John Gray (socialist)

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John Gray (1799–1883)[1] was a British socialist economist.

Life and views[edit]

Very little personal information about John Gray is available. He lived mostly in Edinburgh. According to his own account, he was a poor student who dropped out of school early, went to London and took up factory work as a youngster. His hardships first convinced him of the ills of the economic system and drove him to read the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and other economists, and to take an interest in various schemes of social reform.[2] Gray was involved in the newspaper business and is said to have been a failed businessman. He was an admirer of the social reformer Abram Combe.[3] Gray was for a while associated with the co-operative movement of Robert Owen and was one of the so-called Ricardian socialists, along with Thomas Hodgskin and John Francis Bray. Named after the economist David Ricardo, the Ricardian socialists asserted that labour was the source of value. The Ricardian socialists argued that the equilibrium exchange value of commodities in elastic supply tend to coincide with producer prices, which represent the labour embodied in the commodities. Profit, interest and rent are deducted from this value and are, in the view of the Ricardian socialists, illegitimate for that reason. Gray argued that the producers receive only about a fifth of the value of their products, whereas their labour creates 100% of that value. He also argued that competition hampered the economy's productivity because, under free-market competition, incomes remain low, limiting demand and therefore production. To overcome the limits competition places on social production, the hardships it imposes on all competitors and the injustice of the extraction of surplus value from labour (as he saw it), Gray proposed a central bank which would issue a 'labour currency', to be used as a generalised medium of exchange of equivalent amounts of labour value, as well as a system of co-operative associations to organise supply and demand. These would be co-ordinated by a central 'National Chamber of Commerce'.

John Gray wrote several books, including Lectures on Human Happiness (1825),[4] The Social System: A Treatise on the Principle of Exchange (1831), An Efficient Remedy for the Distress of Nations (1842), The Currency Question (1847) and Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money (1848)[5] and several others. In 1825, John Gray and his brother James founded the Edinburgh and Leith Advertiser, an unstamped paper. This was replaced in 1826 by a stamped paper, the North British Advertiser. In 1829, John Gray is said to have suffered a mental breakdown, and his brother James came from Glasgow to Edinburgh to nurse him back to health. In 1830, John turned over management of the Advertiser to James. In 1830, John Gray tried to set up a printers' hall with a steam-driven printing press, but he was forced to relinquish the project. He is said to have published directories for Edinburgh for several years. In 1842, Gray was associated with a co-operative project at Falonside, Galashiels. The preface of his book on the Effective Remedy of the Distress of Nations is dated from there. In 1844–49 we find the brothers listed as proprietors of Gray's Local Advertiser in Glasgow.[6] The brothers do not seem to have seen eye-to-eye politically; at any rate, John Gray publicly dissociated himself from the political line James Gray pursued in the Edinburgh and Leith Advertiser.[7] John Gray also contributed articles to a variety of journals in Britain and even in the United States. (For example, an article on 'Industrial Reform' was published in 1848 in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.[8])

Gray first wrote to Robert Owen in 1823, having noticed that some of Owen's ideas resembled those he had reached independently. He subsequently visited New Lanark and at first publicly supported Owen (though he claimed later that he was never fully convinced of Owen's theory). By 1826, however, Gray had become disillusioned with Owen, and their quarrel soon became public; The Social System contains a long critique of Owen.[9] They disagreed over whether production as well as distribution should be organised co-operatively (Owen favoured this, Gray apparently not). Gray was also critical of Owen's management of his co-operative at New Lanark.[10] Gray seems to have been involved in the early trade union movement; there is some evidence that he was involved in the printers' union in Edinburgh. In 1830 he published An Address to the Printers of Edinburgh. He was in contact with the London Co-operative Society and was a supporter of the Chartist movement. He also gave an address to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institute.[11] Karl Marx cited Gray, along with other Ricardian socialists, in his polemic against Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, to dispute Proudhon's priority claim.[12] He subjected Gray's ideas and those of other Ricardian socialists to a critique in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), alleging that Gray had not understood that money represents a definite system of relations of production.[13] Not much else is known about John Gray. In 1846 there is a reference to him in the Law Times as 'a bankrupt whose estate has been fully administered.'[14]

Though 1883 is given as the year of his death in most of the more recent sources, many sources give the year as 1850.


  • Thompson, N.W., The People's Science. Cambridge, 1984.
  • Kimball, J., The economic doctrines of John Gray, 1799–1883. Washington, 1948.
  • Cole, G.D.H., A History of Socialist Thought. Vol. 1: The Forerunners, 1789–1850. London and New York, 1953.
  • The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Moscow, 1979.
  • Saad-Filho, A., 'Labour, Money, and "Labour Money": A Review of Marx' Critique of John Gray's Monetary Analysis.' History of Political Economy. 1993 25(1), pp. 65–84.
  • Thompson, N., The Market and its Critics: Socialist Political Economy in Nineteenth Century Britain. London and New York, 1988.
  • Lowenthal, E., The Ricardian Socialists. New York, 1911.


  1. ^ Some sources give 1850 as the year of his death.
  2. ^ Gray, John, The Social System. Edinburgh, 1831, p. 338 ff. et passim.
  3. ^ Abram Combe (15 January 1775 – 19 September 1827) was a prominent figure in co-operative movement and founded a co-operative community at Orbiston in 1825. Gray wrote a critique of the Orbiston experiment, A Word of Advice to the Orbistonians, on the Principles Which Ought to Regulate their Present Proceedings (1826). He pays a lengthy tribute to him in an appendix to The Social System (1831).
  4. ^ Apparently this work inspired the founders of the Owenite community at Valley Forge, near Philadelphia in the USA.
  5. ^ The book's Preface contains a lengthy discussion of Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present.
  6. ^ Cp. 'GRAY, J[ames] & J[ohn] newspaper printers Edinburgh,' and several subsequent entries; Scottish Book Trade Index. National Library of Scotland website at:
  7. ^ See: Gray, John, The Social System. Edinburgh, 1931, p. 368 ff.
  8. ^ Cp. The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Vol. 23 (December 1848), pp. 513–524. It is based on Gray's Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money.
  9. ^ George Jacob Holyoake, a partisan of Robert Owen and writing long after Gray's quarrel with Owen, dismissed Gray as , "a well-meaning, disinterested and uninteresting writer" whose books never sold. Cp. Holyoake, G.J., History of Co-Operation. London, 1875. Vol. I, Pt. I(5), Ch. XI., p. 231 ff. Online at:
  10. ^ Gray raises several other criticisms of Owen in the Appendix to his book The Social System (London, 1831); e.g., he disputes Owen's belief that the moral reform of the working class must precede an improvement in its material conditions: "[T]he task that is before the world is not to make men friends that they may prosper, but to make men prosper that they may be friends." Ibid., p. 370. Interestingly, this implies a kind of materialist conception of the relationship between economic 'base' and moral 'superstructure', anticipating Karl Marx.
    Owen's indifference to political reform and his consequent hostility to Chartism also became a point of contention between him and socialists like John Gray and William Thompson.
  11. ^ Gray's address to the Institute was printed as his Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money. Located at 5 Queen Street in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Philosophical Institute was a prestigious academic body; lecturers included John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Thomas Henry Huxley and Thomas Hill Green.
  12. ^ Cp. Marx, K., The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).
  13. ^ Cp. Saad-Filho, A., 'Labour, Money, and "Labour Money": A Review of Marx' Critique of John Gray's Monetary Analysis.' History of Political Economy. 1993 25(1), pp. 65–84.
  14. ^ The Law Times, Volume 7, London, 1846, p. 106.