Disclaimer: This essay was written as an assignment for The Modern and the Postmodern course offered by Professor Michael S. Roth from the Wesleyan University through Coursera
Can we say that both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx agree on the developing path for revolution? Says the later, "[The fall of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable" seemingly echoing the words of the other: "The insurrection… is as juridical an act as any… Thus all things take place and succeed in their natural order". Judging by these citations alone we could say Prussian and French stand united, but that is far from the truth.
Marx puts at the epicenter of the revolution the dissonance caused by the perversion of human life by labor. In explaining this, he argues that labor turns the productive life of man into a mere mean for subsistence, while in essence "the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character." This conflict would cause society’s implosion on an effort to find a synthesis of labor and a meaningful, human, life. For Marx this revolution was probable at the point in time when this conflict was at it’s apex, which imply necessarily on the inequality between capitalist and proletariat also being the greatest.
Contrary to Marx, Rousseau’s insurrection is triggered by society’s return to a primeval state of equality, remaining alienated from common men only those who previously ruled, but who now are fated to face the insurrection of it’s former servants. Rousseau postulates that the progress of history leads inevitably to a despotic authoritarian government, which once "the contract of government is so much dissolved by despotism, that the despot is no longer master than he continues the strongest". For Rousseau this despot is only the product of society’s inequality at it’s zenith.
This inequality and division of humanity in rulers and ruled is agreed upon by both authors, but their understanding of how it’s played throughout history are quite different. Says Marx, "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles", implying a constant fighting between classes, while Rousseau defends that this inequality is due to a "chain of surprising events, in consequence of which the strong submitted to serve the weak, and the people to purchase imaginary ease, at the expense of real happiness." Marx talks of the lower classes as some poor victims of society. Rousseau does not spare the servants from their responsibility for their own servitude. For Marx mankind was oppressed along history into serfdom, for Rousseau, on the contrary, the servants put themselves in fetters by their own naiveté.
Marx, in his youth optimism, sees a bright future for mankind. His victory is inevitable, or so he believes. For Marx, the progress of history is the progress towards freedom. The Revolution is coming and "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win." In contrast, Rousseau believes that as time advanced the "original man vanishing by degrees, society no longer offers to our inspection but an assemblage of artificial men and factitious passions, which are the work of all these new relations, and have no foundation in nature." The noble and true savage disappeared, leaving in his place husks of man unfit for freedom. In sum the young Karl Marx looked for the future; the bitter Rousseau longed for the past.
As a final distinction Marx saw history as a continuum. The dialectical materialism implies in history moving always forward in constant evolution. Rousseau, yet again disagrees saying that this revolution "is the last term of inequality, the extreme point which closes the circle and meets that from which we set out", i.e. restarting the cycle of equality begetting inequality, which leads to tyranny and then a new revolution.
- Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labour.” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. USSR, 1927.
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London, 1848.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind. France, 1754.