James Mill and Jeremy Bentham on Class

This extract comes from a larger work on "Libertarian Class Analysis: An Historical Survey (Sept. 2020 draft)". For more by James Mill on class, see James Mill, The Political Writings of James Mill: Essays and Reviews on Politics and Society, 1815–1836, ed. David M. Hart.



(M)en placed in society … are divided into two classes, Ceux qui pillent,—et Ceux qui sont pillés (those who pillage and those who are pillaged); and we must consider with some care what this division, the correctness of which has not been disputed, implies.

The first class, Ceux qui pillent, are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, Ceux qui sont pillés, are the great number. They are the subject Many.

[James Mill, "The State of the Nation," The London Review, (April, 1835), in Social Class and State Power (2018), p. 63.

The Philosophic Radicals and the Benthamites

The Philosophic Radicals and the Benthamites in England make up the third group of thinkers. They were active in the early part of the 19th century when England and the other monarchical powers were fighting Napoleon across the entire continent of Europe. The main issues were the cost of the war in lives lost, increased taxes, massive war debt, disrupted trade (Napoleon's "Continental Blockade" of 1806 to keep all English goods out of Europe), censorship and repression of revolutionary ideas, and the growing power of the state especially the military. These events also had a significant impact on French CLs which is discussed below.

Jeremey Bentham (1748–1832)

The two main theorists in this group were the legal theorist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and the journalist and political economist James Mill (1773–1836) whose ideas would have a profound impact on 19th century CL thought. Bentham wrote a great deal on parliamentary and legal reform during the 1810s and 1820s such as Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817) in vol. 3; Codification Proposal (1822), A Fragment on Government (1823), The Book of Fallacies (1824), Principles of Judicial Procedure (1827), Principles of the Civil Code (no date), Principles of Penal Law (no date), and Constitutional Code (1827–30). [These can all be found in Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838–1843). 11 vols.] In these works he exposed the corruption of "the Sinister interest" which controlled the British state. Whereas the state should be promoting "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" it was in fact geared to serving the interests of "the ruling one" (the Monarch) and "the sub-ruling few" (the establishment). They along with their supporters, such as elected Parliamentarians ("the Ins"), "the fee-fed lawyer and the tax-fed or rent-fed priest" (A Fragment on Government (1823), Works, vol. 1, p. 245.), formed "a partnership for extracting out of the pockets of the people the industry of the people" (Principles of Penal Law (no date), Works, vol. 1, p. 394). This partnership created a "state engine" or "system of depredation and oppression"(A Fragment on Government (1823), Works, vol. 1, pp. 244–45.). In addition, these "sinister interests" defended their power and privilege with a sophisticated set of ideological "fallacies" which confused the people and deflected criticism and any attempts at reforming "this power-stealing system" (A Fragment on Government (1823), Works, vol. 1, pp. 243.) The end result was that "the members of the community are divided into two classes: the industrious and frugal, slaves toiling for others: the idle and prodigal, lords and masters, enjoying for themselves"(Principles of the Civil Code (no date), Works, vol. 1, p. 364).

A fairy typical example from his large body of work is this quotation from Principles of Judicial Procedure (1827) in which class, government waste, corruption, war, taxes, and government loans are all linked:

Under a government which has for its main object the sacrifice of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, to the sinister interest of the ruling one and the sub-ruling few, corruption and delusion to the greatest extent possible, are necessary to that object: waste, in so far as conducive to the increase of the corruption and delusion fund, a subordinate or co-ordinate object: war, were it only as a means and pretence for such waste, another object never out of view: that object, together with those others, invariably pursued, in so far as the contributions capable of being extracted from contributors, involuntary or voluntary, in the shape of taxes, or in the shape of loans, i. e. annuities paid by government by means of further taxes, can be obtained:—under such a government, by every penny paid into the Treasury, the means of diminishing the happiness of the greatest number receive increase;—by every penny which is prevented from taking that pernicious course, the diminution of that general happiness is so far prevented. (Principles of Judicial Procedure (1827) in Works, vol. 2, p. 139.)

James Mill (1773–1836)

Bentham was often very difficult to read so it fell to his followers like James Mill (1773–1836) to spread his ideas among a broader audience which he did in a series of entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1824) - "Caste, " "Colony," and "Government" - and numerous articles in the influential The London Review during the 1830s - "State of the Nation" (Apr. 1835) and "Aristocracy" (Jan. 1836). [These can all be found in James Mill, The Political Writings of James Mill: Essays and Reviews on Politics and Society, 1815–1836, ed. David M. Hart] The phrases he used most often were "the ruling Few" (or the "Aristocracy") and "the subject Many" in order to expose the "sinister interests" of the small group who controlled the British government for their own selfish purposes. Mill identified the sinister interests specifically with the narrow aristocracy which ran the British government, namely the “200 families” or the Establishment described in great detail by John Wade in his Black Book.

The Philosophic Radicals, of which he was a leading intellectual, wanted to destroy the power of the aristocracy, to remove their political and economic privileges, and to allow the “people” (or at least the middle class) to vote, be elected, and run the state in the broad "universal" interests of all mankind. To Mill’s mind the interests of the aristocracy were “sinister” because they were exclusive and solely benefited the members of this group at the expense of the broad mass of the common people. The common people, almost by definition, were incapable he thought of displaying sinister interests because this group was diverse, complex, and undifferentiated. A serious criticism which could and in fact was directed at this view was that the ordinary people could be mislead by a "faction" in the government or press about the true nature of their interests and bad policy from the state would be result. The strategy of the Philosophic Radicals was to destroy the power of the aristocracy by agitating for the bulk of the ordinary people to stand for election and to vote. The means to this end was the Reform Act which came into being in 1832 which permitted a sizable portion of the wealthier and propertied middle class to vote for the first time.

Mill defined an “aristocracy” as "any small number whatsoever; who, by the circumstance of being entrusted with power, …(and) have an interest in making a bad use of it … , are constituted an Aristocracy" (Mill, "Government" (1824), Political Writings, p. 505). He believed that colonies provided an excellent way for the aristocracy to get jobs, positions, contracts, and other state benefits, thus linking colonial policy and war with with domestic class rule. By controlling both domestic and colonial policy "the Few" could rule "the Many":

(I)n every country, there is "a Few," and there is "a Many;" that in all countries in which the government is not very good, the interest of "the Few" prevails over the interest of "the Many," and is promoted at their expence. "The Few" is the part that governs; "the Many" the part that is governed. (Mill, "Government" (1824), Political Writings, p. 272.)

The governing Few's control of the government both at home and abroad created what Mill described as "a vicious government" which ruthlessly sacrificed the interests of the many to the "sinister interests" of a small minority:

For what is meant by a vicious government? or wherein do the defects of government consist? Most assuredly they all consist in sacrificing the interests of the many to the interests of the few. The small number, in whose hands the powers of government are, in part directly, in part indirectly, placed, cannot fail, like other men, to have a greater regard for what is advantageous to themselves, than what is advantageous to other men. They pursue, therefore, their own advantage, in preference to that of the rest of the community. (Mill, "Liberty of the Press" (1824), Political Writings, p. 265.)

Thus, Mill came to view politics as a struggle between two classes, the "few" or "those who pillage" and "the "many" or "those who are pillaged." He provided a lengthy discussion of this in his summary of the "The State of the Nation" in 1835 which began with the following statement:

(M)en placed in society … are divided into two classes, Ceux qui pillent,—et Ceux qui sont pillés; and we must consider with some care what this division, the correctness of which has not been disputed, implies.

The first class, Ceux qui pillent, are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, Ceux qui sont pillés, are the great number. They are the subject Many.

It is obvious that, to enable the Few to carry on their appropriate work, a complicated system of devices was required, otherwise they would not succeed; the Many, who are the stronger party, would not submit to the operation. The system they have contrived is a curious compound of force and fraud:—force in sufficient quantity to put down partial risings of the people, and, by the punishments inflicted, to strike terror into the rest; fraud, to make them believe that the results of the process were all for their good. (Mill, Political Writings, "The State of the Nation" (1835), pp. 6–7.)

He believed that within the ruling class there was "a threefold" cord which bound "the Many" or "those who were ruled." This was was made up of an alliance between three powerful groups within "the ruling Few": "the men of law with the men of the state and the men of the altar" or an overlapping union between "the union of Law and State" and "the union of Church and State". The powerful Few required "a complicated system of devices" in order to maintain their rule over the more numerous but weak Many.

These "devices" were "a curious compound of force and fraud": they needed force to put down revolts and to "strike terror" into the rest of the population, and to protect the many from outside threats which was a major source of the Few's legitimate claim to rule. They also needed to inculcate a feeling of submission to and reverance for those who wielded power. This was achieved with great displays of their wealth and the pomp and ceremony of office, but also by making an alliance with the Church in order to more fully control the minds of the Many. The "priestly class" was given a monopoly of education and they too inspired awe in the Many with their mysterious ceremonies and luxuriant garb. The third group to join the "confederacy" of "Those qui pillent" (those who pillage) was that of the lawyers who like the priests made their occupation "mysterious and obscure" and very expensive. Mill ominously concluded that:

A threefold cord is not easily broken. The doom of mankind might now have appeared to be sealed. The shackles on the mind secured the shackles on the body; and the division of mankind into ceux qui pillent, et ceux qui sont pillés, might have been thought to be established for ever. (Mill, Political Writings, "The State of the Nation" (1835), pp. 8–9).

However, Mill thought that the "threefold cord" of oppression had been broken, or was in the process of being broken, by Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press which made it possible to expose what the ruling Few were doing to the Many.