James Mill: Laissez-Faire’s Lenin
James Mill (1771–1836) was surely one of the most fascinating figures in the history of economic thought. And yet he is among the most neglected. Mill was perhaps one of the first persons in modern times who might be considered a true “cadre man,” someone who in the Leninist movement of the next century would have been hailed as a “real Bolshevik.” Indeed, he was the Lenin of the radicals, creating and forging philosophical radical theory and the entire philosophical radical movement.
A brilliant and creative but an insistently Number 2 man, Mill began as a Lenin seeking his Marx. In fact, he simultaneously found two “Marxes,” Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo. He met both at about the same time, at the age of 35, Bentham in 1808 and Ricardo around the same date. Bentham became Mill’s philosophic Marx, from whom Mill acquired his utilitarian philosophy and passed it on to Ricardo and to economics generally. But it has been largely overlooked that Mill functioned creatively in his relationship with Bentham, persuading the older man, formerly a Tory, that Benthamite utilitarianism implied a political system of radical democracy.
David Ricardo (1772–1823) was an unsophisticated, young, but retired wealthy stockbroker (actually bond dealer) with a keen interest in monetary matters; but Mill perceived and developed Ricardo as his “Marx” in economics.
Until he acquired his post at the East India Company in 1818, at the age of 45, Mill, an impoverished Scottish emigré and freelance writer in London, lived partially off Bentham and managed to keep on good enough formal terms with his patron despite their severe personality conflicts. An inveterate organizer of others as well as himself, Mill tried desperately to channel Bentham’s prolific but random scribblings into a coherent pattern. Bentham meanwhile wrote privately to friends complaining of the impertinent interference of this young whippersnapper. Mill’s publication of his massive History of India in 1818 won him immediate employment to an important post at the East India Company, where he rose to the head of the office in 1830 and continued there until his death.
As for David Ricardo, self-taught and diffident, he scarcely acted as a Great Man. To the contrary, his admiration for Mill, his intellectual mentor and partly his mentor in economic theory, allowed him to be molded and dominated by Mill. And so Mill happily hectored, cajoled, prodded, and bullied his good friend into becoming the “Marx,” the great economist, that Mill felt for whatever reason he himself could or should not be. He pestered Ricardo into writing and finishing his masterpiece, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), and then into entering Parliament to take an active political role as leader of the radicals. Mill was then delighted to become the leading and highly devoted Ricardian in economics.
As a “Lenin” then, James Mill had a far more active intellectual role than the real Lenin would ever enjoy. Not only did he integrate the work of two “Marxes”; he contributed substantially to the system itself. Indeed, in endless conversations Mill instructed Ricardo on all manner of topics, and Mill looked over, edited, and undoubtedly added to many drafts of Ricardo’s Principles. We have already seen, for example, that it was Mill who first absorbed and adopted Say’s law and passed it on to his pupil Ricardo. Recent research indicates that James Mill may have played a far more leading role in developing Ricardo’s magnum opus than has been believed—for example, in arriving at and adopting the law of comparative advantage.
Mill’s stance is surely unique in the history of social thought. Very often theorists and writers are anxious to proclaim their alleged originality to the skies (Adam Smith being an aggravated though not untyp
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