Marx and Rousseau viewed from Kant’s definition of enlightenment

Enlightenment, a transition from tradition to modernity, was an age defined by some as humanity’s passage to its adult status (1), is a period still under a great deal of contemporary analysis. Starting from Kant’s definition, I will try to show that both Marx and Rousseau were figures of the enlightenment and raised different critiques to it or its results.

Kant’s view of enlightenment starts from the dichotomy between enlightened thinking and immaturity.  Immaturity is not lack of one’s understanding, but the result of mental laziness and fear of failing in his own judgment without “guardian” supervision and outside society dogmas and formulas. (2)

From this point of view, both Rousseau and Marx can be considered enlightened, as thinkers outside the framework of their current times. Both were against the status quo of their contemporary societies, but not as reactionary figures. Marx can be considered revolutionary, or considering his ideas, evolutionary, as he reflected that communist revolution and class dissolution are an inevitability, a result of progress (3).

The prerequisite for enlightenment is freedom, especially freedom of thought in the public sphere. Kant characterizes public use as “use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public” (2) and private one as use in specific circumstances in society micro-cosmos that affect the interests of the commonwealth.

Kant considers that the original destiny of human nature is progress, and such progress is enlightenment. More than that, he believes that enlightenment is a sacred right of human kind. As a result, any commitment against freedom of public thinking, especially among “the guardians” is against human nature. The guardians have a duty to facilitate enlightenment as long as it is compatible with civil order. (2)

In Rousseau’s universe, human nature advances towards decay and corrupted morals. Civil society gave rise to inequalities, as men began centering their existence on the acknowledgment from others.

Enlightenment was a period of progress for the arts and sciences. For Rousseau, they made nothing more than contribute to the decay of morals and of man. Man creates for the appraisal of others who learn to love the chains with which he is bound and transforms them into luxuries that create the need for other luxuries. (4)

Rousseau also traces the birth of sciences and arts to human vices. As they grow, human vices feed themselves becoming stronger, “while the commodities of life multiply, while the arts perfect themselves, and while luxury spreads, true courage grows enervated, and military virtues vanish” (4) and virtues degrade. Advancement in arts and sciences could bring nothing more but decay and more corruption, as man alienates himself from the natural state of freedom and covers himself with layers of knowledge and politeness. In my opinion, this is a strong critique against enlightenment from inside, Rousseau discourses becoming self-referential to the given context.

For Marx, all human history was the history of the class struggle (3). Enlightenment, as a promoter of industrialization, can be seen from Marx’s universe in two ways. First, a necessary period for the inevitable revolution, through the expansion of bourgeoisie that in its struggle with the traditional aristocracy will engage the proletariat in revolutions that will eventually give them the instruments of the inevitable revolt against the upper classes. Second, without enlightenment to cause industrialization we can argue that proletariat would not have been so powerful crystalized as a class. Middle-class domination would not have existed and socio-economical tensions that created the context for the development of Marx’s theory would have been different. (6)

Estrangement from himself in Rousseau’s work is the progress from the natural man’s self-preservation. (5) In both thinkers work, alienation is the result of progress, for Rousseau progress from the natural state and for Marx industrialization and the drive for Capital. Alienation from species is for Rousseau the detachment from the man’s natural feeling of pity, but for Marx this is the result of work relations in the capitalist era.   

Enlightenment as viewed by Kant is not against state rule, “argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” He considers that with human emergence from immaturity, humans will be able to act more freely and eventually they will influence the principles of governments. (2)

Both thinkers are highly influential figures in world history. Rousseau for the French Revolution and Marx for the socialist and communist movements that swiped Europe in the 20th century.     


1 – Michel Foucault, 1984, “What is Enlightenment?”

2- Immanuel Kant, 1784, “An Answer to the Question: „What is Enlightenment?””

3- “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Marx/Engels, 1847

4 – J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1750

5 – J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

6 – “The European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Modern Economic growth”, Joel Mokyr, 2007


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