Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Key Ideas

· The collective will of the community.

· Legitimate government requires active citizen participation.

Rousseau was born in Geneva and his political philosophy was highly influential during the Enlightenment as well as on liberal thought. He is seen as the father of modern nationalism - particularly liberal nationalism - despite the fact that his writings did not specifically discuss the issue of the nation.

Rousseau was one of the most important intellectual influences on the French Revolution. His writing reflected a deep belief in the goodness of ‘natural man’ and the corruption of ‘social man’. Rousseau’s political ideas, developed in The Social Contract [1762]

Advocated a radical form of democracy in which there is no distinction between free individuals and the process of government. His aim was to devise a form of authority to which people can be subject without losing their freedom. He proposed that government be based on the ‘general will’, as opposed to the ‘particular’, or selfish, will of each citizen. Rousseau is often seen as the ‘father’ of civic nationalism. This is because he took the general will to be the will of the nation, the people being bound together by patriotism or a sense of national esprit de corps. For Rousseau, nationalism was therefore inextricably linked to citizenship, democracy and the belief that the state’s legitimacy derives from the active participation of its citizens.

Although Rousseau did not specifically address the question of the nation, or discuss the phenomenon of nationalism, his stress on popular sovereignty, expressed in the idea of the 'general will', was the seed from which nationalist doctrines sprang. As a result of the Polish struggle for independence from Russia, he came to believe that this is vested in a culturally unified people. Rousseau argued that government should be based not on the absolute power of a monarch, but on the indivisible collective will of the entire community. During the French Revolution, these beliefs were reflected in the assertion that the French people were 'citizens' possessed of inalienable rights and duties, no longer merely 'subjects' of the crown. Sovereign power thus resided with the 'French nation'. The form of nationalism that emerged from the French Revolution was therefore based on the ideal of a people or nation governing itself The nation is therefore a natural community and a natural political community.

· General will: Rousseau argued that governments should be based on the indivisible, collective will of the 'community'. This notion of community was based on the idea of a national community - a nation. He argued that these communities had the right to govern themselves, so he was associated with the idea of national self-determination.

· Government: For Rousseau, governments were obliged to listen to the collective will of the people and ensure that its laws applied universally. The government's function is to enforce the collective will of the people, not to direct it.

· Civic nationalism: Rousseau argued that the state can only be legitimate when it is based on the active participation of its citizens. He went on to write The Social Contract (1762), which expands on this idea. This forms the basis of civic nationalism