V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism





The last theoretical problem that interests us in Sismondi’s system of views is that of protection. No little space is devoted to this problem in Nouveaux Principes, but there it is examined mostly from the practical aspect, in connection with the anti-Corn-Laws movement in Britain. We shall examine this latter problem later on, for it includes other, broader problems. What interests us here at the moment is only Sismondi’s point of view on protection. What is of interest in this problem is not a new economic concept of Sismondi’s, that has not been discussed, but his understanding of the relation between “economics” and the “superstructure.” Ephrucy assures the readers of Russkoye Bogatstvo that Sismondi was “one of the first and most talented forerunners of the modern historical school,” that he was “opposed to the isolation of economic phenomena from all other social factors.” “The view is expressed in the works of Sismondi that economic phenomena must not be isolated from other social factors, that they must be studied in connection with facts of a socio-political character” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 8, pp. 38-39). Well, we shall see from the example we have taken, how Sismondi understood the connection between economic and socio-political phenomena.

“The prohibition of imports,” says Sismondi in the chapter “Of Customs” (1. IV, ch. XI), “is as unwise and as ruinous as the prohibition of exports: it was invented in order to give the nation manufacture, something it did not yet possess; and it cannot be denied that for nascent industry it is on a par with the most powerful encouragement bonus. This manufacture produces, perhaps, scarcely one-hundredth part of a certain kind of goods consumed by the nation: one hundred buyers will have to compete with   each other to obtain commodities from the sole vendor, and the ninety-nine to whom he refuses to sell will have to make shift with contraband goods. In that case, the nation’s loss will be equal to one hundred, and its gain equal to one. No matter how much the nation may gain from this new manufacture, there can be no doubt that this gain will be too small to justify such great sacrifice. One could always find less wasteful means of stimulating such manufacture to activity” (I, 440-41).

You see how simply Sismondi solves this problem: protection is “unwise” because the “nation” stands to lose by it!

What “nation” does our economist speak of? What economic relations does he connect the given socio-political fact with? He takes no definite relations, he argues in general, about a nation as itshould be, according to his conception of what should be. And as we know, this conception of what should be is based on the exclusion of capitalism and on the reign of small independent production.

But it is utterly absurd to associate a socio-political factor which belongs to a given economic system, and to it alone, with some imaginary system. Protection is a “socio-political factor” of capitalism, but Sismondi does not associate it with capitalism, he associates it with some nation in general (or with a nation of small independent producers). He could, perhaps, have associated protection with, say, the Indian village community, and have obtained a still more striking example of its “folly” and “ruination”; but this “folly” would again have been that of his association and not of protection. Sismondi makes a childish calculation to show that protection is profitable to a very few at the expense of the masses. There is no need to do so, for this is already evident from the very concept protection (whether it takes the form of a direct subsidy or the form of eliminating foreign competitors makes no difference). That protection expresses a social contradiction is beyond dispute. But are there no contradictions in the economic life of the system which created protection? On the contrary, it is full of contradictions, and Sismondi himself indicated these contradictions throughout his book. Instead of deducing this contradiction from those of the economic system which he himself indicated, Sismondi   ignores economic contradictions and reduces his argument to totally meaningless “innocent wishes.” Instead of associating this institution which, according to him, benefits a small group, with the position occupied by this group in the country’s economy, and with the interests of this group, he associates it with the abstract principle of the “common weal.” We see, therefore, that, contrary to Ephrucy’s assertion, Sismondi does isolate economic phenomena from the rest (by regarding protection apart from the economic system) and has no conception of the connection between economic and socio-political facts. The tirade we have quoted contains all that he, as a theoretician, could contribute to the problem of protection: all the rest is merely a paraphrase of this. “It is doubtful whether governments fully realise what price they pay for this gain” (the development of manufacture) “and what frightful sacrifices they impose upon the consumers” (I, 442-43). “The governments of Europe wanted to violate nature” (faire violence à la nature ). Which nature? Is it the nature of capitalism that protection “violates”? “The nation was forced, in a way (en quelque sorte), into false activity” (I, 448). “Some governments have gone to the length of paying their merchants in order to enable them to sell more cheaply; the stranger this sacrifice and the more it contradicts the simplest calculation, the more it is ascribed to high politics. . . . The government pays its merchants at the expense of its subjects” (I, 421), and so on and so forth. This is the kind of argument Sismondi treats us to! In other parts of his work, as if drawing the conclusion from these arguments, he calls capitalism “artificial” and “implanted” (I, 379, opulence factice ), “a hothouse product” (II, 456) and so forth . Starting out by substituting innocent wishes for an analysis of the given contradictions, he reaches the point of positively distorting reality to suit those wishes. According to him capitalist industry, which is so zealously “supported,” is feeble, without a basis, and so forth, it does not play a predominant role in the country’s economy and, consequently, this predominant role is played by small scale production, and so forth. The undoubted and indisputable fact that protection was created only by a definite economic system, and by the definite contradictions of that   system, that it expresses the real interests of a real class, which plays the predominant role in the national economy, is reduced to nothing, even to its opposite, by means of a few sentimental phrases! Here is another specimen (concerning the protection of agriculture—I, 265, chapter on the Corn Laws):

“The English would have us believe that their big farms are the only means of improving agriculture, that is to say, of providing themselves with a greater abundance of agricultural produce at a cheaper price—actually, however, they do the opposite, they produce at a higher price.”. . .

This passage, which so strikingly reveals the romanticist way of arguing that the Russian Narodniks have taken over in its entirety, is wonderfully characteristic! The development of capitalist farming and the technical progress connected with it are depicted as a deliberately introduced system: the English (i.e., the English economists) would have us believe that this system is the only means of improving agriculture. Sismondi wants to say that “there could be” other means of improving agriculture besides capitalist farming, i.e., again “there could be” in some abstract society, but not in the real society of a definite historical period, in the “society” based on commodity production of which the English economists speak, and of which Sismondi too should have spoken. “Improvement of agriculture, that is to say, providing themselves’’ (the nation?) “with a greater abundance of produce.” Not “that is to say,” at all. Improvement of agriculture and improved food for the masses are by no means the same thing; that the two will not coincide, is not only possible, it is inevitable under the economic system which Sismondi so zealously wants to avoid. For example, an increase in potato cultivation may signify an increase in labour productivity in agriculture (introduction of root crops) and an increase in surplus-value, simultaneously with a deterioration of the workers’ food. It is another example of the habit of the Narodnik—that is to say, the romanticist—to dismiss the contradictions of real life with phrases.

“Actually,” continues Sismondi, “these farmers, who are so rich, so intelligent and so much supported (secondés )   by all scientific progress, and whose horses are so fine, whose hedges so solid and whose fields so thoroughly cleared of weeds, cannot compete against the wretched Polish peasant, ignorant, crushed by slavery, who seeks consolation only in drink, and whose agriculture is still in the infant stage of the art. The corn harvested in central Poland, after paying freight for many hundreds of leagues by river, by land and by sea, and after paying import duties amounting to 30 and 40 per cent ad valorem, is still cheaper than the corn of the richest counties of England” (I, 265). “The English economists are amazed at this contrast.” They refer to taxes and so forth. But this is not the point. “The system of exploitation itself is bad, it rests on a dangerous foundation. . . . Lately, all writers have presented this system as an object worthy of our admiration, but we, on the contrary, must study it well in order to avoid imitating it” (I, 266).

Really, how infinitely naïve is this romanticist, who presents English capitalism (commercial farming) as a mistaken system of the economists, who imagines that the “amazement” of the economists who shut their eyes to the contradictions of commercial farming is a sufficiently strong argument against the farmers! How superficial is his understanding; instead of seeking an explanation of economic processes in the interests of different groups, he looks for it in the errors of economists, authors and governments! Good Sismondi wants to prick the conscience of the English and also of the continental farmers and put them to shame in order to discourage them from “imitating” such “bad” systems!

Do not forget, incidentally, that this was written seventy years ago, that Sismondi was witnessing the first steps of these, as yet, totally new phenomena. His naïiveté is excusable, for even the classical economists (his contemporaries) no less naïvely regarded these new phenomena as the product of the eternal and natural qualities of human nature. But, we ask, have our Narodniks added even one original word to Sismondi’s arguments in their “objections” to capitalism developing in Russia?

Thus, Sismondi’s arguments about protection show that the historical point of view was totally alien to him. Indeed,   he argues quite abstractly, exactly like the eighteenth-century philosophers and economists, differing from them only in proclaiming the society of small independent producers and not bourgeois society to be normal and natural. Hence, he understands nothing of the connection between protection and a definite economic system; and he disposes of this contradiction in the socio-political sphere with sentimental phrases about “the false,” “the perilous,” the mistaken, the unwise, etc., similar to those with which he disposed of the contradictions in economic life. Hence, he draws an extremely superficial picture of the matter and presents the problem of protection and Free Trade as one of the “wrong” or the “right” path (i.e., to use his terminology, the problem of capitalism, or the non-capitalist path).

Modern theory has fully exposed these delusions, by revealing the connection between protection and a definite historical system of social economy, between protection and the interests of the predominant class in that system which enjoy the support of governments. It showed that protection or Free Trade is an issue between entrepreneurs (sometimes between the entrepreneurs of different countries, sometimes between different factions of entrepreneurs in a given country).

Comparing these two points of view on protection with the attitude towards it adopted by the Narodnik economists, we find that here too they fully share the romanticist viewpoint and associate protection not with a capitalist country, but with some abstraction, with “consumers” tout court, and proclaim it to be the “mistaken” and “unwise” support of “hothouse” capitalism, and so forth. On the subject, for example, of duty-free imports of agricultural machines, which cause conflict between industrial and agricultural entrepreneurs, the Narodniks, of course, stand solidly for the agricultural . . . entrepreneurs. We do not want to say that they are wrong. But it is a question of fact, a question concerning the present historical moment, a question as to which faction of the entrepreneurs expresses the more general interests of the development of capitalism. Even if the Narodniks are right, it is certainly not because the imposition of customs duties signifies   “artificial” “support for capitalism,” whereas the lifting of such duties signifies support for an “age-old” people’s industry, but simply because the development of agricultural capitalism (which needs machines), by accelerating the extinction of medieval relationships in the rural districts and the creation of a home market for industry, signifies a wider, freer and more rapid development of capitalism in general.

We foresee one objection to this classing of the Narodniks with the romanticists on this question. It will probably be said that here it is necessary to make special mention of Mr. N.–on, who, after all, openly says that the problem of Free Trade and protection is a capitalist problem, and says so more than once, and who even “quotes.”. . . Yes, yes, Mr. N.–on even quotes! But if we are shown this passage from his Sketches we shall cite other passages in which he proclaims that to give support to capitalism is to “implant” it (and this in his “Summary and Conclusions”! pp. 331, 323 and also 283), and states that the encouragement of capitalism is “a fatal blunder” because “we have overlooked,” “we have forgotten,” “our minds have been obscured,” and so forth (p. 298. Compare this with Sismondi!). How can this be reconciled with the assertion that support for capitalism (with export bonuses) is “one of the numerous contradictions with which our economic life teems;[1] this one, like all the rest, owes its existence to the form which all production is assuming” (p. 286)? Note: all production! We ask any impartial person: what is the point of view of this author, who proclaims support of “the form which all production is assuming” to be a “blunder”? Is it the point of view of Sismondi, or of scientific theory? Here, too (as on the subjects we examined above), Mr. N.–on’s “quotations” turn out to be irrelevant, clumsy interpolations, which do not in the least express a real conviction that these “quotations” are applicable to Russian reality. Mr. N.–on’s “quotations” from modern theory are window-dressing   and can only mislead the reader. It is an awkwardly worn “realist” costume under which the thoroughbred romanticist hides.[2]


[1] In the same way as Sketches “teem” with exhortations to “us,” with the exclamations “we,” and similar phrases, which ignore these contradictions. —Lenin

[2] We have a suspicion that Mr. N.–on regards these “quotations” as a talisman which protects him from all criticism. It is difficult otherwise to explain the fact that, on hearing from Messrs. Struve and Tugan-Baranovsky that his doctrine had been compared with Sismondi’s, Mr. N.–on, in one of his articles in Russkoye Bogatstvo (1894, No. 6, p. 88), “quoted” the opinion of a representative of the modern theory who describes Sismondi as a petty-bourgeois reactionary and utopian.[3] Evidently, he is profoundly convinced that by means of such a “quotation” he “refuted” the comparison made between himself and Sismondi. —Lenin


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