Max Beer 1922

Book Reviews
Hodgskin and Marx

Source: Labour Monthly, December 1922, pp. 378-380;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Labour Defended. By Thomas Hodgskin. Labour Publishing Company, London. 1922. (First published anonymously “By a Labourer,” London, 1825.)

Saint Armand Bazard (1791-1832), the most logical and learned of the Saint-Simonians, lecturing in Paris 1829-30 on the doctrines of his master, quotes the famous encyclopaedist, d’Alembert, as having remarked “that all innovators begin by being branded as dreamers and finish by being accused as plagiarists.” (Oeuvres de Saint Simon et d’Enfantin, ed. 1877, vol. 41, p.1.) This wise observation may appropriately be applied to Marx; it exactly fits his case. At first shouted down as an unpractical visionary and hare-brained doctor of the red revolution he finally reached the stage of being accused of plagiarism from the works of Thompson and Hodgskin, without even acknowledging the sources from which he had drawn. I may add that the accusation of plagiarism is generally levelled at a pioneer in the realm of thought when his uncomfortable truths begin to take root among the masses.

The republication of the once famous pamphlet of Hodgskin may serve us as an opportunity for attempting a comparison of Marx and Hodgskin. I shall not touch upon the question, how far Hodgskin was indebted to his predecessor, Piercy Ravenstone, who wrote five years before Hodgskin. In my “History of British Socialism” I dealt with this point, indicating that the main ideas and even some of the most striking phrases of Hodgskin are to be found in Ravenstone. Marx was a great admirer of Ravenstone. I say this at the risk of giving occasion to some writers to accuse Marx of having plagiarised Ravenstone. All such accusations levelled at great minds have no more weight than the charge against Shakespeare for having plagiarised some Italian writers, or Rousseau having plagiarised Locke.

Hodgskin’s general idea was that natural law, right, reason, and justice ought to govern the economic life of the nation. Those ethical principles were however violated, social life was vitiated, for the labourer who produced all, got little, while the capitalist was appropriating the most. And that was the cause of the poverty of the working people and of the conflict between the producers and appropriators. Capital as such had no just claim to any share of the labourer’s produce; it was true that the capitalist put at the disposal of the labourer fixed and circulating capital and thus enabled him to produce. But what was fixed capital? Preserved labour. And what was circulating capital? Co-existing labour. Yet about five-sixths of the produce went to the capitalist! According to natural law the workman had a right to the whole produce of his labour.

Such are the main doctrines of Hodgskin, and from them, it is averred, Marx pilfered his theory of value, his condemnation of capital. As if these points touched even the fringe of Marxism!

Marx’s aim and end was not to reveal the moral nakedness of Capital or to exhibit the wounds of virtuous Labour, but to inquire into the rise, growth, and destiny of the capitalist system. He tries to show the capitalist world as an historical phase, as one of the stages of the evolution of human society, of the last stage of the prehistoric period of man: Marx regards present-day civilisation as the last stage of savagery. The economic categories of any given society are but the expression of the prevailing economic relations between men. Capitalists and labourers appear in his books not mainly as individuals looking after their own interests, but as unconscious agents entangled in a process of evolving a new and higher stage of civilisation. Society is not vitiated through the lack of right reason and natural justice, but through the contradiction between the productive forces and the conditions of production. Irrational forces are at work, creating and destroying. And it is the task of the sound thinker to analyse this unconscious process, to bring mental order into the material chaos, to turn the unconscious human agents into conscious, thinking men. And the task of the socialist or communist thinker consists of much more than interpretation of the external phenomena or of composing the sociology of it – his task is to change the world.

Feeling, intellect, and will-power – these are the stages through which Marx proceeds.

We see at once that Hodgskin and Marx, in their general ideas, belong to different schools of thought. Marx had, in this respect, nothing to learn from Hodgskin.

And what had Hodgskin as an economist to offer to Marx? Equally nothing. The view that Labour was robbed by Capital was with Marx not a cardinal fact, but merely one of the effects of private ownership of the means of production. Given the private-property condition of production, then capitalist control of distribution is a matter of course. Hodgskin’s dogmatic opinion that the produce of labour ought to belong to Labour has, according to Marx, as much to do with economics as any other religious dogma.

And Hodgskin’s theory of value? The assertion that the real cost of a commodity was labour stands in the same relation to Marx’s theory of value as a single cell stands to an organism. Marx arrived at his theory of value in this way. He did not apply to psychology or to any speculative philosophy, but to the manufacturer’s office. From there, from the actual calculations of the capitalist or his head clerk, he learned that the cost of production determined value. Marx thought that in a non-capitalist society the determinant of value may be utility, or beauty, or the quality interest in a thing to promote virtue and goodness; in the capitalist society, however, it is the cost of production which determines value. But what is cost of production? Expenditure of fixed and circulating capital, plus the usual profit. The question then arose, where does the profit come from? The search for the source of profit took him away from the manufacturer’s office, where he could get no satisfactory reply, and he went to his study to analyse the whole process of production from the materials which he had gathered. He then wrote his Chapter I. of “Capital” (vol. I.). He formulated his theory of value, making it the key to unlock the hidden mechanism of the capitalist system. While his anti-capitalist and socialist predecessors, Ravenstone, Thompson, Hodgskin, & c., only arrived at a rough formulation of exchange value and surplus value and, stopping there, made it into their main weapon for the defence of the dogma that the whole produce of labour ought to belong to the labourer, Marx put that dogma aside and starting from the recognition of the essence of value and profit, gave us an analysis of the rise, operations, growth, and final outcome of capitalism.[1]

Carried away by the grandeur of his sociological structure, he undoubtedly overlooked many imperfections, but his system as a whole will stand as a monument of the age of the rise and growth of industrialism, which is sure to be counted among the most remarkable epochs of human thought and power.


1. Marx deals fully with Hodgskin in his “Theorien über den Mehrwert,” vol. iii., pp. 309, 313-380. This volume was written in 1862-3, but published posthumously in 1910 at Stuttgart.

[NOTE. – The foregoing review, with its clear differentiation of Marxian theory from the vulgar types of Labour theory, is opportune for clearing out of the way a misconception which has arisen from a statement made in a review by E.C.W. last month on “The Canonisation of Hardie.” E.C.W., in combating the notion that Hardie’s socialism was not economic in character, quotes very justly his preamble to the rules of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, beginning “All wealth is created by Labour,” and goes on to refer to it as “a terse summary of Marxian doctrine.” The latter statement, of course, overshoots the mark, and the writer of the review did not intend it to be taken literally. Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, strongly criticises the view that all wealth is created by Labour. We are indebted to a number of correspondents for calling attention to this point. – Editor, LABOUR MONTHLY.]