John Stuart Mill wrote his book “Considerations on Representative Government” in 1861, following his more famous work, “On Liberty”. I shall begin this essay by outlining the political conditions under which he wrote it, and then attempt to summarise and assess what he was advocating.
When Mill wrote, the old British political system had been substantially changed by the Great Reform Act of 1832, but clearly more reform was needed. (This would be achieved a few years later by the Second Reform Act of 1867, of which, more later). Aspects of the system which would seem nowadays to be indefensible would centre on the fact that only a small minority of adult males had the vote (and, of course, no women!), whereas, by contrast, some men had several votes. The ancient universities had always elected their own Members of Parliament, with all graduates being able to vote for them; and men with property in several different constituencies could vote in each of them. Obviously these anomalies benefited the rich. The secret ballot did not become law until the election of 1874: until then, voting had always been “open” and public, leading to a great deal of bribery, corruption and intimidation. We shall see how Mill proposed to remedy these problems.
It should be noted that Mill entitled his book “Representative Government” rather than “Democracy”. The latter is a vague word, incapable of precise definition. In Mill’s day it was not used very often, and not necessarily as a term of praise (Queen Victoria is said to have branded Gladstone “the mad democrat”!), whereas in our time even the most squalid dictatorships claim to be “democratic”. But “Representative Government” has a much more precise meaning: the people get to elect their leaders.
Mill defends representative government on the same lines as he defends liberty: that is, he at no stage attempts to argue that there is any “right” to be rules democratically, any more than there is any “right” to freedom. “Human rights” was an abstract, metaphysical concept which the Utilitarian philosophers like Mill ignored. Instead he argues that democratically-elected government can be conducive to progress - but not necessarily under all circumstances. Just as children will not benefit from freedom, because they are not rational enough to use such freedom to good advantage, so primitive societies will not benefit from a democratic system of government. By “primitive”, Mill means a society which is largely illiterate, or dominated by tribal, feudal or religious loyalties, or one which is corrupt or violent. (These defects frequently go together). In such circumstances, a democratic system is unlikely to function well, and such a society is best governed paternalistically by the educated minority, who, it is to be hoped, will be more enlightened than the mass of the people: a system sometimes known as “enlightened despotism”.
But, and this is the crucial part of Mill’s argument, enlightened despotism ceases to be a good form of government once a certain level of civilisation has been reached, because the mass of the people are denied any share in decision-making, and if they are not given any responsibility, they are being treated as being morally and intellectually no better than children.
Mill was an extreme individualist in his philosophy, and, as a mid-Victorian, was dominated by the concept of “progress”. Man, he believed, was by nature a self-seeking possessive individualist, and progress was brought about by individual initiative: he had no faith in the state being able to plan progress. For this reason, he thought communism was never going to work as a system. (Marx, by contrast, thought possessive individualism was only a by-product of capitalist society, and would vanish under communism. See footnote). Mill thought that freedom and prosperity generally go together, and that when people have attained a certain level of civilisation, they would demand a greater participation in decision-making, which in a large community can only happen through electing representatives. But above all Mill wants an active citizenry: there is more to democracy than simply casting a vote every few years; it is a matter of getting involved and making your own contribution to the workings of society; not simply waiting for “them” to do something. Mill thus dismisses benevolent despotism as “an entirely false ideal” in the long run.
Just as in his book “On Liberty” Mill held up China as a dreadful example of a culture which had become stagnant because it left no room for individuality, so in this book he holds up another dreadful example: in this case, Russia. He was of course writing half a century before the Bolshevik revolution, but he saw Russia as a country held back by despotism and a centralised bureaucracy, and consequently sadly lacking in public spirit and in any individual initiative to check abuses.
Mill was advanced radical for his day in that he believed that British society was now sufficiently informed and educated that, in principle, all adults should have the vote, unless there was some specific reason to deny it. In his brief period as a Member of Parliament he famously proposed giving the vote to women, on the grounds that there was no rational argument for refusing the franchise solely on the grounds of gender. His motion attracted little support and much ridicule, and he duly lost his seat at the next election. (Mill does not discuss racial issues, but it we may safely assume that he would have argued that, whereas illiterate savages might be excluded from the franchise, it is nonsense to deny an educated black man the vote merely because of the colour of his skin). Only participation will educate the working classes, or other excluded groups, in public spirit, he says; and the "working-class interest" deserves representation in Parliament.
Rivalry between political parties is a good thing, because no-one ever has a monopoly on truth, policies should always be challenged, and it is not a good idea for anyone to remain in power for too long.
Nevertheless, Mill saw possible defects in a representative democracy; many of which he derived from De Tocqueville’s experiences in America. There were always dangers of unintelligent delegates, chosen by the mediocre majority, or of class-based legislation; given that in a democracy the working class voters will constitute a large majority. Here is another central Mill argument: all too often what passes for democracy is simply the largest faction imposing its will on everyone else. Mill brands the notion that the winners of an election are entitled to coerce everyone else “false democracy”. He points out that we should not be surprised if in future a working-class majority in Parliament brings in class-based legislation: after all, upper-class ruling elites have always done so in the past! (It is noticeable that both Mill and his contemporaries, Marx and Engels, assumed that an enfranchised working class would vote Communist, because it seemed to be in their interest. Mill feared it; Marx and Engels looked forward to it. The notion that a large proportion of the working class would vote Conservative did not occur to any of them!)
What can be done to alleviate this problem? Mill had no ideological commitment to the principle of “one person, one vote”; he supported democracy solely on the grounds of its tendency to produce better government, and he lived at a time when there was multiple voting. He approved of this, but saw no justification in extra votes being given solely on the grounds of wealth. It would, however, make sense if educated people, and those in responsible professions, had more than one vote. On the other hand, this would not be fair unless everyone had access to education. So the system he ultimately favours is that everyone should have a vote, but that the better-educated should have more than one vote. He opposes the payment of M.P.s, on the grounds that it would lead to a professional political class; and his opposition to a secret ballot appears strange nowadays.
In 1867 the Second Reform Act fulfilled some of Mill's wishes by a massive extension of the franchise, so that most skilled workmen in the towns now had the vote. It is ironic that the very next year, in the first election under the extended franchise, Mill lost his seat in Parliament. He was defeated by a Conservative, W. H. Smith; the founder of the bookshops of the same name. The secret ballot was introduced shortly afterwards, and the next election, in 1874, resulted in a huge majority for Disraeli's Conservative Party.
Much of Mill’s book has little relevance today, but his arguments for democracy, and against “false democracy” are still worth considering.
Mill was, of course, writing long before any actual communist revolution; but he correctly perceived that, for any communist society to work, possessive individualism would have to be replaced as the mainspring of human motivation by something else: commitment to a cause, perhaps, or a desire to help one’s neighbours. Mill believed that man was by nature a possessive individualist, and always would be. Marx, by contrast, thought that possessive individualism was merely a temporary phenomenon, widespread at present because it was the best way to get on in capitalist society. He seemed to think that the working classes were motivated by something other than possessive individualism: class solidarity, for example. He pointed out, correctly, that in the past people had had quite different motivations (such as the desire to save one’s soul), and he expected that after the revolution motivations would change again. Indeed, for a long time Soviet propaganda maintained that Soviet man did not behave like capitalist man, but gave helping the revolution priority over individual gain. Obviously both Marx and Mill have strong arguments for their point of view, but the course of events after the collapse of the Soviet Union would seem to strengthen Mill’s position.