V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism




Capitalist Rent and Capitalist Overpopulation

We continue our survey of Sismondi’s theoretical views. All his chief views, those which distinguish him from all other economists, who have already examined. The others   either do not play such an important role in his general theory, or are deduced from the preceding ones.

Let us note that Sismondi, like Rodbertus, did not agree with Ricardo’s theory of rent. While not advancing a theory of his own, he tried to shake Ricardo’s theory with arguments that were, to say the least, feeble. In this he acts as the pure ideologist of the small peasant; it is not so much a refutation of Ricardo as a complete rejection of the application of the categories of commodity economy and of capitalism to agriculture. In both respects his point of view is extremely characteristic of the romanticists. Chapter XIII of Book III[1] deals with “Mr. Ricardo’s ground-rent theory.” Stating at once that Ricardo’s doctrine completely contradicts his own theory, Sismondi advances the following objections: the general level of profit (on which Ricardo’s theory is based) is never established, there is no free movement of capital in agriculture. In agriculture we must discern the intrinsic value of the product (la valeur intrinsèque ), which does not depend upon market fluctuations and provides the-owner with a “net product” (produit net ), the “labour of nature” (I, 306). “The labour of nature is a power, the source of the net product of the land regarded intrinsically” (intrinsèquement ) (I, 310). “We regarded rent (le fermage ), or more correctly, the net product, as originating directly from the land for the owner’s benefit; it takes no share either from the farmer or the   consumer” (I, 312). And this repetition of the old physiocratic prejudices concludes with the moral: “In general, in political economy, one should guard against (se défier ) absolute assumptions, as well as against abstractions” (1, 312)1 There is really nothing to examine in such a “theory,” since Ricardo’s brief remark about the “labour of nature” is more than enough.[2] It is simply a refusal to analyse and a gigantic step back compared with Ricardo. Here, too, the romanticism of Sismondi is quite clearly revealed, for he hastens to condemn the process, but is afraid to touch it with an analysis. Note that he does not deny the fact of agriculture developing on capitalist lines in England, of the peasants there being displaced by capitalist farmers and day labourers, and of things developing in the same direction on the Continent. He simply turns his back on these facts (which he was in duty bound to examine since he was discussing capitalist economy) and prefers talking sentimentally of the advantages of the patriarchal system of exploiting the land. Our Narodniks behave in exactly the same way: none of them have attempted to deny the fact that commodity economy is penetrating into agriculture, that it must produce a radical change in the social character of agriculture; but at the same time none of them, in discussing the capitalist economy, raise the question of the growth of commercial farming, preferring to make shift with moralising about “people’s production.” Since we are confining ourselves for the moment to an analysis of Sismondi’s theoretical economy, we shall postpone a more detailed examination of this “patriarchal exploitation” to a later occasion.

Another theoretical point around which Sismondi’s exposition revolves is the doctrine of population. Let us   note Sismondi’s attitude towards the Malthusian theory, and towards the surplus population created by capitalism.

Ephrucy assures us that Sismondi agrees with Malthus only on the point that the population can multiply with exceeding rapidity, and be the cause of terrible suffering. “Beyond this they are poles apart. Sismondi puts the whole population problem on a socio-historical basis” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 7, p. 148). In this formula, too, Ephrucy completely obscures Sismondi’s characteristic (namely, petty-bourgeois) point of view and his romanticism.

What does this mean—“to put the population problem on a socio-historical basis”? It means studying the law of population of each historical system of economy separately, and studying its connection and interrelation with the given system. Which system did Sismondi study? The capitalist system. Thus, the contributor to Russkoye Bogatstvo assumes that Sismondi studied the capitalist law of population. There is a grain of truth in this assertion but only a grain. And as Ephrucy did not think of trying to discover what was lacking in Sismondi’s argument about population, and as Ephrucy asserts that “here Sismondi is the predecessor of the most outstanding modern economists”[3] (p. 148), the result is exactly the same sort of embellishment of the petty-bourgeois romanticist as we saw in respect of the questions of crises and of national revenue. Wherein lies the similarity between Sismondi’s doctrine and the new theory on these problems? In that Sismondi indicated the contradictions inherent in capitalist accumulation. This similarity Ephrucy noted. Wherein lies the difference between Sismondi’s doctrine and the new theory? Firstly, in that it did not advance the scientific analysis of these contradictions one iota, and in some respects even took a step back compared with the classical economists; and secondly, in that he covered up his own inability to make an analysis (partly his unwillingness to do so) with petty-bourgeois moralising about the need for balancing national revenue   with expenditure, production with consumption, and so forth. This difference Ephrucy did not note on a single one of the points mentioned, and thereby totally misrepresented Sismondi’s real significance and his relation to the modern theory. We see exactly the same thing on the present problem. Here, too, the similarity between Sismondi’s view and the modern theory is limited to an indication of the contradiction. And here, too, the difference lies in the absence of a scientific analysis and in the substitution of petty-bourgeois moralising for the analysis. Let us explain this.

The development of capitalist machine industry since the end of the last century led to the formation of a surplus population, and political economy was confronted with the task of explaining this phenomenon. Malthus, as we know, tried to explain it by attributing it to natural-historical causes; he denied absolutely that it sprang from a certain, historically determined system of social economy and simply shut his eyes to the contradictions revealed by this fact. Sismondi indicated these contradictions and the displacement of the population by machines. This is indisputably to his credit, for in the period in which he wrote this was new. But let us see what his attitude towards this fact was.

In Book VII (On the Population), chapter VII speaks particularly “on the population which has become superfluous owing to the invention of machines.” Sismondi states that “machines displace men” (p. 315, II, VII), and at once asks whether the invention of machines is a boon or a bane to a nation. It goes without saying that the “answer” to this question for all countries and all times whatever, and not for a capitalist country, is a most meaningless piece of banality: it is a boon when “consumers’ demand exceeds the population’s means of production” (les moyens de produire de la population ) (II, 317), and a bane “when production is quite sufficient for consumption.” In other words: Sismondi notes the contradiction, but this merely serves as a pretext for arguing about some abstract society in which there are no longer any contradictions, and to which the ethics of the thrifty peasant can be applied! Sismondi makes no attempt to analyse this contradiction, to examine how it arises, what it leads to, etc., in the existing capitalist   society. On the contrary, he uses this contradiction merely as material for his moral indignation against such a contradiction. Beyond this the chapter tells us absolutely nothing about this theoretical problem, and contains nothing but regrets, complaints and innocent wishes. The displaced workers were consumers . . . the home market shrinks . . . as regards the foreign market, the world is already sufficiently supplied . . . if the peasants were moderately prosperous, this would be a better guarantee of a market . . . there is no more amazing and terrible example than England, which is being followed by the Continental countries—such is the moralising we get from Sismondi, instead of an analysis of the phenomenon! His attitude towards the subject is exactly the same as that of our Narodniks. The Narodniks also confine themselves to stating the fact of a surplus population, and use it merely as a reason to voice lamentations about and complaints against capitalism (cf. N.-on, V. V., and others). Sismondi makes no attempt even to analyse the relation between this surplus population and the requirements of capitalist production, neither do our Narodniks ever set themselves such a problem.

The scientific analysis of this contradiction revealed the absolute falsity of this method. The analysis showed that surplus population, being undoubtedly a contradiction (along with surplus production and surplus consumption) and being an inevitable result of capitalist accumulation, is at the same time an indispensable component part of the capitalist machine.[4] The further large-scale industry develops   the greater is the fluctuation in the demand for workers, depending upon whether there is a crisis or a boom in national production as a whole, or in any one branch of it. This fluctuation is a law of capitalist production, which could not exist if there were no surplus population (i.e., a population exceeding capitalism’s average demand for workers) ready at any given moment to provide hands for any industry, or any factory. The analysis showed that a surplus population is formed in all industries into which capitalism penetrates and in agriculture as well as in industry—and that the surplus population exists in different forms. There are three chief forms[5] : Floating overpopulation. To this category belong the unemployed workers in industry. As industry develops their numbers inevitably grow. 2) Latent overpopulation. To this category belong the rural population who lose their farms with the development of capitalism and are unable to find non-agricultural employment. This population is always ready to provide hands for any factory. 3) Stagnant overpopulation. It has “extremely irregular” employment, under conditions below the average level.[8] To this category belong, mainly, people who work at home for manufacturers and stores, including both rural and urban inhabitants. The sum-total of all these strata of the population constitutes the relative surplus population, or reserve army. The latter term distinctly shows what population is referred to. They are the workers needed by capitalism for the potential expansion of enterprises, but who can never be regularly employed.

Thus, on this problem, too, theory arrived at a conclusion diametrically opposed to that of the romanticists. For the latter, the surplus population signifies that capitalism is impossible, or a “mistake.” Actually, the opposite   is the case: the surplus population, being a necessary concomitant of surplus production, is an indispensable attribute to the capitalist economy, which could neither exist nor develop without it. Here too Ephrucy totally misrepresented the issue by saying nothing about this thesis of the modern theory.

A mere comparison of these two points of view is sufficient to enable one to judge which of them our Narodniks adhere to. The chapter from Sismondi’s work dealt with above could with every right figure in Mr. N.-on’s Sketches on Our Post-Reform Social Economy.

While noting the formation of a surplus population in post-Reform Russia, the Narodniks have never raised the issue of capitalism’s need of a reserve army of workers. Could the railways have been built if a permanent surplus population had not been formed? It is surely known that the demand for this type of labour fluctuates greatly from year to year. Could industry have developed without this condition? (In boom periods it needs large numbers of building workers to erect new factories, premises, warehouses, etc., and all kinds of auxiliary day labour, which constitutes the greater part of the so-called outside non-agricultural employments.) Could the capitalist farming of our outlying regions, which demands hundreds of thousands and millions of day labourers, have been created without this condition? And as we know, the demand for this kind of labour fluctuates enormously. Could the entrepreneur lumber merchants have hewn down the forests to meet the needs of the factories with such phenomenal rapidity if a surplus population had not been formed? (Lumbering like other types of hired labour in which rural people engage is among the occupations with the lowest wages and the worst conditions.) Could the system, so widespread in the so-called handicraft industries, under which merchants, mill owners and stores give out work to be done at home in both town and country, have developed without this condition? In all these branches of labour (which have developed mainly since the Reform) the fluctuation in the demand for hired labour is extremely great. Yet the degree of fluctuation in this demand determines the dimensions of the surplus population needed by capitalism.   The Narodnik economists have nowhere shown that they are familiar with this law. We do not, of course, intend to make an examination of the substance of these problems here.[6] This does not enter into our task. The subject of our article is West-European romanticism and its relation to Russian Narodism. In this case, too, this relation is the same as in all the preceding cases: on the subject of surplus population, the Narodniks adhere entirely to the viewpoint of romanticism, which is diametrically opposite to that of the modern theory. Capitalism gives no employment to displaced workers, they say. This means that capitalism is impossible, a “mistake,” etc. But it does not “mean” that at all. Contradiction does not mean impossibility (Widerspruch is not the same as Widersinn ). Capitalist accumulation, i.e., real production for the sake of production, is also a contradiction. But this does not prevent it from existing and from being the law of a definite system of economy. The same must be said of all the other contradictions of capitalism. The Narodnik argument we have quoted merely “means” that the Russian intelligentsia have become deeply imbued with the vice of using empty phrases to get over all these contradictions.

Thus, Sismondi contributed absolutely nothing to the theoretical analysis of overpopulation. But how did he regard it? His view is a queer combination of petty-bourgeois sentiment and Malthusianism. “The great vice of the present social organisation,” says Sismondi, “is that a poor man can never know what demand for labour he can count upon” (II, 261), and Sismondi sighs for the times when “the village shoemaker” and the small peasant knew the exact amount of their revenues. “The more a poor man is bereft of all property, the more is he in danger of falling into error concerning his revenue and of contributing to the formation of a population (contribuer à accroître une population. . .) which, being out of proportion to the demand for labour, will not find means of subsistence” (II, 263-64). You see: this ideologist of the petty bourgeoisie is not satisfied with wanting to retard the whole of social development for   the sake of preserving the patriarchal relationships of a semi-barbarous population. He is ready to prescribe any device you please for crippling human nature, as long as it helps to preserve the petty bourgeoisie. Here are several more excerpts, which leave no doubt about this last point:

The weekly payment of wages at the factory to the semi-pauperised worker has accustomed the latter to look no further into the future than the next Saturday: “this has blunted his moral qualities and sense of sympathy” (II, 266), which, as we shall see in a moment, consist of “connubial prudence”! . . . “The more his family becomes a burden upon society the more it will grow; and the nation will suffer (gémira ) from the burden of a population which is out of proportion (disproportionnée ) to its means of subsistence” (II, 267). Preserve small property at all costs—such is Sismondi’s slogan—even at the cost of reducing the standard of living and of distorting human nature! And Sismondi, who, with the air of a statesman, has told us when an increase in the population is “desirable,” devotes a special chapter to attacking religion for having failed to condemn “imprudent” marriages. Once his ideal—the petty bourgeois—is affected, Sismondi becomes more Malthusian than Malthus himself. “Children who are born only for poverty are also born only for vice,” says Sismondi, admonishing religion. “Ignorance in matters concerning the social system has induced them” (the representatives of religion) “to strike chastity from the list of virtues that are proper to marriage, and has been one of the constantly operating causes which destroy the naturally established balance between the population and its means of subsistence” (II, 294). “Religious morality should teach people that having produced a family, it is their duty to live no less chastely with their wives than celibates with women who do not be long to them” (II, 298). And Sismondi, who, in general, lays claim to the title not only of a theoretician in political economy, but also to that of wise administrator, immediate, proceeds to calculate that “producing a family” requires “in general, and on the average, three births,” and he advises the government “not to deceive the people with the hope of an independent status which will permit them to   raise a family when that illusory institution (cet établissement illusoire ) leaves them at the mercy of suffering, poverty and death” (II, 299). “When the social organisation did not separate the labouring class from the class which owned some property, public opinion alone was enough to avert the scourge (le fléau ) of poverty. For the agriculturist to sell the heritage of his fathers and for the artisan to squander his small capital has always been regarded as something shameful. . . . But under the system at present prevailing in Europe . . . people who are condemned never to possess any property can feel no shame what ever at being reduced to pauperism” (II, 306-07). It would be difficult to express more vividly the stupidity and hard-heartedness of the small proprietor! Here Sismondi changes from the theoretician into the practical counsellor, who preaches the morals which, we know, are practised with such success by the French peasant. This is not only Malthus, but Malthus deliberately cut to the measure of the petty bourgeois. Reading these chapters of Sismondi’s, one cannot help recalling the passionately angry invective of Proudhon, who argued that Malthusianism was the preaching of the connubial practice of . . . a certain unnatural vice.[7]


[1] His very system of exposition is characteristic: Book III treats of “territorial wealth” (richesse territoriale ), of wealth in the shape of land, i.e., of agriculture. The next book, Book IV, treats of “commercial wealth” (de la richesse commerciale ), of industry and commerce. As though the produce of the land, and land itself, have not also become commodities under the rule of capitalism! For this reason, there is no harmony between these two books. Industry is dealt with only in its capitalist form as it existed in Sismondi’s time. Agriculture, however, is described in the form of a motley enumeration of all sorts of systems of exploiting the land: patriarchal, slave, half-crop, corvée, quit-rent, capitalist farming and emphyteutic (the granting of land on a perpetual hereditary lease). The result is utter confusion: the author gives us neither a history of agriculture, for all these “systems” are unconnected, nor an analysis of agriculture under capitalist economy although the latter is the real subject of his work, and though he speaks of industry only in its capitalist form. —Lenin

[2] Ricardo, Works, Sieber’s (Russian) translation, p. 35: “Does nature do nothing for man in manufactures? Are the powers of wind and water, which move our machinery, and assist navigation, nothing? The pressure of the atmosphere and the elasticity of steam, which enable us to work the most stupendous engines—are they not the gifts of nature? To say nothing of the effects of the matter of heat in softening and melting metals, of the decomposition of the atmosphere in the process of dyeing and fermentation. There is not a manufacture which can be mentioned, in which nature does not give her assistance to man, and give it too, generously and gratuitously.” —Lenin

[3] Incidentally, we make the reservation that we cannot know for certain whom Ephrucy has in mind when he speaks of “the most Outstanding modern economist,” the representative of a certain school which is absolutely alien to romanticism, or the author of the bulkiest Handbuch. —Lenin

[4] As far as we know, this point of view about the surplus population was first expressed by Engels in Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (1845) (The Condition of the Working Class in England.—Ed.). After describing the ordinary industrial cycle of English industry the author says:

“From this it is clear that English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of workers, in order to be able to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months. This reserve army is larger or smaller, according as the state of the market occasions the employment of a larger or smaller proportion of its members. And if at the moment of highest activity of the market the agricultural districts . . . and the branches least affected by the general prosperity temporarily supply to manufacture a number of workers, these   are a mere minority, and these too belong to the reserve army, with the single difference that the prosperity of the moment was required to reveal their connection with it.”[9]

It is important to note in the last words that the part of the agricultural population which turns temporarily to industry is regarded as belonging to the reserve army. This is precisely what the modern theory has called the latent form of the surplus population (see Marx’s Capital).[10]Lenin

[5] Cf. Sieber’s David Ricardo, etc., pp. 552-53. St. Petersburg, 1885. —Lenin

[6] That is why we do not deal here with the very original circumstance that Narodnik economists, as grounds for not counting all these very numerous workers, advanced the fact that they are not registered. —Lenin

[7] See supplement to the Russian translation of Malthus’ Essay on Population (Bibikov’s translation, St. Petersburg, 1868). Excerpt from Proudhon’s essay On Justice. —Lenin

[9] Marx and Engels, On Britain, Moscow 1953, p. 119.

[10] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow 1958, p. 642.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, p. 643.

  Crises | Machines in Capitalist Society  

Works Index   |   Volume 2 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index
< backward   forward >