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On Liberty | Context


Age of Revolutions

By the time John Stuart Mill published On Liberty in 1859, the world was well advanced into the modern era. The beginnings of the second Industrial Revolution were underway, and railroads, steamships, and transatlantic telegraphy were creating closer global connections. With them, new social relationships were created in which wage labor and class struggles were increasingly important and social conflict over these issues seemed more pronounced. Much of Europe was overtaken by a wave of revolutions in 1848 and even Mill's home country, Great Britain, was the site of raucous protests by the Chartist movement, in which workers sought to extend democratic rights beyond restrictive property limitations. Occasionally this sparked violence, as in the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where British forces attacked and killed protestors who wanted an extension of voting rights. Much of the globe meanwhile was in similar tumult. European empires were attempting to colonize much of the world and had already been successful in many cases. In others, like the new countries of Latin America, national republics and home rule had taken the place of empire. Mid-19th century elites like Mill were deliberating the best way forward for nations of western Europe and the world amid social turmoil and unrest driven by the working and governed classes.

Mill wrote On Liberty with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, both of whom were engaged in leading liberal progressive causes of the day, including women's rights, abolition of slavery, labor rights, and others. The question of social rights, liberty, and how far to push reforms were the leading social questions of the mid-19th century. The Mills remained committed to nationalist free-market democracies and European empire, but for them the justification for this social order was based on individual liberty—societies constructed to allow the utmost freedom of action possible for those capable of self-government. On Liberty is their attempt for a philosophical justification of that order.

Enlightenment and the Limits of Reform

The Enlightenment, a revolution in political philosophy, had given rise to the political revolutions of the 18th century, notably those in France, the United States, and Haiti. And by 1800 many of the feudal, aristocratic orders of the old world were being undone. In their place were new, modern nation states, based on the idea of governance by citizen representation and the "natural rights of man."

But these "new" rights themselves were vaguely defined; particularly, the philosophical justification of these new rights was growing stale in the eyes of many conservative observers of the foundation of the new nation states. The British philosopher John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government, which justified governance based on property rights, in 1689. French philosopher and radical Jean Jacques Rousseau's "social contract" theory, which argued that the social order was formed of implicit social agreement between rulers and the ruled based on protection of social rights, was nearly 100 years distant, to be published in 1762. While these works had breathed revolutionary fire into the movements of the 18th century, by the 19th century they were taken for granted. Further, the various problems of the 1850s—class struggle, social rights beyond propertied men, and others—were not addressed in these works. Mill set himself in On Liberty the task of updating the notions of the Enlightenment, particularly those of individual freedom, for the modern era. And he sought to provide a philosophical justification for governance and capitalism based on the new order of social rights.


A major development not anticipated by the social philosophers of the Enlightenment was the dramatic change wrought by the first Industrial Revolution (1760–1840). Primarily seen at the time as a technological and economic transformation, the industrial revolution also remade social relationships, producing new social classes, and disrupting old notions of patronage and obligation. With industrial production came two historic needs: the need for unprecedented quantities of capital to fund, construct, and operate the new factories and the need for hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of workers to make them run.

These needs were the bases for an emergent new class structure, not of aristocrats and commoners, but of capitalist owners and laboring workers. The divide created tremendous social inequality, in which the owners did little and grew wealthy while the working class slaved under miserable conditions, as recorded in German industrialist and socialist Friedrich Engels's 1844 work The Condition of the Working Class in England. In the new industrial cities of London, Manchester, and Liverpool the working class were crowded into densely packed urban slums where poverty and disease were common. Routinely the working poor were kept from access to voting by property restrictions or antiquated representational measures, and cultural standards presumed the working class unfit for self-governance. Mill set out to consider what the Enlightenment values said about these people, about whether the poor and the working class were to be given the same rights as others, particularly men of property and other social elites.

On Liberty does not address this question directly, but in his focus on individual liberty irrespective of condition, one can see Mill tackling the major "social question" of the day. His answer is that all persons should be allowed the fullest extent of their natural liberty so long as it does not harm others. In this formulation a progressive notion of industrial capitalism can be seen, one in which each person has equal rights, but the basic relations of classes and ownership of property remains unchanged. The paradox of this relationship—who will therefore enforce equal rights under conditions of unequal power—remains unresolved in Mill's work and is a question democratic capitalistic societies wrestle with today.


In addition to the Enlightenment and industrialization, Mill was responding to the new critiques of the entire liberal tradition. By 1859 a global movement of working class people had radicalized and developed new ideologies: socialism—the idea that workers should control property and production; communism—the idea that workers should create a classless society; and anarchism—a version of these ideas that included the abolition of the state in addition to property and class. These new ideologies offered far-reaching solutions to poverty and the social order and new explanations of the social forces that left the working poor with so little. The most significant work in this vein was the 1848 publication by the German philosophers and revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Communist Manifesto, which argued that workers around the world should unite and overthrow the ruling capitalists, the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels argued that these workers had "nothing to lose but [their] chains." Other thinkers, notably the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in What is Property? (1840), found that the buying and selling of property under industrial capitalism amounted to theft from the common people.

For those who sought to defend and perhaps improve the social order, the social conflict from industrialization and the ideas of socialism were significant challenges. After a half century of nationalist democracies based on capital and private property, many, especially the poor, believed that their conditions were not improving and turned to socialism to provide answers. Mill too was concerned, worried that the system of democracy would undo established freedoms, such as the rights of property, but also other social rights like free speech. Mill's book is a response to the critics of the principles of capitalist democracy. On Liberty sought to demonstrate that societies based on individual rights, rather than collective interests, would ultimately produce the most good.

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