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  • Mill and socialism: A reply to Capaldi
  • Helen McCabe (bio)

As Nicholas Capaldi notes, “the question of Mill’s relation to socialism continues to puzzle scholars.” There are two possible reasons for this. One is because it seems eminently puzzling that a philosopher with such a fundamental commitment to individual freedom could be a socialist; the other is because Mill was unclear about the relationship. The latter is, to some extent, true; Mill changed his mind about some of the contemporary socialist theories of his day, and also changed the extent to which he was willing to endorse socialism, as he expressly admits, depending on how open to socialism he felt his audience was likely to be.1 The case is further complicated by the fact that Mill died before finishing what he intended to be his most comprehensive work on the subject, his Chapters on Socialism.2

The first possible cause of puzzlement, however, ought to no longer be as perplexing. If one can only conceive of socialism as Stalinist, Soviet and state-centric, then Mill’s self-designation as being ‘under the general designation’ of socialist does indeed seem puzzling.3 But Mill’s relation with socialism becomes much less mystifying, I contend, when one sees that one could, and Mill did, conceive of socialism as small-scale, co-operative and capable of being tried piece-meal and peacefully, rather than requiring the complete overthrow of contemporary society. Moreover, it ought not to be beyond the bounds of belief to think that socialists could be concerned with liberty – and mean by liberty not just their own, idiosyncratic, understanding, but something liberals would accept. [End Page 145] John Rawls identifies the conceptual space that such a form of socialism might occupy as ‘liberal socialism’, an ideology committed both to liberty and equality, and also recognising the claims of community or fraternity.4 G. A. Cohen is a good example of a philosopher inhabiting such a space; fundamentally committed to equality, fervently protective of individual liberties, and also insistent that justice has to take into account more than either, and also recognise the claims of community. I think Mill is another (though rather different) such liberal socialist, and when one recognises someone can be a socialist and be committed to individual freedom then Mill’s position is no longer puzzling at all, especially when one realises the impact Mill believed important equalities, and a sense of fraternity or harmony, had on both freedom and his highest ethical goal, utility.

There is not space in an article to explain all the aspects of Mill’s political philosophy at length, nor to properly show how they make him a socialist. Instead, I would like to assess Capaldi’s reading of Mill’s relationship to socialism, following his structure, occasionally challenging that definition of socialism, and more frequently showing where I think Mill’s position is more complicated than Capaldi allows. I will then turn to a brief sketch of Mill’s socialism, and how it can be said to speak to a debate not just between liberty and equality, but between liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Social Doctrine

Capaldi makes the following claims about socialism as a social doctrine: that it offers an analysis of Europe in transition from a feudal economy (and society) to an industrial one; that it sees the world as divided between those who own capital and those who do not; that it believes this division is based on historical accident or force; that members of both classes thereby “exhibit dysfunctional and pathological life-styles”; that society is marked by exploitation, inequality and the failure to maximise the potential of every individual and society as a whole; and that people are fundamentally good and corrupted by their environment. He further contends that Mill’s social doctrine was rather different, and it is this that I would like to challenge.

Like contemporary socialists, Mill saw society as in transition between feudalism and modernity. Capaldi rightly argues that Mill [End Page 146] favoured this transition, though he was by no means opposed to all things modern, believing instead we could keep some of the good aspects and reject the bad. However...


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