V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism




Practical Proposals of Romanticism

We shall now endeavour to sum up Sismondi’s point of view on capitalism (a task which, as the reader remembers, Ephrucy, too, set himself) and examine the practical programme of romanticism.

We have seen that Sismondi’s merit lay in his being one of the first to point to the contradictions of capitalism. But in pointing to them he not only made no attempt to analyse them and explain their origin, development and trend, but even regarded them as unnatural, or mistaken digressions from the normal. He naïvely protested against these “digressions” with moralising phrases, denunciations, advice to eliminate them, and so forth, as if these contradictions did not express the real interests of real groups of the population occupying a definite place in the general system of social economy of the present day. This is the most outstanding feature of romanticism—to regard antagonism of interests (which is deeply rooted in the very system of social economy) as a contradiction or an error of doctrine, system, even of measures, and so forth. Here the narrow outlook of the Kleinburger,[1] who stands aloof from developed contradictions and occupies an intermediary, transitional position between the two poles, is combined with a naïve idealism—we are almost ready to say a bureaucratic outlook—which attributes the existence of a social system to the opinions of men (especially of the powers that be) and not vice versa. We shall quote examples of all Sismondi’s arguments of this kind.

“In forgetting men for the sake of things, has not England sacrificed the aim to the means?

“The example of England is all the more striking in that this nation is free, enlightened and well governed, and that all her misfortunes are due solely to her pursuit of a wrong economic line” (I, p. IX). In general Sismondi uses England as an example to frighten the Continent with—just like our romanticists, who imagine that they are contributing something new and not the oldest kind of rubbish.

“In drawing my readers’ attention to England, I wanted to show . . . the history of our own future, if we continue to act on the principles she has followed” (I, p. XVI).

“... The Continental countries deem it necessary to follow England in her career of manufacture” (II, 330). “There is no more astonishing, no more frightful spectacle than that presented by England” (II, 332).[2]

“It must not be forgotten that wealth is merely that which represents (n’est que la représentation) the pleasures and amenities of life” (here wealth in general is substituted for bourgeois wealth!), “and to create artificial wealth and thereby doom a nation to all that which actually represents poverty and suffering, means taking the name for the thing itself” (prendre le mot pour la chose) (I, 379).

“... As long as nations followed only the dictates (commands, indications) of nature and enjoyed the advantages provided by climate, soil, location and the possession of raw materials, they did not place themselves in an unnatural position (une position forcée), they did not seek apparent wealth (une opulence apparente) which for the masses becomes real poverty” (I, 411). Bourgeois wealth is only apparent wealth!! “It is dangerous for a nation to close its doors to foreign trade: this compels the nation to engage, in a way (en quelque sorte) in false activity, which leads to its ruin” (I, 448)[3]  

“... Wages contain a necessary part which must sustain the life, strength and health of those who receive them. . . . Woe to the government that encroaches upon this part—it sacrifices everything (il sacrifie tout ensemble)—men, and hope of future wealth. . . . This difference enables us to understand how wrong is the policy of those governments which have reduced the wages of the working classes to the limit required to increase the net revenues of factory owners, merchants and property owners” (II, 169).[4]

“The time has come at last to ask: whither are we going?’l (où l’on veut aller) (II, 328).

“Their separation” (the separation of the property owning class from the working people), “the antagonism of their interests, is the result of the present-day artificial organisation which we have given human society. . . . The natural order of social progress did not by any means tend to separate men from things, or wealth from labour; in the rural districts the property owner could remain a tiller of the soil; in the towns the capitalist could remain an artisan; the separation of the working class from the leisured class was not absolutely indispensable for the existence of society, or for production; we introduced it for the greatest benefit of all; it devolves upon us (il nous appartient) to regulate it so that this benefit may be really achieved” (II, 348).

“Having been put in opposition to each other, the producers” (i.e., the masters and the workers) “were compelled to proceed along a path diametrically opposed to the interests of society. . . . In this constant struggle to reduce wages, the public interest, in which, however, all participate, in forgotten by all” (II, 359-60). And this too is preceded by mention of the paths bequeathed by history: “At the beginning of social life every man possesses capital, through which he applies his labour, and nearly all artisans live on   a revenue consisting equally of profit and wages” (II, 359).[5]

Enough, it seems.... We can be certain that a reader who is familiar neither with Sismondi nor with Mr. N.–on will find it difficult to say which of the points of view of the two romanticists, the one in the footnote or the one in the text, is the more primitive and naïve.

Sismondi’s practical proposals, to which he devoted so much space in his Nouveaux Principes, fully conform to this.

The difference between us and Adam Smith, says Sismondi in the very first book of his work, is that “we nearly always , call for that very governmental interference which Adam Smith rejected” (I, 52). “The state does not rectify distribution” (I, 80). . . . “The legislator could ensure the poor man some guarantees against universal competition” (I, 81). “Production must be commensurate with social revenue, and those who encourage unlimited production without taking the trouble to ascertain what this revenue is, are pushing the nation to ruin, though they think they are opening to it the road to wealth (le chemin des richesses)” (I, 82). “When the progress of wealth is gradual (gradué), when it is proportionate to itself, when none of its parts develops with excessive rapidity, it disseminates universal prosperity. . . Perhaps it is the duty of governments to restrain (ralentir!!) this movement in order to regulate it” (I, 409-10).

Of the enormous historical importance of the development of the productive forces of society, which takes place precisely through these contradictions and disproportions, Sismondi has not the faintest idea!

“If the government exercises a regulating and moderating influence upon the pursuit of wealth, it can be infinitely   beneficial” (I, 413). “Some of the measures to regulate trade which are nowadays condemned by public opinion, although meriting condemnation as a stimulus to industry, may, perhaps, be justified as a curb” (I, 415).

These arguments of Sismondi’s already reveal his astonishing lack of historical sense: he has not the faintest idea that liberation from medieval regulation constituted the entire historical significance of the period contemporary to him. He does not realise that his arguments bring grist to the mill of the defenders of the ancien régime, who at that time were still so strong even in France, not to speak of the other countries of the West-European continent where they ruled.[6]

Thus, the starting-point of Sismondi’s practical proposals is—tutelage, restraint, regulation.

This point of view follows quite naturally and inevitably from the whole of Sismondi’s range of ideas. He lived at the very time when large-scale machine industry was taking its first steps on the European continent, when there began that sharp and abrupt change of all social relations under the influence of machines (note, under the influence of machine industry, and not of “capitalism” in general),[7] a change which is known in economic science as the industrial revolution.[8] Here is how it is described by one of the first economists able fully to appreciate the profundity of the revolution which created modern European societies in place of the patriarchal semi-medieval societies:

“Such, in brief, is the history of English industrial development in the past sixty years” (this was written in 1844), “a history which has no counterpart in the annals of humanity. Sixty, eighty years ago, England was a country like every other, with small towns, few and simple industries, and a thin but proportionally large agricultural population. Today it is a country like no other, with a capital of two and a half million inhabitants; with vast manufacturing cities; with an industry that supplies the world, and produces almost everything by means of the most complex machinery; with an industrious, intelligent, dense population, of which two-thirds are employed in trade and commerce, and composed of classes wholly different; forming, in fact, with other customs and other needs, a different nation from the England of those days. The industrial revolution is of the same importance for England as the political revolution for France, and the philosophical revolution for Germany; and the difference between England in 1760 and in 1844 is at least as great as that between France, under the ancien régime and during the revolution of July.”[9]

This was the complete “break-up” of all the old, deep rooted relationships, whose economic basis had been small production. Naturally, with his reactionary, petty-bourgeois point of view, Sismondi could not understand the significance of this “break-up.” Naturally, he first of all, and most of all, wished, urged, pleaded, demanded that this “break-up should be stopped.”[10] ]

But how should this “break-up be stopped”? First of all, of course, by supporting the people’s . . . that is to say, “patriarchal production,” the peasantry and small farming in general. Sismondi devotes a whole chapter (t. II, l. VII, ch. VIII) to the subject of “how the government should protect the population from the consequences of competition.”

“In relation to the agricultural population, the government’s general task is to ensure those who work (à ceux qui travaillent) a part of the property, or to support (favoriser)   what we have called patriarchal agriculture in preference to all other kinds” (II, 340).

“A Statute of Elizabeth, which was disregarded, prohibited the building of cottages[11] in England unless each was allotted a four-acre plot of land. Had this law been obeyed, no day labourer could have married without receiving a cottage,[12] and no cottager[13] would have been reduced to extreme poverty. This would have been a step forward (c’est quelque chose), but it would not have been enough; under the English climate, the peasant population would have lived in want on four acres per family. Today, most of the English cottagers have only one and a half to two acres of land, for which they pay a fairly high rent. . . . The law should compel . . . the landlord, when he distributes his field among many cottagers,[14] to give each one enough land to live on” (II, 342–43).[15]

The reader will see that the proposals of romanticism are absolutely identical with the proposals and programme of the Narodniks: they too ignore actual economic development, and in the epoch of large-scale machine industry,   fierce competition and conflict of interests they fatuously presume the preservation of conditions which reproduce the patriarchal conditions of the hoary past.


[1] Petty bourgeois.—Ed.

[2] To show clearly the relation between European and Russian romanticism we shall quote, in footnotes, passages from Mr. N.–on. “We have refused to learn the lesson taught us by the course of economic development of Western Europe. We have been so dazzled by the brilliance of the development of capitalism in England, and we are so astonished by the immeasurably more rapid development of capitalism in the American States,” etc. (323). As you see, even Mr. N.–on’s expressions are not distinguished for their novelty! He is “astonished” by the same thing that “astonished” Sismondi at the beginning of the century. —Lenin

[3] “. . . The economic path we have pursued for the past thirty years has been a wrong one” (281). . . . “We have too long identified the interests of capitalism with those of the national economy—an extremely fatal blunder. . . . The apparent results of the protection of industry . . . have obscured our vision to such a degree that we have totally lost sight of the popular-social aspect . . . we have lost sight of the price paid for this development, we have forgotten the aim of all production” (298)—except capitalist production!

“Disdain for one’s own past . . . the implanting of capitalism” . . . (283). . . . “We . . . have resorted to all means to implant capitalism”. . . (323). . . . “We have overlooked” . . . (ibid.). —Lenin

[4] “. . . We have not hindered the development of the capitalist forms of production in spite of the fact that they are based upon the expropriation of the peasantry” (323). —Lenin

[5] “Instead of adhering firmly to our age-old traditions; instead of developing the principle of a close tie between the means of production and the direct producer . . . instead of increasing the productivity of its (the peasantry’s) labour by concentrating the means of production in its hands . . . instead of that, we have taken the absolutely opposite path” (322-23). “We have mistaken the development of capitalism for the development of the whole of people’s production . . . we have overlooked the fact that the development of one . . . can only proceed at the expense of the other” (323). Our italics. —Lenin

[6] Ephrucy discerned “civic courage” in these regrets and longings of Sismondi (No. 7, p. 139). So the expression of sentimental longings calls for civic courage!! Open any high-school textbook on history and you will read that in the first quarter of the nineteenth century the West-European countries were organised on lines which the science of constitutional law designates by the term: Polizeistaat (police state.—Ed.). You will read that the historical task not only of that quarter, but also of the subsequent quarter of the century, was to combat it. You will understand then that Sismondi’s point of view smacks of the dull-wittedness of the small French peasant of the Restoration period; that Sismondi exemplifies the combination of petty-bourgeois sentimental romanticism with phenomenal civic immaturity. —Lenin

[7] Capitalism in England dates not from the end of the eighteenth century but from a far earlier period. —Lenin

[8] These words are in English in the original.—Ed.

[9] Engels, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England.[16]Lenin

[10] We make so bold as to hope that Mr. N.–on will not resent our borrowing this expression from him (p. 345), as we think it extremely apt and characteristic. —Lenin

[11] These words are in English in the original.—Ed.

[12] These words are in English in the original.—Ed.

[13] These words are in English in the original.—Ed.

[14] These words are in English in the original.—Ed.

[15] “Adhere to our age-old traditions;” (is it not patriotism?) “. . . develop our inherited principle of close connection between the means of production and the direct producers”. . . (Mr. N.–on, 322). “We have turned from the path we have followed for many centuries we have begun to eliminate production based on the close connection between the direct producer and the means of production, on the close connection between agriculture and manufacturing industry, and have based our economic policy on the principle of developing capitalist production, which is based on the alienation of the means of production from the direct producers, with all its accompanying disasters, from which Western Europe is now suffering” (28l). Let the reader compare this with the above-quoted view of the “West Europeans” themselves on these “disasters from which Western Europe is suffering,” and so forth “The principle . . . of allotting land to the peasants or . . . providing the producers with implements of labour” (p. 2) . . . “the-age old foundations of the people’s life” (75). . . . “Hence we have in these figures” (i e., figures showing “the minimum amount of land needed under present economic conditions to ensure the material security of the rural population”) “one of the elements for the solution of the economic problem, but only one of the elements” (65). As you see the West-European romanticists were no less fond than the Russian of seeking in “age-old traditions” “sanctions for people’s production. —Lenin

[16] Marx and Engels, On Britain, Moscow, 1953, pp. 49-50.

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