John Atkinson Hobson, 1858-1940
John Atkinson Hobson, the economic writer and radical journalist most associated (along with L. T. Hobhouse) with Edwardian New Liberalism was born in Derby on 6 July 1858, the second son of William and Josephine (ne Atkinson) Hobson. William Hobson was the proprietor of the Derbyshire Advertiser, to which his son later contributed, and was twice mayor of Derby during the 1880s. J. A. Hobson was educated at the local grammar school, before winning an open scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read classics and Modern Greats, graduating in 1880. Hobson then embarked on a teaching career in classics, English and economics, married an American woman, Florence Edgar, and eventually settled in London in 1887.
In London Hobson became associated with a progressive radical milieu of Fabians and ethical writers, some of whom joined him in founding a discussion group, the Rainbow Circle, and in establishing a journal, the Progressive Review. His own work remained focused on the critique of classical economics which he had begun in The Physiology of Industry (co-written with A. F. Mummery, 1889), leading to the publication of his The Evolution of Modern Capitalism (1894) and other studies of poverty and unemployment. In this work he began to outline his theory of the maldistribution of wealth, brought about by the surplus savings of the wealthy and the underconsumption of the poor.
But what gave Hobson’s economic views particular originality and edge was his analysis of British imperialism in southern Africa in the 1890s. In 1899 he went as special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian to cover the South African war. Reporting from Johannesburg, Hobson observed that the origins of the war lay in the operations of capitalist financiers, such as Cecil Rhodes, who were using their influence over both the press and the British government. Hobson returned to England with the leading pro-Boer, Cronwright-Schreiner, and the two embarked on a speaking tour of Yorkshire and Scotland. Hobson’s journalism was published in a book form as The War in South Africa (1900) and he attracted the notice and praise of the pro-Boer element in the Liberal Party. But Hobson himself saw the war and the rough treatment meted out to pro-Boers in Britain as an indictment of the imperialism of the age, and he launched a full-scale assault on it in two works: The Psychology of Jingoism (1901) and Imperialism: A Study (1902), the latter probably the best-known and most influential of all his works, V. I. Lenin being amongst its devotees. In these studies Hobson not only identified the economic tap-root of imperialism, but also described the atavistic and autocratic political culture by which it was accompanied.
Hobson’s solution to the jingoism and illiberalism which loomed so large at the turn of the century was a rejuvenated ethical liberal politics. In time this creed became known as New Liberalism, and was to be found not only in Hobson’s writings throughout the 1900s – in the Manchester Guardian, the Tribune, the Nation and above all in his book, The Crisis of Liberalism (1909) – but also in the work of L. T. Hobhouse and many other academics, journalists, politicians and philanthropists within and on the fringes of the Edwardian Liberal Party. In Hobson’s case there was much old radicalism – free trade, parliamentary reform, secular education – to his support for the Liberal Party. But unusually for a progressive thinker Hobson also embraced evolutionist or organicist ideas about the nature of the relationship between the individual and the society, believing that the two could only progress symbiotically, and for this the active intervention of the state in areas such as pensions and poverty was required. The extent to which the Asquithian Cabinet was influenced by all this is debatable, but some measure of Hobson’s standing was indicated by the possibility that he was amongst Asquith’s candidates for new peers during the constitutional crisis of 1910-11.
Hobson’s liberalism took a severe blow with the onset of the First World War. Not only did the war shatter the prospects for the internationalism and peaceful arbitration which he had supported for the previous decade, but the wartime cabinet split between Asquith and Lloyd George weakened his faith in the Liberal Party. He was one of the driving forces behind the Union of Democratic Control during the war, and he increasingly moved in the direction of the Labour Party. Hobson stood unsuccessfully as an Independent candidate for the Combined Universities seat in the 1918 general election, and joined the Independent Labour Party shortly after. He served on various think-tanks within the ILP during the 1920s, on international relations and on wage reform, and he gave expert evidence to the 1919 Sankey Commission on the coal industry (recommending nationalisation) and to the 1924 Colwyn Committee on the national debt and taxation. As he aged, Hobson’s journalism became more infrequent, but conversely his intellectual influence grew. J. M. Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) acknowledged a debt to Hobson’s theory of underconsumption. He died in 1940, aged eighty-one.
For an excellent short overview of Hobson’s life and work, see the entry by A. J. Lee in the Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol. 1. There are good full-length studies by John Allett (1981) and Jules Townshend (1990). A wide-ranging collection featuring many of the key contributors to Hobson studies in the last two decades is Michael Freeden (ed.), Reappraising J. A. Hobson: Humanism and Warfare (1990).
Miles Taylor was a Lecturer in Modern History at King’s College, London at the time of writing this piece. He is the author of The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-60 (1995), editor of The European Diaries of Richard Cobden, 1846-49 (1994) and co-editor of Party, State and Society: Electoral Behaviour in Britain since 1820 (1997).