John Stuart Mill: A Liberal Looks at Utopian Socialism in the Years of Revolution 1848-9 (1)

By Levin, Michael | Utopian Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

John Stuart Mill: A Liberal Looks at Utopian Socialism in the Years of Revolution 1848-9 (1)


Levin, Michael, Utopian Studies


MARX AND ENGELS'S DENUNCIATION of what they termed 'utopian socialism' is relatively well-known. Less attention has been paid to an analysis of the same phenomenon made by John Stuart Mill. Given that Mill was preparing his Principles of Political Economy in the same year (1847) that Marx was drafting the Communist Manifesto, it is just possible that they were simultaneously sitting at their desks in different parts of London writing on Utopian Socialism. However, whereas in the Manifesto Marx, in a brief coverage (ch.3.3), treated Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen as effectively identical, Mill gave a fuller and more differentiated account, as, of course, did Engels years later in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

It is a widely held view, indeed a normal view, that takes John Stuart Mill as the foremost liberal of his time. (2) To avoid confusion I shall here indicate that by liberalism I understand a politics associated with the middle classes that was rationalist, anti-aristocratic in the cause of equal opportunities, and in favour of freedom, representative political institutions, and a market economy. The current North American identification of liberalism with an expanded and paternalist state sector is not here intended.

From one perspective Mill as a liberal would presumably he opposed to any kind of socialism; but from the standpoint adopted here, it was precisely Mill's liberalism which made him genuinely, and admirably, open-minded concerning any freely undertaken experiments on how life might be improved and advanced. At this stage it is also worth recalling what socialism meant in the mid-nineteenth century. On the whole it connoted what is now called 'utopian socialism'. This is to take a term from Marx and Engels which for them was derogatory. That, however, is not the colouring intended here. I simply, and conventionally, refer to that form of socialism that consisted of relatively small-scale experiments in communal living that were entered into voluntarily. In Mill's lifetime the issue of socialism forced itself into the wider social consciousness most significantly in the period of the European revolutions of 1848-9. Mill's friend Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, took socialism to he 'the most essential feature of the February [1848 French] Revolution, and the one that left the most frightening memory' (Tocqueville 94).

The writings which form the core of my concern are from this period: the first two editions of Mill's The Principles of Political Economy appeared in 1848 and 1849 and the third in 1852. In them Mill provided his most detailed investigation of utopian socialism, his sympathy increasing progressively from the first to the third edition. (3) The Principles soon became the standard textbook on economics. In a review of the first edition, Walter Bagehot placed Mill alongside Smith and Ricardo as having 'attained permanent rank among the great thinkers of their country' (Wood 1.35). The fact that the first three editions appeared in a mere five years is a measure of the success they achieved. In fact seven editions appeared in Mill's lifetime, making this work the dominant British economics textbook of the nineteenth century. It thus might well have had an impact in bringing the issue of utopian socialism to those sections of the educated public who might not otherwise have granted it serious consideration.

I shall mainly consider Mill's account of communism (4) and socialism in Principles of Political Economy. Experimentation was one of the features of the period and Mill followed with interest the emergence of socialistic ideas. This involved the rejection of an individualist, market society based on the private ownership of property, and the belief that working class interests required a more planned and co-operative, if not communal, form of society. To Mill what such socialism represented seemed not entirely new but merely a modern application of an older principle. …

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