Reappraising J.A. Hobson: Humanism and Welfare

Reappraising J.A. Hobson: Humanism and Welfare

Reappraising J.A. Hobson: Humanism and Welfare

Reappraising J.A. Hobson: Humanism and Welfare


J. A. Hobson was one of the most influential social, economic and political theorists of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. In this volume, first published in 1990, eight scholars reassess the importance and relevance of his work today and affirm him as a major British thinker.

These original studies place Hobson in context by explaining his intellectual antecedents: Cobden, Ruskin, nineteenth-century social and psychological theories and economic thought. The book provides an overview of the novelty and incisiveness of Hobson's contribution to British liberal theory and radical practice.

Historians, economists, social and political theorists and students of international affairs will find this an important book for a fuller understanding of early twentieth-century British progressive thought.


‘Humanism is the best word for expressing the attitude of J.A.Hobson and the spirit which animated his work’, wrote his good friend Cecil Delisle Burns when John Atkinson Hobson died in 1940. Yet, as Burns went on to observe, this was not the humanism of the learned scholar delving into past works and bygone traditions. Indeed, though Hobson was the product of an Oxford education, inclination and circumstances conspired to exclude him from the potential bookishness of an academic world that refused him entry at an early stage of his career. In many ways, then, Hobson was an autodidact like his early inspirer and Derby fellow-townsman, Herbert Spencer. A relentless curiosity, a wide range of interests and a life of journalism combined to propel Hobson into areas that universities would not have opened up for him: an ethical critique of political economy, a reformulation of liberal ideology, a holistic view of the pursuit of social knowledge. When Hobson described himself as an economic heretic, he was both indicating his departure from the orthodox canons of economics as practised at the end of the nineteenth century, and reflecting a pervading—if non-intrusive—resentment over his persistent rejection by the appointed guardians of secular knowledge.

The publication of this collection of essays is part of a recent process of rectifying that intellectual injustice, of reinstating that self-proclaimed heretic in his rightful place as a major originator of British welfare thought, a progressive thinker whose influence in a variety of fields has only been properly identified’ over the past twenty years. If it was ‘characteristic of Hobson that he did not know how great his own influence was’, it has far too long been the case that others have shared in that ignorance. Not that Hobson remained unknown either during his life or after his death. His place in history was assured early on as a trenchant critic of imperialism, and historians of empire have kept his reputation alive ever since the publication of Imperialism: A Study in 1902. His role as economic theorist—in particular as a vigorous articulator of underconsumptionist notions—is more difficult to assess, since social thinkers and reformers were on the whole more impressed with his views than were professional economists, not the least Keynes, whose famous acknowledgement in The General Theory of Hobson’s trail-blazing was hedged with disclaimers about the latter’s insights and analytical accuracy, as Peter Clarke

1 C.D.Burns, ‘J.A.Hobson: The humanist’, South Place Monthly List (May 1940), p. 3.

2 Thus the title of Hobson’s autobiography Confessions of an Economic Heretic (London, 1938).

3 See especially, J.Allett, New Liberalism. The Political Economy of J.A.Hobson (Toronto, 1981) For a short general introduction to Hobson see M.Freeden (ed.), J.A. Hobson. A Reader (London, 1988), pp. 1–27

4 C.Delisle Burns, ‘J.A.Hobson’, New Statesman and Nation, 6 April 1940.

5 See B.Porter, Critics of Empire (London, 1968), for a pioneering analysis of the connection between Hobson’s imperialism and his general radical and ethical beliefs.

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