I actually started writing this a while ago, not long after we finished reading Rousseau, so some of this may seem fairly obvious now that we’ve begun reading Marx. Either way, I think this should be helpful for drawing parallels between the two writers.
The issue of inequalities between people has been the focus of the vast majority of our readings this semester. Indeed, the main job of government (according to some) is to negotiate and solve these issues of inequality. Two political theorists in particular, who’s works we have read in this class, address this issue, but do it in radically different ways. The purpose of this post is not to make an argument about whether one stance is better than the other, but instead to compare and contrast the political and economic (in the case of Marx) theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.
Rousseau, in The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right discusses how to establish a government that will mediate issues of inequality in society. He sought to replace a hierarchical, dominating society (such as the vast majority of European monarchies) with an egalitarian government that was of, for and by “The People” (a concept that doesn’t really exist in Marx’s writing, which deals almost exclusively with Class.) Under a Rousseauian-style government laws are made by congresses of local people in accordance with the general will and are then enforced by an elected aristocracy who’s sole job is to enforce the laws, not to enact them. Also, he saw the development of human society as somewhat cyclical, in which every so often there would be new revolution to reestablish the aforementioned style of government. In a nutshell, Rousseau’s plan for dealing with the issues of war and inequality is a very direct democracy that is close to the people with frequent, somewhat low-level revolutions.
There are certainly similarities between the theories of Marx and Rousseau, but whereas Rousseau focused almost exclusively on a political solution, Marx advocated a more revolutionary cure for society’s ills. Marx claimed that capitalism, and the class struggle that it perpetuated was what was the cause for much of the negative aspects of the human condition.
While the economic situation is the crux of Marx’s philosophy, he does not neglect the political aspect of the strife of the proletariat. He argues that religion and political constructs are in place in order to keep the bourgeoisie in power over the proletariat. Essentially, the state was an extension of the wealthiest classes.
He viewed contemporary capitalism as creating tension between the laboring, wage-earning class (the proletariat) and the capital-owning middle class (the bourgeoisie). The inevitable conclusion of this tension was a violent (worldwide, ideally) revolution in which the proletariat overthrew the bourgeoisie and took control of the means of production. In Marx’s post-revolution world the end of capitalism would cause private property and class to slowly disappear, and because, according to Marx, the state exists to protect the property and wealth of the bourgeoisie government would soon disappear as well.
Marx and Rousseau were addressing the same issue: inequality between men. However, the chose to tackle the issue in similar, yet also very different ways. Both focused on the needs of the community and not the desires of the individual. Both also call for revolution, although Marx is significantly more adamant about the violent part. Where they differ is in how they view what drives the issue of inequality and where reform is most necessary. For Rousseau it was the political realm where change was needed. For Marx, radicalizing the economy (by abolishing it) would heal the wounds caused by inequality.