The Blemishes of John Stuart Mill’s Liberalism

Portrait of Mill by George Frederic Watts (1873)

John Stuart Mill is a key figure in Nineteenth Century British liberalism. Mill is a giant of liberalism per se, such that subsequent exegesis has been overwhelmingly praiseworthy, indeed idolatrous. Not merely a grand philosopher and theorist, he was an indefatigable contributor to public debate and Member of Parliament during 1865-68.

However, Mill’s vision was deeply contradictory. Mill was an integral member of the Radical Liberals, who lamented the miserly electoral gains from the 1832 Reform Act. Yet he remained committed to Classical Liberalism (in spite of his musings on socialism) to the end. Undoubtedly his self-submersion and attachment to the rigors of Classical Political Economy contributed mightily to his faith. He retained a purist commitment to ‘free trade’ and ‘competition’ in the abstract. For example, competition was even an undiluted vehicle for good for wage labour, a ‘source not of low but of high wages’.

In some of Mill’s most quoted works there is minimal acknowledgement and account of the convulsions of his time. Those mentioned in his Autobiography are mostly external to Britain, as in 1830 and 1848 France, Ireland (with English culpability ignored) and the 1865 Jamaican Morant Bay massacre.

Mill’s life and intellectual and political concerns were permeated by a consciousness of class. He had contempt for the aristocracy’s ‘Old Corruption’. He sneered at the middle class’ supposed pecuniary obsessions. He was endlessly dismissive regarding the working class’ supposed lack of capacity for its own self-improvement. He supported working class political aspirations but opposed male suffrage as the time was not right. Education was the vehicle for improvement and, in the meantime, deference to one’s betters was appropriate. He was passionate about the rights of women, but that meant suffrage for women of property.

Yet the nature and sources of contemporary class warfare, and the basis for his prejudices and omissions, is perennially ignored or obfuscated in key writings where such treatment should naturally appear. Mill rightly found slavery abhorrent, but there is no evident concern for the pervasiveness of unfree labour. Mill supports the right of trade unions to exist but, due to the supposed iron law of markets, opines that any successful achievement of wage rises can only be to the detriment of the consumer and other workers. A rare mention of wage labour in his Autobiography (Mill was addressing an audience as a parliamentary candidate in 1865) is condescending:

In the pamphlet, ‘Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,’ I had said, rather bluntly, that the working classes, though differing from those of some other countries, in being ashamed of lying, are yet generally liars.

Mill declines to explain this preposterous claim and congratulates himself on his openness before the mostly working class audience.

In ‘The Claims of Labour’, Mill uses a pamphleteer’s title to publicise his then fear. A rash of organisations were being created with the intent to improve the lot of the lower orders – a development that Mill called ‘fashionable’ but treated as misguided, indeed dangerous. The state could assist by dismantling its own barriers to improvement – abolishing the Corn Laws and enabling limited liability business incorporation (for workers to become self-employed). However, improvement is to be found essentially in the worker’s own hands, based on self-discipline, not least by restricting their own reproduction and collectively heading off the Malthusian terror of overpopulation. In this essay, there is one mention of historical enclosures, albeit in paragraphs so opaque that it is hard to overlook Mill’s indifference to that long, brutal process by which a British working class was created and forced into servitude.

In Mill’s much-quoted Chapter in his Principles of Political Economy, ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’, he labours his obsession in a sub-section headed ‘The future well-being of the labouring classes principally dependent on their own mental cultivation’. The centrality of the chapter is devoted to recommending two means of self-improvement – profit-sharing within their employed enterprise (though remaining at the discretion of the employer) and the formation of co-operative enterprises. The latter form was then in active development with no help from Mill.

The divergence between class interest and universal liberty is most significant in Mill’s celebrated On Liberty. It is a sustained declamation regarding the rights of the individual against potential oppression by the state or societal dictates. Radical for his time, he reflects on freedom from religious intolerance, polygamy, eating pork, prostitution, gambling, and so on.

However, there is no word in On Liberty on the implications for universal liberty of a labouring class defined by compulsion for survival. There is no mention of the scandal of the workhouses as centrepiece of the 1834 Poor Law. Mill supported the Poor Law as centralising authority and administration, in contrast to the presumed inefficiencies of the previous local paternalist structures of relief. The discourse floats abstractly, ignoring the harsh reality (enforced by state instrumentalities) of the power of capital over labour. Overwritten, as was Mill’s wont, On Liberty reads partly as a naïve self-help manual (borrowed from Wilhelm von Humboldt) and extensively as pop sociology.

Even as a (Radical) Liberal, he has some peccadilloes. Mill (following his father James) worked for years for the British East India Company (1823-58) – that splendid vehicle for the exploitation on a grand scale of India – until its dissolution. He was fearful of democracy (his concern for the much quoted ‘tyranny of the majority’, borrowed from de Tocqueville). He was opposed to universal suffrage. He supported plural voting, not on the detestable basis of property but on the basis of superior knowledge. He favoured the retention of capital punishment. He was in favour of colonisation, bringing civilisation to the lesser races and an improved standard of living to emigrés from the metropolis. He lamented the devastation wrought by the Irish famine, recommended practical measures to offset the distress, but found no fault in brutal English overlordship and was subsequently opposed to Irish Home Rule. He constructed a new defense of ‘liberal imperialism’). His view of the appropriate domestic role of the state was determined on a priori principles rather than on the exigencies of an evolving capitalist economy. He uncritically favoured the newly emerging joint stock corporation, seeing it as a force for greater efficiency and potential outlet for worker emancipation and improved societal well-being.

The historical economist T.E. Cliffe Leslie was prescient on the contradictions of Mill’s genius:

[Mill] had been brought up in the straitest sect of the abstract economists, and his method was formed before his mind was matured; so that there is no systematic investigation in his treatise [Principles of Political Economy], although it abounds in luminous suggestions, and corrections of the crude generalizations of the school in which he was taught.

Karl Marx, resident in London since 1849, doesn’t exist for Mill. Marx’s first volume of Capital was published in German in 1867, but English and French editions were published only after Mill’s death in 1873. Yet Mill was well familiar with the activities of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) and had personal intercourse with its English associates (Feuer 1949). There is a smattering of generally dismissive references to Mill in Capital, Volume 1. Marx singled out Mill from the ‘apologetic vulgar economists’ in noting Mill’s concern for the working class, but claimed that, with its ‘shallow syncretism’, Mill’s oeuvre became incoherent ‘in his attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable’.

Essentially, J.S. Mill was an egghead, with an unparalleled learning and formal capacity for analysis, courtesy of his disciplinarian father’s teaching. However, this privileged asset appears to have inhibited him in understanding what ought to have been transparent. Perhaps he saw it but didn’t want to know.


Cliffe Leslie, T.E. (1888 [1876]), ‘On the Philosophical Method of Political Economy’, in Essays in Political Economy, Longmans, Green & Co., London.

Feuer, L.S. (1949), ‘John Stuart Mill and Marxian Socialism’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10(2), April, pp. 297-303.

Marx, K. (1976 [1867]), Capital, Volume 1, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Mill, J.S (1869), Principles of Political Economy, Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, London.

Mill, J.S. (1924 [1873]), Autobiography, Oxford University Press, London.

Mill, J.S. (1967 [1845]), ‘The Claims of Labour’, in J.M. Hobson (ed.), The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. IV, Routledge, London.

Mill, J.S. (1972 [1859]), ‘On Liberty’, in Utilitarianism …, J. M. Dent & Sons, London.

Sullivan, E.P. (1983), ‘Liberalism and Imperialism: J. S. Mill’s Defense of the British Empire’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 44(4), pp. 599-617.

This text is an excerpt from ‘The Underbelly of Liberalism’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, No.86, December 2020.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached

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