E. Belfort Bax

John A. Hobson

(20 July 1907)

John A. Hobson, review of The Evolution of Modern Capitalism, by John A. Hobson. (London, Walter Scott.) 6s., Justice, 20th July 1907, p.8.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Evolution of Modern Capitalism has become already almost an economic classic. It is not too much to say that there is no more masterly treatise covering the same ground in the English, or perhaps in any other language, at the present time. It is doubtful, however, whether more than one in ten who take up the book appreciate its real import. They regard it probably, for the most part, simply as a useful compendium of facts, clearly put, and figures accurately given, as it certainly is. But there is reason to believe that this side of his book was, for the author, the least important; indeed, no more than a means to an end. The key to the whole work is to be found in the final chapter. The preceding portions are but illustrations and confirmations of the thesis contained in the last forty pages. It is here that Mr, Hobson’s originality and wide grasp of economic tendencies comes out. The earlier part of the book might conceivably have been done, even if not so well, by other hands. The last chapter is pre-eminently Mr. Hobson’s own. We have here the discovery of a law of human evolution; one of those luminous generalisations which afford us the clue to so much more than might appear at first sight. For one thing, it sweeps away at once a whole class of objections to Socialism, and gives for the first time the formulation, in economic terms, of the law of the economic (in contradistinction to the political) transition from Capitalism to Socialism. To have been the first to accomplish this certainly entitles Mr. Hobson not only to the gratitude of all Socialists, but to a well-placed niche in the temple of economic fame, and, indeed, not merely of economic fame, but of that of the philosophic historian.

Briefly put in his own words, Hobson’s formula is the following: – “Progress consists in the increasing reduction of lower departments of human activity to mechanical routine in order to liberate the initiative energy they absorbed for the evolution and enrichment of higher departments.” In other words, while more and more spheres of activity become mechanised, become matters of machinery, represented in things intellectual and artistic by routine and cut-and-dried procedure, yet this only means the opening up of new vistas hitherto undreamt of. “As each higher want is educated some lower wants will drop into the position of a routine-want and will pass into the rightful province of machinery” (p.427). Precisely, according to Mr. Hobson, in proportion as a field of production falls into the machine stage will it come under public control, but for all that, what the votaries of individualism talk about as a “dead-level” and the extinction of individuality, will evince itself as moonshine, if only from the fact that the exclusion of individuality from lower processes will mean its liberation to manifest itself in higher. The administrative organ of the future society will absorb in its direct grip all industries in so far as they possess a machine-character, and are capable of administration by routine. And this process of absorption on the one hand and opening up on the other is continuous, and no limits can be set to it.

Such very briefly is the thesis to which the earlier part of Hobson’s book is the Introduction. On the wealth of illustration involved in this introduction it is unnecessary to dilate. The book in its previous editions has already been sufficiently noticed in Justice and elsewhere in the party press. The purpose of this brief review is rather to point out what the present writer conceives to be the true inwardness of the treatise than to dilate upon its many merits, or to deal with minor points open to criticism. It may, however, be remarked that a scientific Socialist on a cursory perusal is likely to he adversely impressed by the fact that the class-struggle, the function of the proletariat in the transformation of modern society, and, indeed, the whole of the political and psychological side of social evolution, receive scarcely any mention throughout the work. It would, however, be scarcely fair to blame the author for this. His object in writing was purely economical – to trace the tendency of economical forces per se. It may, perhaps, be open to doubt whether the subject gains by this purely abstract treatment. But once grant the author’s position and we must in justice admit he is scarcely amenable to criticism from this side. Moreover, no one will deny that the economics of Socialism, viewed in themselves, undoubtedly do represent the development, modified by altered conditions otherwise, of tendencies present in existing economics. As I take it, this very abstract treatment of his subject in the above sense is congenial to Mr. Hobson’s temperament. It is impossible to contemplate that unassuming, thoughtful, almost ascetic, figure, without feeling that you have before you one who, absolutely incapable of the faintest shade of intellectual dishonesty – of any deflection, however unconscious, however slight, from logical conviction, is also incapable of any enthusiasm or indignation such as goes to the making of a fighter, an agitator, or an active politician.

Of course, as already hinted, there are minor points to which exception might be taken in some of Mr. Hobson’s statements. Fortunately they are few and do not influence the main arguments of the book. To mention one only. In his initial chapter dealing with the definition of Capitalism Mr. Hobson appears to me to be prepared to use the term far too freely for the economic conditions of Roman antiquity. For example, the wealth derived from his numerous estates scattered throughout the provinces by the augustal or equestrian of imperial times might well have furnished a “primitive accumulation” to serve as the basis of capitalism, but surely the acquirement of wealth directly from land by slave or serf labour cannot itself be regarded as falling under the concept “capitalism.” Just as little can the raw, crude system of usury by which the “universal equivalent” was absorbed by the rich man by means of his original hoard, be so regarded. And yet, as Professor Salvioli has pointed out in his recently-published work (La Capitalisme dans le Monde Antique), these were the two poles (land and its immediate products, and money as employed for attracting more money by usury) round which the economics of exploitation circled, at least in Roman society, not to go further back. The fact is, Capitalism, in the true sense of the word, as implying a definite system of the exploitation of labour, scarcely existed in antiquity, if we except the faint beginnings of it, most conspicuous in the Roman imperial period, in the ownership by wealthy men of merchant ships manned by seamen-slaves, of publishing businesses worked by copying-slaves, and a few similar manifestations of the system in its cruder forms. But here again, as we have said, the point is one of little practical importance for Mr. Hobson’s book, which deals with capitalism from its beginnings in modern history up to to-day. Here Mr. Hobson adopts the definition of Marx and modern Socialism and adheres to it strictly throughout. We may say in conclusion, with perfect truth, that no intelligent Socialist can afford to leave The Evolution of Modern Capitalism unread, and we could only wish that its last and most important chapter might be republished independently in pamphlet form for those who cannot afford to buy the book itself.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.7.2004