propinquity gave rise to the habit of making comparisons in the matter of merit and beauty. Jealousy awakens with love, and in the highly colored language which Rousseau loved: "Discord triumphs, and the sweetest of passions receives sacrifices of human blood."[17]

It is an odd picture which Rousseau here draws of the rise of "distinctions" among men, imposed by their environment. Brought together to live in adjacent cabins, what is there for these attractive primitives to do in the evenings, unless they sing and dance together under a great tree? Now it is a familiar fact that we do not all sing equally well or equally badly, and the same is demonstrably true in the matter of dancing. But, given the circumstances, the man who sings best, who dances best, is most "considered." "Why did she fall for the leader of the band?" is the question put by a later generation, confronted by the same phenomenon. Es ist, apparently, eine alte Geschichte, doch bleibt sie immer neu.

In these distinctions, embodied in the judgment of spectators and critics of primitive ballroom behavior, Rousseau finds the first step towards inequality and toward vice at the same time. One other departure from primitive perfection is significant. From this last idea of "consideration" paid to any one excelling in any respect, arose the first ideas of civility on the one hand, and on the other the sense of outrage should the measure of respect supposed to be due happen to be withheld. In a world where a man's a man for a' that, and where all are equal, there can clearly be no room for civility.

Despite these first shadows, this was the stage at which Rousseau would have had the human race remain, and he sums up in language of unmistakable clarity his astonishing philosophy of human nature:

So long as they confined themselves to works which one alone could do, and to arts which did not need the assistance of several hands, they lived free, healthy, good, and happy… but from the moment when one man had need of the assistance of another, from the moment when it was perceived that it was useful for one man to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, labor became necessary, and vast forests were changed into smiling fields which it was necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and increase with the harvests.[18]

This indeed is the fundamental idea in this extraordinary Discourse. Men may be equal and happy, so long as they never meet, so long as no one needs the assistance of another; but from the moment when they cease to be solitaire, from the moment when they begin to live together, help each other, do things together, inequality enters, and from Rousseau's point of view the rest of history is a hastening descent. Waiving his earlier and later history as entirely fictitious, there is of course one sense in which Rousseau is merely expressing a platitude in a somewhat allegorical form.

On all this question, there is in fact of course no such thing as equality among men, for so it has been ordained by God. Neither in stature, nor in weight, nor in chest expansion, neither in the color of the eyes or of the hair, neither in strength, intellectual capacity, or moral sensibility, are men equal. It is perhaps possible to speak of the equality of men, if there is no possibility of comparison; if, as in Rousseau's primitive conditions, human beings are never brought together except for fortuitous acts of silent copulation — if, in short, the doctrine of equality is never brought to the test.

But the whole doctrine of equality in the literal sense breaks down the moment you bring men together and inevitably are forced to compare them, not merely in their capabilities for singing and dancing, as in Rousseau's rather puerile example, but up and down the whole range of human equipment. It is indeed only necessary to view two human beings together in order to realize that in certain respects A is "superior" to B, and in others B is "superior" to A; but probably in no respect are they equal.

In this sense Rousseau is possibly right in suggesting that the postulated equality of men who are never brought into comparison disappears at once when they live in adjacent huts. It is, however, to be hoped that Rousseau was trying to express more than this dowdy platitude. Also, of course, the admitted inequality of man does not really affect that deeper question as to whether the differences in human endowment furnish grounds for existing differences in rights and rewards.

In the remainder of the Discourse, Rousseau warms to the task of denunciation as he traces the growth of inequality. It may not, however, be necessary to follow in detail the development of the argument. The prime impulse towards the furtherance of inequality is found by Rousseau in the arts of metallurgy and agriculture: in more concrete language it is iron and corn that have been the curse of humanity, creating groups of workers dependent on each other.[19]

Agriculture likewise led to the partition of land and consequently to laws to protect the possessor and define his rights. Following Grotius, Rousseau recalls that when Ceres was given the title of "Lawgiver," it was to indicate that the partition of land brought with it the necessity of a new kind of law, the law of property, as distinguished from natural law.[20]

With industry (typified by iron) and agriculture thus brought on the scene, the stage is set for the development of inequality. Diversity of talent and of capacity bring their natural consequences in diversity of condition. Vice is not far off. It becomes necessary that men should appear to have certain qualities, even when these are absent. "To be" and "to appear" have become entirely different matters. Hypocrisy and deceit have arrived. Man is no longer free and independent, since he is dependent on his fellows for the satisfaction of a multitude of needs: "Rich, he has need of their services; poor, he has need of their assistance; and even mediocrity does not enable him to do without them."[21] Add to these "devouring ambition," and the picture begins to resemble the vision of Marx:

In a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, and on the other conflict of interests, and always the concealed desire to make a profit at the expense of others: all these evils are the first effect of property and the inseparable accompaniment of rising inequality.[22]

The final pages of Rousseau's essay are perhaps best viewed as examples of lurid writing rather than of lucid thinking. He defines three main stages in the descent. The first is the establishment of law and the right of property; the second is the institution of the magistrature; the third is the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power. In somewhat different language, these stages consecrate the distinction between rich and poor, between strong and weak, and between master and slave. Moreover, Rousseau's pessimism is without frontier and without boundary. In surveying the inevitability of human descent, he observes that "the vices which render social institutions necessary are just those which render inevitable the abuse of these institutions." What, in short, is the good of anything?

It is a far journey from the innocent picture of men dancing and singing on the grass, beside the primitive mud-covered huts. It was then, when admiration was paid to one and withheld from another, that inequality was born. Into this other Eden, another Serpent entered. The final picture, when the curse has had time to work itself out, is one of unrelieved gloom.

Rousseau gives as bitter a picture of modern civilization as may be found anywhere,[23] and ends with the impassioned declaration that "it is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however it may be defined, that a child should command an old man, that an imbecile should conduct a wise man, and that a handful of people should be stuffed with superfluities, while the famished multitude lack what is necessary."[24]

Perhaps Rousseau has sufficiently testified to the faith, or the lack of faith, that is in him, so far as this is manifested in the two Discourses. Fundamentally it is a curiously churlish philosophy that is here propounded. Men are represented as happy so long as they live in complete isolation, having no need of each other, and no occasion to meet each other; all evil springs from bringing them together and allowing them to cooperate.

Nor indeed is it even a consistent philosophy. Doubtless, Rousseau is careful to explain that his savage in his solitary state has neither virtue nor vices; but he is assuredly a noble beast, endowed with Pity, the mother of all the virtues. Yet as soon as they are brought into contact with each other, it is of the essence of Rousseau's explanation of the decline of man, that forthwith these noble savages seek to take advantage of each other.

"Property is specifically regarded as the source of all evil."

Coming more closely to Rousseau's place in the socialist tradition, there are perhaps three points which may be isolated and underlined for their relationship to what has gone before and to what is yet to come. Firstly, property is specifically regarded as the source of all evil, with doubtless a certain emphasis on the case of land. Community in all things is implied — land again receiving special emphasis — though perhaps it should be made clear that by "community" is rather meant nonappropriation.

Secondly, Law for Rousseau is essentially a device whereby those in possession protect themselves against the "have-nots"; it is in short one of the instruments for the establishment and the maintenance of inequality. In other words, Law (and with it, the State) is an instrument of the governing class.

Thirdly, in the contrast between rich and poor, the strong and the weak, masters and slaves, Rousseau preaches, and his words lend themselves to, a vitriolic class war. But when all is said, it is perhaps truer of Rousseau than of most, that his influence can be traced less to any particular dogma or doctrine which he enunciated than to a pervasive atmosphere which emanated from Rousseau as a whole.


[1] P. 4. (References are to the collection of Rousseau's more important works, published by Garnier: this edition is probably the most accessible to the ordinary student.)

[2] P. 13.

[3] P. 13.

[4] P. 20.

[5] P. 41.

[6] Pp. 42–43.

[7] P. 45.

[8] Pp. 45–46.

[9] "Dans cet état primitif, n'ayant ni maisons, ni cabanes, ni propriétés d'aucune espèce, chacun se logeoit au hasard, et souvent pour une seule nuit; les mâles et les femelles s'unissoient fortuitement, selon la rencontre, l'occasion et Ie désir, sans que la parole fût un interprète fort nécessaire des choses qu'ils avoient à se dire; ils se quittoient avec la même facilité" (p. 52).

[10] P. 57.

[11] Pp. 60–61.

[12] Pp. 62–63.

[13] P. 64.

[14] P. 67.

[15] P. 69.

[16] Pp. 69–70.

[17] Pp. 70–72

[18] P. 74.

[19] P. 74.

[20] P. 76.

[21] P. 77.

[22] P. 77.

[23] One short extract may suffice as a sample: "Au contraire, Ie citoyen, toujours actif, sue, s'agite, se tourmente sans cesse pour chercher des occupations encore plus laborieuses; il travaille jusqu'à la mort, il y court même pour se mettre en état de vivre, ou renonce à la vie pour acquérir l'immortalité; il fait sa cour aux grands qu'il hait, et aux riches qu'il méprise; il n'épargne rien pour obtenir l'honneur de les servir; il se vante orgueilleusement de sa bassesse et de leur protection; et, fier de son esclavage, il parle avec dédain de ceux qui n'ont pas l'honneur de Ie partager" (p. 92).

[24] Pp. 93–94.