James Mill on Periodical Literature

James Mill (1777-1836), perhaps now best known as the father of John Stuart Mill, was a Scottish radical and a follower and populariser of the thought of Jeremy Bentham.1 In 1823, Bentham’s disciples established the Westminster Review, a quarterly periodical, to spread the ideas of philosophic radicalism. Mill contributed an article titled ‘Periodical Literature’ to the review’s first volume, published in 1824, delivering a harsh criticism of existing periodicals, namely the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Tory Quarterly Review. Mill’s arguments are remarkable for how closely they resemble contemporary critical analysis of the structures and interests that influence the press. I have excerpted a number of interesting passages which I hope will be found enlightening.

Analysis of Periodical Literature in General

‘If a work is published, not periodical, and possesses real merit, it can afford to be overlooked for a time; and though it may be little noticed for the first year, or years, may count with tolerable certainty upon that degree of ultimate fame to which it is entitled. Not so with periodical literature. That must have immediate success, to secure so much as existence. A periodical production must sell immediately, at least to a certain extent, otherwise it cannot be carried on. A periodical production must be read the next day, or month, or quarter, otherwise it will not be read at all. Every motive, therefore, which prompts to the production of any thing periodical, prompts to the study of immediate effect, of unpostponed popularity, of the applause of the moment. To catch at this applause is then to be regarded as a grand characteristic of periodical literature; and the good and evil consequences which arise from it deserve to be diligently traced, and correctly estimated.’

‘The most effectual mode of doing good to mankind by reading, is, to correct their errors; to expose their prejudices; to refute opinions which are generated only by partial interests, but to which men are, for that reason, so much the more attached; to censure whatever is mean and selfish in their behaviour, and attach honour to actions solely in proportion to their tendency to increase the sum of happiness, lessen the sum of misery.

‘But this is a course which periodical literature cannot pursue. To please the great body of men, which is the object of the periodical writer, he must flatter their prejudices. Instead of calling in question the opinions to which they are wedded, he must applaud them; and the more he can furnish such men with reasons for being more in love with their opinions than before, the more he is sure of commanding their approbation, and of increasing their zeal to promote the reputation of his work.

‘The most mischievous of all erroneous opinions are those which lead to the injury of the great number of mankind, for the benefit of the small number; which tend to make it the interest of the small number, by giving them the power, to oppress the great number in all practicable ways, and to brutalise them for the purpose of rendering the oppression more easy, and more secure. That these are the most mischievous of all opinions, is proved by merely telling what they are. That literature is useful only as it contributes to the extirpation of these detestable opinions, is so far true, that deprive it of this tendency, and it is doubtful whether it would not be more of a curse than a blessing. These, however, are the very opinions which periodical literature is under the strongest inducements to promote, and the discouragement of which it is utterly unsafe to undertake. It is obvious what is the general course it will pursue.

‘The opinions, on the propagation of which the success of periodical writings depends,—immediate success, that success which is essential to their existence,—are the opinions in vogue; the opinions of those whose influence is the most extensive, who can go farthest in creating or hindering a reputation. But what is the class most instrumental in setting the fashion, which exercises the greatest control over the opinions of other men? The answer is not uncertain. The people of power compose it. The favourite opinions of people in power are the opinions which favour their own power; those opinions which we have already characterised as being the grand instruments of evil in this world, the ultimate and real cause of the degradation and misery of the great mass of mankind. To these opinions periodical literature is under a sort of necessity, under an inducement which generally operates as a necessity, of serving as a pandar.’

‘The success of those important opinions, the progress of which involves the overthrow of the opinions which are dearest to the classes by whom power is exercised for their own benefit over the rest of the community, and dear to them for this reason, that they tend to the support of the power which they so employ, is slow. Periodical literature depends upon immediate success. It must, therefore, patronise the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power. It will obtain applause, and will receive reward, in proportion as it is successful in finding plausible reasons for the maintenance of the favourite opinions of the powerful classes, and plausible reasons for the discountenance and rejection of the opinions which tend to rescue the interests of the greatest number from the subjection under which they lie to the interests of the small number. In this view, it is evident, that, so long as the interest of the smaller number is the predominating interest in any community; so long periodical literature is the natural enemy of the most important and beneficent class of opinions, and so long may the balance of its effects be expected to be decidedly in opposition to them. We say the balance of its effects, because there is no doubt that occasionally, from various motives, the more important of which we shall think it expedient to describe, the periodical press displays exertions both in opposition to the opinions which tend to confirm abusive powers in the hands of the few, and in favour of the opinions which tend to rescue from these powers the interests of the greatest number.’

On the Westminster Review: ‘We have no claim to be trusted, any more than any one among our contemporaries: but we have a claim to be tried. Men have diversities of taste; and it is not impossible that a man should exist who really has a taste for the establishment of the securities for good government, and would derive more pleasure from the success of this pursuit, than of any other pursuit in which he could engage, wealth or power not excepted. All that we desire is, that it may not be reckoned impossible that we may belong to a class of this description.

‘There is another motive, as selfish as that which we ascribe to any body, by which we may be actuated. We may be sanguine enough, or silly enough, or clear-sighted enough, to believe, that intellectual and moral qualities have made a great progress among the people of this country; and that the class who will really approve endeavours, in favour of good government, and of the happiness and intelligence of men, are a class sufficiently numerous to reward our endeavours. No matter what our motives may be, the public will soon see whether our actions continue true to the ends which we profess; and that is all by which their interests can be affected; all, therefore, about which they need to care.’

Analysis of British Politics

‘The aristocracy of this country are naturally, in their political proceedings, divided, under the guidance of their interests, into two sections. The Quarterly Review follows the one section: the Edinburgh Review follows the other. The one of these sections is commonly known under the title of the ministerial party. The other is known under that of the opposition party. What are the interests which preside over the formation of the ministerial party are sufficiently obvious; and as they are in general correctly estimated, we are under no inducement to spend many words in explaining them.

The Tories: ‘As to the benefits, periodically arising from the engrossment of the powers of government in the hands of the few and the consequent employment of them for the benefit of that few, have to be divided; and as the division in this country is confided to a fixed individual, called the King, who thus acts as the head of the aristocratical and governing body to whose interest it is more conducive to give up the division to such a functionary, than to run the risk of those destructive contests, which, but for such an expedient, it would be apt to occasion;—all that part of the aristocracy, who either are satisfied with the share which they receive, or think they have a better chance of such a share by meriting the favour of the present distributors than by any other course they can pursue, range themselves under the King’s immediate advisers, and lend their influence to the promotion of all their designs. This class of motives is so obvious, and the operation of them so well understood, that we may now pass to the consideration of the interests which operate to the formation of the other section of the British aristocracy.’

‘All that is necessary here is, to caution unwary reasoners against allowing those motives which may predominate in the breast of individuals, from occupying that place in their reasonings which belongs to those motives which act upon the class as a class, and by which, as a class, they must be governed. It would be absurd to say that a comparatively small number of men formed into a class by possessing all the powers of government over the great number, and the means of using those powers for their own advantage, will not, as a class, be actuated by the desire to render that advantage as great as possible.’

‘our anxiety is to guard our readers against the delusion which is so often practised, of turning away the attention from the consideration of the motives which must govern the class, by holding up to attention the other motives, which always may, and very often do, actuate individuals. There is not a more fertile source of false reasoning, in matters of government, than this.’

The Whigs: ‘The interest which actuates the conduct of this section of the aristocracy, are somewhat less obvious, from the modifications they undergo, than those which actuate the ministerial section. The immediate object of the opposition is to effect a change of the hands by which the distribution of the advantages is made—to obtain hands through which their share will be enlarged. The means which these interests prescribe to them for the attainment of this object, afford a clue to the labyrinth of their conduct. The grand expedient for driving a minister from his situation is, to deprive him of support in the House of Commons; to lessen as much as possible the number of those who vote for, increase as much as possible the number of those who vote against him. There are minor expedients, court intrigues, and others, but this is so much the leading and established course, that we may, for the present purpose, overlook the remainder. The plan, therefore, is, to excite disapprobation of the principles and conduct of those who retain the distribution, and to excite approbation of the principles and conduct of those whom they wish to hold it in their stead. In this the Opposition are under the necessity of endeavouring to reconcile courses which are opposed to one another.

‘The primary object, of course, is, to discredit the ministry, and augment the favour of their own leaders with the aristocratical class. But in order to do this the more effectually, it is expedient to produce as much as possible of the same effects upon the public at large, including the middling and lower classes. Public opinion operates in various ways upon the aristocratical class, partly by contagion, partly by conviction, partly by intimidation: and the principal strength of that current is derived from the greatness of the mass by which it is swelled. It is the interest of the Opposition, therefore, to act, in such a manner, or rather to speak,—for speaking is their action,—so as to gain favour from both the few and the many. This they are obliged to endeavour by a perpetual system of compromise, a perpetual trimming between the two interests. To the aristocratical class they aim at making it appear, that the conduct of their leaders would be more advantageous even to that class, than the conduct of the ministry, which they paint in colours as odious to the aristocracy as they can. On the other hand, to gain the favour of the popular class, they are obliged to put forth principles which appear to be favourable to their interests, and to condemn such measures of conduct as tend to injure the many for the benefit of the few. In their speeches and writings, therefore, we commonly find them playing at seesaw. If a portion of the discourse has been employed in recommending the interests of the people, another must be employed in recommending the interests of the aristocracy. Having spoken a while on the one side, they must speak a while on the other. Having written a few pages on the one side, they must write as many on the other. It matters not how much the one set of principles are really at variance with the other, provided the discordance is not very visible, or not likely to be clearly seen by the party on whom it is wished that the delusion should pass.

‘In this game, of aristocratical, and popular, it is sufficiently evident on which side, at last, the winnings remain. There are two sufficient reasons which determine the point. In the first place, it is the aristocracy through whose decision exclusively the object of the Opposition must be attained,—that of ejecting the ministerial party, and giving possession to them. They must, therefore, be very careful not to excite any suspicion that they are in reality less favourable to the aristocratical side of the account than those whom they wish to supplant. And, therefore, whatever the zeal of which they make show in favour of the people, it must still appear to the aristocracy, that it bears upon no points of which they have any occasion to be afraid; that it leads to the diminution of none of the advantages which the monopoly of the powers of government bestows upon them. There is another, and a perfectly sufficient reason in favour of the same tendency, that the opposition themselves are a section of the aristocracy; a section that wishes, and hopes, to be the leading section; and which, therefore, cannot be expected to aim at the diminution of advantages which are its own.’

Tory and Whig Periodical Literature

‘From this development of the interests and views of the two sections of the aristocracy in this country, it is clearly seen what may be expected to be the aim and tendency of the publications, particularly periodical, which look for success to the favour and applause of the one or the other.

Tory periodical literature: ‘Those on the ministerial side have, as far as the interests of the aristocracy are concerned, a more simple course to pursue. They advocate them directly, and with enthusiasm, affected, or real. The aristocracy are spoken of as the country. Whenever the interests of the country are named, it is the interests of the aristocracy that are meant. The aristocracy are all in all. Compared with them, every thing is of trifling importance. With respect to the interests of the ministerial section, the business of the writers on that side is, to beat down the pretensions both of the opposition section of the aristocracy, and the people. The people are represented as altogether vile, and any desires which they may exhibit to see the powers of governments so disposed of, that they may have some security that these powers shall not be employed for the benefit of the aristocracy at their expense, as inconceivably wicked; as contrary, above all things, to religion; also contrary to law, and to order. The opposition section of the aristocracy are arraigned on two accounts; first, as attaching blame to the ministers for factious purposes, namely, to put their leaders in, and the ministers out, without being able to show, that the conduct of the ministers is not as good for the country, that is, the aristocracy, as that of the opposition leaders would be; and secondly, a still more dreadful odium is endeavoured to be cast upon them, by representing the professions which they are obliged to make in favour of the people as acts of support to these hideous pretensions of the people about securities for good government, which tend to the overthrow of the church and the state.’

Whig periodical literature: ‘The course which is necessary to be pursued, by such periodical publications as adopt the vocation of promoting the cause of the opposition section of the aristocracy, will be easily understood, after what has been already said, without many words for its elucidation. The seesaw of the party must be recommended; and the more of skill and pains is bestowed upon this object, the more of approbation may be expected. It is called the middle course. Every art is used to gain it reputation, under the title of moderation, and by the application of bad names to the two sets of opinions, between which the party oscillates, and which it is in reality putting forward by turns. The set of opinions, purely on the side of aristocratical power, are called despotical. Those which support the demand of effectual securities in favour of the people are declared anarchical, and are commonly stigmatised by some nickname in the slang of the day; jacobinical, for instance, at one time; radical, at another. They have a method worth observing, by which they prove that the party holds a middle course; by which term middle they always desire to be understood wise. When the people blame the party as aristocratical, and produce actual declarations of opinion on the part of its leaders which go the full length of the aristocratical pretensions, the writers ask how you can misinterpret their words so far, when they can produce you other declarations of opinion which go to as great an extent in favour of the popular demands. This proceeding they reverse, when charged as democratical, on the part of the aristocracy. They do not allow that two contradictory opinions on one and the same point, destroy one another, and should be regarded as no opinion at all. They hold that two contradictory opinions are good for nothing, each of them by itself; but that, both together, they form another nice opinion, exactly in the middle way between both.

‘It is essential, in writing upon this plan, to deal as much as possible in vague language, and cultivate the skilful use of it. Words which appear to mean much, and may by those to whom they are addressed be interpreted to mean much, but which may also, when it suits the convenience of those who have used them, be shown to mean little or nothing, are of singular importance to those whose business it is to play the game of compromise, to trim between irreconcileable interests, to seesaw between contradictory opinions.

‘Language of this description is peculiarly needed in making declarations which are meant to gain favour with the people. A party which is itself a section of the aristocracy, which desires to please the aristocracy, and by means of pleasing them to become the distributors of the good things which the possession of the powers of the government place upon the aristocracy, risk nothing by speaking explicitly in favour of their privileges. What is requisite is to have vague terms at command, when it is necessary to speak in opposition to these privileges. Aristocratical domination, in the abstract, may be spoken of as something exceedingly hateful, or pregnant with the worst of consequences. The people may be exhorted to be on their guard against it. They may even be told that the ministers have no other object than to introduce it; and that this alone is a sufficient reason for hating them, and for using every exertion to turn them out. In the meantime, great care must be used not to remove any part of the veil which conceals from the view of the people, the real amount of aristocratical power in this country. When any specific measure is proposed, which would really operate in the diminution of that power,—choosing the members of parliament by ballot, for instance,—it must be loudly decried, and every thing must be done to attach to it, if possible, the apprehension of evil consequences. On the other hand, if a measure is proposed which has the appearance of being calculated to diminish the power of the aristocracy, but which in reality has no such tendency, perhaps the very reverse, such as the disfranchisement of the boroughs called rotten, giving the representation to the counties, then the epithets of praise must be collected. The man who brings forward such a measure as this, must be hailed as the first of men; the man who should accomplish it, must be described as the most happy.

‘One important part of the business of writers on the side of the opposition section of the aristocracy, one of the qualities by which they can most effectually recommend themselves, is being ingenious in the invention of schemes of this description; schemes which may have the appearance to the people of being calculated to add to their securities, but which would, even if accomplished, leave the power of the aristocracy untouched.’

Analysis of the Edinburgh Review

‘Political economy, indeed, obtains a due share of attention; and the abolition of the slave trade begins to be recommended,—two subjects upon which the Edinburgh Review has rendered important service. And upon these subjects, as well as that of Catholic emancipation, which has been laboriously handled, a remark is required.

‘These are precisely the description of subjects which suit a publication, pursuing the career which has been pursued by the Edinburgh Review. The hold possessed by the aristocracy upon the powers of government, was not likely to be weakened, by any opinions propagated on the subjects of political economy, and the slave trade; not even on that of Catholic emancipation; for though the anile and priest-ridden portion would certainly make a clamour, and feel apprehension for the consecrated prop, the more manly portion, having some respect for the reputation of good sense, would have little respect for matronly fears, and would neither cry down nor discard a publication which attacked them. These were subjects, therefore, on which a reputation with the liberal, the enlightened, and the disinterested part of the public, might be courted, without risking much with the aristocratical and the prejudiced.’

1 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher and political theorist, best known for developing the theory of utilitarianism and presenting a series of proposals for political, social and constitutional reform.

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