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History Political Science

Analysis of Classical Liberal & Socialist Thought

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.