This article justifies that Rousseau is a Totalitarian Thinker.
Rousseau is really a controversial person. He has been regarded by a good number of scholars as a great apostle of liberty or freedom. Simultaneously he has been depicted as a supporter of totalitarianism.
These two terms are like pole apart. J. J. Talmon first draws our attention through his well-known book The Origin of Totalitarian Democracy published in 1953. Explaining Talmon’s argument McClelland maintains: “Talmon thinks that the totalitarian state can demand unquestioning obedience and the right to interfere with what it pleases”.
Totalitarianism implies that the words and authority of the government or person or the party are final and nobody can question. This type of government is based on an ideology. So whatever the government does is supported by the ideology.
It has been claimed that Rousseau propagated an ideology and that ideology has been briefly stated by J. S. McClelland:
“Rousseau’s insistence that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of force and fraud is an ideological statement.”
To fight against this fraud and deterioration of morality, ethics and general values Rousseau wanted to make the state or its administrative system all-powerful. In Rousseau’s time there were no party governments or—like today—all-powerful bureaucracy. His state and general will are all-powerful.
There are few elements of totalitarianism in his writings and one such element is “forced to be free.” He has said that if anyone refuses to accept the decision or directions of the general will he will be forced to accept it.
His firm belief was that the general will represents the real will of all. The welfare of all individuals contain in this general will.
This will can never be wrong. All the individuals, participating in an open assembly, decided the general will. So such a will can never be wrong. If it is the exact nature of general will every individual is bound to obey or accept it.
Any refusal will be followed by application of force. That is why he has used the very controversial words— “forced to be free.” The coexistence between force and freedom is practically impossible.
It is unfortunate that Rousseau has made that coexistence. In other words, force and freedom can never be bed-fellows. The result is that Rousseau has been depicted as a totalitarian.
Why Rousseau is called a totalitarian thinker is quite manifest in his observation he makes in Chapter VI (The Limits of the Sovereign Power); “If the state is a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole. As nature gives each man absolute power over all its members also.”
The passage is quite lengthy. What I want to emphasize is that the seeds of totalitarianism are to be found in Rousseau’s writing and this allegation is not baseless. Knowingly or unknowingly, Rousseau made certain statements or comments which have made his readers or commentators brand him as a totalitarian.
But there are many scholars who claim that Rousseau was not totalitarian, though there are certain aspects in his thought which hint at his totalitarianism. The renowned scholar Plamenatz is of opinion that Rousseau was a democrat in toto. A totalitarian minded person cannot start his book—Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. A totalitarian cannot suggest an open assembly for law making and administrative purposes. He was a great supporter of popular sovereignty and direct democracy.
In his A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality he unequivocally condemns the gross inequality. His most controversial phrase—forced to be free— is treated as a vital source of totalitarianism. But many thinkers are of opinion that the real meaning of the term is none will be allowed to do any harm to society.
Once the general will is formed, everyone is legally bound to obey its conditions because he was a participant in the process of general will. Even today, in all democratic states, once a law has been enacted by the law-making body it is binding on all. But do we call it totalitarian?
Maurice Cranston is of opinion that it is very difficult to find out the seeds or elements of totalitarianism in the writing of Rousseau. J. S. McClelland says that though Talmon has said that Rousseau was a totalitarian there is doubt about it.
There are enough elements of democracy in the writings of Rousseau. From his writings we come to know that lie did not like the British model of parliamentary system.
He, on the other hand, thought of periodic system of open general assembly and the formation of general will. In his opinion society is evil, irrational and corrupt. In such society there are inequalities.
These are to be corrected with a strong hand and that has been suggested by him. It has been said that all the socialists of subsequent ages are called the grandchildren of Rousseau.
It is admitted on all hands that there are certain perceptible aspects of totalitarianism in socialist thought and in that sense he might be called a totalitarian.