The Socialist Sympathies of John Stuart Mill

The Socialist Sympathies of John Stuart Mill

In those days I had seen little further than the old school of political economists into the possibilities of fundamental improvement in social arrangements. Private property, as now understood, and inheritance, appeared to me, as to them, the dernier mot of legislation: and I looked no further than to mitigating the inequalities consequent on these institutions, by getting rid of primogeniture and entails. The notion that it was possible to go further than this in removing the injustice—for injustice it is, whether admitting of a complete remedy or not—involved in the fact that some are born to riches and the vast majority to poverty, I then reckoned chimerical, and only hoped that by universal education, leading to voluntary restraint on population, the portion of the poor might be made more tolerable. In short, I was a democrat, but not the least of a Socialist. We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass: but our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists. While we repudiated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all; when the division of the produce of labour, instead of depending, as in so great a degree it now does, on the accident of birth, will be made by concert on an acknowledged principle of justice; and when it will no longer either be, or be thought to be, impossible for human beings to exert themselves strenuously in procuring benefits which are not to be exclusively their own, but to be shared with the society they belong to.

J. S. Mill, Autobiography

John Stuart Mill is undeniably the paradigmatic liberal; the primary author of On Liberty and he who boldly declared that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Throughout his life Mill promoted causes noble (women’s suffrage, abolition) and dishonourable (colonialism, the death penalty), though looking back most liberal commentators would say the rap sheet was eminently in his favor. And indeed Mill himself strode to be on the leading edge of history; in his Autobiography he proudly claimed to be on the “progressive” side of liberalism throughout most of his life. These facts about Mill are very well known to the thousands of writers who appeal to him across the political spectrum. 

What is less well known is that in addition to being a liberal icon—bordering on sainthood—he also self-identified as a socialist. In his posthumously published writings on socialism, in addition to laying out some of the challenges it might face, Mill chastised classical liberals for being the “mere levellers of former times” whose more “far sighted successors, the socialists” go further in pursuing the emancipation of society. These opinions were considered outrageous by many commentators, with stalwart defenders of capitalism like Ludwig von Mises who described Mill as providing “for decades” one of “the main props of the socialist ideas, and [contributing] more to its popularity than the hate-inspired and frequently contradictory arguments of socialist agitators.” But in the decades since, the socialist aspects of Mill’s thinking have largely been sidelined or evasively denied, despite his express statements to the contrary. 

Now, in an era where socialist ideas are resurgent, we have a great new book by Helen McCabe subtly titled John Stuart Mill: Socialist. McCabe has been writing on Mill’s socialism for decades, and this book is undoubtedly the grandest and most systematic discussion of this dimension of his thought and its connection to those which are better known. More importantly, McCabe shows how Mill didn’t consider his socialism a break with liberalism but rather its organic continuity. For those of us who follow Rawls in identifying as liberal socialists this is a very welcome contribution which highlights the deep overlaps between the two traditions and how they can be better put into constructive dialogue with one another—including through analysis of shared canonical figures. 

Moreover McCabe’s book is not simply a scholarly exegesis. She highlights how, while Mill identified as a socialist, he was never an uncritical follower of any one of the schools, but developed his own distinct conception of socialism focused on the ideal of worker cooperatives and other forms of economic democracy. This is obviously very different from the utterly discredited command economies of the past and warrants a fresh look on its own merits. 

J. S. Mill, liberal and anti-capitalist

McCabe, an Associate Professor in Political Theory at the University of Nottingham, has been writing on Mill for decades and her intense scholarly acumen shines throughout the book. The first third of the book is taken up with a lengthy discussion of Mill’s liberalism and his shifting perspectives on capitalism. McCabe draws on immense biographical and literary evidence to suggest that, Mill’s movement on these issues isn’t best understood as a break—as I myself thought—so much as an evolution. 

In his early life Mill was a mostly faithful disciple of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill’s support for market society. This itself was a progressive position to take; in the late 18th and early 19th century Great Britain was still transitioning from an aristocratic to a capitalist economy. McCabe argues that Mill thought there was “merit in some arguments put forward by proponents of laissez faire.” Mill sympathized with the argument that there should be an “inviolable circle” around individuals which the government couldn’t breach. He was also wary of an extension of government power, even backed by majoritarian license, since Mill worried this could corrode people’s individualism—though McCabe reminds us that Mill counseled caution about the use of this power, not a ban. Mill also worried that government provision of goods could be inefficient, since individual market actors are better equipped to make judgements of what is necessary for their utilitarian satisfaction than the state. Finally, he agreed with the classical liberal dictum that relying on government would generate forms of dependency and warp character “leading to a people incapable of doing things on their own collective agency and initiative.” 

So how then could Mill be a socialist? The answer is that Mill’s own account of socialism was considerably anti-statist, but more importantly that he was consistent enough to recognize that the market itself could be a considerable and even lethal threat to his cherished human liberty . In her book McCabe lists five main criticisms. First, Mill regarded capitalism as itself wasteful and inefficient, both because the worker had little inventive to do more than she needed for her wage, and because the capitalist class—many of whom didn’t labor but inherited their wealth—spent vast sums on “objects of little worth.” Second, Mill thought that capitalism itself imposed serious constraints on individualism and liberty, such that the “constraints of communism” would “be freedom in comparison with the present condition of the majority of the human race.” Throughout his writings, Mill condemned the reduction of the laborer down to a mere tool used by the capitalist class to produce profit. Third, Mill surprisingly anticipated John Rawls in recognizing the moral arbitrariness in the distribution of resources that results from capitalist inequality. While he wasn’t as stalwart a critic of meritocratic mythologies as Rawls, he nevertheless opined that the “distinction between rich and poor, so slightly connected as it is with merit and demerit, or even with exertion and want of exertion in the individual is obviously unjust.” As he artfully put it in Socialism:

These evils then—great poverty, and that poverty very little connected with desert—are the first grand failure of the existing arrangements of society. The second is human misconduct; crime, vice, and folly, with all the sufferings which follow in their train. For, nearly all the forms of misconduct, whether committed towards ourselves or towards others, may be traced to one of three causes: poverty and its temptations in the many, idleness and desoeuvrement in the few whose circumstances do not compel them to work; bad education, or want of education, in both. The first two must be allowed to be at least failures in the social arrangements, the last is now almost universally admitted to be the fault of those arrangements—it may almost be said to be a crime.

Mill also observed that wealth has a tendency to accumulate over generations, much as poverty tends to be a vicious cycle. This meant that the divide between rich and poor under capitalism was clearly an injustice that needed to be rectified. 

Fourth Mill was critical about capitalism’s relentless need to grow, both for environmental reasons and due to its impact on the human psyche. He warned that the social ethos engendered by capitalism is one where “trampling, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels” forms the “existing type of our social life.” This is related to his final criticism, which is that capitalism tends to undermine our capacity for solidaristic relationships in society. McCabe points out that Mill was a lifelong proponent of the French revolution and took all three of its founding principles—liberty, equality, and solidarity—seriously. She also wryly observes how many right-wing interpreters of Mill only highlight his commitment to the first of these principles, and to the extent the second, equality, gets any attention it’s is understood in purely negative or formal terms. Mill’s commitment to solidarity is rarely, if ever, defended. 

On Mill’s socialism 

The majority of McCabe’s book is taken up with a reconstruction of Mill’s own socialist project, which he developed slowly over the course of his life. She stresses how Mill was always interested in the socialist ambitions of figures like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, admiring their experimentalism and egalitarian concern for the flourishing of all but seeing their plans as unworkable. By contrast Mill took the writings of St. Simon far more to heart, accepting many of his criticisms of established privilege and the effect of social stratification and even extending them more comprehensively to the capitalist society of 19th century Britain. This was even the case in his more market friendly period, as he engaged in friendly debates with the St. Simonian’s and took their arguments seriously. Over time the positive appraisal of socialist arguments becomes more and more prominent, until he finally came to identify with a qualified form of socialism.

McCabe argues the reasons for this are complex, but by no means constitute a deviation from Mill’s liberalism. Mill was deeply interested throughout his life in personal sovereignty, as McCabe put it the “planning [of] one’s own life, or reflectively deciding on goals and making plans for achieving them, and of doing what Mill wanted us to do do-reflectively construct our own moral code, and live by it.” In other words it is wrong to see Mill as endorsing a purely “negative” rather than “positive” concept of liberty—one deeply linked to his perfectionist conviction that experiments in living would help individuals live flourishing lives conducive to their qualitatively richest happiness. Mill’s liberal socialist “utopia” included respect for many of the negative liberties, as defined by his famous harm principle, but it was by no means exhausted what was necessary to secure liberty. Mill believed that a level of material well being, freedom from objectification in the workplace, and solidaristic attachments to others were all important.

Also key was the ability to participate in democratic practices, both to ensure that one was free from the domination of political and economic practices one could not influence and also to generate the solidaristic feelings of attachment through which develop and express our individualism as equals with all our fellows. Most radically, McCabe points out how Mill extended this democratic sensibility to the economy, writing in later editions of Principles of Political Economy that worker co-ops and democratic workplaces were the “nearest approach to social justice, and the most beneficial ordering of industrial affairs for the universal good which it is possible at present to foresee.” 

This brings us to perhaps some of the most unique insights in Mill’s socialism, which separate it from more statist variants, and shockingly McCabe even claims the Nordic social democracies which one might immediately point to as possible real life examples of what Mill would have wanted. McCabe reiterates that, for all of his wariness about the state, Mill was happy to argue that it should provide certain kinds of public goods: quality education for all, various forms of public healthcare, providing parks and places and recreation, basic utilities, means of communication, funding for the arts and sciences, and endowments to promote human excellence. On first glance, this might seem like a thin list next to the generous benefits provided by modern social democratic regimes. But McCabe reminds us that these goods were substantial by the standards of 19th century Britain, and that Mill was enough of a social scientist that had he lived to see the high standards of living in the Nordic countries and “perhaps if he had seen how such schemes generated utility (coupled with an egalitarian and fraternal social ethos) without necessarily eroding independence, he would have supported them.” My suspicion is he would have. 

But the key distinguishing feature of Mill’s socialism is its endorsement of what we now call workplace or economic democracy. Mill remained concerned about economic efficiency and dependency on the state even as he identified with socialism, and sought a way to reconcile these concerns. His argument was that worker co-ops, which are organized democratically, lack capitalist owners and distribute profits in a varied but likely more egalitarian manner and that this was a way of having the best of all possible worlds. As McCabe put it, “Mill envisaged cooperatives determining their own principles of distribution. People would work in the cooperatives for which they were most fit, and all of us would choose cooperatives where the principles of justice were most expedience… He insisted that power should not automatically result in more renumeration within cooperatives, and given the limits imposed by equality, fraternity, and the inability to purchase private property, it is plausible to say that greater remuneration could not, in Mill’s utopia, mean greater power.”  These cooperatives would trade with one another and ensure that the incentives of competition were preserved. But there would likely be far less concentration of power and reward at the top, and considerable state resources to care for those who needed it. 

On the appeal of Mill’s liberal socialism

One interesting point that does not come up in McCabe’s book as frequently as it should is how prescient much of this looks. As a variety of recent academic and popular commentators have suggested, the idea of a worker democracy is very suggestive and would seem to be a way to have a “better socialism and a better capitalism” as Robert Dahl once put it. There are also many workable models on which to draw, from co-determination practices in Germany to actual flourishing worker co-ops like the Mondragon co-op in Spain. 

Moreover resurging interest in unionization and the labor movement, recently capped by the historic victory of workers who unionized the first Amazon warehouse, strongly suggests that the time for Mill’s ideas might be nigh. This is especially true in a populist context where social liberalism of the sort he endorsed remains highly popular in the United States and elsewhere, but where right-wing movements have enjoyed some success in presenting liberalism as slavishly committed to the market and its elites no matter how destructive they are of traditional communities and the environment. Advocating for a kind of liberal workplace democracy along Millian lines could be a way of not only politically animating workers, but also presenting a fresh new set of egalitarian ideals to strive for. 

McCabe’s book would also be strengthened by a genealogical analysis of why many forms of classical liberalism transformed the defense of property and even anti-socialism into such a prominent fetish—so much so that many of Mill’s libertarian fans find it baffling he could have ever endorsed socialism. Here I think such a genealogy is necessary to distinguish the principled basis of liberalism in its commitment to freedom, equality, and indeed solidarity endorsed by someone like Mill from the attachment to classical possessive individualism and its expansive conception of property rights. What is notable about Mill’s work is how little interest he has in thinking of expansive property as a good in itself or deriving from form or merit or desert. Indeed Mill was pioneering in being amongst the first major liberal theorist to extricate itself from these kinds of naturalizing and mythologizing conceits, recognizing the kind of moral arbitrariness that pervades most of the inequities that define our social world. For Mill, a certain form a material well-being was necessary to pursue our vision of the good life, which meant having an efficient economy. But the pursuit of endless wealth as an end in itself was not good, and indeed was even contrary to developing the forms of solidaristic attachments Mill thought would characterize a good society. 

Moreover it’s also clear that the disparities in material well-being created by capitalism were a serious problem which had no rational basis in the context of a society that had moved away from absolute scarcity. All this constitutes a sharp break with classical liberal possessive individualism and points the way towards later liberal thinkers like Rawls, whom McCabe strangely doesn’t spend much time putting Mill into dialogue with.

Nevertheless John Stuart Mill, Socialist is a fantastic and essential book and does what every seminal work of scholarship should: compel us to rethink and reconstruct a great thinker’s work and realize the potential within it that have yet to be realized. In an era where neoliberalism and right wing populism are pushing for even more inequalities of wealth and power, it is thrilling to be reminded of a major liberal thinker who pointed us in another and better direction—a road, as it were, not traveled. But one we can still choose to walk if we have the will. 

Featured Image is Commonweal