Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi

Exploitation of Labor, and Socialism

Though he does not draw Socialistic conclusions, Sismondi's argument often runs like that of Marx himself, and his thought concerning the exploitation of labor undoubtedly influenced Socialistic criticism. Generally, though not with entire consistency, he states that labor is the source of wealth. The "rich" can only obtain the products of others' labor through exchange. If they were to spend their capital, they would become impoverished. But this is not necessary, for in the existing social order they make their property produce through the labor of others. In so many words, he says that capitalists exploit laborers, gaining not be­cause they produce a surplus above costs, but because they pay less than cost. At one point, the word "spoliation" is used.2 Luxury is possible only where it is maintained with the labor of others; unremitting toil, only where it secures a bare subsistence, — this is a corollary of his ideas on overproduction.

Competition is criticized as leading to overwork and to the employment of women. Government intervention is advocated. Yet Sismondi stops short of Socialism, and criticizes Owen and others.


A marked characteristic of Sismondi was his concrete and historical method. Smith and Malthus, he praises for their study of history and facts; while he constantly criticizes Ricardo for his abstraction and hasty generalization, and takes Say and M'Culloch to task on the same ground. Indeed, Sis­mondi was as much an historian as an economist. He was fully aware of the necessity for taking time and place and history into consideration. His best work lies in his concrete study of eco­nomic phenomena, and when he takes to abstract analysis he not infrequently falls into inconsistencies that confuse the reader.


No evidence has been found that the German Historical School acknowledges a debt to Sismondi, yet it is probable that he was well known to the leaders of that school, — Roscher gives him favorable comment in his History of Political Economy in Germany, — and some small degree of influence seems not unlikely. More recently, in America, the so-called "institutional economists" profess to derive some aid and com­fort from his example.

Aside from this, Sismondi's influence was chiefly felt by the Socialists. Indeed, he has sometimes been wrongly classed as one. Though his writing was thus effective along a line which he would not himself have followed, he was almost universally rejected by economists. This was no doubt due to the extremely reactionary character of his thought. He called for government intervention in an age of laisser faire. He was a pessimist in a land where optimism reigned. He opposed the very spirit of the dominant economics in his criticism of chrematistique, competi­tion, etc. And his notions concerning overproduction and ma­chinery were not only largely erroneous, but were peculiarly offensive to the "orthodox" English Classicist.

J. S. Mill read Sismondi, and his more humanitarian spirit and advocacy of government intervention, even passing over to Socialistic views in his later years, must have made him a sym­pathetic reader. But to what extent he drew on Sismondi cannot be stated. Fix, Droz {Economie -politique, 1829), Vil-leneuve-Bargemont {Economie politique chretienne, 1834), and Minghetti {Delia economia publico, 1859) might be classed as followers; and Buret appears to have been a sole disciple.