The Reading Room
JS Mill:The Principles of Political Economy
In 1848, John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy. The book was an elaboration on the concepts and ideas developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo and included applications to social philosophy and political problems of the day. Principles of Political Economy became a classic, eventually going through seven editions, the last published in 1871. The Principles remained the main textbook for what we now call economics throughout the United Kingdom and America into the 1900s, when it would eventually be replaced by Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics.
Despite its status as a classic and essential work, Principles of Political Economy ended up being placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was an index of forbidden works deemed by the Catholic Church to be either heretical or damaging to moral understanding. Catholics were forbidden from reading or printing the books in the Index unless they sought an exception from the local bishop. Further, in some cases, works were banned not in their entirety; just certain sections or even just a sentence or two. Works could be removed if proper changes were made. First established in 1560, the Index was consistently updated until 1966 when the Pope declared that the sheer number of new works made it difficult to update. The Index acts as a warning for Catholics that these works can “endanger faith and morals,” but no longer carries the weight of ecclesiastical law.
Outside of the Papal States, it is unclear how much weight the Index had in terns of effectively censoring items. Catholic states could enact bans based on the Index (and some, like Spain, did). But without a government organ of censorship, the Index relied on self-censorship by Catholics, as the authority of the Church held no sway over non-members.
It is also not clear why the Catholic Church thought Mill’s Principles of Political Economy posed a spiritual threat. As far as I can tell, the compliers of the Index do not list why a work, or a body of work, is forbidden. Some books seem to have been banned because they contained controversial or heretical thoughts: unauthorized translations of the Bible, for example, are on the list. Other works, including those by Saints such as St. Robert Bellarmine made the list because they challenged the political structures of the Church.
As for the Principles of Political Economy, there is not much of religious controversy within the book. Mill discusses some the role of clergy and religion in society from a sociological perspective, but is relatively neutral on the matter. Rather, I suspect Principles of Political Economy was a symptom, rather than a cause, of religious controversy surrounding Mill himself. In other words, I suspect the book was banned because of who Mill was rather than the material it contained.
Following David Hume, Mill was a Skeptic and that played into his religious views as well. Often described as an agnostic, there is evidence to suggest that Mill may have been an atheist and distrustful, if not outright hostile, to organized religion. In his Autobiography, Mill described himself as one who did not “throw off religious belief but never had it.” In several spots in his writing, although not in the Principles itself, Mill treats religious leaders or organizations with sarcasm and contempt. The British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books listed him as “Mill (John Stuart); see Antichrist.” Mill argued that Christianity taken as a whole is a social impediment, although it may be useful for individual needs. Mill seemed quite a thorn in the side of the religious establishment, whether Catholic or Protestant. This leads me to believe Mill’s inclusion into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was because of him and his beliefs rather than anything in the Principles themselves. I think this point is reinforced given that, in later years, all of Mill’s works were added to the Index beyond just the Principles of Political Economy.
Even outside of religious controversy, the Principles of Political Economy were censored or adjusted to serve political purposes. In the 1860s until the Revolution, Imperial Russia was enduring social and political change. The serfs were freed but there was a fierce debate among the Russian intellectuals on whether socialism or capitalism should replace the old system. The elites of Russia began to look toward Britain for ideas and the popularity of Mill’s Principles in England led it to be introduced in Russia. However, the book faced censorship and alterations in Russia. By the 1860s, editions of the Principles began to contain numerous discussions of, and support for, socialism. The Principles would be used as propaganda in the debates in Russia at the time. The translations tended to focus more on Mill’s discussions of social issues rather than the theoretical aspects.
Only a handful of Russian intellectuals understood English, so a limited number of translations existed. Furthermore, those translations tended to favor the political goals of the translators. Those who favored a more British-capitalist approach to the economy often produced translations where references to socialism were removed. Alternatively, those intellectuals who supported more French- and German-style socialism would remove Mill’s discussions of property and defenses of individual liberty. His Chapters on Socialism, added in 1879, were never published in Russia. Both sides would add views that Mill would not necessarily agree with into their introductions. The Principles was never explicitly banned in Russia, it was altered well beyond any intention of Mill.
I think the experience with Mill’s Principles shows how fluid censorship can be. Books can be outright banned (such as with the Catholic Church), or books can convey a message very different from what the author intended to say through selective editing and publishing. Censorship can be malicious, an attempt to suppress ideas. Or censorship can be benign, an attempt to alter ideas. Censorship can take on many forms.