Rousseau and Marx on Historical Progress

This is an essay I wrote last semester for my Modern and Postmodern Philosophy class. 

For Rousseau, historical progress only further removes man from his natural state of living. He argues that the cultivation of civilized studies weaken the natural virtues of men; in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau writes, “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.” He cites Romans of old as saying, “Since the learned men began to appear among us, good people have slipped away.” Rousseau attributes this decline to the intentional pursuit of progress and learning for “up to that time Romans had been content to practise virtue; everything was lost when they began to study it.” He saw this desire for knowledge as a harmful development which would have tragic consequences, “Peoples, know once and for all that nature wished to protect you from knowledge, just as a mother snatches away a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child, that all the secrets which she keeps hidden from you are so many evils she is defending you against, and that the difficulty you experience in educating yourselves is not the least of her benefits.”

Rousseau decries the prosperity and luxury brought about by social progress, “Luxury is…an evil, born…from the idleness and vanity of men. Luxury rarely comes along without the arts and sciences, and they never develop without it.” Along with this degrading luxury, progress has perverted man’s ability to discern and support what is good,  “If by chance among men of extraordinary talents one finds one who has a firm soul and refuses to lend himself to the spirit of his age and demean himself with puerile works, too bad for him! He will die in poverty and oblivion.” Rousseau contrasts this with the idyllic early scenes of human progress, “One cannot reflect on morals without deriving pleasure from recalling the picture of the simplicity of the first ages. It is a lovely shore, adorned only by the hands of nature, toward which one is always turning one’s eyes, and from which one feels, with regret, oneself growing more distant.”

Marx sees historical progression as moving through dialectic tension and resolution to the final culmination of communism. He begins The Communist Manifesto with the words, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles,” and goes on to describe this history from ancient slavery to medieval feudalism to modern bourgeoisie exploitation. Marx recounts the role of the bourgeoisie, noting, “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.’” The bourgeoisie has centralized the populations, created vast cities, “agglomerated production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.” In Estranged Labour Marx speaks of the divisive consequences of our modern economy, “the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous becomes the worker; the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more ingenious labor becomes, the less ingenious becomes the worker and the more he becomes nature’s slave.”

Marx predicts the revolutionary upheaval of the proletariat reaction against the bourgeoisie, “The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation…they have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property…The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” For Marx, the capitalist system and economic exploitation creates the tension which will inevitably be resolved through the sweeping victory of Communism.

For Rousseau historical progress degrades man and removes us from the natural ideal. For Marx historical progress is the only way to reach the future and final ideal of Communism. Rousseau looks back to a better age—Marx looks forward to a new way of living.

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