Allegation 2

Allegation: Direct democracy is a source of totalitarianism.

Direct democracy is considered dangerous because, so the argument goes, it may lead to totalitarianism. In this line of argument Rousseau’s ideas, his concepts of the general will and popular sovereignty, are seen as seedlings of terror regimes, of the Jacobins in the French Revolution and later of Hitler and Stalin. Examples for this kind of accusation abound, from Benjamin Constant to Isaiah Berlin, J.L. Talmon and many more.

Benjamin Constant implicates Rousseau in totalitarianism by attributing to him the theory “that society may exercise over its members an unlimited authority and that everything the general will ordains, is rendered legitimate by that alone.” (Constant 1815, 26) Many others followed in the footsteps of Constant, among them Isaiah Berlin in his well known essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (delivered as a lecture in 1958, published in 1969 and 2002). Both see in Rousseau the powerful author of a collectivist doctrine that destroys individual liberty.

Rousseau does not mean by liberty the `negative’ freedom of the individual not to be interfered with within a defined area, but the possession by all, and not merely by some, of the fully qualified members of a society of a share in the public power which is entitled to interfere with every aspect of every citizen’s life. (Isaiah Berlin 1969)

Benjamin Constant agrees with Rousseau on the basic democratic principle, that any authority which governs a society must come from the general will (the people in view of the common good). He rightly emphasises that unlimited political power is a great danger for freedom.

The party men, however pure their intentions, are bound to detest the limitation of political authority. They see themselves as its presumptive heirs and tend to look after their future property even when it is in the hands of their enemies. They distrust this or that kind of government, or such and such a class of governing politicians, but just let them organize government in their own way, allow them to entrust it to the representatives they want, and they will not think they can extend it far enough. (Constant 1815, 25)

In light of our experience with representative democracy (RD), Constant makes a very pertinent argument. Isn’t it in actual fact an argument in favor of activating democracy (AD), which limits the power of representatives and political parties by means of direct democracy, whereas representative democracy in practice r/ejects the principle of popular sovereignty and encourages the formation of rule by political parties and power-hungry party leaders?

Constant accuses Rousseau of advocating the principle of unlimited political power, subverting the basic principle that power must be limited.

All the ills of the French Revolution come from this subversion. All the crimes with which our demagogues have appalled the world have been sanctioned by it. (Constant 1815, 21)

Constant can make his accusation only on the basis of refuting Rousseau’s fundamental distinction between sovereignty and government. Constant dismisses this distinction as a “chimera”:

The people, Rousseau observes, are sovereign in one respect and subject in another. In practice, however, the two cases are confused. It is easy for powerful men to oppress the people as their subjects, to force them to manifest in their sovereign role the will which these powerful men are dictating. To achieve this, all that is needed is that the individual members of society be terror-struck and then that a hypocritical homage be rendered to the society en masse.

Thus one can recognize as society’s only those rights which the government can exercise without their becoming dangerous. Sovereignty being an abstract thing and the real thing, the exercise of sovereignty, that is to say, the government, being necessarily delegated to beings of a quite different nature from the sovereign, since they are not abstract beings, we need to take precautionary measures against the sovereign power, because of the nature of those who exercise it, as we would take them in the case of an excessively powerful weapon which might fall into unreliable hands. (Constant 1815, 30)

There are some really good points in these lines! How could one not draw a parallel to our experience with terrorism (state and otherwise) and the use that is made of it, above all in form of the so-called war on terrorism? How could we not think about our fears that make us trade freedom for security? Indeed, as Constant writes: “There are things too heavy for human hands.”

Only that Rousseau would agree, except for one point: the conflation of sovereignty and government (see also below: Durkheim defends Rousseau). Sovereignty refers to the making of laws by the whole people whereas the implementation of the laws is the business of government, and Rousseau is well aware of all the dangers that come with it:

Although it is easy, if you wish, to make better laws, it is impossible to make them such that the passions of men will not abuse them as they abused the laws which preceded them. To foresee and weigh all future abuses is perhaps beyond the powers even of the most consummate statesman. The subjecting of man to law is a problem in politics which I liken to that of the squaring of the circle in geometry. Solve this problem well, and the government based on your solution will be good and free from abuses. But until then you may rest assured that, wherever you think you are establishing the rule of law, it is men who will do the ruling.
(Rousseau, Considerations on the Government in Poland)

Durkheim defends Rousseau

“Quite wrongly certain critics (Janet 1913, 429) have accused Rousseau of contradicting himself by, on the one hand, condemning the alienation of individual liberty in favor of a despot, and by making this abdication the basis of his system, when it occurs in the hands of the community. If it is immoral in one case, how could it not be immoral in the other case? But this is because the moral conditions under which it occurs are not at all the same. Abdication is prescribed in the first case, because it makes humans dependent on a man, which is the very source of all immorality. The second case makes man dependent on a general, impersonal power, which regulates him and makes him a moral person without diminishing his liberty, only the nature of the boundary, that limited him, was changed from being physical to moral. The objection stems only from having misconceived the abyss that exists, from a moral point of view, between the general will and a particular will, of whatever sort it may be.”

Source: Émile Durkheim. 1918. Le Contrat Social de Rousseau (available online)

Rousseau is no supporter of unlimited governmental power; his Considerations on the Government of Poland with their great emphasis on checks and balances are proof of this. In addition, his concept of popular sovereignty implies a separation of power between government and the legislature, and neither of them should usurp power that belongs to the other. Rousseau (like Kant) criticized classical democracy for a lack of separation of poweres; that is why they preferred what they called a republic.

Only a very selective reading of his oeuvre makes it possible to interpret Rousseau as a precursor of totalitarianism. It requires turning a blind eye to Rousseau’s moral individualism and, more importantly, to disregard his attempt to understand the relationship between society and individuals.

In fact, does not the undertaking entered into by the whole body of the nation bind it to provide for the security of the least of its members with as much care as for that of all the rest? Is the welfare of a single citizen any less the common cause than that of the whole State? It may be said that it is good that one should perish for all. I am ready to admire such a saying when it comes from the lips of a virtuous and worthy patriot, voluntarily and dutifully sacrificing himself for the good of his country: but if we are to understand by it, that it is lawful for the government to sacrifice an innocent man for the good of the multitude, I look upon it as one of the most execrable rules tyranny ever invented, the greatest falsehood that can be advanced, the most dangerous admission that can be made, and a direct contradiction of the fundamental laws of society. So little is it the case that any one person ought to perish for all, that all have pledged their lives and properties for the defence of each, in order that the weakness of individuals may always be protected by the strength of the public, and each member by the whole State.
(Rousseau 1755. A Discourse on Political Economy)

According to Rousseau the existence of a society implies that there is a common interest; but there is always a tension between public and private interests, between the requirements of equality and the interests of particular groups. That is why it must be possible to hold government to account, to measure government performance in relation to the common good. That is why the constitution must remain accessible for the public will, it must be possible for the sovereign people to change their constitution. The above quote shows, that Rousseau himself was rather pessimistic as to the possibility of achieving this; in addition, his trust in the capacities of ordinary citizens was sometimes limited.

Rousseau wrote that government should act, if possible, “only under the eyes of the legislator, and with its guidance. That is the real secret of preventing them from usurping its authority.” (Considerations on the Government in Poland) According to Rousseau “the depositories of the executive power are not the masters of the people, but its officers”, and “the people may establish or remove them as it pleases” (Social Contract III, 18). This is “the great democratic doctrine, and the contrary of all later totalitarianisms” (Palmer 1959, 123).

At the time of Rousseau citizen-initiated referendums and citizens’ initiatives were not even known. But today they are available and tested in practice for more than a century; they provide so far the only instruments for citizen lawmaking, and they enable citizens to control their government. The referendum measures government in relation to the public interest and the citizen initiative allows the general will to be expressed in the form of a new law (be it statutory or constitutional) or by correcting existing legislation.

To recapitulate the argument so far: I tried to show that the liberal’s accusation, that Rousseau opens the door to totalitarianism, is onesided and false. Both Rousseau and his liberal critics are defenders of individual liberty against any illegitimate interference by the state and society at large, and both agree on the democratic principle that legitimate political power comes from the people and flows bottom-up.

On this first level there is no contradiction between the aims of Rousseau and those of his critics. For Rousseau the basic problem is precisely this: How “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.” (Social Contract II, 6)

The contradictions between Rousseau and his critics must be located elsewhere. They consist in the following three interconnected aspects: the point of view, the concept of liberty, the source of tyranny/totalitarianism:

Aspect Liberals Democrats
Exponent Benjamin Constant, Isaiah Berlin Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Point of view Top-down, elitist perspective Democratic, egalitarian perspective
Type of democracy Representative democracy (RD) Radical democracy (AD)
Concept of liberty Liberty delimits an area where the law is silent; liberty means to protect the individual against interference from the state and society. Freedom means to act according to the law, which is self-imposed; freedom as an activity that protects individual liberty in accordance with the common good (justice).
Liberty based on a separation of the private from the public sphere. Liberty means civil liberty plus “moral liberty, which alone makes [man] truly master of himself.” (The Social Contract II,8)
Liberty ? immunity from service Liberty ? serving the community
Subject of liberty Bourgeois Citizen
Source of tyranny Too much democracy leads to majority tyranny and totalitarianism. Too little democracy and the surrender of democracy opens the door for tyranny and totalitarianism.
Background Fear of popular sovereignty or real democracy; defense of the bourgeois and a liberal state, of the educated and propertied few against the majority of the poor.
Benjamin Constant: French Revolution, before the ascent of “centrist liberalism” (#)
Isaiah Berlin: Cold War, struggle of the “liberal democracies/West” against the “communist dictatorships (people’s republics)/ East”;
“centrist liberalism” is dominant.
Struggle against the ancien régime before the French Revolution; defense of popular sovereignty or real democracy, of the citizen against the bourgeois, priority of democracy over commerce (capitalism).
(#) Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Liberals look at society from a “higher “ point of view, and what they see is that ordinary people are always not yet fit for government (see The Creation of In/Competent Citizens). That is how liberals justify exclusive political rights which they grant to themselves (see below Benjamin Constant on Political Rights). Accordingly, the framers of the United States Constitution instituted a “republic” (later called “representative democracy”) and not an Athenian type of democracy.

In all kinds of relationships between established and outsiders “the more powerful groups look upon themselves as the “better” people, as endowed with a kind of group charisma, with a specific virtue shared by all its members and lacked by the others. What is more, in all these cases the “superior” people may make the less powerful people themselves feel, that they lack virtue – that they are inferior in human terms.”

Source: Elias, Norbert / Scotson John L. 1994. The Established and the Outsiders. Second edition, p. xvi.

Benjamin Constant on Political Rights

Benjamin Constant reserves full political rights for the propertied classes. He wrote that the working classes are admirable for their patriotism and willingness to sacrifice. But what gives people courage to die for their country is one thing, and another what makes people capable to know the interests. Therefore birth (nationality) and age (adulthood) alone are not sufficient criteria for full citizenship; one additional condition must be met: enough leisure to acquire enlightenment and power of judgement. Constant insists that property alone provides enough leisure for education, that property alone makes people capable of exercising political rights.

Benjamin Constant wrote: (p 116)
I. Les droits politiques consistent à être membre des diverses autorités nationales, à être membre des autorités locales des départemens, et à concourir à l’élection de ces diverses autorités.

II. Sont aptes à exercer les droits politiques tous les Français qui possèdent, soit une propriété foncière, soit une propriété industrielle, payant un impôt déterminé (1), soit une ferme, en vertu d’un bail suffisamment long et non résiliable, et qui, par cette possession, existent sans le secours d’un salaire qui les rende dépendans d’autrui.

(1) J’avais été d’avis dans mes Principes de politique de n’accorder les droits de cité qu’aux propriétaires fonciers, et l’éxperience m’a éclairé. J’ai vu que dans notre siècle la propriété industrielle était une propriété plus réelle encore et surtout plus puissante que elle du sol, et, reconaissant mon erreur, j’ai corrigé mon ouvrage.

(p. 118) “Dans nos sociétés actuelles, la naissance dans le pays et la maturité de l’âge, ne suffisent point pour conférer aux hommes les qualités propres à l’exercice des droits de cité. Ceux que l’indigence retient dans une éternelle dépendance et qu’elle condamne à des travaux journaliers, ne sont ni plus éclairés que des enfans sur les affaires publiques, ni plus intéressés que les étrangers à une prospérité nationale dont ils ne connaissent pas les élémens, et dont ils ne partagent qu’indirectement les avantages.

Je ne veux faire aucun tort à la classe laborieuse. Cette classe n’a pas moins de patriotisme que les autres classes. Elle est prête souvent aux sacrifices les plus héroïques et son dévoument est d’autant plus admirable, qu’il n’est pas récompensé ni par la fortune, ni par la gloire. Mais autre est, je le pense, le patriotisme qui donne le courage de mourir pour son pays, autre est celui qui rend capable de bien connaître les intérêts. Il faut donc une condition de plus que la naissance et l’âge prescrit par la loi. Cette condition, c’est le loisir indispensable à l’acquisition des lumières, à la rectitude du jugement. La propriété seule assure ce loisir: la propriété seule rent les hommes capables de l’exercise des droits politiques.”

Benjamin Constant. 1836. Cours de politique constitutionnelle, Tome 1, Mise en ordre par Jean-Pierre Pagès. Paris. Chapitre VII. Des droits politiques. p. 116, 118.

Benjamin Constant argued quite sensibly that working people have not enough leisure for acquiring political knowledge; but instead of demanding leisure for the poor, so that they too could exercise democratic political rights, he advocated and justified suffrage only for property owners. While it is obvious that political participation needs resources and time, political incompetence is not a reason for political exclusion but an effect of it. People learn politics by doing, not by being prevented from doing it. Moreover, in a democracy political competence is not a valid criterium for getting full political rights; in a true democracy political rights belong equally to everyone.

The Contradictions between Rousseau (democrats) and his liberal critics appear clearly when looking at the answers given to the following two questions:

(1) Whose individual liberty is to be protected in the first place?
(2) How can and should the protection of individual liberty be achieved?

The liberals’ answers, in essence, are:
(1) The individual liberty of the propertied and educated males has priority over the liberty of the rest of the people.
(2) Individual liberty of the bourgeois men can best be protected by representative democracy (RD).

The radical democrat Rousseau gave different answers:
(1) The individual liberty not only of a part, but of all the people should be protected.
(2) Individual liberty of the citizens can be protected by real democracy that puts popular sovereignty into practice, keeping the divide between rich and poor within limits and putting people before profit. (As was usual at his time, Rousseau excluded women from political life.)

On this second level the liberal critique of Rousseau appears as an attack against the principle of popular sovereignty (true democracy), which includes all the citizens in the processes of lawmaking and controlling the government and representatives. Liberals in the tradition of Benjamin Constant struggle on two fronts, on the one hand against the people, and on the other hand against competing elites and powers (these changed according to the historical conjuncture: first the representatives of the old order, later and during the Cold War the communist and socialist parties and states). They defend the power and privileges of the propertied and educated groups that occupy the central position in the modern “commercial society”. They defend a free-market (capitalist) society that produces a growing inequality of wealth, which, according to Rousseau, is undermining the sense of community that is necessary for the maintenance of true democracy.

What is most necessary, and perhaps most difficult, in government, is rigid integrity in doing strict justice to all, and above all in protecting the poor against the tyranny of the rich. (…) It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.
(Rousseau 1755, Economie)

No doubt, Rousseau, the “Dreamer of Democracy” (James Miller), was a realist with respect to the relationship between democracy and economic inequality. With the financial crisis since 2008 we have arrived at a juncture where the extent of inequality has reached grotesque proportions and, judged by the spontaneous emergence of direct democratic assemblies all over the world, in the Arab Spring, in Greece and Spain and the Occupy Movements, we are living in a time of revolution. However, the present global crisis of liberal democracy has no foregone conclusion. Without strong popular democratic movements democracy may not be resuscitated and rebuilt, but lost. For example, Streeck (2011) conjectures that a further decline of democracy may give financial markets the upper hand against all political attempts to discipline the markets. In my view there is no doubt that the commodification of everything encounters limits in human nature and in the environment. Human nature is not infinitely malleable and the exploitation of planet Earth has limits, climate change is for real. Oppression and exploitation inevitably give rise to different forms of resistance, but only resistance that is based on a realistic understanding of our situation and knowledge of the real reasons for our distress can give rise to a viable alternative to capitalism.

Constant vs Rousseau

If we ask in what precisely consists the greatest good of all, which should be the end of every system of legislation, we shall find it reduce itself to two main objects, liberty and equality — liberty, because all particular dependence means so much force taken from the body of the State and equality, because liberty cannot exist without it. (Rousseau. The Social Contract II, 11)


Berlin, Isaiah. 1969. Two Concepts of Liberty. In: Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, p. 118-172).(*)

Constant, Benjamin. 1819. The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns. (*)

Constant, Benjamin. 1836. Cours de politique constitutionnelle, Tome 1, Mise en ordre par Jean-Pierre Pagès. Paris.

Elias, Norbert / Scotson John L. 1994. The Established and the Outsiders.

Palmer, R. R. 1959. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. The Challenge. Princeton, New Jersey.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1755. A discourse on political economy.(#)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762. The Social Contract.(#)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1772. Considerations on the government of Poland.(#)

Streeck, Wolfgang. The Crises of Democratic Capitalism. In: New Left Review 71, September-October 2011.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

(*) Constant’s and Berlin’s seminal essays on the concept of liberty were first given as a lecture (in Paris 1819 and Oxford 1958)

(#) available on the internet in fr and en

DD and Tyranny