Front Page Titles (by Subject) Mill on a Principled Political Party - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Mill on a Principled Political Party - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Mill on a Principled Political Party
“J.S. Mill and the Problem of Party.” Journal of British Studies 21 (Fall 1981): 106–122.
It is misleading to regard John Stuart Mill's (1806–1873) attitude to political party as simply negative either because of his scanty references to party in his Representative Government or because of some of his hostile comments.’ In reality, Mill's hostility was not directed against the principle of party but rather against the existing unprincipled party system in England. He offered a moral ideal of party and dedicated his intellectual and political activity to this moral ideal's aim: “the improvement and elevation of the individual's aesthetic, ethical, and mental faculties. For Mill, all thought and public activity, whether of a philosophical, economic, or political character, was to be directed towards the single end of making man better than he was by facilitating the full development of his potentialities.”
Joseph Hamburger, in Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals (1965), has discussed the centrality of party to Mill's political activity during the 1830s when he tried unsuccessfully to form a genuine Radical Party which would abolish aristocratic government and work for the democratization of British institutions and society. Mill held the idealized view that party should be the organized political expression of principled ideological commitment. As he argued in his important 1839 essay, “Reorganization of the Reform Party,” there should be two principled and antagonistic parties—a Conservative Party and a radicalized Liberal Party—which would function dialectically to best advance the respective claims of tradition and progress.
British national politics, involving Whigs and Tories, during the quarter-century after 1840 did not live up to Mill's ideal of principled parties. Mill was disillusioned by the pragmatic and unprincipled politics of Palmerton's ascendancy. Finally, in 1865, Mill found an opportunity to create an “advanced Liberalism” by holding high the ideal of an intellectually principled party when he entered parliament as a highly independent member for Westminster. With Palmerstone's death, Mill held out the hope that Gladstone might be the rallying figure to create and lead “an advanced Liberal Party” dedicated to democracy and reform. But Mill's commitment was not to the de facto Liberal Party or its leader; it was to principle. He saw the large electoral victory of the Liberals in 1868 as just a “seeming victory” since Gladstone did not appoint to prominent positions any advanced Liberals.
Mill's ideal of a reform party subtly shifted, because of political circumstances, from 1839 to the late 1860s. His earlier “Reorganization of the Reform Party,” had claimed the motto of a Radical politician should be “Government by means of the middle class for the working classes.” Seeking a Liberal Party alliance to redress the practical grievances of the working classes in the 1860s, Mill now sought “government by the middle and working classes for the nation.” Meaningful political participation of the working classes would provide civic education and competence for their untested human potential.