Skip to main content

The United States Civil War: Marx versus John Stuart Mill

Part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series (MAENMA)


The 1848–1849 revolutions, specifically the French theatre, also captured the attention of John Stuart Mill, arguably England’s foremost nineteenth-century intellectual and leading champion of liberalism and one-time friend of Tocqueville. Two decades earlier, he was enticed to breathe the air of revolution for the first time when France exploded in 1830. Not surprising, therefore, that he would be tempted to do the same when revolutionary whiffs blew anew from the same place at mid-century. But his response to France’s edition of the European Spring contrasted strikingly to that of Marx and Engels. It anticipated their different responses a decade later to the most consequential struggle of the century for the democratic quest, the Civil War in the United States—the centerpiece of this chapter. While Marx, Engels and Mill were all on the same political page about the need to overthrow the slavocracy, their actions in the realization of that goal, particularly Marx vis-à-vis Mill, also stood in stark contrast. Glaringly on display, in terms of who to look to for victory for the North and how much time and energy to expend to realize that end, were the implications of their more fundamental political differences.

[W]hat will most help to give a better direction to public opinion is that persons of talent, the more known and respected the better, should put themselves forward.

Mill, November 1861

[S]imple justice requires … a tribute to the sound attitude of the British working classes, the more so when contrasted with the hypocritical, bullying, cowardly, and stupid conduct of the official and well-to-do John Bull.

Marx, February 1862

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD   39.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD   49.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD   49.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Learn about institutional subscriptions


  1. 1.

    The two most recent biographers provide ample evidence: Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), and Nicholas Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); the latter purports to be an intellectual biography.

  2. 2.

    Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 1, p. 66 (hereafter CWJSM, 1, p. 66). For the difference, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume III (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), pp. 365–66.

  3. 3.

    Capaldi, p. 84. Capaldi acknowledges that Mill would later break philosophically with the Saint Simonians though keeping a lifelong connection with one of their chief lieutenants, Gustave Eichthal.

  4. 4.

    Reeves, p. 187.

  5. 5.

    For details, see Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), especially, chapter 10.

  6. 6.

    CWJSM, vol. 12, p. 79.

  7. 7.

    Mill’s lack of enthusiasm for the masses in the streets in 1832 in England probably explains a puzzling lacuna in his work; no sustained discussion on the English Civil War of 1642–1649. A likely answer is supplied by James Kloppenberg in his richly informed work, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Due to the counterrevolution that unfolded after the Civil War, “[d]octrines associated with the Levellers, the New Model Army, James Harrington and John Milton were now anathema” (p. 139). Rather than take a position on the radical democracy of these forces, Mill thought best, evidently, to simply ignore them.

  8. 8.

    As possible evidence, see Engels’s juvenile verse Florida in solidarity with American Indian resistance to European encroachment and composed when he was 17; Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, pp. 407–09 (hereafter, MECW, 2, pp. 407–09).

  9. 9.

    Reeves, p. 5.

  10. 10.

    See my Marx, Tocqueville, chapter 1, for details.

  11. 11.

    CWJSM, 13, p. 533.

  12. 12.

    It’s true that he thought Tocqueville needed to be more specific about “the tyranny of the majority” but he didn’t object in principle to the point (see CWJSM, 18), pp. 175–78. For a discussion on how Marx drew, like Mill, on Tocqueville and other European narratives on the American experience for conclusions about democracy, see my Marx, Tocqueville and Race in America (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), chapter 1.

  13. 13.

    John Cairns, in his introductory essay, “Mill and the Revolution of 1848,” in vol. 20 of the CWJSM, is a bit too harsh on Mill for not having foreseen the upheaval. Others closer to the scene also missed it. While it’s true, as we’ll see, that Marx and Engels had more foresight, they were the exception to the rule. The criticism, hence, smacks of hindsight.

  14. 14.

    CWJSM, 13, p. 732. Whether Mill knew what Engels had been doing in Paris on behalf of “Communism” is unknown.

  15. 15.

    CWJSM, 25, p. 1111.

  16. 16.

    CWJSM, 14, p. 76.

  17. 17.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 32.

  18. 18.

    Engels, before returning to Germany, happened to be in Paris when the Revolution exploded. His three extant letters are, not surprisingly, far richer than the two of Mill writing from afar. But they are also more prescient about the course of the provisional government owing to his different political framework, his and his partner’s historical materialist perspective. See MECW, 38, pp. 165, 166, 167–69.

  19. 19.

    CWJSM, 25, p. 1102. Engels mistakenly thought that the Chartists might actually take power: ibid., p. 171.

  20. 20.

    CWJSM, I, p. 266.

  21. 21.

    CWJSM, 21, p. 95.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., p. 87.

  23. 23.

    There is no reason to believe that Mill had read their Manifesto. Only toward the end of 1850 was it published in English for the first time, in a Chartist organ; for details, see Hal Draper, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley, CA: Center for Socialist History, 1994), pp. 28–30.

  24. 24.

    For details, see my Marx, Tocqueville, chapter 2.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., p. 61.

  26. 26.

    Only afterward: CWJSM, 1, p. 266 and 21, 133n.

  27. 27.

    My Marx, Tocqueville, chapter 2, pp. 71–75.

  28. 28.

    See Harold Holzer’s talk, “Lincoln and Immigration,”

  29. 29.

    MECW, 41, p. 242. In the MECW upper case text indicates the original in English.

  30. 30.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 720.

  31. 31.

    MECW, 41, p. 277.

  32. 32.

    See, for example, Joseph Glatthaar’s, “Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory,” in Gabor Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

  33. 33.

    MECW, 41, p. 278.

  34. 34.

    Details can be found in my Marx, Tocqueville, chapter 3. Thankfully, a new edition of Marx’s and Engels’s The Civil War in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 2016) is available.

  35. 35.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 208.

  36. 36.

    CWJSM, 1, p. 267.

  37. 37.

    MECW, 41, pp. 294–96.

  38. 38.

    Marx argued, contra The Economist et al., that Southern efforts to have slavery formally legalized had been unsuccessful. He was right about the so-called Crittenden plan. But evidently he didn’t know about the passage by Congress in March 1861 of a proposed amendment to give constitutional protection to slavery—the Corwin amendment—and duly submitted by the just inaugurated Lincoln to the states for ratification.

  39. 39.

    MECW, 41, pp. 7–16.

  40. 40.

    MECW, 19, p. 42.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., pp. 49–50.

  42. 42.

    Ibid., p. 91.

  43. 43.

    Ibid., p. 99.

  44. 44.

    Ibid., pp. 137–38.

  45. 45.

    Dan Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 154–55. When he lamented to Engels that he was no longer receiving the Tribune since March 1862, he called it “a rotten trick of Greeley’s and McElrath’s,” a co-publisher of the paper; MECW, 41, p. 362. For a useful overview of Greeley’s politics in relation to Marx, see Adam-Max Tuchinsky, “‘The Bourgeoisie Will Fall and Fall Forever’: the ‘New-York Tribune’, the 1848 French Revolution and American Social Democratic Discourse,” Journal of American History, vol. 92, no. 2 (September 2005).

  46. 46.

    See his complaint to Engels about his unpublished articles, MECW, 41, p. 338.

  47. 47.

    See MECW, 41, Letters, 1860–1864.

  48. 48.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 750.

  49. 49.

    CWJSM, 1, pp. 267–68.

  50. 50.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 767.

  51. 51.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 774.

  52. 52.

    CWJSM, 21, p. 19.

  53. 53.

    CWJSM, 21, pp. 125–42.

  54. 54.

    CWJSM, 1, p. 268. On the attacks, see Georgios Varouxakis, “‘Negrophilist’ Crusader: John Stuart Mill on the American Civil War and Reconstruction,” History of European Ideas, 39:5 (2013), pp. 736–37.

  55. 55.

    Ibid., p. 733.

  56. 56.

    MECW, 19, pp. 153–56.

  57. 57.

    Doyle, pp. 145–50. For more on the scholarship, see my Marx, Tocqueville, p. 134n73.

  58. 58.

    For a distillation of how Marx and Engels read the War, see my Marx, Tocqueville book, chapter 3. For the primary data, see the recently reissued Marx and Engels, The Civil War in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 2016).

  59. 59.

    MECW, 19, p. 178.

  60. 60.

    Ibid., p. 203

  61. 61.

    Ibid., p. 204.

  62. 62.

    His response in 1877 to a Russian critic who suggested otherwise; MECW, 24, p. 201.

  63. 63.

    MECW, 41, p. 416.

  64. 64.

    In less politically correct language for today, certainly, Marx in more than one letter to Engels employed the “N-word.” For example, “One single NIGGER REGIMENT would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves” (MECW, 41, p. 400). I leave aside only for space considerations the validity of the comment which I think was accurate. Again, for the MECW, the editors put in small capitalization words originally in English in German text. Only in correspondence does the N-word appear in their writings. I, an African American, caution against any rush to judgments on this issue. See my footnote in my Marx, Tocqueville, p. 131n35.

  65. 65.

    MECW, 19, pp. 227–28.

  66. 66.

    Ibid., p. 250.

  67. 67.

    MECW, 41, p. 380.

  68. 68.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 801.

  69. 69.

    CWJSM, 15, pp. 911–12.

  70. 70.

    CWJSM, 15, p. 747.

  71. 71.

    As an example of his awareness of working-class opinion about the War, see his letters to Cairnes on December 16, 1862, and February 7, 1863, or to an unidentified correspondent on February 21, 1863, CWJSM, 15, p. 810, pp. 835–36 and 842. His letter of February 15, CWJSM, 15, p. 589, is particularly interesting because of Mill’s advice that the English working class should not combine it’s pro-Union work with its demand for the suffrage—a stance Marx would have certainly disagreed with.

  72. 72.

    CWJSM, 21, p. 19.

  73. 73.

    Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1972), p. 518.

  74. 74.

    J. G. Eccarius, “A Working Man’s Refutation of some Points of Political Economy endorsed and advocated by John Stuart Mill,” The Commonwealth, nos. 192–95, 198, 200, 203, 204, 206–11, November 1866–March 1867. There is no evidence that Mill was aware of the critique. MECW, 42, p. 394.

  75. 75.

    Ibid. and p. 269.

  76. 76.

    CWJSM, 1, p. 268.

  77. 77.

    See, for example, CWJSM, 15, p. 842fn2.

  78. 78.

    See, for example, his letters in CWJSM, 15, of May 17, 1863, p. 860; August 24, 1863, p. 877; September 24, 1863, p. 886.

  79. 79.

    For Mill’s correspondence on this, see Varouxakis, p. 741.

  80. 80.

    MECW, 41, p. 468; CWJSM, 15, p. 851. Capaldi, p. 307. Paul Foot, The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined (New York: Viking, 2005), pp. 125–26. The fact that John Bright would be the key note speaker probably explains Mill’s decision to be present. He’d been the most prominent bourgeois figure to side with the Union.

  81. 81.

    For details, see my Marx and Engels, chapters 7, 8, and 9.

  82. 82.

    CWJSM, 32, p. 220. About the First Address of the IWA on the Franco Prussian War in 1870 that Marx wrote, Mill said: “highly pleased with the address. There’s not one word in it that ought not to be there; it could not have been done with fewer words.” Given that Marx’s name was listed as one of the 33 signers, Mill may not have known its author.

  83. 83.

    MECW, 41, pp. 561–62.

  84. 84.

    CWJSM, 15, pp. 957–58.

  85. 85.

    Cairnes’s The Slave Power informed Marx’s letter and, thus, no coincidence the same term is employed.

  86. 86.

    My “Marx and Engels on the US Civil War,” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011) provides details. See also MECW, 20, p. 453n16. For Marx’s letter and Lincoln’s reply, see

  87. 87.

    That Adams’s son, Charles, was a commander of an all-black Union unit is probably of import. Through his eyes, the ambassador likely sympathized with the most militant supporters of the Union cause like the IWA. See, for example, the son’s praise of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the president’s most revolutionary statement on the slavery question:

  88. 88.

    There is no evidence, such as in his correspondence, that Mill was active in the organization—Varouxakis’s claim about his “activism” for “the ‘cause’” notwithstanding (p. 749). For useful details on the London Emancipation Society, see Doyle, p. 246.

  89. 89.

    MECW, 20, p. 604n112.

  90. 90.

    Ibid., 42, p. 86.

  91. 91.

    Ibid., 20, p. 99.

  92. 92.


  93. 93.

    CWJSM, 16, p. 1043.

  94. 94.

    Ibid., pp. 1038–39.

  95. 95.

    Ibid., XV, p. 890.

  96. 96.

    Varouxakis, p. 742, writes that “he made sure [it] was published in the Daily News.” More accurately, he told Cairnes to whom he sent it: “Perhaps after reading it, you may think [it] useful to send it, or part of it, to the Daily News.” This suggests that Varouxakis is a bit overzealous in promoting Mill’s “Negrohilist” credentials. I suspect it’s because he knows—as some of his footnotes indicate—that Marx’s record is clearly superior.

  97. 97.

    CWJSM, 16, pp. 1051–52. Varouxakis suggests that the letter was published in the paper but there’s no evidence of that because it’s not included in the CWJSM, specifically, 25, Newspaper Writings, 1847–1873. Overzealous Varouxakis?

  98. 98.

    MECW, 42, p. 163.

  99. 99.

    MECW, 42, p. 167.

  100. 100.

    Marx, Tocqueville, pp. 142, 188n8.

  101. 101.

    Varouxakis, p. 744. But oddly, he doesn’t cite such publications and neither does the CWJSM, specifically, 25, Newspaper Writings, 1847–1873. Overzealous Varouxakis again?

  102. 102.

    CWJSM, 21, pp. 1098–101. Varouxakis, except for the last, tellingly ignores these passages from the letter.

  103. 103.

    CWJSM, 16, pp. 1117–18.

  104. 104.

    MECW, 42, p. 579.

  105. 105.

    For details, see my Marx and Engels, pp. 214–15.

  106. 106.

    CWJSM, 16, pp. 1821, 1865. The editors of the CWJSM put the executions as high as 80,000; p. 1821.

  107. 107.

    Most recently, see Doyle, Part II. Duncan Andrew Campbell, English Public Opinion and the American Civil War (London: Royal Historical Society, 2003), argues—unconvincingly in my view because for him “the chief cause of the war was not in fact slavery” (p. 240)—that Marx’s praise of the pro-Union sentiment of much of the working class was unwarranted.

  108. 108.

    Reeve, pp. 333–37.

  109. 109.

    Ibid., pp. 353–57.

  110. 110.

    Nimtz, Marx and Engels, pp. 236–37. See his Autobiography, CWJSM, 1, pp. 278–79, for his rationale. Also, see how he applauded himself for defusing what could have been a significant revolutionary working-class moment in London in 1866. For Marx’s reaction, see MECW, 42, p. 300.

  111. 111.

    Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p. 294.

  112. 112.

    Ibid., p. 300.

  113. 113.

    MECW, 5, pp. 3–5.

  114. 114.

    For evidence in support of this claim, see my Marx and Engels, pp. 182–88.

  115. 115.

    MECW, 42, pp. 54–55. See how Marx convinced other IWA leaders to keep at bay Louis Blanc, one-time political ally, one-time member of the provisional government that issued from the Paris revolt in 1848 and frequent dinner guest at the Mill household; ibid.

  116. 116.

    For what Mill might have thought about “Marxism,” see Reeve, pp. 463–65.

  117. 117.

    MECW, 38, pp. 269–70.

  118. 118.

    Capital, pp. 125, 371, 506, 516–18, 610.

  119. 119.

    MECW, 42, pp. 54–55.

  120. 120.


  121. 121.

    Ibid., pp. 92–93. For more details, see Marx’s letter to Engels, 42, pp. 109–10.

  122. 122.

    For details, see chapters 7, 8 and 9 in my Marx and Engels.

  123. 123.

    Ibid., p. 71.

  124. 124.

    Ibid., p. 74.

  125. 125.

    See, specifically, chapter 8 in my Marx and Engels.

  126. 126.

    Paul Foot, The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined (New York: Viking Press, 2005) chapter 4, “The Leap into the Dark,” provides the most current overview of the events. It stands on the shoulders of Royden Harrison’s breakthrough Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861–1881 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

  127. 127.

    MECW, 42, p. 150.

  128. 128.

    Mill, Autobiography, CWJSM, 1, p. 275. To his credit, he acknowledged that his late wife Harriet Taylor was the real source of his enlightenment on the issue.

  129. 129.

    Foot, p. 173.

  130. 130.

    For details, see my Marx and Engels, pp. 199–202.

  131. 131.

    CWJSM, 1, p. 278.

  132. 132.

    CWJSM, 28, pp. 60–66.

  133. 133.

    Chapter 1, p. 37.

  134. 134.

    See Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, “Democratization or repression?,” European Economic Review, vol. 44, nos. 4–6 (May 2000); also, my “Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement,” New Political Science, vol. 38, no. 1 (2016).

  135. 135.

    MECW, 42, p. 207.

  136. 136.

    Ibid., p. 253.

  137. 137.

    Ibid., p. 314.

  138. 138.

    Ibid., p. 300.

  139. 139.

    CWJSM, 1, pp. 278–79. See also, Capaldi, pp. 326–27.

  140. 140.

    Foot, pp. 247–48.

  141. 141.

    Ibid., p. 152.

  142. 142.

    MECW, 42, p. 327.

  143. 143.

    Ibid., p. 726.

  144. 144.

    Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 298.

  145. 145.

    Ibid., p. 394.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to August H. Nimtz .

Appendix: Class Struggles in England—Marx Contra Mill

Appendix: Class Struggles in England—Marx Contra Mill

If the Civil War obligated Marx and Mill to be on the same political page, Britain’s domestic class struggle, specifically, electoral reform, required that they go their separate ways—Marx being the most conscious about the need to do so.

As noted earlier, Mill, with due “respect,” declined a request from the Chartists in 1842 to support their six-point program, which included universal male suffrage. It would mean “a legislature absolutely controlled by one class, even when that class numerically exceeds all others taken together,” as he explained. The “tyranny of the majority,” of the working class, in other words, was unacceptable. Marx and Engels, on the other hand, enthusiastically embraced the Chartist Program, foreshadowing what would again distinguish them from Mill two decades later.

Once settled in exile in London in 1849, Marx, owing to his politics and related research, had to learn about England’s leading intellectual whereas the latter had no reason to know about the obscure German refugee from the European Spring. The seemingly strange claim about Marx by one of his exiled comrades in London in 1851 that he “leads a very retired life, his only friend[s] being John Stuart Mill,” is telling in many ways.Footnote 117 It half-facetiously referred to the fact that Marx was intensely reading Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, since the comrade added that “whenever one goes to see him one is welcomed with economic categories in lieu of greetings.” Marx’s Capital, published in 1867, revealed that he indeed had become acquainted with Mill, and not just his Principles. Not for naught did Marx subtitle his magnum opus A Critique of Political Economy: Mill came in for particular criticism.Footnote 118 For Marx, Mill’s renown in England was a measure, in his opinion, of, again, the general mediocrity of intellectual life in his adopted country. Never did the German refugee think he couldn’t best, at least at the level of ideas, England’s leading light when the opportunity presented itself.

When Marx, as a representative of the German workers movement, became the effective head of the IWA shortly after its founding in September 1864, he quickly moved to limit the influence of “the betters” on the English working class. Informing his actions was the core lesson of the European Spring, the need for independent working-class political action. As he phrased it in the very first of the organization’s Provisional Rules, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” If the other members of its General Council (GC), its leadership body, didn’t fully understand what Marx meant, they would learn very soon. The 1848 revolutions taught that the proletariat should entertain no illusions about the petit-bourgeoisie, let alone the bourgeoisie. After more than a month of working with some of the petit-bourgeois forces on the GC, Marx told Engels—who was living in Manchester—that “one has to be all the more careful the moment men of letters, members of the bourgeoisie or semi-literary people become involved in the movement.”Footnote 119 To address that concern, Marx initiated organizational rules that placed severe limits on middle-class qua middle-class participation in the leadership of the IWA. To head off requests such as that of Louis Blanc, the former head of the Provisional Government of the February Revolution of 1848, to become an “honorary member,” Marx “got the BY-LAW accepted that no one (except workers’ SOCIETIES) could be invited to join and that nobody at all could be an honorary member.”Footnote 120 Blanc, also an exile in London, was a frequent dinner guest at the Mill home.

When Edmund Beales, a lawyer who campaigned for working-class representation in Parliament, sought a seat on the GC, Marx convinced other members to reject his request. As he explained to the French representative, “I believe him an honest and sincere man; at the same time, he is nothing and can be nothing save a Bourgeois politician.” Precisely because Beales also aspired to a seat in Parliament in the upcoming general elections, “he ought to be excluded from entering our committee. We cannot become le piedestal for small parliamentary ambitions … [otherwise] others of his class will follow, and our efforts, till now successful at freeing the English working class movement from all middle class or aristocratic patronage, will have been in vain.”Footnote 121 Marx was transparent about his agenda for the class struggle in England.

Marx, a “literary representative of the working class,” as he and Engels occasionally described themselves, had license to be the effective leader of the IWA exactly because he had committed “class suicide” (as African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral might have put it) and subordinated his life to the working-class cause—duly acknowledged and appreciated by the working-class fighters with whom he collaborated.Footnote 122 He was able to render ineffective potential class baiting because of his willingness to take on the most menial tasks for the organization, the so called “s…t work.” He complained, for example, to Engels on March 13, 1865, that “besides my work on the book [Capital], the [IWA] takes up an enormous amount of time, as I am IN FACT the HEAD of it. And what a waste of time! (And it comes just now, with … the election business…).” Neither Mill nor any of his cohorts was willing to make such a commitment and sacrifices—at least for the working class.

Regarding “the election business,” it appears that the founding of the IWA revived after a two-decade lull in the Chartist campaign interest in suffrage for the working class, particularly amongst middle-class lawyers like Beales. Marx was understandably suspicious. One of them, John Bright, the famed industrialist who opposed his pro-Confederacy British cohorts, wanted, he charged, “to make use of the workers to beat the oligarchs!”Footnote 123 Whatever the reason, another leading bourgeois figure, Richard Cobden, Bright’s Anti-Corn Law campaign colleague, invited the new organization to participate in a “MONSTER MEETING for MANHOOD SUFFRAGE” in London in February 1865—“the most remarkable thing of all” so far for the young organization, as Marx told Engels. To guard against Cobden’s probable agenda, Marx moved that the GC take part provided that “MANHOOD SUFFRAGE,” one of the six Chartist demands, be “proclaimed directly and publicly in the programme,” and that “people selected by us,” the GC, “are included on the permanent committee, so that they can keep an eye on those fellows and compromise them in the event of fresh treachery, which … is at any rate intended.”Footnote 124 The overture from one of the best of “their betters” and the joy it no doubt elicited from the grateful trade union heads on the GC tested Marx’s leadership in the fledgling organization unlike ever before. “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo” strong in deed, mild in manner, as he described his modus operandi, exemplified his response to the invitation.Footnote 125 The lessons, again, of 1848, weighed heavily on Marx’s brain.

Born from the successful February 23, 1865, meeting was the Reform League, “to campaign for one man, one vote”—in hindsight, the first iteration of the famed nineteenth-century “Lib-Lab” coalition.Footnote 126 Marx enthusiastically, contrary to what his complaint to Engels might have suggested, endorsed the formation of the League. Six weeks later he bragged to his comrade: “The REFORM LEAGUE is OUR WORK. On the inner committee of 12 (6 MIDDLECLASSMEN and 6 WORKINGMEN), the WORKINGMEN are ALL MEMBERS OF OUR COUNCIL. … WE HAVE BAFFLED all attempts by the middle class TO MISLEAD THE WORKING CLASS. … If we succeed in re-electrifying the POLITICAL MOVEMENT of the ENGLISH WORKING class, our ASSOCIATION will already have done more for the European working class, WITHOUT MAKING ANY FUSS, than was possible IN ANY OTHER WAY. And there is every prospect for success.”Footnote 127 Events a year later showed that Marx had been overly optimistic. Yet his enthusiasm registered the oft-ignored or unknown importance he gave to the electoral arena, with all its pitfalls, and revealed how independent working-class political action within it should be conducted—his first opportunity to do such work since the European Spring two decades earlier.

As the Reform League was getting off the ground, Mill, after urgings from some of his most ardent fans, decided to run for election to Parliament in the upcoming general elections as, what he dubbed, an “advanced liberal.” The stances he took in defense of Lincoln and the Union had, apparently, whetted his appetite for being for the first time a public intellectual. But he set strict conditions for his candidacy: that he would not have to actually campaign for the London seat in Westminster; that he wouldn’t have to, as was usually the case, employ his own funds for the campaign; and that he’d advocate for suffrage for women, more specifically, educated women—not unlike his position that only educated working-class men should be enfranchised, his long-held counter position to the Chartist demand for universal manhood suffrage. Both he and his supporters were surprised when he got enough votes, despite the conditions, to be elected to Parliament.

Worth mentioning is that Mill credited himself for initiating the women’s suffrage movement in England.Footnote 128 That his endorsement of the vote for upper-class women in his well-publicized letter about a possible candidacy was evidently not an obstacle for election inspired women from that milieu to begin organizing such a movement. It isn’t clear what proponents of universal male suffrage thought of the idea. There seems to have been no discussion about women’s suffrage in either the Reform League or the GC of the IWA. The Chartist demand for universal manhood suffrage seems to have been unquestioned probably because it had yet to be realized.Footnote 129 Liberal opponents of the demand often counterpoised household suffrage as the alternative. But that meant that those who didn’t belong to a “household,” most likely men, had no chance for any kind of representation. What is certain is that if Mill thought that giving the suffrage to “educated” women was the way to advance women’s rights, Marx had a different solution. Bringing women into the workers movement was exactly the alternative he promoted. From encouraging them to become members of the IWA, such as Engels’s partner Lizzy Burns, to being on the GC, to bringing solidarity to the strikes of women workers, to getting the IWA to take programmatic positions on issues relevant to women workers Marx was the most conscious of all the GC members in putting women on the IWA’s agenda.Footnote 130 As with the fight to overthrow the slavocracy, the women’s question revealed the very different orientations of the two protagonists about which class to look to for advancing the democratic quest.

At one of the three public meetings Mill deigned to participate in to inform his potential constituents about his views, one was noteworthy. A contingent of working-class attendees confronted Mill with a placard on which was something the candidate had written years earlier in his essay “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform.” In contrast to the “higher classes,” Mill claimed, “the lower … [are] mostly habitual liars.” When asked if those were his words, he fessed up that they were indeed. Immediately, one of the attendees expressed his pleasure with Mill’s honesty. The “working classes,” he said, “wanted friends, not flatterers”—a response that garnered applause from the audience. The individual who came to Mill’s rescue was George Odger, a trade union leader who happened, also, to be a member of the GC and one of its members of the Reform League’s executive committee. Mill proudly recounted Odger’s very opportune intervention on his behalf years later in his Autobiography. He had, therefore, at least one fan on the IWA’s executive body. Though Odger, no doubt, would have wanted the IWA to endorse Mill’s candidacy, just as he did, there is no evidence that he ever sought it. Marx’s success in blocking Beales’s request, someone who had better pro-working-class credentials than Mill, had made that an impossibility. But neither is it likely that Mill would have expected IWA or Reform League support. Despite Odger’s fawning over him, Mill claimed to never have hidden his opinion about the League: “I had always declined being a member of the League, on the avowed ground that I did not agree in its programme of manhood suffrage. … I could not consent to hoist the flag of manhood suffrage.”Footnote 131 The key issue, then, that Marx insisted that the IWA members in the League defend is exactly what Mill opposed. Electoral reform in England exposed the irreconcilable politics of Marx and Mill, just as it did two decades earlier.

Mill’s first speech in Parliament in favor of the Liberal government’s electoral reform proposal on April 13, 1866, highly anticipated given his renowned pontifications on the topic, didn’t disappoint. He distilled the argument in his 1861 book Considerations on Representative Government that granting the suffrage to “educated artisans” was a way to have working-class opinions represented in Parliament’s deliberations—“this class is not represented”—and to avoid the “hatred” of the working class for the ruling class, as was so often the case elsewhere. The bill was “moderate indeed … more moderate than is desired by the majority of reformers.” It was “not a democratic measure … there is no question at present about making the working classes predominant.” In making the case that the working class was educable, contrary apparently to the opinion of his peers, Mill referred to Odger’s intervention on his behalf at the public meeting a year earlier: “there is no class which so well bears to be told its own faults—to be told them even in harsh terms, if they believe that the person so speaking to them says what he thinks and has no ends of his own to serve by saying so.” The remarks evoked loud “cheers” from fellow MPs.Footnote 132

Worth noting is Mill’s point about the “hatred” of the working class for its “betters.” Granting them the suffrage, even if not fully, would be a way to avoid their wrath. Tocqueville, too, to be recalled, admitted that the right to work clause in the draft constitution that issued from the February Revolution of 1848 that he and others went along with was due to “fear of outside events and the excitement of the moment.”Footnote 133 Two of the leading liberals of the nineteenth century admitted, therefore, that liberal reforms were likely to be conceded to the working class by ruling elites because of violence or the threat of violence—an all-important lesson that’s been verified by subsequent research.Footnote 134

Ten months after the founding of the League, Marx was having his doubts about its course and the toll it was taking on the International’s other priorities: why it failed to hold a congress the first year. But, Marx told Engels, in December 1865, “if I resigned tomorrow, the bourgeois element, which looks at us with displeasure in the wings (FOREIGN INFIDELS), would have the upper hand” in the League.Footnote 135 Like Marx, the middle-class reformist forces in the League were evidently aware that they too were in a contest with him about its direction.

About ten days before Mill’s speech, Marx wrote to Engels: “the accursed traditional nature of all English movements is manifesting itself again in the REFORM-MOVEMENT. The same ‘INSTALMENTS’ which but a few weeks ago were rejected with the utmost indignation by the people’s party—they had even refused Bright’s ultimatum of HOUSEHOLD SUFFRAGE—are now treated as a prize worthy to be fought for. And why? Because the Tories are screaming blue murder. These fellows lack the mettle of the old Chartists.”Footnote 136 The “fellows” were Odger and William Cremer, another trade union head on the GC who was also on the executive committee of the League. Under increasing pressure from Bright and other bourgeois and middle-class reformists, they gave up the demand for universal manhood suffrage and supported in its place household suffrage in the bill the Liberal government submitted to the Commons on March 12. It was the watered-down proposal that Mill spoke in favor of.

Four months later, therefore, the “bourgeois element” had gotten, contrary to Marx, “the upper hand” in the League. As he admitted months later to a German comrade, “Cremer and Odger have both betrayed us in the Reform League, where they came to a compromise with the bourgeoisie against our wishes.”Footnote 137 Though Marx had expected liberal betrayal—the lessons of 1848—he seemed surprised by the cowardice of the labor aristocracy, a new phenomenon in the history of the workers movement. That it first manifested itself in England was probably not surprising—the country that had been in the vanguard of the proletarian political cause, the Chartists. The “betrayal” of Odger and Cremer registered that Chartism was a spent force. Almost a quarter century would pass before a new militant labor movement came into existence in Britain.

Despite the positive reception for Mill’s speech on its behalf, at least within Parliament, the 1866 Liberal Reform Bill couldn’t garner enough votes for enactment. It died in the Parliamentary minefield in June 1866 along with the Liberal government. With nothing to lose, the Reform League now found courage to tack left—to resurrect the universal manhood suffrage demand. Tory and right-wing Liberal opposition to the watered-down bill, blatantly dripping with contempt for the working classes—Mill had only been patronizing—so angered London’s proletariat that tens of thousands of them took to the streets in support of the League’s apparent rebirth.

Beginning in July, a series of demonstrations that the League called for became increasingly militant, culminating in a scenario at the end of the month in which, as Marx put it, the “government has almost caused a mutiny here. Your Englishman first needs a revolutionary education.”Footnote 138 Contrary to Marx’s hopes, that didn’t happen. No one did more to make sure than Mill. At a crucial moment in an unprecedented confrontation in Hyde Park on July 25, he took leadership in a way he’d never done—a moment he proudly recounted in his Autobiography. Essentially, he challenged the reformist leaders of the demonstration with the reality of their actions: were they prepared for a potentially revolutionary situation? They realized—what he already knew—that they weren’t. They backed down.Footnote 139 Almost a half-century later Prime Minister Lloyd George would do something strikingly similar with other trade union leaders, with the same outcome.Footnote 140 Mill prided himself for having diffused the situation. It may have been his most consequential contribution to his class. Anything but “a revolutionary education,” Marx’s hope, is what Mill wanted English workers to have.

The July protests carried on into the next year, enabling the enactment by a Tory government headed by Benjamin Disraeli of the 1867 Reform Act. It actually went beyond the Liberal proposal in granting more voting rights for workers, the more privileged layers. Yet, Disraeli could confidently and assuredly say about the bill: “‘We do not live—and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live—under a democracy’.”Footnote 141 Mill came close to saying something similar about the 1866 Liberal proposal. Marx, who could have rightly been cynical about the Reform League’s efforts in all of this and, thus, dismissive, seems to have been hopeful that something would finally happen. But there is no evidence that he actively got on board or encouraged as before the IWA to do so. Building the organization with all of its international obligations was now the priority—empowering, again, the effective democrats. As for the League, as he explained to a German correspondent in October 1866, “I have always kept behind the scenes and have not further concerned myself with the matter since it has been under way.”Footnote 142 It would take the bloodletting of the Great War a half-century later before universal manhood and then universal suffrage could become a reality in Britain for the first time.

If it can be said that Mill got the best of Marx because of the capitulation of the Reform League in 1866, Marx, being Marx, was not about to declare defeat. He sought another way to go after Mill. From late 1866 to about March 1867, he worked closely with Johann Eccarius, a self-taught German tailor and GC member, to write and publish a series of articles entitled “A Working Man’s Refutation of Some Points of Political Economy endorsed and advocated by John Stuart Mill.”Footnote 143 The title said it all. Almost three decades later, the young Lenin argued, again, that the “role of the ‘intelligentsia’” in the workers movement, “is to make the special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.”Footnote 144 In aiding Eccarius, that’s precisely what Marx was doing. To Engels he happily reported in June 1867 that Eccarius’s “critique of Mill has impressed them [a group of English intellectual/activists] hugely, they having previously been believers in Mill”—what Marx had hoped.Footnote 145 Published in a working-class venue, Eccarius’s fourteen articles were for that apparent reason never on Mill’s radar.

Marx, in effect, carried out from late 1864 to 1867 both a frontal and guerrilla campaign to limit Mill’s influence among the English working class. In the Marx–Engels correspondence Mill was derisively and sardonically known as “the Prophet,” “the Prophet Himself” or the “8th sage of the world.” Nothing suggests that Mill was even faintly aware of what Marx was doing. Though there is no evidence Mill ever sought either IWA or Reform League support for his candidacy, his biggest working-class fan occupied key posts in both organizations. George Odger, no doubt, would have gladly acceded to such a request. But Marx, the IWA’s effective head, was the obstacle to any possibility it might have been granted. Odger eventually parted company with the IWA, exactly because of what Marx was promoting—independent working-class political action. Whether the English section of the IWA could have made a difference in Mill’s second and unsuccessful bid to be returned to Parliament in 1868 is pure speculation. Mill was unapologetically a person who felt most at home, as he admitted in 1831, the most revolutionary moment in England in his lifetime, in the realm of ideas. Real-world politics was not, unlike for Marx, his natural home. Again, what makes Marx so unique—effectively at home in both worlds—which real-time politics reveals.

Not only, then, is it accurate to say that Marx had better democratic credentials than Mill when it came to overthrowing the slavocracy in America; it’s also true for the struggle for electoral reform in England. More reason to claim that no two individuals did more to contribute to the democratic quest in the nineteenth century than Marx and Engels.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2019 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Nimtz, A.H. (2019). The United States Civil War: Marx versus John Stuart Mill. In: Marxism versus Liberalism. Marx, Engels, and Marxisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation