Term Paper: Marx and Rousseau on Property Marx

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Marx and Rousseau on Property

Marx, Rousseau, and the Question of Property

Of all the liberal philosophers of the modern era, the one closest in his views on the question of property to Karl Marx was arguably Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marx is often viewed as an aberration to the development of liberal thinking on economic relations, but there is a ground for arguing that Marx borrowed heavily from other liberal philosophers, especially Rousseau. This becomes clear when we look at how Marx and Rousseau dealt with the question of property. The views of Marx and Rousseau on property were by no means identical. There were certain similarities but also notable differences. Both viewed private property as the source of political, economic, and social corruption in the societies they lived. But the solutions they offered to remedy the ills of the society were quite different. Marx thought that private property should be abolished and communally owned but Rousseau defended limited and regulated possession of private property. Marx believed that the problem with property was the use of it by the bourgeoisie and therefore called for a revolutionary struggle against concentration of private property in the hands of the bourgeoisie. In contrast, Rousseau thought that property was inherently corrupting. The differences were also rooted in the fact that Marx still believed in the value of "progress," whereas Rousseau rejected it totally, calling instead for the establishment of a primitive economy.

It is widely known that Marx is indebted to Rousseau in forming his philosophical views (Rotenstreich). Because of his critique of political economy, however, many view Marx as an aberration from a long list of liberal philosophers the modern era has produced. As one scholar argues, Marx's critique of political economy was a synthesis of the works of "Rousseau, Locke, Aristotle, Hegel, Ricardo and Smith, Malthus and even ancient scholars such as Plato and Heraclites" (Engle 2). Of these liberal thinkers, the closest to Marx was Rousseau (Bozarth). First and foremost, Rousseau in the eighteenth century and Marx in the nineteenth century were deeply disturbed by economic and social inequality. They both rejected Locke's idea of freedom stipulated primarily in political liberty. Rousseau and Marx believed that political freedom without economic equality was a chimera, a smokescreen to cover the real problem of the society. But the main difference between Rousseau and Marx stems from the fact that Marx believed that the solution to the problem of political economy could be found with a better economic model. He therefore offered his own economic theory which he believed would eliminate inequality. In contrast, Rousseau was of the opinion that economic models not rooted in the morality of human nature would lead to tyranny. If Marx believed that "market economy is a fundamental stage of the evolution of human society," Rousseau believed that "the starting point of political economy is biased and it can only produce a discourse justifying tyrannical government" (Alvarez and Hurtado-Prieto 15).

There is a remarkable similarity in the way Marx and Rousseau trace the development of private property and inequality. They both argue that the roots of modern economic inequality lay in the emergence of private property. In a primitive society, property would be communally owned and humans believed everything on earth belonged to all. There could not be any conflict over property since no one owned it. Rousseau, for instance, asks: "what can be the chains of dependence among men who possess nothing?" (Rousseau, "Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men," 430). The societies then began to develop associations and competition among them arose. It was the beginning of inequality and private property played the major role in it. Rousseau explains: "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 evil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: 'Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!'" (ibid 431). It is clear from Rousseau's words that, in addition to private property being the original cause of human misery, this unfortunate development could be avoided. So, the solution to economic inequality caused by private property for Rousseau is to return to the original state of human nature.

Competition over property generated scarcity of resources and led to inequalities in the modern era. The haves and have-nots became antagonists. The former wants to take advantage of their position to further enrich themselves and the latter resent the exploitative nature of economic relations. Marx and Rousseau agree on this point. Competition over scarce resources, as Rousseau explains, "gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation in to an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude and misery" (ibid 437). Marx argues that this competition led to the concentration of property in the hands of a few who eventually also usurped political power. The bourgeois, he argues, has "centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization" (Marx, "Communist Manifesto," 834). Rousseau expressed similar thoughts in his discourse on the social contract (Rousseau, "On the Social Contract," 488).

In the writings of Marx and Rousseau, we can see abhorrence of wealth. They see that a market economy based on private property leads not just to inequality but to constantly growing inequality. In one of his earliest writings, Marx argued that the "laborer becomes poorer, the more wealth he produces, the more his production increased in power and volume. The laborer becomes a cheaper commodity, the more commodities he produces" (Chattopadhyay 56). Marx therefore sees evil in the accumulation of wealth by any individual. Likewise, Rousseau condemns wealth and luxury. He argues that political and economic equality requires "little or no luxury, for luxury either is the effect of wealth or it makes wealth necessary. It simultaneously corrupts both the rich and the poor, the one by possession, the other by covetousness" (Rousseau, "On the Social Contract, 496). Elsewhere, he writes that luxury, "however large of small it may be, and which, in order to feed the hordes of lackeys, and wretches it has produced, crushes and ruins the laborer and the citizen" (Rousseau, "Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men," 454). Like Marx, Rousseau sees wealth and luxury as necessary components of unequal society.

In short, on the potential evils of private property and the consequences of economic relations based on property, Marx and Rousseau generally agree. But there is an irony in the fact that while Marx advocated the abolishment of private property altogether, Rousseau defended limited possession of it. For Marx, private property was ultimately linked to human freedom. Political and social inequalities were rooted in economic exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Private property was essential for maintaining a capitalist system. Maintaining the capitalist system, according to Marx, depended on owning private property and controlling the means of production. This form of inequality, Marx also argued, relegated human relations to an exchange of material products rather than relations based on human values. People under private property, he wrote, "carry on their work independently of each other . . . And do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products. . . ." Therefore, "the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things" (cited in Brenkert 125-126). Marx could not envision an economic model where there was any place for private property. He called for a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the ruling elite and abolish private property.

The question then is why Rousseau did not advocate the abolishment of private property. After all, Marx believed in the value of property and in material progress without class exploitation whereas, for Rousseau, property was, by default, theft and material progress was the evil that needed to be avoided. According to Yoav Peled, there was a reason for Rousseau's ambivalent stance on property. "In his critique of civil society . . . Rousseau identifies the division of labor, private property and exchange as the main sources of moral and political corruption in that society," Peled explains. "At the same time, he considers private property and exchange to be inevitable, if economic cooperation is to take place, and hence to be the cornerstones of society and prerequisites for civilized living. He is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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