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.


Bronowski’s Blake

bronowski book image

Some people & not a few Artists have asserted that the Painter of this Picture would not have done so well if he had been properly Encourag’d. Let those who think so, reflect on the State of Nations under Poverty & their incapability of Art; tho’ Art is Above Either, the Argument is better for Affluence than Poverty; & tho’ he would not have been a greater Artist, yet he would have produc’d Greater works of Art in proportion to his means.

In this quote from Blake he is talking of himself in the third person! However, it also brings to the fore the relationship of all artists to society and vice versa. How important are the Arts in society? How much value does the public attach to writers, artists and musicians in the UK for instance? Some commentators think of the English as philistines! The Irish in contrast are lovers of literature. How much can the state support and encourage the Arts is a perennial question. Be that as it may I leave the question open as I am simply ‘thinking aloud’ in this post and have not any particular thesis to advance!

What prompted me to post is that I have been reading Jacob Bronowski’s William Blake. When it was first published in 1944 it got the reputation of being a Marxist analysis. He puts Blake fairly and squarely in the industrial and economic conditions of his time. This is why I find it a revealing read. In my book I am focusing on Blake’s spiritual message and it is useful to have a historical counterpart. Bronowski wasn’t the first to highlight the social and economic conditions of Blake’s world, but perhaps he painted Blake as a man of his time much more than as a visionary poet/artist.

In the first chapter he states his aim:

The Life of Blake and his thought. . . are there in the history of the time; in the names of Pitt, of Paine, and of Napoleon; in the hopes of rationalists, and in the despair of craftsmen. Unless we know these, we shall not understand Blake’s poems, we shall not understand his thought, because we shall not speak his language.

And here, just one example, showing how property had become more important than human beings:

When Locke wrote in 1690 there were fewer than 50 hanging crimes. By the time Blake was a boy (1767) there were 150. Most of the new hanging crimes were crimes against wealth. Men were hanged for stealing a few shillings from a shop.

He does however, see Blake as a revolutionary thinker. The question of how much we can change society for the better and how much any change in society can change us as individuals is analysed in these nicely nuanced paragraphs:

There must be an end to wilful famine. Man must be set free, to make his good. But he must make his good, himself. It is not a grace given to him, even by revolutions. They can give him the means to be good. . . Revolutions can free him from self-interest. . . but they have not then remade man; they have freed him to remake himself.

For Blake, who knew that the French Revolution had made a better society, knew also that it had not made a good society. He did not believe that societies can be good. They can be means to good: as means they can be better or worse: they can be good for an end, and for a time; but, because they are means, they cannot be good in themselves. Blake did not shirk the contraries, from his society to a better society. He did not lack the fire raging against content, and raging to remake society. . .But Blake did not shirk the heavier knowledge, that a society remade will remain a society to be remade. The society remade will take on the same rigour of death, unless in turn it submits to progress through its new contrary. The contraries of thesis and antithesis do not end.

I have always been suspicious of political activists for this reason; they too often seek to change society before changing themselves. If we remain at the mercy of inner hatred, envy and greed how can we expect society to be free of these destructive elements? Krishnamurti almost made this point his battle-cry! And it is, clearly, the position of all spiritual traditions. My thesis, in my book, is also founded on this position. It is not a question of ignoring society or withdrawing from it. Blake was pretty much engaged in society most of his life although he had his moments of isolation and despair. The Buddhist position is that once a person no longer acts from selfish desires (hatred, greed and delusion) they will be in a better position to contribute to the common good.

Anyone interested in Blake will enjoy Bronowski’s book – those interested in social history especially so. He goes into much detail about working conditions, commerce and vested interests.

We no longer send children up chimneys, we no longer employ children in factories in the UK but I wonder, have we made all that much progress? How much ‘work’ is enhancing? Isn’t the majority of ‘work’ wage-slavery? I’m lucky because I am retired and can pursue interests which are life-enhancing. I try and do my bit to care for the environment such as re-cycling and being in Friends of the Earth. We now know that there has been a huge environmental price to pay for our consumer life-styles. Something has to change if we want a world fit for our children to live fulfilling lives in.

William Blake’s Bounding Line

dante bolake

From The Divine Comedy: Dante

This will fit in somewhere in my book. I thought I’d post it as it can easily stand alone, without reference to the rest of my book.

It is revelatory to spend a good half hour or so simply looking at Blake’s visual art without trying to interpret its meaning. You will quickly see that he much prefers the swirling, flaming line to the straight line! What could be a greater signifier of his revulsion of static, fossilised philosophy and attitudes? His visual exuberance is testimony to his aphorism, Energy is Eternal Delight.

The Job engravings do not appear quite as exuberant compared to some of his coloured images elsewhere; they seem much more controlled. This is partly because he used copperplate engraving; however there is much in the way of exuberant energy once we begin to look and examine the imagery, shapes and the composition of each plate. There are the obvious flaming shapes in engravings 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, and 18. But even the more serene plates are usually framed by swirling flames, vines, flowers, snakes and even abstract curves.

I have already hinted at the reason for this predilection for flaming shapes, that he is visually representing spiritual and physical energy. Blake believed that the artist should represent the unseen spiritual world; almost an impossible task you may think! He regarded the clearly defined line as superior to the three-dimensional, modelled, shape. Partly this is a result of his choice of medium when he was an apprentice; engraving. He chose a linear style as it is peculiar to engraving but he also was influenced by seeing Greek Vases and Gothic Art early in his career.

Here are Blake’s own words about line from an essay he wrote about the Book of Ruth:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…. What is it that builds a house and plants a garden, but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions. Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again. . .

Above all, though, we must remember that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, in his lifetime, and he predicted the tyrannical effects of industrialisation upon humankind. Now, of course, an engineer who designs machines uses a ruler! Yes, a straight edge; perhaps this too explains why Blake made so much use of the ‘bounding line.’ It represented ‘vital life’ when, in contrast, all of the machinery he saw -with its interlocking cogs, girders and rivets – represented ‘eternal death.’ (We only need to recall that, in his day, children, some as young as 6yrs, spent over 12 hours on one shift working in factories.)

PS. This is not a Luddite Manifesto! Blake was not against science/technology on principle; he just saw that it would come to dominate the spiritual potential of humankind and narrow our outlook. In a word (or rather in a phrase!), he predicted the philosophy of scientific materialism which is entrenched in the so called developed nations today! (What would he think of man-made global warming?)

George Stephenson’s Blucher

Here’s the front cover of the booklet published to celebrate George Stephenson’s locomotive Blucher, which hauled coals to the staithes on the river Tyne. Blucher was built in 1814 and made Stephenson’s name. Along with his son Robert he developed the steam locomotive and the first public railway – the Stockton and Darlington railway -was built in 1825. The Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle Upon Tyne was the world’s first locomotive builder.





Here’s a drawing I did for the booklet. Thomas Bewick was a Northumbrian wood engraver who printed books of British fauna. I wanted to symbolise the remorseless eclipse of the agrarian society by the Industrial Revolution. The fox weaving in and out of the tunnel is based on a drawing of Bewick’s.