John Stuart Mill and Racism

by Ibn Warraq (January 2014)

The following is an excerpt from Ibn Warraq's new book, Sir Walter Scott's Crusades and Other Fantasies.

Edward Said wrote that George Eliot was no different from John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, “both of them seemed to have believed that such ideas as liberty, representative government, and individual happiness must not be applied in the Orient for reasons that today we would call racist.”1 Marxists, such as Said himself, can grapple with their Savior’s feet of clay, but Mill is well worth defending. I hope these few remarks will go someway towards fulfilling that task, pointing readers to fuller discussions in some recent studies.

All his life, John Stuart Mill [1806-1873] was guided by his principles which led him to fight for the emancipation of women, for a secular, democratic and egalitarian society. He was hostile “to privilege and injustice and to the moral callousness he took to underlie these evils.”2 On the subject of race, three of Mill’s concerns are of particular importance, “The Negro Question” [1850], his rebuttal to Carlyle’s polemical tract in Fraser’s Magazine; “The Contest in America” [1862] his essay on slavery and the American Civil War; and his distress over the acts of Governor Eyre of Jamaica, expressed in the papers of the Jamaica Committee.

Mill vehemently rejected his opponents’ belief in natural inequalities, whether of women, or so-called “lower classes” or “lower races”—all individuals should be treated equally unless good cause can be shown to do otherwise. “The course of history,” wrote Mill, “and the tendencies of progressive human society, afford not only no presumption in favor of this system of inequality of rights, but a strong one against it; and . . . so far as the whole course of human improvement up to this time, the whole stream of modern tendencies, warrants any inference on the subject, it is, that this relic of the past is discordant with the future, and must necessarily disappear.”3


Those who still insist on his racism should ponder Mill’s spirited response to Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet,“Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” As Collini summarizes, “what Carlyle takes as the distinctive and self-evidently inferior ‘nature’ of the negro is in fact the result of the historical circumstances of subjection under which that character has been formed, and it is the distinctive mark of the modern age to be bent on mitigating or abolishing such subjection. Both science and history, therefore, tell against the view that the negro—‘Quashee,’ to use Carlyle’s mischievously provocative term—must perpetually work under the lash of a white master.”4

First, Mill wrote of the slave trade “I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth.” Mill then charges Carlyle with a vulgar error, “he would have escaped the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature. As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock, one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigour in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure—has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other’s developement by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another; since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak.”5

Mill even anticipates Martin Bernal’s Black Athena argument, which is not accepted by many eminent classicists—but this is not the point here as we shall see. Mill reasoned, “It is curious withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.”6

The above is a staggering admission for a nineteenth century intellectual reared on Greek from the age of three, having read six dialogues of Plato in Greek by the age of seven, and for whom Greek civilization was the fons et origo of Western Civilization, and all those concerns that he so passionately defended all his life, rationalism, democracy, scientific history, and so on. 

As Mill wrote in his review of his friend George Grote’s History of Greece of “the permanent gifts bequeathed by Greece to the world, and constituting the foundation of all subsequent intellectual achievements.... And considering what the short period of Athenian greatness has done for the world, it is painful to think in how much more advanced a stage human improvement might now have been, if the Athens of Pericles could have lived on in undiminished spirit and energy for but one century more.”7

This citation alone should be sufficient to exonerate any charges of racism so carelessly, casually, and irresponsibly hurled at Mill, who was ready to acknowledge that all he held dear was ultimately due to “negroes.”

Mill remonstrates to Carlyle in the most serious terms the great vulgar errors he was guilty of. Carlyle’s so-called ‘eternal Act of Parliament’ “is no new law, but the old law of the strongest,—a law against which the great teachers of mankind have in all ages protested:—it is the law of force and cunning; the law that whoever is more powerful than another, is ‘born lord’ of that other, the other being born his ‘servant,’ who must be ‘compelled to work’ for him by ‘beneficent whip,’ if ‘other methods avail not.’  I see nothing divine in this injunction. If ‘the gods’ will this, it is the first duty of human beings to resist such gods. Omnipotent these ‘gods’ are not, for powers which demand human tyranny and injustice cannot accomplish their purpose unless human beings co-operate. The history of human improvement is the record of a struggle by which inch after inch of ground has been wrung from these maleficent powers, and more and more of human life rescued from the iniquitous dominion of the law of might. Much, very much of this work still remains to do, but the progress made in it is the best and greatest achievement yet performed by mankind, and it was hardly to be expected at this period of the world that we should be enjoined, by way of a great reform in human affairs, to begin undoing it.”8

British Christian philanthropy was indeed responsible for “the great national revolt of the conscience of this country against slavery and the slave-trade….It triumphed because it was the cause of justice; and, in the estimation of the great majority of its supporters, religion.” Black slaves have suffered for two centuries: “For nearly two centuries had negroes, many thousands annually, been seized by force or treachery and carried off to the West Indies to be worked to death, literally to death; for it was the received maxim, the acknowledged dictate of good economy, to wear them out quickly and import more. In this fact every other possible cruelty, tyranny, and wanton oppression was by implication included. And the motive on the part of the slave-owners was the love of gold; or, to speak more truly, of vulgar and puerile ostentation. I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth.”

Carlyle misunderstands totally the situation in the West Indies, and his notions of justice are wanting: “Your [Carlyle’s] contributor’s notions of justice and proprietary right are of another kind than these. According to him, the whole West Indies belong to the whites: the negroes have no claim there, to either land or food, but by their sufferance. ‘It was not Black Quashee, or those he represents, that made those West India islands what they are.’ [Ibid.] I submit, that those who furnished the thews and sinews[*] really had something to do with the matter. ‘Under the soil of Jamaica the bones of many thousand British men’—’brave Colonel Fortescue, brave Colonel Sedgwick, brave Colonel Brayne,’ and divers others, ‘had to be laid.’ [P. 676] How many hundred thousand African men laid their bones there, after having had their lives pressed out by slow or fierce torture? They could have better done without Colonel Fortescue, than Colonel Fortescue could have done without them. But he was the stronger, and could ‘compel;’ what they did [p. 674] and suffered therefore goes for nothing. Not only they did not, but it seems they could not have cultivated those islands. ‘Never by art of his’ (the negro) ‘could one pumpkin have grown there to solace any human throat.’ [P. 675] They grow pumpkins, however, and more than pumpkins, in a very similar country, their native Africa. We are told to look at Haiti: what does your contributor know of Haiti? ‘Little or no sugar growing, black Peter exterminating black Paul, and where a garden of the Hesperides might be, nothing but a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle.’ [Ibid.] Are we to listen to arguments grounded on hearsays like these? In what is black Haiti worse than white Mexico? If the truth were known, how much worse is it than white Spain?”

Carlyle’s moral failings do not end there, “But the great ethical doctrine of the Discourse, than which a doctrine more damnable, I should think, never was propounded by a professed moral reformer, is, that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind. ‘You will have to be servants,’ he tells the negroes, ‘to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you—servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt that they are?) born wiser than you.’ I do not hold him to the absurd letter of his dictum; it belongs to the mannerism in which he is enthralled like a child in swaddling clothes. By ‘born wiser,’ I will suppose him to mean, born more capable of wisdom: a proposition which, he says, no mortal can doubt, but which I will make bold to say, that a full moiety of all thinking persons, who have attended to the subject, either doubt or positively deny.”

Surely the greatest achievement of the present age is the abolition of slavery, “But (however it be with pain in general) the abolition of the infliction of pain by the mere will of a human being, the abolition, in short, of despotism, seems to be, in a peculiar degree, the occupation of this age; and it would be difficult to shew that any age had undertaken a worthier. Though we cannot extirpate all pain, we can, if we are sufficiently determined upon it, abolish all tyranny, one of the greatest victories yet gained over that enemy is slave-emancipation, and all Europe is struggling, with various success, towards further conquests over it. If, in the pursuit of this, we lose sight of any object equally important; if we forget that freedom is not the only thing necessary for human beings, let us be thankful to any one who points out what is wanting; but let us not consent to turn back”9


Mill was gravely concerned that Carlyle’s tract, given his considerable reputation, would give support to “the owners of human flesh” in the United States. Mill had always followed closely “the great democratic experiment” of the United States, and the Civil War, therefore, to quote Collini, “touched several nerves in Mill’s moral physiology; not only did it involve the most blatant case of institutionalized inequality in the civilized world and the whole question of popular government’s ability to combine freedom with stability, but, always powerfully active in determining Mill’s interest in public issues, it provided a thermometer with which to take the moral temperature of English society as a whole….Mill, to whom the real issue at stake in the war had from the outset been the continued existence of slavery, considered that much of this sympathy for the South rested on ignorance or, even more culpably, moral insensibility, and ‘The Contest in America’ (1862) was his attempt to educate English opinion on both counts….Slavery is thus treated by Mill as the extreme form of undemocracy, a kind of Toryism of race to match the ‘Toryism of sex’ that he saw in women’s exclusion from the franchise.”10


Edward John Eyre, the English Governor of Jamaica, fearing a far-reaching rebellion, introduced martial law, which gave his subordinates power to suppress the Morant Bay Rebellion very harshly, brutal acts included the execution of George William Gordon, a mixed race member of the Jamaica Assembly, suspected of being involved.

Mill was the driving force behind the prosecution of Governor Eyre. Mill was able to gather enough support and encouragement from Herbert Spencer, Frederic Harrison, T. H. Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Charles Lyell, to form the Jamaica Committee which published two reports, one in 1866 and a progress report in 1868. The former expressed the desire that the execution of British citizens be governed by law, and not be subject to the whims of the executive branch. Members of the committee hoped to limit the jurisdiction of martial law. The report of 1868 summed up the aims of the committee: “To obtain a judicial inquiry into the conduct of Mr Eyre and his subordinates; to settle the law in the interest of justice, liberty, and humanity; and to arouse public morality against oppression generally, and particularly against the oppression of subject and dependent races.”11


Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences. 

—J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy12

It is not in China only that a homogeneous community is naturally a stationary community…. It is profoundly remarked by M. Guizot, that the short duration or stunted growth of the earlier civilizations arose from this, that in each of them some one element of human improvement existed exclusively, or so preponderatingly as to overpower all the others, whereby the community, after accomplishing rapidly all which that one element could do, either perished for want of what it could not do, or came to a halt, and became immoveable. It would be an error to suppose that such could not possibly be our fate. In the generalization which pronounces the “law of progress” to be an inherent attribute of human nature, it is forgotten that, among the inhabitants of our earth, the European family of nations is the only one which has ever shown any capability of spontaneous improvement, beyond a certain low level. Let us beware of supposing that we owe this peculiarity to any necessity of nature, and not rather to combinations of circumstances, which have existed nowhere else, and may not exist for ever among ourselves.  

—J.S. Mill, De Tocqueville on Democracy in America II13 [Emphasis added]

Georgios Varouxakis, Lecturer in Politics at Aston University, Birmingham (UK), in a spirited, and surely definitive, defense of Mill on the subject of race,14 points out that the word “race,” in the nineteenth century, was sometimes “used in the sense that the term “culture” has today, without that is, necessarily implying any belief in the doctrine of biological and hereditary transmission of mental and cultural traits.”15 It is well to bear this in mind in any discussion of Mill’s writings.

Mill being a child of the Enlightenment always stressed the the importance of rationality, which undergirded his views on morality, virtue and the good life, and led him to discredit the deterministic implications of racial theories. “Mind over matter” was his motto, rejecting any “necessity of nature.” Humans were malleable, and what mattered was institutions, customs, education, and cultural, not innate racial, dispositions. Europe’s success was not due to any innate or natural qualities in Europeans but the result of historical circumstances. For Mill, history has taught us that human nature is moulded by external influences: “Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character. Whatever any portion of the human species now are, or seem to be, such, it is supposed, they have a natural tendency to be: even when the most elementary knowledge of the circumstances in which they have been placed, clearly points out the causes that made them what they are. Because a cottier deeply in arrears to his landlord is not industrious, there are people who think that the Irish are naturally idle. Because constitutions can be overthrown when the authorities appointed to execute them turn their arms against them, there are people who think the French incapable of free government. Because the Greeks cheated the Turks, and the Turks only plundered the Greeks, there are persons who think that the Turks are naturally more sincere: and because women, as is often said, care nothing about politics except their personalities, it is supposed that the general good is naturally less interesting to women than to men. History, which is now so much better understood than formerly, teaches another lesson, if only by showing the extraordinary susceptibility of human nature to external influences, and the extreme variableness of those of its manifestations which are supposed to be most universal and uniform. But in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds; and few learn much from history, who do not bring much with them to its study.”16

In his review, written in 1844, of the first five volumes of Michelet’s Histoire de France, Mill disagreed with the French historian’s tendency to explain cultural differences between the French, and their passion for equality, and Germans, with their sense of loyalty to one another, leading to a feudal society, to race. Mill wrote, “We think that M. Michelet has here carried the influence of Race too far, and that the difference is better explained by diversity of position, than by diversity of character in the Races. The conquerors, a small body scattered over a large territory, could not sever their interests, could not relax the bonds which held them together. They were for many generations encamped in the country, rather than settled in it; they were a military band, requiring a military discipline, and the separate members could not venture to detach themselves from each other, or from their chief. Similar circumstances would have produced similar results among the Gauls themselves. They were by no means without something analogous to the German comitatus (as the voluntary bond of adherence, of the most sacred kind, between followers and a leader of their choice, is called by the Roman historians). The devoti of the Gauls and Aquitanians, mentioned by M. Michelet himself, on the authority of Caesar and Athenaeus, were evidently not clansmen. Some such relation may be traced in many other warlike tribes. We find it even among the most obstinately personal of all the races of antiquity, the Iberians of Spain; witness the Roman Sertorius and his Spanish body-guard, who slew themselves, to the last man, before his funeral pile. ‘Ce principe d’attachement à un chef, ce dévouement personnel, cette religion de l’homme envers l’homme,’ is thus by no means peculiar to the Teutonic races. And our author’s favourite idea of the ‘profonde impersonnalité’ inherent in the Germanic genius, though we are far from saying that there is no foundation for it, surely requires some limitation. It will hardly, for example, be held true of the English, yet the English are a Germanic people. They, indeed, have rather (or at least had) the characteristic which M. Michelet predicates of the Celts (thinking apparently rather of the Kymri than of the Gaels), ‘le génie de la personnalité libre;’ a tendency to revolt against compulsion, to hold fast to their own, and assert the claims of individuality against those of society and authority. But though many of M. Michelet’s speculations on the characteristics of Races appear to us contestable, they are always suggestive of thought.”17

In a letter to Charles Dupont-White, who had criticized him for denying the influence of race, Mill put forward his argument, deploring once again the tendency of their times: “I simply wish to censure a tendency which has always existed but especially in these present times (as a consequence of the reaction of the nineteenth century against the eighteenth), that of attributing all the differences in the character of peoples and individuals to indelible differences of nature, without asking if the influences of education and the social and political circumstances did not give an adequate explanation….In the case that concerns us, that is the differences of character between the Celts and Anglo-Saxons…and their propensity for or against centralisation, I ask you if the difference in the historical development of France and England, of which you have given such a true and instructive sketch, does not alone suffise as an explanation.”18

In his article on Michelet, Mill praises the French historian for recognizing the influence of human institutions in the disappearance of local peculiarities, “We say even, because M. Michelet is not unaware of the tendency of provincial and local peculiarities to disappear. A strenuous asserter of the power of mind over matter, of will over spontaneous propensities, culture over nature, he holds that local characteristics lose their importance as history advances. In a rude age the ‘fatalities’ of race and geographical position are absolute. In the progress of society, human forethought and purpose, acting by means of uniform institutions and modes of culture, tend more and more to efface the pristine differences. And he attributes, in no small degree, the greatness of France to the absence of any marked local peculiarities in the predominant part of her population.”19

As Georgios Varouxakis brings out clearly, from the late 1840s onwards, Mill “went out of his way to stress how little importance race had. This shift was probably due to his growing realization of the uses to which racial theories were being put.”20 For such theories had grave consequences for those issues that made up the very core of Mill’s moral being, “such as slavery, international relations, the government of dependencies, as well as women’s rights.”21 And as a reformer, rationalist, and believer in the human capacity for improvement, he could not accept the consequence of determinism, or as Mill would put it, “fatalism.”

1) Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, New York: Vintage Books, 1980 [Ist published 1979] p. 65.
2) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). Chapter: Introduction
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3) John Stuart Mill, op.cit., Chapter I
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4) Ibid., Stefan Collini, Introduction.
5) John Stuart Mill, op.cit., Chapter: THE NEGRO QUESTION 1850. 
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6) Martin Bernal, Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985. Rutgers University Press, 1987; Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. Rutgers University Press, 1991.
7) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F. E. Sparshott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). Chapter: GROTE’S HISTORY OF GREECE [II] 1853.
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8) Ibid.
9) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). Chapter: THE NEGRO QUESTION 1850.
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10) Ibid., Stefan Collini, Introduction.
11) Ibid.
12) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume II - The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (Books I-II), ed. John M. Robson, introduction by V.W. Bladen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965). CHAPTER IX: Of Cottiers.
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13) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). Chapter: DE TOCQUEVILLE ON DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA [II] 1840.
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14) Georgios Varouxakis, Mill on Nationality, London & New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 38-52.
15) Ibid. p. 39.
16) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).Chapter I
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17) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by John C. Cairns (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985). Chapter: MICHELET’S HISTORY OF FRANCE 1844.
Accessed from on 2013-07-15 [Emphasis added]
18) John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XV - The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873 Part II, ed. Francis E. Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972). Chapter: 1860
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19)  John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by John C. Cairns (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985). Chapter: MICHELET’S HISTORY OF FRANCE 1844.
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20) George Varouxakis, op.cit., p. 47.
21) Ibid.


Ibn Warraq's latest book is Sir Walter Scott's Crusades and Other Fantasies.


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