Bertrand Russell’s bullshit interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau

I write this piece with regret because I admire most of Russell’s writings, and I do recommend his History of Western Philosophy (1945) as an introduction to philosophy, as I also recommend reading Wikipedia articles as a starting point for most inquiries. But starting points should not be taken as terminating points. Because everything is subject to critical review.

Chapter 19 of his History is about Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who is known primarily for his essays, as collected in , The Social Contract and Discourses, translated with an introduction by G.D.H. Cole, 1913. [(In my American edition of 1950, there is an 1931 entry in the Bibliography. ]

Some regard Rousseau as the greatest political philosopher. Here are two such opinions;

“. . . Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the greatest political philosopher who has ever lived. His claim to immortality rests upon one short book, Of the Social Contract . . .” Robert Paul Wolff, About Philosophy 9th ed. (2006), p. 318.

G. D. H, Cole (1889-1959), in his clear and insightful introduction to Rousseau’s essays, writes: “. . . the Social Contract itself is by far the best of all textbooks of political philosophy.” (p. l)

Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, describes Rousseau in the most disparaging ways. Let me cite the most outrageous of his claims:

1. “. . . the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorship as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies.”

2. “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

3. “Rousseau forgets his romanticism and speaks like a sophistical policeman. Hegel, who owed much to Rousseau, adopted his misuse of the word “freedom,” and defined it as the right to obey the police, or something not very different.”

4. “Its doctrines, though they pay lip-service to democracy, tend to the justification of the totalitarian State.”

5. The final paragraph of Russell’s chapter on Rousseau is this:

“The Social Contract became the Bible of most of the leaders in the French Revolution, but no doubt, as is the fate of Bibles, it was not carefully read and was still less understood by many of its disciples. It introduced the habit of metaphysical abstractions among the theorists of democracy, and by its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystic identification of a leader with its people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an application as the ballot-box, Much of its philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel. [Hegel selects for special praise the distinction between the general will and the will of all. He says: “Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the State, if he had always kept the distinction in mind.” (Logic, Sec. 163).] in his defense of the Prussian autocracy. Its first-fruit in practice was the reign of Robespierre, the dictatorship of Russia and Germany (especially the latter) are in part an outcome of Rousseau’s teaching. What further triumphs the future has to offer to his ghost I do not venture to predict.”

I find all these claims bizarre — a complete misunderstanding of Rousseau.

As an immediate antidote to this misreading, I recommend the introduction to the essays by G.D.H. Cole, and an essay which Cole recommended as a historical summary of the social contract tradition by D.G. Ritchie, “Chapter 7. Contributions to the History of the Social Contract Theory,” (pp. 196-226) in Darwin and Hegel with Other Philosophical Studies (1893)

Although in my opinion Russell totally misunderstood Rousseau’s Social Contract, for the sake of what I am about to say, let us assume (pretend) that Russell’s interpretation of Rousseau is correct. Let us assume (pretend) that Rousseau was espousing a dictatorship of a leader. How does such an alleged espousal lead to, cause, influence, or inspire Hitler?

To make such a claim at least plausible would require, I think, the following presuppositions:
1. Intellectuals have an influence on the general public, or
2. Intellectuals have an influence on politicians, or
3. Hitler was influenced by Rousseau.

My general view is that intellectuals are taken notice of by mostly other intellectuals, and hardly at all by the general public or by politicians. This is to say that intellectuals have almost no effect on politics.

The exceptions are — to speak sarcastically — philosopher kings, i.e., politicians who happen to be intellectuals. I am thinking of such figures as Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson (in the United States); Thomas Masaryk in Czechoslovakia; Lenin and Trotsky in Russia; and such.

Was Hitler an intellectual? And if he read Rousseau, what did he get from him? How in the world does one support the thesis that Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau?

Looking on the Internet whether anyone else commented on Russell’s view of Rousseau, I came across the following interesting piece: Thomas Riggins, “Russell, Rousseau, And Rationality: A Marxist Critique,”, June 30, 2007.

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