Jeremy Bentham, the French Revolution and political radicalism

History of European Ideas 30 (4):381-401 (2004)
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An unresolved debate in Bentham scholarship concerns the question of the timing and circumstances which led to Bentham's ‘conversion’ to democracy, and thus to political radicalism. In the early stages of the French Revolution, Bentham composed material which appeared to justify equality of suffrage on utilitarian grounds, but there are differing interpretations concerning the extent and depth of Bentham's commitment to democracy at this time. The appearance of Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense upon Stilts and other essays on the French Revolution, a new volume in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, containing definitive texts of Bentham's writings at this crucial period, offers an opportunity to reassess this debate. First, Bentham's most radical proposals for political reform came not in the so-called ‘Essay on Representation’ composed in late 1788 and early 1789, as has traditionally been assumed, but in his ‘Projet of a Constitutional Code for France’ composed in the autumn of 1789, where he advocated universal adult suffrage, subject to a literacy test. Second, it may be doubted if the very question as to whether Bentham was or was not a sincere convert to democracy is particularly helpful. Rather, it may be better to see Bentham as a ‘projector’ during this period of his life. Third, the nature of Bentham's radicalism was very different at this period from what it would become in the 1810s and 1820s, for instance in relation to his commitment to the traditional structures of the British Constitution. Having said that, his attitude to the British Constitution remained complex and ambivalent. At his most radical phase, in the autumn of 1789, he advocated wide-ranging measures of electoral reform while at the same time harbouring aspirations to be returned to Parliament for one of the Marquis of Lansdowne's pocket boroughs. To conclude, it was, arguably, the internal dynamic of Bentham's critical utilitarianism, rather than the events of the French Revolution, which was ultimately responsible for pushing him into a novel form of radical politics



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Transparency: from Bentham’s inventory of virtuous effects to contemporary evidence-based scepticism.Sandrine Baume & Yannis Papadopoulos - 2018 - Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 21 (2):169-192.
The political realism of Jeremy Bentham.James Vitali - forthcoming - European Journal of Political Theory.
The political realism of Jeremy Bentham.James Vitali - forthcoming - Sage Publications: European Journal of Political Theory.

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Jeremy Bentham: biography and intellectual biography.D. Lieberman - 1999 - History of Political Thought 20 (1):187-204.

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