A book review of Classical Liberalism and the Industrial Working Class: The Economic Thought of Thomas Hodgskin by Alberto Mingardi.
The legacy of English journalist and “self‐taught economist”Thomas Hodgskin (1787–1869) naturally lends itself to scholarly debate: a principled defender of labor and an opponent of capitalism, he was at the same time a radical champion of free‐market competition and the rights of the individual, consistently opposing state power and intervention in all areas of social and economic life.
In Alberto Mingardi’s latest book, Classical Liberalism and the Industrial Working Class: The Economic Thought of Thomas Hodgskin, the political historian undertakes to shed new light on this “largely unknown figure.” It may come as something of a surprise to libertarians that Hodgskin is so unsung in the halls of higher learning. Mingardi’s book is a welcome entry, perhaps the most thorough yet, in a catalog of works that have set out to position Hodgskin more firmly in a current of classical liberalism and free‐market economic thought running from Adam Smith through Friedrich Hayek—and, concomitantly, more firmly in the libertarian pantheon. This project is worthwhile and important both because Hodgskin has generally been neglected, treated as a marginal figure, and because he may be best known for his influence on Karl Marx, who rather famously expressed his admiration for Hodgskin. This association with Marx and the regrettable attachment to Hodgskin of the “Ricardian Socialist” label are facially misleading, obscuring the true character of Hodgskin’s thought.
Mingardi’s excellent work goes a long way toward correcting the record. Mingardi’s book at once finds a place among the most vital and interesting works on Hodgskin, demonstrating an impressive knowledge of the existing Hodgskin literature, the relevant primary materials, and the fascinating connections between the various political and economic ideas swirling around Hodgskin during his lifetime. In its careful treatment of these ideas, Mingardi’s reconsideration of Hodgskin also has the effect of further bolstering the argument that the existing left‐right paradigm and its classifications and terminologies are confusing and contain layers of equivocations that almost always go unaddressed, rendering exchanges that rely heavily on these left‐and‐right categories practically meaningless (or at least seriously debilitated). Of this proposition, Hodgskin offers an especially fascinating case study.
 In their book, Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation: A Theory of Discourse Failure, Guido Pincione and Fernando R. Tesón discuss the lack of clarity around the words “left” and “right” in political discourse. They note, for example, that while the term “left‐wing” could signal simply a commitment to equality, it may also express “a commitment to various forms of government interference.” Thus, it is not clear how the term “left‐wing” applies to the case of one like Hodgskin, who happens to believe that free markets, individual rights, private property, and a radical reduction in the size and power of government will serve equality as a practical matter (that is, will effect egalitarian outcomes). Pincione and Tesón suggest that by making the endorsement of government intervention a necessary condition of membership in their community, leftists are “attempt[ing] to bypass causal analysis,” ignoring the relationship between their preferred policies and specific underlying values. I discuss this, the widespread phenomenon of ignoring causal analysis, here and elsewhere.
Left or Right?
Writing of Hodgskin and William Thompson, the economic historian E.K. Hunt observed that they “are nearly always pictured as precursors of Marx.” In her oft‐cited work, The Ricardian Socialists, Esther Lowenthal describes David Ricardo as “the dominant figure” among those holding the labor theory of value as a common doctrine, arguing that Hodgskin anticipated Marx in making this theory “the foundation of socialism.” Although work in more recent decades has revised this account of Hodgskin as a Ricardian Socialist, noting his similarities to Smith and even attempting to divert undue attention from Hodgskin’s theory of economic value altogether, for long years the characterization stuck to Hodgskin. As for Hodgskin himself, Mingardi notes that he never called himself a socialist, which term was in its nonage during Hodgskin’s most active period. And whatever his influence, Hodgskin did not see himself as Ricardo’s follower. Hodgskin even wrote, in an 1820 letter to Francis Place—a mentor and important figure in his life—that he disliked Ricardo’s opinions “because they go to justify the present political situation of society,” a complaint very often aimed at defenders of the free market today. Marx would echo Hodgskin’s complaint when he argued that the “bourgeois economists” had set about “to construct apologetics for the existing economic relations.”
Hodgskin’s thought suggests, in any case, that we should be cautious in handling labels and terms. Debates about who was or wasn’t a “socialist,” for example, quickly descend into circularity and futility if we overemphasize the labels applied to ideas at the expense of the ideas themselves. In opening his discussion of whether Hodgskin was a Ricardian Socialist, Mingardi offers a lesson that one wishes were applied more frequently and scrupulously:
Words, in politics, come and go—and so do their meanings. In endeavoring to understand thinkers who used a vocabulary that is now long past, it is wise to base our conclusions about their ideology on the ideas they expressed about specific issues rather than rely on labels by others or even by themselves.
David Stack contends that “[i]f Hodgskin was any kind of socialist it was a ‘vulgar socialist,’” by which Stack means that, unlike other socialists (those, perhaps, in the socialist main current), Hodgskin accepted “bourgeois morality.” Free trade and free markets were natural law, aspects of “God’s order” that were corrupted and deranged by positive law creating privilege for the few, misery and want for the many. In presenting this kind of “vulgar socialism,” Hodgskin clearly prefigures later thinkers who similarly align free‐market competition with distinctly pro‐labor and anti‐capitalist positions—thinkers with whom today’s libertarians may be more familiar (for example, Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker). Notwithstanding contemporary libertarians’ odd attachment to the term “capitalism,” Hodgskin’s thought suggests (if indeed it doesn’t prove) that there is no necessary connection between the defense of individual rights and free markets, as ordinarily understood by libertarians, and capitalism—at least not if capitalism is “defined as a construed political system built on privileges for the owners of capital,” its older, better definition.
Capitalism and Hodgskin’s Class Theory
As Mingardi explains, “In Hodgskin’s view, unjust social regulations allow income and capital to be remunerated in addition to labor.” In Hodgskin, as in Smith, it is not the state that protects the poor worker from the avaricious capitalist, but the state that protects capital’s pride of place, its undeserved, unearned power over the worker. To this point, Mingardi cites Smith: “we have no act of Parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it.” Mingardi goes on to note that “Adam Smith was perceived by his contemporaries as ‘a friend of the poor.’”
For Hodgskin, capitalism was “a historical accident” and “the result of conquest,” ultimately incapable of undermining “the natural equilibrium of economic phenomena.” Rent and profit were not economic phenomena, naturally and necessarily created by relationships and exchanges within a free market; rather they were political in character, “represent[ing] merely a tribute paid by producers to those who have coercive power over them,” much like taxes. Stack summarizes: “All power relations in society were rooted in law, a hangover of artifice, not a necessary concomitant of the mode of production.” Socialists, then, were mistaken to attack laissez‐faire, regarding it as the source of labor’s woes. In fact, Hodgskin contended, the power, position, and unearned income of idle capitalists were results of definite legal and political systems. Hodgskin argued that labor stood to benefit tremendously from the gradual and quiet repeal of all existing laws, that society would be more prosperous without the lawmaker or the tax‐gatherer.
Mingardi gives us a clear, comprehensive account of Hodgskin’s conception of capital: for Hodgskin, capital is a social and political phenomenon rather than an economic one; capital and capitalism are socially constructed, as nature applies these names to nothing. Indeed, Mingardi quotes John Lalor’s claim that Hodgskin offers the “the first clear conception of capital as power distinct from the possession of commodities.” Capital is the creation of power, artfully fashioned by capitalists in their own interests, an insult to the liberal principles of free trade and free association, designed by the idle rich to allow them to live parasitically on productive labor. Mingardi thus shows that Hodgskin developed a free‐market class analysis, focused on the connection between exploitation and political power. Here, Mingardi helpfully points the reader to Ralph Raico’s important work on classical liberal class theory, as well as to a recent collection, Social Class and State Power, that includes a selection from Hodgskin. While Hodgskin’s vindications of labor and blows against capitalist privilege undoubtedly make him a pioneer of class theory, Mingardi shows that he did not see economic classes as locked in permanent or inescapable antagonism. Mingardi is also careful to point out that Hodgskin was never among those critics of industrial capitalism who saw a necessary conflict between “machinery and human labor.” He rather contends that in “natural society,” characterized by mutually‐beneficial trade from which all profit, “no classes have adverse interests.” Further, in such a society, the application of ingenuity and machine power could only enrich labor. To such a natural society Hodgskin contrasts “political society,” in which the few rule over the many, creating artificial rights and privileges for those close to the centers of political power. He looked forward to a time when “all the families of mankind [would be] knit by the common bond of commerce into one.” These are familiar libertarian themes. Mingardi’s book thus illuminates the connection—so widely forgotten or misunderstood today—between the liberalism of free‐traders like Richard Cobden and others and the radically pro‐labor, arguably socialist positions of Hodgskin.
Hodgskin’s Connections to Other Thinkers
If Hodgskin never described himself as a socialist, then he likewise never referred to himself as an anarchist, though he has been described retrospectively as such (as everything from a “near‐anarchist” and a “Lockean anarchist” to a Godwinian anarchist and a “Smithian anarchist”). Peter Ryley finds in Hodgskin’s works “a complete statement of anarchism,” which, he argues, was then picked up by Pierre‐Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon—more than Marx—“remained closest to [Hodgskin’s] individualist strand of thought.” It seems clear that Ryley’s assessment hits the mark: Hodgskin proposed no substitute for government and positive law, and he saw government as “no more than the institution of injustice,” its attempts to control or organize society—which is the “the offspring of the instincts of the human animal, not his [conscious] will” (emphasis added)—resulting in economic disorder and opportunities for the powerful to exploit the weak. Quite unlike today’s left, which seems to worship state power and idolize politicians, Hodgskin never missed an opportunity to decry government as a criminal conspiracy and denounce parliamentarians as malefactors and parasites. “The law‐maker,” argued Hodgskin, “is never a labourer,” but a representative of the capitalist class, who makes laws that a “particular class [may] enrich themselves at the expense of other men.”
Hodgskin and Godwin
In this sentiment, there are clear echoes of William Godwin, who remarked that the rich are “directly or indirectly the legislators of the state,” “perpetually reducing oppression into a system” and, through privileges created by positive law, depriving the poor of the bequests of nature. As Élie Halévy argued in his seminal study of Hodgskin, “Hodgskin resurrected Godwin’s ideas against those of Bentham.” Halévy distinguishes Hodgskin from Bentham and the utilitarians in noting that Hodgskin was not interested in “attack[ing] existing laws in detail, but all laws without exception, or, better still, the very notion of law.” Legislators, for Hodgskin, were no more than criminals, unscrupulous brutes “who followed no trade but war, and knew no handicraft but robbery and plunder.” No one was morally bound to respect their laws, as these were an affront to God’s natural law.
Hodgskin and Spencer
Here, readers more familiar with Hodgskin’s younger and more famous one‐time coworker, Herbert Spencer, may be reminded of the latter’s work. That both Hodgskin and Spencer are favorite subjects of Mingardi’s scholarly work stands to reason, for the ideas of the two—who worked together at The Economist for a period of several years during the middle of the nineteenth century (1848–1853)—present obvious similarities. Indeed, the question of Spencer’s debt to Hodgskin has captivated scholars interested in the men and their ideas. Hodgskin’s influence seems clearly evident in Spencer’s work: like Hodgskin, Spencer emphasizes the origin of government (and existing land titles) in aggression, the emergence of class structures in war and violence, the militancy versus industrialism dichotomy, and the right of the individual to ignore the state, among other clear connections. Spencer himself was faced with the question of his friend’s influence during his life, which may explain, at least in part, his attempts to disavow Hodgskin or at least to downplay the nature and extent of their relationship—the claim to originality was quite important to Spencer. In a letter to Hodgskin’s daughter, Spencer writes, “That he exercised any influence over my opinions I deny.” Mingardi also notes the pettiness in Spencer’s failure to acknowledge in his autobiography Hodgskin’s review of Social Statics, which was effusive in its praise of the book. Spencer even complains of his disappointment at the “superficial character” of the reviews of Social Statics, something of an obvious slight.
Hodgskin and Hayek
Today’s political categories cannot make sense of or accommodate the fact of Hodgskin and Spencer’s clear ideological similarities. Spencer is maligned and misunderstood as a “social Darwinist”—whatever indeed that means—and often treated as a proto‐libertarian (in the contemporary sense) while Hodgskin is reckoned a socialist and forerunner of Karl Marx. Still more controversial are attempts, like Mingardi’s, to connect Hodgskin to twentieth century liberals such as Friedrich Hayek. In this book, Mingardi responds to Hodgskin scholars such as David Stack, whose book on Hodgskin argues,
It would be a gross over‐simplification simply to reverse the traditional understanding of Hodgskin. The pre‐cursor of Marx should not be turned into a forerunner of the New Right. The path from Hodgskin to Hayek is just as tortuous as that to Marx.
Mingardi’s book presents a compelling case that, at least on this point, Stack is wrong, that while the connection between Hodgskin and Hayek must be qualified and caveated, it is certainly stronger than that between Hodgskin and Marx. While acknowledging that Hayek “almost certainly…never read Hodgskin,” Mingardi sees Hodgskin as the key missing link connecting Adam Smith, with his emphasis on the ability of markets to, quite without the deliberate will of a sovereign, direct “the industry of private people … towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society,” and Friedrich Hayek, who argued that decentralized market competition leads to the best, fullest application of available knowledge, which is widely dispersed and unique to time and place. Hodgskin believes that within the proper framework of rules, not man‐made but dictated by the laws of nature, widespread prosperity and social harmony are to be expected from individuals pursuing their own interests through voluntary cooperation and trade. He goes so far as to remark that “[t]he doctrines of selfishness are in truth full of love as well as of wisdom.”
Hodgskin’s libertarianism comes into focus not as a self‐contradictory ideological deviation from or an unformed, confused precursor to modal libertarianism, but as a more consistent libertarianism—whatever its flaws. In Hodgskin’s thought we find, stated clearly and eloquently, so many of the themes today identified with libertarianism. He draws the classic libertarian distinction between “the dominion of the law” and “the natural right of property,” between “the institutions of the legislator” and “the laws of nature.” He anticipates modern public choice theory in noting the absurd contradiction of justifying the power of government, a corporate entity operated by “barbarous men,” by pointing to the dangers of allowing the principle of self‐preservation to run rampant amongst individuals: to prevent the anarchy and barbarism of societal declension, human beings establish the self‐serving bodies called governments and “are massacred that governments may be upheld.” He writes, “I see no anxiety to preserve the natural right of property but a great deal to enforce obedience to the legislator.” Hodgskin, of course, knew better than to believe that governments were ever instituted to protect the people or institute justice.
Frequently appealing to the laws of God or Nature, he damned “unholy political institutions, which, originally founded by the sword have since been maintained by the sword.” Today’s progressives, Hodgskin would say, are, by agitating for statism and intervention, actually “taking the side of idleness against industry,” of privilege and exploitation. “They profess liberal principles—and they make laws to keep the labourer in thralldom.”
Elsewhere, Mingardi writes that Hodgskin’s “work can help to clarify how embracing the market economy did and does not entail a defence of the status quo.” Hodgskin’s ideas, so adeptly presented here, offer us a new way to think about the free market, one that will surely draw the ire of both friends and foes of capitalism (whatever indeed that is): libertarian defenders of capitalism will no doubt bristle at the idea of free market principles as forming the foundation of an attack on capital and a vindication of labor. At the same time, today’s socialists and anti‐capitalists are bound to fume at the very same idea, but for the opposite reason—how could a friend of labor attack government intervention and support unfettered free trade? Through this new study of Hodgskin’s thought, Mingardi has done yeoman’s work in further developing the history of classical liberal thought and politico‐economic thought more generally.
4 For example, Élie Halévy’s classic study of Hodgskin and David Stack’s more recent work, 1998’s Nature and Artifice: The Life and Thought of Thomas Hodgskin, 1787–1869.
5 As I noted here, David Stack “argues that the whole preoccupation with Hodgskin’s theory of economic value—whether it derived from Ricardo or Smith, to what extent it influenced Marx—produced an deficient examination of Hodgskin’s project.”
6 Here, Hodgskin is in good company: anarchists like Proudhon and Tucker were both charged with this most unspeakable of crimes, the acceptance of “bourgeois morality.” Hodgskin’s radically pro‐market, anti‐privilege libertarianism quite clearly prefigures Tucker’s individualist anarchism.
7 K. Steven Vincent, Elie Halevy: Republican Liberalism Confronts the Era of Tyranny (University of Pennsylvania Press 2020), pages 106–107.
8 E.K. Hunt, “The Relation of the Ricardian Socialists to Ricardo and Marx.” Science & Society, vol. 44, no. 2, 1980, pp. 177–198.
9 Scott Gordon, “The London Economist and the High Tide of Laissez Faire.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 63, no. 6, 1955, pp. 461–488.