Thinking Totalitarianism: Nisbet’s Critique of Rousseau’s Political Philosophy

Nisbet argues that one can only understand the rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism by first understanding Rousseau’s political philosophy. Nisbet characterizes Rousseau as a world-historic philosopher “from [whom] comes most of the intellectual devotion to the State that has made the political mentality so influential in social and moral thought during the past century and a half.” (Nisbet, p.153)

Nisbet identifies three key themes in Rousseau’s system that he believes taken together constitute both the ideology and the strategy underlying the momentous expansion and centralization of political power running through the 19th and 20th centuries. These are social individualism, political authoritarianism and humanitarianism.

Nisbet claims that Rousseau’s eternal contribution to statism was in subtly veiling the brute force of political power in the language of moral redemption. Rousseau, following Plato, identified the state’s power structure with the structure of community itself. (Nisbet, p.155) In such a vision the state no longer appears as one form of social association or as a force external to the individual’s will. It is for this reason that Nisbet terms Rousseau’s ideal Republic the Political Community.

Nisbet considers Rousseau’s political philosophy as an attempt to lead men beyond civil society. Rousseau judged society to be a mutually exploitive system in which men are dominated by internal strife and conflict with each other. The chains mentioned in Rousseau’s most famous dictum refers to the civil associations and institutions that compose a pluralistic society. Rousseau believed that in society people are incapable of forming sincere friendships, demonstrating compassion for others and possessing sincere confidence. Instead, civilized persons are continually tortured by the uncertainty, jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud that is concealed under the uniform and deceitful veil of politeness. (Nisbet, p. 141)

Rousseau’s project consists in explaining how men can be redeemed from their morally decadent social existence. Rousseau identifies politics as the path to salvation. The state must emancipate individuals from their crippling social structures. Such liberation requires that the state make men absolutely dependent on itself, and in this way it renders them independent of each other. 


Rousseau despised social structures and wanted to supplant the pluralistic social order with a single overarching political system that would impose moral coherence on the lives of otherwise unstable human atoms. Through the political community one could escape the frustration, inner discord, loneliness, and crushing opinions of others. Once liberated from their old burdens, men could finally realize that long sought after internal unity of personal life. Such an achievement required that each person enter the political community and subordinate the entirety of his being to the collective will.

However, as Nisbet remarks, Rousseau’s brilliance lies in his describing unqualified obedience to the state as the characteristic of the free man. It was only with his idea of the general will that Rousseau was able to effectuate such a drastic and unprecedented inversion of our basic ethical categories. In Nisbet’s words, “It would be difficult to find anywhere in the history of politics a more powerful and potentially revolutionary doctrine than Rousseau’s theory of the General Will. Power is freedom and freedom is power. True freedom consists in the willing subordination of the individual to the whole of the State.” (Nisbet, p.151)

For Rousseau, freedom consists in obeying as law what one imposes on oneself. Kant himself agreed with Rousseau’s definition of freedom as human autonomy and I myself would endorse such a definition. But when Rousseau speaks of freedom he is referring not to the individual but to the collective. The individual realizes freedom only through submitting to and participating in the General Will. The political community is an indivisible organism determined by the general will in which all citizens participate.

Nevertheless, the general will is not merely the aggregated will of all, it is the will of the body politic, an entity distinct from the elements that compose it. In order that a people can will the general will, the Founder-Legislator must transform human nature. Nature makes men complete and separate wholes, whereas the political community requires that they consciously function as mere parts of the whole body politic. Each citizen must be conditioned to identify his interests with that of the common good, which requires he see the political community as the indispensable source of all that he values and as the ultimate moral authority. In other words the individual must see the state as always deserving his unqualified obedience. It is through such unconditional obedience that a citizen is free and virtuous, for in obeying the General Will one is obeying as law what one has imposed on oneself as an inseparable member of the collective.

In describing Rousseau’s ideas as to how the state should construct good citizens, Nisbet concludes that all such efforts aim singly at forging dutiful subjects who see themselves as existing only through and for the state. Rousseau also recognizes that engineering and maintaining a morally unified collective requires that the political community ban all civil associations. As Rousseau argues, such associations were cancerous to the body politic, for by inclining individuals to concern themselves with anything other than the common good they would fracture the unity of the political bond. To achieve absolute sovereignty over the will and mind of men requires that the state absorb the whole of man’s personality and banish from its domain all constraining influences.

8 Responses to Thinking Totalitarianism: Nisbet’s Critique of Rousseau’s Political Philosophy

  1. Reminds me of that enchanting old slogan “obedience to the law is freedom.”

  2. Which work(s) of Nisbet did you draw from primarily?

  3. This was excellent. It made me think about how this compares with other thinkers.

    “Rousseau, following Plato, identified the state’s power structure with the structure of community itself.”

    As van Creveld pointed out, the Greeks in general found it difficult to separate the polis the city community from the polis the state. (Similarly the military class was society under feudalism, at least the only part that counted. I suspect the Roman Republic was essentially the military command structure. The ancients often saw unities where we see divisions.)

    Rousseau said “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains… What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” So if they’re in chains to the state that is more legitimate than their current enslavement? I thought they basically were already in chains to the state and Rousseau wanted to describe the only way that can be justified. It is an interesting thought that he sees society alone as the slavery. Given the statist nature of french life I wonder if he saw much difference. Social advancement seemed so intertwined with the state.

    This is an interesting phrase, “subordinate the entirety of his being to the collective will,” given that Christianity, Islam, Judaism emphasize subordination to the will of god. However their Orthodox religious thought systems emphasized following rules, principled legal systems, fixed universal laws, etc. This quote “the political community as the indispensable source of all that he values and as the ultimate moral authority.” shows Rousseau as religious, his god is the collective will, and it’s a totally different god.

    I think this also greatly diverges from Plato. Socrates and Greeks in general were horrified by the idea of Law and Justice as something other than eternal. (Also their idea of morality was associated with the idea of boundaries and property rights.) That is why they had such problems with democracy.

    Similarly Plato’s Republic sees society as mutually beneficial. It is in fact the first example of economic thought. I also think Plato’s Republic was using a tyrannical republic to demonstrate injustice, not demonstrate a normative ideal. http://mises.org/daily/4201

    In another sense Rousseau does harken back to the Greeks.

    Benjamin Constant’s Liberty Ancient and Modern http://mises.org/daily/2524 discusses how ancient liberty was being part of a collective decision making body. Similarly Jacob Burckhardt in The Greeks and Greek Civilization discusses the tyrannical nature of the greek polis.

    The Greeks probably felt a lot like Rousseau. They did see the community as the source of all that is valued. Man is a creature of the polis, a political and social animal. However they also saw true law as real, and not subject to the whims of the collective. Since in reality greek law was not universal but sometimes the arbitrary and unjust will of the polis this led to a breakdown.

    Owen Barfield also talks alot about the ancient worldview. In many ways the community was the source of values and one felt part of a very alive shared reality. The later greek emphasis on reason was an attempt to discover an even more common and stable shared reality, a more real reality.

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  6. Jacob Talmon also critiqued Rousseau thoroughly in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. It is very much worth reading.

    Note: The author is frequently listed as J. L. Talmon rather than Jacob Talmon in book and library catalogs.

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