James Mill on the ruling Few and the subject Many (1835)

James Mill

Found in The Political Writings of James Mill (1815-1836)

James Mill (1773-1836) identifies two groups in British society, namely “the ruling Few” who enjoy legal and economic privileges, and “the subject Many” who pay the taxes and submit to the regulations:

To understand this unhappy position of a portion of our fellow-citizens, we must call to mind the division which philosophers have made of men placed in society. They 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 [those who pillage], are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, Ceux qui sont pillés [those who are pillaged], 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.

In this essay Mill provides one of his regular surveys of “the state of the nation” in which he sums up political developments in Britain. It was written a few years after the success of the “Reform Party” in agitating for electoral reform which greatly increased the size of the electorate with the Reform Act of 1832. Now that most of the middle class could vote it was hoped that the Members of Parliament who represented them would dramatically reform British politics, especially in the areas of aristocrat control of Parliament, the legal system, the established church, and free trade. Concerning the latter, the Anti-Corn Law League was established in 1838 under the leadership of Richard Cobden and it was able to achieve its goal of eliminating the protectionist corn laws in 1846. Mill acknowledges “the strength of the spirit of reform” which was sweeping Britain but is also aware of the continuing strength of its opponents among conservatives and the fact that the reform party was split into “moderate” and “radical” reformers. Concerning the former, he develops a French liberal inspired theory of class which explains politics as a struggle between two contending groups, “ceux qui pillent” (those who pillage, also known as “the ruling Few”) and “ceux qui sont pillés” those who are pillaged, also known as “the subject Many”). Concerning the latter, he urges the reform party to continue pushing for reforms in all areas by adopting the strategy of the radical reformers. Mill believed that liberty in Britain would not be achieved until the privileged elites had been deprived of their power and the people were allowed to rule in their place. He had in mind removing the privileges of “the priests of all three classes; those who serve at the altar of state, those who serve at the altar of law, and those who serve at the altar of religion.”