Marx and Rousseau on Property Term Paper

  • Length: 8 pages
  • Sources: 8
  • Subject: Black Studies - Philosophy
  • Type: Term Paper
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Excerpt from Term Paper :

. . while defending these institutions themselves" (1034-1035). Peled further argues that Rousseau was not able to solve this paradox and it was one of the reasons why he became increasingly pessimistic about modernity. But Rousseau's attempts to reconcile the contradiction in his approach are worth looking at in details.

Although Rousseau abhorred inequality that rose out of private property, he did not hold any illusions about modernity. He believed that private property became an essential component of the modern bourgeois society and economic relations in the modern era could not be free from errors and corruption. So, Rousseau thought that the best solution to modern inequality was to allow private property in limited amounts and regulate it through the state that represents the common will. In a perfect society imagined by Rousseau, the state would honor the right to possess private property but at the same time would retain the right to regulate and redistribute private property among its members' estates. Members of the society would not own more than they needed for subsistence and would qualify for their estates by actually working on them. Private property acquired through financial speculation or interest in this society would be rejected. Ultimately, private interests would be subordinated to the common will. Rousseau explains: "The right which an individual has to his own estate is always subordinated to the right which the community has over all; without this there would be neither stability in the social life, not real force in the exercise of Sovereignty" (cited in Peled 1038). So, instead of abolishing private property, Rousseau proposed that citizens are allowed to possess it but at the end subordinate their possessions to the general well-being of a larger society. "Since Rousseau himself was committed to private property," as Peled puts it, "and did not recommend the removal of that crucial 'natural resource' from the possession of his citizens, all he could recommend economically was a reduction, through radical self-sufficiency, of the potential for corruption inherent in the market economy" (1042).

Rousseau certainly could anticipate that objections could be made in response to his proposal. One could argue that Rousseau's model of an ideal society would hinder economic productivity and development. Rousseau responded to this by saying that economic productivity was not necessary. Without economic development, there would be no accumulation of wealth and investment, and consequently a simpler way of life would lead to basic economic equality. "It is better for the land to produce a little less and for the inhabitants to lead better-regulated life," he argued. "Everyone should make a living, and no one should grow rich; that is the fundamental principle of the prosperity of the nation; . . . since [under this system] superfluous produce is not an article of commerce, and is not retailed for money, it will be cultivated only to the extent that necessaries are needed" (cited in Peled 1039-1040). Rousseau insisted that the society could not control material and psychological forces generated by economic development. He rejected the notion that progress should be constantly pursued because, while satisfying old needs, progress would inevitably generate new needs, competition, and dependency.

Rousseau, however, could not sustain his own solution to the problem of inequality. He realized that the forces of economic development could not be stopped. Initially, he believed that his model could be applied to small societies but then understood that maintaining primitive economy was not possible anywhere. These thoughts made Rousseau pessimistic about the future of modernity. Peled explains: "Realizing that his 'principles of political right' could not be put to action in the real world, and that the small rustic community he idealized was a disappearing phenomenon, Rousseau despaired of his ability to help mankind avoid the pitfalls of modernity" (1044). So, he did not call for any radical struggle to address the problem of modernity. In contrast, Marx believed that the problem of inequality should be addressed through revolutionary struggle.

Both Rousseau and Marx agreed that modern economic system based on private property led to exploitation of the majority by the few, but they offered different solutions to address the problem. Marx saw the problems of the society primarily in economic terms whereas, for Rousseau, the primary yardstick for evaluating social forces was morality. Nevertheless, they both came to similar conclusions with regards to the role of property in the society. They differed in their solutions because Marx believed in revolutionary action. Rousseau wanted an orderly society that limits citizens' rights but provides stability and equality for all. Marx's radical solution to inequality was overthrowing the bourgeois elite and abolishing private property. Rousseau advocated limited but regulated possession of private property in a society based on primitive economic relations. He became pessimistic though and did not call for radical actions, whereas Marx shook the foundation of market economy in the 20th century.

Works Cited:

Alvarez, Andres and Jimena Hurtado-Prieto. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx on the Critique of Economics. Some Insights from their Analysis of the Role of Money." Academic paper, Phare, Universite de Paris X -- Nanterre. Available at

Bozarth, David. "Rousseau Closer to Marx than to Locke." Academic paper, Sonoma State University (2004, June 15). Available at

Brenkert, George, G. "Freedom and private Property in Marx." Philosophy & Public Affairs, 8.2 (1979): 122-147. Available at

Chattopadhyay, Paresh. "Marx's First Critique of Political Economy, 1844-1994." Economic and Political Weekly, 29.31 (1994, Jul. 30): 54-59. Available at

Engle, Eric Allen. "Social Contract and Capital: Rousseau, Marx, Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (2008, Sep. 15). Available at SSRN: or

Marx, Karl. "The Communist Manifesto," in David Wootton, (ed.) Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, in: Hackett Publications, 1996. Print.

Peled, Yoav. "Rousseau's Inhibited Radicalism: an Analysis of His Political Thought in Light of His Economic Ties." The American Political Science Review, 74.4 (1980): 1034-1045. Available at

Rotenstreich, Nathan. "Between Rousseau and Marx." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 9.4 (1949): 717-719. Available at

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men," in David Wootton, (ed.) Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, in: Hackett Publications, 1996. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "On the Social Contract," in David Wootton, (ed.) Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis,…

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