Reeves on Mill: Chapter 8

The impact on Mill of the events in Paris in February 1848 was, as was common among European radicals, immense and galvanising.

‘I am hardly yet out of breath from reading and thinking about it……Nothing can possibly exceed the importance of it to the world or the immensity of the interests which are at stake on its success’ Mill wrote. Again like most European radicals, he was wildly over-optimistic in his expectations. Mill’s vehement defence of the Revolution and provisional government – a stance in which he was ‘almost a sole voice’ in England [I think this must be considerable over-statement by Reeves] – was based not only on his radicalism but also his Francophilia ; it was the latter which proved a life-long attraction, and outlasted his disappointment as to the eventual fate of the revolution.

Mill was constantly berating the English for their insularity and smugness, and he used France as a stick with which to beat his fellow-countrymen. His defence of the provisional government was total, and he proved the limits of his own radicalism when he defended it after the suppression of the genuinely revolutionary insurrection of June 1848. Moreover, while he may have approved of limited revolution in France, he was always opposed to any such thing in England. However he was sufficiently energised by the events of 1848 to plunge once more into domestic political debate. He encouraged the growth of a new Parliamentary group of radical Whigs, and he moved to accept that the working-class should be accorded at least limited suffrage – an argument he would ‘flesh out’ later in his Principles of Political Economy and Representative Government. In the event the movement for reform was massively defeated in a parliamentary vote in 1849 and Mill ‘issued his standard post-match report’…..

As for England, it is dead, vapid, left quite behind by all the questions now rising,…..From the Dukes to the Chartists, including all intermediate stages, people have neither heads nor hearts.

Mill was deeply contemptuous of his English contemporaries and nearly all his heroes were French: Carrel, Tocqueville, Lamartine. The most influential however were Guizot and Comte. Mill despised Guizot as a politician,  but placed great value on his theory of history : this was that the engine of progress was ‘systematic antagonism’ between rival sources of power (religion, knowledge, wealth, military force etc.). The contradictions in society ‘provided the energy for its advancement’ [presumably Marx had also read Guizot?]. Mill also appreciated Guizot’s suggestion that the Germanic invaders of the 5th and 6th centuries had brought a vital spirit of liberty to European history: while the liberties of the classical world had been primarily political…

the modern spirit of liberty, on the contrary, is the love if individual independence; the claim for freedom of action, with as little interference as is compatible with the necessities of society, from any other authority than the conscience of the individual (Mill’s commentary on Guizot)

Comte ‘was engaged in a similar project to construct a theory of history’ based around ‘positive’ laws of progress. Mill specially admired Comte’s vast Cours de philosophie positive. Reeves comments that ‘A science of history was no more possible than a science of human character’ [which again tells us a lot about his own biases and nothing about Mill].

From Guizot and Comte Mill took ‘theoretical grounds for believing in the inevitable forward march of liberal society’ and rejecting ‘end state’ theories of history. It also gave him grounds for attacking ‘the Whiggish tendencies of English historians from Burke to Macaulay‘ [can Burke really be counted a Whig historian??]. Mill had no time at all for Macaulay: Reeves observes that ‘his assessment here was almost certainly tinged by professional jealousy’ – Macaulay was one of Mill’s great rivals – and I think this is a fair judgement as Mill does not seem to have engaged with Macaulay’s arguments. But there was more to it than this. In the first place Mill found French history more exciting [a very peculiar judgement if one looks back to the 16th and 17th centuries]. He also thought that English history lacked self-criticism and encouraged self-conceit [which is a much fairer criticism]. Most centrally however the Whig endorsement of the English constitutional mess, its organic nature, was at odds with Mill’s utilitarian, methodical, organising roots.

There was a strong element of smugness and self-congratulation in English historical writing of this period [which is not in the least surprising – I would imagine that when one looks at the historical writings of any dominant world-power at the time of their dominance they are likely to tend to the smug and self-laudatory] and Mill attacked these attitudes.

Mill and Comte never met but they exchanged many letters between 1841 and 1847 before falling out over two areas of ‘profound intellectual disagreement…

  1. Comte’s belief that the individual needed to be wholly subsumed by society: he even wrote ‘man…as an individual cannot properly be said to exist’. Clearly this was anathema to Mill who believed strongly in the individual.
  2. Comte’s belief in phrenology which led him to claim that because women’s brains were smaller than men they were less intelligent – and in his scheme for progress women would be returned to domesticity. This was doubly offensive to Mill : first  in terms of its political philosophy and then in its advocacy of phrenology which he considered nonsense.

Comte’s eventual application of his ideas in his creation of a new humanist religion were, to coin a technical phrase, completely bonkers [they are also very funny while being at the same time rather sinister]. Mill wrote much later…

Others may laugh, but I could far rather weep at this melancholy decadence of a great intellect

Any lingering loyalty Mill might have had for Comte was completely destroyed when the latter supported NapoleonIII  in the coup d’etat of 1851 which finally overthrew the provisional Government of 1848 (though it had effectively perished by 1849).

While Mills’ intellectual relationship with France died with the republic, his personal affection for the country remained………….There was a part of Mill which would remain forever French; the hot-blooded, ill-fated revolutionary impatience of the French radicals inspired as well as disappointed him. Usually he was a common-sense English kind of radical – though he would have died on a barricade before admitting it. But there times when he was ignited with a fervour for justice – over the American Civil War, the Governor Eyre affair, or the right to speak freely ion London’s parks – which was distinctly French

[again one sees Reeves trying to impose his own version of Mill, while at the same time accepting the latter’s account of Anglo-French differences which hardly form an interesting or original part of his thought].

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