V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism



Chapter II

The Character of the Romanticists’ Criticism of Capitalism

We have already dealt sufficiently with Sismondi’s “mind.” Let us now take a closer look at his “heart.” Let us attempt to collect all the references to his point of view (which we have studied till now only as an element touching on theoretical problems), to his attitude towards capitalism, to his social sympathies, to his conception of the “socio-political” problems of the period in which he was active.



The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism

The distinguishing feature of the period in which Sismondi wrote was the rapid development of exchange (money economy, to use modern terminology), which was manifested with particular sharpness after the remnants of feudalism were destroyed by the French Revolution. Sismondi unambiguously condemned this development and growth of exchange, denounced “fatal competition,” called upon the “government to protect the population from the consequences of competition” (ch. VIII, l. VII), and so forth. “Rapid exchanges corrupt the good faith of the people. Constant concern for selling at a profit cannot but lead to attempts to demand too high a price and to cheat, and the harder life becomes for the one who gains his livelihood by constant exchanges, the more he is tempted to resort to cheating” (I, 169). Such was the naïveté required to attack money economy in the way our Narodniks attack it! “. . . Commercial wealth is only of secondary importance in the economic system; and land wealth (territoriale) which provides the means of subsistence must increase first. The whole of that numerous class which lives by commerce must be called upon to participate in the fruits of the earth only to the extent that these fruits exist; it” (this class) “must grow only to the extent that this produce grows” (I, 322-23). Has Mr. N.–on, who fills page after page with complaints about the growth of commerce and industry outpacing the development of agriculture, taken even one step beyond this patriarchal romanticist? These complaints of the romanticist and of the Narodnik merely testify to a complete misunderstanding of capitalist economy. Can there be a capitalism under which the development of commerce and industry does not outpace agriculture? Why, the growth of capitalism is the growth of commodity economy, that is to say, of a social division of labour which separates from agriculture one branch of the processing of raw materials after another, breaking up the single natural economy in which the production, processing and consumption of these raw materials were combined. That is why capitalism always and everywhere signifies a more rapid development   of commerce and industry than of agriculture, a more rapid growth of the commercial and industrial population, a greater weight and importance of commerce and industry in the social economic system as a whole.[1] Nor can it be otherwise. By repeating such complaints, Mr. N.–on proves again and again that in his economic views he has not gone beyond superficial, sentimental romanticism. “This unwise spirit of enterprise (esprit d’entreprise ), this excess of trading of every kind, which causes so many bankruptcies in America, is due, without a doubt, to the increase in the number of banks and to the ease with which illusory credit takes the place of real property” (fortune réelle ) (II, 111), and so forth endlessly. Why did Sismondi attack money economy (and capitalism)? What does he offer in place of it? Small independent production, the natural economy of the peasants in the countryside, artisan production in the towns. Here is what he says of the former in the chapter headed “Of Patriarchal Agriculture” (ch. III, l. III, “De l’exploitation patriarcale”—the patriarchal exploitation of the land. Book III treats of “territorial” or land wealth):

“The first owners of land were themselves tillers, all the field work was done by the labour of their children and their servants. No social organisation[2] guarantees more happiness and more virtue to the most numerous   class of the nation, a larger prosperity (opulence ) to all, greater stability to the public order. . . . In those countries where the farmer is the owner (où le fermier est propriétaire ) and where the produce belongs entirely (sans partage ) to the people who perform all the work, i.e, in those countries whose agriculture we call patriarchal, we see at every step signs of the tiller’s love for the house in which he lives, for the land which he tills. . . . Work itself is a pleasure to him. . . . In those happy countries where agriculture is patriarchal, the particular nature of every field is studied, and this knowledge is passed on from father to son. . . . Large scale farming, directed by richer men, will perhaps rise above prejudice and routine. But knowledge (l’intelligence, i.e., knowledge of agriculture) will not reach the one who works and will be badly applied. . . . Patriarchal economy improves the morals and character of that numerous section of the nation which has to do all the work in the fields. Property cultivates habits of order and frugality, constant abundance destroys the taste for gluttony (gourmandise ) and intemperance. . . . Entering into exchange almost exclusively with nature he” (the tiller) “has less reason than any industrial worker to distrust men and to resort to the weapon of dishonesty against them” (I, 165-70). “The first farmers were simple labourers; they themselves performed the hulk of the agricultural work; they kept the size of their enterprises commensurate with the working capacity of their families. . . . They did not cease to be peasants: they themselves followed the plough (tiennent eux-mêmes les cornes de leur charrue ); they themselves tended their cattle, both in the fields and in the barns, they lived in the pure air and got accustomed to constant labour and to modest food, which create sturdy citizens and stalwart soldiers.[3] They hardly ever employed day labourers to work with them, but only servants (des domestiques ), always chosen from among their equals, whom they treated as equals, who ate with them at the same table, drink the same wine and wear the same kind of   clothes as they did. Thus, the farmers and their servants constituted one class of peasants, inspired by the same feelings, sharing the same pleasures, subjected to the same influences and bound to their country by the same ties” (I, 221).

Here, then, you have the famous “people’s production”! Let it not be said that Sismondi does not understand the need to unite the producers: he says plainly (see below) that “he too” (like Fourier, Owen, Thompson and Muiron) “wants association” (II, 365). Let it not be said that he stands for property: on the contrary, he places the weight of emphasis on small economy (cf. II, 355) and not upon small property. It goes without saying that this idealisation of small peasant economy looks different under different historical and social conditions. But there can be no doubt that it is small peasant economy that is glorified by both romanticism and Narodism.

Similarly, Sismondi idealises primitive artisan production and guilds.

“The village shoemaker, who is at once merchant, factory owner and worker, will not make a single pair of shoes without an order” (II, 262), whereas capitalist manufacture, not knowing the demand, may suffer bankruptcy. “Undoubtedly, from both the theoretical and the factual standpoint, the institution of guilds (corps de métier ) prevented, and was bound to prevent, the formation of a surplus population. It is also beyond doubt that such a population exists at the present time, and that it is the necessary result of the present system” (I, 431). Many more excerpts of a similar nature could be quoted, but we shall postpone our examination of Sismondi’s practical recipes until later. Here let us confine ourselves to what we have quoted in order to probe Sismondi’s point of view. The arguments we have quoted may be summed up as follows: 1) money economy is condemned for destroying the small producers’ security and the close relations among them (in the shape of the nearness of the artisan to his customers, or of the tiller to other tillers, his equals); 2) small production is extolled for ensuring the independence of the producer and eliminating the contradictions of capitalism.

Let us note that both these ideas constitute an essential   part of Narodism,[4] and endeavour to probe their meaning.

The criticism of money economy by the romanticists and the Narodniks amounts to the following: it points to the fruits of that economy—individualism[5] and antagonism (competition), and also the producer’s insecurity and the instability of the social economy.[6]

First about “individualism.” Usually, the contrast is made between the association of the peasants in a given community, or of the artisans (or the handicraftsmen) of a given craft, and capitalism, which destroys the ties that bind them, and puts competition in their place. This argument is a repetition of the typical error of romanticism, namely: the conclusion that since capitalism is torn by contradictions it is not a higher form of social organisation. Does not capitalism, which destroys the medieval village community, guild, artel and similar ties, substitute others for them? Is not commodity economy already a tie between the producers, a tie established by the market?[7] The antagonistic character of this tie, which is full of fluctuations and contradictions, gives one no right to deny its existence. And we know that it is the development of contradictions that with ever-growing force reveals the strength of this tie, compels all the individual elements and classes of society to strive to unite, and to unite no longer within the narrow limits of one village community,   or of one district, but to unite all the members of the given class in a whole nation and even in different countries. Only a romanticist, with his reactionary point of view, can deny the existence of these ties and their deeper importance, which is based on the common role played in the national economy and not upon territorial, professional, religious and other such interests. If arguments of this kind earned the name of romanticist for Sismondi, who wrote at a time when these new ties engendered by capitalism were still in the embryo, all the more do our Narodniks deserve such an estimation; for today, the enormous importance of these ties can only be denied by those who are totally blind.

As regards insecurity and instability, and so forth, that is the same old song we dealt with when discussing the foreign market. Attacks of this kind betray the romanticist who fearfully condemns precisely that which scientific theory values most in capitalism: its inherent striving for development, its irresistible urge onwards, its inability to halt or to reproduce the economic processes in their former, rigid dimensions. Only a utopian who concocts fantastic plans for spreading medieval associations (such as the village community) to the whole of society can ignore the fact that it is the “instability” of capitalism that is an enormously progressive factor, one which accelerates social development, draws larger and larger masses of the population into the whirlpool of social life, compels them to ponder over its structure, and to “forge their happiness” with their own hands.

Mr. N.–on’s phrases about the “instability” of capitalist economy, about the lack of proportion in the development of exchange, about the disturbance of the balance between industry and agriculture, between production and consumption, about the abnormality of crises, and so forth, testify beyond all doubt to the fact that he still shares the viewpoint of romanticism to the full. Hence, the criticism of European romanticism applies word for word to his theory too. Here is the proof:

“Let us hear what old Boisguillebert says:

“’The price of commodities,’ he says, ’must always be proportionate; for it is such mutual understanding alone   that can enable them to reciprocally give birth to one another. . . . As wealth, then, is nothing but this continual intercourse between man and man, craft and craft, etc., it is a frightful blindness to go looking for the cause of misery elsewhere than in the cessation of such traffic brought about by a disturbance of proportion in prices.’

“Let us listen also to a modern[8] economist:

“’The great law as necessary to be affixed to production, that is, the law of proportion, which alone can preserve the continuity of value. . . . The equivalent must be guaranteed. . . . All nations have attempted, at various periods of their history, by instituting numerous commercial regulations and restrictions, to effect, in some degree, the object here explained. . . . But the natural and inherent selfishness of man . . . has urged him to break down all such regulations. Proportionate Production is the realisation of the entire truth of the Science of Social Economy’ (W. Atkinson, Principles of Political Economy, London, 1840. pp. 170 and 195).

Fuit Troja![9] This true proportion between supply and demand, which is beginning once more to be the object of so many wishes, ceased long ago to exist. It has passed into the stage of senility. It was possible only at a time when the means of production were limited, when the movement of exchange took place within very restricted bounds. With the birth of large-scale industry this true proportion had to (musste ) come to an end, and production is inevitably compelled to pass in continuous succession through vicissitudes of prosperity, depression, crisis, stagnation, renewed prosperity, and so on.

“Those who, like Sismondi, wish to return to the true proportion of production, while preserving the present basis of society, are reactionary, since, to be consistent, they must also wish to bring back all the other conditions of industry of former times.

“What kept production in true, or more or less true, proportions? It was demand that dominated supply, that preceded it. Production followed close on the heels of consumption.   Large-scale industry, forced by the very instruments at its disposal to produce on an ever-increasing scale, can no longer wait for demand. Production precedes consumption, supply compels demand.

“In existing society, in industry based on individual exchange, anarchy of production, which is the source of so much misery, is at the same time the source of all progress.

“Thus, one or the other: either you want the true proportions of past centuries with present-day means of production, in which case you are both reactionary and utopian.

“Or, you want progress without anarchy: in which case, in order to preserve the productive forces, you must abandon individual exchange” (Das Elend der Philosophie, S. 46–48).[15]

The last words apply to Proudhon, with whom the author is polemising, thus formulating the difference between his own viewpoint and the views both of Sismondi and of Proudhon. Mr. N.–on would not, of course, approximate to either one or the other in all his views.[10] But look into the content of the passage given. What is the main thesis of the author we have quoted, his basic idea, which brings him into irreconcilable opposition to his predecessors? Undoubtedly, it is that he places the question of the instability of capitalism (which all these three authors admit) on a historica plane and regards this instability as a progressive factor. In other words: he recognises, firstly, that existing capitalist development, which proceeds through disproportion, crises, etc., is necessary development, and says that the very character of the means of production (machines) gives rise to the desire for an unlimited expansion of production and the constant anticipation of demand by supply. Secondly, he recognises elements of progress in this development, which are: the development of the productive forces, socialisation of labour within the bounds of the whole of society, increased mobility of the population and the growth of its consciousness, and so forth. These two points exhaust   the difference between him and Sismondi and Proudhon, who agree with him in indicating the “instability” of capitalism and the contradictions it engenders, and in their sincere desire to eliminate these contradictions Their failure to understand that this “instability” is a necessary feature of all capitalism and commodity economy in general brought them to utopia. Their failure to understand the elements of progress inherent in this instability makes their theories reactionary.[11]

And now we invite Messrs. the Narodniks to answer this question: Does Mr. N.–on agree with the views of scientific theory on the two points mentioned? Does he regard in stability as a characteristic of the present system, and of present-day development? Does he admit the existence of elements of progress in this instability? Everybody knows that he does not, that, on the contrary, Mr. N.–on proclaims this “instability” of capitalism to be simply an abnormality, a digression, and so forth, and regards it as decadence, retrogression (cf. above: “robs of stability”) and idealises that very economic stagnation (recall the “age-old foundations,” “time-hallowed principles,” and so forth) whose destruction is the historical merit of “unstable” capitalism. It is clear, therefore, that we were quite right in including him among the romanticists and that no “quotations” and “references” on his part will change this character of his own arguments.

We shall deal again with this “instability” later (in connection with the hostility of romanticism and Narodism to the diminution of the agricultural population to the advantage of the industrial population); at present let us quote a passage from A Critique of Some of the Propositions of Political Economy in which the sentimental attacks on money economy are examined.

“These definite social functions” (namely, of the seller and buyer) “are no outgrowths of human nature, but are the products of exchange relations between men who produce their goods in the form of commodities. They are so far from being purely individual relations between buyer and seller that both enter into these relations only to the extent that their individual labour is disregarded and is turned in to money as labour of no individual. Therefore, just as it is childish to regard these bourgeois economic roles of buyer and seller as eternal social forms of human individuality, so it is, on the other hand, preposterous to lament over them as the cause of the extinction of individuality.

“How deeply some beautiful souls are wounded by the merely superficial aspect of the antagonism which asserts itself in buying and selling may be seen from the following abstract from M. Isaac Pereire’s Leçons sur l’industrie et les finances, Paris, 1832. The fact that the same Isaac in his capacity of inventor and dictator of the ‘Crédit mobilier’[12] has acquired the reputation of the wolf of the Paris Bourse shows what lurks behind the sentimental criticism of economics. Says M. Pereire, at the time an apostle of Saint-Simon: ‘Since individuals are isolated and separated from one another both in their labours and in consumption, exchange takes place between them in the products of their respective industries. From the necessity of exchange arises the necessity of determining the relative value of things. The ideas of value and exchange are thus intimately connected and both express in their actual form individualism and antagonism. . . . The determination of values of products takes place only because there are sales and purchases, or, to put it differently, because there is an antagonism between different members of society. One has to occupy himself with price and value only where there is sale and purchase, that is to say, where every individual is obliged to struggle to procure for himself the objects necessary for the maintenance of his existence’” (op. cit., p. 68).[16]

The question is: wherein lies Pereire’s sentimentality? He talks only about the individualism, antagonism and conflict   inherent in capitalism, he says the very thing our Narodniks say in different keys, and, moreover, they seem to be speaking the truth, because “individualism, antagonism and conflict” are indeed necessary attributes of exchange, of commodity production. His sentimentality lies in that this Saint-Simonist, carried away by his condemnation of the contradictions of capitalism, fails to discern behind these contradictions the fact that exchange also expresses a special form of social economy, that it, consequently, not only disunites (it does that only in respect of the medieval associations, which capitalism destroys), but also unites men, compelling them to enter into intercourse with each other through the medium of the market.[13] It was this superficial understanding, caused by their eagerness to “trounce” capitalism (from the utopian point of view) that gave the above quoted author occasion to call Pereire’s criticism sentimental.

But why should we worry about Pereire, the long-for gotten apostle of long-forgotten Saint-Simonism? Would it not be better to take the modern “apostle” of Narodism?

“Production ... was robbed of its popular character and assumed an individual, capitalist character” (Mr. N.–on, Sketches, pp. 321-22).

You see how this disguised romanticist argues: “people’s production became individual production.” And as by “people’s production” the author wants to imply the village community,[17] he points to the decline of the social character of production, to the shrinking of the social form of production.

But is that so? The “village community” provided (if it did provide; but we are ready to make any concession to the author) for organised production only in the one individual community, isolated from all the other communities. The social character of production embraced only the members of the one village community.[14] Capitalism, however,   gives production a social character in a whole country. “Individualism” means the destruction of social ties; but these ties are destroyed by the market, which replaces them by ties between masses of individuals who are not bound together by a village community, a social estate, a given trade, the restricted area of a given industry, etc. The tie created by capitalism manifests itself in the form of contradictions and antagonism, and therefore, our romanticist refuses to see this tie (although the village community, too, as a form of organisation of production never existed without the other forms of contradictions and antagonism inherent in the old modes of production).The utopian point of view transforms his criticism of capitalism, as well, into a sentimental one.


[1] As capitalism develops, agriculture always and everywhere, lags behind commerce and industry, it is always subordinate to them and is exploited by them and it is always drawn by them, only later on, onto the path of capitalist production. —Lenin

[2] Note that Sismondi—exactly like our Narodniks—at once transformed the peasants’ independent economy into a “social organisation.” Obvious juggling. What is it that links together these peasants from different localities? The division of social labour and the commodity economy that superseded feudal ties. We at once see the elevation of one division of the commodity-economy system to utopian heights and the failure to understand the other divisions. Compare this with what Mr. N.–on says on p. 322: “The form of industry based on the ownership of the instruments of production by the peasantry.” Mr. N.–on does not even suspect that this ownership of the instruments of production by the peasantry is—historically and logically—the starting-point of that same capitalist production! —Lenin

[3] Reader, compare with these honeyed grandmother’s tales the statements of the “progressive” publicist of the late nineteenth century whom Mr. Struve cites in his Critical Remarks, p. 17.[18]Lenin

[4] On this question, too, Mr. N.–on is guilty of such a heap of contradictions that one can choose from them any number of propositions in no way connected with each other. But there can be no doubt about his idealisation of peasant economy by the use of the hazy term “people’s production.” A haze is a particularly suitable atmosphere in which to don all sorts of disguises. —Lenin

[5] Cf. N.–on, p. 321, in f. (in fine—at the end. —Ed.) and others. —Lenin

[6] Ibid., 335. P. 184: capitalism “robs of stability.” And many others. —Lenin

[7] “In actual fact, society, association are denominations which can be given to every society, to feudal society as well as to bourgeois society, which is association founded on competition. How then can there be writers, who, by the single word association think they can refute competition?” (Marx, Das Elend der Philosophie.)[19] Sharply criticising the sentimental condemnation of competition, the author plainly stresses its progressive aspect, its driving force, which promotes “technical progress and social progress.” —Lenin

[8] Written in 1847. —Lenin

[9] Troy is no more! —Ed.

[10] Although it is a big question as to why he would not do so. Is it not only because these authors raised problems on a wider plane, having in mind the existing economic system in general, its place and significance in the development of the whole of mankind, and did not limit their outlook to one country, for which one may supposedly invent a special theory? —Lenin

[11] This term is employed in its historico-philosophical sense, describing only the error of the theoreticians who take models for their theories from obsolete forms of society. It does not apply at all to the personal qualities of these theoreticians, or to their programmes. Everybody knows that neither Sismondi nor Proudhon were reactionaries in the ordinary sense of the term. We are explaining these elementary truths because, as we shall see below, the Narodnik gentlemen have not grasped them to this day. —Lenin

[12] A bank which grants loans on the security of movable property . —Ed.

[13] Substituting unity along the lines of social status and social interests of a whole country, and even of the whole world, for local and social-estate associations. —Lenin

[14] According to the Zemstvo statistics (Blagoveshchensky’s Combined Returns), the average size of a village community, for 123 uyezds in 22 gubernias, is 53 households, with a population of 323 of both sexes. —Lenin

[18] Progressive” publicist of the late nineteenth century is an ironical reference to the liberal Narodnik S. N. Yuzhakov. An extract from his article “Problems of Hegemony at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” published in Russkaya Mysl (Russian Thought ), Nos. 3-4, 1885, was quoted by P. B. Struve.

[19] Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow, pp. 167-68. Because of the censorship Lenin substituted the word “writers” for “socialists” (in the German original—Sozialisten).


[16] Karl Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Moskau-Leningrad, 1934, S. 85.

[17] The village (land) community (obshchina or mir) in Russia was the communal form of peasant use of the land, characterised by compulsory crop rotation, and undivided woods and pastures. Its principal features were collective responsibility, the periodical redistribution of the land with no right to refuse the allotment given, and prohibition of its purchase and sale.

The Russian village community dates back to ancient times, and in the course of historical development gradually became one of the mainstays of feudalism in Russia. The landlords and the tsarist government used the village community to intensify feudal oppression and to squeeze land redemption payments and taxes out of the people. Lenin pointed out that the village community “does not save the peasant from turning into a proletarian; actually it serves as a medieval barrier dividing the peasants, who are as if chained to small associations and to categories which have lost all ‘reason for existence’.” (V. I. Lenin, The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century. See present edition, Vol. 15).

The problem of the village community aroused heated arguments and brought an extensive economic literature into existence. Particularly great interest in the village community was displayed by the Narodniks, who saw in it the guarantee of Russia’s socialist evolution by a special path. By tendentiously gathering and falsifying facts and employing so-called “average figures,” the Narodniks sought to prove that the community peasantry in Russia possessed a special sort of “steadfastness,” and that the peasant community protected the peasants against the penetration of capitalist relations into their lives, and “saved” them from ruin and class differentiation. As early as the 1880s G. V. Plekhanov showed that the Narodnik illusions about “community socialism” were unfounded and in the 1890s Lenin completely refuted the Narodnik theories. Lenin made use of a tremendous amount of statistical material and countless facts to show how capitalist relations were developing in the Russian village, and how capital, by penetrating into the patriarchal village community, was splitting the peasantry into two antagonistic classes, the kulaks and the poor peasants.

In 1906 tsarist minister Stolypin issued a law favouring the kulaks that allowed peasants to leave the community and to sell their allotments. This law laid the basis for the official abolition of the village community system and intensified the differentiation among the peasantry. In nine years following the adoption of the law, over two million peasant families withdrew from the communities.

  Postscript[10101010 10101010] | The Petty-Bourgeois Character of Romanticism  

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