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Mill and Marx's Differing Views on Liberty and Tyranny

Updated on February 25, 2014
A statue of Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto.
A statue of Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto. | Source

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifest are both politically based works which describe each man’s own philosophy on how the government should be run. Mill envisions a world in which everyone is free to do as they please with minimal government interference and few restrictions. On the other hand, Marx writes about his version of communism and how it should be implemented. While both delineate very different ideas, Marx agrees to a certain extent with Mill’s stance on liberty in that people should not be oppressed. However, Marx’s method of destroying the oppression of the proletariat leads to oppression of other groups and the potential for a tyranny, which Mill would not have supported.

Mill suggests that the ideal society is one in which citizens are allowed the most freedoms. He proposes a form of government in which people can do anything they want, as long as it doesn’t directly harm another person or infringe on their rights: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill 9). The only limitations government can impose are those that keep people from harming each other. In addition, Mill argues for absolute freedom of speech: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill 16). This freedom of speech allows all voices, opinions, and possibilities to be heard, which he believes enriches society. Such a lack of rules, censoring, and government involvement allows citizens to go about their lives in whatever way they see fit: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it” (Mill 12). By putting each person in charge of himself, Mill calls for minimal government involvement. By Mill’s reasoning, this form of government will likely lead to greatest overall efficiency and access to ideas since everyone can do what is best for their own life, without being hindered or silenced.

Marx’s communist philosophy suggests that the poor working class rise up in rebellion against the wealthier classes, abolishing all private property and instituting full equality. The main plan of communism, according to Marx, is to organize the working class into a group which could overthrow the government and institute a more fair system: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat” (Marx 67). A full-scale revolution is in the works, and The Communist Manifesto is Marx’s way of organizing his ideas and delineating his plan. He argues that the middle to upper class, the “bourgeois”, are far to rich compared to the lower class, and that abolishing private property would restore the opportunities and life styles to a more fair distribution: “You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths” (Marx 69). This claim is the basis for the rest of his reasoning and ideas for a communist government.

Marx’s ideas are similar to Mill’s principles in several ways. Marx claims that the communist movement would allow more freedoms to women and children, since they would not be forced to work and live in poverty: “The real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production” (Marx 72). Mill is clearly in favor of more freedom for everyone, as that is his main proposition. Mill’s keystone idea that every person be afforded free speech and the right to their own opinion, no matter how unpopular, is similar to the principles of Marx’s ideal communist society, where there would be no state-sponsored religion: “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality” (Marx 73). In addition, Marx is adamant that the tyranny of the rich must be overcome by the poor majority, which seems to echo Mill’s theory that the government has no right to suppress citizens and demonstrate tyranny over them. However, this is where the similarities between Mill and Marx end and they divert down separate, very different paths.

While Marx claims to dislike tyrannies, especially those enforced by the bourgeois, his notion of overthrowing the government and taking away everyone’s private property could be viewed as a tyranny in itself. He is ignoring the wishes and opinions of the middle and upper classes simply because the lower class makes up the majority: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (Marx 65). Mill strongly warns against this “tyranny of the majority”, or “social tyranny”, asserting that just because the majority holds a certain opinion, that opinion isn’t necessarily right or helpful: “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” (Mill 4). Marx’s scheme of a complete upheaval of the social systems in place completely contrasts with Mill’s important theme of the majority not imposing on those in the minority.

Although Mill and Marx agree on some points in their writings on ideal systems, the main point in each work strongly opposes that of the other. Both men want more freedoms, however, Mill wants freedom for everybody, while Marx only wants more freedom for the poor working class. This would essentially switch the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed in Marx’s version of communism, whereas Mill believes that no government should tyrannize or regulate a citizen unless he is causing direct harm to another person. The theories of both men seem sincere and well-meaning at first glance, but it becomes clear that Mill’s philosophy would be in everyone’s best interest and involve the least amount of interference from the government. Even though Marx’s ideas would free the majority from poverty, in doing so it would take away freedoms of the middle and upper class minority, essentially asserting that one group’s needs and thoughts are better than those of another. This has the potential to create a never-ending power struggle and a sense of superiority among whichever group is in the majority at the time, which does not seem in the best interest of society as a whole. Although Marx is trying to create the best environment for the majority, sometimes it is more important to let everyone have their freedom, while sacrificing such structured government institutions as communism.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Frederic L. Bender. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Ed. Elizabeth Rapaport. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1978. Print.


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      Louise 3 years ago

      Again. what would you say Marx and mills views on the free market and trade where?

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      Louise 3 years ago

      This helped me a lot thank you!

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      Comrade Joe 4 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      I think you have misunderstood Marxism, but to be fair it is a fairly typical misrepresentation. You use the language of "should". But Marxism is not a moralistic theory. He is not concerned with what should be the case. It is a theory of history. Just sticking to the Manifesto he is explaining how history moves through epochs: Primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism to communism. What he tells us is that we pass through these epochs through class struggle and revolution. He bases how the advance from capitalism to socialism and communism will occur on how the advances through all the other epochs occurred: revolution happens when the productive forces of society outgrow the scope of the existing order. He is in no way arguing that it is a moral duty to have revolution or that the proletariat should rule because this is more just. That it happens to be more just is a bi-product of historical development.

      Finally while you suggest that Mill wants freedom for all, I would suggest this is true in words but not in the application of the theory to material world. As encapsulated by the Marxist critique of this style of thought

      "It is difficult for me to imagine what "personal liberty" is enjoyed by an unemployed person, who goes about hungry, and cannot find employment. Real liberty can exist only where exploitation has been abolished, where there is no oppression of some by others, where there is no unemployment and poverty, where a man is not haunted by the fear of being tomorrow deprived of work, of home and of bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other liberty possible."

      Finally to say that Marx only wants freedom for the working class is not true. The point again is that through history classes have appeared and disappeared, the minority subjugating the majority at each step. Socialism is the one system that turns this on it's head and the result is a classless society: communism - which for the first time is actual freedom for all.

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      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, ReverieMarie. You are correct that Marx and Mill have philosophies that are quite different but do intersect on some key points. Marx talks about the results of unfettered freedom and its tyranny on the proletariat and the need to free them. Of course it goes overboard big time in real life. I believe the happy medium of limited socialism via our social programs helps mitigate the excesses of freedom and capitalism.

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