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Mill's ‘Modern’ Radicalism Re-Examined: Joseph Persky's The Political Economy of Progress

  • Helen McCabe (a1)


In The Political Economy of Progress, Joseph Persky argues for seeing John Stuart Mill as a consistent ‘radical’ with much to offer modern ‘radical’ political discourse. In this article, I further this claim with consideration of Mill's political philosophy, as well as his political economy. Exploring Mill's commitment to radical reordering of the economy, as well as emphasizing his commitment to egalitarianism; his historically nuanced view of ‘the progress of justice’; and his desire for a transformation of social (and economic) relations allows us to see more clearly how Mill's radicalism was a specific species of socialism. That is, Mill's early radical enthusiasm for the ideals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ is also to be seen in his later socialism. Recognizing his ‘radicalism’ as a species of socialism allows greater understanding of the depth, importance and ‘radicalism’ of Mill's desired socialist reforms.


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1 Persky, Joseph, The Political Economy of Progress: John Stuart Mill and Modern Radicalism (Oxford, 2016), p. xi.

2 Persky, Political Economy, p. xi.

3 Mill, J. S., On Liberty, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill [henceforth CW], XVIII (Toronto, 1977), p. 261.

4 Of course, as Mill himself had political reasons for soft-pedalling his socialist commitments before 1848, perhaps Persky also thinks the modern political project of this book would be undermined by claiming Mill for socialism, not radicalism. This said, Persky's stated desire is to speak to a modern radicalism informed by Marx as much as by Rawls (Persky, Political Economy, pp. xi–xx).

5 On Mill's radicalism, and radical inheritance, see also Hamburger, Joseph, Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals (London, 1965); Claeys, Gregory, Mill and Paternalism (Cambridge, 2013); Rosen, Frederick, Mill (Oxford, 2013) and ‘From Jeremy Bentham's Radical Philosophy to J. S. Mill's Philosophic Radicalism’, The Cambridge History of Nineteenth Century Political Thought, ed. Gareth Steadman Jones and Gregory Claeys (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 257–94; Helen McCabe, ‘ “Under the General Designation of Socialist”: The Many-Sided-Radicalism of John Stuart Mill’ (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2010).

6 Some of Mill's proposals were seen as ‘extreme’ by his contemporaries, and many would still mark a significant difference from our own institutions, for instance, his proposals regarding property, inheritance and workplace organization. In contrast to this stereotypical view of ‘radicalism’, Mill was generally anti-revolutionary, though even this is more complex and nuanced than usually thought – see McCabe, ‘ “All of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, which is capable of being realised”: John Stuart Mill on “Legitimate Socialism” and the 1848 Revolutions in Paris’, Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger (forthcoming).

7 Persky, Political Economy, pp. 72–151.

8 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239. Here, as in other areas of the book, the arguments of Political Economy could be usefully bolstered by reference to the Autobiography.

9 Persky, Political Economy, pp. 72–148.

10 Persky, Political Economy, p. 158. Persky says Mill adopted Condorcet's ‘viewpoint’, seeing ‘the long story of history as one of progress’, and that he also adopted Comte's ‘fundamental explanation for that progress as pivoting on periods of intellectual speculation’ (or, in the Saint-Simonian phrase, critical ages). Although acknowledging that Marx ‘was … a materialist’, Persky goes on to argue that ‘the materialist view is not that different from that of Mill's’: ‘[a]t first glance, Mill seems to have endorsed an idealistic notion of progress. But his theory might reasonably be described from a Marxist view as incomplete, rather than wrong’; this is because ‘Mill gives us little or no clue as to the explanation for the period of widened intellectual speculation … However, a hypothesis along these lines might be drawn from Marx’ (Persky, Political Economy, p.158). I agree that it might be. And if Persky's point is to persuade Marxists that Mill's view of history is merely ‘deficient’ rather than ‘wrong’, and Marxists can embrace him as a fellow-radical, then maybe this is a warranted reading of Mill's view. But, in terms of both Mill's and Marx's own understanding of their views, I think there are significant differences, which may not be rooted so much in a distinction between materialism and idealism, but in whether or not they adopt a dialectical approach. (This is also the root of my disagreement with Persky over whether Mill has a Marxist conception of alienation and species-being, though I agree he was very critical of the current working conditions of labourers.)

11 The two views are connected, and when Mill first came into contact with Comte, Comte was identifying himself with the Saint-Simonians.

12 Persky, Political Economy, p. 98.

13 Persky, Political Economy, citing Mill (himself parsing Comte) in Mill, J. S., Auguste Comte and Positivism, CW X (Toronto, 1969), pp. 341–2. Persky references the 1866 (London: N. Trübner) edition: the CW edition gives 1865 as the date for first publication, as two articles in Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, with the Trübner edition being the first time they were published together as one manuscript.

14 Persky, Political Economy, p. 98, citing Mill, Auguste Comte, p. 342.

15 See Persky, Political Economy, pp. 207–14.

16 Mill, Utilitarianism, cited Persky, Political Economy, p. 207.

17 Persky, Political Economy, p. 207.

18 Persky, Political Economy. For more on the link between ‘real’ justice and achievability, see McCabe, ‘ “Navigating by the North Star”: The Role of the “Ideal” in J. S. Mill's View of “Utopian” Schemes and the Possibilities of Social Transformation’, Utilitas, <> (2019).

19 Mill, Utilitarianism, cited in Persky, Political Economy, p. 208.

20 Persky, Political Economy, p. 208.

21 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

22 Persky, Political Economy, p. 209.

23 Mill, Utilitarianism, cited in Persky, Political Economy, p. 208.

24 Mill, J. S., Principles of Political Economy, CW II (Toronto, 1963), p. 210.

25 For more on this, see the article by Piers Norris Turner in this issue.

26 See Persky, Political Economy, pp. 26–42.

27 See also McCabe, ‘Navigating by the North Star’.

28 See McCabe, ‘Navigating by the North Star’.

29 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

30 Persky, Political Economy, p. 75. In conversation at the PPE Society Conference, Persky was generous in acknowledging that, as he did not mean only that Mill moved towards socialism around the time of writing Chapters on Socialism, but during the period in which he wrote the first edition(s) of Principles, ‘towards the end of his life’ was perhaps a little mean (as Mill was hardly either old or approaching death at 42).

31 See Persky, Political Economy, pp. 148–51.

32 See, for instance, Baum, Bruce, ‘J. S. Mill and Liberal Socialism’, J. S. Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, ed. Urbinai, Nadia and Zakaras, Alex (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 98123; ‘J. S. Mill on Freedom and Power’, Polity 31/2 (1998), pp. 187–216; and ‘J. S. Mill's Conception of Economic Freedom’, History of Political Thought 20/3 (1999), pp. 494–530; Claeys, Mill and Paternalism, pp. 123–72; McCabe, Helen, ‘Mill and Socialism: A Reply to Capaldi’, The Tocqueville Review, 33/1 (2012), pp. 145–64; ‘John Stuart Mill's Analysis of Capitalism and the Road to Socialism’, A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia, ed. Casey Harrison (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 8–22; ‘John Stuart Mill and Fourierism: “Association”, “Friendly Rivalry” and Distributive Justice’, Global Intellectual History 4/1 (2018), pp. 35–61, and ‘Navigating by the North Star’; and Wendy Sarvasy, ‘A Reconsideration of the Development and Structure of John Stuart Mill's Socialism’, The Western Political Quarterly 38/2 (1985), pp. 312–33 and ‘J. S. Mill's Theory of Democracy for a Period of Transition between Capitalism and Socialism’, Polity 16/4 (1984), pp. 567–87.

33 Persky, Political Economy, p. 149.

34 Persky, Political Economy, p. 149.

35 A real strength of the book is the section in ‘Echoes’ on the similarity between Marx's and Mill's economics (despite everything Marx does to deny it). Following Cohen, Persky convincingly traces Marx's ‘wilful misreading’ of Mill on the laws of production and distribution; Mill's Ricardian labour theory of value; and their similar views regarding the falling rate of profit and capitalist business cycles. He offers some very interesting suggestions regarding why Marx was so keen not only to deny there was any similarity in their thinking, but to denigrate Mill's thinking entirely. First, because Mill's analysis was so close to Marx's own, which often put Marx on the attack. Second, because Marx sees Mill as bourgeois, and wants to show bourgeois intellectualism as a ‘revolutionary’ force is spent. Third, because he sees Mill as endorsing a cooperative form of socialism with which Marx fundamentally disagrees. In this case, the annoyance both seems to be that Mill is not ‘of’ the proletariat, and that Mill, in endorsing cooperation, is either wittingly or unwittingly merely furthering his own class interest in maintaining capitalism.

36 Persky, Political Economy, p. 153. Persky's view is that Mill would have preferred social democracy of this kind to ‘more traditionally-Marxist centrally-planned states’. For further support, Persky might point to the long sections in Principles where Mill justifies government – and particularly local-government – interventions in the market, as well as his nuanced position on state-funded, and state-provided, education. Even so, Persky is right to note that ‘Government could be supportive’ of this transition, ‘in a number of ways, but is neither the centre of the effort nor the driving force’, because ‘Mill asserted that the freedom achieved and expanded through the political process is sufficient to begin a new transformation of the economy and society from the bottom up’ (Persky, Political Economy, p. 74). Moreover, the reasons why Mill is cautious of governmental action in the economy, and supports cooperative socialism, which are grounded in concerns around independence, self-reliance (cooperation was called by many campaigners, including George Jacob Holyoake, whom Mill knew quite well, ‘self-help’) and the working classes, in particular, taking responsibility for themselves and their well-being, signal that we ought to be cautious in thinking he would embrace European-style welfare states.

37 For much more on these (and harmony) being the essential elements of Mill's mature ‘radicalism’, see McCabe, ‘The Many-Sided Radicalism of Mill’.

38 Persky, Political Economy, p. 74.

39 Or, as William Stafford puts it, as a ‘paradigmatic liberal’ in both politics and economics: Stafford, , ‘How can a Paradigmatic Liberal Call Himself a Socialist? The Case of John Stuart Mill’, Journal of Political Ideologies 3/3 (1998), pp. 325–45.

40 For Persky's excellent account of utilitarian views regarding property, and how Mill adopted, and adapted, them, see Persky, Political Economy, pp. 55–71. On the ‘transitional’ nature of capitalism, see also McCabe, ‘Mill's Analysis of Capitalism and the Road to Socialism’, pp. 8–22 and ‘Navigating by the North Star’.

41 Persky, Political Economy, pp. 55–109.

42 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

43 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

44 Mill, Comte, p. 341.

45 Mill, Comte, p. 341.

46 Mill, Principles, p. 208.

47 Mill, Principles, pp. 207–8.

48 Mill, Principles, p. 208.

49 Mill, Principles, p. 208.

50 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

51 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

52 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

53 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

54 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

55 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

56 Mill, J. S., Chapters on Socialism, CW V (Toronto, 1967), p. 713.

57 Mill, Chapters, p. 713.

58 Mill, Chapters, p. 713.

59 Mill, Chapters, p. 713.

60 Mill, Chapters, p. 713.

61 Cf. Anderson, Elizabeth, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109 (1999), pp. 287337. Though her argument – obviously – is against a Dworkinian form of inequality, and how she thinks the justification of such inequalities as he allows would be expressed to the least well-off, the point is applicable in the case outlined by Mill, where people are also justifying inequalities (though not of a Dworkinian nature), and in so doing adding insult to the injury already experienced by the people who – in the main – exert themselves most under, but receive the least from, capitalism.

62 Mill, Chapters, p. 713. Here, rather than Anderson, he prefigures, perhaps, more of a Cohenite concern with the ethos of justice (see Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (London, 2008)). In this sense, there is a connection to Marx's concept of alienated relations between people under capitalism, though I disagree with Persky's claim that Mill has a similar concept of species being to Marx (Persky, Political Economy, p. 157).

63 Mill, Principles, p. 209.

64 See McCabe, ‘Mill's Analysis of Capitalism and the Road to Socialism’, pp. 8–22.

65 Mill, J. S., The Claims of Labour, CW IV (Toronto, 1967), p. 382.

66 See, for instance, Mill, Principles, pp. 775–94. This said, it is worth noting that Mill implies in his Autobiography that both his and Taylor's views on socialism were held before 1848 (but downplayed in the first edition of Principles; Mill, Autobiography, p. 241). On this topic, Persky (following a familiar theme in Mill scholarship) gives Harriet Taylor an important role in Mill's transition to a greater endorsement of cooperation (and thus socialism), casting Taylor specifically as an Owenite. I am not sure this is borne out in her work (it is Mill, after all, not Taylor, who cites Owen in their first pair of essays, both titled On Marriage (Mill, John Stuart, On Marriage, CW XXI (Toronto, 1984), pp. 48–9) and Mill, as Persky notes, had a knowledge of, and engagement with, Owenites for almost twenty years before he met Taylor). Moreover, although Mill did endorse a form of cooperation, this was not a specifically Owenite form, but very much influenced by French thought, from Saint-Simon through to Louis Blanc. Mill met the Saint-Simonians before he met Taylor (as Persky rightly notes), but – again, contrary to thinking of her as an Owenite – Mill credits her with bringing home to him the truth of several elements of Saint-Simonism, not least the central (for Persky's argument) difference between the laws of production and of distribution. Similarly, Persky describes as ‘generous’ Mill's crediting of Taylor with co-authoring at least one key chapter of Principles, which seems to cast aspersions on the accuracy of Mill's claim (which there are not very good grounds for doing). Yet this ignores the aforementioned importance of the distinction between production and distribution; Mill's account of how she affected the ‘tone’ of Principles, even if not affecting the ‘scientific’ element; also the fact that Mill emphasized that it was Taylor who expressed the ‘two opposite theories respecting the proper condition of the labouring classes’ (Mill, Autobiography, p. 255), of dependence and independence, all of which are central to Persky's own account of Mill's radicalism. Similarly, Persky says we can ‘presume’ that ‘not a few of’ the ‘discussions’ Mill mentions regarding ‘the best Socialistic writers on the Continent’ ‘were with Harriet Taylor’, yet we don't need merely to ‘presume’ this, as we have surviving correspondence where they ‘discuss’ and ‘mediate’ on precisely that (see Appendix G to Principles, pp. 1026–37).

67 Prothero, Iorwerth, Radical Artisans in England and France, 1830–1870 (Cambridge, 1997), p. 145.

68 See, for example, Mill, Principles, p. 209.

69 Persky, Political Economy, pp. 133, 145 and 148.

70 Persky, Political Economy, p. 133.

71 See Mill, Principles, pp. 793–4. For more on the spontaneity of this process, see Miller, Dale E., , ‘Mill'sSocialism” ’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics 2/2 (2003), pp. 213–28.

72 Persky, Political Economy, pp. 79–84.

73 Mill, Principles, pp. 793–4.

74 For example, Mill, Autobiography, pp. 199 and 239; Principles, pp. xciii and 214; and Chapters, pp. 749–50.

75 See McCabe, ‘Navigating by the North Star’.

76 See, for instance, Baum, ‘Mill and Liberal Socialism’, pp. 98–123; ‘Mill on Freedom and Power’, pp. 187–216; and ‘Mill's Conception of Economic Freedom’, pp. 494–530; Claeys, Mill and Paternalism, pp. 123–72; and Sarvasy, ‘Reconsideration of the Development and Structure of Mill's Socialism’, pp. 312–33 and ‘Mill's Theory of Democracy’, pp. 567–87.

77 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

78 See Mill, Principles, pp. 769–94.

79 Mill, Comte, p. 341; Mill, Autobiography, pp. 239–41.

80 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

81 Mill, Principles, p. 783.

82 Blanc provides something of a problem, for his endorsement of ‘communist’ principles, Mill says, is only as a transitionary stage to the adoption of ‘still higher standard of justice, that all should work according to their capacity, and receive according to their wants’ (Mill, Principles, p. 203).

83 See also McCabe ‘Navigating by the North Star’.

84 Mill, Principles, p. 208.

85 Mill, Principles, p. 208.

86 As Persky rightly notes, this does not mean that the ‘expedient’ isn't important to respect, as a fundamental element of security and justice, both core elements of utility.

87 Persky, Political Economy, p. 207.

88 Persky, Political Economy, p. 208.

89 Mill, Principles, p. 207.

90 Mill, Principles, p. 794.

91 J. S. Mill, Letter 531 (30 September 1848), CW XIII (Toronto, 1963), p. 739.

92 Mill, Comte, pp. 340–1.

93 Mill, Principles, p. 209.

94 Mill, Principles, p. 209; Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, CW XVIII (Toronto, 1977), p. 261.

95 Mill, Autobiography, p. 239.

96 Indeed, in Principles, Mill says of this concern about a lack of freedom under communism that ‘no doubt this, like all the other objections to Socialist schemes, is vastly exaggerated’ (Mill, Principles, p. 209).

97 Mill, Liberty, p. 292.

98 Mill, Liberty, p. 293.

99 Mill, Liberty, p. 225. See here also Mill's comments about people whose ‘minds and feelings’ are in ‘a right state’, seeing the weakness of others not as a justification for their suffering, but as ‘an irresistible claim upon every human being for protection against [that] suffering’ (Mill, Chapters, p. 713).

100 Mill, Principles, p. 206.

101 For more on this, see Claeys, Mill and Paternalism, especially pp. 173–210.

102 Mill, Liberty, p. 261.

103 Mill, Letter 531, p. 739.

104 Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, The Communist Manifesto, in Marx and Engels: Collected Works, vol. 6 (London, 1976), p. 506.

105 This article was first presented as a paper at the PPE Society Conference 2019. I am very grateful to Piers Norris Turner for organizing the ‘author meets critics’ panel, and to Joseph Persky for agreeing to participate. I would also like to acknowledge the generosity of the Hayek Fund for Scholars, which helped fund my attendance.

Mill's ‘Modern’ Radicalism Re-Examined: Joseph Persky's The Political Economy of Progress

  • Helen McCabe (a1)


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