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Selected Writings of John A. Hobson, 1932-1938: The Struggle for the International Mind
Published by EH.Net (June 2012)
John M. Hobson and Colin Tyler, editors, Selected Writings of John A. Hobson, 1932-1938: The Struggle for the International Mind. London: Routledge, 2011. xv + 220 pp. $138 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-59823-1.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Jason Brock, Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Academic interest in John Atkinson Hobson has risen to some extent in recent years and this volume edited by John M. Hobson and Colin Tyler makes a valuable and timely contribution to current discourse. (To avoid confusion, I shall refer to J.A. Hobson and John M. Hobson in full where there is any potential ambiguity.) J.A. Hobson was a prolific writer and was engaged in journalism and lecturing in addition to his output of books and pamphlets. This new edition of some of his later work collects together nine previously unpublished lectures that J.A. Hobson wrote for the South Place Ethical Society, of which he was a member. The original typescripts of these lectures are held as part of J.A. Hobson’s Papers by the Hull University Archives. Two of these nine lectures – “Thoughts on Our Present Discontents” (pp. 152-60) and “The Sense of Responsibility” (pp. 161-216) – were published in a revised form during Hobson’s lifetime, although the inclusion of these pieces here allows interested scholars an opportunity to easily compare the original manuscript version with the amended publications.
The introduction to the volume by John M. Hobson, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield and J.A. Hobson’s great-grandson, is especially innovative and eloquent. It adopts the style used by J.A. Hobson (1932) in one of his later works (albeit endowed with a more scholarly feel owing to the welcome inclusion of footnotes) and takes the form of a discussion between the Recording Angel and a Messenger from Earth submitting his Millennial Report. This novel approach in no way undermines the integrity of the introduction and it includes both a historiography review and a survey of J.A. Hobson’s thought on imperialism and internationalism. It is made clear early on that “discovering an ‘essential Hobson’ – one based on a logically pure continuous single-thread – is probably akin to the search for the Holy Grail” yet also that the attachment of J.A. Hobson’s name to a crude anti-imperialism “has tended to obscure the wider policy and conception of international relations and imperialism which J.A.’s writings were ultimately designed to serve” (p. 6). A one-dimensional version of J.A. Hobson is rejected in favor of a broader interpretation emphasizing that he in fact held four different theories of imperialism. The main focus of John M. Hobson’s introduction is to refute the idea that J.A. Hobson’s thought was economically reductionist and underwent no innovation in the 1930s. Instead, John M. Hobson contends that J.A. Hobson sought to construct an “international mind” in tandem with his organic approach that emphasized reason and ethical values. This feeds directly into the lectures reproduced in this volume where J.A. Hobson accentuated the “twin-need for a reformed capitalism at home and an organic constructive internationalism” (p. 62).
Colin Tyler, who is Reader in Politics at the University of Hull, edited the lectures themselves. The published form includes not only notes on J.A. Hobson’s alterations to the typescripts but also explanatory footnotes that elaborate on certain points. Three further lectures included in the Hobson Papers have been excluded from the volume on the grounds of space and relevance. Although their absence does not harm the consistency of the selection there are doubtless some historians who do not subscribe to the “less is more” view. The themes of organic society and internationalism pervade the lectures and Hobson’s humanist approach is also evident. Despite its prior publication in revised form, the decision to include “The Sense of Responsibility” was a wise one indeed and it is perhaps the most valuable single piece in the volume for those concerned with Hobson’s ideas. It is the longest and most developed exposition of his thought incorporated here and consequently acts as a kind of stand-in conclusion to the development of ideas seen throughout the other lectures.
All of the lectures contain discussion of economic themes and, leaving aside “The Sense of Responsibility,” the most interesting for economic historians is likely to be “Is International Economic Government Possible?” (pp. 133-42). This contains Hobson’s critique of the World Economic Conference of 1933 that was held in London alongside his contention that even without the First World War the world was sure to have plunged into a “deep and prolonged depression marked by nearly all the maladies of glut, unemployment, poverty, collapse of price and of credits which mark the present depression” (p. 137). Much of this lecture could be compared with the writings of John Maynard Keynes in the period, especially Hobson’s comments on the “holy thirst for gold” (p. 138).
Taken as a whole, the lectures are potentially of greater significance to historians of political thought rather than those of economic thought. On the other hand, if one is concerned with the inter-war years in Britain, certain pieces stand out as being of considerable use to those interested in the development of heterodox economic thought while those whose discipline could be described as the history of political economy will find the lectures a fruitful avenue of enquiry. Moreover, these lectures give an insight into the thought of an amateur economist whose own lifetime coincided with the professionalization of economics as an academic discipline. (Hobson, of course, never held a permanent position within a university.)
Overall, this volume is of use to several different categories of historians. The primary group of readers is likely to be scholars of Hobson for whom this volume provides more than simply a ready alternative to a trip to Hull insofar as the introduction by John M. Hobson is a contribution to the historical discourse that should not be overlooked. Moreover, researchers working on theories of imperialism and internationalism in the inter-war years will find the book valuable, as will historians with a more tangential interest in Hobson’s social and economic thought.
John Atkinson Hobson (1932) The Recording Angel, London: George Allen and Unwin.
Jason Brock (J.Brock@rhul.ac.uk) is completing his Ph.D. in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis is on the later political economy of John Atkinson Hobson.
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