Book Review from the June 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard
“William Thompson (1775-1833), Britain’s Pioneer Socialist, Feminist, and Co-operator,” by Richard K. P. Pankhurst (Watts & Co. 15s.)
Is it possible to establish Socialism in one part of the world whilst the remainder stays predominantly capitalist? That question is right in the forefront to-day. One hundred and thirty years ago the topical question was, "Is it possible to establish Socialism in one part of the country whilst Capitalism prevails in the remainder?” The change in the form of this question since the early days of the last century, gives a clue to its answer. The development of Capitalism, with the close knitting together of all the corners of the earth, has caused men to leave behind the parochial outlook of the 1820’s as they will ultimately discard their present nationalist one.
The Socialism of first half of the nineteenth century was a different proposition to the Socialism that we expound to-day. Marx and Engels labelled it “Utopian Socialism.” The amount of literature that the Utopian Socialists turned out and the general extent of their propaganda was astounding. They developed some fantastic pictures of a future society and planned to set up Co-operative communities in various parts of this country, anticipating that these communities would eventually squeeze capitalism out of existence. Such ideas were the product of the early days of industrial capitalism and denote the immaturity of the working class of the time.
But the propaganda of the “Utopians” had a very useful critical element. They attacked every principle and institution of capitalist society and the ideas they propounded were instrumental in forming and clarifying the thinking of their successors, including Marx and Engels.
The foremost names amongst the “Utopians” are St. Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen. But one of the most able and energetic propagandists of the time was William Thompson, an Irish landowner, who devoted his life to the movement.
“William Thompson (1775-1833), Britain’s Pioneer Socialist, Feminist, and Co-operator,” by Richard K. P. Pankhurst, has been published by Watts & Co. at 15s.
Mr. Pankhurst traces the life of Thompson from his birth in Cork in 1775 to his death on 28th March, 1833, at Rosscarbery and in doing so he introduces us to the personalities, the arguments and the struggles of the first co-operative societies. Thompson is shown to be an outstanding thinker of his day and the evidence is presented in the numerous and illuminating quotes from his works that sprinkle the pages of this book. Thompson’s main writings were four books, “An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth ” (1824), “Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretentions of the Other Half, Men, to Restrain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery” (1825), “Labour Rewarded—the Claims of Labour and Capital Conciliated; or How to Secure to Labour the Whole Product of its Exertions” (1827) and, finally, “Practical Directions for the Speedy and Economical Establishment of Communities, on the Principle of Mutual Co-operation, United Possessions and Equality of Exertions and of the Means of Enjoyment” (1830).
The extracts from these works indicate that Thompson was in advance of other prominent economists and philosophers of his time—such as James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Robert Owen. He was the only one of the “ Utopian Socialists ” who clearly saw the class division of society, the need for the abolition of property and, especially, the need for political action on the part of the workers.
The final chapters of Mr. Pankhurst’s book are devoted to showing the influence that Thompson had on his contemporaries and successors, in particular on Karl Marx. The author quotes many sources from individuals who have claimed at one extreme that Marx absorbed Thompson’s ideas, lock, stock and barrel, to the other extreme that Thompson had but a fleeting influence on Marx. Probably the most level statement is one attributed to Schumpeter:
"The Socialist thinkers of the nonage provided many a brick and many a tool that proved useful later on. After all, the very idea of a Socialist society was their creation, and it was owing to their efforts that Marx and his contemporaries were able to discuss it as a thing familiar to everyone. Many of the Utopians went much farther. They worked out details of the Socialist plan, thereby formulating problems—however inadequately— and clearing much ground. Even their contribution to purely economic analysis cannot be neglected. It provided a much needed leaven in an otherwise stodgy pudding and stood Marx in good stead.”
We can commend Mr. Pankhurst’s book. It has involved a lot of research and is interestingly written, presenting a heap of information in a pleasurable style. We would suggest that a preliminary reading of Frederick Engels, “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” and “The Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels will ensure that the reader gets this life of William Thompson in perfect perspective.