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John Stuart Mill’s and Karl Marx’s Conceptions of Ideal Society and Liberty Essay

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Updated: Jul 25th, 2022

Freedom or liberty is now seen as the fundamental right of a person in the majority of countries on the planet. Liberty is seen as the foundation of an ideal society that is usually associated with democracy. The concepts of liberty and the nature of an ideal society have been interpreted in different ways throughout the centuries. Modern definitions were not as universally accepted even several decades ago as they are now. This paper includes a brief analysis of the concepts of ideal society and liberty as defined by John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.

It is noteworthy that both thinkers lived in Europe in the nineteenth century. They had rather different backgrounds, which could lead to the development of quite opposing views on the matter. Karl Marx developed his ideas regarding classes and conflict as the basis of the functioning of society. These ideas affected his perspective concerning an ideal society and people’s liberty. When explaining the nature of the Marxist approach, Engels claimed that an ideal society is one where “the modes of production, appropriation, and exchange” are harmonized by the state (712). Marx emphasized that individuals who produced labor ended up as propertyless workers, while the fruit of their labor became the property of capitalists or other persons due to different reasons. In the ideal society, the produced property should be distributed among producers.

This concept is seen by modern readers as rather a sign of a totalitarian society. It may seem that a person is completely void of liberty, in Marx’s opinion. However, this view is not quite right as liberty was one of the features of human society. For Marx, human beings were free as long as they could be free from the mandates of nature that forced people to seek food and shelter, as well as other commodities (Marx, “Capital” 441). Karl Marx believed that the “true realm of freedom” is human energy that is used efficiently to rationally regulate people’s “interchange with Nature” (Marx, “Capital” 441). Marx also stipulated that liberty was, in a sense, the feature that made humans different from animals (Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” 74). People are free when they produce labor that exceeds their natural needs (related to the immediate satisfaction of biological necessities). At the same time, the state, as well as other external aspects, reduce people’s liberty.

The idea of liberty then constructs the concept of an ideal society. The ideal human society, the State, is the entity where people spend energy rationally to control nature and access the necessary resources that are distributed evenly among the members of the community. Such concepts have quite an idealistic nature and can hardly be realized. The distribution of labor based on the principle of absolute equality in a community where all members of the group contribute equally to its development has not been achieved in the world so far.

John Stuart Mill had another view that is similar to the values of modern western society. The thinker claimed that “[o]ver himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (Mill 13). In simple terms, the person is free until their acts (or inactivity) can harm others in any way. The philosopher also emphasized that the freedom of speech, as well as diverse rights, such as the right to express opinions or practice any religion, were basic premises of a person’s liberty.

This perspective had a defining impact on Mill’s perspective regarding the nature of an ideal society. According to Mill, the ideal society is the one where persons “live as seems good to themselves, then… live as seems good to the rest” (15). Thus, an ideal society is a community where people are free to act to satisfy their needs but are responsible enough to avoid harming others. The balance between one’s own needs and desires and other people’s wants and needs is the background for an ideal society. These views are still relevant in the democratic societies of the world.

When comparing the two perspectives of liberty and ideal society, it is necessary to note that both philosophers find the liberty to be an intrinsic feature of a human being. However, Marx and Mill still view differently the way this feature flourishes and is perceived by humans. Mill’s paradigm is more conducive to protecting and fostering liberty. For Mill, liberty is an intrinsic feature of a human being who wants or rather needs to enjoy it by expressing their views and making the choices they want or find optimal. In simple terms, liberty is a necessity for a human being that is to be cherished and protected. Based on Mill’s views, freedom is equivalent to the life of a rational human, so people are bound to protect their liberty in ways so that they could ensure their living.

Marx’s view of liberty is associated with a need to struggle for true freedom in numerous settings. For Marx, a person is free when they can produce labor and use its fruit for their needs and desires. The thinker states that liberty is, to a certain extent, inherent in people, but it is always restricted by different forces and can hardly be attained. In a sense, the constant struggle is associated with liberty, so a person may feel quite reluctant to protect it. Freedom may be less valued if there is an understanding that it is not achievable. The very need to protect it becomes doubtful due to the associated uncertainty. Many people may choose to remain within limits created by others. Humans are learning to live and be satisfied within these boundaries, so their desire and need to protect their liberty reduces or diminishes.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that Mill and Marx viewed liberty as an important feature of human existence. However, the two thinkers offered different paradigms for realizing this basic need for freedom and building human society. For Mill, liberty is as natural as breathing, so people subconsciously need liberty and are ready to protect it. For Mill, liberty is something quite definite as it is the freedom of acting within the limits of the immediate personal environment. In simple words, a person can do anything until it can harm another person.

For Marx, freedom is producing labor and enjoying its results. In simple words, human needs to work to remain human being (as opposed to animals). External forces limit people’s freedom, so they learn to act within diverse boundaries set by nature itself and human society, the State. Mill offers a clearer definition of freedom and its value for a person. Humans need to protect their liberty to live, so an ideal society is a community where all members share this value. Mill’s ideas are the basis of the modern democratic society, although it is still far from an ideal world.

Works Cited

Engels, Friedrich. “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C Tucker, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 683-718.

Marx, Karl. “Capital, Volume Three.” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C Tucker, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 439-442.

“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C Tucker, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 66-125.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays, edited by Mark Philp and Frederick Rosen, Oxford University Press, 2015.

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