[I]t is not the pursuit of happiness but the enlargement of freedom which is socialism's highest aim.
The beginning of the twenty-first century is a tough time for socialists and socialism, so it may seem to be an odd moment to revisit John Stuart Mill's relationship to socialism. Socialism today is hardly a major locus of mass mobilization as it was in the early twentieth century, or as various forms of nationalism, populism, and religious fundamentalism are at present. Of course, socialism also was not a major object of mass mobilization in Mill's time, although it had begun to preoccupy European intellectuals. That said, political theory has rarely been satisfied merely to confirm prevailing notions of what is possible or desirable, and Mill's political theory is a case in point. Mill wrote to Pasquale Villari near the end of his life that his work “lies rather among anticipations of the future than explorations of the past” (Mill, “Letter to Pasquale Villari,” 28 February 1872, CW XVII: 1873). One of the remarkable features of his thought is just how much this claim still resonates.
Although socialist politics currently is in retreat, Mill's sympathetic engagement with socialism still speaks powerfully to current political economic challenges, especially to the barriers to equal freedom and democratic self-government embodied in contemporary global capitalism. The experience of the past century indicates strongly, against doctrinaire Marxism, that socialism is by no means historically inevitable.