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Synopsis of Louis Althusser, ‘Sur Le Contrat social

[‘On The Social Contract’]

CpA 8.1:5–42

Louis Althusser wrote this substantial analysis of Rousseau’s Social Contract on the basis of lectures notes for a course he delivered at the Ecole Normale Supérieure during the 1965-66 academic year. The full course was entitled ‘Rousseau and his predecessors’, and included sections on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, as well as this section on the Social Contract. A transcript of the full course, based on class notes taken by André Tosel, is included in a posthumously published volume of Althusser’s courses at the ENS, Politique et histoire: de Machiavel à Marx (2006); the article published in Cahiers pour l’Analyse volume 8 corresponds loosely to the last part of the transcribed lecture notes (pp. 334-366). An English version of the article was included in the volume Politics and History (1972).

Althusser begins his article by restating one of his guiding methodological principles, one shared by many of his students and other contributors to the Cahiers: since the objects of any great philosophical doctrine (e.g. Plato’s Idea, Descartes’ Cogito, Kant’s transcendental subject, etc.) ‘have no theoretical existence outside the domain of philosophy proper’, Althusser proposes to read Rousseau’s main ‘philosophical object’, the social contract, in terms of the intra-philosophical problems that its formulation evokes and eludes. The philosophical argument developed in the Social Contract, Althusser argues, can only proceed on the basis of ‘discrepancies’ [décalages] it must both assume and mask. Althusser structures his reading, then, as a ‘chain of theoretical discrepancies’, where ‘each new discrepancy serves to make the corresponding solution, itself an effect of an earlier solution, “function”’ (CpA 8.1:6). Althusser’s overall goal is to render Rousseau’s (untenable) problematic ‘intelligible’, along with the possibility of multiple legitimate but competing ‘readings’ (Kantian, Hegelian, Husserlian) of this problematic.

Most of Althusser’s article is devoted to an interpretation of book I chapter 6 of the Social Contract, in which Rousseau poses what he calls the ‘fundamental problem’ of the work as a whole. ‘The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before’ (Social Contract I:6).

This problem arises when, prior to the act of association with others, individuals endowed with the ‘natural liberty’ and natural ‘forces’ required to pursue their particular interests have, through competition with other individuals, produced a generalised ‘state of war’ comparable to what Hobbes calls the ‘war of all against all.’ Such a state leads to the ‘universal alienation’ of natural individual liberty. Since Rousseau assumes that people cannot create new forces, and that nothing can transcend an individual’s particular interest in self-preservation and self-advancement, he tries to solve his problem through an immanent re-arrangement of these forces and interests; in order to avoid the war of all against all, individuals must be coordinated and animated as if ‘by means of a single motive power’ (Social Contract I:6). This can only be achieved, Rousseau argues, through ‘the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community’ (ibid.). Such ‘total alienation’ is the essential process at work in the social contract.

Althusser claims that Rousseau’s solution raises further problems which can only be avoided on the basis of four successive discrepancies, which compromise the theoretical integrity of his argument.

The initial problem with Rousseau’s solution concerns the nature of this inaugural ‘alienation’ which enables individuals to associate with others in a social compact. To alienate, as Rousseau defines it in Social Contract I:4, is to give or sell; since to be a person is to be free, to alienate one’s liberty is ‘to renounce being a man’, and is ‘incompatible with man’s nature.’ The state of generalised war which precedes the social compact creates a state of ‘universal alienation’; Rousseau thus offers ‘total alienation [as] the solution to the state of total alienation’ (17). But alienation and freedom are mutually exclusive. No sooner is it proposed than it seems ‘the solution itself needs a solution’ (17).

It finds one in the formulation of a first discrepancy, between the two ‘recipient parties’ [parties prenantes] to the ‘contract’ itself. On the one hand there are the individuals who alienate their freedom and their possessions; on the other hand there is the community which receives them (and which is itself made up of these same individuals, considered now not qua individuals but as members of the association). But this community is itself ‘the product of the contract [...]. The “peculiarity” of the Social Contract is that it is an exchange agreement concluded between two recipient parties (like any other contract), but one in which the second party does not pre-exist the contract since it is its product’ (19). There is thus a discrepancy between the concept of a contract and the actual process that constitutes one of its apparent ‘parties’. Rousseau is only able to ‘denigrate’ this discrepancy through a series of ‘plays on words’, in which he alternately suggests that ‘the people only contracts with itself’ (Emile, p. 425) or that each individual ‘makes a contract with himself, so to speak’ (Social Contract I:7). Rousseau’s need to rely on such word play, Althusser notes in passing, is what authorises some of the subsequent interpretations of his work: the equivocation which allows the community or people to be treated as contracting individuals authorises a Kantian reading of the Social Contract (and thus a theory of morality qua autonomous self-legislation), while the inverse phrasing, whereby ‘the people only contracts with itself’, authorises a Hegelian reading (and thus a theory of the community or nation as an organic totality) (21).

This first discrepancy allows the otherwise incoherent notion of total alienation to ‘work’ as a solution to Rousseau’s problem, since it presents the second recipient party to the contract (the community) as nothing other than the first party (the individuals) in a different form of existence: total alienation of individual liberty is possible because in thus giving themselves totally, the people give their liberty not to an external partner or ‘Prince’ but simply to themselves. Where the alienation of liberty is ‘external’ in Hobbes (and goes from the people to a Prince) it is ‘internal’ in Rousseau (from the people to themselves) (23-24). The people do not contract with an external sovereign; they constitute themselves as sovereign.

In doing so, the individuals who participate in a social contract generate a second discrepancy. Though it involves total alienation, the contract actually ‘returns’ to the alienating parties all that they give up. Participation in the contract converts an individual’s possessions into socially sanctioned property. It converts merely ‘natural liberty’ (limited only the strength or ‘force’ of an individual in competition with other individuals) into ‘civil liberty’ (limited only by the capacities of the general will). Total alienation thus generates a mechanism for the ‘self-limitation of alienation’, since the individuals receive ‘an equivalent’ for what they give up, and more. The ‘false contract’ thus appears to function as a genuine contract or exchange after all, but only at the cost of ‘discrepancy II: between total alienation and the exchange it produces, between total alienation and the interest which ensures its self-limitation, self-regulation, by realizing this total alienation as an exchange’ (29-30).

Althusser then moves on to consider Rousseau’s theory of sovereignty and the general will, and finds it vitiated by a third and more far-reaching discrepancy, ‘a discrepancy of the theory with respect to the real’ (37). This discrepancy is covered over by the double meaning of the word ‘particular’ in Rousseau’s text: individuals qua individuals invariably pursue their particular interests, and an association can only be established and sustained insofar as individuals have an interest in maintaining it, i.e. in formulating and defending a common interest (precisely as their ‘own’ interest). But individuals may also come to pursue the corporate interests of a particular group, class or faction within the general association. The existence of such ‘intermediary’ social groups is incompatible with the expression of a truly general will, and must be suppressed.

Rousseau can only pursue such suppression through a fourth and final discrepancy, via a permanent ‘flight forward in ideology’ (a ceaseless effort to educate and ‘purify’ the interests and morals of the individuals who make up the social contract) on the one hand, and on the other, an effort to regress or turn the clock back in ‘(economic) reality’, by retreating to ‘the old dream of “independent commerce”, i.e. of petty artisanal production’ (39-41). The only means of achieving this latter goal, however, is yet more ‘moral preaching’. Rousseau’s attempt to propose a practical means of suppressing the existence of social classes or factions thereby falls into a vicious circle: ‘flight forward in ideology, regression in the economy, flight forward in ideology, etc.’ This final discrepancy is thus ‘the Discrepancy of theory with respect to the real in its effect: a discrepancy between two equally impossible practices. As we are now in reality, and can only turn round and round in it (ideology-economy-ideology, etc.), there is no further flight possible in reality itself. End of the Discrepancy’ (42).

All that remains for Rousseau to do, says Althusser, is to transfer his ‘impossible theoretical solution’ into a domain other than that of reality - i.e. the domain of literature. The ‘unprecedented’ quality of those ‘fictional triumphs’ that are Rousseau’s Emile, Confessions and Nouvelle Heloise, Althusser’s compressed conclusion suggests, ‘may not be unconnected with the admirable “failure” of an unprecedented theory: the Social Contract’ (42).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Rousseau: The Social Contract (Discrepancies)’, trans. Ben Brewster, in Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. London: NLB, 1972. 111-160.

Primary bibliography:

  • Althusser, Louis. Politique et histoire: de Machiavel à Marx. Cours à l’Ecole normale supérieure 1955-1972, ed. François Matheron. Paris: Seuil, 2006.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Du Contrat social, ed. Maurice Halbwachs. Paris: Aubier, 1943.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contrat and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole. London: Everyman, 1966.