Thompson, William

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Thompson, William



William Thompson (1775-1833), a British socialist, was born in Cork, Ireland, but exercised his greatest political influence in England, where industrial development was raising new economic and social problems. The most powerful influence on his early writings was Bentham, from whom he derived his underlying utilitarian philosophy. Bentham, he wrote, “had done more for moral science than Bacon did for physical science” by exposing the fallacies of traditional social and political arguments and by relating the actions of both individuals and governments to the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” ([1824] 1963, p. x). The influence of Bentham shaped Thompson’s earliest, biggest, and most important book, An Inquiry Into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth (1824). Thompson’s view of economics, however, diverged sharply from that of Bentham even at this early stage. Thompson was preoccupied with the problem of distribution. He drew a contrast between unequal distribution, under a system of competitive capitalist production, and fair distribution according to labor performed, under a system of cooperative production. He coined many interesting phrases (such as “misery in the midst of all the means of happiness") and touched on a number of original questions of theory (for example, diminishing utility). He saw the problems of economics as the problems of a “system” and incorporated in his analysis an account not only of “social motives” and incentives but of the relationship between cooperative distribution and production.

A second influence on the Inquiry was Robert Owen, who in turn greatly admired Thompson’s work. In the later 1820s, indeed, Thompson became the most powerful Owenite theoretician, drawing Owen himself into socialist argument and working-class politics. Labour Rewarded (1827), a reply to Thomas Hodgskin’s Labour Defended (1825), is specifically Owenite in tone, strongly advocating the creation both of cooperative societies and trade unions. Thompson distrusted the coercive power of the state, fully accepted Owen’s program of community living, and in 1830 published detailed plans with the title Practical Directions for the Establishment of Communities. Yet Thompson’s analysis had more depth than Owen’s, for it passed from the mechanics of community building to a survey of broad trends in social history, an evaluation of rival contemporary philosophies, including utilitarianism and socialism, and a prediction of the shape of the future. He emphasized the facts of “exploitation,” and he anticipated Marx by his use of the term “surplus value” and by his “realistic” approach to problems of class. He held, following James Mill, that public opinion in the past was “the opinion of the influential classes of society.” The rich, “like all other classes in every community,” must “obey the influence of the peculiar circumstances in which they are placed” ([1824] 1963, p. 211). “The Industrious Classes,” however, were “learning their own importance” and would “soon speak out” (1827, pp. 40-41). This was a fair statement of the position in Britain at that time, and Thompson did much to stimulate working-class initiative.

He was present at the Co-operative congresses of 1831 and 1832, advocated the appointment of “Cooperative missionaries” on Saint-Simonian and (later) Chartist lines to spread the gospel, and bequeathed his Irish estate to the Co-operative movement. He recognized the importance of agitation and propaganda among productive laborers as well as “mental labourers, literati and men of science.” He accused Hodgskin of paying too much attention to the latter and quarreled with Owen in 1832 about the paternalist and autocratic elements in Owen’s own plans. In his opposition to Owen he was supported by a majority of Co-operative delegates at the third congress of 1832 (see Co-operative Congress 1832). Although legal difficulties eventually prevented the Co-operators from securing his estate, his intellectual legacy was greatly treasured. The revival of interest in early socialist doctrines in the late nineteenth century led H. S. Foxwell and Anton Menger to proclaim Thompson as “the most eminent founder of scientific Socialism” from whom “the later socialists, the Saint-Simonians, Proudhon, and above all, Marx and Rodbertus, have directly or indirectly drawn their opinions” (Menger [1886] 1962, p. 51).

One other aspect of Thompson’s thought which has historical interest is his passionate championing of the rights of women. His Appeal of One Half the Human Race (1825) has an important place in the literature of female emancipation.

Asa Briggs

[For the historical context of Thompson’s work, see the biographies ofbenthamandowen; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeeconomic thought, article onsocialist thought; and the biographies ofmarx; proudhon; rodbertus.]


(1824) 1963 An Inquiry Into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness. New York: Kelley.

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. London: Longmans.

1827 Labour Rewarded: The Claims of Labour and Capital Conciliated; Or, How to Secure to Labour the Whole Products of Its Exertions. London: Hunt & Clarke.

1830 Practical Directions for the Establishment of Communities. London: Strange.


Co-operative Congress, Third, London, 1832 1832 Proceedings. London: Strange.

Hodgskin, Thomas (1825) 1922 Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital. London: Labour Pub.

Menger, Anton (1886)1962 Right to the Whole Produce of Labour: The Origin and Development of the Theory of Labour’s Claim to the Whole Product of Industry. New York: Kelley. -> First published as Das Recht auf den vollen Arbeitsertrag.

Pankhurst, Richard K. P. 1954 William Thompson: Britain’s Pioneer Socialist, Feminist, and Co-operator. London: Watts.

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