Who was Thomas Hodgskin? Here are the barest of bones, mostly lightly summarised from the introduction to David Reisman’s edition (mentioned in Episode One below).
Thomas Hodgskin was born 12 December 1787, left school at twelve and went to sea, serving twelve years in the Navy before retiring on half pay in 1812. He wasn’t happy with the Navy, and said so in his first published work, An Essay on Naval Discipline (1813). In this 50,000 word polemic, Hodgskin presented himself to the public “as a discontented and disappointed man” and went on to describe and denounce the entire system of discipline in the Navy, repeatedly returning to the idea that the despotic organisation and practices in the Navy stood in sharp and ultimately damaging contradiction to the politics of a free state.
Waterloo opened up the continent again, and Hodgskin travelled extensively in Europe, marrying a German woman in Hanover, returning to Britain in 1818, and publishing in 1820 his two volume Travels in the north of Germany, describing the present state of the social and political institutions, the agriculture, manufactures, commerce, education, arts and manners in that country, particularly in the Kingdom of Hanover. As some of my students sometimes say to me these days, this does just what it says on the tin, but — sadly — does not appear to be anywhere online. In particular, the Travels defended the laissez-faire (lack of?) organisation of modern society, and attacked the over-regulation of German society by government, as well as setting forth his view that “capital is the product of labour, and profit is nothing but a portion of that produce, uncharitably extracted…”
Based in Britain from 1818, Hodgskin studied Ricardo’s economics, set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), had a not particularly happy spell in Edinburgh, 1819-1822, and returned to London in 1822 in order to work as Parliamentary correspondent for the Morning Chronicle. There he became involved in a significant working-class education initiative, the Mechanics’ Institute, and its associated magazine, and it was during his association with these institutions that he published in 1825 his most celebrated work, Labour Defended….
More by way of background, perhaps, later. Let’s have a bit more of the text now, the opening three paragraphs, following on from the previously-posted “Notice”…
Labour Defended, &c., Episode Two
[Episode One was posted here]
Throughout this country at present, there exists a serious contest between capital and labour. The journeymen of almost every trade have combined to obtain higher wages; and their employers have appealed to the legislature for protection. The contest is not only one of physical endurance, or who can stand out longest, but of argument and reason. It is possible for the workmen to force their masters into compliance, but they must convince the public of the justice of their demands. The Press has, at present a great influence over public questions; and by far the greater and more influential part of it is engaged on the side of the capitalist. Through it, however, and through public opinion, must the journeymen find their way to the legislature. They may possibly terrify their masters, but they can only obtain the support of any influential persons by an appeal to reason. To suggest some arguments in favour of labour, and against capital, is my chief motive for publishing the present pamphlet.
The labourers are very unfortunate, I conceive, in being surrounded by nations in a worse political condition than we are; and in some of which labour is still worse paid than here. Labourers are still more unfortunate in being descended from bondsmen and cerfs [sic]. Personal slavery or villanage formerly existed in Britain, and all the living labourers still suffer from the bondage of their ancestors. Our claims are consequently never tried by the principles of justice. The lawgiver and the capitalist always compare our wages with the wages of other labourers; and without adverting to what we produce, which seems the only criterion by which we ought to be paid, we are instantly condemned as insolent and ungrateful if we ask for more than was enjoyed by the slave of former times, and is now enjoyed by the half-starved slave of other countries.
By our increased skill and knowledge, labour is now probably ten times more productive than it was two hundred years ago; and we are forsooth, to be contended with the same rewards which the bondsmen then received. All the advantages of our improvements go to the capitalist and the landlord. When, denied any share in our increased produce, we combine to obtain it, we are instantly threatened with summary punishment. New laws are fulminated against us, and if these are found insufficient, we are threatened with laws still more severe.