John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeves

This readable biography of the liberal philosopher has an interesting perspective on his evolving thought. Famously, On Liberty illustrates that the thinker was committed to individual freedom in advanced capitalist countries. However, the other work of Mill highlights that he was a feminist and an ecologist who was not necessarily antagonistic to socialism. While Marx and Mill can be clumsily portrayed as opposites, they were both optimists who believed in progress and in certain circumstances urged radical social change.   

However, the author attacks Marx for Utopianism. This seems unfair given the care Marx took to avoid making detailed blueprints for the future. The philosopher never followed in the footsteps of Charles Fourier. Reeves also reveals that Mill had a Utopian streak of his own. This can be seen in Mill’s endorsement of a steady state economy. While such a vision may not be impractical, the contradiction in his liberalism was that it did not really show how such a radical transformation could be arrived at.

Like any great philosopher, Mill was not entirely consistent. He was keener on revolutions in France than social transformation in England. Further, he arguably took insufficient interest in precisely how the struggle between capital and labour was likely to be resolved:

“In the long run, Mill hoped that cooperatively  run companies would supersede the conflict between labour and capital.”

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