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Roberts' web site Timeline and resources for: Bentham Owen Thompson and Wheeler


Jeremy Bentham
Bentham became a radical -
supporting democracy as the best
form of government.
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Robert Owen
Owen was the founder of 
English socialism and a 
pioneer of gender equality.
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William Thompson
Click on the book cover to find out what it is about

Anna Wheeler
Anna Wheeler's ideas inspired
William Thompson to write a
book combining Owen and Bentham's
ideas in an appeal for gender equality.
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Bentham Extracts

Owen Extracts

Thompson and Wheeler Extracts

Benthamism + Owenism = socialist feminism
In this document we look at the three major strands of radical social theory: Liberalism, Utilitarianism and Socialism, how they relate to the analysis of society and, in particular, to the relation between classes and genders in a society.

To do this we are going to play Peeping Tom on a class of Hackney Worker's Education Association meeting to discuss these issues in 1989. The report of the meetings is based on their newsletter: Ideas about Politics.

The radical tradition in social science thinks the point of studying society is to change it. The people in this document nearly all belong to this tradition. Radicals agreed with Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft that reason should be used to re-shape society.

They differed amongst themselves, however, on the nature of reason, and the extent to which reason should make use of the state to change society. Some of the theorists discussed in this document are individualists, whilst others are collectivists.

Wollstonecraft and Rousseau had thought that planned, collective approaches to social change would be beneficial. Many radicals, however, followed followed free market theorists such as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo in thinking that most good would be brought about by individual effort.

The first part first part of this document discusses liberalism and utilitarianism, and how they are related. This is followed by articles on Robert Owen, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, which were published in Ideas about Politics as background to a discussion of the relation between utilitarianism, feminism and socialism, which concludes the document.


One of the WEA meetings was on liberalism. A class member, Katie Priest, started the group of with a talk on individuals and the state in liberal theory.

Before liberalism, in the middle ages, she said, people thought of society and state as part of God's creation. The church taught them to see the political order as part of a divine plan and individuals as part of a greater whole.

Individualism, the modern state and liberalism grew together. Individuals began to see themselves as separate and used themselves as the starting point for political theory. They stopped thinking of the state as God-given and began to imagine it as something they could have made. To imagine people without a state they used the idea of a "state of nature".

Hobbes, who was not a liberal, pioneered this idea of imagining how separate individuals could have created a society and a state.

His liberal successor, Locke argued that individuals enter society to protect property. But he does not just mean goods. He defines "property" to mean "life, liberty and estate".

The citizens of Locke's state are free, equal before the law and bound together by mutual respect for one another's rights. Which is reinforced by the "Magistrate" if self-interest gets out of hand.

In the early 19th century liberalism was linked to the free-market economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). One of the main people making these links was James Mill (1773-1836).

James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), began to file apart the link between liberalism and the free-market.

Some class members thought liberalism, utilitarianism and free market- economics are the same thing. Jamie Andrews invented a slogan to separate them:-

Katie said that if liberalism is contrasted with collectivism, then John Stuart Mill moved from liberalism towards collectivism. But if liberalism is about freedom rather than the market then John Stuart Mill was always a liberal.

In Principles of Political Economy Mill said:-

"After the means of subsistence are assured the next in strength of the personal wants of human beings is liberty." (Book 2, chapter 1, section 3)

So freedom is not the be-all and end-all for Mill, but once basic welfare is assured, freedom is our next basic need.

Freedom for Mill was at the heart of self development. But freedom as self development need not be linked to the free market or competition. In co- ops, for example, people might find independence from an employer and be self determining rather then other determined. Mill weighed the possibilities that socialism might increase or reduce freedom, and described himself in his autobiography as a qualified socialist.

UTILITARIANISM Bentham weblinks

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that claims "good" is what avoids pain and maximizes pleasure. David Hume (1711-1776) said:

"an action or sentiment, or character is virtuous or vicious...because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind" (Hume 1739/1740, par.

The term utilitarianism was adopted for this kind of theory early in the 19th century.

Several class members argued that a theory that claims "good" is what avoids pain and maximizes pleasure, should not be called a moral theory. They are in good company. Kant and Hegel, for example, thought it was a mistake to reduce morality to utility like this. "Good", they said, is something special and distinct from just "pleasant".

Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarian theory in his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation This began:

" Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we should do. " (Bentham 1789).

Bentham thought that by adding to this principle of utility a greatest happiness principle he had obtained the key to reforming the whole legal system. The aim of good legislation, he said, should be the: greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Socrates argued that states are formed not for "the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole"

greatest happiness of the greatest number

The phrase (or similar) is used

  • by Francis Hutcheson in his "Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue" (1725) where he says "That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers."

  • By Beccaria in 1764

  • By Joseph Priestley

  • By Bentham in 1776.

    See also Bentham 1789, note added July 1822

  • By Robert Owen

  • Some might argue that greatest happiness of the greatest number could be achieved under a dictatorship. So there is no obvious reason to link utilitarianism with liberals or freedom. Bentham, however, argued that the individual is the best judge of his or her own happiness. The way to maximize happiness is to leave people free to make their own choices. So, in Bentham's philosophy, utilitarianism and liberalism are neatly related.

    Katie thought the early link between free-market economics and utilitarianism made Bentham and his colleagues less sympathetic to the needs of the poor. Edwin Chadwick (1801-1890), Bentham's secretary, for example, was closely associated with the New Poor Law of 1834 and pioneered "workhouses" to deter people from claiming benefits.

    By contrast, she argued, the greatest happiness of the greatest number principle made J.S. Mill consider the claim of the poor to a better life. He hoped that through co-operatives, trades unions and political democracy the working class would develop as self-reliant responsible citizens. This vision of the future of the working class echoed his general desire for a society of self-governing individuals where state activity does not hinder individual initiative.

    Bentham was in favour of a free-market, but he did not share Adam Smith's ideal that the state's functions should be severely restricted. Bentham had designed a panopticon, or model prison, and he thought his principles could be used to re-design the rest of society.

    In the panopticon a supervisor in the centre can see everything that anyone in the building is doing.

    In 1794, Parliament backed this scheme, as a prison plan. The foundations were laid. But, in January 1803, Bentham was told the Government could not find the funds

    In 1794, Parliament backed this scheme, 
as a prison plan. 
The foundations were laid. 
But, in January 1803, Bentham was told
the Government could not find the funds Millbank Penitentiary, opened in 1832, was a modified version of Bentham's plan which the Government built on the foundations Bentham laid. It was a distinctive feature on London maps in the 19th century.

    Bentham thought that the same plan could be used for schools, orphanages, workhouses and many other institutions.

    J.S. Mill's most famous work, On Liberty, looked for the limits that should be set to the state's power. Its principle that individuals should have control of their own lives and be free to do anything which is not harmful to others is still influential. The reform of the law on homosexual acts, in 1967, for example, was argued for on this principle.

    But Mill was not, Katie said, arguing for minimal government. In fact some of his arguments were very favourable to state intervention.

    Take his economics, for example. Whilst some economists argued that the free market could not be interfered with without reducing the nation's wealth, Mill said this could only apply to production. Once wealth had been created the nation could decide how it was to be distributed. This argument left the door wide open for welfare paid for from taxation.

    Hayek, one of the economists connected with today's "Adam Smith Institute" accuses Mill of betraying liberalism. But, Hayek thinks strictly free-market economics are essential to preserving freedom.

    The next part of this document contains articles on Robert Owen, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler. These were published in Ideas about Politics as background to the discussion of the relation between utilitarianism, feminism and socialism led by Jackie Lugg

    ROBERT OWEN Owen weblinks

    Robert Owen (1771-1858), the son of an ironmonger or saddler, left his home in Wales when he was only ten, to make his own way in business. He walked to London, where he entered the retail drapery trade. When he was 14 he went to Manchester. With a partner and £100 capital he began making machines (mules) for spinning cotton. Later he became manager (and later partner in) a factory which employed 500 workers. By the time he was twenty nine (1800) he was manager and part owner of New Lanark Cotton Mills near Glasgow.

    Factory owner 1800-1828

    The mills had been established a few years earlier by a man called David Dale, who was known as an employer who was concerned about his worker's welfare.He had built his mill in the countryside because the machinery was driven by the power of a waterfall. This was normal at this time. Factories only developed in towns when coal powered steam engines became normal.

    New Lanark's two thousand workers included men, women and children, most of whom lived in a special factory village that Dale had built for them, close to the factory. Owen used them all in a benign experiment:

    Owen tried to replace violence by reason:

    Above all, he tried to educate people: first the children and then the grown ups. He stopped children working before they were ten and provided schools instead. Corporal punishment was not allowed at any age.

    Human character.

    Between 1812 and 1816, Owen published four "Essays on the Formation of Human Character" (collectively called A New View of Society) containing his famous dictum that:

    "The character of man is.. always formed for him.. Man..never did..form his own character".

    Owen was not taking sides in any "nature- nurture debate". With the phrenologists J.C. Spurzheim (1776-1832) and George Combe (1788-1858), he believed that character was the result of the interaction of an individual's inborn faculties and social environment.

    Describing a two day visit to New Lanark on Sunday and Monday 5/6.11.1820, George Combe wrote that Owen's teachers

    "studied the dispositions and faculties of the children more than any teachers I had met with"

    Faculties were innate, but they could be moulded. The same biological being could become a saint or a villain according to how he or she was brought up.

    Combe demonstrated the use of the phrenological cast of a head to decipher character and

    "The varieties were so numerous and the differences so wide, that they were astonished at the facility and correctness with which we deciphered the characters; and the result was that Mr Owen ordered two books and two casts..." (Gibbon, C. 1878 p. 132)

    Village democracy and world peace 1817-1845

    In his Plan for the Relief of the Poor (1817) Owen envisaged the un- employed being provided with employment in villages of co-operation which would be laid out in the manner suggested by the following diagram:

    The picture is based on 
Owen's description.
Click it to read what
Owen wrote

    "Innumerable communities of paupers!" Cobbett exploded in his Political Register. The end of the Napoleonic wars had been followed by massive poverty and now Owen wanted to regiment the victims in collective villages! Owen thought he had the blueprint for a new society.

    The advantages Owen saw in co-operation over individualism were economic and moral. He believed collective activities would be more efficient, but he also argued that the influence of individualism is towards ignorance and brutality and that of co-operation towards liveliness and intelligence. He contrasted the "brutal selfishness" of individualism with the rational self-interest of co-operation, which recognizes the individual's own interest in the welfare of the community.

    When his plan was rejected by the authorities, Owen turned towards publicity and efforts to get a trial community started. His ideas on how the communities should be managed moved away from the authoritarianism and paternalism that Cobbett so objected to, towards equality and self -government. He devised a system to ensure that everyone at some stage in their life would take part in the government of the communities and that these village governments would not loose touch with the interests of the people. The owenites established a number of co-operative communities and Owen himself was heavily involved in an experimental community at New Harmony in the USA (1825-1827) where he lost the fortune he made at New Lanark, and later in one at Queenwood in Hampshire that lasted from 1839 to 1845.

    Owen thought the multiplication of villages of co-operation would lead to what Engels later called the "withering away of the state".

    Owen had a vision of a multitude of independent co-ops linked to form a co-operative world. As people learnt the new morality, the need for government would fade away and prisons and punishments would also become unnecessary. The false, individualistic morals of competitive society are the "sole cause which renders law necessary in society" Owen told an audience in 1833.

    In the new order there would be disagreements between people and between groups, but they would be fewer and could be resolved by arbitrators skilled in the practice of the new morality.

    At New Lanark military drill was part of the training of the male children. Britain was, after all, at war with France. But even then (1813), Owen wrote that if everyone was "trained to be rational, the art of war would be rendered useless". In 1833 he told people that the co-operative system would not only be free of litigation, it would be free of war, and until that object was achieved one of the main aims of the co-operative movement was to be a peace movement:

    "One of their chief offices, until the ignorance which causes the evil shall be removed, will be to reconcile man to man, and nation to nation throughout the world, and to enable all to understand that they have but one interest, which is, to insure the permanent happiness of each and all".

    The co-operative and labour movement

    In the 1830s and 1840s what I am now calling "owenism" was simply "socialism" - and it was a mass movement. Robert Owen did not found owenism. English socialism caught hold of him and carried him along as a willing participant. The years he spent in America were very formative ones for the working class and when he returned to England in 1829 he found himself part of a general movement of labour and socialism that considered his work to be a founding influence. Trade unions had been legalized in 1824 and a major feature of the developing movement was co-operative unionism. Important unions (like the builders) were not only taking strike action in the cause of higher wages, but were also trying to set up co-operatives (or "guilds") to carry out work directly.

    Whilst Owen was in the USA a large number of small retail and producer co-ops were formed (three hundred by 1830); a working class press was established and several books were published by other early socialists, including William Thompson.

    WILLIAM THOMPSON Thompson weblinks

    William Thompson (1785-1833) was an Irish landlord whose radical views earned him the nickname "red" amongst his tenants. In 1822 he came to London at the invitation of Bentham.

    Bentham's belief that law and society should be organised to achieve the " greatest happiness of the greatest number" had led him to invest his money in Owen's New Lanark mill, but, generally, he had been persuaded by his friend Ricardo that economic competition was best for human happiness.

    Thompson agreed with the greatest happiness principle, but argued that competition destroyed happiness and the best system was co-operation.

    David Ricardo's explanation of the distribution of wealth between capitalists, landlords and workers was based on the labour theory of value. Thompson used this to argue that if all wealth springs from labour, then the capitalist and the landlord both exploit the labourer. The theory of exploitation became an integral part of the mass movement that was owenism in the 1830s.

    Owen and the Labour Movement.

    It was a fairly straightforward deduction that if labour is the source of all value, it is also the source of all power. The rich and apparently powerful "unproductive classes" are just a small minority sitting on the broad shoulders of the toiling masses. If the workers withdraw their labour, the unproductive classes topple over.

    Co-operative trade unionism was the spark that convinced Owen that a national strike, or "sacred month", would herald in his new co-operative order. But the strongly owenite "Grand National Consolidated Union", formed in 1833, was crushed soon after 1836 when six farm workers (the "Tolpuddle Martyrs") were transported to Australia for having taken "illegal oaths" before forming a union. The Grand National resisted, but the combined offensive of government, courts and employers broke its back and the workers began to think that to gain power they would first need to gain the vote.

    Owen did not share this "Chartist" dream. He believed that whilst there are rich and poor, the rich will rule - whoever has the vote.

    William Thompson's main works were:

    An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness (1824)

    Appeal of One-half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political and hence in Civil and Domestic Slavery (1825)

    Labour Rewarded...or How to Secure to Labour the Whole Product of its Exertion (1827) and

    Practical Directions for...Communities on the Principles of Mutual Co-operation (1830.)

    ANNA WHEELER Wheeler weblinks

    The Appeal of..Women was written on the inspiration of Anna Wheeler (1785-18??). Wheeler was also from a rich Irish family. In 1812 she left her drunken husband and later arrived in France where she met with French socialists and supporters of women's emancipation. For twenty years she travelled backwards and forwards between France, England and Ireland, providing an important link for radical groups.

    She translated French socialist articles for the owenite press and lectured widely on the condition of women and their rights as members of society and equals with men.

    Wheeler was a friend of Owen, Thompson and Bentham. Like Thompson, she sometimes stayed in Bentham's house. One of Bentham's other friends, James Mill (John Stuart's father) believed that nature inclines us all to seek our individual pleasure at other people's expense. Wheeler and Thompson contrasted this with Owen's view (which they supported) that ignorance is the cause of selfishness whereas rational self-interest would see individual welfare as part of everyone's welfare.

    Somewhat inconsistently (if everyone is an egoist) James Mill considered women's interests would be adequately covered at elections by their fathers or husbands having a vote. Wheeler and Thompson thought that, in a competitive system, this would mean women's interests were ignored. They argued that if the object of government is to maximize human happiness, then as much attention should be paid to women as to men. The Appeal insisted that:

    "Women are..as much entitled to happiness on their own account, for their own sakes, as men". (Thompson 1825 p.118)

    As ignorance is why people fail to see their interests as mutual, is also the reason that they seek power over one another. It has nothing to do with "nature".

    Ignorance and the competitive system support one another. Just as politicians, landlords and capitalists achieve power over workers and use it to exploit them, so men achieve power over women and use it to exploit them. The remedy for such brutalizing selfishness lies in the theory and practice of co-operation showing us where our true interests lie.

    Such a society would not come about through a movement of men. Women, like workers of both sexes, the Appeal said, would have to be active in their own emancipation.

    Benthamism + Owenism = socialist feminism.
    Andrew Roberts on the ideas of Jackie Lugg.

    In The Making of the English Working Class, Edward Thompson gives the impression that utilitarianism was a middle class philosophy and socialism its working class opposition. He condemns Owen as an authoritarian paternalist who made a mental mess by mixing two incompatible class philosophies.

    I dislike reducing philosophy to class like this, so I welcomed Jackie's argument that important socialist ideas developed from Bentham's utilitarianism.

    Bentham was not a socialist, but reading his unpublished manuscripts in University College library has convinced Jackie that he was much more of a radical than is normally believed.

    In Bentham's manuscripts she found a distinction between "private" and "universal" interests. Human nature consists of both. Private, acquisitive, individual interests are necessary for survival of the species, but can also lead communities to self-destruction.The universal, social or public interest is the interest a person has in common with others.This interest is ultimately responsible for "true happiness".

    Bentham believed that society could be structured to maximize the universal interest and minimize the "sinister" influence of the private. Such a society would maximize human happiness.

    There are similarities between this argument and the claim by Robert Owen that society can be structured to encourage either rational egoism (knowing that we have interests in common) or irrational egoism (selfishness).

    There were none of these ambiguities in James Mill's version of human nature. The argument that Thompson and Wheeler most objected to was in his Essay on Government (1820) where he said that wealth and power over others are the principle means by which we obtain happiness and that our desire for them is limitless. (Mill, James 1820 par.42

    The Appeal of..Women (1825) attacked this view as too superficial.It insisted that it is not a basic principle of human nature to trample on the happiness of others any more than it is to promote their happiness. Both are secondary principles. They are dependent on what we are taught is in our interest:

    "The original principle of human nature.. is simply the desire of happiness and aversion to misery, without any wish, kindly or malignant, to others" (Thompson 1825 p.13)

    In competitive society, the Appeal says, women are held in an "artificial cage" made by men.

    Girls are held back from the same freedom of education, occupation and enjoyment as boys and taught that the only escape from the cage of their parents' home is into the false freedom of marriage. Entranced by the delusions of romantic love they fly out, only to hear the door of another cage snap behind them.

    Thompson and Wheeler were not against marriage as such, but against marriage structured by competitive society. This fostered power relations between men and women instead of co-operation. Men have a biological edge over women and, in competitive society, they use it to make social instruments of domination, exploitation and constraint.

    Similarly, outside the home, Thompson was against "forced labour". Listening to Jackie's presentation it seemed to me that this concept had two elements. Because they were poor, workers had no choice but to work for the owners of land or capital (Durkheim called this the "forced division of labour") and they did not keep all that they produced, a surplus was forced from them in the form of rent and profit. (What Marx called "exploitation).

    All these evils were the result of people being reared for competition. They would not exist in co-operative society.

    Behind Thompson and Wheeler's ideas on the co-operative alternative is an idea of true as distinct from false happiness (a distinction Bentham also made). Jostling for power and wealth in competitive society is not real happiness. What we need for happiness is security of subsistence and the freedom to develop our creative abilities.

    So Thompson moves beyond the idea of freedom from restraint to a positive idea of freedom similar to John Stuart Mill's. Human emancipation will involve the development of all individuals as autonomous beings with equal opportunities for happiness.

    Workers will only find such security and freedom through co-operation, and women's liberation also will only be possible in such a society.Equal rights in the present system are worth fighting for, but with equal rights in a rat race women in general will be the losers.


    Jackie's talk was followed by a vigorous discussion about equality and hierarchy which we can only give some of the points from. Felicity said people are not equal. Children, for example, are under the authority of their parents and it would not make sense otherwise. Jackie thought that what applies to children, should not apply to adults. She said she did not agree with the authority and paternalism in Owen's early ventures (New Lanark and, initially, New Harmony). Andrew defended authority and hierarchy. He commented that it was when Owen ran things that they worked. Kate argued that socialism was not about pure equality anyway, but about increasing equality in an unequal world.



    HUME, D. 1739-1740 A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE 3 Books: Book 1 Of the Understanding; Book 2 Of the Passions; Book 3 Of Morals; Each divided into Parts and sections.

    Thompson, W. 1825 Appeal of One-half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery. (1983 Reprint: Virago) (1994 Reprint: Thoemmes Press).


    Jamie Andrews

    benign experiment

    co-operative and labour movement

    greatest happiness

    David Hume


    labour theory of value

    Jackie Lugg

    James Mill (1773-1836)

    John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

    Robert Owen


    panopticon or model prison

    Katie Priest


    rational self-interest:
    principle of cooperation
    under fives taught

    David Ricardo: and individualism, and liberalism, and labour theory of value

    Edward Thompson (19##-198?)

    William Thompson


    Anna Wheeler

    Other Authors. Other Works

    Olympe de Gouges

    Mary Wollstonecraft

    James Mill on Government

    Mill and Taylor 1848

    J.S. Mill Subjection of Women

    Engels Origin of the Family...

    © Andrew Roberts 1.1989 -

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