Grist to the radical Mill

John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand by Richard Reeves (Atlantic Books), reviewed by Anthony Arblaster

September 20, 2008
6 min read

At a time when the need for champions of both freedom and equality, civil liberties and state regulation of the economy is as great as ever, it is worth reading or rereading John Stuart Mill. Anthony Arblaster explains his importance for socialists and radical liberals in this discussion of a recent political biography.

In the early years of the 19th century, when respectable families of all classes in Britain brought up their children as Christians of one variety or another, the philosopher John Stuart Mill received a purely secular education. He had it from his father, James Mill, and the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. He was brought up as the heir to the utilitarian throne; and he never entirely renounced his inheritance.

Utilitarianism is very much a this-worldy doctrine. It teaches that the aim of all our actions, and the basis of morality, should be ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. As that famous phrase indicates, it is an egalitarian and democratic creed. What matters is not just the increase in the sum of human happiness, or well-being, but that it should be spread as widely as possible. If a few are blissfully happy, and the rest of us are miserable, that is far worse than if the happiness were spread more evenly, and we were all moderately satisfied and comfortable.

Bentham was a very consistent thinker. Anything that made people happy was good, provided it wasn’t at the expense of others. So ‘push-pin’ (bowling) was as good as poetry, when it came to happiness or pleasure. Whatever turns you on …

Education, education, education

John Stuart Mill wasn’t happy with this. He was a great believer in education, and he was firmly of the view that educated pleasures were superior to others. He also took the view that people should be literate and educated before they could vote; and that, ideally, the masses should defer to the wisdom of those with ‘superior minds’. Although he favoured the extension of the franchise and believed, unlike most 19th-century male liberals, that women should have the vote on the same terms as men, he did have serious misgivings about democracy.

This may seem paradoxical to some people, because Mill is best known as a philosopher and champion of classical liberalism. His most famous work, On Liberty, published in 1859, is still widely read, discussed and quoted. Richard Reeves, in his lively and extremely readable new biography, John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand, calls it ‘the new testament of liberalism’.

What sometimes comes as a surprise to its readers is that Mill locates the biggest threat to personal liberty not in government, but in society. What he fears most is ‘the tyranny of public opinion’, or, borrowing a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Society, Mill wrote, can produce ‘a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression’.

No one with personal experience of racism, or homophobia, or mob hysteria of one kind or another, is likely to underestimate the terrible power of collective intolerance and hostility. And it should be said of Mill himself that he was utterly fearless in his championship of unpopular causes. He campaigned against Governor Eyre of Jamaica, who, following a small scale rebellion, had more than 400 Jamaicans executed and a further 600 flogged. He spoke up for the rights of Irish Fenians – the kind of people who would today be labelled ‘terrorists’. And, as an MP, he proposed a pro-women amendment to the second reform bill in 1867.

But Mill surely exaggerated the danger of a monolithic public opinion both then and now. Developed modern societies are more diverse than he expected them to be. People on the left are sometimes over-impressed by the vast efforts made by governments and the media to mould public opinion. But the very scale of these attempts to ‘manufacture consent’ in fact bear witness to the difficulty of the task. If it were that easy to mould people’s minds, they wouldn’t have to try so hard. The (uneven) spread of literacy and increasing access to a variety of sources of information mean that more and more people think for themselves, making for a deeply sceptical attitude towards those bodies whose opinions were once accepted as authoritative and reliable. Think of the dramatic decline in the power of the Catholic church over people’s minds in countries such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

For the same reasons, we cannot now go along with Mill’s efforts to preserve within democracy a dominant role for an elite of the ‘wise’ and the educated. People won’t stand for it.

Democracy and liberal values

The west pays lip service to democracy, but little more. If people freely elect the ‘wrong’ party or person – Chavez in Venezuela, Hamas in Palestine – they are isolated and, if possible, destabilised. But increasingly people are not satisfied with electoral charades. They want the real thing, a real choice, and those who deny this to them, like President Mwai Kibaki in Kenya, find that they have unleashed popular forces far beyond their control.

This is not to say that there is always and necessarily a perfect accord between democracy and liberal values. If democracy is construed as the unfettered rule of the majority, it easily leads to a denial of minority and individual rights. Remember the history of Northern Ireland under (majority) unionist rule? Mill understood this very well, and we need to understand it too.

But the principle threat to current freedoms comes not from public opinion, but from the state and its increasing authoritarianism. Just as, during the cold war, the supposed threat of communism was used, especially in the US, as an excuse for attacks on civil liberties and witch hunts against the left, so now the so-called ‘war on terror’ is relentlessly exploited to justify the erosion of basic freedoms and the rule of law.

This is a difficult issue for the traditional left. For more than a century now, socialist and radical liberals have argued in favour of using state power to curb and regulate capitalism (at least) and to create a humane and civilised society. That approach has not lost its force or relevance. But the left must also recognise that state power can be repressive as well as beneficial, and that when Labour politicians start to sneer at liberal opinion, and talk about civil liberties as luxuries that we can no longer afford, we are in real danger. Mill would have understood this. We still have much to learn from him.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank


1