Postmodernism, Part 27: Bastiat, Rousseau, and Revolution

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes “The Law, “The State”, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, by Frederic Bastiat.)

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism

Revolutionary Disappointment


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Instead, their politics flow from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).  The postmodernists took refuge in the earlier collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, and culminated in Napoleon’s conquests.

Right Collectivism has roots in the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

Left Collectivism has roots in the German Counter-Enlightenment, romanticism, and early industrial working conditions.  Romanticism valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution (morality, not so much).  Deplorable (“third world”) industrial working conditions were (truly) breeding revolution.  The Communists, Marx and Engels, thought this the new normal.  Their “scientific socialism” prophesied a Communist destiny.  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.  Revolution was imminent.

The Revolutions of 1848 would be a big letdown.  They were driven by hunger (crop failures), nationalism (growing cultural and ethnic identities), and economics (growing industrialization).

blanc-louisLouis Blanc

The French Revolution of 1848 followed the French Revolution of 1830 (resulting in a constitutional monarchy, then a republic).  Louis Blanc’s socialist programs worsened budget problems and taxes (causing rural taxpayers to resent urban radicals).  Paris radicals grew restive (as usual).  Worried that Blanc’s programs were destabilizing Paris, the programs were shut down.  In June, Paris radicals rose in insurrection (as usual).  To prevent another Reign of Terror, the Republic crushed the Leftist insurgency.

Marx (hopeful) thought this a class revolution, but Frederic Bastiat (foe of pickpockets on the Left and Right) had a different take.

bastiatFrederic Bastiat

The cause of French Revolutions, said Bastiat, is government’s empty (impossible, contradictory) promises: “a host of benefits and no taxes.”  The “state … is hugely generous with impossible promises, and the general public … has conceived unattainable hopes”.

The revolutionaries (“men … with ambition and … utopian dreams”), Bastiat said, “shout into the people’s ears: ‘The authorities are misleading you … we would shower you with benefits and relieve you of taxes’. And the [deluded] people believe this, and the people hope, and the people stage a revolution.”

Then, the (deluded) people cry, “Give me bread, work, assistance, credit, education,” Bastiat wrote, “and notwithstanding this, deliver me from the clutches of the tax authorities as you promised.”

The new state can’t keep its promises any more than the former state, Bastiat said.  So, he said, “it tries to play for time … it tries a few things timidly … But, the contradiction still stands squarely before it; if it wants to be philanthropic it is obliged to maintain taxes, and if it renounces taxation it is obliged to renounce philanthropy.”

Borrowing does no good, Bastiat said, because it is only “consuming the future.” Efforts “are made to do a little good in the present,” he said, “at the expense of a great deal of evil in the future.”

Then, the new state becomes as repressive as the former state.  “It calls together forces to keep itself in power,” Bastiat said, “it stifles public opinion, it [resorts] to arbitrary decisions … at the cost of being unpopular.”

Then, more revolutionaries hatch revolution, Bastiat said, “They exploit the same [delusion], go down the same road, obtain the same [failure], and within a short time are engulfed in the same abyss.”

The State

This is what happened in 1848, said Bastiat.  Then, he said, the delusion “had penetrated even farther into the minds of the people, together with socialist doctrines.  More than ever, the people expected the state … to open wide the tap of bounty and close that of taxation.”

It is “dangerous childishness,” Bastiat said, to think that you can “give nothing to the state and receive a great deal from it.”  Those who promise it, he said, “are flattering and deceiving you, or at the very least they are deceiving themselves.”

“The state! What is this? Where is it?  What does it do?  What ought it to be doing?” asked Bastiat.  People think it “has bread for every mouth, work for every arm, capital for all businesses, credit for all projects, … balm for all suffering, … a being that meets all our needs, anticipates all our desires, … and relieves us all … [of] the need for foresight, prudence, judgment, wisdom, experience.”  The state is “this inexhaustible source of wealth and enlightenment, this universal doctor, and infallible counselor.”

“I fear that we are the dupes of one of the strangest [delusions] ever to have taken hold of the human mind,” wrote Bastiat.  Nature, he said, condemns us to suffering and work.  The best solution we’ve found, he said, is “to enjoy the work of others … From this, we get slavery or even plunder, in whatever form it takes: wars, … violence, restrictions, fraud … all monstrous forms of abuse.”

The state “is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else,” said Bastiat. In the past, he said, plunderers had to “act directly on the oppressed using their own forces.”  Now, we use the state, “We all make calls upon the state on one ground or pretext or another. … [We] achieve all the advantages of plunder without ever having incurred … its risks.”

The state is an abstraction (not a person), Bastiat said.  The “personification of the state has been in the past and will be in the future a rich source of calamities and revolutions,” he said.  The state “is not and cannot be one-handed,” he wrote, “It has two hands, one to receive and the other to give … the rough hand and the gentle hand.”  It is impossible for the state to benefit some without harming others.

The Law

“The purpose of the law is to ensure respect for property,” Bastiat said, “All of our past constitutions proclaimed that property is sacred. … This implies that property is a right that predates the law.”  Lawmakers create laws, he said, but not property.

“Property was a fact and right that existed before law,” Bastiat argued, “Property, like the person, is a … necessary consequence of the [existence] of man”.  We are born property owners, he said, “since [we are] born with needs whose satisfaction is essential to life”.

In nature, we must satisfy our needs by working, Bastiat wrote, but cannot work unless we are certain of the fruits of our work.  Property is a natural institution, he argued, that is observed in primitive cultures and animals alike (from primitive huts to birds’ nests).

Rousseau and the Left

Those who claim that law creates property suppose an absolute power over people and property, Bastiat wrote.  “Where does this idea come from?” he asked.  Roman law, he answered, regarded property as “a product and an artificial creation of the written law”.  This Roman idea justified pillage, plunder, and slavery.

Rousseau transmitted the “Roman notion of property” to Robespierre and the socialists (including Louis Blanc), Bastiat said.  Robespierre called liberty “the most sacred of rights [man] holds from nature” (but sent thousands to the guillotine in the Reign of Terror).  Robespierre called property “a social institution” (created by lawmakers).  He limited our property rights to that “which is guaranteed to him by law” (at the whim of the state).

This idea, opens “a limitless field to the imagination of utopian thinkers,” wrote Bastiat.  Then, he said, “the legislator is responsible for … molding both people and property at will … [and] is the absolute master in disposing of workers and the fruits of their work”.

Rousseau claimed “not only property but also society as a whole was … an invention originating in the mind of the legislator”, Bastiat said.  Rousseau claimed that the legislator “must feel that he is capable … of changing human nature”.  It follows, that Rousseau argued that lawmakers “ought to transform people.”

The consequence “is to arouse the thirst for power in all dreamers,” Bastiat said.  “The legislator,” Rousseau said, “must feel that he has the strength to transform human nature”.  This, Bastiat said, leads “either to the most highly concentrated privilege or the most fundamental communism, depending on the good or bad intentions of the inventor.”

(The socialist) Blanc’s associates, he said, have “suggested nothing less than changing the nature of man … abolishing personal interest by decree and replacing it by point of honor.”  Men will no longer work to live, Bastiat said, “but to obey a point of honor, to avoid the hangman’s noose.”

The Right

The Right (protectionist business interests), said Bastiat, have invited communism on themselves.  Free trade, he said, is a “question of right, justice, public order, and property.”  Protectionism “implies a negation or scorn for property”.  State intervention to level out fortunes (in any form), he said, is communism.

“Once the principle of property has been undermined in one form,” Bastiat wrote, “it would soon be attacked by a thousand forms.”  The landowners and capitalists with their tariffs, he said, “had sown the seed of the communism that terrifies them now, since they were demanding additional profits from the law at the expense of the working classes.”

Protectionism, Bastiat wrote, “was the forerunner of communism.”  It is the landowners, he said, “who have undermined the principle of property, because they have called upon the law to give their lands and products an artificial value.  It is the capitalists who have suggested the idea of leveling out wealth by law.”

The principle is the same, Bastiat said, “to take from some people on the basis of legislation to give the proceeds to others. … Yes, protectionists, you have been the promoters of communism.  Yes, landowners, you have destroyed in people’s minds the true concept of property.”

“If you wish to stave off the storm that threatens to engulf you,” Bastiat wrote,  “you have just one means left.  Acknowledge your mistake, renounce your privileges; restrict the law to its own powers and limit the legislator to his role” (protecting people and property).


Frederic Bastiat’s ideas would have a lasting impact (in libertarianism and Austrian economics). (In 1850, he died of tuberculosis, at the age of 49. His last words were, “the truth, the truth”.)

To Bastiat’s view, both the Left (socialists, communists) and the Right (protectionist business interests) were both pigs feeding at the same trough (at the expense of their fellows).  When the Right used the State for plunder, it invited the Left to do the same.  (The two remain locked in a mutual death grip.)

Bastiat’s (free market) critique of the State has much in common with Marx’s rival, (anarchist communist) Mikhail Bakunin (as we’ll see).  Bakunin and Nietzsche both foretold the calamity of communism (as we’ll also see).

Bastiat’s arguments are based on ideas of “universal truths” and “natural law”.  (These are metaphysics, presupposed ideas, that can’t be proved or disproved).  All philosophies are based on metaphysics.  (This is the “metaphysical trap”.)

Some philosophies try to escape the trap by denying they’re philosophies (like postmodernism does).  Some try to escape by changing the subject (such as attacking “natural law” as superstition).  However, all philosophies rest on metaphysics.

Is “natural law” any more superstitious than Marx’s revealed historical dialectic (or Hegel’s absurd dialectic)? 

Both Marx and Rousseau assume there is no human nature (and that all of society is created by law).  Is this any less metaphysical than Bastiat’s assumptions that there is human nature (and that there are natural human institutions)?


During the French Revolution of 1848, Marx was in Paris (fomenting German revolution).  It didn’t go so well.  Next: Part 28, Frankfurt Fumbles.