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Mill’s Evil Twin

December 8, 2010

I take a class at Michigan called History 318: Europe in the era of total war taught by Professor Porter-Szucs. The first weeks reading assignments consisted of Mill and another liberal thinker of the time, Herbert Spencer. Many people have called John Stuart Mill the “Father of Liberalism”. If that is the case, then Spencer would be considered his evil twin brother. Spencer takes Mill’s ideas about individual liberty to an extreme level. We have read and discussed Mill in depth and it is clear that one of Mill’s key ideas is the idea that people have the right to better themselves as long as they do not harm others. Spencer takes this key idea of Mill and perverts it.

The cornerstone of Spencerism is the idea of “the struggle for survival”. While this idea is often associated with Darwin, it is Spencer who made the greatest impact on European politics. Spencer believed that individuals have the right to better themselves at all costs. He believed that charity was immoral and was adamantly opposed to Christianity. While this brutish version of Mill would not seem politically relevant the opposite is true. One of the most important figures in European history, Adolf Hitler, was influenced by Spencer.

Spencer’s ideas are crystal clear in Nazism. Nazism does not exist without the element of antisemitism. Since Nazism is a fascist regime, Hitler preached strengthening the state above all else, including the individual. Although this differs from the beliefs of Herbert Spencer, we can still see the “struggle for survival” mentality in the Nazi attempt at an ethnic cleansing. Hitler believed that the Aryan race was the strongest and therefore was the only race worthy of survival.

Although John Stuart Mill would be completely appalled by Hitler and Spencer, his ideas helped to shape the ideas of the latter two. Herbert Spencer’s ideas were not that important in terms of mainstream political theory but they are certainly important in terms of world history.

7 Comments
  1. December 8, 2010 11:39 AM

    Before reading this post I had never heard of Herbert Spencer and his connection to Nazi agendas. I think it is very interesting that someone can take such logical and rational ideas (from Mill) and completely radicalize those ideas and make them dangerous. It seems insane to me that one could actually believe it is moral to abandon morality and do anything in one’s individual power to better himself. Moreover, I found it extremely interesting that Mill is somehow indirectly related to Hitler, that seems so far fetched!

  2. Matt Brandewie permalink
    December 8, 2010 11:46 AM

    This is a very interesting way to look at John Stuart Mill. However, looking at things this way could get you in trouble because some people might look at it and believe that Mill was the man who influenced Hitler. Based on your post, in a way, I guess Mill did influence Hitler but it was indirect and unintentional. Also, Spencer was not the only person to influence Hitler. Mein Kampf was influenced by The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, which Hitler called his bible.

  3. schearer permalink
    December 8, 2010 12:27 PM

    I enjoyed this blog and was very surprised that Spencer’s philosophy was developed from Mill’s ideas. I think that this same development is present in some parts of society today. Individuals today will, at times, do whatever it takes to ensure that they receive benefits. Many times individuals will take action and simply ignore the effects it could have on other people in society. Take for example George Bush, in many cases he had to make decisions that would directly influence society. When implementing Bush-era tax cuts was he truly thinking about the middle class or was it that he only cared about the upper class, which he seemed to only think about. In society today there are too many people living by Spencer’s ideas. It is okay to try and better yourself, but not to better yourself and make someone else suffer. Mill would be very upset with many people in society today, including some of the most important leaders. I think that this occurs because people take freedom to another level. Because of the term they do not think of repercussions, but rather how can they better themselves while ignoring the lasting effects their actions can have on society as a whole not just individuals. In the end I think that it’s amazing how someone can develop an evil twist to a great philosophy that more people in society should really take in to account.

  4. blanchc permalink
    December 8, 2010 7:13 PM

    Nice chart.

  5. darriensherman permalink
    December 8, 2010 9:36 PM

    Your blog post is very intriguing and I like how you provided an example of how what Mill said indirectly led to Nazism. The point I think is important to drive home is that as readers we should read political theorists with a grain of salt. What one theorist says does not exactly mean the outcome will be promising or even lead to success. I think Spencer took Mill’s ideas to the extreme, created his own interpretation, and had followers such as Hitler. Another great example of this would be the past Soviet Union who tried to replicate a Marxist communist society and what ended up happening was another genocide. It is important to note the repetition of history when leaders try to interpret political theorists it often ends in disaster and in some extreme cases genocide.

  6. arimark91 permalink
    December 9, 2010 12:53 AM

    While your blog post is very interesting, I think that your picture takes it a little too far. I do not think that Mill should be blamed for influencing Hitler in anyway. The picture almost makes it seem like Mill’s thoughts are the foundation of Nazism, when in fact Mill had some very kind views. For instance, he wanted men and women to have equal opportunity, and he wanted everyone to have the right to share his or her opinions. Still though, interesting post!

    • justinrostker permalink
      December 9, 2010 10:56 AM

      I also had never heard of Herbert Spencer until reading this post. I found this quite intriguing and made me wonder what other political theorists have indirectly influenced another. Also, I think one can take your post a step further and show how this is in a way a parallel to this course. You have suggested Hitler shaped some of his views from Spencer’s views whose views are shaped based of Mills views. As these theorists did that I think one of the main tools this class has given us is that from learning all these theories we can pick and choose what we like and shape them to develop our own ideas as Spencer and Hitler have done.

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