Portrait of W. Thompson by George Chinnery, c. 1830
30 June 1775|
|Died||28 March 1833
Rosscarbery, County Cork, Ireland
William Thompson (1775 – 28 March 1833) was an Irish political and philosophical writer and social reformer, developing from utilitarianism into an early critic of capitalist exploitation whose ideas influenced the Cooperative, Trade Union and Chartist movements as well as Karl Marx. Born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy of wealthy landowners and merchants of Cork society, his attempt to will his estate to the cooperative movement after his death sparked a long court case as his family fought successfully to have the will annulled. According to E. T. Craig, this decision to will his estate to the cooperative movement was taken after a visit to the pioneering Ralahine Commune.
Born in Cork, William was the son and heir of one of the most prosperous merchants of that city, Alderman John Thompson, who held, amongst other offices, that of Mayor in 1794. William inherited the small trading fleet and landed estate near Glandore, West Cork after his father's death in 1814. Rejecting the role of absentee landlord commonly led by those of a similar situation, William based his living quarters on the estate and despite many travels, invested much time with the tenants on the estate introducing agricultural innovations, services and education for children aimed at improving the welfare and prosperity of the families present.
Victim of weak health from an early age, Thompson became a non-smoker, teetotaller and vegetarian for the last 13 years of his life. These abstemious habits, he explained, helped him to concentrate on his reading and writing. Nonetheless, by the 1830s, he was suffering from a chest affliction that finally killed him on 28 March 1833. He had never married and left no direct heir.
An enthusiastic student of the writers and ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly Condorcet, Thompson became a convinced egalitarian and democrat. His support for the French Revolution earned him the label of "Red Republican" from Cork society and his support for advocates of Catholic emancipation in elections further alienated him from the rest of his wealthy Protestant kith and kin.
Thompson was greatly impressed by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, with whom he corresponded and established a friendship, later staying at the English philosopher's house for several months in 1821–22 while visiting London. As well as Bentham, Thompson read and corresponded with other utilitarian contemporaries such as James Mill, and was influenced, both positively and negatively, by William Godwin and Thomas Malthus. His desire to overcome the limitations of Godwin's "intellectual speculations" and Malthus's "mechanical speculations" led him to propose a new synthesis: social science – Thompson was the first to introduce this term – which would combine political economy's concern with scientific materialism with utilitarianism's concern with rational morality.
It was the contrasting ideas of Godwin and Malthus that spurred Thompson into the project of research into the role of distribution in political economy that led him to London and, in 1824, the publication of "An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth..." (see biblio. for full title). Thompson had also become acquainted with the work of the French utopian socialists including Charles Fourier, Henri Saint-Simon, and the economist Sismondi.
In the Inquiry, Thompson follows the line of the labour theory of value put forward by Adam Smith. However he characterizes the appropriation of the lion's share of surplus value by the capitalist owner of the tools of production as exploitation. He rejects the Malthus/Mill proposition that any increase in the wage of the workers can only result in their further immiseration, noting the self-serving nature of this theory for capitalists pressing for legislation to outlaw workers efforts to raise their wages. By applying the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" to the existing and possible alternative schemes of distribution, Thompson comes down on the side of an egalitarian distribution of the product.
One of Thompson's colleagues in the Cooperative movement, John Minter Morgan, made the observation that he was the first to coin the term competitive to describe the existing economic system. The case for the originality of this work is further made by Max Nettlau who states: "[Thompson's] book, however, discloses his own evolution; having started with a demand for the full product of labour as well as the regulation of distribution, he ended up with his own conversion to communism, that is, unlimited distribution."
In 1827 fellow "Ricardian socialist" Thomas Hodgskin published Labour Defended which also characterised the appropriation of the lion's share of the fruits of production by landlord and capitalist as exploitation defrauding the worker of the full product of their labour. However, Hodgskin proposed that the road to economic justice for the labourer was through a reformed competitive system. Thompson replied with Labor Rewarded defending cooperative communism against Hodgskin's unequal wages.
Although he rejected the political and economic implications of Malthus' essay on population, Thompson recognised that, particularly in Ireland, unrestrained population growth did pose the threat of rising poverty. As such he was like Bentham and Francis Place an advocate of the benefits of contraception. Thompson's development of a critique of the contemporary status of women was most strongly influenced by his long-term close friendship with Anna Wheeler. He had met Wheeler while staying with Bentham and they moved in those utilitarian circles that included James Mill. It was the publication of the latter's "On Government" which called for the vote for men only, that aroused the fervent opposition of both Wheeler and Thompson and to the rebuttal in Appeal of One Half the Human Race... (see Bibliography for full title).
Thompson and others of the Cooperative movement have tended to be somewhat unfairly subsumed under the political label of Owenism. In fact, although his writings and social experiments at New Lanark had helped to bring the cooperative movement together, many, Thompson included, were critical of Owen's authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies. Thompson further distrusted Owen's courtship of rich and powerful patrons, believing that the rich as a class could never be expected to be in favour of any project of emancipation for the labouring poor as this would threaten their privilege. He also believed in the necessity of the workers in any co-operative community having eventual security of ownership of the community's land and capital property. He gained a considerable following within the cooperative movement for these positions and it was to distinguish themselves from Owen's positions that this wing of the movement began to adopt the label of "socialist or communionist" (Letter to "The Cooperative Magazine", London, November 1827, cited by OED as first documented use of socialist) rather than "Owenist".
These differences led to open confrontation between Thompson and Owen at the Third Cooperative Congress held in 1832 in London. Owen, perhaps discouraged by the failure of his attempted community at New Harmony, maintained that it was necessary to wait for Government and Stock Exchange support and investment into large scale communities. Thompson and his supporters contended that they must move towards establishing independent small scale communities based on the movement's own resources. The argument was not resolved at that congress and by the following one Thompson was unable to attend probably as a result of the illness that was to lead to his death in another five months.
Karl Marx had come across Thompson's work on a visit to Manchester in 1845, and cites it in passing in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), and also in Capital itself. However, the same can be said of other of the proto-socialist political economists, such as Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray, and John Francis Bray. It seems surprising then, that the likes of Beatrice and Sidney Webb would characterise Marx as "the illustrious disciple" of Thompson and Hodgskin. Sentiments also echoed by the likes of Harold Laski and other British historians of socialism. In this they were accepting the earlier thesis in Anton Menger's Right to the Whole Produce of Labour (1899), amalgamating all the aforementioned into a homogeneous category of Ricardian socialists which obscured the important differences between Thompson's communist critique of Hodgskin's "market libertarian" position.