V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism




Machines in Capitalist Society

Related to the problem of surplus population is that of the significance of machines in general.

Ephrucy dilates upon Sismondi’s “brilliant observations” concerning machines, and asserts that “to regard him as an opponent of technical improvements is unjust” (No. 7, p. 155), that “Sismondi was not an enemy of machines and inventions” (p. 156). “Sismondi repeatedly stressed the idea that machines and inventions are not in themselves harmful to the working class, but become so only because of the conditions of the existing system of economy, under which an   increase in the productivity of labour leads neither to an increase in working class consumption nor to a reduction of working hours” (p. 155).

All these observations are quite correct. But again, this appraisal of Sismondi is a wonderfully vivid revelation of how the Narodnik absolutely failed to understand the romanticist, to understand the point of view on capitalism specific to romanticism, and the radical difference between this point of view and that of scientific theory. The Narodnik could not understand this, because Narodism itself has not gone beyond romanticism. But while Sismondi’s observations concerning the contradictory nature of the capitalist employment of machines marked a great step forward in the 1820s, it is quite unpardonable today to confine oneself to such a primitive criticism and not to see its narrow petty-bourgeois character.

In this respect (i.e., in respect of the difference between Sismondi’s doctrine and the modern theory)[1] Ephrucy keeps firmly to his own ground. He cannot even present the problem. He says that Sismondi saw the contradiction, and rests content with that; as if history had not shown the most diverse ways and means of criticising the contradictions of capitalism. In saying that Sismondi did not regard machines as being harmful in themselves, but harmful in their operation under the present social system, Ephrucy does not even see what a primitive, superficially sentimental point of view he expresses in this one argument alone. Sismondi did indeed inquire: are machines harmful, or not? And he “answered” the question with the maxim: machines are useful only when production is commensurate with consumption (cf. quotations in Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 7, p. 156). After all that has been said above, there is no need for us to prove here that such an “answer” is nothing more nor less than substituting a petty-bourgeois utopia for a scientific analysis of capitalism. Sismondi cannot be blamed for not having made such an analysis. Historical services are not judged by the contributions historical personalities did not make in respect of modern   requirements, but by the new contributions they did make as compared with their predecessors. Here, however, we are judging neither Sismondi nor his primitive, sentimental point of view, but the economist of Russkoye Bogatstvo, who to this day does not understand the difference between this point of view and the modern one. He does not understand that to bring out this difference he should not have asked whether Sismondi was an enemy of machines or not, but whether Sismondi understood the significance of machines under the capitalist system, whether he understood the role played by machines as a factor of progress under this system? Had the economist of Russkoye Bogatstvo done that, he might have noted that Sismondi, owing to his petty-bourgeois, utopian point of view, could not even raise such questions, and that what distinguishes the new theory is that it does raise and answer them. In that case Ephrucy might have understood that by substituting the question of the conditions under which machines can, in general, be “profitable” and “useful” for that of the historical role played by machines in existing capitalist society, Sismondi naturally arrived at the theory that capitalism and the capitalist employment of machines were “dangerous” and urged the necessity of “retarding,” “moderating” and “regulating” the growth of capitalism, and, as a consequence, he became a reactionary. The fact that Sismondi’s doctrine fails to understand the historical role of machines as a factor of progress is one of the reasons for the modern theory regarding it as reactionary.

We shall not here, of course, expound the modern theory (i.e., Marx’s theory) of machine production. We refer the reader to, say, the above-mentioned study by N. Sieber, chapter X: “Machines and Large-Scale Industry,” and particularly chapter XI: “An Examination of the Theory of Machine Production.”[2] We shall merely give the gist of it in briefest outline. It boils down to two points: first, to a historical analysis, which established the place machine production   occupies as one of the stages in the development of capitalism, and the relation of machine industry to the preceding stages (capitalist simple co-operation and capitalist manufacture); secondly, to an analysis of the part played by machines under capitalist economy, and in particular, to an analysis of the changes which machine industry effects in all the conditions of life of the population. On the first point, the theory established that machine industry is only one stage (namely, the highest) of capitalist production, and showed how it arose out of manufacture. On the second point, the theory established that machine industry marks gigantic progress in capitalist society not only because it increases the productive forces enormously and socialises labour throughout society,[3] but also because it destroys the manufactory division of labour, compels the workers to go from occupations of one kind to others, completes the destruction of backward patriarchal relationships, particularly in the rural districts,[4] and gives a most powerful impetus to the progress of society, both for the reasons stated and as a consequence of the concentration of the industrial population. This progress, like the progress capitalism makes in every other field, is accompanied by the “progress” of contradictions, i.e., by their intensification and expansion.

Perhaps the reader will ask: what interest is there in examining Sismondi’s views on such a universally known question and in such a brief reference to the modern theory, with which everybody is “familiar,” and with which everybody “agrees”?

Well, to see what this “agreement” looks like we shall take Mr. N.-on, the most prominent Narodnik economist, who claims that he strictly applies the modern theory. In his Sketches, it will be remembered, Mr. N.-on sets himself as one of his special tasks the study of the capitalisation   of the Russian textile industry, the characteristic feature of which is precisely that it employs machines on the biggest scale.

The question is: what is Mr. N.–on’s point of view on this subject: the point of view of Sismondi (whose view point, as we have seen, he shares on very many aspects of capitalism), or the point of view of modern theory? Is he, on this important subject, a romanticist or . . . a realist[5] ?

We have seen that the first thing that distinguishes the modern theory is that it is based on a historical analysis of the development of machine industry from capitalist manufacture. Did Mr. N.-on raise the problem of the development of Russian machine industry? No. True, he did say that it was preceded by work in the home for the capitalist, and by the hand-labour “factory”[6] but he not only failed to explain the relation of machine industry to the preceding stage, he even failed to “notice” that it was wrong in scientific terminology to apply the term factory to the preceding stage (production by hand in the home or in the capitalist’s workshop), which should undoubtedly be described as capitalist manufacture.[7]

Let the reader not think that this “omission” is unimportant. On the contrary, it is of enormous importance. Firstly, Mr. N.-on thereby identifies capitalism with machine industry. This is a gross mistake. What constitutes the importance of the scientific theory is that it cleared up the real place of machine industry as one of the stages of capitalism. If Mr. N.-on shared the point of   view of this theory, could he have depicted the growth and victory of machine industry as “the struggle between two economic forms”: between some unknown “form based on the peasantry’s ownership of instruments of production”[8] and “capitalism” (pp. 2, 3, 66, 198 et al.), whereas, in fact, we see a struggle between machine industry and capitalist manufacture? Mr. N.-on says not a word about this struggle; although this replacement of one form of capitalism by another took place, on his own showing, precisely in the textile industry, the sphere of his special study (p. 79), Mr. N.-on misrepresented it, calling it the replacement of “people’s production” by “capitalism.” Is it not evident that at bottom the problem of the actual development of machine industry did not interest him in the least, and that the term “people’s production” covers up a utopia entirely to the taste of Sismondi? Secondly, if Mr. N.-on had raised the question of the historical development of Russian machine industry, could he have spoken of “implanting capitalism” (pp. 331, 283, 323 et al.), basing his case on facts of governmental support and assistance—facts which have also occurred in Europe? The question is: is he copying Sismondi who also talked in exactly th3 same way about “implanting,” or is he copying the representative of the modern theory who studied the replacement of manufacture by machine industry? Thirdly, if Mr. N.-on had raised the problem of the historical development of the forms of capitalism in Russia (in the textile industry), could he have ignored the existence of capitalist manufacture in the Russian “handicraft industries”[9] ? And if he had really followed theory and attempted to apply a scientific analysis to at least a small corner of this production—which   is also “people’s production”—what would have become of this picture of Russian social economy, daubed in cheap and inartistic Suzdal style, which depicts a nebulous “people’s production” and an isolated from it “capitalism” which embraces only a “handful” of workers (p. 326 et al.)?

To sum up: On the first point which distinguishes the modern theory of machine industry from the romantic theory, Mr. N.–on can on no account be regarded as a follower of the former, for he does not even realise the need to present the question of the rise of machine industry as a special stage of capitalism, and is silent about the existence of capitalist manufacture, the stage of capitalism which preceded that of the machines. Instead of an historical analysis, he palms off the utopia of “people’s production.”

The second point relates to the modern theory of the changes brought about in social relations by machine industry. Mr. N.–on did not even attempt to examine this problem. He complained a great deal about capitalism and deplored the appearance of the factory (exactly as Sismondi did), but he did not even attempt to study the change in social conditions brought about by the factory.[10] To do that it would have been necessary to compare machine industry with the preceding stages, which Mr. N.–on does not refer to. Similarly, the viewpoint of the modern theory on machines as a factor of progress in present-day capitalist society is also totally alien to him. Here, too, he did not even present the question,[11] nor could he do so, for this question can arise only out of a historical study of the replacement of one form of capitalism by another, whereas according to Mr. N.–on “capitalism” tout court[12] replaces ... “people’s production.”

If, on the basis of Mr. N.–on’s “study” of the capitalisation of the textile industry in Russia, we were to ask: how does Mr. N.–on regard machines?–we could receive   no other reply than that with which we are already familiar from Sismondi’s work. Mr. N.–on admits that machines increase the productivity of labour (not to do so is more than he dare!)–just as Sismondi did. Mr. N.–on says that it is not machines that are harmful, but the capitalist employment of them–just as Sismondi did. Mr. N.–on believes that in introducing machines “we” have lost sight of the fact that production must correspond to “the people’s consuming capacity”–just as Sismondi did.

And that is all. Mr. N.–on does not believe anything more. He will not hear of the problems that have been raised and solved by modern theory, because he did not even attempt to examine either the historical succession of different forms of capitalist production in Russia (using, say, the example of the textile industry that he chose), or the role of machines as a factor of progress under the present capitalist system.

Thus, on the question of machines–this supremely important question of theoretical political economy–Mr. N.–on also shares Sismondi’s point of view, Mr. N.–on argues exactly like a romanticist, which, of course, does not prevent him from quoting and quoting.

This applies not to the example of the textile industry alone, but to all Mr. N.–on’s arguments. Take, say, the above-mentioned example of the flour-milling industry. Mr. N.–on pointed to the introduction of machines only as an excuse for the sentimental lamentation that this increase in the productivity of labour did not correspond to the “people’s consuming capacity.” As regards the changes in the social system which machine industry introduces in general (and has actually introduced in Russia), he did not even think of analysing them. The question of whether the introduction of these machines is a progressive step in present-day capitalist society is something quite incomprehensible to him.[13]

What we have said about Mr. N.–on applies a fortiori[14]   to the other Narodnik economists: on the question of machines, Narodism to this day adheres to the viewpoint of petty-bourgeois romanticism and replaces an economic analysis by sentimental wishes.


[1] We have already repeatedly seen that Ephrucy tried everywhere to draw this comparison between Sismondi and the modern theory. —Lenin

[2] “To tell the truth,” says Sieber at the beginning of this chapter, “the theory of machines and of large-scale industry outlined here, represents such an inexhaustible source of new thinking and original research, that if anybody took it into his head to weigh up the relative merits of this theory in full he would have to write almost a whole book on this subject alone” (p. 473) —Lenin

[3] Comparing “associated labour” in the village community and in capitalist society that has machine industry, Sieber quite rightly observes “There is approximately the same difference between the ‘component’ of a village community and the ‘component’ of society with machine production as there is, for example, between the unit 10 and the unit 100’ (p. 495) —Lenin

[4] Sieber, op. cit., p. 467. —Lenin

[5] The word “realist” was used here instead of the word Marxist exclusively for censorship reasons. For the same reason, instead of referring to Capital, we referred to Sieber’s book, which summarised Marx’s Capital. (Author’s footnote to the 1908 edition.—Ed.) —Lenin

[6] P. 108. Quoted from Statistical Returns for Moscow Gubernia, Vol. VII, Part III, p. 32 (the statisticians here summarise Korsak’s Forms of Industry): “Since 1822 the very organisation of industry has undergone a complete change—instead of being independent handicraft producers, the peasants are becoming merely the performers of several operations of large-scale factory production and only receive wages.” —Lenin

[7] Sieber quite rightly indicated that the ordinary terminology (factory, works, etc.) is unsuitable for scientific research, and urged the need for drawing a distinction between machine industry and capitalist manufacture: p. 474. —Lenin

[8] N.-on, p. 322. Does this differ even one iota from Sismondi’s idealisation of patriarchal peasant economy? —Lenin

[9] We assume that there is no need here to prove this commonly known fact. It is sufficient to recall the Pavlovo metalworkers, the Bogorodsk leather and the Kimry boot and shoe trade, the hat making district of Molvitino, the Tula accordion and samovar trades, the Krasnoye Selo and Rybnaya Sloboda jewelry trade, the Semyonov spoon trade, the horn trade in “Ustyanshchina,” the felt trade in Semyonov Uyezd, Nizhni-Novgorod Gubernia, etc. We are quoting from memory; if we made an investigation of handicraft industries, we could prolong this list to infinity. —Lenin

[10] We ask the reader not to forget that the scientific meaning of this term is not the same as the ordinary one. Science limits its application exclusively to large-scale machine industry. —Lenin

[11] As has been done, for example, by A. Volgin, The Substantiation of Narodism in the Works of Mr. Vorontsov (V.V.). St. Petersburg, 1896. —Lenin

[12] Simply. –Ed. —Lenin

[13] The text contains an outline criticism of Mr. N.–on’s views based on Marx’s theory; this I subsequently completed in The Development of Capitalism. (Author’s footnote to the 1908 edition. –Ed.) —Lenin

[14] All the more. –Ed. —Lenin

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