Lenin's Critique of "Economic Romanticists"

By Philips, R. Craig | Michigan Academician, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Lenin's Critique of "Economic Romanticists"


Philips, R. Craig, Michigan Academician


Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (1870-1924), who took the name of Lenin in 1901, published a series of articles in 1897 that he titled A Characterization of Economic Romanticism, Sismondi, and Our Native Sismondists. (1) Although he was only twenty-seven years old, Lenin had been a radical for a decade, ever since his older brother Alexander was hanged for plotting against Tsar Alexander III. Expelled from Kazan University for attending a prohibited meeting just three months after matriculating, Lenin had taught himself law, passed the bar, and become a public defender. But his true vocation was becoming a Marxist revolutionary. Already, in 1895, he had been sent abroad to contact exiled leaders, including his mentor in Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, and at the end of that year Lenin and others in the Marxist Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class were arrested. He spent 14 months in prison followed immediately, in February 1897, by three years' exile in Siberia. Free to study and write both in pri son and exile, he penned many articles and pamphlets, including A Characterization of Economic Romanticism.

When he composed this work, Lenin, like Plekhanov, believed Russia would have to go through two revolutions to achieve socialism: a bourgeois revolution, which would achieve democracy and develop full-blown capitalism; then a proletarian revolution, which would be possible after mature capitalism had produced a large proletariat. Thus Lenin's great preoccupation at the time was the rapid development of Russian capitalism. (It was only in the latter part of his exile, when he was composing The Development of Capitalism in Russia [published in 1899], that he would begin to see the possibility of socialist revolution based on an alliance of Russia's meager industrial proletariat with the impoverished lower strata of the peasantry.) The rival radicals against whom Economic Romanticism was directed were the Narodniks (Populists), a slavophile-descended movement that distrusted modern European culture and hoped to avoid the ills of capitalism by creating an agrarian socialist society based on the traditional Russia n peasant commune. Lenin's essay was one of the many polemics that Russian Marxists and Narodniks directed at one another in these years, and it was a response to Narodnik articles expounding upon and praising the theories of Swiss historian and economist Jean-Charles-Leonard Simonde de Sismondi, a pioneering critic of laissez faire capitalism. Sismondi's Nouveaux principes d'economie politique [New Principles of Political Economy] (1819, 1827) had recently been translated into Russian, and some writers were praising his critique of capitalism as a viable alternative to Karl Marx's. (2) Lenin sought to demonstrate the weakness of Sismondi's point of view, which was, he argued, identical to that of the Narodniks, and to show the superiority of the Marxist position.

Although Lenin republished A Characterization of Economic Romanticism two times, it is a neglected work, barely mentioned and not discussed in official Soviet biographies of Lenin and ignored by Western biographies. It is highly polemical, very misleading about the relationship between Sismondi and Marx, and much more informative about Lenin's thinking than Sismondi's. However, it holds great interest for two reasons: first, Lenin, father of the Soviet Union, was the twentieth century's most prominent Marxist, and Marx was strongly influenced by Sismondi; (3) and secondly, the work speaks volumes about Lenin's intellectual integrity.

One reason Lenin's essay is far from a balanced and systematic comparison of the analyses of capitalism of Marx and Sismondi is because Russian censorship did not allow Lenin to openly propound Marxism, so that he referred to it obliquely as "modern theory" and never alluded to its revolutionary aims or predictions. Another is that Lenin was not interested in giving an evenhanded assessment of Sismondi's economic theory and, hence, drew from Sismondi's writings only what served his own polemical purposes. …

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