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On Historical Progress: a Comparison of Marx and Mill

At a cursory level, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill seem to be philosophical antipodes. Marx’s name has been invoked in erecting a myriad of totalitarian states professing communism, whereas Mill’s ideas have been absorbed into the national ethos of many democratic societies predicated upon free market ideals; and those are just the actions of their epigones. Surprisingly though, when investigating the historico-philosophical concept of “progress,” the two hold very similar opinions in many regards. Starting with the philosophical underpinnings of their discussion, they share in several aspects such as dialecticism, the disbelief in a providential force that guides history, and the acknowledgement that progress is not universally linear nor resolute. More interestingly though, the two support remarkably analogous measures to spur progress. Primarily these measures consist of socioeconomic prescriptions like industrialization, the expansion and infiltration of capital towards all corners of the world, widening the application of liberal rights, and so forth; these recommendations are intended by both theorists to drive out “backwards” customs and vestigial instances of feudalism throughout the world, thus establishing global modernity[1]. The parallel between Marx and Mill continues in their discussions of Oriental societies gone stagnant, providing a counterpoint to “progress” within their arguments. So, with regards to the rhetorical roots of their arguments, the recommendations derived from their arguments, and a delineation of the consequences of ignoring their arguments, Marx and Mill appear identical; but what about the character of the argument itself? What is “progress” for Marx and Mill?

Marx and Mill begin to radically diverge when their actual argument for progress is examined. With regards to the speed of progress, Marx believes in a discontinuous, fitful tempo that occurs in great leaps, and that illusions of “steady” progress are actually of great harm to society. Mill, however, believes that progress occurs at an even pace and that society is at the most risk during times of change, like institutional shifts. The two’s divergence continues with regards to the utility of society during periods of progress. More specifically, Marx believes that over time, progress causes society to suffer more and more as they become increasingly repressed whereas Mill believes that progress, by definition, increases utility and never regresses to any great extent. These differences in utility reflect vastly different endpoints for the two theorists’ versions of “progress.” Marx believes with this general unhappiness, capitalism is marching towards its ultimate doom and its ultimate triumph simultaneously; that progress implies an eventual inversion of the status quo, not a continuation of it. Marx’s socialist revolution represents this, as it does not crescendo from rising expectations but rather it thunders out from underneath in despair. Unsurprisingly this is in stark contrast to Mill, whom does not envision a concrete endpoint for “progress,” believing it a concept only be defined in retrospect and never truly achieved. These differences in their arguments stem from a difference in the role of progress in each of the theorist’s arguments. In essence, Marx and Mill share greatly in the philosophical roots of their theories of progress, their recommendations to spur progress, and their examples of stagnation, but differ tremendously in the characterization of progress’ tempo, utility, and endpoint; ultimately these differences stem from structural differences in how they utilize “progress” for their arguments, and through these structural differences, Marx’s argument emerges as more encompassing, compelling, and defendable.

The Foundations of “Progress”

In discussing history and the notion of progress, Mill and Marx begin in similar positions. They both adopt a dialectic view, with Mill describing history thus far as resulting from the struggle between liberty and authority; Marx as the struggle between diametrically opposed classes. They both agree that there is no universal, unilineal path for any society to subscribe to. Mill exemplifies this when he claims the best that can be done is specifying institutions for societies at a given level of civilization; in one case of bringing “barbarians” to the next level of civilization, despotism might be justified (Mill, 1859, 13), but for more advanced, i.e. enlightened Western societies, free institutions would be the best path forward. Moreover, Mill acknowledged that this progress was not guaranteed as societies could limit liberty and thus progress, as he feared was occurring in Europe (Mill, 1859, 72). Marx similarly did not take progress for granted, and all he claimed was to be able to illustrate the mechanisms for which one type of society might supersede another, i.e. socialism replacing capitalism[2]. This progress was not guaranteed for Marx and depended upon several factors[3]. In these specifications, both of the theorists demonstrate a nuance rare among their 19th century peers in their repudiation of deterministic perceptions of history, citing necessary catalysts in order for progress to occur, and different scenarios that could result from the absence of those catalysts. These aforementioned similarities in their ideological underpinnings lead to similarities in recommending actions and doling out judgment.

How is Progress Promoted?

        In judging instances of legislative, economic, or military action as promoting progress or stagnation, Marx and Mill would find themselves in agreement the majority of the time. Marx throughout his works does not use the word “progress” entirely too often, and when he does, it is in two different capacities: in a condescending manner towards liberals and petty bourgeoisie that believed in gradual reform towards enlightenment and a positive endpoint, and contrarily in an avidly enthusiastic manner towards the expansion of capital. Ironically, Marx does not use “progress” to refer to achievements like the ten hour work day, instead describing it as “a momentaneous split between the landlords and money-lords” that brought “immense physical, moral and intellectual benefits hence accruing to factory operatives” (Marx, 1864, 516). Contrastingly, Bismarck’s defeat of Napoleon III promoted “progress” according to Marx (Marx, 1871, 619). Progress for Marx was represented in the ideology of the old middle class in combatting feudalistic forces. Because of this we see Marx allot tremendous praise in these instances. The bourgeoisie is described as spreading modern industry to the ends of the earth, eliminating deleterious primitive customs and superstition, freeing minds from the oppression of backwardness, and bringing forth the rise of productive powers. It is within these liberal precepts that Marx uses “progress” most often.

Along these lines, Marx uses “progress” to describe many historical instances that would appall colloquial Marxists i.e. the colonizing of India by the British. Marx credits the British for promoting progress over the “stagnant” society of Oriental India (Marx, 1853, 660). He believed that the Asiatic Mode of Production kept Asian societies in a sleepy stupor, unable to progress, and thus applauded liberal capitalist forces imposing themselves upon Asian societies. It’s clear that Marx distinguishes “progress” by the presence of bourgeois, liberal, and capitalistic forces and determines “stagnation” as occurring in areas that have not yet experienced this influence.

        Unlike Marx, Mill does employ the word progress quite often in his work[4]. In discussing progress, Mill explains: “It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself” (Mill, 1859, 57). Mill continues on to say that if this does not occur, then “the chief ingredient of individual and social progress” will be absent (Mill, 1859, 57). These liberal rights constitute liberty for Mill, and this liberty then drives progress. Liberty accomplishes this in a multitude of ways, but of particular note Mill mentions that liberty combats the remaining vestiges of feudalism and unproductive labor. Moreover, Mill recommends bolstering the industrial sectors of the economy, at the expense of pre-industrial sectors, to bolster liberty’s role. It is within these liberal social and economic precepts that Mill uses “progress” most often.

To contrast these examples of progress, Mill gives an example of stagnation: China. Mill warns that Europe could become like China (1859, 71-72):

 “A nation of much talent, and in some respects, even wisdom… surely the people… must have discovered the secret of human progressiveness and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary and remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be improved it must be by foreigners.”                                                

Mill continues on to criticize the dominance of custom in places like China, further implying that the antidote is Western liberal values. It’s clear that Mill distinguishes “progress” by the implementation of liberal, capitalistic force, and determines stagnation by the lack of implementation of these values.

        The parallels between Marx and Mill in prescribing and identifying “progress” are striking. Both identify the expansion of industrialization and capital, the worldwide export of liberal values and elimination of primitive customs and superstition, and other tools as key in instituting progress. Additionally, both of them single out Oriental nations specifically as stagnant, and use them as antitheses to “progress.” These similarities, like those in their philosophical foundations, would seem to suggest similar arguments or characterizations regarding “progress.” Upon further investigation though, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is the Character of Progress?

        If the prior section can be loosely equated to a De Facto description of “progress” for Marx and Mill in that it provides recommendations and realizations based in outward reality, then this section describes their De Jure definitions and arguments for “progress” in theory. Marx and Mill’s De Jure “progress” differs in three cardinal ways: the pace of progress, the status of utility during periods of progress, and the ultimate goal and endpoint of progress.

        Marx’s ideology of progress was all geared towards a tempo that valued bold leaps catalyzed by a rising tide of repression. Marx described the revolution of the proletariat as coming about in this manner, similar to how capital had been born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx, 1867, 435). This liberating revolution could only be achieved by a class that did not seek to rule and which valued “self-action” over representatives (Marx, 1871, 632). The option of a bureaucratic elite then, which still maintained control of the means of production, is unacceptable for Marx as it would reproduce many of the negative effects of capitalism. It would be akin to relapsing to pre-capitalistic conditions, which is why Marx did not reference bureaucracy in describing the progressiveness of capitalism. Because it led to bureaucracy, the belief that gradual and positive change would bring about socialism was unacceptable to Marx, and also dangerous in that it lulled the worker class into a false sense of contentment. Marx believed that it was necessary the worker, “straightway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy” (Marx, 1848, 500).[5] This was to bring about revolution, not gradual change and representation. Gradual change dulled the mind to the deleterious repression of the underclass, and through material complacency discouraged progressive revolution. Thusly for Marx, progress had to occur in violent fits and starts, and must be sought against all states, repressive and progressive.

        Mill, in stark contrast to Marx, describes the tempo of progress as necessarily steady. Mill discusses how the Chinese ought to have progressed if they had adhered to his prescription of liberty: “the people who did this must have discovered the secret of human progressiveness and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world” (Mill, 1859, 71-72). Mill does not deny that progress can stop, but if it is to move forward it is at a steady, consistent pace through an exchange of ideas and discourse. Mill’s own urgency in his writings convey a belief that he, as an individual, can make a difference, which reflects Mill’s beliefs that the collective individualism of a society spurred progress, albeit steady progress. Moreover, Mill in contrast to Marx, believes that the most precarious position is one of institutional change because it is less steady (Mill, 1859, 71-73). Progress then, for Mill, is positive and gradual.

        Another area of divergence for Marx and Mill are their beliefs regarding utility’s status[6] during times of progress. In laymen’s terms, what is it like to live during a time of progress? And what of the end point after this progress? Marx’s view of progress is not a positive one. The force that so powerfully modernizes the world is at the same time responsible for millions who are uprooted from their livelihoods, their customs, and their culture. While it places sophisticated objects at the feet of men, it also deprives them of their property, their relationships, control over their labor, and self-respect, essentially dehumanizing them. As Marx describes in Das Kapital:

“Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop… the co-operative form of the labor-process, the conscious technical application of science… the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market… with this too grows the revolt of the working-class…centralization of the means of production and socialisation of labour reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated… it is the negation of negation.”                                                                        -Marx, 1867, 438

Progress looks like more the apocalypse. The zenith of capital accumulation is reached, and the collective horror of the working class is realized, engendering a cohesive class consciousness. From this, socialism springs forth, later withering away to reveal communism. Within the Marxian idea of progress, the night is darkest just before the dawn.

        In contrast to Marx’s despondency over the inherent suffering necessary for progress, Mill seems altogether jovial. Mill conceives of man as an inherently progressive being, and this bodes well for the whole of humanity. Moreover, Mill believes when progress stops, “it keeps possession of the ground it has gained, but ceases to spread further” (Mill, 1849, 41). In conjunction with the steady nature of progress, it seems like an altogether pleasant thing. This is especially so when remembering utility’s position as an axiomatic principle for Mill, which then defines progression as an iteration with higher utility than the previous one. Whereas Marx’s progress is sudden and results from rising despair, Mill’s progress is subtle and results in no gigantic leaps. For Mill, a progressive society moves toward the full realization of the individual’s liberty, and then progress is determined in retrospect.  

        Clearly then, in the character of “progress,” meaning its tempo, the status of utility resulting from it, and endpoint of it, Marx and Mill diverge greatly. Marx believes in a “progress” marked by abrupt changes, the antithesis of which is gradualism, a “progress” brought about by increasingly disconsolate conditions, and a “progress” that ends in universal socialism. Mill believes in a “progress” that is of a gradual nature, a “progress” that results in sequentially better conditions for the society, and a “progress” that is never truly over and exists only in retrospect. As much as the Mill and Marx’s conceptions of progress share in philosophic beginnings and outward appearance, they clearly differ in inner character and structure.


        The similarities in the underpinnings of “progress” between Marx and Mill somewhat reflect 19th century trends, with particular nuances being due to the aptitude of each philosopher themselves. The similarities in prescribed action between Marx and Mill are due to fact that the former’s arguments encapsulate the latter’s arguments. Mill’s ideology is very similar to the ideology that brought the old middle class to power, and as such it is ideology Marx believed would bring about “progress.” What then of the differences? The differences stem from a disconnect in the two’s use of the term “purpose.” It’s clear that for Mill the role of “progress” is a passive end unto itself, never to be truly arrived at except retrospectively. Because it just serves as a backdrop for his arguments on utility and liberty, Mill’s “progress” lacks the fastidiousness of Marx’s, and if examined close enough contains presuppositions that require fantastical empirical claims. Mill must make the claim that liberty is the sole engine of progress for man and the key to universal historical progress, or that liberty’s relation to progress depends upon cultural conditions, which then would have had to be present since the dawn of time. In this way, Mill’s definition of progress serves as a rhetorical tool to animate history, not any empirical observation, and suffers for it; a pitfall Marx smartly predicts in his own work. Marx avoids this problem by specifying “progress” as the result of social action, decided by human praxis, and thus is much more defendable. It is in this asymmetry, stemming from the rhetorical purpose of “progress” in each of their arguments, that Marx’s argument is more compelling.


[1] John Stuart Mill’s views with regards to these topics shift over his lifetime, eventually landing at an endpoint near socialism. For the purpose of this essay, I will be comparing the Mill’s earlier works like “On Liberty.” It’s worth noting the irony in that Marx would appreciate Mill’s earlier work in promoting progress more than his later work.

[2]It’s a common misconception that Marx believed in a single path through history. It’s clear that this is untrue from the parallels Marx drew within his work to Charles Darwin. Marx believed Darwin’s theories as parallel to his own in that they stressed multilinearity. Just as societies could take multiple paths, multiple organisms could demonstrate fitness in their own unique way (Friends of Darwin, 2000)

[3] Contrary to the allegations of many critics, Marx rejected historicism. This is clear in a letter to Proudhon where he rejected the notion all nature was heading towards equality: “The solution of present problems does not lie for him in public action but in the dialectical rotations of his [Proudhon’s] own head…Thus in the eighteenth century a number of mediocre minds were busy finding the true formula which would bring the social estates, nobility, king, parliament, etc., into equilibrium, and they woke up one morning to find that there was in fact no longer any king, parliament, or nobility” (Marx, 1846, 131).

[4] For the purpose of examining Mill’s concept of progress, I will use the contradiction between liberty and utility within Mill’s works as an opportunity to designate the latter as an axiological principle. This will allow for us to recognize progress as Mill’s cardinal goal and examine it more coherently.

[5] In modernity’s case (Capitalism’s Epoch), these were liberal values and rights.

[6] The word utility here is drawn from Mill’s definition and taken generally to mean the state of society with regards to the promotion of pleasure and the absence of pain