After reading this essay you will learn about the early and modernized liberalism.
It is very difficult to ascertain the exact time of the origin of liberal political philosophy. Some thinkers hold the view that it originated in the Reformation Movement. But most of the thinkers agree that liberal political ideas were prominent in the writings of Locke.
The revival of political liberalism, we find, again, in English utilitarians. Bentham, James Mill and J. S. Mill—these three utilitarians have treated the doctrine with the best of their intellectual capacity. But the political liberalism of Bentham and James Mill does not resemble that of J. S. Mill on every point.
There are several differences. Sabine calls liberalism of Bentham and James Mill early liberalism and J. S. Mill’s modernized liberalism.
“The division of liberalism into two periods somewhat more than an expository convenience…The dividing line can best be drawn perhaps at John Stuart Mill because his philosophy stood curiously on both sides of the line”.
A caution is to be noted here. Liberal philosophy, though started much earlier, reached its culmination in the hands of the Philosophical Radicals. But it started to follow a different direction when the younger Mill appeared in full-fledged form in the academic world of England.
We shall now see the nature of political liberalism of Bentham and James Mill’s era. Bentham showed no special interest in political theory.
His main interest was the principle of utility and jurisprudence. But the latter was a part of the former. For the maximization of happiness the law and legislator were both essential. Bentham also expressed his great liking for laissez-faire economy.
The self-regulated economy restricted the role of the state or government. The spontaneous economic activities could enrich the economy of the state and Bentham advocated it. Of course, Bentham was not the inventor of economic liberalism; he borrowed the principle from Ricardo and Adam Smith.
In an article published in the Westminster Review James Mill estimated that about two hundred families effectively controlled the entire House of Commons. The members of the House were chosen directly or indirectly by these two hundred families.
They were the clergy of the Established Church, legal profession and landed aristocrats. That was the nature of the monopoly of political power.
There were two political parties who controlled the politics of England. James Mill said that, in fact, there was no basic difference between these two parties. One exercised power and another remained in opposition. Both shared all the benefits of political power. The general mass had no say in the organization and functioning of the state.
There was the rule of coterie in every party. In fact, according to James Mill, the English politics was absolutely the organ of class interests. James Mill proceeded in a determined way to break this monopoly of power.
His purpose was to open the door of the House of Commons so that people of all classes, particularly of middle class, could get an opportunity to enter the House. He wanted to reform the electoral system.
In his Fragment of Government Bentham insisted upon two principles. The power of the government shall be limited. To put it in other words, the accountability of authority to the people should be ensured. The other is that the liberal government must not be weak.
Bentham suggested that this could be materialized through the sovereignty of parliament. In order to make the parliament broad-based Bentham proposed wide-ranged reforms of parliament and the representative system. Through the parliament, people could exercise their authority.
The ultimate power in this way could be entrusted to the people. Bentham believed that it was not enough. Individuals must take active interest in social and political affairs and for that purpose other reforms, particularly reforms of suffrage, were imperative.
The political thought of Enlightenment left behind an impact about liberty and other related issues.
The most important contribution of Enlightenment is the rise and development of reason. This influenced man to claim that they must have sufficient liberty for the proper development of their mental faculties and this is not all the liberty must be safeguarded and the state will have to take that responsibility.
When this happens the government could be called a good one. Thus we find that the early liberals were considerably concerned with the attainment and protection of liberty. But they were against handing enormous powers to state.
The early liberals fought hard to affect a compromise between private and general interests. Without this harmony the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons would never be a fact.
James Mill argued that the education should be spread so that people with certain amount of general education can easily understand their own private interests and to re-conciliate them with the interests of the community. Education also makes people politically conscious—which is a definite limitation upon the whimsical or arbitrary power of state.
The Philosophical Radicals or liberals were not active politicians nor did they form any party. They were intellectuals and they wanted to create pressure upon the government through their forceful writings.
The liberalism of the Philosophical Radicals was an intellectual force of enormous political importance in nineteenth century politics. Without themselves attaining the proportions of a political party, they disseminated ideas in the light of which a vast amount of antiquated political lumber was swept away and legislation, administration and judicial process were made both more efficient and more democratic.
The reform of parliament, the repeal of obsolete restrictions on trade and industry and the reorganization of the judicial system were the conspicuous examples of this process. These are only few examples. The nineteenth century judicial and political processes underwent drastic changes as a result of the writings of Philosophical Radicals.
An important aspect of early liberalism has ultimately become a confluence of several contemporary burning issues. Many of the early liberals had great interest in personal happiness; some of them were not against the general welfare of the community.
They claimed liberty and wished to see the state to play a positive role. The early liberals wished to make a compromise between private and public interests but “with a clear leaning towards the individual’s interests. There are inconsistencies in this approach. But this is the situation.
The early liberalism is not free from criticism. It is commonly observed that the Philosophical Radicals had neither clear philosophy nor any assumptions. Reform of judicial or administrative system does not constitute any philosophy at all.
The early liberals claimed to be empirical. But, unfortunately, they never tried to check their premises or conclusions. They had no clear conception of social good.
They relied too much upon the importance of education and reason of men. Education is important no doubt, but it is not Aladdin’s Lamp which can solve each and every problem of the society.
The liberals of the early period wanted to change the nature of politics without changing the economic base. Remaining within the capitalist structure and influence the early liberals wanted a thorough change of society. But this is an impossible adventure. They might have sympathy for the working people but the way of real emancipation was not known to them.
The liberal policies or reform proposals advocated by Philosophical Radicals proved their in fructuousness even during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
The unregulated industrialism produced undesirable consequences and misgivings and their reaction became quite obvious. Economic disparity crossed all marks of decency and toleration.
C. B. Macpherson says:
“The condition of the working class was becoming so blatantly inhuman that sensitive liberals could not accept it as either morally justifiable or economically inevitable.” Engels has portrayed a very pathetic picture of the working class in his famous book The Conditions of Working Class in England.
In the year 1841 a Royal Commission was appointed by the British Government to investigate the conditions of the working class and numerous other aspects of the industrial world of Britain.
The reports published by the government created a countrywide sensation. The report revealed the miserable conditions of workers— particularly women and children. They were forced to work long hours and without break.
There was no system for equal wage for equal work. There were no safety devices and sanitary conditions in the work place. The women workers were exploited in all the ways.
The Royal Commission primarily focused its attention on mining industries, but the conditions in other industries were not better at all. Large number of people began to think that the big and powerful industrialists were no doubt responsible for the appalling conditions, but the state also has a responsibility.
It was forcefully argued that the state cannot absolve of its responsibility. It must do something for the alleviation of unbound miseries of common men. These people did not want to make the state all-powerful in the Hobbesian frame. The state will have to play a positive role and, at the same time, people’s liberty will get scope to flourish.
England was flooded with novels and other types of literature criticizing the evils of Industrial Revolution.
Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Disraeli’s Sybil and Kingsley’s Alton Locke were published in the decade of 1840. The sky of England was rent with vociferous criticisms of industrialism. Many people began to look askance at the efficacy of the liberal policies. Everyone felt that a change was necessary.
Change in what? A change in the attitude of the government, a change in the policy of the government. We can in this connection quote the pertinent remark of Sabine “As the nineteenth century advanced the volume of social legislation steadily increased until, in the opinion of the competent observers, by the end of the third quarter of the century parliament had in effect discarded individualism as its guiding principle and had accepted collectivism. Liberalism as it had been understood was on the defensive and by curious anomaly legislation passed in the interest of social welfare and therefore of the greatest happiness, ran counter to accepted liberal ideas.”
In plain language the early liberalism was thought inadequate to meet the peculiar and complex situation of the nineteenth century. A new creed, a new ideology was badly needed. It was strongly felt that the state could not be a helpless onlooker of social events and deteriorating conditions
The stage of British conservative society was not set for accepting any new dogma and rejecting root and branch the doctrine of liberalism. Liberalism occupied a major part of the public mind.
A shift from liberalism to any other doctrine such as socialism meant the destruction of the old tradition and existing political system. British people were not prepared for that.
They were always in favour of a compromise or adjustment. Onslaught against liberalism was growing no doubt. But nobody was thinking of eschewing it. Liberalism would remain, but a thoroughgoing revision was needed. Law, political system and the role of the government were to be changed to meet the new demands and situation.
The modernization of liberalism assumed two shapes; One was provided by J S Mill and, to some extent, Spencer, and the other by the Oxford idealists whose leader was T H. Green.
“Not a modification of the old Benthamite premises, but a new philosophy was needed, and that philosophy was provided by the idealist school, of which Green is the greatest representative”.
Mill revised utilitarianism, attributed new role to the state. He recommended several reform proposals to improve the economic conditions of the workers all these are regarded as “qualified socialism.”
In his Autobiography he admits that his weakness for socialism was influenced by his wife.