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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 701-703

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Book Review

Politics, Religion, and Classical Political Economy in Britain:
John Stuart Mill and His Followers

Politics, Religion, and Classical Political Economy in Britain: John Stuart Mill and His Followers. By Jeff Lipkes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. ix; 228 pp. $79.95.

This book, based on the dissertation that won the History of Economics Society’s Dorfman Prize in 1995, explores the final phase of John Stuart Mill’s career as economist, philosopher, and social reformer. Its particular concern is with the “Blackheath Park” disciples who were drawn to Mill’s dinner parties and into his intellectual orbit in the years between his wife’s death in 1858 and his own in 1873. The Mill circle included John Elliot Cairnes, Henry Fawcett, William Thomas Thornton, and T. E. Cliffe Leslie. Lipkes argues that not only did influence flow from the “master” to his disciples but also in the reverse direction, helping to account for some changes in Mill’s economic and religious views toward the end of his life. Those changes, briefly, consisted of a “growing religiosity” and an “increased skepticism… about economic laws,” or, more generally, an “increased economic heterodoxy” (13–14).

Part 1 opens with an introductory chapter in which Lipkes notes the alternating cycles of public engagement and withdrawal that marked Mill’s long career. His [End Page 701] purpose, it seems, is to demonstrate that Mill, for all the force and brilliance of his intellect, was highly amenable to the guidance of others: his father, then Harriet Taylor, then his stepdaughter Helen, and finally, in some ways, the members of the Mill circle. Four chapters follow which focus on Mill himself. Chapter 2 reviews the Ricardian and normative grounds of Mill’s positions on the issues of birth control, peasant proprietorships, and the aristocracy-dominated social order (the last of which Mill radically opposed). Chapter 3 examines the way in which Mill made the earnest pursuit of mankind’s improvement an alternative “religion of humanity” in place of Christianity. His two most favored strategies in later years for “improving mankind” were the emancipation of women and the empowerment of workers through land reform and cooperative production.

In chapter 4, Lipkes takes up the question of Mill’s partial change of heart on religion as evidenced in the posthumously published Three Essays on Religion. Here the great exponent of the Religion of Humanity expressed a newfound appreciation for the virtues of Christianity and especially those exemplified by Christ himself. This new, more tolerant attitude came as a shock and disappointment to one of Mill’s prominent followers, John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review, although it brought Mill more into line with some other members of his circle and of course with Victorian culture generally. In chapter 5, Mill’s late-career deviations from economic orthodoxy—bluntly characterized by the author as “confusion, equivocation, [and] contradictions” (44)—are closely examined. Lipkes properly pays special attention to the notorious recantation of the wages fund doctrine; his treatment of the issue is incisive and should be the starting point for anyone seeking a competent, current overview. His conclusion that Mill compromised analytical rigor in the interests of a political objective—supporting trade-union efforts to raise their members’ standard of living—is persuasive.

Part 2 trains the spotlight on the Mill circle itself. A prefatory chapter asks what Mill gained from the circle (answer: ego satisfaction and willing supporters for his various causes) and what the circle gained from him (personal association with a man of acknowledged greatness and his progressive causes). Lipkes concedes that the group was anything but monolithic. He divides the economists into two distinct categories, “loyalists” and “heretics,” where the descriptive terms refer to basic methodological and doctrinal alignments vis-à-vis Mill’s version of classical economics. The “loyal” Cairnes and Fawcett are the subjects of chapters 7 and 8, the “heretical” Thornton and Leslie, of 9 and 10. In each case, Lipkes highlights the relevant...


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pp. 701-703
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