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.


Rousseau’s Legacy


I am doing an online MOOC course about the Enlightenment in Europe. I have written a mini-essay about Rousseau & Kant which I may post later.

Blake’s Beasts

This is a chapter from my book in progress.

This is another striking engraving, almost mandala-like in its design and symmetry. There are some beautiful colour versions including this one. (My commentary is for the black and white engraving; if you want to compare them see the Blake Archive online.)

God at the top of the composition points down to the circle below Job where two beasts are enclosed on a circle. They are Behemoth with a human ear and a scaly Leviathan upturned in a seascape. Wicksteed sees them as monstrous, ‘terrible in their magnitude and their might, but unillumined by intelligence, or the knowledge of brotherhood.’

When we consider the natural world and its many ‘food-webs’ we soon realise it is a case of eat and be eaten in the wild. Every life-form is preying on some other life-form in order to live and reproduce. There is a lot of sex, killing and devouring in nature! If we also reflect on the millions of years in which dinosaurs lived and ruled the earth the vision of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ becomes even more obvious. (The largest land animal that has ever existed throughout earth’s long history was a species of titanosaur. The fossil remains of one suggests that the creature weighed around 77tons, was 130 ft long and 66 ft tall. It lived around 100-95 million years ago – named by scientists as Patagotitan mayorum.)

This is a useful alternative picture to put alongside the television wildlife programmes which are so popular and are mostly upbeat and promote the marvels and wonders of nature.

Blake of course did not know about natural selection but if he had lived in the time of Darwin perhaps he would have embraced his account of the creation and evolution of nature (including human beings?)!

In his own words:

[Nature] is a Creation that groans, living on Death, where Fish & Bird & Beast & Man & Tree & Metal & Stone live by Devouring, going into Eternal Death, continually.


From a human point of view this alternative view of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is another example of dukkha. In human terms there is no meaning or purpose in all of the competition within species, or killing between species – the evolutionary biologist’s mantra is, ‘each generation of a species needs to get its genes into the next generation.’ If, like Richard Dawkins, you can accept that this is ‘the greatest story ever told’ – the title of one of his books about evolution – then you will probably understand human love, creativity and aesthetics as mere by-products of evolution.

It is sobering to think that Blake lived when the industrial revolution was in full swing. What would he make of space flight, atomic bombs, military drones, factory assembly lines, and the computerisation of warfare? Probably he’d say, ‘I told you so.’ My point is not to be a Luddite, but merely to suggest that technology has this knock-on exponential effect and we unconsciously start to ‘worship’ it instead of ‘God’ (or instead of prioritising human values such as equality, self-knowledge or peace of mind) – and there has been a phenomenon going in an opposite direction during this scientific and technological progress; a diminishing of the stature of human beings. We become mere cogs in the vast machinery of societies; as envisioned by Blake and countless writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blake was concerned primarily about how the worship of Urizen (scientific materialism in our thinking) had a detrimental effect on consciousness and the ‘soul’ rather than being simply critical of science and technology per se.

Wicksteed says of this plate,

This design shows us the creation of the outer or natural world, which to Blake seemed but a shadow of the world within.

Joseph Wicksteed

Are we to believe that Blake was an out and out Gnostic; that he believed that the visible world was created by a demiurge and was intrinsically evil? Christopher Rowland explains that the bible itself is often ‘gnostic’ in terms of divine beings wielding power:

Of course the emergence of a contrast between an exalted divinity and lesser divine powers, and the opposition between God and Satan, are all deeply rooted in the bible. [. . .] other parts of the Hebrew Bible, suggest that, whilst God may have been the ultimate source of power in the universe, he was not the only one to wield such power.

Christopher Rowland

It is not my purpose in this book to trace all of Blake’s influences; sufficient to say that he read and admired Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg both of whom believed in a ‘spirit world.’ The latter wrote The True Christian Religion where we see that he believed literally in spirits, ‘One day as I was talking with an angel. . . and ‘as I was walking around Hell. . ‘ Blake actually satirises him in A Memorable Fancy so Blake’s understanding of angels and spirits is ambiguous to say the least.

For our purposes it is irrelevant whether we understand these elements as literal or allegorical although the latter position will serve us best in the long run. It is far more crucial to grasp Blake’s prescriptive project concerning how to ‘cleanse the doors of perception.’ One thing is certain and that is Blake was concerned how to fully appreciate this world as opposed to any ‘afterlife.’

Let’s return to our original question, did Blake believe the material world was evil? Clearly, posed like this it is seen as absurd; how could someone who writes, ‘Everything that lives is holy’ believe that this world is evil! The only evil Blake is cognisant of is whatever reinforces Single Vision – but many factors make up this single vision and the transformation to Fourfold Vision is difficult and subtle.

Renunciation is a word often used in a Buddhist context; usually when someone decides to renounce ‘household life’ and become a monk. However, it can also be used to describe the Buddhist path followed by a lay person. Unfortunately the word has negative connotations and may have ascetic overtones.

Speaking personally I came to Buddhism out of despair; I was sick of suffering and knew that psychology, philosophy and any other ‘worldly’ prescription for my malaise was inadequate. I came to ‘renounce’ the ordinary method of looking for satisfaction in the usual places such as career, intellectual pursuits, cultural activities, relationships and so on. John Middleton Murray expresses the difference between material knowledge and spiritual knowledge very well:

The cry of the human soul is for ever more knowledge. Were the only knowledge to be had that of the Five Senses and the Reason, which reduces all things to an abstract sameness, this hunger of the soul would drive men mad; more knowledge would be only ‘a repetition of the same dull round.’ But this hunger of the soul can be satisfied. But it can be satisfied only if there is a knowledge of a different kind from that of Reason and the Five Senses: and this knowledge must be of such a kind that to know one single thing by its means is to know all. . . If he can see the Eternal Individuality in every thing, then at every moment of such knowledge, he knows not merely the particular thing but the mode in which it is real; the mode in which all things are real, and in which they are real. That mode is Eternity. In the knowledge of Eternity the desire of man for All is justified: in an eternal moment he can possess All, and in possessing All, he becomes All.

J Middleton Murray

This is similar to how Eckhart Tolle speaks of the difference between one’s ‘life situation’ and ‘being.’

What you refer to as your ‘life’ should more accurately be called your ‘life situation.’ It is psychological time: past and future. Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past, and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focussed on the future, and this continued focus perpetuate your denial of the Now and therefore your unhappiness. . .Your life situation exists in time. Your life is now. Your life situation is mind-stuff. Your life is real. Find the ‘narrow gate that leads to life.’ Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problems at this moment. Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

Eckhart Tolle

If ever there was a poet of the Now it must surely be Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.


I think there is some equivalence between Blake’s Poetic-Genius and Eckhart Tolle’s ‘mindful’ focussing on the present. Both are eloquent about the identification of self with mere thinking and self-consciousness. In There is No Natural Religion Blake says:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. (emphasis added)


This is the real meaning of his ‘dark satanic mills.’ He often used the metaphor of mill machinery to stand for this mechanical, prosaic approach to life. Locke thought we come into the world as blank slates and that perception is passive. Blake disagrees and says we possess wisdom from the beginning and that our perception is heightened by the use of imagination and intention.

Innate ideas are in Every Man, Born with him: they are truly himself. The Man who says that we have no Innate Ideas must be a Fool & Knave, having No Conscience or Innate Science.

Annotation to Reynolds

Frye comments on this quotation:

Sense experience is itself a chaos. . . The wise man will choose what he wants to do with his perceptions just as he will choose the books he wants to read, and his perceptions will thus be charged with an intelligible and coherent meaning. Meaning for him, that is, pointing to his own mind and not to, for instance, nature.

Northrop Frye

We should now be able to see that Blake did not belittle or undervalue the natural world. He simply prioritised the Imagination and saw the ‘developed’ human being as the creator of her world; a creation accomplished by ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ anew in each moment. Blake concurs completely with Tolle’s ‘present moment’ – in Milton he has these wonderful lines:

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find

This Moment & it multiply & when it is found

It renovates every Moment of the Day, if rightly placed.


This is no different to Soto Zen’s, ‘when hungry eat, when tired sleep, and when doing the dishes just do the dishes.’