Marx & Rousseau



This is my second essay for the MOOC course on Modernism. The title is: Compare the role of historical progress in the ideas of Marx and Rousseau. Comments welcome.


Few thinkers can claim to encapsulate the idea of historical progress as much as Karl Marx, and Rousseau too envisaged a Utopian society; in other words, they both believed in the Enlightenment dictum of progress. However, as Rousseau was also a proto-Romantic, he was also interested in an individual’s subjective life. In the remainder of this essay, I intend to tease out these similarities and differences.

Marx based his dialectical materialism on Hegel’s idea of change and progress. He said that when a thesis was challenged by an antithesis, as a result of the consequent conflicts a synthesis came about which was a new creation. Marx interpreted this in terms of the proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie and forming a socialist nation. In his Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto, AJP Taylor writes:

This synthesis was socialism, an ideal society or Utopia where everyone would be happy without conflict for ever more.

Whether Marx would have really believed in the last part of that quote is perhaps questionable, and I’m sure AJP Taylor was being ironic!

Marx was true to the Enlightenment emphasis on progress. He applauded the ideals of the French Revolution; after all, it had succeeded in replacing the Divine Right of Monarchy with the rights of man in the famous trio of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity! Blanqui said that ‘it takes twenty-four hours to make a revolution.’ Marx, however, knew that a new political order takes much longer. AJP Taylor points out that the post-war Labour government in 1945, in Britain, came to power by a popular vote and ‘did what the people wanted’ (this is a good example of Rousseau’s ‘common will’) and therefore was nearer to the Marxist ideal than the French Republic after the revolution.

Marx famously begins the Manifesto with: ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. . . oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another.’ In 1848 the Industrial Revolution was embryonic; the railways still had to expand in Britain and Europe for example. Nevertheless, Marx saw the already established factory system as dehumanising:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up [. ]

These labourers who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Where Marx and Rousseau agree is when Marx talks of the worker (proletariat) being alienated from his true self, able only to sell his labour in competition with others. In Rousseau’s view, this has come about through the increased complexity of society and by false values over-riding the ‘natural state’ of humanity. Marx sees it as a consequence of economics and the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist bosses. Marx is embedded in historicism; his aims and analysis can be summed up in one paragraph:

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

Now, let us consider Rousseau both as a political philosopher and as a typical Romantic.

Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ has many antecedents going back to Ancient Greece; think of Plato’s Republic for example. If by historical progress’ we mean belief in the creation of a better society, then Rousseau’s The Social Contract is a seminal work of propaganda. In what is regarded as his major work, he argues in great detail how a state should represent the interests of its people. However, Rousseau was really two personalities! He was the political thinker and the Romantic ‘outsider.’ I will outline what I mean in the remainder of the essay.

First of all, let us summarise his political philosophy which is based in historicism. His idea of ‘the general will’ has a long history. The people of a country have interests, some of which are individual and some are held in common. The challenge is how to govern a state so that the people have their interest upheld and individuals are not in conflict. Rousseau’s ‘common will’ sees society as a ‘social organism’ and the will of this conglomerate is distinguished from the will of any individual. (Perhaps the Highway Code is a good analogy: we don’t make up the rules but each driver is happy to abide by these rules.) The ‘body politic’ is sovereign – being both the ruler and the ruled. Even the head of state (king or statesman) is only carrying out the will of the people. Here we have the origins of modern democracy but we can see how imperfect the application of the idea is too. For example, a dictator can convince people that he is acting in their best interests. We should also remember that general suffrage was non-existent in Rousseau’s time.

Now for Rousseau’s other self. In his later years, he suffered from paranoia and wrote his autobiography which dealt with his inner world. He also wrote Meditations of a Solitary Walker. This is an account of his walks in Switzerland but he spends a great deal of time expounding his personal philosophy which is not at all dependent on any historical perspective. He explores the typical Romantic trope of living apart from society. He writes about his feelings which is, again, typical of Romantics (such as Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth):

Thrown into the whirlpool of life while still a child, I learned from early experience that I was not made for this world, and that in it I would never attain the state to which my heart aspired. . . my imagination learned to leap over the boundaries of a life hardly begun [. . .] in search of a fixed and stable resting place. [. . ] This desire. . . has at all times led me to seek after the nature and purpose of my being with greater determination than I have seen in anyone else.

This is more the kind of statement one would expect from a spiritual seeker; these sentiments can occur to anyone in any time period. He continues:

For my part, when I have set out to learn something, my aim has been to gain knowledge for myself and not be a teacher; I have always thought that before instructing others one should begin by knowing enough for one’s needs, and of all the studies I have undertaken in my life among men, there is hardly one I would not equally have taken if I had been confined to a desert island for the rest of my days. Lonely meditation. . . lead the solitary to seek for the purpose of all he sees and the cause of all he feels.

His inclination is to follow Socrates’ imperative, know thyself. What Socrates spoke of over two thousand years ago is still relevant today; these ‘eternal verities’ do not depend on fashion, time or place.

Rousseau seems to have been a troubled personality but nevertheless perhaps gained some sort of inner peace towards the end of his life. As we all must do, he learnt to accept the transitory nature of life:

I have learnt to bear the yoke of necessity without complaining. Where previously I strove to cling on to a host of things, now, when I have lost hold of them all one after another, I have at last regained a firm footing.

Rousseau had one foot in the historical process and one in the timeless world of self-inquiry.

In conclusion, we can see that Marx was more deeply a ‘man of historical process’ than Rousseau although Rousseau was also a ‘man of progress’ in his political. philosophical work.


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