Schools brief: Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche
Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche
The prophets of illiberal progress
Terrible things have been done in their name

LIBERALISM is a broad church. In this series we have ranged from libertarians such as Robert Nozick to interventionists such as John Maynard Keynes. Small-government fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek have rubbed shoulders with pragmatists such as John Stuart Mill.

But there are limits. Our last brief seeks to sharpen the definition of liberalism by setting it in opposition to a particular aspect of the thought of three anti-liberals: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a superstar of the French Enlightenment; Karl Marx, a 19th-century German revolutionary communist; and Friedrich Nietzsche, 30 years Marx’s junior and one of philosophy’s great dissidents. Each has a vast and distinct universe of ideas. But all of them dismiss the liberal view of progress.

Liberals believe that things tend to get better. Wealth grows, science deepens understanding, wisdom spreads and society improves. But liberals are not Pollyannas. They saw how the Enlightenment led to the upheaval of the French revolution and the murderous Terror that consumed it. Progress is always under threat.

And so liberals set out to define the conditions for progress to come about. They believe that argument and free speech establish good ideas and propagate them. They reject concentrations of power because dominant groups tend to abuse their privileges, oppressing others and subverting the common good. And they affirm individual dignity, which means that nobody, however certain they are, can force others to give up their beliefs.

In their different ways Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche rejected all these ideas. Rousseau doubted that progress takes place at all. Marx thought progress is ordained, but that it is generated by class struggle and revolution. Nietzsche feared that society was descending into nihilism, but appealed to the heroic übermensch in each person as its saviour. Those coming after them did terrible things in their name.

Rousseau (1712-78) was the most straightforwardly pessimistic. David Hume, Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Rousseau’s other contemporaries believed the Enlightenment could begin to put right society’s many wrongs. Rousseau, who in time became their bitter foe, thought the source of those wrongs was society itself.

In “A Discourse on Inequality” he explains that mankind is truly free only in the state of nature. There the notion of inequality is meaningless because the primitive human being is solitary and has nobody to look up to or down upon. The rot set in when a person first fenced off some land and declared: “This is mine”. “Equality disappeared, property was introduced, labour became necessary, and the vast forests changed to smiling fields that had to be watered with the sweat of men, where slavery and poverty were soon seen to germinate and grow along with the crops.”

Rousseau’s political philosophy is an attempt to cope with society’s regression from the pristine state of nature. He opens “The Social Contract” with a thundering declamation: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Mankind is naturally good, but political society corrupts him. Social order does not come from nature, it is founded on conventions. The social contract sets out to limit the harm.

Sovereignty, he says, wells up from the people—as individuals. Government is the servant of the sovereign people and its mandate needs to be renewed periodically. If the government fails the people, they can replace it. Today that may seem like common sense. In a society founded on monarchy and aristocracy, it was revolutionary.

But society makes people selfish. “The laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing.” Religion adds to its ills. “True Christians are made to be slaves.”

Equality, though not an end in itself, thus needs to be enforced as a way to counteract the selfish desires and subservience that society breeds in individuals. “For the social compact not to be an empty formula…whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free.”

Revolutionaries have seized on that formula as justification for the tyrannical use of violence in pursuit of a Utopia. Scholars generally dispute this reading. Leo Damrosch, in his biography, couches the notion of the general will in terms of Rousseau’s pessimism. People are so removed from the state of nature that they need help to be free. Anthony Gottlieb, in his history of the Enlightenment, quotes Rousseau as having “the greatest aversion to revolutions”.

Yet that unbroken train of thought from regression to coercion, even in its milder form, rubs up against liberalism. Whenever a person in a position of power compels someone else to act against their free, unimpeded will for their own good, they are invoking the ghost of Rousseau.

Marx (1818-83) believed that progress was produced not by inquiry and debate, but by class struggle acting across history. Like Rousseau, he thought that society—in particular, its economic underpinnings—was the source of oppression. In 1847, shortly before a wave of unrest swept across Europe, he wrote: “The very moment civilisation begins, production begins to be founded on the antagonism of orders, estates, classes and finally on the antagonism of accumulated labour and immediate labour. No antagonism, no progress. This is the law that civilisation has followed up to our days.”

The surplus created by labour is seized by capitalists, who own the factories and machinery. Capitalism thus turns workers into commodities and denies their humanity. While the bourgeois sate their appetite for sex and food, the workers must endure the treadmill and rotten potatoes.

For this reason, capitalism contains the seeds of its own downfall. Competition compels it to spread: “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” As it does so, it creates and organises an ever-larger proletariat that it goes on to immiserate. Capitalists will never willingly surrender their privileges. Eventually, therefore, the workers will rise up to sweep away both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and create a new—better—order.

This revolutionary job does not fall to a heroic leader, but to the workers as a class. “It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim,” Marx wrote with Friedrich Engels, his collaborator, in 1844. “It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will be historically compelled to do.” Four years later, in the opening of “The Communist Manifesto” they predicted revolution: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.”

Liberals believe that all individuals share the same fundamental needs, so reason and compassion can bring about a better world. Marx thought that view was at best delusional and at worst a vicious ploy to pacify the workers.

He scorned the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a manifesto for the French revolution, as a charter for private property and bourgeois individualism. Ideologies like religion and nationalism are nothing more than self-deception. Attempts to bring about gradual change are traps set by the ruling class. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed it up in his book on Marx: “Socialism does not appeal, it demands.”

Yet Marx underestimated the staying power of capitalism. It avoided revolution by bringing about change through debate and compromise; it reformed itself by breaking up monopolies and regulating excesses; and it turned workers into customers by supplying them with things that in his day would have been fit for a king. Indeed, in his later years, as Gareth Stedman Jones, a recent biographer, explains, Marx was defeated by the effort to show why the economic relations between capitalist and worker necessarily had to end in violence.

Marx nevertheless stands as a warning against liberal complacency. Today outrage is replacing debate. Entrenched corporate interests are capturing politics and generating inequality. If those forces block the liberal conditions for general progress, pressure will once again begin to rise.

Whereas Marx looked to class struggle as the engine of progress, Nietzsche (1844-1900) peered inward, down dark passages into the forgotten corners of individual consciousness. He saw a society teetering on the brink of moral collapse.

The will to power
Nietzsche sets out his view of progress in “On the Genealogy of Morality”, written in 1887, two years before he was struck down by insanity. In writing of extraordinary vitality, he describes how there was a time in human history when noble and powerful values, such as courage, pride and honour, had prevailed. But they had been supplanted during a “slave revolt in morality”, begun by the Jews and inherited by the Christians under the yoke of the Babylonians and later the Romans. Naturally, the slaves elevated everything low in themselves that contrasted with their masters’ nobility: “The miserable alone are the good…the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly are also the only pious, the only blessed…”.

The search for truth remained. But this has led ineluctably to atheism, “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a 2,000-year discipline in truth, which in the end forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” “God is dead…” Nietzsche had written earlier. “And we have killed him.”

It takes courage to stare into the abyss but, in a life of pain and loneliness, courage was something Nietzsche never lacked. Sue Prideaux, in a new biography, explains how he tried desperately to warn the rationalists who had embraced atheism that the world could not sustain the Christian slave morality without its theology. Unable to comprehend suffering in terms of religious virtue or the carapace of virtue vacated by religion, humanity was doomed to sink into nihilism, in a bleak and meaningless existence.

Nietzsche’s solution is deeply subjective. Individuals must look within themselves to rediscover noble morality by becoming the übermensch prophesied in “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, Nietzsche’s most famous work. Characteristically, he is vague about who exactly an übermensch is. Napoleon counted as one; so did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer and statesman. In his lucid survey of Nietzsche’s thought, Michael Tanner writes that the übermensch is the heroic soul eager to say Yes to anything, joy and sorrow alike.

Nietzsche is not susceptible to conventional criticism—because ideas pour out of him in a torrent of constantly evolving thought. But both left and right have found inspiration in his subjectivity; in linguistic game-playing as a philosophical method; and in how he merges truth, power and morality so that might is right and speech is itself an assertion of strength. He is father to the notion that you cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it.

The illiberal view of progress has a terrible record. Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror, invoked Rousseau; Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong invoked Marx; and Adolf Hitler invoked Nietzsche.

The path from illiberal progress to terror is easy to plot. Debate about how to improve the world loses its purpose—because of Marx’s certitude about progress, Rousseau’s pessimism or Nietzsche’s subjectivity. Power accretes—explicitly to economic classes in the thought of Marx and the übermenschen in Nietzsche, and through the subversive manipulation of the general will in Rousseau. And accreted power tramples over the dignity of the individual—because that is what power does.

Liberalism, by contrast, does not believe it has all the answers. That is possibly its greatest strength.

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