Henryk Grossman 1934

Sismondi, Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de


Written: Unknown;
First Published: 1934;
Source: Edwin R. A. Seligman (ed) Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Volume Fourteen, (Macmillan,  New York, 1934), pp 69-71.
Transcription: Steve Palmer with thanks to Rick Kuhn for help.
Copyleft: This article is published under the fair use provision of relevant copyright legislation.

SISMONDI, JEAN CHARLES LEONARD SIMONDE DE (1773-1842), Swiss economist, historian, historian of literature and publicist. Sismondi, a Genevan descended from an old French family, emigrated to England in 1793 and to Tuscany the following year but in 1800 settled in his native city, where from 1809 on he lectured at the Academy of Geneva on ancient and literary history and economics. His development, particularly as historian and historian of literature, was profoundly influenced by his friendship with Madame de Staël and by the prominent personalities whom he met in her cosmopolitan salon at Coppet.

Through his Histoire des républiques italiennes au moyen âge Sismondi was the first to awaken general interest in the mediaeval history of Italy. But while he was a pioneer in the reclamation of the Middle Ages from the contempt of the eighteenth century rationalists, he shared the tendency of the latter to use history for didactic purposes: he wrote his history of the Italian towns as an anti-Bonapartist republican who wished to remind an enslaved nation of its glorious past. He was one of the first to understand that the liberation of the mediaeval Italian cities enabled them to take precedence in the development of a bourgeois society. His descriptions of currency, trade, manufactures, agriculture and the role of productive capital often reveal technical precision, although he had little inkling of the interdependence between politics and economic drives. His subsequent Histoire des Français without transcending the limitations of the earlier work won recognition as the earliest comprehensive survey of the subject based on original research and as a suggestive synthesis of varied currents particularly in the mediaeval period.

As author of De la littérature du midi de l'Europe, a revision of his lectures on the evolution of Arabian, Provencal, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese literature, Sismondi became cofounder with Madame de Staël of the "philosophy of literature," which paved the way for the sociological approach to the subject. Just as his investigations of the mediaeval history of Italy had convinced him that national character was determined by social and political institutions rather than by racial or climatic peculiarities, so he now presented literature as the natural if sometimes belated reflection of the same forces. His use of the comparative method enabled him to show the universal parallelism in the stages of intellectual development of different nations and his defense of national art smoothed the path of romanticism especially in France.

Sismondi's general political outlook, as represented, for instance, by Études sur les constitutions des peuples libres (Paris 1836), was liberal but anti-Rousseauistic and antidemocratic. Believing that both the proletariat and the lower middle classes were not yet ready for democracy, he offered an apologia for the privileges of minorities, particularly of the urban bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, whom he regarded not only as the progressive elements but as the representatives of national tradition.

Although in his earliest economic writings, Tableau de l'agriculture toscane (Geneva 1801) and De la richesse commerciale (2 vols., Geneva 1803), he had defended Smithian liberalism and popularized it before J. B. Say, his Nouveaux principes d'économie politique (2 vols., Paris 1819; 2nd ed. 1827), which reflects his observation of the economic crisis during his second trip to England (1818-19), constitutes a devastating criticism of the basic axioms upon which the classical economists built their idealized and static conception of capitalism. He showed clearly the untenability of the doctrine that competition always tends to establish an equilibrium between production and consumption. More specifically he emphasized that general crises, or gluts, are not only possible - a fact denied by the classical economists, although they admitted the possibility of partial gluts arising from an occasional disproportion between individual branches of industry - but an inevitable periodic concomitant of the prevailing economic structure. The direct cause of such crises he found in underconsumption on the part of the working classes, whose purchasing power is insufficient to absorb the annual national output. The second inherent characteristic of capitalism overlooked by the classical economists was the necessity of continuous expansion and conquest of new outlets, resulting from the restriction of the internal market. While Sismondi was incorrect in limiting demand to consumers' demand and in other aspects of his argument, the essential validity of his conclusions makes him the scientific discoverer of capitalistic dynamics.

The deeper cause of underconsumption, that is, of the simultaneous decline in income and increase in the volume of production, Sismondi attributed to the fact that in a capitalistic society the extent and direction of economic activity are determined by exchange value, which by reason of the unevenness of technological advance within each branch of production is in a constant state of flux. The only possible basis for a harmonious and stable adjustment is the social need measured in terms of the quantity of useful commodities. Since the latter has no determining effect in a capitalistic system, Sismondi denied categorically the possibility of regulating economic activity in such a system. His various reform proposals, including his demand for public protection of workers, were consciously advanced merely as palliatives, which he realized could not correct the evils inherent in the existing order.

Among his contemporaries Sismondi was recognized chiefly as historian and historian of literature and subsequently fell into oblivion, except in Italy, where his work as a national historian influenced the spiritual revival during the Risorgimento. After 1850 the protagonists of social reform, frequently exaggerating Sismondi's really limited faith in reform measures, rediscovered him and hailed him as a precursor. Today he is famous especially as a theorist of crises, whose ideas were taken over not only by his contemporaries Malthus and Rodbertus but under the disguise of Marxist terminology by such socialists as Heinrich Cunow, L. Boudin, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Since the outbreak of the present world crisis this under-consumption theory, which Lenin justly attacked as non-Marxist, has become the official doctrine of numerous socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and America.


Works: Histoire des républiques italiennes au moyen âge, 16 vols. (Zurich and Paris 1807-18; new ed., 10 vols., Paris 1840-41; abridged ed. as Histoire de la renaissance de la liberté en Italie, 2 vols., Paris 1832), tr. as A History of the Italian Republics (London 1832; reprinted in Everyman's Library, London 1907); Histoire des Français, 31 vols. (Paris 1821-44, abridged ed. as Precis de l'histoire des Francais, 2 vols., Paris 1838, and a third volume by E. Robinet, 1844); De la littérature du midi de l'Europe, 4 vols. (Paris 1813; 4th ed., 2 vols., Brussels 1837), tr. by Thomas Roscoe as Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe, 2 vols. (4th ed. London 1853); Etudes sur les sciences sociales, 3 vols. (Paris 1836-38).

Consult: Sails, Jean R. de, Sismondi, 1773-1842; Bibliotheque de la Revue de Litterature Comparée, vol. lxxvii, 2 vols. (Paris 1932); Aftalion, Albert, L'oeuvre économique de Simonde de Sismondi (Paris 1899); Grossman, Henryk, Simonde de Sismondi et ses théories économiques, Warsaw, Bibliotheca Universitatis Liberae Polonae, no. 11 (Warsaw 1924); Tuan, Mao-Lan, Simonde de Sismondi as an Economist, Columbia University, Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, no. 298 (New York 1927); Festy, O., "Sismondi et la condition des ouvriers français de son temps" in Revue d'économie politique, vol. xxxii (1918) 46-72, 119-36; Lenin, V. I., "K kharakteristike ekonomicheskogo romantizma" (Characteristics of economic romanticism) in his Sochineniya, vol. ii (2nd rev. ed. Moscow 1926) p. 9-115; Jeandeau, René, Sismondi, précurseur de la législation sociale contemporaine (Bordeaux 1913); Pellegrini, Carlo, II Sismondi e la storia delle letterature dell' Europa meridionale, Biblioteca dell' Archivum romanicum, 1st ser., vol. vii (Geneva 1926); Gooch, G. P., History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (London 1913) p. 165-68.