April 2013        

William Thompson: political economy and co-operative communism

Not much is written about William Thompson these days—a few articles here and there and the biography by Richard Pankhurst published more than fifty years ago. Yet he was considered by his contemporaries to be as important to political economy as Adam Smith and as important to the co-operative movement as Robert Owen—indeed Owen credits Thompson with systematically developing the economics of the co-operative movement.
     It is claimed that Thompson popularised the word “competitive” as a description of capitalism and also the word “socialism” in debates in London with such notable political economists as John Stuart Mill.
     Socialists in Ireland, who may not have read Thompson’s writings directly, will at least be aware of Connolly’s admiration for him, describing him as Ireland’s first socialist and a forerunner of Karl Marx. Connolly devotes an entire chapter to him in Labour in Irish History.
     If we were to attempt to estimate the relative achievements of Thompson and Marx we could not hope to do justice to either by putting them in contrast, or by eulogising Thompson in order to belittle Marx, as some Continental critics of the latter seek to do. Rather we should say that the relative position of this Irish genius and of Marx are best comparable to the historical relations of the pre-Darwinian evolutionists to Darwin. As Darwin systematised all the theories of his predecessors and gave a lifetime to accumulating the facts required to establish his and their position, so Marx found the true line of economic thought already indicated, and used his genius and encyclopaedic knowledge and research to place it on an unshakable foundation.
     Thompson brushed aside the economic fiction maintained by the orthodox economists, and accepted by the utopians, that profit was made in exchange, declaring that it was due to the subjection of labour and the resultant appropriation by capitalists and landlords of the fruits of other people’s labour.
     Given that Ireland is not shy of celebrating or promoting “our greats,” why so silent on Thompson? Maybe because Thompson was a radical in every area of thought, never compromising his views for fear of retribution. It is hard to see how someone like Thompson could be celebrated by this state other than in a way that stripped him of his political radicalism. His critique of capitalism, his scathing attacks on political power and privilege, his views on religion and on women are all still valid, relevant and dangerous ideas that from the establishment’s point of view are best kept buried, much as they have consistently tried to bury the radicalism of James Connolly.

His life

William Thompson was born in Cork in 1775 to a wealthy merchant family, very much part of the Anglo-Irish establishment. Thompson’s father involved himself in politics and became mayor of the city. When his father died Thompson inherited his estate at Glandore and his trading fleet. Acknowledging his position of wealth, Thompson described himself as belonging to the idle class who live off the labour of others.
     Tragically, he suffered from poor health all his life and was to die in 1833 at the age of fifty-eight. Despite this relatively short life, Thompson published a number of important papers, held enormous influence with his contemporaries, and was radically ahead of his times in his views on economics, women, religion, education and the burgeoning trade union movement and on how society could be best structured to meet the needs of the many.

Major works

Thompson’s four main works are An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness, Applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth; 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; Labor Rewarded: The Claims of Labor and Capital Conciliated, or How to Secure to Labor the Whole Products of Its Exertions; and Practical Directions for the Speedy and Economical Establishment of Communities on the Principles of Mutual Co-operation, United Possessions and Equality of Exertions and the Means of Enjoyments.
     Unfortunately, these books are not the easiest to come by any more, but they can be bought on line.
     An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth was Thompson’s first major work in political economy, and it contains his most comprehensive critique of capitalism and his proposals for a co-operative society as an alternative. He condemned the narrow mechanical approach taken by political economists but also the naïvely utopian and moralist approach of philosophers and attempted to combine a scientific and ethical critique of the system, concentrating on how wealth is created and also how it is distributed.
     This major work condemns the existing system as wasteful, exploitative, and ultimately unproductive in concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and keeping the many in poverty. Thompson identifies exploitation (those who create wealth not receiving the full value of what they create) and competition as the essential features of the system, which drives the rich to maintain their wealth at the expense of others.
     But Thompson did not reduce economics merely to wealth-creation and distribution: he saw how it influenced a society’s morals, education system and political processes and ultimately the state.
     In An Inquiry Thompson identified many of the themes and analysis Marx and Engels would tackle half a century later and elucidated these in a number of central principles:
     1. Wealth is produced by labour.
     2. The aim of production should be to distribute its product to create the greatest possible happiness.
     3. This will be achieved by distributing wealth equally to the greatest number.
     4. The greatest incentive to work is to receive the entire use of the value you created.
     5. Exchange should be voluntary to the producers of the articles.
     There is no doubt that Marx read and was influenced by Thompson. Common to them both is the use of the labour theory of value and of exploitation in understanding the creation of surplus value, wealth, and consequently inequality and mass unhappiness. But the similarities don’t end there.
     Thompson understood how one’s class determines one’s interests and influences one’s actions. So, for Thompson, “the Industrious Classes are now learning their own importance; they will soon speak out; and thenceforward, they alone will regulate human affairs, essentially their own affairs. The idle will lose the support of public opinion, and as a class will cease to exist.”
     Thompson showed that he understood the class nature of the state when he defined the state as “the aristocratic law-making committee of the Idle Classes,” and he foresaw a time in a future society based on co-operative production when “almost all the occasions for the exercise of the ordinary functions of Government would have ceased.”
     Consequently, Thompson argued against Robert Owen, who sought favour with the establishment and support from the state for the co-operative movement. Thompson saw this is a pointless distraction, as he understood why it would not be in the state’s interests to do so.
     Unfortunately, however, this led Thompson to advocate small start-up co-operatives, which, like many communes throughout history, are doomed to fail because of the scale of production, the coercive role of the state, and personality problems.
     For Thompson, public opinion was merely the “opinion of the influential classes of society,” not the majority classes. And he railed against the power, material and ideological, of religious institutions, describing priests as “rapacious parasites” and tithes as “the most pernicious of taxes.” In this way he also differed from co-operatives of the Saint-Simon tradition, which sought to employ religious dogma for their own ends. Laws and morals should instead be based on the promotion of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
     It is understandable, therefore, that some commentators (Joseph Schumpeter, Stanley and Beatrice Webb, Thorstein Veblen and others) have described Thompson as the founder of scientific socialism. Certainly to lump him in with Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon in Engels’s category of utopian socialists would be simplistic and plays down his role in placing the co-operative movement firmly within a scientific critique of capitalism.
     Thompson did not disconnect the economic system from everything in society around it, making his critique one of society in its entirety. It is little wonder that he also ably and vocally campaigned against one of the most glaring injustices and abuses of his day: the subjugation of one half of the human race, women.
     Thompson was shocked and disappointed that many of the utilitarian (precursor to liberal) thinkers of the day, including James Mill, defended the denial of the franchise to women. An Appeal is a response to, in particular, Mill’s support for the oppression of women. Mill justified this on the grounds that women’s interests were taken into account either by their fathers or their husbands, and so—like children—they were represented indirectly, a position Thompson utterly rejected.
     Thompson had struck up a friendship with the radical socialist Anna Whealer, god-daughter of Henry Grattan. Indeed he begged her to put her name to the book, which he felt was a product of her mind and experiences and would have a greater impact coming directly from her, almost as a belated follow-up to the ground-breaking Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792.
     An Appeal described a woman under capitalism as an “involuntary breeding machine and household slave.” Thompson described marriage thus: “Each man yokes a woman to his establishment and calls it a contract.” In An Appeal he tears apart Mills’s argument of a “fair contract” and the assertion that women’s interests were taken into account by their male sponsor. He also described in great detail the injustices suffered by women in society, from the denial of the franchise to the world of work and wealth and fundamentally their lack of civil, legal and political rights. He pleaded: “Women of England, women, in whatever country ye breathe—wherever ye breathe degraded—awake!” He also called on men to support the women’s cause, calling on them to be consistent and to be rational.
     In 1827, after three years’ work, Thompson published Labour Rewarded as a response to Thomas Hodgskin’s Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital, in which Hodgskin criticised the capitalist system and supported the early formation of trade unions yet defended exploitation through the expropriation of surplus value as the natural order of things and argued that a more competitive system would reduce the exploitation of labourers.
     Labour Rewarded is less theoretical than An Inquiry but builds on its essential principles. This was more of a call to workers to take up the political struggle to build co-operative communities, “to cast aside the little expedients of the day and of the year, and to seek for a radical, permanent cure of the evils that afflict society.”
     Thompson, unlike Owen, believed passionately in democracy, and democratic practice was the key to his vision of co-operatives. It was not good enough to follow blindly the instructions of a patron or sponsor: Thompson extends this beyond the community and on to provincial, state and national legislatures, describing a system of government designed to secure maximum freedom with minimum coercion. For Thompson, laws should be “as mild, simple and as few as possible.”
     Thompson’s final significant work, Practical Directions, is just that: it is a guide to the building of a co-operative community. Thompson had for some time engaged in advocating the establishment of small co-operative farms and communities, sometimes with as few as two hundred participants, with a plan to increase this to two thousand. This was in sharp contrast to Owen’s grander schemes. But Thompson mourned the fact that there were no manuals or guides for families to start from. This he rectified. In 1830 his Practical Directions was published, containing detailed advice on crop rotation, immediate necessary buildings, the size of buildings, long-term structures, and decision-making procedures, adding much to his life’s work in critiquing capitalism.
     Thompson was seeking, as far as was possible, to remove the random element and mistakes from the building of co-operatives and to make the process of establishing a community into a science. But this was not a paradise. Thompson was honest and clear enough to say that this would require hard work and a very meagre standard of living for the early period, only building up its internal resources over time to provide for an easier life and more comforts.
     Unfortunately, efforts to establish sustainable communities along these lines eluded Thompson. His own farm, though run efficiently and a lot fairer than most, did not turn into a co-operative; the Ralahine community in Co. Clare would soon fall to the gambling addiction of its sponsor, John Vandeleur; and Robert Owen’s grander projects would also collapse under the weight of debt.
     The co-operative movement grew and thrived in the form of trading businesses, as opposed to communities, which consequently dampened the radical socialist and democratic edge that Thompson provided. This was arguably to find expression most immediately in the Chartist and trade union movement and then, globally, among the advocates of Marxism.

Death and legacy

William Thompson died on 28 March 1833 at the age of fifty-eight. Unwell but active to the end, he was writing to co-operative journals and friends up to a couple of weeks before his death. Ever the radical, and not afraid to challenge authority, he specified in his will that no priests or religious people were to bury him. This caused consternation at his religious funeral and burial, forced upon his remains by his family.
     Unfortunately, feuds and legal challenges prevented his will from being fully implemented, and so the co-operative movement did not receive the generous bequests he had left it. Some of Thompson’s family succeeded in dragging the will through a lengthy court process, with no real winners.
     William Thompson was truly a remarkable man, a radical and a socialist, as important to political economy as Adam Smith, as important to the co-operative movement as Robert Owen, and without doubt a significant influence on Karl Marx and James Connolly.

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