The Individual and Society in Marx and Mill

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The fundamental issue of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is the relationship of the individual and society. Although the Manifesto seems to discuss social structure while ignoring the individual, the individual actually is at the center of Marx and Engels' thought. Similarly, On Liberty seems to champion freedom for its value to the individual, but Mill sees society as the primary beneficiary.

The argument of The Communist Manifesto seems to deal exclusively with large groups: society, class, bourgeoisie, proletariat. A cursory reading of the Manifesto might lead a reader to conclude that the individual has no role in Marx and Engels' thought, but in fact the individual is the principal beneficiary of Marx and Engels' revolutionary vision.

Marx and Engels' use of terms is partially responsible for the apparent absence of the individual; for example, the word "class" represents several different concepts. In the first instance, "class" is a category, and Marx and Engels set forth the characteristics which define each class. Anyone who meets the criteria is assigned to the appropriate class.

At several points in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels speak of the need to organize the proletarian class, and this use of "class" clearly is different from its use as a category. Marx and Engels states, "The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class ..." (p.95). If one is a member of the proletarian class by virtue of certain economic criteria, then it seems inconsistent to state that such a class needs to be formed. In this second usage, "class" refers to an aggregate. Marx and Engels recognize that an aggregate must be organized before it can be an effective political force.

Finally, the word "class" is used in order to make generalizations about the individuals who comprise the aggregate. For example, Marx and Engels state, "The ruling ideas of each age have been the ideas of its ruling class." (p. 102). Obviously, a ruling class, as an abstract entity, cannot have ideas of any sort, and Marx and Engels are referring to those ideas held by members of the ruling class. In this usage, "class" is an abstracted substitution for individuals.

According to Marx and Engels, the individual and society are inextricably linked in a dynamic relationship:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conception, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the condition of this material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? (p. 102).

Society exerts a fundamental influence on the individual, but Marx and Engels do not assert that the individual is thereby absorbed by society. However, their belief in the intimate connection between society and the individual leads Marx and Engels to use a compound noun such as "class" to stand for both an aggregate and the individuals who comprise that aggregate.

Marx and Engels never lose sight of the individual. In Marx and Engels' outline of the development of the proletariat into a revolutionary force, they expressly state that the movement originates with individual activists (see p. 88). Furthermore, the benefits of Communism are individual and personal. The goal of Communism is "to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer." (p.97). In addition, Marx and Engels see Communism as a fundamentally democratic doctrine (see p. 120). Only democracy places political authority in the hands of each individual.

For Marx and Engels, democracy entails the restoration of autonomy to the proletariat which had been usurped by the bourgeoisie; but, for Mill, democracy presents the potential for "the tyranny of the majority" (p. 4) and the loss of individual liberty. Although On Liberty discusses the proper limits of intrusion into the lives of individuals, Mill frames his argument largely interms of benefits to society.

At the very outset of On Liberty, Mill states "The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will ... but Civil or Social Liberty." (p. 1). Mill abandons any theory of natural rights, and instead asserts, "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions." (p. 10). The principle of utility values actions to the extent they promote the greatest good for the greatest number. Even though this principle is not expressly stated in On Liberty, it is the logical foundation of the entire essay. Mill does not deny that liberty benefits the individual, but he is more interested in showing that liberty benefits society.

Mill first discusses freedom of thought and expression; however, he does not claim any intrinsic or personal value for these freedoms:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what almost is as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression on truth, produced by its collision with error (p. 16).

In addition, Mill cites the period following the Reformation, the latter half of the eighteenth century, as well as Germany during the time of Goethe and Fichte as proof that a climate which fosters free thought and discussion is necessary for the progress of civilization. Mill also points out that religious doctrines are most powerful when fighting for their existence.

Similarly, Mill justifies individuality on the basis of its benefit to society:

[I]ndividuality ... is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilization, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part and condition of all those things. (p. 56).

Mill states that individuality results from personal energy, and this energy can be used for the benefit of society. Mill equates individuality and originality and notes "that all good things which exist are the fruits of originality." p. 65 ). Furthermore, while many are content to live their lives in accordance with custom, others are stifled by custom. Allowance for individuality permits the development of alternative lifestyles which others then may follow.

Mill, like Marx and Engels, recognize a dynamic relationship between the individual and society, although the descriptions of this relationship are very different. Both The Communist MAnifesto and On Liberty are derived from a dynamic theory of the interaction of the individual and society. According to Mill, liberty promotes a flow of benefits from the individual to society which are then available to other individuals. Society is the essential medium through which benefits circulate. For Marx and Engels, however, society is the predominant source of individual character. The transformation of society will produce the transformation of individuals. Yet Marx and Engels realize all change must be initiated by individuals.

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Written for Modern History course at Washington University, April 1990. Grade: 3.9/4.0.

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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