Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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John Atkinson Hobson (1858‒1940)

Although less punctilious in his argumentation than the philosophers we have just discussed, J.A. Hobson was the most original and imaginative of the new liberals of his generation. Hobson was an independent writer and a journalist as well as an influential social critic and economist. He made his name by foreshadowing some of Keynes’ economic theories, and created a notable public impression as a vociferous critic of British imperialism. Both over-saving and the unequal distribution of wealth, Hobson argued, restricted the overall purchasing power of the British people. The poor ended up with insufficient income to survive in dignity and their consequent under-consumption created economic crises as well as personal misery, while the well-to-do accumulated more than they could spend. Imperialism was partly the result of that maldistribution, as financial capitalists and manufacturers turned to overseas outlets for investing their surplus wealth, furthering economic greed, aggression, and militarism, and exploiting the political control of colonies to those purposes.

Hobson’s radicalism, however, was powerfully directed inwards as well as abroad. Through extensive journalistic and lecturing activities, he propagated advanced ideas of social reform, many of which found their way into the ideology and practices of the 20th century British welfare state. As did other liberals, he grappled throughout his life with the balance between the individual and the social nature of human beings. That included the recognition that society too was a maker of values, a producer and a consumer. Hobson subscribed to a more pronounced organic theory of society than that of his colleagues. Venturing beyond the views of his friend Hobhouse, Hobson believed that society had a life and purpose of its own that paralleled those of its members. Yet he was keen to insist that the organic analogy nonetheless reinforced liberal individualism. Only by nourishing the well-being of each individual and securing their opportunities to express themselves through democratic arrangements could the health of the whole be promoted.

Hobson’s striking contribution to liberal thinking is most evident in his The Crisis of Liberalism (1911), which propounded a vision of liberal welfare more advanced than anything achieved to date, and which endorsed the ‘fuller and more positive liberty to which the Liberalism of the future must devote itself.’ The liberal state, he believed, should provide all the necessities that people could not procure for themselves, freeing individuals to develop the creative and individualistic artistic aspect of labour. In a memorable statement Hobson wrote:

Liberalism is now formally committed to a task which certainly involves a new conception of the State in its relation to the individual life and to private enterprise. …From the standpoint which best presents its continuity with earlier Liberalism, it appears as a fuller appreciation and realisation of individual liberty contained in the provision of equal opportunities for self-development. But to this individual standpoint must be joined a just apprehension of the social, viz., the insistence that these claims or rights of self-development be adjusted to the sovereignty of social welfare.

And he elaborated: ‘Free land, free travel, free power, free credit, security, justice and education, no man is “free” for the full purposes of civilised life to-day unless he has all those liberties.’

As did his fellow left-liberals, Hobson was at pains to point out that the new liberalism differed significantly from socialism, both because it rejected universal public ownership and because it rebuffed the mechanical, averaging, and centralizing inclinations socialists were thought to advocate. But the modern study of ideologies now denies the existence of stark and impermeable boundaries between ideologies. The forms of liberalism endorsed in Britain a century ago were broadly speaking social-democratic at their heart. That variant of liberal social-democracy was clearly located within the circle of the great liberal family, even if the intense rivalries between political parties tended to obscure such subtle shadings.

In addition to the four British liberal thinkers, a slight step back in time is necessary to recognize the significant contribution of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) to liberalism. Wollstonecraft was a political essayist, writer, educationalist, and moral philosopher, who believed passionately in human rationality, for which liberty and political rights were essential. Her major input into the incipient liberal tradition was through her famous book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In that volume she argued that women had to be educated to become rational and independent. That would improve their social roles considerably as good wives and mothers as well as citizens. Advanced as it was for her time, 20th century feminists distanced themselves from that traditional role-assignment and from Wollstonecraft’s message for women to emulate men. But Wollstonecraft was a major pioneer of women’s rights and of treating women equally:

Women, I allow, may have different duties to fill, but they are human duties, and the principles that regulate the discharge of them …must be the same. To become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character.

Wollstonecraft concluded: ‘Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man, for she must grow more perfect when emancipated.’

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