John A. Hobson

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John A. Hobson
Born 6 July 1858
Derby, England
Died 1 April 1940(1940-04-01) (aged 81)
Hampstead, London, England
Nationality British
Field Imperialism, poverty, unemployment
Contributions Theory of underconsumption

John Atkinson Hobson (commonly known as John A. Hobson or J. A. Hobson; 6 July 1858 – 1 April 1940), was an English economist, social scientist and critic of imperialism, widely popular as a lecturer and writer.


Hobson was born in Derby,[1] the son of William Hobson, "a rather prosperous newspaper proprietor",[2] and Josephine Atkinson. He was the brother of the mathematician Ernest William Hobson. He studied at Derby School and Lincoln College, Oxford, afterwards teaching classics and English literature at schools in Faversham and Exeter.

When Hobson relocated to London during 1887, England was in the midst of a major economic depression. While classical economics was at a loss to explain the vicious business cycles, London had many societies that proposed alternatives. While living in London, Hobson was exposed to the Social Democrats and Henry Mayers Hyndman, Christian Socialists, and Henry George's Single-tax system. He befriended several of the prominent Fabians who would initiate the London School of Economics, some of whom he had known at Oxford.[3] However, none of these groups proved persuasive enough for Hobson; rather it was his collaboration with a friend, the famous businessman and mountain climber Albert F. Mummery, that would produce Hobson's contribution to economics: the theory of underconsumption. First described by Mummery and Hobson in the 1889 book Physiology of Industry, underconsumption was a scathing criticism of Say's law and classical economics' emphasis on thrift. The forwardness of the book's conclusions discredited Hobson among the professional economics community. Ultimately he was excluded from the academic community.

During the very late 19th century his notable works included Problems of Poverty (1891), Evolution of Modern Capitalism (1894), Problem of the Unemployed (1896) and John Ruskin: Social Reformer (1898). They developed Hobson's famous critique of the classical theory of rent and his proposed generalization anticipated the Neoclassical "marginal productivity" theory of distribution.

Soon after this period Hobson was recruited by the editor of the newspaper The Manchester Guardian to be their South African correspondent. During his coverage of the Second Boer War, Hobson began to form the idea that imperialism was the direct result of the expanding forces of modern capitalism. He believed the mine owners, with Cecil Rhodes, who wanted control of the Transvaal, in the vanguard, were manipulating the British into fighting the Boers so that they could maximize their profits from mining.[4] His return to England was marked by his strong condemnation of the conflict.

His publications during the next few years demonstrated an exploration of the associations between imperialism and international conflict. These works included War in South Africa (1900) and Psychology of Jingoism (1901). In what is arguably his magnum opus, Imperialism (1902), he espoused the opinion that imperial expansion is driven by a search for new markets and investment opportunities overseas. Imperialism gained Hobson an international reputation, and influenced such notable people as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Hobson wrote for several other journals before writing his next major work, The Industrial System (1909). In this tract he argued that maldistribution of income resulted, through oversaving and underconsumption, in unemployment and that the remedy was in eradicating the "surplus" by the redistribution of income by taxation and the nationalization of monopolies.

Hobson's opposition to the First World War caused him to join the Union of Democratic Control. His advocacy for the formation of a world political body to prevent wars can be found clearly in his piece Towards International Government (1914). However, he was staunchly opposed to the League of Nations.

During 1919 Hobson joined the Independent Labour Party. This was soon followed by writings for socialist publications such as the New Leader, the Socialist Review and the New Statesman. During this period it became clear that Hobson favoured capitalist reformation over communist revolution. He was a notable critic of the Labour Government of 1929.

During the later years of his life, Hobson published his autobiography, Confessions of an Economic Heretic (1938).

Commentary on Hobson

R. H. Tawney wrote the following in The Acquisitive Society (1920):

The greater part of modern property has been attenuated to a pecuniary lien or bond on the product of industry which carries with it a right to payment, but which is normally valued precisely because it relieves the owner from any obligation to perform a positive or constructive function. Such property may be called passive property, or property for acquisition, for exploitation, or for power... It is questionable, however, whether economists shall call it "Property" at all, and not rather, as Mr. Hobson has suggested, "Improperty," since it is not identical with the rights which secure the owner the produce of his toil, but is opposite of them.

V.I. Lenin, in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) – which was probably his most influential work on later Marxian scholarship – made use of Hobson's Imperialism extensively, remarking in the preface "I made use of the principal English work, Imperialism, J. A. Hobson's book, with all the care that, in my opinion, that work deserves." In the work itself – despite disagreeing with Hobson's liberal politics – Lenin repeatedly cites Hobson's interpretation of imperialism approvingly; for example:

We see that Kautsky, while claiming that he continues to advocate Marxism, as a matter of fact takes a step backward compared with the social-liberal Hobson, who more correctly takes into account two “historically concrete” ... features of modern imperialism: (1) the competition between several imperialisms, and (2) the predominance of the financier over the merchant.


Later historians would attack Hobson, and the Marxist theories of imperialism he influenced. Notably, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their 1953 article The Imperialism of Free Trade would argue that Hobson placed too much emphasis on the role of formal empire and directly ruled colonial possessions, not taking into account the significance of trading power, political influence and informal imperialism. They also argued that the difference in British foreign policy that Hobson observed between the mid-19th century indifference to empire that accompanied free market economics, and the later intense imperialism after 1870, was not a reality.

Book-length works

See also

References and sources

  1. John A. Hobson: Critical assessment of leading Economists. Edited by Robert D. and John C. Wood. 2003 Taylor and Francis. ISBN 0-415-31066-0 p. 137
  2. Hobson, Lenin and anti-Imperialism , presented by Tristram Hunt, BBC Radio 3, 6 March 2011
  3. Coats, Alfred William (1993) [1967]. "Alfred Marshall and the Early Development of the London School of Economics". The sociology and professionalization of economics. 2. Routledge. p. 195. Retrieved 5 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Hobson, Lenin and anti-Imperialism, Radio 3, 6 March 2011
  5. J.A. Hobson: Imperialism, A Study (1902) at
  • Simkin, John. "J. A. Hobson".
  • Allett, John "New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J. A. Hobson"
  • Hobson, John Atkinson (1858–1940), social theorist and economist by Michael Freeden in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace, Oxford University Press (2006).
  • Keynes, John Maynard, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) Macmillan & Co.
  • Hobson is also referred to in the song "Light Pollution" by popular American folk band Bright Eyes which opens with the lines "John A. Hobson was a good man, he used to lend me books and mic stands, he even got me a subscription to the socialist review."

External links