Hobson, John Atkinson

Hobson, John Atkinson
   John Hobson, an economist, political commentator, and activist, formulated what has been probably the single most influential theory of imperialism in his volume Imperialism: A Study (1902).
   Hobson was the son of a Derbyshire businessman and newspaper owner. He was educated in Derby and at Lincoln College, Oxford, before becoming a schoolteacher and contributor to his father’s newspaper in the 1880s. In his youth, he was a Liberal Unionist, which is to say an opponent of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill and a supporter of the generally more conservative side of the post-1886 Liberal Party. After the death of his prosperous father, Hobson had a modest private income, which allowed him the freedom to travel and write on social, economic, and political topics. Motivated by a work ethic and perhaps a sense of guilt derived from his northern, middle class but privileged beginnings, Hobson’s lifetime output was prodigious. Peter Cain, one of the foremost Hobson scholars, has gone so far as to say that he wrote too much. From these relatively conservative, middle class beginnings, Hobson, an inveterate questioner of established verities, moved rapidly leftwards. By the late 1880s, Hobson had become one of a number of so-called new Liberals, questioning the earlier dogmas of classical laissez-faire political economy. Motivated by continuing lower class poverty and endemic unemployment, Hobson began to question the idea that the minimally taxed and relatively unregulated free market economy of Gladstonian England would or could provide full employment or economic well-being to the mass of the population. Hobson’s first book, The Physiology of Industry, co-written with his friend the businessman A. F. Mummery and published in 1889, was an attack on the classical economic dogma that production could not outstrip consumption. Contending that the economy as then structured created unusable surpluses of capital in the hands of the rich, Hobson and Mummery argued for taxes on savings and an increase in consumption through a higher minimum wage. They also questioned the fiercely defended dogmas of free trade and called for reductions in working hours and controls on immigration to help raise wages. Hobson did not hold to all these ideas throughout his life, but his lack of faith in the automatic economic balance mechanism of Adam Smith ’s famous “invisible hand,” and his perception that problems of consumption rather than production could be the key to persistent economic imbalances anticipated the insights of John Maynard Keynes a generation later, as Keynes himself recognized. Hobson continued his attack on traditional economics in two subsequent books, Problems of Poverty in 1891 and The Problem of the Unemployed in 1896. Hobson also produced a more conventional, relentlessly empirical, much reprinted, and still quite useful economic history, The Evolution of Modern Capitalism: A Study of Machine Production, in 1894. As the titles of his books indicated, Hobson was centrally concerned with problems of poverty and unemployment. Throughout his life, he evinced a very liberal concern for personal autonomy and for the development of the full potential of each human being. Hobson shared fully the sensibility that had led John Stuart Mill, the central figure in British liberalism, to call for a maximum diversity of “experiments in living.” But Hobson, unlike many liberals, observed that industrial conditions in his society minimized the life choices of many, and arguably most, people, and set about asking why this was. Hobson insisted throughout his career on the social character of human beings and always insisted, with some element of paradox, that the realization of individual potential required an intelligent understanding of the “organic” (one of his favorite words) character of society. Hobson’s attack on classical political economy ran strongly counter to the ingrained ideas of the period, and he never secured fulltime academic employment. As Hobson and Mummery noted, it was at the time considered “positively impious” to question the moral and economic benefits of saving, two categories that ran together in the minds of many Victorians. But despite his attack on these economic dogmas, Hobson always remained a very Victorian man: a deep moral sensibility, and a Gladstonian talent for moral outrage, runs through all his writings. He believed that reason could guide man to a better and more just future. He also believed implicitly that progress toward such a future was the natural direction of history, and so any reversion to earlier, less rational and more coercive social conditions attracted the full weight of his very Victorian moral outrage.
   These moral concerns were evident in his first writing on imperialism, an 1897 article entitled “The Ethics of Imperialism” in the short-lived Progressive Review, a journal he participated in founding. In that article, he compared the ethics of imperialists to those of thieves grabbing as much land and wealth as possible. In 1898, Hobson published an article in the Liberal Contemporary Review linking capital export to imperial expansion. In 1899, Hobson was sent to South Africa, the scene of crises that culminated in the Second Boer War of 1899–1902, as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. A book of essays resulting from that journey, The War in South Africa (1900) developed that moral theme. In 1901, Hobson published a small volume, The Psychology of Jingoism, which analyzed the ideology of imperialism. Hobson synthesized his earlier analyses of the economic distempers of the time, the politics of imperialism in South Africa and elsewhere, and the ideology of imperialism in his volume of 1902.
   Imperialism: A Study was a systematic examination of what Hobson called “the new Imperialism,” by which he meant the rapid expansion of European empires in the previous two or three decades, with particular emphasis on the British Empire. Hobson began by dealing with what were then prominent pro-imperial arguments. He argued that, contrary to the popular late Victorian slogan that “trade follows the flag,” recent imperial acquisitions, largely in Africa, were of little commercial significance. He also argued that such territories were unlikely to support large numbers of British emigrants. The Empire, however, did serve the interests of powerful classes, among them the aristocracy, the related military and diplomatic services, arms makers, and traders with colonial connections, who in alliance with conservative domestic interests had been able to persuade the nation that imperialism served the national interest. In making these charges, Hobson echoed a long tradition of radical complaint that British foreign policy was, in the famous words of John Bright, “neither more nor less than a gigantic program of outdoor relief (Victorian term for welfare) for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”
   But Hobson did not stop there. The decisive factor, “the economic taproot of Imperialism,” as he called it, was the role of investors and speculators in pushing overseas expansion. Here, he came to his particular bête noire, the role of the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company in pushing the expansion of the British Empire in southern Africa and in provoking the Anglo-Boer War. Building on ideas that he had first developed in his books of the previous decade, Hobson argued that the lightly taxed capitalism of his time accumulated surpluses of capital in the hands of the wealthy that could not profitably be invested in the domestic economy. These surpluses were therefore exported, thus creating pressure for imperial expansion to safeguard foreign investments in unstable regions of the globe. There were numerous forces driving the rapid imperial expansion of the time, but Hobson held that financial capital was “the governor of the imperial engine.”
   Rhodes’s South Africa Company, with its vast sovereign holdings in Africa, its control of much of South Africa’s “Rhodesian” press, its prominent aristocratic and Tory government connections, and its dubious stock exchange manipulations, appeared to Hobson and many others to be the epitome of capitalist imperialism. Hobson also pointed to the alleged role of J. P. Morgan and other capitalists in provoking the advent of overseas U.S. imperialism at the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Hobson’s solution to the problem of imperialism and its wars abroad was intelligent redistribution of the nation’s wealth at home, raising working class living standards and thereby diffusing the surpluses of investment capital that were understood to drive imperialism.
   Hobson’s Imperialism did not meet with an immediate success - it was praised in the Liberal and radical press, and ignored in the Tory and imperialist press -but it was reprinted in a slightly revised edition in 1905 and became one of the standard textbooks of anti-imperialism in subsequent years. Lenin drew heavily on Hobson’s Imperialism in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism of 1916, thereby significantly distorting the memory of Hobson’s essential liberalism, and the reformist, social democratic character of his prescriptions, and leaving many to think of Hobson as a proto-Marxist and an economic determinist.
   Hobson’s later works included Towards International Government of 1915, which advocated a variety of liberal internationalism that led to the League of Nations, and he played a role in the antiwar internationalist group the Union of Democratic Control, although he was rapidly disappointed by the reality of the League of Nations. In 1938, Hobson published a brief autobiography, Confessions of an Economic Heretic, which remains among the best sources on his life, and in which he reproved his earlier self for having been too economically deterministic in his Imperialism of 1902. A.J.P. Taylor said of Hobson that, “it was no mean achievement for Hobson to anticipate Keynesian economics with one flick of the wrist and to lay the foundations for Soviet foreign policy with another. No wonder that he never received academic acknowledgment or held a university chair.” Taylor might have added that Hobson also played a large role in framing the liberal internationalism championed by President Woodrow Wilson after 1918. Hobson’s thought was central to both the crusading internationalisms of the twentieth century, the Leninist, and the Wilsonian, and anticipated in many respects that century’s most significant economic innovations.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Cain, P. J. Hobson and Imperialism: Radicalism, New Liberalism, and Finance, 1887–1938. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002;
    Kemp, Tom. Theories of Imperialism. London: Dobson, 1967;
    Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Theories of Imperialism. Translated by P. S. Falla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982;
    Nemmers, Erwin Esser. Hobson and Underconsumption. Clifton, NJ: A. M. Kelly, 1972.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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