Bible of the revolution
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

The featured fragment is taken from Wstęp, [in:] J. J. Rousseau, O umowie społecznej, Kraków 1927, s. XXXII-XLVI.



The Social Contract [1]is a difficult book, difficult to grasp, the construction and the major ideas of which do not appear clearly in front of readers’ eyes instantly. There are many reasons to it. Most of all it is because of the difficulty to keep on tracks of normative theory among people used to thinking in terms of the categories of the world of beings. The difficultly becomes even bigger due to a double direction of the Contract: philosophical-and-legal and political one. Then there is an enormous condensation of thoughts and style that call for immense focus and attention. The style of the Contract that is abstract, dry, concise, so very different from a style of other works of Rousseau, from his usual rhetorical phraseology, his emotional outbursts and vivid imagination. Here the style is naked, the cold thought and the logic of precise reasoning rule over all and look for the simplest vocabulary stripped of all irrational elements. The words are to convey the very backbone of thoughts and do not wrap it with flesh vibrant with life and warmth, nor do they decorate them with any drapery. Also, the very outline of the the work, that proves to be meaningful and well fractionated after a very careful analysis, at the first glance seems to be chaotic and non-transparent. Another difficulty is a frequent use of homonyms and notions characteristic for Rousseau in the form of terms that in everyday life have different meaning, the terms definiteness of which is not provided instantly but spread across various paragraphs in odd clauses, the rems the meaning of which as defined by Rousseau has to be constantly remembered about. Finally, what is different is congruence of reasoning, correctness, consequence, thanks to which everything holds together quite precisely, which, on the other hand, requires remembering the entire road travelled so far, and which does not allow for understanding separate fragments if they are not constantly linked to the entire work. All theses reasons contribute to various interpretations of the Contract. The book had been associated with various tendencies and aims and caused thousands of mistakes. This is not Rousseau’s fault: his theory, once analyzed in details, is amazingly consistent and exhibits no internal contradictions. It requires, however, both preparation and significant patience and focus while examining its real content as well as a complete seclusion in the circle of thoughts and notions of the author, patience following him as his concepts unfold, rejecting all personal and borrowed means of interpretations that would not be found in the book itself.


The Contract had various interpretations and similarly to this multitude of views it was associated with various roles and influence on the course of historical events. According to the commonly accepted view the Contract is a momentous phenomenon not only in the history of a speculative human thought, but is also of an immense historical meaning and is a an important fact of political history, not only French one. Most of all it has been associated for a long time with an immense, almost decisive influence on the origin and course of the Great Revolution. Indeed, it might be the work most often referred to by activists of the revolution during all the phases of the great upheaval. It was quoted at all possible occasions, argument by and used as the source of various expressions by Mirabeau[2], Robespierre[3], Girondins[4], Feuillant[5] and Jacobins[6].


It was the biggest authority, almost the Bible of the revolution, and Rousseau was one of the saints revered the most and in an external cult having the biggest number of believers. His busts decorated halls of clubs and legislative bodies. He was commemorated by monuments and hid body was buried in the Pantheon[7].

Those who regarded Rousseau as one of the major authors of the revolution and try to charge him with all its evil and good, naively simplify its powerful, dangerous, unrestrained and extremely complex phenomenon. it was caused by wrongdoings of the past and exhaustion of absolutism that was no longer capable of aggravated political, social, economical and fiscal problems combined with the society's spontaneous reaction against a feudal system which had been crashing development of the lively nation relentlessly and strangling the Commons who has been waking up to its independence. It was not a doctrine that directed the revolution. It was not an ideal thought that created the events. Once unleashed, the revolution was fueled by its own weight. It would grow stronger and more powerful, engulfing everything that was on its way. It would destroy all new obstacles and forms of resistance that appeared in front of it, adjusting to requirements of this mortal combat. It was a game of intense and contradictory class, national, personal and religious interests that shaped the revolutionary reality rather than an ideology of thinkers. In the fire of all-encompassing battle new values of life were looking for a concrete manifestation in organizational forms that were occasionally changed. They would not adjust to the doctrine, but would bend the doctrine to themselves and build a political and social system designed to fit the new values, not abstraction. Theory provided certain established framework, expressions and mottos, but the resolution would chose only the handy ones, and reject, unceremoniously, everything that was against its purpose, neglecting the fact that the things rejected might constitute the most significant part of the doctrine put on its banner. Therefore, while analyzed closer, also Rousseau’s influence on people of the revolution and their actions proves to be quite different from what appeared to be true to those willing to observe the revolution only from halls of clubs and legislative bodies and enclose it only within the horizon of academic disputes and oratory performances of representatives of the nation and club members. Under a thin layer of fashionable cliches and truisms real struggles and desires were hidden. These were them that would define the aims and methods. Rousseau was undoubtedly the one who, by his work, made the society aware of its desires and needs and contributed immensely to an intellectual movement that preceded and prepared the revolution. He suggested certain banners and formulas that seemed to reflect synthetically the already existing aspirations, however it was not him who fomented the revolution and it was not him who was its director. He was just one of many sowers who sown grains into a well prepared soil. The revolution was nourished by this grain as well, however did not sow on its own fields and such a form of planting was not its plan.

What is more, if the revolution was to be based on Rousseau, it would not be conceived at all. For Rousseau was an adversary of all revolutions. He did not believe in their results and was on the opinion that they bring more evil than good. He nas negative about movements of the masses and perceived it as an agitation of ambitions individuals searching for their own profits. He valued order, even if not based on law understood in his own way, over chaos and savagery, which he believed to be an inevitable fruit of any revolution. His contemporary nations, including the French one, regarded as totally incapable of form a legal society. Rousseau was careful in a practical politics. He would take into consideration the factual state of affairs. A traditionalist, believing that each nation has a government it deserves and possible to be formed, he was of the opinion that a political system is a result of various factual forces and it is futile and dangerous to fight this state of affairs. It is fair to say that he was a determinist, pessimistic about attempts to change things for better. Rousseau discouraged his readers from implementing the ideal in action, and was warning firmly against violent actions. The very form and mood of the book in which he presented his search for the nature of lawfulness of social relations was useless with respect to a revolutionary agitation. It was a purely theoretical work that was not meant to demolish the existing order. The then French authorities understood his work in this way. The Paris Parliament that ordered a public executioner to burn Emile[8] was not interested in the Contract and turned a blind eye to distribution of the book in France printed in Hague.

In order to evaluate Rousseau’s impact on the revolution one needs to, if only briefly, compare Rousseau’s doctrine with the most significant monuments of the revolution of legal character. Let us start from activities of the National Assembly. From the very beginning it regarded itself as a representative of a sovereign French nation, called to proclaim a constitution. To proclaim, not just to prepare. Therefore it was the body which bestowed itself with the sovereign authority, if it was the body that was to give the country its fundamental law. Theoretically it was the nation that was the source of the said authority, but its execution was an exclusive right of the Assembly. Referring to the the sovereignty of the nation, the Assembly remained within the framework of Rousseau’s doctrine. By conferring upon itself an exclusive legislative authority, the Assembly broke up with Rousseau. For him resolutions of the Assembly were not law, for he believed that it was only the nation that was able to constitute law. The entire later activities of the Assembly was far from the doctrine of Rousseau. The Assembly adopted Sieyes'[9] theory of sovereignty and execution of the power always and exclusively by a representation of the nation. According to Rousseau sovereignty of the nation is purely positive. For the Assembly, however, is only a negation of a covering power of a king. It is a battering ram to crash a royal absolutism with no positive and juridical importance. The nation is merely a voter, therefore not as a superior as understood by Rousseau.

Night of August 4th, 1789[10] realized the ideal of The Contract: equality. All privileges were gone swept by a powerful blow of patriotism and love. Instead of estates, dividing France on several legally separated social groups, there was only one great French nation. Intermediate bodies, constituting steps of the social pyramid on the top of which there as a king dissolved in a national unity. Smokes of a will of groups, a will of egoistic estates, cleared and the sun of the general will could eventually shine over France. Feudalism, incubus harassing peasants and cities, was buried forever. The atmosphere of this memorable night, excitement and enthusiasm that electrified the assembly, thrill felt by the clergy and gentry required preparation of souls and minds. What was needed was creation of a conviction that the sanctified by tradition social organization was evil and unfair. The Social Contract for sure played an important role in this respect. Its republicanism, in the etymological sense of the notion, the book cried aloud that everybody is equal in the society and that everybody is equal members of a common homeland. The gentry and clergy who tore privileges and threw them under a president’s table in the collective elevation were devoted readers of the Contract enfolded by its civic spirit.

The second famous document of the Assembly, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” is utterly permeated with liberalism that was unacceptable for Rousseau, an advocate of omnipotence of the state. “The Declaration” enumerates various rights of an individual that are sacrosanct, nontransferable and non-expiable. Among them there was ownership of rights which bills “have no right” to breach and before which the general will must stop. “The Declaration” was called a social contract of a reborn France. If it is a contract, than surely not the one suggested by Rousseau, unconditional, the only content of which is an absolute and unconditional sacrifice of an individual to a society. It may only be Locke’s[11] contract according to which an individual assigns only a part of his or her rights to a society. “the Declaration” limits the state, which according to Rousseau cannot be bound by any law. The supreme idea of “The Declaration” is freedom, not equality, in which Rousseau melts freedom. Equality, that according to “The Declaration” is to be observed as the condition of freedom, equality solely and exclusively before the law gives up factual equality, implementation of which Rousseau regards as unreachable but necessary to be sought by the state by appropriate standardization of ownership. Such a task of the state is totally absent in “The Declaration”. State regulations meant to secure rights of freedom are modeled on Montesquieu[12] rather than on Rousseau. Very little was taken from Rousseau: sovereignty of the nation is mentioned, but at the same time indirect execution of this sovereignty by representatives is allowed. One talks about the general will, however it is simultaneously limited and its expression is not given to the nation. The vocabulary used by Rousseau is deprived of its ideological meaning. It becomes merely an ornament of a building constructed from a different material. 

The principle achievement of the Assembly, the Constitution of 1791 uses Rousseau’s terminology and seems to advocate his rules. Only on the surface. “Sovereignty is one, indivisible, inalienable, and imprescriptible. It appertains to the nation; no section of the people nor any individual may assume the exercise thereof”. It sounds as if taken directly from the Contract. What follows, however, demolishes totally what had been uttered one sentence ago: “The nation, from which alone all powers emanate, may exercise such powers only by delegation. The French Constitution is representative; the representatives are the legislative body and the King”. The framework of the Constitution of 1791 is the rule of representation devised by Montesquieu and Lock. The nation’s the highest superior, is bound and gagged, free only at the time of elections. And even then, is it free all the time or does it delegate its mandate to representatives? Census and two-stage elections are devised to give the rich majority in the legislative body. Civil equality, introduced by itself, was corrected by the Constitution by means of inequality of political rights. Bourgeoisie, taking control over on the ruins of feudalism, is vary careful to keep the reigns of power: only the mare of absolutism is exorcised by the name of the nation. Citizens are divided into active and passive ones, while the basis of the division is wealth! Rousseau would never accept this. One legislative chamber is justified by an argument taken from Rousseau’s armory: there is one general will, therefore there must be one body to express this will. What is at stake, however, is something else: fear of rebirth of aristocracy and its conquer of the Higher Chamber, reminiscence of the House of Lords - these were the vital motives that were more powerful than theoretical arguments. The king - the head of the executive authority, the first official of the nation, as Rousseau wanted him to be, since he held the existence of a monarch in such a big country as France as indispensable. The bigger the nation, the more concentrated the executive should be, since this is the only feature able to secure power and energy of actions. So monarchy in France, although not necessarily hereditary ones. Meanwhile the Assembly makes the king hereditary, but at the same time extremely decentralize the government and make the kind powerless. They leave him without any influence on the judicial system. Following Montesquieu the Assembly made elections a separate authority, in spite of the fact that Rousseau did not approve of such a split and in his advice for Poland claimed that justice should belong to the king. Instead the king is granted the right of a very strong but not absolute veto, which again was against Rousseau’s views. Which Rousseau’s motifs remained in the Constitution of 1791? A few cliches with no positive meaning, unrelated organically with the proper time of foundations of the constitution.

The revolution of August 10, 1792 smashed the monarchy and elevated new people, democrats and republicans, sincere followers of Rousseau’s teachings. The Convent, chosen in the common and two-stage election, declared, on Danton’[13]s request, after its very first session, that the only constitution acceptable should be approved by the nation. Also the Constitution is build by the Convent on Rousseau’s foundations. Both Girondists’ project and the Montagnard[14] Constitution accepted on 24 June, 1793 and put to a public referendum were derived from Rousseau. THe Constitution of 1793 is entirely democratic: not only does it enumerate equality in the proceeding “Declaration” as one of the human right, but confers all sorts of rights, including political ones, to everyone. It is democratic also in a sense of letting the nation rule directly. It takes into account representativeness, however tries to designate less important roles to institutions based on the said principle, assigning them with only those functions that the nations itself is unable to perform. In the most vital issues the nation has alway been able to step forward by itself and make a final decision. It applies most of all to legislation. Every piece of legislation was to become binding only after being approved by the nation. As far as the constitutional matters were concerned, not only had the nation the right of veto, but the right of initiative as well. Even Rousseau would not ask for more. However, the nation was able to object legislations in the proper sense of the word, but was even allowed to object a budget and declaration of war. Even Rousseau did not go that far. indeed, the nation in the Constitution of 1973 was the actual supreme body, legislation had to be compliant with its will and the general will finally had secured its manifestation in law. Rousseau triumphed and it seemed that he won from beyond the grave.

However the Constitution of 1793 was merely a theory of the National Convention, which it never intended to implement. Its implementation was postponed until conclusion of the war. /some claim that the entire Constitution was nothing but political manoeuvre. The Convention was less interested in doctrines and got involved in a war for independence of France, the integrity of the Republic and the very being of the nation. Before dwelling upon implementation of an ideal political system, the Convention had to save the homeland, defeat both internal and external enemies, get the country out of countless dangers, from abyss so terrible, as never before. The Convention ruled on its own and the type of government created by it and methods applied had nothing to do with Rousseau or any other theoretician. The government of the Convention was crated by the necessity of the moment, requirements of ever changing and increasingly dangerous circumstances, the necessity to use all the strength, using all the available means to fight the enemies and save the motherland and the revolution. The Convention unifies within itself the entire power. It is an absolute authority, he passes law and executes it, rules arbitrarily through its committees. Or rather one should say that it is a tool used by politicians who used a Parisian mob to control the power in committees terrorizing the Convention and entire France to be obedient. The climax of the the reigns of the revolution is presented as Robespierre’s dictatorship in the Committee of Public Safety, dictatorship of the Committee in the Convention, dictatorship of the Convention over France. Robespierre controls the Convention through the Commune of Paris and its sections and the Jacobin Club, Paris is a city that steers the fate of the whole country, the Montagnard’s fraction is a privileged body that imposes its will upon the entire nation. The  methods of governing the country is terror, exceptional rights, extraordinary courts and guillotine. The Law of Suspects sent to prison entire categories of citizens. The terrible Law of 22 Prairial[15] exposed them to the mercy of the Revolutionary Tribunal and its prosecutor, for they had no access to standard protection procedures. Law is silent, fear is reigning. Guillotine becomes the deadly destination of the rich and the poor, the gentry and plebeians, everyone suspected of supporting emigrants and the coalition, treason, spying, organising provincional uprisings, assignation speculations, cheating with military supplies. Everybody who impair the effort of the national defense and destroy the necessary unity and discipline. Among those who go under the knife are rivals of the dictator, Girondists, Hebertists[16], Dantonists who are brave enough to think differently than he does and accused of a potential desire to take his power over, generals unable to win. All this has nothing to do with Rousseau’s doctrine. Despotism and terror are irreconcilable with the Social Contract and only someone who never grasped Rousseau might accuse him of such things[17]. even if the cult of the Supreme Being introduced by Robespierre is embedded in the last chapter of the Contract, this is only an episode unrelated closely to the merit of the revolutionary reigns an the entire governing system.

Thus the theory of the pre-Thermidor Convention, crystallized in the Constitution of 1793, and its practice are two different worlds. After Thermidor[18] even the theory breaks up with Rousseau. The Constitution of the Year III (the Directory) based the political system on the rule of representativeness, a strict separation of three powers, census and indirect election, introduced bicameral legislative and collegiality of executive and therefore returned to Montesquieu. The only trace of Rousseau’s teaching in the Constitution is plebiscite it was required to be approved by. But this was a purely legal requirement, if the  unimplemented Constitution was to be adopted by the Nation. moreover, it was a strong argument against unsatisfied dreamers - democrats. In reality both this plebiscite from the year III and the later ones from the year VIII, X and XII are to make the nation give the rights up that Rousseau regarded as inalienable and transfer them to representative bodies and later on a consul and an emperor. This is the role of Rousseau’s Contract in the Great Revolution brought to a proper perspective.

He voiced, with others, criticism against existing establishment, shouted a few slogans: equality, sovereignty of the nation, ruling of the general will, submission of government to law. These were the slogans the revolution put on its banner. He taught his readers patriotism, republicanism in the perspective of citizenship, opened a rich granary of phraseology, used fashionable words that were repeated with delight. And yet he was not an inspirator of events and works of the revolution. A political rhetoric, one wording of the Constitution that has never been implemented, assuredly aversion for “fractions” that did not allow parties to get organized in fractions as understood today, aversion overcame in France as late as in the Restoration Period - the is Rousseau’s entire contribution to the Revolution. He himself would probably subscribe to the deed of the night of August 4, however it was a result of a long historical process, an abrupt blow of power that has been gathering in the nation for a long time getting ready to break artificial dams. One more permanent tendency of a revolution: the entire collective life based on law, implementation of the ideal of the rule of law in the country was preceded and propagated by Rousseau. This credit, however, must be shared by him by other philosophers and legal-and-political theoreticians of the age of Enlightenment, since this was the major purpose of their deliberations and projects.

Whatever the truth is, Rousseau has to be seen as the first one to preach the rules of democratism and lawfulness with such power of logic and emotion. He was the first one to base lawfulness on democracy (as understood today) and became therefore a bit father of all the contemporary societies. He can easily be ascribed with recognition of the right of self-determination of all nations and the idea of plebiscites as a basis for inclusion of certain territories to specific countries - the idea propagated so strongly by Wilson[19] and implemented in peace treaties with significant limitations and not too consistently. The contemporary legal and political environment was not affected by Rousseau that much. The same applies to the constitutional products of the Revolution. However, recently also in this area it is possible to notice return of some sort to Rousseau. New constitutions seem to search for remedy for various drawbacks of a parliamentary system in a plebiscite and referendum. Switzerland, the homeland of Rousseau and people’s legislation is looked up by constitutions of Germany, Czech Republic, Republic of Austria that in some cases allow the nation to speak directly. Rousseau seems to become topical again and receives wide attention. It is proven by voluminous and extensive literature on the author, which after dimming the fame of Rousseau in the 19th century is currently growing, especially since 1912, the bicentenary of Rousseau.       




[1] The Social Contract is the most famous book by J.J. Rousseau, mentioned in the footnote 2 in Teoria społeczno-polityczna Staszica a Jean Jacques Rousseau.

[2] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau (1749 - 1791) - a French political and publicist of the French Revolution era, a member of the Estates-General and the National Assembly.

[3] Maximilien de Robespierre (1758 - 1794) - a French advocate, one of the leaders of the Great French Revolution, a head of the Jacobin Club, w member of the National Convention and the the Committee of Public Safety, responsible for the bloody Terror, got arrested in the course of the so called Thermidorian Reaction and guillotined.

[4] The Girondins - a faction during the French Revolution, its name was derived from Gironde department (the south of France) many of its members came from, it was also called Brissotists, after one of the faction’s leaders, Jacques Pierre Brissot. The group originated from the Jacobin Club, but its members decided to leave at and pursue their own aims, one of them being spreading the idea of the revolution all over Europe - the was, among others, the reason of declaring war against Austria. The faction was broken in 1793 when many of its leaders were sentenced to death and executed. 

[5] Feuillant - a political club stablished after the split of the Jacobin Club. It included deputies in favour of keeping the constitutional monarchy. When this aim was not reached, the club decided to disperse, which saved many of its leaders from death during the Reign of Terror.

[6] Jacobins - a left-wing political club that played an important role during the French Revolution, initially responsible for the constitutional monarchy and later for its abolition and introduction of a republic. Radicalisation of its mottos and operating methods, especially under the influence of M. Robespierre, lead to divisions within the club. The club was so called from the Dominican convent where they originally met. They overthrew the Girondins and took all the power over. They were responsible for the terror of 1793 - 1794 and therefore became highly unpopular. The club was overthrown as the result of the overthrow of the 27th July 1794, judged severally and shared the fate of their victims when guillotined.

[7] Pantheon was constructed as an initiative of Louis XV as a church, however shortly after its completion in 1791 on the basis of a decision of the revolution’s authorities it became a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens such as J.J. Rousseau, H. Mirabeau, E. Zola, V. Hugo and Voltaire. Maria Skłodowska-Curie is buried there as well.

[8] Emile - a treatise on the nature of education written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 presenting a concept of a natural raising children, based on a assumption that a civilisation corrupts the good nature of man. The book caused an enormous scandal, especially due to a casual attitude to religious matters.  

[9] See: footnote 33 in Zasada konstytucji formalnej jako norma prawa pozytywnego.

[10] The steps analysed here were taken up by the National Constituent Assembly after a day-long session. This is how on July 9, 1798 the National Assembly, formerly the General States summoned by Louis XVI to come with the crisis in the country, called itself while planning to prepare a constitution. The National Constituent Assembly presented the king with a draft of the constitution of 3 September, 1791 and was got dismissed.

[11] See: footnote 31 in Zasada konstytucji formalnej jako norma prawa pozytywnego.

[12] See: footnote 32 in Zasada konstytucji formalnej jako norma prawa pozytywnego.

[13] Georges Danton (1759 - 1794) - a French advocate, one of the leaders of the Great French Revolution, the head of the Committee of Public Safety, guillotined as the result of a conflict with M. Robespierre.

[14] Left-wing members of the Convention called the Mountain due to upper rows they sat in the Convention Hall. The club included the Jacobins and the Cordeliers.

[15] The law of the Committee of Public Safety enacted on 10 June 1794 that simplified the judicial process to one of indictment and prosecution with no right defense and appeal.

[16] Supporters of Jacques Rene Hebert (1757 - 1794) - a French journalist, a radical ideologist and a politician of the Freech Revolution era, the editor of “Le Pere Duchesne”, lost his life after he got into conflict with Robespierre.

[17] Rousseau himself, as if prophesying, condemned the terror in A discourse on political economy: “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. Suppose we take from the whole people one individual after another, and then press the advocates of this rule to explain more exactly what they mean by the body of the State, and we shall see that it will at length be reduced to a small number of persons, who are not the people, but the officers of the people, and who, having bound themselves by personal oath to perish for the welfare of the people, would thence infer that the people is to perish for their own”. 

[18] I.e. after the overthrow of 9 Thermidor of the Year II of the French Revolution calendar (27 July 1794) in the National Convention as the result of which Robespierre’s and his supporters’ dictatorship was overthrown.

[19] Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924) - president of the United States, an initiator of establishment of a League of Nations. In 1919 he was awarded the Peace Nobel Prize for the idea.

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