From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, pp.31-32.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Intellectuals in Politics
This book tells the story of the group of philosophers around John Stuart Mill who were active in Parliamentary politics in the years following 1832. It is interesting in that it shows the interlocking in practice of political history and the history of ideas. Mill and his friends belonged to the mainstream of bourgeois liberalism. They drew on the utilitarianism of Bentham and James Mill, which in turn owed much to the French philosophes of the eighteenth century; they were also influenced by the élitism of Comte and Saint-Simon.
The duality of liberalism and élitism runs right through the theory and practice of the Philosophical Radicals.
Their basic demands were an increase in democracy by an extension of the suffrage. But this was an essentially paternalist move; they considered that by constitutional change the people could be ‘made better, morally or intellectually,’ and that the working class were the ‘most teachable’ section of society. Mill shared the positivist view that politics could aspire to scientific objectivity. A politician should be like a doctor; a man is free to choose his doctor, but not to instruct him what to prescribe.
Class conflict was therefore explained away as the product of ignorance; working class and ‘middle rank’ had interests in common, and only the anti-intellectual aristocracy was an obstacle to good Government.
Hence, with the rise of Chartism, the Philosophical Radicals faded away; even though their programme was in many ways similar to the political demands of the Chartists, they could in no way be reconciled to the class content of Chartism. So Mill wrote his Logic, and the group collapsed. Liberalism, utilitarianism and positivism had confirmed their inability to unite theory and practice.
Last updated: 24 April 2010