The oldest complete work of socialist economic theory
The Letters on Associated Labour are a good candidate for the first complete work of socialist economic theory, predating Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété? by almost a full decade—and they are notable for their libertarian socialist bent.
They are the product of a little British working-class magazine called The Pioneer, an “unstamped” (illegal, samizdat) periodical affiliated with the militant National Union of the Working Classes. The fourteen letters, composing together a short treatise on the nature of capitalist society and how the workers can build an alternative to it, were published one at a time in this underground journal throughout 1834. No one knows who wrote them, really, but the most likely candidates are James Morrison (the Pioneer’s editor) or J.E. “Shepherd” Smith (the editor of another radical paper called The Crisis), or perhaps a collaboration between the two. They are signed “Senex,” an ancient Roman word meaning “old man”; in antiquity this was a title awarded to older males with a good standing in their village, and eventually it came to mean any sort of wise elderly sage. Apparently, to judge from later examples, signing anonymous letters “Senex” would remain a tradition in British newspapers for at least a hundred years after these letters.
Their immediate context was a strike of the silk weavers of Derby, which gained considerable support and led one Pioneer writer to declare in a headline, “War! War! War! Labour has declared war against capital.” But really they are the product of years of struggle in the wake of economic depression and the fight for the 1832 Reform Act, and are the encapsulation of economic ideas developed by this emerging social movement: the utopian communism of Robert Owen, and the socialist economics of “anti-Ricardians” such as Thomas Hodgskin and John Gray. Readers interested in this history—and particularly in recovering it from the calumnies of the vulgar Marxists—ought to consult GDH Cole’s History of Socialist Thought, volume 1; EP Thompson’s The Making of the British Working Class; and Andy Blunden’s The Origins of Collective Decision Making.
This edition was typset, edited, and annotated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and was formerly hosted on their website at http://www.iww.org/culture/senex. It is best read alongside the historian Noel Thompson’s paper “Senex’s Letters on Associated Labour and The Pioneer, 1834: a syndicalist political economy in the making,” collected in the book Radical Economics and Labor edited by Fredric S. Lee and Jon Bekken.