Friday, March 26, 2021

Helen McCabe's "John Stuart Mill, Socialist"

Helen McCabe is assistant professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, John Stuart Mill, Socialist, and reported the following:
Page 99 is in Chapter 3 of my book, which is about Mill’s critical engagement with contemporary forms of socialism, and specifically in the sub-section about Mill’s conceptual account of socialism – that is, how did he define socialism philosophically rather than (as he did elsewhere) looking at the details of specific forms of socialism (e.g. Saint-Simonism, Fourierism, Owenism). “The distinctive feature of Socialism”, Mill says, “is not that all things are in common, but that production is only carried out on the common account, and that the instruments of production are held as common property”. In addition, the “division of the produce” of labour was done publicly, and in accordance with “rules laid down by the community” based on principles of justice rather than – as in contemporary society – chance, and the accident of birth. If there were inequalities, these were justified by, and to, the whole community, and justified by the principles of justice endorsed by that community.

Page 99 also details how Mill drew four key distinctions between types of socialism: how the “physical means of life and enjoyment” are distributed; the “scale” of the association (from small communities to the whole state); the means advocated for implementing socialist schemes (from instrumental to immediate, through violent revolutionary overthrow of the state); and the extent to which the schemes were intended to be self-sufficient and self-contained, or to interact with other, mutually-dependent socialist associations.

The first of these distinctions is the key to his differentiation between “socialism” and “communism”: communists want an equal division of the “physical means of life and enjoyment” (i.e. of articles of consumption), and socialists allow for some inequalities, depending on the principles of distributive justice they employ. The Saint-Simonians and Fourierists were socialists: Owen and Cabet communists, as was Louis Blanc, though only endorsing equal shares only “as a transition to a still higher standard of justice, that all should work according to their capacity, and receive according to their wants”.

Does this give a good idea of the book?

This page would be a good place for a browser to explore a number of key themes and points from my book. Firstly, it makes plain Mill’s serious intellectual engagement with socialism – which itself may be something of a surprise, as Mill is most famous as a “founding father” of liberalism.

Secondly, it shows that socialism, to Mill, was a varied set of ideas for social reform, with some key shared commitments. Importantly, it was not Marxism. We tend to have quite a monolithic view of “socialism” as being “Marxism”, and page 99 reminds us that socialism has a long and varied history, both pre- and post-Marx.

Relatedly, the way Mill draws distinctions between forms of socialism gives a guide to his own preferences: some justified inequalities in the distribution of articles of consumption; (mainly) small-scale; gradualist and organic; and mutually-dependent. This is one of the radical elements of Mill’s socialism, as a common, though stereotypical, view of socialism is of a state-wide, revolutionary/violent, insular system, “levelling down” to achieve equality.

Similarly, page 99 highlights key elements of Mill’s own socialism (though this becomes clearer later in the book), and how he could see his ideas as “under the general designation of Socialist”. Mill supported collective ownership of property via producer-cooperatives (with some state ownership of land, and industries which tend to monopoly, though this might still be at a local scale). He also endorsed several socialist principles of distribution (especially Fourier’s) as better than the current unjust and indefensible distributions based on inherited structural inequalities (of class, race, and sex); equal shares having some advantages; and Blanc’s idea being “still higher”. This insight into Mill’s principles of distributive justice is key, as this is little-studied in Mill scholarship, and is central to his socialism.

Lastly, labouring on the “common account” with a “public” determination of distribution links to another important element of Mill’s socialism – a transformed social ethos whereby people see themselves as part of a community of equals. This does not mean there may not be any inequalities (of power, wealth, status etc.) but that these need to be justified, and everyone needs to acknowledge that these inequalities are for the common good. This is the fundamentally “social” element of “socialism”, and stands in contradistinction to the received view of Mill as a defender of “individualism”, particularly in his most-famous book On Liberty, which my book seeks to challenge.
Learn more about John Stuart Mill, Socialist at the McGill-Queens University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue