Was John Stuart Mill a socialist?
John Stuart Mill was the most influential liberal thinker of the 19th century. Many of his arguments for free speech and personal autonomy have become staples of tradition, and he still enjoys pious follow among libertarians and self-proclaimed classical liberals. Naturally, this latter affinity has earned Mill many enemies on the Left. Karl Marx rejected the “foolish flatness” of bourgeois hacks like Mill in the first volume of Capital city. Years later, Herbert Marcuse (rightly so) berated him to have “elitist” opinions.
It’s unfortunate because, as Mill said Autobiography, his “ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond democracy and would classify [him] decidedly under the general designation of socialists. It doesn’t get more categorical than that.
At the end of his life, Mill married what we would now call liberal socialism: a political order that protects and extends most classical liberal freedoms, but abandons the strict private property rights so dear to early liberals like John Locke and James Madison.
Mill’s brand of liberal socialism was analytically stifled and, in some important respects – particularly on the question of democratization – deeply flawed. But it is striking that the alleged patron saint of Victorian capitalism was, in fact, one of his harshest critics.
By his own admission, Mill came to socialism late. Born in 1806, he radicalized both by reading socialists like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen and by the influence of his long-time friend and eventual wife, Harriet Taylor, who pushed him to take oppression more seriously. women and working classes.
Mill’s most important writings on the subject were later editions of The principles of political economy, the short leaflet Socialism, and Autobiography. Together they showed Mill’s growing sympathy for socialist reforms and the belief that those who ” [receive] the smallest part ”of the company’s profits deserves much more.
In Socialism he lambasted the classical liberals – the “levelers of old times” – for criticizing aristocratic privilege and inherited power without examining the many ways in which capitalist society has erected similar inequalities. He hailed the Socialists as their “far-sighted successors” – more consistent in their pursuit of substantive equality as a prerequisite for the development and freedom of all.
Mill’s arguments for socialism were very different from the historical materialism of someone like Marx. Characterized by simple moral claims in the manner of utopian socialists, Mill’s policy was an intriguing blend of three distinct elements: classical liberalism, utilitarianism, and English romanticism.
From classical liberals, Mill took a deep respect for individualism and the priority of personal freedom while separating it from the “possessive individualismFrom someone like Locke, who believed that owners had a natural right to profit from the work of workers. Mill’s individualism was much more egalitarian. He has retained the utilitarianism of his youth – “everyone [is] count for one, no one for more than one, ”in the words of Jeremy Bentham – who establishes moral and material equality as the basis from which deviations must be justified.
But Mill was also deeply concerned that Bentham’s reasoning was unduly mechanical, reducing humans to little more than hedonistic utility maximizers. So, from English Romanticism he took the position that what is important in life is not just the pursuit of fun, but that everyone is empowered to become the kind of person they want to be – that we have the right to be. ability to follow our “inner” strengths “and to express our individuality through ever more diverse life experiences.
What we get in Mill, then, is an egalitarian expressive individualism that clearly departs from Locke in asserting that all individuals should be guaranteed a good life – not just landowners, who get rich by living off work. alienated from workers.
Mill drew on these philosophical convictions to assert that capitalist society was fundamentally flawed. While his material productivity was undeniable, he believed that capitalism had failed in the equitable distribution of resources – and that it lent itself to neo-Lockian excuses about the virtues of hardworking capitalists and the vices of the poor.
Mill would have none of that. To his great credit, he admitted that most of the reasons people fell behind in capitalist society had little to do with personal efforts – and that while capitalists were in fact more capable and working harder, that would not justify letting millions of people languish. in poverty.
Write in Socialism, Mill offered a scathing account of this kind of reasoning, invoking the most autocratic ancient tyrants.
If a Nero or Domitian demanded that a hundred people run a race for their lives, provided that the fifty or twenty who came late were put to death, it would not be a decrease that the stronger or the more agile would make, except by some untoward accident, be sure to escape. The misery and the crime would be that they would have been put to death. So in the economy of society; if there are any who suffer from physical deprivation or moral degradation. . . [it] pro tanto is a failure of social arrangements. And to assert as a mitigation of evil that those who suffer in this way are the weakest members of the community, morally or physically, is to add insult to unhappiness.
Mill concluded Socialism by arguing that a just liberal society must experiment with different types of socialist organization to improve the situation of the most deprived. He never produced a systematic work explaining what these experiences should be, but in later editions of Principles of political economy he endorsed workers’ cooperatives as superior to enterprises run by capitalists and insisted that there was “nothing in principle in economic theory” that stood in the way of experimentation with principles and forms socialist organizations. He also argued that the state should help ensure more equal economic opportunities for all and provide a range of public services, especially education.
Interestingly, he was one of the first great liberal and socialist writers to take the issue of women’s equality seriously and, in The submission of women, even wrote that reform must go beyond guaranteeing liberal political rights for women. Patriarchal institutions like the family, he wrote, should be examined and reshaped.
Its record is less admirable on the issue of democracy. Mill had democratic instincts, advocating for universal suffrage by Considerations on representative government and, as a member of parliament, calling for the emancipation not only of working class men, but also of women. Some of his concerns about democratic rule – for example, the potential of a tyrannical majority to oppress minorities – remain relevant.
But he was also worried that the uneducated and unintelligent had too much say in politics, and he supported British colonialism, viewing the non-European subjects of his empire with condescension. He did not seem to understand how the persistence of parish attitudes and institutions maintained the inequalities he frequently criticized.
This speaks to the second major limitation of Mill’s liberal socialism: his lackluster interpretation of power. Mill set out to present ethical arguments in favor of liberal socialism. Undoubtedly convinced that this was the right social arrangement, he saw moral persuasion as the way to achieve it. He seemed stubbornly uninterested in analyzing the power dynamics of the liberal bourgeois state, its history, and how imperial powers like the UK worked to spread capitalism with the barrel of a gun. . He did not think about which social agents might have the power and interest to win a liberal socialist order.
Mill was aware that the concentration of political power in the hands of capital and the rich undermines egalitarian reforms, and he even recognized that seemingly private institutions, like the patriarchal family, are defined by unequal power dynamics that must be corrected. . But he was simply unwilling to consider a deeper democratization of society, even if it could shatter many coercive power structures.
On these points, someone like Marx is simply a much more attentive and helpful analyst than Mill.
Mill was a complex thinker who was often pulled in several directions. Rather than picking one path and sticking to it, his response was generally to try to synthesize the best elements of competing traditions into a cohesive whole. Nowhere is this clearer than in its variant of liberal socialism, which linked liberalism’s commitments to individualism and moral equality to socialist demands for economic equality and democracy in the workplace.
Any liberal socialism today should be more insightful in its democratic commitments and more insightful in its analysis of power in capitalist societies. But Mill provides a platform for thinking more carefully about the relationship between the great modernist doctrines of liberalism and socialism, and how they might be reconciled.
At the very least, those of us on the left should not allow libertarians and classical liberals to claim him as one of their own when Mill called himself a socialist and only despised defenders of exploitation and capitalist inequalities.
Therefore . . . two cheers for JS Mill?