Monday, March 11, 2013

How John Stuart Mill helped to foster a revival of Socialism

Sidney Webb, one of the founding members of Britain's Fabian Society, wrote the following in his book "Socialism in England", Page 19:
It is true that with the collapse of the Chartist movement in 1848, all serious agitation of a Socialist character came to an end, and for thirty years popular aspirations in England took the forms of a development of trades unions, the progress of co-operative distributive stores and building societies, in conjunction with the purely political agitation for the Parliamentary franchise. But the Socialist leaven was still at work. The Chartist survivors continued to be centres of quiet education of their comrades. The ideas of Marx and Lassalle filtered in through French and German refugees, as well as through the personal influence of Marx himself on a select few. The latter influence of the Political Economists, notably that of John Stuart Mill,1 gradually prepared the public mind for Socialist proposals, especially on the subject of the "unearned increment" of land values.

1 See the explicit confession of his conversion, as he says, from mere Democracy to Socialism (Autobiography, p. 231-2) and the change in tone shown in Book IV. of the Political Economy (Popular Edition 1865.)

Alright, Webb told us where to look. Let's go take a look. Mill, Autobiography, Page 230-233:

Private property, as now understood, and inheritance, appeared to me, as to them, the dernier mot(final word) 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. The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour. We had not the presumption to suppose that we could already foresee, by what precise form of institutions these objects could most effectually be attained, or at how near or how distant a period they would become practicable. We saw clearly that to render any such social transformation either possible or desirable, an equivalent change of character must take place both in the uncultivated herd who now compose the labouring masses, and in the immense majority of their employers. Both these classes must learn by practice to labour and combine for generous, or at all events for public and social purposes, and not, as hitherto, solely for narrowly interested ones. But the capacity to do this has always existed in mankind, and is not, nor is ever likely to be, extinct. Education, habit, and the cultivation of the sentiments, will make a common man dig or weave for his country, as readily as fight for his country. True enough, it is only by slow degrees, and a system of culture prolonged through successive generations, that men in general can be brought up to this point. But the hindrance is not in the essential constitution of human nature. Interest in the common good is at present so weak a motive in the generality not because it can never be otherwise, but because the mind is not accustomed to dwell on it as it dwells from morning till night on things which tend only to personal advantage. When called into activity, as only self-interest now is, by the daily course of life, and spurred from behind by the love of distinction and the fear of shame, it is capable of producing, even in common men, the most strenuous exertions as well as the most heroic sacrifices. The deep-rooted selfishness which forms the general character of the existing state of society, is so deeply rooted, only because the whole course of existing institutions tends to foster it; and modern institutions in some respects more than ancient, since the occasions on which the individual is called on to do anything for the public without receiving its pay, are far less frequent in modern life, than the smaller commonwealths of antiquity. These considerations did not make us overlook the folly of premature attempts to dispense with the inducements of private interest in social affairs, while no substitute for them has been or can be provided: but we regarded all existing institutions and social arrangements as being (in a phrase I once heard from Austin) "merely provisional," and we welcomed with the greatest pleasure and interest all socialistic experiments by select individuals (such as the Co-operative Societies), which, whether they succeeded or failed, could not but operate as a most useful education of those who took part in them, by cultivating their capacity of acting upon motives pointing directly to the general good, or making them aware of the defects which render them and others incapable of doing so.

First, dernier mot means "final word", so I added that in line to make this easier to understand.

Second, much of this is utopian nonsense. "If" we could only get humans to do this, and do that, life would be so much better for all. "Accident of birth" is a highly jealous and covetous phrase. Just because you were born with rich parents, doesn't mean .......; whatever the assertion is. It's class warfare, essentially.

I actually quoted more than Webb specified, because I felt it gave a greater context.(I italicized what is actually on pages 231-232, you can verify it here.) Utopian nonsense aside, you can clearly see that Mill wanted to go much further than the "average democrat", and did not at all have a problem with socialism. Which isn't surprising, Webb's writings are from a socialist perspective, for other socialists, and in either a historically accurate sense and/or from a pro-socialist perspective.

This isn't the first time I've written about this topic, last time I noted much of this, but from the writings of Edward Pease. As you can see(and Bernard Shaw is also there) Mill is a very problematic figure in history due to how he influenced people back toward a big government mindset.

Webb also pointed out Mill's importance to Socialism in Fabian Tract 15. The Fabian Tracts are not always easy to deal with over the internet, so this might be a sticking point; the page numbers. The Fabian Tracts' pages themselves are often times numbered, and the book has it's own numbering system as well. So you can find this on Tract page 11, book page lxvi:

Is there then no hope? Is there no chance of the worker ever being released from the incubus of what Mill called,1 "the great social evil of a non labouring class," whose monopolies cause the taxation of the industrious for the support of indolence, if not of plunder?2

Mill tells us how, as he investigated more closely the history and structure of Society, he came to find a sure and certain hope in the Progress of Socialism, which he foresaw and energetically aided. We who call ourselves Socialists today in England, largely through Mill's teaching and example, find a confirmation of this hope in social history and economics, and see already in the distance the glad vision of a brighter day, when, practically, the whole product of labour will be the worker's and the worker's alone, and at last social arrangements will be deliberately based upon the Apostolic rule ignored by so many Christians, that if a man do not work, neither shall he eat.

One of my reasons for quoting Mill directly should be apparent to you by now, look at the language used. Fabian Tract 15(at least this portion) is written almost word for word(at the very minimum, inspired by) from Mill. I think that speaks volumes, perhaps is even more important than the text that's written. Because it puts on display the change in mindset, the infectuous transfer of idealism.

As a final note, on Page 20 of Webb's "Socialism in England", he goes into the influence of Henry George. I mention it due to it's relevance to the article of mine that I referenced above, but also to an article I wrote 6 months prior to that. Henry George was an American. But his influence, like Mill's, cannot be ignored in the beginnings of both Fabianism and Progressivism. It makes sense, given that both Mill and George came to the same conclusion: private ownership of property was an impediment to "progress".

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