John Atkinson Hobson

John Atkinson Hobson

(*1858, Derby, England- 1940, London, England)

J.A. Hobson's political thinking was shaped by the conditions in England of the second half of the 19th century, where the doctrine of laissez-faire liberalism seemed ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of alleviating poverty, poor housing and health, working conditions and education. Hobson was one of the leading minds—together with T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse —of the so-called New or Social Liberalism. Hobson was a member of such progressive ethical societies as the “Rainbow Circle” and “South Place Ethical Society”, a prolific journalist, active political campaigner and political theorist.

Hobson compared the workings of society to a biological organism and took the concept of a “social organism” further than any other thinker of his time. He made the “organic” perspective the linchpin of his social philosophy. He incorporated natural science into his analysis of social relations without adopting authoritarian, deterministic undertones often associated with those theories. Society to him was “rightly regarded as a moral rational organism in the sense that it has a common psychic life, character and purpose, which are not to be resolved into the life, character, and purpose of its individual members”. (Hobson,The Crisis of Liberalism, 1909).

Hobson carved out a new intellectual and political middle-ground, evident in three areas: first, he advocated a greater role for the state than laissez-faire liberals, yet smaller than socialists. Second, he criticised both classic liberals and socialists for the hard-and-fast lines drawn by them between individualism and collectivism.  Third, while rejecting an atomistic view of society, and advocating public property in addition to individual property, he nevertheless also opposed socialist blueprints of a central-planned economy. He thought of human nature as combining collectivist and individualist characteristics, and on this basis he aimed to intertwine individualism with collectivism in society.

His approach was highly original, in that he introduced a shift in perspective in liberal thinking. Earlier liberalism held the view that the individual agrees to hand power over to the state in order for the latter to safeguard personal freedoms. The beneficiary and raison d'etre of the state was the individual and the state was a means to an end. Hobson turned that perspective around and argued that society as a social organism has an interest in each member's individual development and well-being in order to remain healthy. In other words, he viewed the individual as a means to an end, the end being a healthy society with social progress, akin to an organism depending on healthy cells. Here, society was the beneficiary and raison d'etre of the greatest possible advancement and liberty of each of its individual members.  Although in marked contrast to the core liberal creed that the individual is not to be regarded as a means to an end but as an end in itself, this viewpoint allowed Hobson to advocate both individual freedoms and welfare reforms simultaneously and outside the framework of an either socialist or liberal atomistic ideology -- and hence to avoid their respective infringements on personal liberties/ eschewing of communal responsibility.

In the field of economic theory, his unorthodox blend of economics with a qualitative, humanist approach paved the way for ways of looking at utility and rationality and hence later welfare economics. His work “Imperialism: A Study” (1902), he saw the mal-distribution of wealth, leading to an over-saving on part of the rich and under-consumption on part of the many poor as well as elitist self-interests as the causes of imperialism.

Although one can point to shortcomings in his analysis of imperialism in that he focused on the economic dimension and a Euro-centric view, left unanswered questions of how to measure social welfare (through subjective or objective criteria, or by quantifiable results?) as well as letting community values seemingly at times prevail over individual liberties, Hobson contributed to liberal thought by departing from the exclusive focus on the individual and concerning itself with social reforms. Seeing social reform as an ethical process as much as a socio-political one, he greatly enriched the understanding of “reform” and “social progress”, away from a quantitative, limited view towards a comprehensive, truly humanist understanding.

Hobson, together with other progressive liberal thinkers, can be credited for having provided the ideological underpinning for the British welfare state and helping to discredit imperialism. Finally, reading Hobson and other thinkers of new liberalism will prevent one from adopting either one of two myths: first, that the welfare state did come about though an unplanned reaction and not due to political theorizing. Second, that the British mind abhors theorizing. The opposite is ample to see in the thinkers of social liberalism.


J.A. Hobson

Imperialism: A Study, London, 1902

J.A. Hobson

The Crisis of Liberalism: New Issues of Democracy, London, 1909

J.A. Hobson

Work and Wealth, New York, 1914

Freeden, M.:

“J.A. Hobson: A Reader”, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988

Progressive Review

—of all the intellectual periodicals of the time the closest to the core of new liberal thinkers

Text by Barbara Plank

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