William Thompson (1775 - 1833) - Introduction to the writings of William Thompson


William Thompson was one of the of the first people to critically engage with political economy and attempt to turn it around to defend the improvement of the condition of the working class and rural poor. He was from a Anglo- Irish landowning family from West Cork and was to become a leading figure in the early Co-operative movement.


Extracts from the works of William Thompson (1775 - 1833)

During the nine years from 1824 to the year of his death, William Thompson published four major books, spoke at innumerable public meetings and had many articles published in Co-operative movement periodicals. The task of making the full extent of his works available online is ongoing. In the meantime here are three short selections from his work.

Inquiry: Preliminary Observations

The first piece is the "Preliminary Observations" the introduction to his first, and possibly most important book, the lengthily entitled "An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to The Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth" of 1824. It is this work of which the anarchist historian Max Nettlau remarks: "[this] book, however, discloses his own evolution; having started with a demand for the full product of labour as well as the regulation of distribution, he ended up with his own conversion to communism, that is, unlimited distribution". This preface piece shows signs of being originally written before his own conversion to communist distribution with supplemental additions after that change. In it Thompson lays out his approach of applying the critical method of utilitarianism - the re-examination of all social institutions with an atheist skepticism of all received truths, judging outcomes on the basis of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" - to the theories of Political Economy. It is a measure of the success of Thompson's approach of using one theoretical pillar of the liberal intelligentsia, utilitarianism, to deconstruct the bourgeois prejudices of their political economy, that John Stuart Mill's "Principles of Political Economy", a work that became the accepted handbook on the subject for a generation, concedes many of the basic points of Thompson's critique in the first chapter of Book II, Distribution, of that work. In passing it is worth mentioning Thompson's introduction of the term "social science" as a name for his approach, a term he takes from the French enlightenment philosophe Condorcet but here introduces into the English language for possibly the first time in print.

Inquiry: Chapter 5

The second piece is the crucial fifth chapter of the Inquiry. This is the turning point of the book where Thompson accepts that his original project of creating a liberatory economics on the basis of classical liberalism, albeit taken far further than any previous exponent had dared, had been overtaken by an acceptance of the limits of even the most perfected system of "free" exchange. This chapter starts with an admission that he has dumped the previous written version for this new departure. In passing he gives the section headings for the original text, covering the demands necessary for the achievement of his original goal of "free exchange". These are notable for the contrast between some fairly innocuous reforms, long since achieved, to others such as the abolishing of inheritance both of property and political title or power, that would still be regarded as transcending liberal possibilism today. However, the crucial section of this chapter (and to a certain extent the whole book) is his dissection of the faults of even the most perfected system of exchange. His seminal framework of 5 points (in fact it is arguable that the last point combines two separate issues) is still capable of enriching contemporary critique of exchange, despite the datedness of some of the problems which have to some extent been mitigated in the intervening 180 or so years by the gains of workers' and women's struggles and the subsequent development of consumer capitalism and the welfare state.

Practical Directions: Explanation of Leading Terms

The third extract is from the opening of Thompson's last book before his untimely death, "Practical Directions for the Speedy and Economical Establishment of Communities, on the Principles of Mutual Co-operation, United Possessions and Equality" of 1830. In the main was a practical "build your own community" manual and the bulk of it was taken up with practical matters. However the necessity of squeezing in a summary of the political and economic bases of the projected community, means that this "Explanation of Leading Terms" at the beginning of the work remains the most abbreviated version of his analysis available.

Finally a note should be made that in the above extracts Thompson's original spellings and punctuation have been retained which may be a little different to the ones current in modern English (whether of the British or American variants) and may look a little odd to our eyes today. It should also be said that many of the modern commentators on Thompson have complained of his overly wordy style and his tendency to thrash each individual point like a dog worrying a bone, to the point of his exhaustive treatment often becoming exhausting to read. They have a point, as anyone reading even the short extracts above will attest. On the other hand, its notable that the compressed nature of the final extract above loses a lot in explanatory power compared to the exploratory thoroughness of the Inquiry, visible even in the relatively short chapter 5 above. In the end it can be argued that the relentlessness of his method, which resulted in the barrier to the widespread popular dissemination of his ideas in his own lifetime, have resulted in the depth of insight that give elements of his ideas and critique relevance that continues to this day.

See also the wikipedia article on Thompson

Audio download introduction to Thompson from the 2007 Anarchist Bookfair. The speaker is Paul Bowman, the download is 9.1 mb MP3 file and just over 41 minutes in