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Two Studies in the Theory of Legitimacy

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Rousseau and Weber
Two studies in the theory of legitimacy

J. G. Merquior

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First published in 1980
by Routledge
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Merquior, J G
Rousseau and Weber. - (International
library of sociology).
1. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques - Political
2. Weber, Max
3. Legitimacy of governments
I. Title II. Series
320'.01 JC179.R9
ISBN 0 7100 0513 X
For H.

Being unable to make what is just strong, we have

made what is strong just.

Unanimity is almost always an indication of servitude.

Charles de Remusat

Nor in the critic let the man be lost.


Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: the problem of legitimacy in social theory 1

I Rousseau and Weber as typical theorists of legitimacy 1
II The concept of legitimacy: norm- and power-legitimacy 2
III Theories of legitimacy: subjectivist and objectivist 4
IV 'Belief theory and 'power' theory of legitimacy 6
V The rise of social theory: the birth of the idea of social
problem in the Enlightenment 9

Part one Rousseau's political philosophy

1 Rousseau's theory of political legitimacy: the general will 17

2 The intellectual background of the Social Contract 25

3 Conflicting misinterpretations and unilateral assessments 35

4 The theory of democratic legitimacy 57

5 Concluding remarks: Rousseau the 'anarchist' 77

Part two Weber's sociology of legitimacy

6 An outline of Weber's theory of legitimacy 89


7 A brief assessment of Weber's theory of legitimacy 104

I Conceptual queries: on charisma 104
II Empirical objections: on bureaucracy 113
III The suggestiveness of Weber's typology: towards a
theory of charismatic bureaucracy 122
IV The theoretical status of Weber's theory of legitimacy 130

8 Historicism and sociology 137

I Historicisms galore 138
II The logic of historical science 146
III The theory of social causality 155
IV Cultural history as sociological explanation 171
V Rationalization takes command 180
VI The nemesis of culturalism 188

Conclusion 202

Notes 225

Bibliography 248
Index of subjects 267

Index of authorities 271


A slightly different version of the following studies was presented

as a PhD thesis at the London School of Economics and Political
Science, where they have greatly benefited from the critical super-
vision of Professor Ernest Gellner and also from the comments of
the external examiner, Geoffrey Hawthorn, from Cambridge. On
the other hand, as part and parcel of an ongoing research on the
theory and history of legitimacy concepts, this work has been the
subject of constant if intermittent exchanges of ideas with a num-
ber of friends: Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco, Alberto da Costa
e Silva, Arnaldo Carrilho, Celso Lafer, Claude Levi-Strauss, Ernst
Topitsch, Evaldo Cabral de Mello, Fernando Henrique Cardoso,
Gabriel Cohn, Gilberto Freyre, Heloisa Vilhena de Araujo, Jose
Francisco Rezek, Jose Jeronimo M. de Souza, Jean-Marie Ben-
oist, Kenneth Minogue, Leandro Konder, Leszek Kolakowski,
Lucio Colletti, Luiz Navarro de Brito, MarcHio Marques Moreira,
Perry Anderson, Raymond Aron, Roberto de Oliveira Campos
(who generously encouraged the perpetration of this book), Rob-
erto Mangabeira Unger, Roberto Schwarz, Raphael Valentino
Sobrinho, Sergio P. Rouanet, Shirley Robin Letwin .... Needless
to say, none of them can be responsible for my views on our two
heroes. By far the main victim of my obsession with legitimacy,
however, has been my wife. I wonder how much of her personal
partiality towards Jean-Jacques (as against Max) is reflected in
what follows. I should also like to thank the libraries of the LSE
and of King's College, London, Mr Eloi Rosa and a wonderful
librarian, Miss Ophelia Vesentini, for their prompt help in gath-
ering the literature without which these pages could never have
been written. Finally, I am very grateful to Peter Hopkins, of
Routledge & Kegan Paul, and to the director of the International
Library of Sociology, Professor John Rex, for their welcome to

this book, as well as to Julia Warner, for the competence and

friendly solicitude with which she edited it.

J. G. M.
London, October 1979
The problem of legitimacy in social

I Rousseau and Weber as typical theorists of legitimacy

This book is chiefly an attempt to describe and assess the theory
of legitimacy at two distinct stages and levels of social theory: the
political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and the
sociology of Max Weber (1864-1920).
There seems to be general agreement as to the fact that the
problem of legitimacy figures at the very heart of our concern
with the nature and value of modern society. Being as it is a main
dimension of political culture - the dimension where the validity
of power forms is at stake - legitimacy has indeed become a key
issue in contemporary social theory. We propose to make a con-
tribution to the history of its conceptual realization by scrutinizing
the work of two thinkers usually reckoned to be at the forefront
of social theory, and, within the latter, as the two most influential
classics of an explicit analysis of legitimacy.
Rousseau and Weber are as different in spirit as they are distant
in time. Therefore, the present book is actually composed of two
quite separate studies, only tangentially connected. Nevertheless,
the very contrast between our two theorists yields a fairly illumi-
nating perspective on the concept of legitimacy. Indeed, each of
them might very well be taken as the supreme representative, the
archetype, so to speak, of one of two basic ways of looking at
the phenomenon of legitimacy: that which views it in terms of
belief, and that which sees it in terms of power. While Jean-
Jacques Rousseau was the main founder of what we might call the
'power theory of legitimacy', Max Weber remains the locus clas-
sicus of the 'belief theory of legitimacy'. But this distinction calls
for some elaboration; in order fully to understand its import, we
must cast a glance at the mainlines of the history of the concept
of legitimacy, both long before Rousseau and after Weber.

II The concept of legitimacy: norm- and power-legitimacy

The cradle of legitimacy theory was legal philosophy. In Classical
Latin legitimus meant just 'lawful, according to law'. Cicero
employs the expressions legitimum imperium, potestas legitima
when referring to power and magistrates lawfully established. The
De Officiis (III, 108) distinguishes the legitimate enemy (legitimus
hostis) from the robber or pirate, because treaties are signed with
the first, and they are law-like documents. Apparently, ancient
Greek did not possess a special word for legitimate (as distinct
from lawful) either. Nominon meant just lawful; if we believe
Xenophon's report (Memorabilia, IV, 4), Socrates once had a lot
of trouble to convince Hippias that the lawful (nominon) was also
just (dikaion).
With the Middle Ages, the word /egitimitas enters the stage;
however, it now came to denote that which is in conformity with
custom, rather than with the law 1 : in the semantics of legitimacy,
the medieval mind replaced lex by consuetudo (to which the
Greek nomos was akin), thus adumbrating the millenary differ-
ence between the two European ideas of right: continental
Romanism and Anglo-Saxon common law.
But it was also in the Middle Ages that the idea of legitimacy
was decisively brought closer to the experience of power.
Actually, the rise of the concept of legitimacy as a political prob-
lem was prompted by the collapse of direct rule in the ancient
world. It owes much to the substitution of imperial authority for
the direct democracy of the agora or the personal rule of local
tyrants. Thus the medieval application of 'legitimate' to persons
in office reflects the long acquaintance with the power of deputies
of the emperors and popes. The practical need for justifying such
delegations of authority naturally stimulated the theoretical analy-
sis of the validity of power, or legitimacy.
With Thomas Aquinas, as with Bartolo di Sassoferrato in the
fourteenth century, a subtle distinction between two kinds of
tyranny was drawn. Tyranny ex parte exercitii meant illegality,
whereas tyranny ex defectu tituli meant illegitimacy. 2 One might
date from this 'gothic' a contrario concept of legitimate power -
highly sensitive as it was to the occurrence of illegitimacy - the
dawn of legitimacy theory.
Medieval law and philosophy established, therefore, the notion
of legitimacy as a quality of the title to rulership. They also
advanced the idea of consent as constitutive of legitimate power.
The first definition of governmental legitimacy as derived from
consent grounded on natural law is due to William of Occam (first
half of the fourteenth century), the thinker whose nominalism so
profoundly revolutionized medieval philosophy. The basis of
Occam's reasoning was the older medieval argument quod omnes
tanget - what touches all must be approved by all. Popular
consent was boldly advocated in the political theory of Occam's
contemporary, Marsiglia of Padua. In the following century,
Nicholas of Cusa transformed the old jusnaturalist tenet of natural
equality from a primitive state of innocence into the logical prop
for legitimizing consent to government in church and state.
The jura-political theoretical framework was to prevail among
early modern political philosophers, from Grotius, Hobbes and
Pufendorf to Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau, all of whom
engaged the problem of validity in power relations, internal or
(as in Grotius) international. Grotius's restructuring of the con-
cept of international law, Hobbes's theory of obligation, Pufen-
dorfs classic statement of the twofold nature of the social
covenant, Locke's defence of natural rights and Rousseau's doc-
trine of the social contract as 'general will' all enriched the very
idea of legitimacy, and left their mark on many a past and present
notion about legitimate authority, as also did the much more
proto-sociological work of Montesquieu.
Coming now to the contemporary scene, we may credit it with
two significant accretions.
First, in the juridical field, modern theorists renewed the con-
cept of legitimate norm. While for Kelsen the latter amounts to
a validity strictly immanent to the positive, as distinct from 'natu-
ral', law, Herbert Hart favours a qualified positivism, which allows
for a 'minimal overlap between law and morality'. 3 In The Concept
of Law, Professor Hart claims that, given some basic 'truisms'
about human nature (viz., men are liable to harm; they are
approximately equal in intellectual and physical abilities; they are
limited in their good will toward others, and in their own self-
control; they live in a world of scarcity), men, in order to be able
to live together, actually require a certain amount of 'fundamental'
rules guaranteeing a degree of mutual forbearance. Unless these
rules are followed, there is no point, in fact, in having any laws
at all; for society these are minimum requirements for its exist-
ence, and, after all, society cannot possibly be, argues Hart, 'a
suicide club'. As a consequence, one cannot wisely subscribe to
the radical legal positivist tenet that 'law may have any content'.
Thus, without accepting the sanguine assumptions of classical jus-
naturalism about man's natural inclination toward the good, Hart
incorporates to his qualified legal positivism what he deems the

'core of good sense' of natural law theory, in its concern for

legitimacy, and not just the legality, of the norm.
But the modern theorists also contributed another significant
innovation: they considerably enriched our concept of legitimate
power. Here, as might be expected, the main ideas came from a
relatively young discipline, namely, political science. Let us briefly
consider the highlights of its approach to legitimacy.

III Theories of legitimacy: subjectivist and objectivist

Broadly speaking, there are two concepts of legitimacy in contem-
porary political science: subjectivist and objectivist.
From the subjectivist standpoint- that of Carl Joachim Fried-
rich, Seymour Martin Lipset or David Easton - the problem of
legitimacy amounts to 'the question of fact whether a given ruler-
ship is believed to be based on good title by most men subject to
it'. This conception deserves to be termed 'subjectivist' because
it identifies legitimacy with 'the conviction on the part of the
member that it is right and proper ... to accept and obey the
authorities'. 5
The subjectivist concept of legitimacy yielded some useful
analytical results. Easton's well-known classification of the basic
objects of political support within a given political system is a case
in point. These are the community (generally, a nation-state), the
regime and the authorities. For instance, in 1974 America, loyalty
to the community and to the regime remained quite widespread,
while the legitimacy of the number one authority, President
Nixon, quickly vanished. In Weimar Germany, the legitimacy of
the community was intensely felt, but the regime enjoyed only a
very precarious support from most of the national elites. Finally,
for a large number of people from Quebec or from Scotland, the
legitimacy of Canada or the United Kingdom as their respective
political communities is very much in question - and for most of
the Lebanese, the legitimacy of Lebanon as a two-confessional
state seems now (1978) hopelessly wrecked.
The concept of legitimacy as a conviction of the ruled also
highlighted a key experiential aspect, that of the element of trust
involved in the operation of legitimacy. Operationally, in fact,
legitimacy may be described as the result of the trust put on rulers
by the ruled. In his well-known study, Nation-Building and Citi-
zenship, Reinhard Bendix stressed this fiduciary note by likening
political legitimacy to the confidence the depositors of a bank
have in its soundness. It is this confidence that allows the bank to
invest the depositors' savings for extended spells, on the reason-
able assumption that their owners will not all decide to withdraw

all their money simultaneously. Likewise, incumbent authorities

tend to see the public acceptance of their rule as a kind of implicit
mandate from the people to govern in an expected manner. Not,
of course, in any manner, for, just like the bank's credit, the
people's mandate is never, normally, carte blanche; still, in legiti-
macy as in banking, the margin of discretion to rule or to invest
is usually quite large.
However, despite this modicum of analytical gains, not every-
one is happy about the subjectivist approach. Equating legitimacy
with the contingent feelings of the ruled says next to nothing
about the criteria of legitimacy. As Peter Stillman remarked, some
epoch-making claims of legitimacy - e.g. the traditionalism of
Burke, or, closer to us, the nationalism of de Gaulle- simply do
not fit in Friedrich-like standards. They posit objective criteria,
that is to say, criteria which are external to the mere floating
'conviction' of the majority. 'A government is legitimate', writes
Stillman, 'if and only if the results of governmental output are
compatible with the value pattern of the society.' More specifi-
cally, legitimacy is the compatibility between the results of gov-
ernmental output with the value patterns held by the several
groups within the society. 6 Hence the posibility of a lack of overall
legitimacy whenever the society's value pattern is too bifurcated,
or, as in civil war, too fraught with inner antagonisms due to
social cleavages.
Note that whereas, in the subjectivist concept, stress was laid
on the political plan, with a clear focus on the rulers/ruled relation,
in the objectivist approach, the emphasis has somehow shifted
from the political to the socio-cultural. The main focus now falls
on social values, not the experience of rule. Significantly enough,
the theory of legitimacy as a symbol of social values first arose
(in the work of Karl Deutsch) under the influence of Talcott
Parsons's apotheosis of the role of values in 'social systems'.
The objectivists' goal was to remove the analysis of legitimacy
from the flux of opinion. They rightly thought that, for all its
laudable 'democratism', this plebiscitarian view of legitimacy
(legitimacy, said Renan, is 'the plebiscite of everyday') made it
into a blanket notion, easily assimilated to the most superficial
moods of the collective mind. Yet the outcome of their efforts
seems in turn nothing less than a blind alley: the intractable puzzle
of how to ascribe values to social groups on a reasonable empirical
basis. Those who know the difficulty of inferring value-beliefs
from avowed preferences ascertained in research polls have the
right to be quite sceptical in the face of any facile optimism about
value ascription. So the objectivist approach turns out to be a
liability on two scores: it introduces an unwelcome distance
between our conceptual weaponry and the actual political experi-
ence of legitimacy (or illegitimacy), and all it substitutes for the
shallowness of subjectivist analysis is a set of improbable assump-
tions about value-sharing in society.

IV 'Belief' theory and 'power' theory of legitimacy

Be that as it may, there seems to be at least an element common
to the subjectivist and the value concept of legitimacy. In both of
them, in fact, everything revolves around the same assumption:
the assumption of belief. Needless to say, the subjectivist approach
stresses the 'psychological' side of the legitimating belief, while
the objectivist one gives pride of place to the social aspect, exter-
nal to the ruled's consciousness, of value-beliefs. Yet both found
the experience of legitimacy upon a common ground, believing in
the rulers' claims to power. Belief is therefore a major experiential
aspect of legitimacy, and as such the very rationale of the trust
element we mentioned a few paragraphs ago.
It is here that we find one of our two heroes, Max Weber. For
Weber remains the theorist par excellence of legitimacy as being
first and foremost (as will be discussed in detail in Chapter 6) a
matter of belief ( Glaube), so that studying his theory of legitimacy
is one of the best conceivable ways of vetting the meaning and
value of a whole school of thought on the subject.
Viewing legitimacy as grounded on belief enabled social theory
to make a considerable progress in the identification of claims to
legitimacy throughout history. Actually, since, as already inti-
mated, the empirical imputation of legitimating beliefs to the ruled
is more often than not a moot point, one could even say that the
best of legitimacy analysis to date belongs to historical political
sociology, and consists in the anatomical description, as it were,
of the beliefs of the rulers in their own legitimacy, as embodied
in ideologies of rulership. The resulting historical taxonomy of
patterns of historically given legitimacy claims soon became part
of the stock-in-trade of macro-sociology, a discipline which is to
a large extent based on generalizations provided by the submission
of the historical record to the comparative method. Weber's own
celebrated trichotomy - traditional, charismatic and rational-legal
legitimacy - still embodies the paradigm of such analysis.
Nevertheless, no theory centred on rulers' claims can possibly
qualify as a satisfactory empirical description of legitimacy, since
it leaves altogether unanswered the question of ascertaining the
other, decisive, side of the experience of legitimacy: the view from
below. As a matter of fact, this problem will engage our attention
when assessing (in Chapter 7) Weber's sociology of legitimacy,

which is overtly 'ruler-centred'. In particular, no such theory

seems to be much illuminating when it comes to the crucial issue
of distinguishing between degrees of validity in power situations.
Legitimacy and illegitimacy are only exceptionally an either-or
matter; rather, legitimacy patterns form a continuum of degrees,
but its analysis can hardly proceed without warranted references
to the actual feelings of the ruled, well beyond the mere identi-
fication- no matter how sophisticated- of the rulers' ideology.
The ultimate question, therefore, appears to be the following:
can we find a conceptual path which would avoid both the super-
ficiality of the 'subjectivist' approach to legitimacy analysis and
the empirical shortcomings of the 'objectivist' value or claim
approach? Now the very fact that both these insufficient perspec-
tives share a 'belief theory' of legitimacy suggests that our answer
may lie in an alternative way of conceptualizing our phenomenon.
This alternative consists, I submit, in conceiving of legitimacy in
terms of power. (We could name this kind of approach cratic, in
order to distinguish it from the 'belief' one, whether subjectivist
or objectivist.)
In a sense, seeing legitimacy in terms of power already enjoys
a certain degree of citizenship in contemporary sociological theory
(though the field is still very much dominated by the 'belief'
schools). Arthur Stinchcombe, for example, pioneered what we
call the cratic approach when he defined legitimacy as a 'power
Stinchcombe's reasoning underscores the role of credibility in
the experience of legitimacy. According to him, a power is
reckoned legitimate whenever its holder can effectively call on
other centres of power for support. The psychological element is
therefore by no means eliminated from the cratic perspective. But
mark the difference: we are dealing now with credibility, not
credence. There is no question of believing as in faith, only of
believing in the sense of cool expectation and assent. The prime
psychological aspect involved does not necessarily imply any kind
of faith in the rulers, just a sheer calculus of costs and benefits on
the part of the ruled. When I obey the policeman, it is not at all
because I believe in him; it is just because I believe him to be
quite able to be backed in his authority by other, higher lawful
powers in the country, which it would be quite foolish of me to
We saw that, for the Parsonians and their like, the 'social
system' is basically ruled by a set of core values, which permeate
all the main functions of society. Stinchcombe mercilessly reverts
the shift. In his view, social values are effective only where they
are backed by power mechanisms. 7 Institutions are foci of power

at the service of distinct values and interests. See what happened

to Protestant values in Europe, for instance. Where they were
upheld by the crown, they survived and prevailed. Where they
weren't, they didn't. In other words, their legitimacy went chal-
lenged wherever its power reserve was weak.
However, one cannot help noticing that something is amiss in
this 'cratic' picture, too. For, in a decisive sense, legitimacy as a
power reserve scarcely deserves its name. What is legitimacy, after
all, but the experience of the validity of a given normative order?
Even at its strictest 'empiricalness', legitimacy is a de jure, not a
de facto issue. Now, nothing in the Stinchcombian rule indicates
that he experiences anything like a sense of validity. He bows
before power out of an awareness of coercive prospects in case he
doesn't - and that is all. There is no logical difference, at this
juncture, between the citizen who obeys the lawful policeman and
the victim of a hireling of the Mafia. Is not whe latter, most
conspicuously, a formidable power reserve? Of course. And yet
should we, on this sole account, pronounce it to be legitimate?
Of course not. But if this is so, then something is missing in our
'cratic' description of legitimacy.
But let us try another way of thinking in 'cratic' terms about
legitimacy. Let us for a while forget the notion of a power reserve
and all that it implies of the backing legitimate power enjoys, and
turn to the idea of power situation. The first thing observable in
power situations is their variety. In fact, as soon as we (following
Roderick Martin) isolate the basic components of power situa-
tions, first, the occurrence of asymmetrical patterns of dependence,
hinging upon differences in the ability to control access to desired
resources, and, second, the bigger or smaller availability of escape
routes to the subordinate, we see that several possible power
configurations arise.
Put in a nutshell, the general picture would be the following:

(a) too asymmetrical a dependence coupled with easy escape

invites coercion on the part of superordinates;
(b) too much dependence without any easy escape routes calls,
in principle, for non-coercive authority, because the avail-
ability of escape renders coercion ineffective or too painstak-
ing, while the subordinates will normally prefer to shun
(c) a lesser dependence with difficult escape shapes a nice mould
for influence; for, on the one hand, the power difference
between superordinates and subordinates is not so large, but
on the other, the latter are bound to remain in the power
situation - thereby a transactional figure of power is likely to
(d) finally, if dependence is not markedly asymmetrical and
escape is available, there evolves a situation in which power
will tend to take the form of authority based on free consent. 8
Power situations (a) and (c), i.e. defined by coercion or influ-
ence, have obviously little room for legitimacy feelings. Again,
situation (b), authority without consent, or rather, authority resting
on faute de mieux consent, denotes a power relation, so to speak,
sublegitimate. Only situation (d), marked by authority based on
free consent, seems in turn fully compatible with conscious feel-
ings of legitimacy, equated with the free trust of the ruled in their
rulers and their genuine belief in the latters' claim to rulership.
Now, in all the history of social theory, no name has been more
closely associated with the advocacy of legitimate authority as
power based on the full freedom of consent than that of Rousseau.
Therefore we might state that, whenever the 'cratic' approach to
legitimacy retains a due concern with the validity of power in the
eyes of the ideally free ruled, the shadow of Rousseau is bound
to loom large in the analysis. For just as Weber is the quintessen-
tial analyst of legitimacy in its dimension of belief, Rousseau is
the paradigmatic thinker of legitimacy in its normative level of
power. One was the greatest anatomist of ruling justifications of
rule; the other, the greatest legislator of legitimate authority
devised for the sake of the ruled. Each of our two studies, then,
will be devoted to spelling out and evaluating their two different
attempts at looking into legitimacy as historical claim and as pol-
itical ideal.
So much for the historical framework of legitimacy analysis in
social theory, and the place of both Rousseau and Weber in it.
But before we enter the study of the former, we might as well say
a word about the origins of the intellectual environment within
which a proper theoretical problematique of legitimacy was
brought forward, that is, about 'social theory' itself.

V The rise of social theory: the birth of the idea of social

problem in the Enlightenment
The rise of legitimacy to the full status of a genuine sociological
subject was due to classical sociology in the work of Max Weber.
But long before this legitimation of legitimacy in academic social
science, apart from legal studies, a distinguished intellectual trad-
ition had made the phenomenon of the validity of institutions into
one of its major concerns. Indeed, it does not sound very rash to
think that the theoretical realization of legitimacy issues within

society at large, as well as the keenness to examine them from a

non-juridical and (partly) non-speculative point of view, coincided
with the very formation of 'social theory' in the modern sense.
But to get this clear, we must explain what is meant by social
theory in this modern acceptation. In the sense of an often implicit
doctrine about the social order, including a strong awareness of
legitimacy and its contrary, social theory is as old as the oldest
known mythologies. In the sense of (to employ a philosophical
term) thematic theory of socio-political principles, it goes back to
at least Plato - a philosopher, incidentally, quite obsessed by what
he considered the illegitimacy of the polis. But Plato is not, of
course, a social theorist in the modern fashion. So where lies the
Perhaps the best way to grasp it is a brief historical considera-
tion. If we proceed with a minimum of historical-mindedness, we
can hardly escape the impression that 'social theory' in any mean-
ing basically close to ours is something whose cradle was the
Enlightenment. Now, whenever we speak of the Enlightenment,
we tend to evoke at once its secularism and its love for science.
Nevertheless, the secular tone so readily associated with
enlightened writings did not harbour alone the specific novelty we
are seeking. The secularized approach to politics dates spectacu-
larly from Machiavelli, less notoriously from Marsiglio of Padua,
a contemporary of Petrarch; but Machiavelli is not exactly the
kind of intellectual we have in mind when we think of social
theory. Could it be, then that the main roots of social theory lie
in that rationalist spirit which, succeeding Renaissance humanism,
sealed so powerful an alliance between new philosophy and Gali-
lean science in the seventeenth century and bequeathed it to the
science-worshipping 'philosophes'? Not quite, for nobody applied
the razor's edge of rationalist philosophy to political thought more
sharply than Hobbes - and yet, it is by no means plausible, nor
indeed usual, to rank him among modern social theorists proper.
'Social theory' peculiarly belongs to the Enlightenment because
of four main aspects (each of which was, in their time, an intel-
lectual revolution in its own right). Firstly, modern social theory
exhibits a concern for determinisms affecting social processes.
This 'materialist' sense of determinisms did not appear in full
before Montesquieu.
Secondly, mainstream eighteenth-century social theorists were
keen to adopt a Lockean logic of research. At the outset of his
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke directed the
science of man to engage in a 'historical, plain method' - the
scientific method of Bacon and Newton, instead of cultivating
worn-out 'speculations' about the 'essence' of the mind. Taking

up this empirical-minded programme, many a progressive school

of thought, among which the Scottish enlightenment was quite
prominent, embarked upon a study of man and society identified
with the search for structures and functions, at a far remove from
essentialist constructions.
Thirdly, eighteenth-century social theory managed to separate,
for analytical purposes, 'society' from 'state' - a vital achievement
for the launching of sociology as a scientific programme.
Lastly, enlightened social theory, in overall terms, fed on an
emancipatory drive. 'Enlightenment is man's release from his self-
incurred tutelage', wrote Kant, defining 'tutelage', as 'man's ina-
bility to make use of his understanding without direction from
another'. 9 The emancipation of reason, Kant's famous sapere
aude! became the motto of Enlightenment. In practice, however,
emancipation meant a relentless impulse towards the critique of
key extant institutions - a new, widespread doubting of their
Coupled with the sense of determinisms, the willingness to
perform empirical research and the identification of societal struc-
tures, this emancipatory drive pervaded most of eighteenth-cen-
tury social thinking. It was this, for instance, which induced a
Voltaire or a Lessing to denounce the arbitrariness of state church
dogma; it was this which led Hume to undermine, so decisively,
moral objectivism; it was this which animated Smith's plea for the
liberation of economic forces from political constraints and guild-
like business privileges; and again it was this which inspired Rous-
seau's bold reshuffling of social contract theory.
Now the emancipatory drive in Enlightenment social theory
fostered a recurrent reflection on the validity of social arrange-
ments. Although Rousseau remained largely isolated (however
influential on several scores) in his global rejection of the course
of civilization, nearly every main theorist of the French lumieres,
the British Enlightenment and the German AufkHirung ques-
tioned in earnest major dimensions of the social order. The social
and political stances of these thinkers varied a lot, from support
of 'enlightened despotism' to communist utopianism. On the
whole, however, they present an unmistakably daring reformist
mentality. At the heart of their reformism, there lay what one
author has aptly summarized as the displacement of 'piety in social
attitudes' but 'the habit of asking for results'. And as the same
writer, Charles Fraenkel, perspicuously comments, this frame of
mind ultimately gave birth to the very idea that there are such
things as 'social problems' . 10 We owe to the Enlightenment legacy
the recognition that social problems are but evils and deficiencies

springing from man-made institutions, which are as such reform-

able by the intervention of critical reason.
'Modern' social theory is, then, the critical, vocationally scien-
tific approach to social problems. That was the outlook that first
arose in the Enlightenment and its 'age of reform'. In a sense,
eighteenth-century social theory was, if you wish, social engineer-
ing in the bud. Unlike, however, most of contemporary versions
of social engineering, enlightened social theory was strongly com-
mitted to challenging the very foundations of ancien regime
society, taking issue at their pretence to legitimacy. In so doing,
the philosophes put legitimacy into the centre of their main enqui-
ries. That they did seldom analyse legitimacy in itself did not at
all deflect them from focusing on crucial legitimacy issues. Indeed,
they had made legitimacy, almost everywhere, into a 'social
In point of fact, when eighteenth-century social theory explicitly
discussed legitimacy, it often remained in the grip of a traditional
level of discourse. Thus Montesquieu, as he analysed, in books II
to VIII of The Spirit of Laws, the 'types of government', consider-
ably updated Aristotle's time-honoured typology. Aristotle's Pol-
itics distinguished three kinds of political regimes, monarchy,
aristocracy and democracy, as well as their respective illegitimate
versions, despotism, oligarchy and the rule of the mob. Montes-
quieu's triadic scheme, republic, monarchy and despotism, intro-
duces two significant changes. It lumps together two of the
Aristotelian forms - aristrocracy and democracy- under one head-
ing (republic). Moreover, it elevates what was for Aristotle just
a degenerate form- despotism- into a main type, explainable in
terms of social volume (since Montesquieu thought political sta-
bility in large, populous empires had to rely on widespread fear
on the part of the ruled), yet as derogatory, in the author's view,
as it had been in classical times. The last point illustrates perfectly
our contention, for here Montesquieu locates illegitimacy (and
therefore, a contrario, legitimacy) exactly where ancient thought
used to do.
On the other hand, between Montesquieu and Weber, social
theory both deepened and expanded the critical intelligence of the
phenomenon of (il)legitimacy. It deepened it by seeking to discuss
the social foundations of existing (and admittedly spurious) or of
ideal (and genuine) patterns of political authority. It expanded it
by extending the enquiry on the lawfulness of several social prac-
tices and institutions, thereby opening up for critical reflection a
whole set of as yet largely unquestioned areas where collective
feelings about validity pertain. The world of work, the realm of

education, the experience of art - to say nothing of religion -

were just some of these new provinces.
We shall now turn to the thinker in whose writings this process
of deepening and expansion of the critical theory of legitimacy
reached its first peak: Rousseau.

part one
Rousseau's political philosophy
1 Rousseau's theory of political
legitimacy: the general will

If we take the deepening and expansion of the critical reflection

on legitimacy issues as criteria for gauging the strength with which
social theory, in the modern sense, faced the subject (and, to a
large extent, identified itself with this task), then the greatest
individual thinker to emerge, until at least the mid-nineteenth
century, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). No other social
theorist of his time at once sharpened and unfolded the critical
perspective on the forms and dimensions of validity in society; in
none was the social criticism which animated the Enlightenment
at the same time more radical and more comprehensive.
Rousseau is at the root of deep changes in western ideas about
standards of legitimacy in at least four areas: political thought,
religious sentiment, education and literature. But we shall refer
only in passing to his tremendous importance in religion, pedagogy
and letters; for lack of space and for the sake of cogency, we shall
concentrate on his redefinition of the basis of political legitimacy.
However, the best known among the premises of his political
theory is an assumption clearly central to his views in education
and 'natural religion' as much as in politics: the postulate of the
natural goodness of man. The idea most usually associated with
the name of Rousseau is his epoch-making claim that so much of
what had been regarded, in the worst side of man's predicament,
as inherently human was in reality but the product of society.
For Rousseau, evil was not a native blemish in man; it had
sprung from the degeneration of social life. Moralists had relent-
lessly stated that unhappiness was a consequence of vice. Rous-
seau wanted to show that vice is a consequence of unhappiness,
and that unhappiness has social causes. 1 Plato held that contact
with the body stains the soul; Rousseau, who significantly cites
the Platonic myth of the soul's fall from purity in the preface of
the Discourse on Inequality, replaces 'body' by 'society'. The
'great principle' of all his writings, said he at the outset of Emile
au de l'education, was just this: that nature made man good and
happy, yet society depraved him and made him wretched.
Rousseau's real concern was not so much the assertion of man's
congenital goodness as the denial of his intrinsic perversity. As
such, it amounted, as is well known, to a rejection of Hobbes's
view of the human condition. 2 Not that eighteenth-century social
theory waited for Rousseau to refute the gloomy anthropology of
Leviathan: the first book of The Spirit of the Laws (an influential
work, like Hobbes's, with which Rousseau was more than con-
versant) already discarded the idea of man's natural aggressiveness
and endeavoured to show that it was a social, rather than human,
But Rousseau went far beyond Montesquieu's sober qualifica-
tions. Using his outstanding rhetorical skill, he built an impressive
array of sweeping indictments of civilization, accusing the whole
course of history of having betrayed justice and happiness. As he
saw it, equality among men had been destroyed by the very pris-
tine forms of the division of labour and private property. Since
time immemorial, mastery of nature had been paid for with the
bitter seeds of disquiet and oppression.
'It was iron and corn which first civilized men, and ruined
humanity.' What was until so recently - until the coming of rabid
conservationism - celebrated as 'the neolithic revolution' - Rous-
seau cursed as the original sin. So, the same man who removed
the problem of evil from religion into politics3 also drew a powerful
interpretation of history as a kind of lay Fall.
Rousseau was no crude primitivist. 4 The idea of the 'noble
savage' living in an utterly blissful 'state of nature' was a fable
convenue of his time, but he took pains to warn that natural man,
although not a bad fellow, was not a full moral being. Morality,
as language, presupposes for Rousseau life in society. Rousseau's
Arcadia, his image of mankind's golden age, did not coincide, for
that matter, with any natural state, but rather with 'the youth of
the world', the first stage in the evolution of society. At any rate,
as the preface to the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality per-
emptorily asserts, the state of nature is only a 'hypothesis', a
conceptual device, a foil and yardstick which enables us 'to form
a proper judgment of our present state' and measure the extent
of mankind's depravation.
In this hypothetical Rousseauian state of nature man is neither
moral nor immoral, but rather amoral (provided we cleanse the
term of its original Wildean flippancy). It was Locke, and not
Rousseau, who fancied that natural man lived in a perfect moral

condition, and thought man capable of achieving humanity before

entering social relationships. It was the Lockean Condillac who
stressed that biological (as distinct from social) man already con-
tains within himself all of his species' perfectibility. For Rousseau,
perfectibility, besides not being, as the Enlightenment was
inclined to believe, automatic, is indissolubly linked to sociability.
Thus the Rousseauian politicization of the problem of theodicy
goes hand in hand with a veritable socialization of the idea of
He therefore regarded justice, as much as evil, as something
essentially social. And that is why Rousseau, always keen on
paradoxes, found himself facing a very big one: he had held
society responsible for inequality and injustice, and yet he also
stated that only by social means could man ever get rid of such
evils. In short, he contended that society alone can undo what
society did.
Rousseau in fact set out to wrestle with a thorny problem: how
can civilized man recover the goodness and happiness of natural
man, given that a return to the innocence and happiness of natural
life is not only inconceivable but, from the viewpoint of morality,
even undesirable, since only social man possesses, despite his
present profligacy, the privilege of moral sense?
His solution was two-fold: it lay in the call of the inner voice,
and in the reliance on the general will. The inner voice was a kind
of higher instinct, an instinctive ethicity springing pure and uncor-
rupted from the heart of man. As stated by the Savoyard Vicar,
whose celebrated 'profession of faith' is inbuilt in Emile, 'con-
science is an innate principle of justice and virtue, whereby we
judge our own or other men's actions good or evil'. Heeding the
commandments of this spontaneous moral sense, man in society
can overcome the faults of history. Such a concept looms as large
in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality as in Emile, but it also
plays a role, as will be seen, in his political writings. 'The idea
that man must be perfected by reason in accordance with his
nature runs through all of Rousseau's work.' 5
Listening to his inner voice, man can reprieve himself from the
wicked oppression of society. Nevertheless, men, as a whole,
cannot. Societies, or at least some societies, can only be put right
by acting in accordance with a collective voice of reason, which is
political and not just moral. It is this inner voice writ large, and
politicized, that Rousseau calls, in the Social Contract, the 'general
The aim of the Social Contract is to show what can lend legit-
imacy to the social order (bk I, ch. 1). 'Man is born free, and
everywhere he is in chains.' 'How did such a change happen?'

asks Rousseau at once. Then, after quickly saying that he does

not know (in point of fact, the explanation had been precisely the
subject matter of the Discourse on Inequality), he faces to the
central issue of the book: 'what can make such a change legit-
imate?' What can legitimize this fateful deviance from the state
of nature? This question he believes he can answer, by means of
a new theory of the social contract.
But why must it be a social contract theory? Because, explains
Rousseau (in ch. V of the first draft of Du Contrat social, the so-
called Geneva manuscript; and in bk I, chs II-IV of the final
version of the same treatise), all other current explanations of the
social bond rest on 'false notions'. Such unsatisfactory explana-
tions attribute the origin 9f the social order, and hence of political
compliance, to one of four things: either they see political rule as
an extension of 'natural', i.e. parental, authority, or as a rightful
claim of the wealthy, or as the product of conquest (might is
right), or as the result of legitimation of usurpation by time ('pre-
scription' derived from lengthy 'tacit consent'). Now, in the eyes
of Rousseau, none of these claims proves able to justify political
obedience. Neither time nor nature, force nor economic power
engenders a genuine right and a lawful obligation. Therefore the
source of all legitimate authority must be elsewhere - it must
reside in a free covenant, for only this can have been dictated,
not by fear merely disguised as voluntary compliance, but by the
sense of 'common interest'.
The goal could not be stated more clearly: it is the justification
of a political order, the reasoned establishment of a principle of
legitimacy. Which amounts to nothing less than 'to found the state
upon its basis' (bk IV, ch. IX).
Rousseau's position in the history of ideas about legitimacy
stems exactly from his particular way of outlining such founda-
tions. Its rationale comes down to the following. The just society,
thought Rousseau, must be so built that its members may dispense
with any resorting to 'natural rights' against the iniquity of positive
law. In other words, its actual law itself ought to conform with
the dictates of justice. Now laws in the elaboration of which all
citizens would take part could in principle merge positive with
rational legislation, since the product of such free and egalitarian
law-making would most likely embody the common interest,
which is justice. The 'general will' is precisely the common interest
ascertained in free and egalitarian law-making. That makes it the
legitimate aim, as well as the result, of a social contract. The
general will is the natural telos of the social covenant.
Note the parallel between the general will and the inner voice
of freedom and morality. The inner voice of natural reason called