I’ve been reading what Scottish philosopher John MacMurray has to say about socialism.


I came to MacMurray obliquely through an internet search on the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, who I learned about through composer Lembit Beecher, who is writing a choral piece based on Fourier.  Lembit learned about Fourier from his father Jonathan, a Fourier scholar.  Jonathan Beecher’s book on Fourier is listed in Emancipatory Social Thought: “A Partially Annotated [Internet] Bibliography in English for the Libertarian Left and Progressive Populists in the United” by James Herod, which mentions the writings of John MacMurray.  Don’t you just love the internet?

I have a problem with money.  It’s not that I don’t have enough.  I had the good luck to be born into a family that had plenty, and I am “good at” money despite having embarrassingly weak computational skills, but I hate – truly hate – the polluting impact of money on human relations.

So I was curious what MacMurray might have to say.  Briefly, MacMurray discusses socialism in its relationship to justice and freedom.  MacMurray held that a society is comprised of “people in relation,” and that people relate to one another in three ways: mechanical, organic (those terms from Émile Durkheim), and personal.  Mechanical and organic relationships, MacMurray believed, exist to support the achievement of a common purpose; personal relations are, as the name implies, relations between persons as persons, rather than as units of social utility.

According to MacMurray, mechanical and organic relationships – those defined by measures of wealth and/or social utility – are more likely to be altered in response to changing material conditions of society, leaving personal relationship the most significant, but perhaps the most vulnerable, to influence by the state or by politics.

MacMurray extends his thinking about the three kinds of relationships into a corresponding theory about freedom.  There are three kinds of freedom, MacMurray writes.  There is mechanical freedom in which there is free movement in conformity with the physical laws of nature, organic freedom in which there can be growth and development in accordance with the teleological life cycle, and personal freedom grounded in the ability to act.  Mechanical and organic freedoms are impersonal.  Personal freedom “is at once the Alpha and Omega” of human existence for MacMurray.

“Human freedom can be realized only as the freedom of individuals in relation; and the freedom of each of us is relative to that of others,” thus “the extent and the quality of social co-operation” determines the amount of freedom experienced by each person.  It is the communal spirit, which is in the realm of personal relations, that secures cooperation without the use of force and ensures the compatibility of ends.

Summarizing MacMurray, Esther McIntosh writes in John MacMurray’s Religious Philosophy, “equality of value cannot occur where worth is measured by utility.  For individuals to be valued equally their natural differences must be recognized and accepted, regardless of synthetic differences… As the circumstances of society alter…, it becomes of crucial importance that there is sufficient communal bond within society to prevent the changing political institutions from eradicating democracy; it is this communal bond that provides the means for limiting political control and increasing freedom and equality.”

One could read MacMurray’s writings about freedom and equality as an idealistic, utopian vision – but you would anger him by doing so.  MacMurray was dismissive of pure thought and idealism in general.  “Thought verifies itself in action,” MacMurray writes, “and only in action.”

More to come.