Letter to George Paizis, written June 1998, commenting on a draft of his talk on Rousseau for Marxism 1998. (A tape of this talk should be available in the National Sound Archive).
Many thanks for sending me the text of your talk on Rousseau, which I read with interest if not approval. I’m sure it will be a stimulating meeting, and I’m sorry I can’t be there to confront you. However, not only did you fail to convince me, but you irritated me quite profoundly by your defence of Rousseau. What follows is an attempt to challenge your account on a number of points. If the tone of what I write is quite sharp, that is partly due to the fact that I have just been upset by circumstances which are in no way your responsibility, so please don’t take it as a personal affront. But I stand absolutely by the substance of the argument. I don’t suppose I’ll persuade you, but I might convince you to modify your argument somewhat, or at least provoke you to toughen up your defence. A lot of this is from memory, and I haven’t had time to check all the references, so I may be open to challenge on particular points. In any case I hope my remarks are of some use. Numbers in the left hand column refer to the pages of your text:
1) You say his books were banned. Which ones, and when? Rousseau was very widely read and influential in the period before the Revolution, so the ban can scarcely have been complete. In any case the ancien régime was scarcely Nazi Germany; the censorship was inefficient and corrupt. You make Rousseau sound like a heroic martyr figure when he was far from it.
1) ‘Always fleeing… trying to justify his actions against real or imagined detractors’. Largely imagined. Read the dialogues in Rousseau juge de Jean‑Jacques. This man was, in the words of West Side Story, ‘psychologically distoibed’; indeed, I think on the evidence of his own writings he was clearly certifiable. Of course, being crazy doesn’t make him necessarily a bad writer, but it does create difficulties if you start to claim him as a revolutionary hero.
1) Refusing ‘even the appearance of compromise’. Firstly, I dislike the way you quote Marx here. Marx had not known Rousseau, nor, to the best of my knowledge had he made any special study of him. Yet you quote a passing remark from a letter as though it constituted definitive proof, rather like a Christian quoting Holy Writ. This is Stalinist method of arguing, quite alien to our tradition.
In any case, is Rousseau’s refusal to compromise so laudable? In Left-Wing Communism Lenin makes short work of moralising ultra-lefts who refuse to compromise. Rousseau didn’t compromise because he never co-operated with anyone and because he was not pursuing any practical objectives. There was no affaire Calas in Rousseau’s career, no Encyclopédie. Voltaire and Diderot compromised frequently and in a variety of circumstances (and they may be criticised concretely, in the context of their time, for so doing), but they did so because they were seeking to achieve certain ends. They saw the whole movement of Enlightenment as a collective enterprise, requiring co-operation between Enlighteners. Against this Rousseau counterposes a self-obsessed moralism – and a failure to put his own principles into practice, as when he abandons all his children.
This tradition of revolutionary asceticism and moralism is an important one on the French left – it recurs with ‘sea-green incorruptible’ Robespierre, with the revolutionary syndicalists – ‘le refus de parvenir’, and, I think, in Lutte Ouvrière. As Engels points out (I think in the Peasant War in Germany), such asceticism belongs to an early stage of the revolutionary movement, when revolutionaries are few and have to keep themselves pure from the contamination of the masses; in later stages of the movement it is positively dangerous.
2) Rousseau was ‘swimming against the current of the Enlightenment’. Yes, but was he right to? Surely as Marxists we stand as the heirs of the Enlightenment. That is why the post-modernist scum are so hostile to the Enlightenment. Now of course if you take the Enlightenment view of Progress as being a naïve belief in the advance of science which automatically enhances human well-being so that there is a simple, uninterrupted linear ascent, then of course it can be argued (as Engels does somewhere) that Rousseau added a necessary corrective. But did the Enlighteners actually have that view of history? Doubtless some minor figures said something of the sort. But I remain to be convinced that, say, Voltaire had any such view. I don’t think a reading of either Candide or L’Essai sur les moeurs would support such a claim.
And if the Enlighteners stood for an advance in science and technology as a precondition for the reform of society, then as Marxists we must agree with them; it is the development of the productive forces which lays the basis for revolutionary change. In these terms we must stand on the side of the Enlightenment and against Rousseau.
Of course Rousseau was not, as you say, the first to put forward the idea of the noble savage or the golden age. Indeed, Montaigne in Des cannibales uses the idea of the noble savage much more radically than anything I know in Rousseau.
You claim Rousseau’s originality was to argue the ‘opulence of the few’ led to the ‘impoverishment of the many’. Was this very original? I doubt it. It is more or less common sense if you take as your basic assumption that there is a fixed amount of wealth to be divided. The more for some the less for others. The alternative – defended by Voltaire among others – was an early version of the ‘trickledown’ thesis; that if industry, trade and luxury production are developed, then everyone in society, from the richest to the poorest, will become better off. Now, of course, it would be foolish to accept a naïve version of trickledown for the eighteenth century, just as it would for the twentieth. But clearly there was some truth in it. The development of industry — quite developed in parts of France before 1789 (250.000 textile workers in Picardy, some in large factories) did increase the total sum of wealth in society and transform the lives of many who had previously lived in ‘rural idiocy’.
This is vital for the development of the idea of equality. For if the amount of wealth is taken as constant, then equality can only mean the universalisation of poverty (the ‘loi agraire.). On the other hand the development of the productive forces opened up the possibility of a socialism of abundance. It is a widespread claim that all socialism before Marx (or at least before Saint-Simon) was ascetic. It is a charge often made against Babeuf. I think my book definitively shows that this is not the case. And even before Babeuf, Morelly’s Code de la nature sets out the possibility of a non-ascetic but egalitarian utopia. The attempt to dismiss all egalitarianism before Marx as ascetic is, I think, a vicious Stalinist lie.
2) The Confessions ‘explore in all honesty’. How do you know? Because Rousseau keeps telling us every few lines how ‘honest’ he is. It doesn’t convince me, any more than a thief caught in the act who keeps repeating ‘I didn’t do it, honest.’ Of course the Confessions are important from a literary point of view – they pave the way for all the worst self-indulgent whining of Romantic poetry (Lamartine, Musset), but is there any reason to believe Rousseau is actually being ‘honest’?
3) ‘HOW HUMANITY GOT TO BE HOW IT IS’. But surely that is precisely the question that Rousseau can’t answer. The ‘disclaimer’ is not merely to cover him from attack, but because, unlike Voltaire, he had never done any serious historical work and preferred to engage in his own fantasies.
You fail to draw out the profound contradiction in Rousseau’s thought. He claims human beings are naturally good, but have been corrupted by ‘society’. But society is a human product; how did naturally good human beings produce a corrupt and corrupting society. As our former comrade Alasdair MacIntyre writes: ‘If I can purge society of corruption by appeal to universally valid moral principles to which either every heart or every mind or both must give testimony, then how can society ever have become corrupted in the first place.’ (A Short History of Ethics, 1967, p 188). Since Rousseau had, in reality, no adequate account of how inequality came into existence as a historical process, then he could have nothing but a moral critique, and could not show why one period in history was any better than any other for putting an end to inequality.
6) You use the word ‘dialectic’ but only with the sense of ‘interaction’. If you are going to claim Rousseau as a dialectical thinker I think the best case is made by Engels in chapter XIII of Anti-Dühring where he argues that ‘Rousseau regards the rise of inequality as progress. But this progress contained an antagonism: it was at the same time retrogression’. If Engels – or you – can show that this is true, that Rousseau does actually argue that society is simultaneously making progress and retrogressing (as Marx does in the opening section of the Communist Manifesto) then you have made the case that Rousseau was a dialectical thinker. I remain to be convinced that he does actually claim this, at least in the same sense that Marx does. For Marx technological progress is real, and has profound emancipatory potential, as well as leading to the enslavement of human beings. For Rousseau technological ‘progress’ is merely apparent, and contrasted to the reality of moral retrogression.
You say the Social Contract does not contain ‘a programme for revolution’. But it is worth contrasting the SC with Rousseau’s works on proposed constitutional reform for Corsica and Poland. Here he is much more moderate in his proposals, and sees no possibility of actually getting rid of social inequality. This shows, I think, the huge gulf between theory and practice at the very heart of Rousseau’s thought.
6-7) Surely there was nothing very original about the idea of a ‘social contract’ – it goes back to the 16th century or earlier.
8) ‘Sectional interests.’ Le Chapelier, when he moved his famous law to ban workers’ organisations, had in his hand a copy of the CS from which he quoted. Le Chapelier was a moderate who launched the slogan ‘the revolution has finished’ as early as 1791.
Some other points
Religion: although Rousseau is clearly, like Voltaire, some sort of Deist, he is much more timid than Voltaire in actually attacking the Church and Christian doctrine. And in the Contrat Social (4/VIII) he actually argues that atheists should be banished or put to death. He wants to kill people like you and me, George, and, worse, those people who were atheists when it took a lot more guts to be one than it does now.
Women: surely you can’t discuss Rousseau’s views of equality without some reference to his appalling views on the position of women in society, especially in Emile. And don’t tell me he was only reflecting the prejudices of his age. There was a vigorous tradition of feminism in France in the 18th century and well before (see the history of French feminism by [I think] Armogathe & Abistur). The question of women’s equality was widely debated in the various local académies well before the Revolution. Read Babeuf’s letter to Dubois de Fosseux of 1786. Rousseau’s anti‑feminism stands at the start of a long tradition of left misogyny, from the role of the Jacobins in closing the women’s clubs to the opposition to votes for women by the left parties in 1936. You can’t just ignore this.
Greenery: in his opposition to technological progress, and his general enthusiasm for ‘nature’, surely Rousseau is in many ways the precursor, not so much of Marxism as of modern ‘green’ movements. Of course such movements make valid criticisms of the misuse of various aspects of technology. But they cannot provide any adequate critique of society or programmatic alternative.
Contemporaries: when we discussed Rousseau briefly, you argued that he was progressive ‘in the context of his time’. Of course it is right to place Rousseau in his historical context; there is no point moralising with him for not having a 19th or 20th century viewpoint. But it also means looking at his contemporaries, and seeing whether he was in fact more or less radical than they were. In fact you scarcely mention any contemporaries, so it is very hard to make any estimation of his originality or of how radical he was. This would mean looking at Voltaire and Diderot, both of whom, I would claim, were in some respects more radical than Rousseau. But it also means looking at some of the minor radical figures of the century, the atheists and the proto-socialists, who managed to go considerably further than Rousseau. Of course these figures are largely written out of history by the academics who construct syllabuses. But it is precisely the job of revolutionary socialists to write such people back into history. Read Dommanget on the abbé Meslier, who was advocating the general strike in the first decades of the 18th century; read Morelly’s Code de la Nature, which attempts to outline a non-ascetic socialist utopia; read Naville on d’Holbach and how he developed the logic of consistent atheism; read Collignon; read the early (pre-1789) Babeuf. By the side of these Rousseau looks very tame, very insipid, very gutless.
This is all for the moment. Doubtless you will not agree. At least you have made me realise the need for someone to do a thorough Marxist hatchet-job on Rousseau. If I live long enough I shall do it.