Not much can be said about Jean-Jacques Rousseau or his most famous work that havenʼt already been said. As a man, Rousseau has been labeled both a genius and a charlatan, and a visionary intellectual pioneer of modern society and a bricklayer for dictatorships. The Social Contract, his most famous work, suffers from the same fate of extreme opinions.
However, I firmly believe that the reason so much of Rousseauʼs seminal work is misunderstood and still hotly debated is simple: It predated the ideology it so neatly defined. While I donʼt have the space here to go into great detail discussing the finer points of the socialist aspects of Rousseauʼs masterpiece, I would like to list some of the more convincing points from it that have made me believe it should be an important part of socialist ideology.
1. Cooperation is the root of civil society. From the very beginning of the book, Rousseau explains his idea that cooperation is the keystone of civil society. It’s a hard idea to argue against, as most of mankindʼs greatest achievements have been born through cooperation, from agriculture to science to infrastructure.
Rousseau believed that mankind first came together in order to meet challenges that the individual could not overcome on his own. He goes to great lengths to dismiss the validity of any relationship that relies on dominance, a cornerstone of capitalism.
2. Every man has a right to his basic needs. Ask a homeless man in the city, a malnourished child in Appalachia, or a third-world worker chained to their sweatshop if capitalism is coming through for them.
3. Use and labor should denote ownership. Rousseau endorsed this idea often. When you see to what lengths he went to in order to popularize this idea, itʼs easy to see his profound influence on many socialist theorists, including Marx
4. “It is relationships between things and not between men that constitutes a state of war.” The idea that the working class of the world has more in common with each other than with their political leaders has been a key idea of socialism for decades. The above is a direct quote from Of the Social Contract. Itʼs easy to apply to this statement to every modern conflict since then, from World War I and World War II to the Iraq invasion.
5. The danger of “partial associations.” Much of The Social Contract is devoted to occurrences in which the “social contract” can be undone or become invalid. One of the most important factors of decay is when small groups of private citizens work together to undermine the General WIll and welfare of the public. If “…Contract” was required reading in schools, something tells me Big Oil and the Koch Brothers would be very nervous right about now.
In conclusion, The Social Contract is a complex and imperfect, yet profoundly important, work of philosophy, and I feel it should be a cornerstone of socialist thought. While no short article such as this could accurately summarize the various ideas contained within it, I do hope Iʼve inspired further reading of the book, and look forward to the debate that follows!