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”.
These quotes are not quite as damning as they seem. Mill was not defending empire per se. He was defending the rule of the disinterested experts of the East India Company. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857 led to direct rule from London, Mill feared that grasping white settlers would have the ear of the British parliament and press. He honourably condemned the British troops, who put down the rebellion, for participating in an “inhuman and indiscriminate massacre”, and “organising the seizing of persons in all parts of the country and the putting them to death without trial and then boasting of it in a manner almost disgraceful to humanity”.
The historical record is more complicated than the post-colonial condemnations allow. But it is not good enough to exonerate Mill. An Indian reader would point out that the supposedly “disinterested” servants of the East India Company whom Mill served were just as grasping and as much foreign occupiers as the imperial administrators who replaced them. To his credit, Varouxakis does not attempt to exonerate Mill, merely show that he is not the monster his critics make him out to be. His study, which covers much else besides Mill’s attitude to empire, would be a fine and refreshingly well-written academic work were it not for one question which cannot be ducked.
Who now believes that rights are all very well for Englishmen but not for the lesser breeds? Who now says that the emancipation of women is essential for white-skinned women in the West but not brown-skinned women in the East? Who, in short, is the inheritor of the old imperialist double standard?
Go to any university and you will hear stark warnings about “imposing Western values” on different cultures. You will be told loudly that it is “inappropriate” to argue against Afghan women wearing the burka, even when Afghan men have forced them to wear it. Try to say that all gays should enjoy the right to sexual equality, and Muslim regimes that impose the death penalty on homosexuals must be fought, and you will be accused, as my friend Peter Tatchell was accused, of being an “Islamophobe”, “racist” and “collaborator with the extreme Right”. Maintain that freedom of speech is a universal human right that no cleric can restrict, and you will hear that you are allowing the incitement of racism and may well be a racist yourself. Say that we must show solidarity with feminists and trade unionists fighting theocrats, and you will be told, as I have been told, that they are “native informers” of the West.
If you want to find examples of Mill’s fear of manipulative leaders playing off one ethnic group against another, meanwhile, look at the attempts of Ken Livingstone in London or Ilmar Reepalu in Malmö to play off Muslims against Jews, and notice that both of them are gentlemen of the Left.
The same people who condemn John Stuart Mill now exhibit all of his vices and none of his virtues. It is interesting to argue about long-dead liberal imperialists. Far more urgent is the need to argue against the double standards of the post-colonial and postmodern racists of our day, who provide high-minded justifications for oppression when they ought to know better.