William Thompson was born in Cork City in 1775. His family were of the rich Protestant class, who had acquired Irish land in the 1680s. His father was Alderman John Thompson, a rich Cork merchant and High Sheriff of the county.
In 1814 Thompson inherited his father’s estate – 1,400 acres and a trading fleet – and immediately ceased to be an absentee landlord. He granted leases to the tenants on generous terms. He became guilt-stricken for living on “the produce of the efforts of others”.
In the early 19th century, social philosophers began to spring up in England, France and Germany, each with their own ideas on how to create the perfect social order and wipe out the evils of poverty. Most of these theorists had no qualm with those who gained from the social system of the day, instead focussing on the results of the system.
They believed that the ruling and owning classes would voluntarily renounce all their privileges, once they were convinced of the advantages of a new social order. So the relationship between labourer as producer and the proprietor as owner of the thing produced was ignored.
Thompson believed that the labourers were entitled to the full value of their labour. He argued that under capitalism the labourer was paid as little as possible, based on market competition for this labour. The rest of the produce went to the capitalist as profit. For this he has been called “the founding figure of Scientific Socialism”1. James Connolly called him a “forerunner of Marx”.
In his introduction to the Communist Manifesto, Harold J. Laski wrote that Thompson “laid the foundation” which Marx and Engels “brought so remarkably to completion”. Marx himself only gave Thompson slight references in his work.
In 1824 Thompson published An Inquiry into the principles of distribution of wealth most conducive to human happiness. In this work he argued that the rich as a class would oppose the moves made by the majority towards an egalitarian society. He stated that a few “may rise above the impulses of their class” but that these would be exceptions.
This belief brought Thompson into conflict with Robert Owen, who believed that appeals to the rich and aristocrats would lead to the creation of co-operative communities. Owen was nonetheless impressed by Thompson and distributed his work at his own expense.
Thompson was also a feminist and an advocate of woman’s emancipation. In 1825 he wrote An appeal of one half of the human race, women, against the pretensions of the other half, men, to retain them in political and thence civil and domestic slavery. He gave joint ownership of the work to his friend Anna Wheeler (1785-1848), who was prominent in the Co-operative Movement.
In 1827 Thompson published Labour Rewarded: The Claims of Labour and Capital conciliated by one of the Idle Classes. It proposed the replacement of capitalism with co-operative communism and “was influential on the trade union and Chartist movements with its recommendations on the role of unions and the democratisation of parliament”2.
Practical directions for the speedy and economic establishment of Communities, on the principle of mutual co-operation, united possessions, equality of exertions and the means of enjoyment was published in 1830. It was a detailed blueprint of co-operative communism and was adopted as the guiding principle of the Co-operative Movement.
Thompson replaced Owen as the movement’s leading theoretician, and Owen became increasingly bitter. He wrote to Thompson that: “while you are boldly operating on the whole mass, I am endeavouring to arrange a little part of the social machine, not forgetting its connection with the whole.”3
On March 28, 1833, Thompson died of a chest ailment. He left his money and property to the Co-operative Movement and his body to medical science. Relatives however contested the will on the grounds that he was insane. The case dragged on for twenty-five years and the only beneficiaries were the well-paid lawyers.
James Connolly commented on Thompson: “Fervent Celtic enthusiasts are fond of claiming, and the researches of our day seem to bear out the claim, that Irish missionaries were the first to rekindle the lamp of learning in Europe, and dispel the intellectual darkness following the downfall of the Roman Empire; may we not also take pride in the fact that an Irishman was the first to pierce the worse than Egyptian darkness of capitalist barbarism, and to point out to the toiler the conditions of their enslavement, and the essential pre-requisites of their emancipation?”4
1. Peter Berresford Ellis. A History of the Irish Working Class.
3. Robert Owen: Letters, No. 211
4. James Connolly. Labour in Irish History.