V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism




Sismondi’s Place in the History
of Political Economy

We are now familiar with all of Sismondi’s main propositions relating to economic theory. Summing up, we see that, everywhere, Sismondi remains absolutely true to himself, that his point of view remains unchanged. On the one hand, on all points he differs from the classical economists in that he indicates the contradictions of capitalism. On the other hand, on no point is he able (or willing) to extend the analysis of the classical economists, and therefore confines himself to a sentimental criticism of capitalism from the viewpoint of the petty bourgeois. This substitution of sentimental complaints and lamentations for a scientific analysis results in his conception being extremely superficial. Modern theory accepted his references to the contradictions of capitalism, subjected them to a scientific analysis, and on all points reached conclusions which radically differ from Sismondi’s, and for that reason lead to a diametrically opposite point of view concerning capitalism.

In A Critique of Some of the Propositions of Political Economy (Zur Kritik,[7] Russ. trans., Moscow, 1896) Sismondi’s place in the history of the science is described as follows:

“Sismondi is no longer labouring under Boisguillebert’s idea that labour which creates exchange value is adulterated   by money; but just as Boisguillebert denounced money, so does Sismondi denounce large industrial capital” (p. 36).

The author wants to say: Just as Boisguillebert superficially regarded barter as a natural system and was up in arms against money, which was to him an “extraneous element” (p. 30, ibid.), so Sismondi regarded small-scale production as a natural system and was up in arms against big capital, which he regarded as an extraneous element. Boisguillebert did not understand the inseparable and natural connection between money and commodity exchange, did not understand that he was contrasting two forms of “bourgeois labour” as extraneous elements (ibid., pp. 30-31). Sismondi failed to understand the inseparable and natural connection between big capital and small independent production, failed to understand that these are two forms of commodity economy. Boisguillebert “is up in arms against bourgeois labour in one form while, utopian-like, he praises it in another” (ibid.). Sismondi is up in arms against big capital, i.e., against commodity economy in one form, its most developed form, while, utopian-like, he praises the small producer (especially the peasantry), i.e., commodity economy in another form, its rudimentary form.

“In Ricardo,” continues the author of the Critique, “political economy reached its climax, after recklessly drawing its ultimate conclusions, while Sismondi supplemented it by impersonating its doubts” (p. 36).

Thus, the author of the Critique reduces the significance of Sismondi to the fact that he raised the question of the contradictions of capitalism, and thereby set the task of making a further analysis. The author we have quoted regards all the independent views of Sismondi, who also wanted to answer this question, as unscientific and superficial, and as reflecting his reactionary petty-bourgeois point of view (see the above-quoted opinions, and one quoted below in connection with a “quotation” by Ephrucy).

Comparing Sismondi’s theory with Narodism, we find on nearly all points (except his repudiation of Ricardo’s theory of rent and his Malthusian admonitions to the peasants) an astonishing similarity, which sometimes goes as far as identity of terms. The Narodnik economists fully share Sismondi’s point of view. We shall be still more   convinced of this later, when we pass from theory to Sismondi’s views on practical problems.

And lastly, as regards Ephrucy, on no point has he given a correct appraisal of Sismondi. Pointing to Sismondi’s emphasis on, and condemnation of, the contradictions of capitalism, Ephrucy was quite unable to understand either the sharp difference between his theory and the theory of scientific materialism, or that the romanticist and scientific points of view on capitalism are diametrically opposite. The fellow feeling of the Narodnik for the romanticist, their touching unanimity, prevented the author of the essays in Russkoye Bogatstvo from correctly characterising this classical representative of romanticism in economic science.

We have just quoted the opinion on Sismondi that “he impersonated the doubts” of classical political economy.

But Sismondi did not think of confining himself to this role (which gives him an honourable place among the economists). As we have seen, he tried to solve the doubts, but did so very unsuccessfully. Not only that. His accusation against the classical economists and their science was not that they halted before an analysis of the contradictions, but that they employed wrong methods. “The old science does not teach us either to understand or avert” new disasters (I, XV), says Sismondi in the preface to the second edition of his book, and he does not explain this fact by indicating that the analysis made by this science is incomplete and inconsistent but by claiming that it “plunged into abstractions” (I, 55: the new disciples of Adam Smith in England plunged [se sont jetés] into abstractions, forgetting about “man”) and was “proceeding along a wrong path” (II, 448). What is the charge levelled by Sismondi against the classical economists which permits him to draw this conclusion?

“The economists, the most celebrated of them, devoted too little attention to consumption and to the market” (I, 124).

This accusation has been repeated innumerable times since Sismondi’s day. It has been deemed necessary to separate “consumption” from “production” as a special department of the science; it has been said that production depends upon   natural laws, whereas consumption is determined by distribution, which depends upon the will of man, and so on, and so forth. It is common knowledge that our Narodniks hold the same views and put distribution in the forefront.[1]

What meaning is there to this accusation? It is based solely on an extremely unscientific conception of the very subject of political economy. Its subject is not by any means “the production of material values,” as is often claimed (that is the subject of technology), but the social relations between men in production. Only by interpreting “production” in the former sense can one separate “distribution” from it, and when that is done, the “department” of production does not contain the categories of historically determined forms of social economy, but categories that relate to the labour process in general: usually, such empty banalities merely serve later to obscure historical and social conditions. (Take, for example, the concept of capital.) If, however, we consistently regard “production” as social relations in production, then both “distribution” and “consumption” lose all independent significance. Once relations in production have been explained, both the share of the product taken by the different classes and, consequently, “distribution” and “consumption” are thereby explained. And vice versa, if production relations remain   unexplained (for example, if the process of the production of the aggregate social capital is not understood), all arguments about consumption and distribution turn into banalities, or innocent, romantic wishes. Sismondi was the originator of such arguments. Rodbertus also talked a lot about the “distribution of the national product,” and Ephrucy’s “modern” authorities even formed special “schools,” one of the principles of which was to pay special attention to distribution.[2] But none of these theoreticians of “distribution” and “consumption” were able to solve even the fundamental problem of the difference between social capital and social revenue; all continued to grope in the contradictions before which Adam Smith had come to a halt.[3] The problem was solved only by the economist who never singled out distribution, and who protested most vigorously against the “vulgar” arguments about “distribution” (cf. Marx’s criticism of the Gotha Programme quoted by P. Struve in his Critical Remarks, p. 129, epigraph to chapter IV).[8] Not only that. The very solution of the problem consisted of an analysis of the reproduction of social capital. The author did not make a special problem of either consumption or distribution, but both were fully explained after the analysis of production had been carried to its conclusion.

“...Scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production demonstrates . . . that the distribution relations essentially coincident with these production relations are their opposite side, so that both share the same historically   transitory character.” “The wage presupposes wage-labour, and profit—capital. These definite forms of distribution thus presuppose definite social characteristics (Charaktere) of production conditions, and definite social relations of production agents. The specific distribution relations are thus merely the expression of the specific historical production relations.”. . . “Every form of distribution disappears with the specific form of production from which it is descended and to which it corresponds.”

“The view which regards only distribution relations as historical, but not production relations, is, on the one hand, solely the view of the initial, but still handicapped (inconsistent, befangen) criticism of bourgeois economy. On the other hand, it rests on the confusion and identification of the process of social production with the simple labour-process, such as might even be performed by an abnormally isolated human being without any social assistance. To the extent that the labour-process is solely a process between man and Nature, its simple elements remain common to all social forms of development. But each specific historical form of this process further develops its material foundations and social forms” (Capital, Vol. III, 2, pp. 415, 419 and 420, German original).[9]

Sismondi was no more fortunate in attacks of another sort against the classical economists, attacks which occupy still more space in his Nouveaux Principes. “The new disciples of Adam Smith in England plunged into abstractions, forgetting about man. . .” (I, 55). For Ricardo “wealth is everything and men nothing” (II, 331). “They” (the economists who advocate Free Trade) “often sacrifice men and real interests to an abstract theory” (II, 457), and so forth.

How old these attacks are, and yet how new! I have in mind their renewal by the Narodniks, who have made such a noise over the frank admission that the capitalist development of Russia is her real, actual and inevitable development. Have they not repeated the same thing in different keys when shouting about “apologetics of the money power,” about “social-bourgeois character,” and so forth?[10] The remark addressed to the sentimental critics of capitalism in general is applicable to them to an even greater extent than to Sismondi: Man schreie nicht zu sehr über den Zynismus!   Der Zynismus liegt in der Sache, nicht in den Worten, welche die Sache bezeichnen! But do not make an outcry at the cynicism of it. The cynicism is in the facts and not in the words which express the facts.[11]

“To an even greater extent,” we say. This is because the West-European romanticists did not have before them a scientific analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, because they were the first to indicate these contradictions, because they denounced (in “plaintive words,” incidentally) the people who did not see these contradictions.

Sismondi violently attacked Ricardo for drawing all the conclusions from his observations and study of bourgeois society with ruthless frankness: he noted frankly both the existence of production for production and the transformation of labour-power into a commodity similar to any other commodity and the fact that the net revenue, that is, the amount of profit, is the only thing of importance to “society.[4] But Ricardo spoke the absolute truth: actually every thing is exactly as he says. If this truth seemed to Sismondi to be a “base truth,” he should not have sought for the causes of this baseness in Ricardo’s theory at all, and should not have directed his attacks at “abstractions”; the exclamations he addressed to Ricardo belong entirely to the sphere of “the deception which exalts us.”

Well, what about our modern romanticists? Do they think of denying the reality of the “money power”? Do they think of denying that this power is omnipotent not only among the industrial population, but also among the agricultural population of any “village community” and of any remote village you like? Do they think of denying that there is a necessary connection between this fact and commodity economy? They have not even attempted to subject this to doubt. They simply try not to talk of it. They are afraid of calling things by their real names.

We fully understand their fear: the frank admission of reality would completely cut the ground from under the sentimental (Narodnik) criticism of capitalism. It is not surprising that they so ardently rush into battle before they have had time to clean the rusty weapon of romanticism. It is not surprising that they are unscrupulous in their methods and want to present hostility towards sentimental criticism as hostility towards criticism in general. After all, they are fighting for their right to existence.

Sismondi even tried to elevate his sentimental criticism to the plane of a special method of social science. We have already seen that he did not reproach Ricardo with bringing his objective analysis to a halt when faced with the contradictions of capitalism (such a reproach would have been justified), but reproached him for the objectivity of his analysis. Sismondi said that Ricardo “forgets about man.” In his preface to the second edition of Nouveaux Principes we find the following tirade:

“I deem it necessary to protest against the customary methods, so often superficial, so often false, of judging a work relating to the social sciences. The problem which they have to solve is incomparably more complex than all the problems of the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals as much to the heart as it does to the mind” (I, XVI). How familiar to the Russian reader is this idea of contrasting the natural sciences to the social sciences, and of the latter appealing to the “heart”![5] Sismondi here expresses the very ideas   which were to be “newly discovered” several decades later in the far east of Europe by the “Russian school of sociologists” and figure as a special “subjective method in sociology.” . . . Sismondi, like our native sociologists, of course appeals “to the heart as well as to the mind.”[6] But we have already seen that on all the most important problems, the “heart” of the petty bourgeois triumphed over the “mind” of the economist theoretician.


[1] It goes without saying that Ephrucy did not miss the opportunity to praise Sismondi for this as well. “The important thing in Sismondi’s doctrine,” we read in Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 8, p. 56 “is not so much the various special measures which he proposed, as the general spirit which permeates the whole of his system. Contrary to the classical school, he lays special emphasis on the interests of distribution and not on those of production.” In spite of his repeated “references” to the “modern” economists, Ephrucy did not under stand their theory at all, and continued to busy himself with the sentimental nonsense which distinguishes the primitive critique of capitalism. Here, too, our Narodnik wants to save himself by comparing Sismondi with “many prominent representatives of the historical school”; and so you see, “Sismondi went further” (ibid.), and Ephrucy is quite content with that! “Went further—than the German professors—what more do you want? Like all the Narodniks, Ephrucy tries to lay the main emphasis on the point that Sismondi criticised capitalism. The economist of Russkoye Bogatstvo evidently has no idea that capitalism can be criticised in different ways, that it can be criticised from both the sentimental and the scientific point of view. —Lenin

[2] Ingram quite rightly likens Sismondi to the “Katheder-Socialists” (p. 212, A History of Political Economy, Moscow, 1891) when he naïvely observed: “. . .We are ready (!!) to admit Sismondi’s view of the state as a power. . . charged also with the mission of extending the benefits of the social union and of modern progress as widely as possible through all classes of the community” (215). What profundity distinguishes these “views” of Sismondi’s we have already seen in the case of protection. —Lenin

[3] See, for example, R. Meyer’s article “Income” in Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaft (Russian translation in the collection of articles entitled Promyshlennost [Industry ] ), which reveals the hopeless conclusion in the arguments of the “modern” German professors on this subject. It is curious that R. Meyer, who refers directly to Adam Smith and mentions in his bibliography the very chapters of Volume II of Capital which contain a complete refutation of Smith, makes no mention of this in the text. —Lenin

[4] Ephrucy, for example, repeats with an important air Sismondi’s sentimental phrases about an increase in the net revenue of the entrepreneur not being a gain for the national economy, and so forth and reproaches him merely for having “realised” this “not quite clearly yet” (p. 43, No. 8).

Would you not like to compare with this the results of the scientific analysis of capitalism:

The gross income (Roheinkommen) of society consists of wages + profit + rent. The net income (Reineinkommen) is surplus-value.

“Viewing the income of the whole society, national income consists of wages plus profit plus rent, thus, of the gross income. But even this is an abstraction to the extent that the entire society, on the basis of capitalist production, bases itself on the capitalist stand-point and thereby considers only the income resolved into profit and rent as net income” (III, 2, 375–76).[12]

Thus, the author fully sides with Ricardo and his definition of the “net income” of “society,” sides with the very definition which evoked Sismondi’s “celebrated objection” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 8, p. 44): “What? Wealth is everything and men nothing?” (II, 331). In modern society–yes, certainly. —Lenin

[5] “Political economy is not simply a science of calculation (n’est pas une science de calcul ) but a moral science. . . . It achieves its object only when the feelings, needs, and passions of men are taken into consideration” (I, 313). These sentimental phrases which Sismondi   and the Russian sociologists of the subjective school who utter exactly the same exclamations regard as new conceptions of social science actually show that criticism of the bourgeoisie was still in an infantile primitive state. Does not a scientific analysis of contradictions, while remaining a strictly objective “calculation,” provide firm ground for understanding “the feelings, needs and passions,” and the passions not of “men” in general—that abstraction to which both the romanticist and the Narodnik ascribe a specifically petty-bourgeois content—but of the men of definite classes? The point is, however, that Sismondi could not theoretically refute the economists and therefore confined himself to sentimental phrases. “Utopian dilettantism was forced to make theoretical concessions to any more or less learned defender of the bourgeois order. In order to allay the consciousness of his own impotence that was rising within him, the utopian consoled himself by reproaching his opponents with objectivity: let us admit that you are more learned than I, but in return I am kinder” (Beltov, p. 43).[13]Lenin

[6] As if the “problems” which arise from the natural sciences do not also appeal to the “heart”! —Lenin

[7] Zur Kritik—initial words of the title of Marx’s Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Lenin cites passages from P. P. Rumyantsev’s Russian translation of this book published in 1896 (K. Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Moskau-Leningrad, 1934, S 49).

[8] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 24-25.

In the 1897 and 1898 editions Lenin, in view of the censorship, did not refer directly to Marx, but to Struve. In the 1908 edition, however, he referred to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. This correction has been made in the present edition.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Moscow, 1959, pp. 856, 860, 861.

[10] Lenin refers to Narodnik polemical articles directed against the Marxists: N. F. Danielson, “An Apology for Money Power as a Sign of the Times,” published under the pseudonym Nikolai-on in Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 1-2, 1895; V. P. Vorontsov, “German Social-Democratism and Russian Bourgeoisism,” published under the pseudonym V. V. in the newspaper Nedelya (Week), Nos. 47-49, 1894.

[11] Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow, p. 55.

[12] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Moscow, 1959, p. 819.

[13] G. V. Plekhanov (n. Beltov), The Development of the Monist View of History, Moscow, 1956, p. 60.

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