History Political Science

Analysis of Classical Liberal & Socialist Thought

The disparity between liberalism and socialism is rooted in their different levels of analysis—the individual versus the collective proletariat— their contrasting opinions on the role of the state, and their opposing conclusions on the future of European states’ societal and governmental structure.

By Julianne Schmidt

Marked by the success of the American Revolution and the turmoil of the French Revolution, the nineteenth century was the setting for the birth of classical liberal thought. Out of these historical events emerged Wilhelm von Humboldt’s On the Limits of State Action and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, Democracy in America. Both of these works outline the basic principles of liberalism by emphasizing the importance of private initiative over the collective and advocating for the limited role of the state. A second derivative of political thought matured towards the middle of the nineteenth century amidst the height of the Industrial Revolution: socialism. Half a century after Humboldt’s text, Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, a fundamental analysis of the life of the English proletariat as framed by their environment and the consequences thereof. Shortly afterwards, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto detailed a structure for the proletariat’s shift to the ruling class. In contrast to liberalism, socialism prioritized the collective and embraced the role of the State as a sort of referee promoting the welfare of the commoner. The disparity between liberalism and socialism is rooted in their different levels of analysis—the individual versus the collective proletariat— their contrasting opinions on the role of the state, and their opposing conclusions on the future of European states’ societal and governmental structure.

The core of Humboldt’s text argues for liberalism’s prioritization of the individual over the collective society, and the role of the state to limit its actions to allow for this end. He argues that private initiative should be the foundation on which all states stand. The natural goal of life is to bring forth our individual personality, therefore the goal of the state should be to allow for the expression of each citizen’s individuality. The individual should be able to “enjoy the most absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies” (Humboldt 20). If states encroach upon the natural evolution of the individual, the result is an underdeveloped citizenry and the encouragement of passivity among the population. An overactive and overextended government will cause uniformity, destroy the vitality and sense of community among citizens, and ultimately undermine the efficiency of the state as a whole (23). Instead, Humboldt argues that the main function of the state should be more limited—it should maintain focus on just the protection of citizens from each other and from foreign invasion. This clearly delineated security function of the state allows freedom for the full development of the individual and provides an environment with a variety of stimuli to challenge people to further develop themselves (16). In this society, competition will exist among community members but this mutual competition will push each to their highest potential. Humboldt equates greater competition with an outcome of increased greatness of the civilization. He argues for the minimization of government and the maximization of freedoms given to the citizenry. This focus on the individual over the state will create a more efficient system comprised of self-motivated citizens that will expend energy on addressing only society’s necessities.

Whereas the liberal thought of Humboldt focuses on the individual himself acting to bring forth his unique personality, Engels specifically argues that the environment in which the individual finds himself is a crucial factor in determining his character, actions, and future potential. He discusses the inhumane living conditions of the working class, who are frequently piled together in overcrowded, unsanitary districts of towns that create an environment ripe for the spread of infectious disease and allow little hope for escape and improvement of condition. He writes that the proletariat lives in a “condition unworthy of human beings” and the entirety of the working class is “exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own and in spite of every possible effort” (Engels 43). It is important that Engels notes this blamelessness of the working class man—the proletariat is incapable of reaching its “full potential” in liberal terms because the environment in which they find themselves is static and restricting of social mobility. As a result of the depressed living conditions, Engels notes the uptick in theft, prostitution, and drunkenness throughout England in recent decades. Living in squalor, the working men squander their money on alcohol because it offers them a brief respite from the reality of their condition (129). In this way, he notes how immoral actions are derived from the inhumanity that the proletariat finds themselves living in. These actions of the proletariat, being direct products of their condition, can only be improved by the creation and intervention of a collective welfare state.

Engels shows that it is impossible to isolate the individual from the conditions of his life, an analysis that Humboldt does not address. In his focus on each individual’s ability to reach his highest potential self, Humboldt does not confront the realities of the conditions of the lower class. Because he writes before the complete fast-paced onset of the Industrial Revolution, Humboldt’s argument lacks the acknowledgement of the inescapable abject poverty that defines working class life. Engels makes a point in his description of working class conditions to include an excerpt from a contemporary liberal thinker, who is “amazed that it is possible to maintain a reasonable state of health in [the proletariat’s] homes” (Engels 76). The liberal thinker shares in essence the same astonishment at the working class living standards as Engels. In this way, both sides of the political theory acknowledge the destitution of the proletariat as a product of the Industrial Revolution. However, liberals and socialists fundamentally differ in their approach of the role of the state in alleviating these conditions.

For Marx and Engels the purpose of the state is to ensure the welfare of its citizens, departing from Humboldt’s emphasis on the separation of welfare programs from the role of the state. Socialists deny liberal thinkers’ necessary focus on individual development for the good of both the individual and the nation as a whole. Instead, they argue that priority should be placed on the collective, because the best results for all come when you put the good and equality of the whole of society first. In their manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that capitalism destroys the egalitarianism of society by pitting people against each other (Marx and Engels 479). It drives workers to compete with workers, resulting in an unproductive and disjointed society. The cohesive organization of the proletariat into a class is constantly disrupted by this internal competition spurred by capitalist influence (481). It is through class struggle and conflict, however, that the proletariat gains a sense of itself and its potential as a whole unit of society, for, “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows” (480). From this accumulating strength comes labor unions, the natural first step in the formation of the collective working class state. Once firmly established, these unions form the basis for the future organization of the proletariat as the ruling class. Empowering the workers as equal leaders of the collective state ensures that systems will be put in place to check competition, since Marx and Engels believe capitalist competition is contrary to human nature. This results in a banding together to protect the collective interests and common welfare. Contrary to liberal thinkers, Marx and Engels believe the pooling together of resources increases efficiency. Therefore, this collective society governed by the proletariat with the interests of the proletariat at heart will resolve the current plight of the working class.

By contrast, Tocqueville argues that democratic governments may naturally further concentrate and expand their powers, but measures must be put in place to ensure that these governments do not turn into benign paternalistic or despotic states. In this way, Tocqueville opposes the socialist favor of a strong central state as the promoter of unity and collective welfare. He argues that the “extreme centralization of political power ultimately enervates society and thus…weakens the government too” (Tocqueville 677). Therefore, states must avoid the expansion of bureaucracies and the destruction of secondary powers while promoting civic engagement and the direct election of government officials. Although these measures of limiting the state’s power contradict socialism, Tocqueville does recognize some pieces of information that Marx and Engels touch upon. He realizes that the “noble has gone down in the social scale, and the commoner gone up”, quasi-relating to the socialists’ perception of the ultimate rise of proletariat power and fall of bourgeoisie influence (11). He acknowledges the fact that the old regime that has dominated France and Europe as a whole for centuries cannot be brought back. However he does not see the future overthrow of the bourgeoisie class by the commoners. Instead, he discusses the concept of the “equality of conditions” or the equal opportunity of individuals to succeed and move upward in society (9). Inextricably tied to this equality of conditions is the “great democratic revolution” that is crossing the Atlantic from America (9). There are two possible outcomes of democracy, one being based on liberty, as in the United States, and the other being based on democratic despotism. In an overly centralized and powerful state, there is a fear of tyranny of the majority and the quiet despotism of a paternalistic government (675). In order to prevent this result, Tocqueville argues for the citizenry to be cautious of an overly expansive government and to support the limited role of the state and the maintenance of individual freedoms.


A link between these liberal and socialist texts can be found in the common discussion of the impact of post-revolutionary America on the political and economic framework of Europe. The influence of the newly democratic America is the foundation of Tocqueville’s work and is also referenced by Engels. For Tocqueville, America is the basis for his argument that freedom, knowledge, and prosperity can result from the equality of conditions in a successful democracy (Tocqueville 705). Engels, however, approaches the state of America through an economic lens. In his discussion of the “Attitude of the Bourgeoisie”, he states that the English capitalists are woefully underestimating the potential of the newly independent nation. For Engels, it is clear that America has a seemingly limitless capacity for economic progress with its “inexhaustible resources…[and] energetic, active population” (Engels 299). The new democracy has a more invigorated population than the beaten down English working class, which could be problematic for England in maintaining its leading position in the global economy. This discussion of American influence shared by the two modes of political thought reflects the different conclusions they derive from common analysis of a working democracy. For Tocqueville, it is America that forms the starting point for the wave of democracy that will inevitably hit Europe (Tocqueville 9). Simultaneously, Engels argues that it is America that poses a threat to the tenuous supremacy of English manufacturing—a threat that could hasten the proletariat’s destruction of the English bourgeoisie because it would potentially ruin the English economy and cause a recession, making the livelihoods of the working class economically unsustainable, thereby inspiring a united uprising (Engels 300). In this way, liberalism and socialism are connected in their acknowledgement of America’s indelible impact on the European continent. For liberals this impact will lead to the establishment of similarly structured democracies built on individual freedoms, free trade, and limited interference of the state. For socialists this impact is evidence of England’s impending economic struggles and is a harbinger of the proletariat revolution that rests on the horizon.

Ultimately, socialist policies differ from those of liberals because the theorists hold contrasting views on the future of the proletariat, societal structure, and the role of government. For Humboldt, the future of human history is centered on the individual and his efforts to attain his full personality. Sharing in this liberal thought, Tocqueville sees human history as being pushed by the current wave of equality of conditions and democracy coming from its origins in the United States. He believes this influence will inevitably envelope Europe as “the nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst” (Tocqueville 705). Humboldt and Tocqueville envision a future rooted in the freedoms of the individual and argue that the state should remain small so as not to disrupt or encroach on these freedoms. Marx and Engels do not see the existence of the “equality of conditions” discussed by liberals. The proletariat is viewed as being currently barred into a destructive capitalist environment whose continual oppression will trigger a revolt against traditional class divisions. Once at this stage, the “proletariat can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, and class struggles” (Marx and Engels 472). The result is the foundation of a collective welfare state that will abolish the roots of inequality and oppression. Therefore, socialist policies differ from those of liberals because they disagree with the ability of man to develop and reach his highest potential of his own accord in the capitalist world. The foundation of liberal thought is in the individual, but for Marx and Engels the cruel environment perpetuated by capitalism has prevented the individual from reaching this stage, and so the future is in the unity of the proletariat and the overturning of capitalism.

Socialist and liberal thought diverge in their prioritization of the collective versus the individual, the welfare role of the state versus the limited role of the state, and in their view of the future of the European state and the proletariat. Humboldt and Tocqueville see the future of democracies as balancing individual freedoms with some centralized state powers. Marx and Engels argue that the future lies with the proletariat as the ruling class, overturning the oppression of capitalism with the establishment of a collective welfare state. Both the socialist and liberal texts look to America as influential in determining aspects of the political and economic future of Europe. For liberals, America is the successful result of democracy. For socialists, America and its rising economic prominence represents a possible trigger of recession resulting in the final overthrow of the English bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels conclude their manifesto with “working men of all countries unite!”. By contrast, Tocqueville and Humboldt’s concluding lines are comprised of more wary warnings of the possibility of either a successful democracy or a despotic one. The aggression of the socialists’ tone is counterbalanced by the liberals’ cautioning one. Despite the impassioned tone of the Communist Manifesto, it is the cautionary tone of the classical liberal works that holds fast on the European continent and in the minds of citizens for decades to come.



Works Cited

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Harper & Row, 1988.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (second edition: Norton, 1978).

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. The Limits of State Action. Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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