6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 17

Mill workers

Robert Skidelsky

James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century Bruce Mazlish (Hutchinson £6.50) On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill Gertrude Himmelfarb (Alfred A. Knopf £4.90) The demand for 'relevant' history, that is, history which is 'meaningful' for one's Personal problems, has thrown up some unexpected heroes. One of them is John Stuart Mill, who has made a distinct comeback as a Pioneer of the feminist movement. Here are two brand new accounts which are as relevant as anyone could reasonably expect. According to Miss Himmelfarb, Mill's most famous essay, On Liberty, was inspired by Mrs Mill's existential crisis in what she perceived as a male chauvinist society. According to Bruce Mazlish it was inspired by Mill's identity crisis, itself "prototypical" of nineteenth century generational conflict. Let me hasten to say that Miss Himmelfarb has written a concise, thoughtful and witty book in the classic tradition of intellectual history. If I concentrate more on Bruce Mazlish's heavier tome, it is because this rambling ruin, magnificently imaginative but methodologically messy, is Symbolic (symptomatic? emblematic?) of the ruin of a great historical tradition. It is 'prototypical' of what Mill'called the "spirit of the age".

What then does Professor Mazlish (the name is significant) assert? It is that father-son conflict (it is suggestive that Mazlish is a father) is a major dynamic of social change in periods of discontinuity. This is illuminated, if not symbolised, by the generational conflict between James Mill and John Stuart Mill. James Mill was typical, if not prototypical, of the self-made man for whom intellectual achievement (it is worth noticing that Professor Mazlish teaches history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was the royal road to social and political success. Having produced, by dint of extreme labour, his own character and ten extremely boring volumes on the History of British India, this co-founder of Utilitarianism who, fascinatingly, met Bentham the year his father died, determined to "make" his eldest son John into a reasoning-machine on sound Utilitarian principles.

For a number of years the young Mill (who chatted in Greek at the age of three) was content to be a 'made' man. But at the age of twenty — in 1826 — came his famous mental or 'identity' crisis, He needed to displace (replace?

murder?) hislather to establish his autonomy,

but could not consciously admit this. So he felt terribly miserable for months until he read Marmontel's Memoires. In it, the father dies, Whereupon the son, the author, takes his father's place in the only bed (the marital bed). By empathy Mill could, without guilt, start thinking about his father's death. This freed him to start criticising his father's philosophy

and developing his feelings. Philosophically "only by indicating the possibility of free Will, or liberty, could Mill explain and justify his own assertion of independence". Thus the genera

tional conflict, or more specifically the Oedipal conflict, was necessary to what was distinctive in Mill's work; it was the motor of liberalism's great leap forward.

To the unwary this might sound perfectly sensible hut, as I have tried to indicate, there are weak links in Professor Mazlish's chain. This is not because Mazlish cannot develop proper arguments; far from it — his conventional chapters of intellectual history are very well done. No, he is forced to argue by winks and nods, so to speak, because he is enthralled by psychohistory, whose wares he offers for our inspection. This is still predominantly an American enthusiasm.

It makes three claims. The first is that since men and women act for reasons of which they know not, the motives for their actions cannot always be revealed by the study of explicit intentions, interests, and calculations. This is undoubtedly true; and any historian, particularly a biographer, will attempt to explain actions with reference to the mental state of his subject, insofar as any evidence on it exists. The second claim is that there exists a science of the mind (psychoanalysis) which can enable the historian to do his job properly. Thirdly, it is argued that the Oedipal conflict which lies at the heart of the psychoanalytic explanation is also a primary mechanism for social change.

Let us at any rate examine the second and third claims in the light of Mazlish's book. The second can be broken down into two parts. Was there in fact an Oedipal conflict between the two Mills? If there was, was it relevant or significant for Mill's intellectual development? What is the evidence that young Mill wanted to displace his father? Since it was unconscious, Mazlish can only approach it indirectly. When he was sixteen John Mill lost his watch. An accident, one may feel. But nothing, of course, is accidental to the Freudian. The watch is a symbol of the "mechanical aspect of life" and its loss symbolises "John's desire to stop being accountable to his father for every moment of his life ... In 'losing' his watch John was unconsciously rebelling against his father's rigid control." "From such 'evidence,'" Mazlish wisely notes in another connection, "one can build a castle in the air." Yet much, if not most, of the evidence for the existence of the Oedipal conflict is of this kind. It is all "significant" and "suggestive" but of what is rarely explained to my satisfaction. If one was wearing Freudian spectacles, and more especially, if one had been under analysis

oneself — an increasingly normal, indeed routine experience on elite American campuses — the matter would be plainer; but the unconverted has to say that the clues do not often lead back to the suspect.

The elusiveness of the Oedipal situation makes it very difficult to say what, if any, effect it had on Mill's mental development. It is constantly asserted that his ideology arose out of his identity crisis, that his effort to free himself from his "beloved and hated" father sparked his "major passion" for liberty. But the evidence for it is inconclusive to any but the converted. Indeed, the picture of the totalitarian father who creates the necessity for generational conflict seems greatly overdrawn. Mill's incredible education was, as he himself states, a remarkable training in learning how to think critically and argue furiously, a habit he apparently acquired early under his father's benevolent dispensation. The mental crisis certainly had a liberating effect on Mill's work and life; but to see it as an Oedipal crisis depends upon a certain interpretation of the Marmontel text which is suggestive, but no more.

If the significance of the Oedipal conflict for Mill's achievement is so hard to establish, the claim for it as a major source of social and intellectual change must surely fall to the ground. This would not be to deny the importance of generational conflict either in the nineteenth century or today. But as a historical hypothesis it would make much more sense to say that radicalised attitudes led to conflict in the home, rather than that the need for Oedipal conflict produced a radicalised ideology outside it.

Miss Himmelfarb is more convincing on the psychological context of On Liberty. It was, she points out, completely atypical of Mill's writings. The contrast between Mill the extreme libertarian and Mill the social scientist seeking the rule of right reason can be overdrawn: extreme individualism in relation to corrupt authority or tyrannical opinion is perfectly compatible with the search for right reason; it may be its indispensable condition. In this dualism Mill displays much of 'the attitude of the old Calvinist saints from whom he was descended. More convincingly, Miss Himmelfarb argues that the subject matter of the book was largely dictated by Harriet Mill's concern with the self-development of women, and its "almost paranoid" tone by the guilty and resentful seclusion in which John and Harriet Mill lived out first their liaison and then their marriage. On Liberty was the "philosophic expression of their existential situation".

In the Spirit of the Age (1831) Mill describes the period through which he is living as a time of "intellectual anarchy" which was witnessing a great "increase of discussion" without an "increase of wisdom". Ours is a similar period. The great, if shallow, middle class certainties on which intellectual life was based have disappeared. In their place we have a thousand fevered visions, each purveying its private vision of truth in a world of dissolving standards. The writing of history, too, is following along the same road, naturally More sedately. The hope of this libertarian vigour is, of course, that it will bring deeper understanding. But who can any longer share Mill's certainty that order will emerge from chaos?