Sismondi’s Reform Projects

Sismondi’s Reform Projects

His Influence Upon The History Of Doctrines

The principal interest of Sismondi's book does not lie in his attempt to give a scientific explanation of the facts that occupied his attention. Indeed, these attempts have little that is altogether satisfactory, for the analysis is frequently superficial, and even commonplace. His merit rather lies in having placed in strong relief certain facts that were consistently neglected by the dominant school of economists. Taken as a whole, his doctrine must be regarded as pessimistic. He deliberately shows us the reverse of the medal, of which others, even those whom we have classed as Pessimists—Ricardo and Malthus— wished only to see the brighter side. It is no longer possible to speak of the spontaneous harmony of interests, or to forget the misery and suffering which lie beneath an appearance of economic progress. Crises cannot be slipped over and treated as transient phenomena of no great moment. No longer is it possible to forget the important effects of an unequal division of property and revenues, which fre­quently results in putting the contracting parties in a position of fundamental inequality that annuls freedom of bargaining. In a word, it is no longer possible to forget the social consequences of economic transformations. And herein lies the sphere of social politics, of which we are now going to speak.

The new point of view occupied by Sismondi enables him to see that the free play of private interests often involves injury to the general interest, and that the laissez-faire doctrine preached by the school of Adam Smith has no longer any raison d'etre. On the contrary, there is room for the intervention of society, which should set a limit to individual action and correct its abuses. Sismondi thus becomes the first of the interventionists.

State action, in the first place, ought to be employed in curbing production and in putting a drag upon the too rapid multiplication of inventions. Sismondi dreams of progress accomplished by easy stages, injuring no one, limiting no income, and not even lowering the rate of interest. His sensitiveness made him timid, and critics smile at his philanthropy. Even the Saint-Simonians, too sympathetic to certain of his views, reproach him with having allowed himself to be misled by it. This state of mind was reflected in his habits in private life. Sainte-Beuve relates of him how he used to employ an old lock­smith who had become so useless and awkward that everybody had left him.

Sismondi remained faithful to the old man even to the very end, despite his inefficiency, lest he should lose his last customer. He wished society to treat the older industries in a similar fashion. He has been compared to Gandalin, the sorcerer's apprentice in the fable, who, having unlocked the water-gate with the magic of his words, sees wave succeed wave, and the house inundated, without ever being able to find the word which could arrest its flow.

Governments ought to temper their 'blind zeal' instead of urging on production. Addressing himself to the savants, he begs them to desist from invention and recall the sayings of the economists, laissez-faire, laissez-passer, by giving to the generations which their inventions render superfluous at least time to pass away. For the old regime, with its corporations and wardens, he had the sincerest regard, while condemning them as being harmful to the best interests of production. Still he wondered whether some lesson could not be gleaned from them which might help us in fixing limits to the abuses of competition.

Sismondi never seems to have realized that any restriction placed upon production with a view to alleviate suffering might hinder the progress and well-being of the very classes that interested him most. The conviction that the production of Europe was enough to satisfy all demands supported these erroneous views. Sismondi never sus­pected the relative poverty of industrial society, a fact that struck J. B. Say very forcibly. Moreover, he felt that on this point the policy of Governments was not so easily modified, a feeling that under­mined his previous confidence.

Since the causes of the evils at present existing in society are (1) the absence of property, (2) the uncertainty of the earnings of the working classes, all Government action ought to be concentrated on these points.

The first object to be aimed at, wherever possible, was the union of labour and property, and Sismondi eulogizes the movement towards a new patriarchal state—that is, towards a revival of peasant pro­prietorship. The Nouveaux Principes contains a celebrated description of the idyllic happiness of such a state. In industry he wished for a return of the independent artisan.

I am anxious that the industries of the town as well as country pursuits should be carried on by a great number of independent workers instead of being controlled by a single chief who rules over hundreds and even thousands of workers. I hope to see manufac­tures in the hands of a great number of capitalists of average means, and not under the thumb of one single individual who constitutes himself master over millions. I long to see the chance—nay, even the certainty—of being associated with the master extended to every industrious workman, so that when he gets married he may feel that he has a stake in the industry instead of dragging on through the declining years of life, as he too often does, without any prospect of advancement.
This for an end.

But the means? On this point Sismondi shows extraordinary timidity. Appeal to the legislator is not followed up by a plan of campaign, and in moments of scepticism and despair he even doubts whether reform is ever possible. He declares himself an opponent of communism. He rejects the Utopias of Owen, of Thompson, and of Fourier, although he recognizes that their aim was his also. He failed to perceive that his 'breaking up' process was quite as illusory as the communistic Utopias which he shunned. He rejected Owen's system because he saw the folly of attempting to substitute the interest of a corporation for that of the individual. But he never realized that it had nothing to do with a corporation, and it is possible that were he alive at the present time he would be an ardent champion of co­operation.

But until the union of property and labour is realized Sismondi is content with a demand for a simpler reform, which might alleviate the more pressing sufferings of the working classes. First of all he appeals for the restoration, or rather the granting, of the right of combination. Then follows a limitation of child labour, the abolition of Sunday toil, and a shortening of the hours of labour. He also demanded the establishment of what he called a "professional guaran­tee," whereby the employer, whether agriculturist or capitalist, would be obliged to maintain the workman at his own expense during a period of illness or of lock-out or old age. This principle once admitted, the employers would no longer have any interest in reducing the wages of the workman indefinitely, or in introducing machinery or in multi­plying production unduly. Having become responsible for the fate of the workers, they would then take some account of the effect which invention might have on their well-being, whereas to-day they simply regard them from the point of view of their own profits. One might be tempted to regard this as an anticipation of the great ideal which has to a certain extent been realized by the social insurance Acts passed during the last thirty years. But this is only partly so. Sismondi placed the charge of maintenance upon the master and not upon society, and his criticism of methods of relief, especially of the English Poor Law, was that they tended to decrease wages and to encourage the indifference of masters by teaching the workers to seek refuge at the hands of the State rather than at the hands of the masters.

In short, his reform projects, like his criticism of the economists, reveal a certain degree of hesitation, due, no doubt, to the perpetual conflict between reason and sentiment. Too keen not to see the bene­fits of the new industrial regime, and too sensitive not to be moved by some of its more painful consequences, too conservative and too wise to hope for a general overthrow of society, he is content to remain an astonished but grieved spectator of the helplessness of mankind in the face of this evil. He did not feel himself competent to suggest a remedy. He himself has confessed to this in touching terms:
I grant that, having indicated what in my opinion is the principle of justice in this matter, I do not feel myself equal to the task of showing how it can be realized. The present method of distributing the fruits of industry among those who have co-operated in its production appears to me to be curious. But a state of society absolutely different from that with which we are now acquainted appears to be beyond the wit of man to devise.

It is a striking fact that most of the important social ideas in the nineteenth century can be traced back to Sismondi's writings. They have been confirmed by the events that have followed the First World War. He was the first critic whom the Classical school encountered in its march, and he treats us to a full resume of its many heresies. In the bitter struggle which ensued the heretics won the day, their nostrums taking the place of the Classical doctrines in the public favour. But it seems hardly possible that Sismondi's work should have determined the course of these newer tendencies. His immediate influence was extremely limited. It scarcely told at all except upon the socialists. His book was soon forgotten, and not until our own day was its importance fully realized. It would be truer to say that in the course of the nineteenth century there was a spontaneous revival of interest in the ideas promulgated by Sismondi. None the less he was the first writer to raise his voice against certain principles which were rapidly crystallizing into dogmas. He was the earliest economist who dared resist the conclusions of the dominant school, and to point to the existence of facts which refused to tally with the large and simple generalizations of his predecessors. If not the founder of the new schools that were about to appear, he was their precursor. They are inspired by the same feelings and welcome the same ideas. His method is an anticipation of that of the Historical school. His definition of political economy as a philosophy of history works wonders in the hands of Roscher, Knies, and Hildebrand. His plea for a closer observation of facts, his criticism of the deductive process and its hasty generalizations, will find an echo in the writings of Le Play in France, of Schmoller in Germany, and of Cliffe Leslie and Toynbee in England. The founders of the German Historical school, in their ignorance of foreign writers, regarded him as a socialist, but the younger representatives of that school have done full justice to his memory, and recognize him as one of their earliest representatives.

By his appeal to sentiment and his sympathy for the working classes, by his criticism of the industrial regime of machines and competition, by his refusal to recognize personal interest as the only economic motive, he foreshadows the violent reaction of humanitarianism against the stern implacability of economic orthodoxy. We can almost hear the eloquence of Ruskin and Carlyle, and the pleading of the Christian Socialists, who in the name of Christian charity and human solidarity protest against the social consequences of production on a large scale. Like Sismondi, social Christianity will direct its attack, not against the science itself, but against the easy bourgeois com­placency of its advocates. A charge of selfishness will be brought, not against economic science as such, but against its representatives and the particular form of society which it upholds.

Finally, by his plea for State intervention Sismondi inaugurated a reaction against Liberal absolutism, a reaction that deepened in in­tensity and covered a wider area as the century wore on, and which found its final expression in State socialism, or "the socialism of the chair." He was the first to advocate the adoption of factory legislation in France and to seek to give the Government a place in directing economic affairs. The impossibility of complete abdication on the part of the State would, he thought, become clearer every day. But it was little more than an aspiration with him; it never reached the stage of a practical suggestion.

Thus in three different ways Sismondi's proposals were destined to give rise to three powerful currents of thought, and it is not surprising that interest in his work should have grown with the development of the new tendencies which he had anticipated.

His immediate influence upon contemporary economists was very slight. Some of them allowed themselves to be influenced by his warm­heartedness, his tenderness for the weak, and his pity for the workers, but they never found this a sufficient reason for breaking off their connexions with the Classical school. Blanqui1 in particular was a convert to the extent that he admitted some exceptions to the principle of laissez-faire. Theodore Fix and Droz seemed won over for a moment, and Sismondi might rightly have expected that the Revue mensuelle d'economie politique, started by Fix in 1833, would uphold his views. But the days of the Revue were exceedingly few, and before finally disappearing it had become fully orthodox. Only one author, Buret, in his work on the sufferings of the working classes in England and France, has the courage to declare himself a wholehearted disciple of Sismondi. The name of Villeneuve-Bargemont, author of Economie politique chretienne, must be added to these. His work, which was pub­lished in three volumes in 1834, bears frequent traces of Sismondi's influence.

Sismondi, though not himself a socialist, has been much read and carefully studied by socialists. It is among them that his influence is most marked. This is not very surprising, for all the critical portion of his work is really a vigorous appeal against competition and the in­equalities of fortune. Louis Blanc read him and borrowed from him more than one argument against competition. The two German socialists Rodbertus and Marx are still more deeply indebted to him. Rodbertus borrowed from him his theory of crises, and owes him the suggestion that social progress benefits only the wealthier classes. Rodbertus quotes him without any mention of his name, but Marx in his Manifesto has rendered him full justice, pointing out all that he owed to his penetrative analysis. The most fertile idea borrowed by Marx was that which deals with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few powerful capitalists, which results in the increasing dependence of the working classes. This conception is the pivot of the Manifesto, and forms a part of the very foundation of Marxian collectivism. The other idea of exploitation does not seem to have been borrowed from Sismondi, although he might have discovered a trace of the surplus value theory in his writings. Marx endeavours to explain profit by drawing a distinction between a worker selling his labour and parting with some of his labour force. Sismondi employs terms that are almost identical, and says that the worker when selling his labour force is giving his life. Elsewhere he speaks of a demand for 'labour force.' Sismondi never drew any precise conclusion from these ideas, but they may have suggested to Marx the thesis he took such pains to establish.

Many a present-day socialist, without acknowledging the fact, per­haps without knowing it, loves to repeat the arguments which Sismondi was the first to employ, to stir up his indifferent contemporaries.