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Marx versus Rousseau re Elitism

by John Spritzler

October 3, 2022

The famous French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, wrote Emile, or On Education, which was published in 1762 and was burned that same year by Rousseau's foes. In this work, Rousseau expresses an explicitly anti-elitist view of ordinary people, a view that I will contrast with the very elitist view of Karl Marx by presenting below extracts from the works of both these authors, in the case of Marx from his famous Capital (volume I, published in 1867) and The Communist Manifesto (co-authored by Marx and Frederich Engels and published in 1848.)




...and the rich console themselves for the harm done by them to the poor, by the assumption that the poor are too stupid to feel. I usually judge of the value any one puts on the welfare of his fellow-creatures by what he seems to think of them. We naturally think lightly of the happiness of those we despise. It need not surprise you that politicians speak so scornfully of the people, and philosophers profess to think mankind so wicked.


The people are mankind; those who do not belong to the people are so few in number that they are not worth counting. Man is the same in every station of life; if that be so, those ranks to which most men belong deserve most honour. All distinctions of rank fade away before the eyes of a thoughtful person; he sees the same passions, the same feelings in the noble and the guttersnipe; there is merely a slight difference in speech, and more or less artificiality of tone; and if there is indeed any essential difference between them, the disadvantage is all on the side of those who are more sophisticated. The people show themselves as they are, and they are not attractive; but the fashionable world is compelled to adopt a disguise; we should be horrified if we saw it as it really is.


There is, so our wiseacres tell us, the same amount of happiness and sorrow in every station. This saying is as deadly in its effects as it is incapable of proof; if all are equally happy why should I trouble myself about any one? Let every one stay where he is; leave the slave to be ill-treated, the sick man to suffer, and the wretched to perish; they have nothing to gain by any change in their condition. You enumerate the sorrows of the rich, and show the vanity of his empty pleasures; what barefaced sophistry! The rich man’s sufferings do not come from his position, but from himself alone when he abuses it. He is not to be pitied were he indeed more miserable than the poor, for his ills are of his own making, and he could be happy if he chose.


But the sufferings of the poor man come from external things, from the hardships fate has imposed upon him. No amount of habit can accustom him to the bodily ills of fatigue, exhaustion, and hunger. Neither head nor heart can serve to free him from the sufferings of his condition. How is Epictetus the better for knowing beforehand that his master will break his leg for him; does he do it any the less? He has to endure not only the pain itself but the pains of anticipation.


If the people were as wise as we assume them to be stupid, how could they be other than they are? Observe persons of this class; you will see that, with a different way of speaking, they have as much intelligence and more common-sense than yourself. Have respect then for your species; remember that it consists essentially of the people, that if all the kings and all the philosophers were removed they would scarcely be missed, and things would go on none the worse. In a word, teach your pupil to love all men, even those who fail to appreciate him; act in such way that he is not a member of any class, but takes his place in all alike: speak in his hearing of the human race with tenderness, and even with pity, but never with scorn. You are a man; do not dishonour mankind.



from Capital (quoting Adam Smith approvingly):

In manufacture, in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital, rich in social productive power, each labourer must be made poor in individual productive powers.

“Ignorance is the mother of industry as well as of superstition. Reflection and fancy are subject to err; but a habit of moving the hand or the foot is independent of either. Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most where the mind is least consulted, and where the workshop may ... be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men.” [45]

As a matter of fact, some few manufacturers in the middle of the 18th century preferred, for certain operations that were trade secrets, to employ half-idiotic persons. [46]

“The understandings of the greater part of men,” says Adam Smith, “are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations ... has no occasion to exert his understanding... He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

After describing the stupidity of the detail labourer he goes on:

“The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind... It corrupts even the activity of his body and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employments than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems in this manner to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society, this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall.” [47]


45. A. Ferguson, l.c., p. 280.

46. J. D. Tuckett: “A History of the Past and Present State of the Labouring Population.” Lond., 1846.

47. A. Smith: “Wealth of Nations,” Bk. v., ch. i, art. ii. Being a pupil of A. Ferguson who showed the disadvantageous effects of division of labour, Adam Smith was perfectly clear on this point. In the introduction to his work, where he ex professo praises division of labour, he indicates only in a cursory manner that it is the source of social inequalities. It is not till the 5th Book, on the Revenue of the State, that he reproduces Ferguson. In my “Misère de la Philosophie,” I have sufficiently explained the historical connexion between Ferguson, A. Smith, Lemontey, and Say, as regards their criticisms of Division of Labour, and have shown, for the first time, that Division of Labour as practised in manufactures, is a specific form of the capitalist mode of production.

from The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. 


Further, as we have already seen, entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.

I discuss the enormous significance of this elitism question in my article about Socialism and Communism here.


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