Marxism, John Stuart Mill and the veil

First published: 23 October 2006

Lenin, in The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, gave the classic formulation of the relation of Marxism to previous thought: ‘the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already raised by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism… (it) provides men… with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced.’ (Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 21 28.)

Marxism does not necessarily reject ideas that have been previously produced but integrates correct ones into a more systematic approach. The most famous sources, pointed to by Lenin himself, are of course German (and other countries’) classical philosophy – reaching its peak in Hegel, British economics, above all Smith and Ricardo, and French socialism.

Some formulations from systems which are not themselves valid are nevertheless so correct they can be, and have been, incorporated into Marxism without change – Clausewitz’s dictum ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ being one classic example.

Among these high points of human thought, British empiricism (one of the most trivially self-contradictory doctrines ever put forward) and utilitarianism do not figure. However the most famous formulation from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is not merely correct but extremely important to defend in the current wave of Islamophobia and racism. The aim of this note is to show how this phrase fits within a Marxist framework.

For all its fame, On Liberty is a deeply illiberal work from the perspective of the majority of humanity. Those who take it as a canonical text naturally do not point this out. It provides a rationale for both the British Empire and imperialism in general, claiming ‘Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.’ Mill was indeed an explicit supporter of the British Empire – democracy definitely being ruled out for those living under it. Classic liberalism in practice was, and largely remains, a doctrine that well-off people in imperialist countries should be allowed to live tolerant lives, free from interference, while those in poorer countries may be bombed, invaded, generally massacred etc. It is simply necessary to read any of the articles of supporters of The Euston Manifesto to get the picture.

Nevertheless, the most famous formulation of Mill’s essay is correct even if for different reasons than his framework. This is: ‘The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle… that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a… community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

This is the famous passage frequently paraphrased as ‘you should be able to do anything you want provided it does not interfere with others.’ Why is this also a Marxist dictum?

Another principle integrated by Marxism from previous philosophical/scientific thought is that every single thing that exists is unique. This was aphoristically expressed in the famous phrase of Heraclitus, ‘it is impossible to step into the same river twice,’ and classically formulated by Leibniz as the ‘identity of indiscernibles’ – which entails also the ‘indiscernibility of identicals.’ It is the ‘obvious’ point that if two things were identical they would be the same thing – and, incidentally, it would therefore be impossible to tell they were separate things. This is ‘obvious’ only in the sense that it is evident once it is pointed out, but in fact it is one of the most important points in philosophy with immense ramifications. Its corollary is the Marxist principle, itself taken from Hegel, that ‘the truth is always concrete’ – that is, as no two things are the same the truth regarding them must equally be unique, that is concrete.

Applying this to individuals it, of course, follows that every individual who exists is unique, and wishes to pursue their life in a different way. No one who attempts to impose on a person from outside how they should or wish to live their life will do so in accord with their individuality. The person must be able to choose themselves.

What are the limits of that choice? How to organise society to stop individuals colliding? Only that it must apply to all. Marxism approaches the issue from a much more profound angle than Mill, with his imperialist framework. It upholds Mill’s principle much more profoundly and consistently than liberalism or he did – imperialism for example most definitely, savagely and brutally, does interfere with the right of people to live their lives in their own way. But it takes over Mill’s formula itself. The right of people to live their lives, or dress, in anyway they choose that does not interfere with others must be strongly defended both today and in any future society – including against Islamophobes, supporters of the Euston Manifesto, the editors of the Daily Express and all those rushing to support Jack Straw.