Double standards: Mill condemned the handling of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, depicted here in “Punch”, but defended the role of the East India Company
You can make a passable case that the best of today's liberal world owes more to John Stuart Mill than any other political philosopher. He was ahead of his time when he found arguments for women's rights, humanitarian intervention, and the freedom to think, speak and do as you please, as long as you do no harm to others. By "harm", I should add, Mill meant real harm, not the "offence" that is so regularly touted as a reason for censorship today — or the psychological distress that comes from seeing unsettling behaviour or hearing heretical arguments.
So far in advance of his time was Mill, that it is not too fanciful to call the cultural revolution of the second half of the 20th century a Millian revolution.
In Liberty Abroad, his excellent study of how Mill reacted to the foreign policy crises of mid-Victorian Britain, Georgios Varouxakis has to deal with a subject where Mill appears to be all too miserably of his time. It has become a staple of post-colonial writing to say that Mill was a "liberal imperialist" and a "liberal racist" to boot. His conservative contemporaries saw no contradiction between enjoying the liberties of freeborn Englishmen and denying liberty to the subjugated peoples of the empire. But they were conservatives, and their double standards were to be expected. Shockingly, Mill, the great hero of British liberalism, was just as prejudiced.
An element of the Left has always argued that liberal defences of the status quo are worse than their conservative equivalents. Liberals ought to know better, but instead provide high-minded justifications for oppression. In fairness to this left-wing tradition, Mill handed plenty of ammunition to his critics.
Varouxakis can dismiss the charge that Mill was an intellectual forerunner of the blood-and-soil nationalisms that were to destroy Europe. In his early writing, Mill believed indeed that representative government could only work in an ethnically homogenous state. Multiculturalism would allow unscrupulous leaders to play one ethnic group off against another, he thought. These were not self-evidently bad arguments. But as ethnic nationalism grew in Europe, Mill modified his position, and came to emphasise the importance of cohesion being built from common ideas rather than accidents of birth.
But when it comes to the empire there appears to be no escape for Varouxakis, who for all his scholarly detachment cannot hide his love for Mill. When Mill argued for the maximum possible liberty, he did not propose extending it to children, who were too young to make informed choices. He was equally adamant that the freedom he wanted for white European adults could not be extended to "backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage". The subjects of empire were too juvenile to be free. They needed a despotic government, which funnily enough in the case of India was provided by the East India Company for which Mill worked. Despotism over the child-like natives was permissible "provided that the end be their improvement". It was "a mode of government as legitimate as any other if it is the one which in the existing state of civilisation of the subject people, most facilitates their transition to a higher stage".