Sunday, February 04, 2007

Comparing Marx and Rousseau

Rousseau and Marx in Comparative Perspective


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Max shared a hesitation about the liberal project articulated in part by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. But their hesitation stemmed from different sources. For Rousseau, the problem was a specifically political; namely, the problem of liberal individualism and consent as the sole component of producing government. Rousseau’s alternative was a highly participatory ‘General will’. Marx’s criticism was more radical. In short, economics was the problem and only by overturning the economic class system could a viable democratic state be achieved. Taken to its logical end that state would actually “wither away” because it would shed its political and economic character. This essay will address these concerns in depth.

Rousseau’s Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both articulated contrasting, yet similar, versions of the social contract. Hobbes’ social contract relayed how rational, self-interested humans gave up the constant “state of war” for protection from the sovereign. In Hobbes’ famous maxim, life in the state of nature was “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Locke, on the other hand, described a state of nature that was less bleak. For Locke, “laws of nature” existed that helped to restrain the behavior of humans. But Locke also believed that man’s ability to trade and barter would eventually lead to the creation of money. Once money — and its rampant acquisition — became a prevalent aspect of society, government would need to be created to protect property and moneyed interests. In each case, individuals consent to give up their freedom in the state of nature to obey a sovereign.

Rousseau is in some ways troubled with the aspects of Locke’s and Hobbes’ earlier formulations. Rousseau wrote that Hobbes’ made men nothing more than “herds of cattle,” and that any human willing to live under Hobbes sovereign was probably crazy. In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argues that Hobbes treats socialized traits as a given. Their wickedness is learned, not simply a given (Rousseau 278). Locke’s “social contract” also presents problems because it places the protection of individual property rights at the center of the need for government. In what some have called the most important puzzle in political theory, Rousseau argues in The Social Contract,“ Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau 49). For Rousseau, the puzzle is how to reconcile the chains of government with the “natural state” of freedom. Rousseau’s project is to develop a governmental construct that can be seen as legitimate, “taking men as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau 50). Rousseau’s answer to this puzzle is the General Will, which in his own mind allows man the most freedom while still preserving some semblance of government.

Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ prima facie seems to be similar to Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contracts. In all three cases, humans give up their freedom and consent to be governed. Rousseau is less specific on the mechanism by which people leave the state of nature, only saying that “men reach a point” where they can no longer sustain themselves in the state of nature (Rousseau 59). But it differs fundamentally because of the role ‘participation’ and ‘community’ play in Rousseau’s ‘General will’. First, individuals give up their freedom, according to Rousseau, for the good of all, not just for the protection of individuals. It is the responsibility of each man to “give himself to all,” and by doing so, gives himself to no one (Rousseau 61). Second, the ‘General will’ involves a great deal of participation on behalf of the citizens. Laws are made in a general assembly of local residents who come to a popular consensus on how to move forward. Then laws are enforced by an “elected aristocracy” that do not make the laws, but execute them. For Rousseau, this protects against the abuses that would be prevalent in a system like Hobbes’. It also treats everyone equally, with no one person having more influence than another. Rousseau’s approach is a more of a ‘social democratic’ alternative to Locke’s liberal individualism that protects the interests of a propertied minority.

The connection between Marx and Rousseau is not obvious, but nonetheless apparent. For Rousseau, one of the major reasons that the ‘General will’ improves upon earlier conceptions of government is that it tries to mitigate the effects of wealth and private property. For Hobbes, war was partially the result of human nature and the pursuit of ‘felicity’. But Rousseau believes war — and much political tumult — result from “conflicts over things,” and “property relations” (Rousseau 55-56). Rousseau’s answer to the problem is a political response — direct democracy and increased political participation — but not nearly as radical as Marx’s alternative approach.

Marx’s Radical Alternative

Karl Marx’s contributions to political philosophy are enormous. Not only did Marx place materialism at the center of his theory but he also problematized the role of economic class and its relationship to democracy. Marx’s most well-known work, The Communist Manifesto, describes the relationship that exists between two economic classes — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, those that hold capital, and the proletariat, those that are the wage-laborers, will eventually struggle against one another until the proletariat overthrew the bourgeoisie in a violent revolution. The Communist Manifesto is in a way a blueprint for the revolution, but it also describes in detail Marx’s theory of historical change, and the lead-up to the revolution. For Marx, all of history is that of “class struggle” (Marx 473). Marx argues that from the earliest epochs of history, change has been marked by disputes between economic classes. There were Roman knights and slaves, Feudal lords and serfs, and for Marx, a new bourgeoisie society. While the bourgeoisie class was an improvement over their feudal lords, Marx still believed that the bourgeoisie brought “new conditions of oppression” (Marx 474).

Among these new forms, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie must chase the surface of the entire globe in order to find new markets. As Marx relates: “[The bourgeoisie] must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere” (Marx 476). In doing so, they lay the groundwork for the revolution to come. The bourgeoisie — via constant expansion — will “dig their own graves”. The more new markets are sought and cheap goods are bought, the bourgeoisie create a class of ready-made proletariat revolutionaries. The crescendo of the dispute between the opposing classes is the revolution.

Marx’s manifesto also describes the role that government — or the state — plays in economic affairs. The exploitation of the bourgeoisie is hidden, or “veiled” by the religious and political institutions that exist (Marx 475). Moreover, the free competition of capitalism is supported and accompanied by the social and political constitutions that adapt to it (Marx 478). In what Marx termed the superstructure, the economic means and modes of production held such a powerful sway that everything else was ‘determined” by it. This included religion, law, morals, ethics, and the state. The state was simply a reflection of the most powerful economic class. In On the Jewish Question, Marx highlights how the theological debates between Christians, Jews or atheists were superfluous. The real criticism was political — or economic —because the state always maintains some religious character (Marx 31). Hegel and Bauer missed the point by quibbling over religion. To destroy, or abolish religion, as some had advocated would only be half the battle. Only by proceeding to destroy private property could democratic society come into reality (Marx 36).

In the conclusion to the manifesto, Marx wrote that the “public power would lose its political character,” and the state would no longer have a prominent place in society (Marx 490). Marx is less vague in The German Ideology, writing that the state only existed to protect property, and the interests of the bourgeoisie (Marx 187). In response to Rousseau’s original puzzle, for Marx, the chains of the state would slowly disappear because the class character of the state would also disappear. Thus, the road to real democracy included destroying those economic classes. As Marx wrote: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all” (Marx 491).


In Discourse of the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau states that the origin of inequality was law that gave “new powers to the rich,” and in turn, “destroyed natural liberty, [and] eternally fixed the law of property and inequality” (Rousseau 292). Marx viewed the problems of society as fundamentally economic as well. Moreover, Rousseau and Marx both lodged broadsides against the liberal individualist project that preceded them. Both studies focused on what would be best for the community, not the petty interests of certain wealthy individuals.[1] Yet, both theorists found differing ways to mitigate the effects of inequality. Rousseau’s answer is political. Through greater participation and an equal say for all, no economically advantageous group can gain control. Marx thought politics was, in part, the problem. Only by doing away with private property and the state could a truly democratic society be achieved.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. “On the Jewish Question.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert Tucker.

New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1978.

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert Tucker.

New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1978.

Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert Tucker.

New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1978.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” Political Philosophy:

The Essential Texts. Ed. Stephen Cahn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[1] Rousseau’ and Marx’s argument is similar to Aristotle’s Politics, where the deviant regimes rule for the interests of a very few.