Thompson, William

William Thompson (1775-1833) was born in Cork and inherited extensive property and business interests. In his work as a utilitarian he introduced the concept of social science to resolve the dichotomy between political economy’s concern with ‘scientific materialism’ and that of utilitarianism with ‘rational morality’. The main Social Science Building in University College Cork (UCC) is named in his honour. He was active in the Royal Cork Institution and influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and Utilitarianism of his day. He attempted to develop the French Utopian Socialist’s theory through extending Adam Smith’s Labour Theory of Value in which he introduced the term ‘competitive’ to describe the process of capitalism. In this work he drew a contrast between unequal distribution, under a system of competitive capitalist production, and fair distribution according to labour performed, under a system of cooperative production.

Thompson’s concern was with the problem of distribution in the ‘system’ and his analysis was based not on ‘social motives’ and ‘incentives’ but rather ‘the relationship between cooperative distribution and production’. He coined many interesting phrases (such as ‘misery in the midst of all the means of happiness’) and he touched on a number of original questions of theory (for example, diminishing utility). He was practically involved in the Cooperative Movement and made a fundamental contribution to political economy by introducing the concept of ‘surplus value’ as famously acknowledged by Marx in Das Kapital.

His book Labour Rewarded was published in 1827 and written to defend and develop the concept of cooperative communism. He theoretically distinguished his position from that of Robert Owen in proposing that members of a cooperative movement must have the security of both the ownership of the community’s land and capital property. At the 1832 Trades Union Congress he opposed Owen’s insistence of waiting for the support of Government and Stock Exchange for the development of large-scale communities and supported action through small-scale local projects. His own attempt in Cork to develop such a project was legally significant because he willed his estate in Glandore to the cooperative movement. This sparked the longest court case in Irish legal history, as other branches of the family fought, with eventual success, to have his will annulled.

His greatest works were An Inquiry into the Principals of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness; applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth in 1824 and his feminist work written with Anna Doyle Wheeler(1785-1848/50) Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretentions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery in 1825. It was the first major statement on woman’s right to political equality written in the English language. The latter was written in response to James Mill’s On Government which called for the vote for only males. A number of Thompson Summer Schools have been run in recent years to celebrate this man who was one of the most influential thinkers of his day, sponcered by the Cork Council of Trade Unions in conjunction with UCC.

previousPrevious - Stott, Alicia Boole
Next - Tyndall, Johnnext

Upload to this page

Upload to this page

Add your photos, text, videos, etc. to this page.

Map Search


Life & Society

Popular Sections