Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review 61
November 2013
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Originally published in the Platypus Review.

On June 9, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion on “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left” for the 2013 Left Forum at Pace University, New York. What follows is the edited version of the first of the prepared opening remarks. A full recording of the event is available online.
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Introduction

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Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.”

Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature…to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.”

Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.”

Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.”[1] How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Karl Marx, photographed in 1870

Marx and Rousseau

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Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.[2]

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[3]

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” Continue reading