The chapter titled “Law” of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The social contract provides an explanation of what the author means by the concept of law. According to him, laws should have a general character as it follows from the definition of laws as “acts of general will” (Rousseau, 2008, p. 42). An act has a general character only if the object and the subject of legislation coincide, which in reality is a situation “when the whole people decrees for the whole people”, says Rousseau (2008, p. 42). Indeed, if an act of will is directed at someone alien to the acting force, something that is not the part of the source of will, this act cannot have a general character but only an exceptional one.
This passage is important for the understanding of Rousseau’s views since law is one of the central notions for him. In his urge for equality, the concept of law takes a special place, because Rousseau (2008) recognizes the laws of justice as ineffective: “the just man observes them towards everybody and nobody observes them towards him” (p. 41). With the requirement to give the laws a general rather than exceptional character, Rousseau insists on the need to treat all people equally.
Thus, the general will is what matters for Rousseau in political life, and he does not attach much attention to the form of government. If politics is directed by the general will, the government is legitimate even if it is monarchy (Rousseau, 2008, p. 43). What concerns the broader frames of Rousseau’s worldview, he was a deist recognizing equal value of substance and spirit, and emphasized the need for education and personal self-improvement.
Rousseau’s views can also be applied to modern life. In fact, common understanding of the concept of law is still similar to Rousseau’s: law is considered valid and an act legitimate if it reflects the general will, or, the will of majority. It is a basic principle of democracy.
Rousseau’s theory of social contract is related to earlier teaching of Hobbes and Locke. However, he pays more attention to the problem of freedom believing it to be a natural state of man that needs restoration. Like Marx, Rousseau views unequal distribution of wealth as the source of injustice.
The section “Estranged labor” from Marx’s Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844 focuses on the concept of the alienation, or estrangement, of labor. Marx defines four types of the alienation:
- alienation of the worker from the product of his labor, as he produces for someone else and the product is appropriated by someone alien to the worker (Marx, 1988, p. 72);
- alienation from the activity, as he works for someone else and his labor belongs to another (Marx, 1988, p. 74);
- alienation from the man’s species, as it is conscious activity that distinguishes man from animals, and this activity does not belong to the worker but to the owner of his labor (Marx, 1988, p. 76);
- finally, the estrangement of man from man as a consequence of the alienation from man’s species.
This chapter helps better understand Marx’s views as it provides an explanation why private property is given so much attention. In fact, it is viewed both as a product and as a cause of the alienated labor.
Marx’s political views are widely known. Being an atheist and materialist, he attached great importance to the economic side of life, and all other aspects were viewed as the derivatives. He believed a radical overturn to be the only effective way-out of the situation, and Russian revolution was a practical implementation of his views.
Though Marxist theory had been largely discredited by communism and Stalinism, it still has a significant value and impact on minds. Many of his claims are still valid, and the concept of alienation still works in many respects. The distribution of wealth is not equal, and the product of labor is appropriated by the owner. Despite the liberal claims, workers are often treated as commodities.
Thus, Marx was also primarily concerned by inequality similarly to Rousseau. However, he viewed the source of inequality in economic distortions, whereas Rousseau claimed that the problem is with law. Consequently, the solutions proposed by them were different: Marx insisted on liquidation of private property, and Rousseau focused on the concept of law based on the general will that would require greater participation.