In early 1848, within a few weeks of each other, two antithetical texts were published in London, on the eve of European revolution. One was The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The other was Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill. The former famously declared that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe, and would soon take possession of it. The latter, using the same imagery with scarcely less confidence, but in the opposite sense, dismissed socialist experiments as little more than chimeras that could never take on real shape as viable substitutes for private property.footnote1 The antithesis occasions little surprise for us now. Liberalism and Socialism have long been conventionally understood as antagonistic intellectual and political traditions; and with good reason, by virtue of both the apparent incompatibility of their theoretical startingpoints—individual and societal, respectively—and of the actual record of conflict, often deadly, between the parties and movements inspired by each. However, at the very outset of this historical contention, it was strangely short-circuited in the trajectory of Mill himself. The risings of the urban poor across the principal capitals of Europe and the bloody battles that followed them stirred a warm solidarity in Harriet Taylor, the object of his affections. He set himself to study with a newly opened mind doctrines of common ownership; and soon—indeed in the very same work, Principles of Political Economy, in its revised edition of 1849—pronounced the vision of socialists collectively to be ‘one of the most valuable elements of human improvement now existing’.footnote2 Rarely has a fundamental political judgement been so rapidly and radically reversed. Thereafter, Mill always regarded himself as a liberal and a socialist; as he put it in his Autobiography, ‘The social problem of the future we now considered to be how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw materials of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.’footnote3 He defended the Paris Commune, and died working on a book on Socialism which he hoped would be more important than his study of Representative Government.

Mill’s evolution, however striking, might be thought idiosyncratic or isolated. But it was not. There was to be a distinguished succession to it. England’s most famous philosopher after Mill replicated the same movement. In 1895, Bertrand Russell wrote the first English-language study of German Social-Democracy, the leading party of the Second International, after a study trip to Berlin. While decidedly sympathetic to the more moderate aims of the spd, ‘the point of view from which I wrote the book’—he noted 70 years later—‘was that of an orthodox liberal’.footnote4 At that time Russell deprecated what he called the ‘boundless democracy’ of the party’s Erfurt Programme, and feared what he thought would be the ‘foolish and disastrous experiments’ that might ensue if it were not modified to respect ‘natural inequalities’.footnote5 Within another two decades, he too had changed his mind thoroughly and permanently. It was the First World War which transformed his outlook, as 1848 had Mill’s. The work he had planned to write jointly with D. H. Lawrence, Principles of Social Reconstruction, which appeared in 1916, if it contained caustic attacks on the state, private property and war, was still deemed insufficiently intransigent by Lawrence, then urging a ‘revolution’ that would effect ‘the nationalizing of all industries and means of communication, and of the land—in one fell blow’.footnote6 But Russell’s next book, Proposed Roads to Freedom, written during his imprisonment for agitation against the war, was a full-scale discussion of Marxism, Anarchism and Syndicalism, which came out unequivocally for Guild Socialism as ‘the best practicable system’—the form of common property he believed most conducive to individual liberty, as against the dangers of any too-powerful state.footnote7

Another eminent contemporary who made the same transition was the economist J. A. Hobson. Best known at large for his work on Imperialism, because of Lenin’s use and critique of it in his own later work on the subject, Hobson was a convinced English liberal when he published it in 1902. In his case too, it was the First World War which altered his course. By 1917, he was actually attacking West European SocialDemocracy from the left, writing that: ‘The patriotic stampede of socialism in every country in the summer of 1914 is as convincing a testimony to its inadequacy to the task of overthrowing capitalism as could possibly be given.’footnote8 After the war, Hobson devoted his best energies to developing a theory of the socialist economy that would combine the structural exigencies of standardized production for basic needs, with sectoral conditions for personal liberty and technical innovation. The economist of over-saving whose influence Keynes acknowledged in The General Theory was himself meanwhile writing a work entitled From Capitalism to Socialism.footnote9

The United States provides a final example. There too, the country’s major philosophical mind, John Dewey, a staunch and outspoken liberal throughout his long career, traced the same curve. In his case it was not the First World Warfootnote10 but the Great Depression which led him to trenchant conclusions. In his book Liberalism and Social Action, published in 1935, Dewey—noting the historical absence in America of the Benthamite, as opposed to Lockean, moment of what he took to be the historic liberal legacy—forthrightly denounced laissez-faire orthodoxies as ‘apologetics for the existing economic regime’ that masked its ‘brutalities and inequities’. He went on, writing at the height of the New Deal: ‘The control of the means of production by the few in legal possession operates as a standing agency of coercion of the many’—such coercion, backed by physical violence, being ‘especially recurrent’ in the US where in times of potential social change, ‘our verbal and sentimental worship of the Constitution, with its guarantees of civil liberties of expression, publication and assemblage, readily goes overboard.’ Dewey saw only one historical resolution for the tradition he continued to champion: ‘The cause of liberalism will be lost,’ he declared, ‘if it is not prepared to socialize the forces of production now at hand’, even—if necessary—resorting to ‘intelligent force’ to ‘subdue and disarm the recalcitrant minority’. The aims of classical liberalism now required the achievement of socialism. For ‘the socialized economy is the means of free individual development.’footnote11

It is timely to recall these illustrious examples today, because after a major interval we are seeing a significant new range of attempts to synthesize liberal and socialist traditions. The later work of C.B. Macpherson, in particular The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, comes immediately to mind. The studied ambiguity of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice can be—by some, has been—read as laying philosophical foundations for a similar project. More express in intention is Robert Dahl, recently advocate not only of political pluralism but also of economic democracy. A younger generation of Anglo-American writers has produced a series of works, differing in temper and purpose, but comparable in political inspiration: David Held’s Models of Democracy and John Dunn’s Politics of Socialism in England, Joshua Cohen and Joel Roger’s On Democracy and Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s Capitalism and Democracy in the USA. In France, Pierre Rosanvallon, among others, seeking to recover liberal traditions for the Second Left, has called for a reconsideration of the modern relevance, not just of De Tocqueville, but of Guizot too.footnote12