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In his Autobiography, John Stuart Mill recalls that by the mid-to-late 1840s, his – and his future-wife’s – politics were “decidedly under the general designation of Socialist” (Mill, 1873, 239). This claim has been subject to much dispute: Mill’s early biographer, Alexander Bain, for instance, sought to play it down by saying Mill saw socialism as “the outcome of a remote future” (Bain, 1882, p. 90), and scholars in the 20th century made the point more forcefully, often denying that Mill was ever really a socialist, with the notable exception of Friedrich Hayek (1942, p. xxx), who saw in Mill a dangerous infection of liberalism by socialism (see also Légé, 2008). Recent scholarship, however, has approached the topic with a more open mind, emphasising how Mill’s commitment to individuality, anti-paternalism and independence, and desire for economic justice led him to socialism. Following Schumpeter, others take an historical view and link Mill to “utopian” socialism, though some feel Mill’s “utopia” did not necessitate the achievement of socialism.
As is often emphasised by those wishing to downplay Mill’s socialism – and as he himself owns – he was not a socialist before 1840, though he had several interactions with Owenism and Saint-Simonism. However, he felt this was the right description for his politics by around 1845 (Mill, 1873, p. 239). “Socialism” was a new word in Mill’s time, being coined, in English, in 1827, and a little earlier in France, with what he treats as a synonym of “Communism” originating in the secret societies of France between 1830 and 1848, and first being recorded in England in 1840 (Bestor, 1948, p…


According to his Autobiography, the 1848 revolution in Paris prompted Mill to present his politics “under the general designation of Socialist” in the 1852 edition of Principles of Political Economy. Yet some read, in his later Chapters on Socialism, a withdrawal from this position. However, Mill’s concerns about “revolutionary socialism” did not preclude him from advocating either revolution or socialism: a “legitimate socialism”, violent only in self-defence, and which did not involve the wholesale disappearance of private property but favoured producer cooperation over state-provision, must aspire to “all of ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’ which is capable of being realised now, and […] prepare the way for all which can be realised hereafter”.

  • Cooperation
  • John Stuart Mill
  • private property
  • revolution
  • socialism
Helen McCabe
University of Nottingham
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