By NAIMA K. GUPTA, New Delhi, India
Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor Dan Edelstein
Graduate Teaching Assistant: Sarah Grandin
“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” was the motto of the French Revolution. Revolutions have often been about restoring liberty and fighting for freedom. Freedom has always settled well in the minds of the people. However equality as a concept has had a colder reception. The rich don’t want to be equal to the poor; the educated not to the illiterate; the men not to women; and the white not to the coloured. In today’s supposedly “modern” society, inequality is still hidden in every corner. Philosophers, political theorists, revolutionaries, dictators, and many others have struggled to define, to fight for, and to understand equality. What does it mean to be equal? Are all men really born equal? Are we morally obliged to treat everyone equally? Two different sets of answers to these questions can be found in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.
Although living a century apart, Rousseau and Marx often held complementary views. They had similar views about property and inequality and wanted a society where equality was established. However, both had very different outlooks on history itself. Marx believed history to reach its utopian end; whereas Rousseau with his more pessimistic view believed society would always corrupt man and it was not possible to return to the State of Nature. He considered the State of Nature to be utopian. So though both had converging views, their underlying perception of history, led to different political theories.
If we imagine history to be a line, Rousseau and Marx stand at the very same spot, but both look in opposite directions. In the Second Discourse, we find Rousseau lamenting the loss of the State of Nature. He talks about the many advantages of the State of Nature when he says, “our ills are of our own making” and “His soul, which nothing disturbs, dwells only in the sensation of its present existence.” . But never does he mention that society can or should go back to it. He says, “Peoples once accustomed to masters are not in a condition to do without them” He holds this development to be an irreversible process, one that cannot be undone. Rousseau doesn’t quite believe that humans can reach the ideal or perfect state of government. His pessimistic or, some would say, realistic outlook on government becomes evident when he says, “If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.”  When Rousseau says this he gives the impression that because man is susceptible to corruption he will never be able to govern democratically.
Marx however assumes the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ to be inevitable. He hides behind the bushes, waiting like a predator for the right moment in history to come. But he is certain that it will come, and that when it does, society will remain at that pinnacle forever. Marx and Engels call out to the masses with zeal, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!”  This is a powerful statement that ignites in heart of the people a desire for change, a desire to revolt.
Marx and Rousseau both believe history to being moving in a direction. However the fundamental difference here is that for Rousseau his utopia is never returning, and Marx believes that he lives in the eve of his revolution, a revolution that would make the whole world communist. This difference in their attitude about history is pivotal towards understanding why there was a fervent reaction to Marxist Communism whereas the reaction to Rousseau’s theories was milder.
But though the reaction of the people was different to both, the foundation of their thoughts is the same. One of the greatest similarities we see between the two is that they are both deeply critical of private property. Rousseau starts his Part Two stating: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had some one pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: "Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!” 
Thus here we see here what Rousseau believes that maybe ‘horrors’ today could have been avoided if some one had destroyed the concept of private property when it was a mere sapling. But he believes that the roots of inequality have grown too deep and established too strong a hold to be able to be uprooted now. Marx’s goal as we know was to abolish private property. So we might state that Rousseau thought the beginning of inequality to be property and Marx thought the end of inequality to be the abolition of property. Here again we see Rousseau looking back at how it all started. At every step we see Rousseau analysing the past, trying to understand the origin. This was probably because Rousseau believed that it was necessary to understand what men were meant to be in Nature. Thus in his Discourse on Inequality he quotes: ‘Learn what God has willed you to be, And find your place in the human world’ Persius, Satires, III, pp. 71-3.
Marx, on the other hand, is clear about one thing. Private property needs to go. He is anticipating a time where classes and private property shall cease to exist. While Rousseau is mourning the time where classes and private property had never existed. But what kind of government did Rousseau want?
Rousseau, although hesitant about the survival of democracy and republicanism, does have a very specific image in his mind. He very descriptively tells us what an ideal government would look like. In his dedication to the Lords of Geneva, Rousseau describes the kind of society he wish he could’ve been born into:
I would have wished to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have only a single and identical interest, so that all the movements of the civil machine always tended to promote the common happiness, and since this is something that cannot happen unless the sovereign and the people are one and the same person, it follows that I would have wised to be born under a wisely tempered democratic government.
When Rousseau says the Sovereign and the people are one and the same person, he means to say that the sovereign not only represents the people but that the people themselves are a part of the sovereign. He believes in social democracy.
Marx, the father of Communism, on the other hand doesn’t ever describe what he imagines a communist state to look like. He simply says “In this sense, the theory of Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of Private property.”
Due to this omission many later Marxists like Lenin have tried to give shape to Marxist Communism. Different philosophers have proposed different types of communist or socialist ideals. But no one knows what Marxist Communism is; Marx himself was waiting for history to unveil its secrets. We’ve been told what it is not - no private property, no inheritance - but what is it? We’ve been given certain guidelines, but the megapixels of the picture of Marxist Communism are so low that we can barely tell what the picture looks like. It’s a blur, left open to interpretation, thus resulting in catastrophes like the formation of the Soviet Union. Here again we see the powerful way in which Marx was able to influence people. Marx’s ideas however lacked backing? What made Marx correct? Why was Communism fair and why should the world turn to it?
We see many of Marx’s ideas based on those of Rousseau. For Marx’s theory to be correct we would have to assume most of Rousseau’s to be correct. However since Rousseau was not entirely unique in his thinking, we cannot conclude that without Rousseau there would be no Marx. But it is true that for communism to be successful or to believe in communism we will have to believe in Rousseau’s ideas of human nature, greed and desire. He assumes that the early man has no desire and has no imagination of what he could want. This supports the communistic theory of communal ownership and abolishment of property. Marx kind of takes for granted that human nature can be altered so that man is not greedy anymore, that self interest as a human force can die out. Here we mark the clear distinction between self-preservation and self-interest. Both Marx and Rousseau believe self-preservation to be the human’s most natural instinct. However both demarcate self-interest as the evil of all evils.
When defining reasons for inequality in society, they both agree that class antagonisms are a major cause. However, Marx believes the Bourgeois and the Proletariat to be the most brutal form of inequality. Capitalism, he believes, turns “personal worth into exchange value”. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx states:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.
Rousseau on the other hand says:
If we follow the progress of inequality in these different revolutions, we shall find that the establishment of law and of the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorised by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second; and only by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality, and the stage to which all others lead until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether or bring it back to legitimacy. 
Here, when Rousseau says “the stage to which all others lead until new revolutions dissolve the government”, he means that there is a breaking point, after which comes a revolution. This coincides with Marx’s interpretation of history in which he believes history will build up to the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. However, Rousseau believes that revolution may come but it will not lead to the establishment of his utopian Republic. Whereas Marx does hold a sort of naïve view that Communism will come, and it will come to stay. And it is this firm assertive belief on which the Communist Manifesto is based.
The Communist Manifesto does not contain suggestions, it does not contain theories, it does not attempt to explain “what”. The Communist Manifesto tells the people what we’re doing, what we want to do, and talks simply in terms of commands, expecting the reader to follow. It does not ask for permission, it does not seek to convince people, but it seeks to make people follow. Marx doesn’t answer questions like ‘how’ or ‘what’. His entire tone is commanding. Everything is written in terms of, ‘The Communists do this’, and ‘The Communists do that’. The Manifesto is filled with statements like “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.” He talks of Communists as people who already exist, he talks of Communists like people who will do as he says, and this is what gives Marx the power to influence people in following them. The Communists seem strong, they seem certain and their ideas are radical. Marx wields an air of confidence, something that was lacking in Rousseau.
Rousseau on the other hand only talks about what went wrong. He starts at the perfect State of Nature and why man became unequal. But never does he call out for reform. He seems uncertain whereas Marx is a solid brick wall. Readers may agree with Rousseau but what do they do after agreeing with him? He doesn’t call for action; he does not instigate insurgent feelings in the people. But why does Marx and not Rousseau?
There are certain reasons as to why there was a difference in their approach to reaching out to people. It is possible Marx himself was uncertain of the predicaments that will take place. He probably had his theories about the State of Nature, but he conveniently leaves all this out of his Manifesto. This was probably because he wanted to appear bold and striking to the people. He wanted to resemble assurance. And any one who read the Communist Manifesto will not believe that there is a flicker of doubt in Marx’s mind about everything that he was saying. Some of his ideas may have been naïve or over the top, but Marx seemed absolutely unflinchingly certain.
Also Rousseau lived before the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, so perhaps he could not imagine the kind of drastic changes society would have to take. He was not ready for the kind of measures that had to be taken to establish his ideal government. And to some extent he believed that once domination had been established it couldn’t be done away with.
However Marx childishly believed that it could be. He states thus:
‘If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.’
But how does this happen? In order to abolish classes, some one needs to take authority and make it happen, and in that process they establish themselves as the authority. So can human society ever be without supremacy of classes? This is what Rousseau more realistically believes to be impossible. And perhaps due to his ability to see things more clearly than Marx he never attempts to ask people to abolish classes and inequality. For him the days of equality are gone. Left behind in the State of Nature.
These two political theorists and philosophers thus held inequality as something society could do away with. However, Rousseau never really believed it could happen. He believed that yes, once upon a time, in a land called State of Nature, there existed no inequality, but now it was impossible to turn the wheel of time. Marx, on the other hand, ignores the State of Nature. He says here we are now, with the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. He fervently argues why capitalism is the “big bad wolf”. And then he calls out to all the people, the workers, telling them that we will do away with property, we will do away with classes. He calls out to the people with a cry of hope, whereas Rousseau explains why we are the way we are. Marx gave people an agenda, and asked for their vigorous reaction. Rousseau gave people food for thought and asked for nothing. It is perhaps this fundamental difference in their approach that doesn’t make Marx just a philosopher, but turns him into a revolutionary.
Notes and References
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