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Economics in Russia: Studies in Intellectual History.
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Published by EH.NET (May 2009)
Vincent Barnett and Joachim Zweynert, editors, Economics in Russia: Studies in Intellectual History. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xviii + 198 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6149-8
Reviewed for EH.NET by Warren J. Samuels, Department of Economics, Michigan State University.
This collection of neatly-defined and well-structured interpretive essays illustrates how written histories of economic thought can vary depending on several distinctions. One distinction concerns whose thought a historian includes. One can concentrate, following Mark Blaug, on what is understood to be economic theory, pursued by largely academic, professional economists, or, following Joseph Dorfman, also include non-academic, non-professional people. A second distinction concerns the mutual impacts of the two mentalities on each other. A third distinction has to do with the homogeneity or heterogeneity of each mentality. A fourth distinction concerns the relation of the economic system, with its distinctive economic practice and system of social control, to the two mentalities. No one of the resulting stories is necessarily correct, but one interpretation can be more accurate than another, though more than one interpretation can often relate to a particular situation.
Accordingly, Russian economic thought of Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries oscillated between the doctrines of mercantilism and those of the Middle Ages. The ideas of some authors remained subordinated to religious, legal and political discourses, especially the vast fusion of state and church which tended to strictly limit the range of independent thinking. Nonetheless, the principal topics were the system of land ownership, money and trade -- with written texts dominated by religious discourse and political practice influenced by mercantilist concepts.
The eighteenth century manifested the conflict between the radical economic reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine II, on the one hand, and the continuing medieval social structure, on the other. Liberal rhetoric was silenced by autocratic claims for enforcement of absolute power. Later thinkers and statesmen helped to develop the system of finance and banking, unintentionally, one supposes, establishing some of the institutional foundations of the initial Russian industrial economy of the late nineteenth century. Writers combined liberal ideas with a Hamiltonian state promoting economic modernization. The targets were given by practice and the government.
Academic research and teaching was initially institutionalized in the early nineteenth century. The teaching of political economy commenced in 1804; the first textbook in political economy published in Russia (written in French, six volumes, a compilation of Smith, Turgot, Say, et alia) appeared in 1815; and the first chair was established in 1819. Some later academicians sought to articulate the ethical foundations of economics, some of them arriving at socialism, including Christian socialism. Several essays serve to suggest that economics cannot be formulated independently of the concrete conditions of time and space, though that does not prevent differences of interpretation and formulation by scholars in any given time and place. The point obviously applies to normative economics but also to positive economics. But the story is more complex and lengthier. Selig Perlman lectured that Marxism was (more or less surreptitiously) taught in the schools before 1917. One school of interpreters argued that until the 1890s Russian economists largely followed, even imitated, Western economists. Socialist ideas gained popularity first and foremost not economists among but the educated public. In 1917 the October Revolution replaced one system of social control of belief and practice with another. In 1927 the Communist Party line ostensibly changed from world revolution to socialism in one country coupled with praise for those early economists who had been close to Marxism and denigrated the Western non-Marxist imitators. Within three years, the Soviet Union adopted collectivization, planning and industrialization. After 1991, Soviet economics was denigrated in favor of both pre-Soviet and especially, eventually, Western mainstream economics. More recently, criticism of both the handling of transition to a market economy and the increasing influence of Western mainstream economics (imitation or transfer?) has emerged, along with discussion of a “Russian school of economics.”
That is the overall account which emerges from the thirteen chapters written by twelve authors. Each essay attempts to interpret the work of key individuals, issues or concepts of particular periods.
Chapter 1, authored by the co-editors, is a nice six-page introduction and summary. It is preceded by a very useful four-page “timeline” of the major events of Russian history.
Chapter 2, written by Danila Raskov, examines economic thought in Muscovy.
Chapter 3 discusses the Russian version of the Enlightenment (Leonid Shirokorad).
Chapter 4 examines the ideas and contributions to institutional innovation of three reformers of the monetary system in the early nineteenth century (Alla Sheptun).
Chapter 5 interprets what amounts to conflicts between different assertions of a “natural order,” between rationalism and empiricism, between one or more conceptual models of the economy and one or more efforts at identifying the “actual” economy, between German idealism and French rationalism, and between liberalism, socialism, the ideas of Friedrich List, German historicism, and conservative romanticism (Joachim Zweynert).
Chapter 6 takes up the pursuit of an “ethical” basis for political economy, namely, socialism, by Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky, and Christian socialism, by Sergei Bulgakov (Natalia Makasheva).
Noting that the co-editors distinguish at this point between the pre- and post-1917 periods and the corresponding chapters, I move on to chapter 7, which deals with the ideas and status of A. V. Chayanov, but which also misses the opportunity to compare and contrast Chayanov and N. D. Kondratiev as agricultural economists (William Coleman and Anna Taitslin).
Chapter 8 examines Russian émigré economists in the U.S., and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. It helps explain the predominance of mathematical and statistical approaches to economics taken by those who escaped Hitler and Stalin which, along with the ideas and formulations of Austrian-school economists, eventually had a marked transformative impact on the mainstream of U.S. economics. Among the Austrian-School émigrés were Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Gottfried Haberler, and Fritz Machlup. Among the Russian émigrés were Simon Kuznets, Jacob Marschak, and W. W. Leontief (Vincent Barnett).
Chapter 9 presents the lives and work of two Russian economists exiled in 1922, Boris Brutzkus and Sergei Prokopovich, the former a Russian Jew and economic liberal, the latter from a noble family but transformed by his investigation of West Siberian villages during the great famines of 1891-92. The two men were later among the first students of the Soviet economy although having different careers and ideas as well as origins (Shuichi Kojima).
Chapter 10 is on the debate in the U.S.S.R. during 1941-53 on the law of value, interpreted by the chapter’s author, Michael Kaser, to have been a serious blow to economics in the U.S.S.R., one administered by Stalin. During 1956-1958, however, it began to be clear that “a significant stage in the transition of Soviet economics from Marx to Marshall was complete” (p. 154). The emergence of a relativist value theory (demand and supply theory of price) and the eclipse of an absolutist single-valued value theory (labor theory or marginal utility theory of value) came about for both political and economic reasons in both worlds. In Europe and the United States, price theory came to be seen as both more empirically meaningful and more ideologically, i.e., politically, useful; in Russia during the period covered by Kaser, labor (the labor theory of value) was increasingly seen among economists as inadequate for planning purposes and was increasingly adversely but, writes Kaser (p. 151), not arbitrarily affected by political context.
Chapter 11 identifies the years after Stalin’s death as, in effect, an amalgam of elements (Pekka Sutela). It was a period of scientism, of varieties of Soviet economics, and of stages of economic reform. The stages were: decentralization, market pricing, and incomplete transition to commodity and labor markets. The central topics of reform discussions were on enterprise self-management, and impersonal owners such as pension funds. Not surprisingly, the authorities continued to be sensitive to anything resembling private property.
In the two-page chapter 12 the co-editors observe, first, “that the progress of economic ideas in Russia was (and still is) inextricably connected to matters of economic policy and also to issues of governmental control” (p. 187). They also urge recognition that “recent developments in Russia ... [include] a tendency [as in the past] toward the ‘state capture’ of key branches of the economy, increasing restrictions on political liberty, and a low conviction rate regarding serious crimes against persons critical of the Russian government such as journalists. Even if no cases, so far, have been reported of economists being subject to direct political pressure, it does not take much imagination to conceive of such a case in the near future” (pp. 187-188). The co-editors conclude with two points: they do not believe that the mix of Western and native Russian ideas constitutes “the existence of a ‘Russian school’ of economic thinking” (p. 188) in the same sense as is meant by such terms as “Austrian school,” “Cambridge school,” or “Chicago school.” Second, they call attention to how little the economics of Marx, Engels and Lenin have been mentioned within this volume. “Russian economics had a long and distinguished history before 1917” and “[Marx] was by no means a dominant figure in pre-revolutionary Russian political economy” (p. 188).
_Economics in Russia_ can be recommended as a nicely designed and executed collection of essays which provides insight into a history of economic thought in some respects different from that of the West and in other respects rather similar.
The co-editors correctly point to the centrality of the issue of “precisely what developmental path the country should take.” They also note “the extensive presence of ideology in the history of Russian economic thought” and (correctly) reject the argument that it is due to the features of a “Russian character.” They suggest that in Russia the issue of development path has been heatedly controversial since the time of Peter the Great and claim that that “might explain (in part) why economics was more strongly politicized [in Russia] than it was in many Western countries” (p. 2).
The view that controversy over development path explains the greater politicization of economics would likely be shared by many, perhaps most, historians of economic thought. The matter of development path is indeed a central issue of economic policy. It did not, however, arise in Russia with Peter the Great. The controversy between mercantilism and medievalism, in which mercantilism was the initial stage of capitalism, was about development path and preceded Peter the Great.
The key question, however, is whether differences in degree of politicization have existed, to be explained by controversy over development path. I do not want to overdo the point but the question of degree of politicization is not only important in itself but it casts light on how decision making on and interpretation of economic policy should be handled by the historian of economic thought.
There has been no conclusive difference in degree of politicization; any such perception is a function of one’s normative selective prior assumptions. The question of development path has not been unique to Russia. It has been, for example, central to policy debate in the United States. I cite the conflict between Pilgrim religious fundamentalism and money-making (trade) as rival ways of life that arose in (more accurately, was brought from England to) the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early- and mid-seventeenth century. The conflict continues to this day, in more complex forms and in different circumstances, most notably in presidential elections and the on-going formation of and conflict between secularism and religious fundamentalism. One was not more politicized than the other. Even if one or the other supporting group claims more than they actually want, expect or are willing to settle for, the approach to development path is at least expressed in terms of different discourses, each of which is political, whatever their content .
My view is based on several considerations, including: (1) Acceptance of the underlying fact and importance of the legal foundations of the economy, and through it the normative elements in economic policy and the choice of the incidents of the development path. Such acceptance only minimally relies on evidence founded on ideological doctrine. It especially reflects my perception of universal pragmatic practice. (2) Such pragmatism not only accurately describes the United States (and, of course, elsewhere) but has been facilitated, protected, encouraged and, more subtly, taught by the First Amendment’s rejection of an establishment of religion and its protection of the freedom of speech and of the press, and the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, as well as through the use of various other clauses of the Constitution in the “protection of property.” (I use that trope even though in other circumstances I would insist that property is property because it is protected and not that property is protected because it is property.) Pragmatism also accurately describes the jurisprudential processes through which the meaning of the Constitutional clauses and concepts themselves, e.g., property, are worked out. (3) The relatively greater heavy-handedness of the state in Russia has been either more salient or more selectively perceived than in the United States, which may reflect either “reality” or the greater effectiveness of relatively light-handed social control in the latter country or the relatively small percentages of its population which thinks seriously of the federal government, state government, local government, indeed all government, as fundamentally infringing on their freedom. (By “seriously,” I intend to be understood to mean something different from electoral and comparable rhetoric, but not necessarily requiring the “litmus test” of an immediate willingness if not desire to resort to armed force in open rebellion.) (4) The multiple meanings of “politicization” is another factor. It has been used to signify the introduction of politics (itself multiply defined) into areas of life in which it hitherto has been absent, to refer to institutions that are political (meaning having to do with decision making, or the exercise of power) by their very nature and/or to suggest that a decision has not been made on the respective merits of the relevant alternatives but in order to insinuate considerations of political-party advantage into the process. (5) Another factor is the eclipse or obfuscation of other possible paths by the success of the path actually “chosen” and followed, perhaps as if that path was inevitable, say, due to the absolute nature of things.
It has been only (!) two to three hundred years since the eighteenth century, in which the values and policies of the Enlightenment first prospered, in which naturalism made major explicit inroads on supernaturalism, and in which society and its institutions were relatively widely seen to be a matter of policy and neither the natural nor the supernatural order of things. Ideological and normative propositions, typically having a complex relation to power, are operative in the making and conduct of policy and the social reproduction or alteration of socioeconomic structure. As for politicization, I know of no conclusive way in which a mediaeval or feudal structure and its world view can be conclusively shown to be more, or less, politicized than a mercantilist, capitalist or socialist/communist system. A change in power structure may (or may not) lead to a change of ideology that is typically more important than a change in power structure generated by a change in ideology. My key point is that no one ideology is more politicized than another.
Consider, for example, the interpretations of the United States made in the 1930s and in 2009. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes were seen by many as socialists and antagonistic to capitalism whereas others saw the innovations of the New Deal as saving capitalism for the capitalists, or whomever. The amply evident present-day situation pits President Barack Obama against the Republicans of the House of Representatives. I suggest the following as a possibility -- the Republicans understand that the President’s program is geared to support business (investment) in part through bail-outs, etc., helping selected types of business rather than supporting households, especially lower- and middle-class families. The flow of spending can work, or not work, in different ways. Consider that consumption spending, even if financed by home bailouts of some sort, may lead to an increase in the expected rate of profit of businesses and a fall in liquidity preference by various groups, including those engaged in real or portfolio investment, or increase the distraction of the working class from recognizing or even speculating that it is capitalism that President Obama is saving while more or less increasing the possibility of upward mobility by the children and grandchildren of the masses, which is what President Obama seems at least to desire. (The reader will recall that in their concluding chapter, Barnett and Zweynert note a tendency in Russia “toward the ‘state capture’ of key branches of the economy” (p. 187). It would be ironic if the bailout and stimulus packages (notice the play of metaphors) (and, to a lesser but not insignificant degree, the imposition of moral and/or legal constraints on the remuneration of corporate executives) that have become (as of April 2009) the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s anti-depression policy represented an area of Galbraithian (or other) convergence between U.S. capitalism and Russian post-Soviet organization; and possibly even more ironic if the packages represented the capture of business(es) by government in place of or in addition to business capture of government agencies and branches.)
Assume the foregoing is a meaningful account. Joseph Schumpeter pointed out the irony of a European labor party successful at the polls yet, instead of being able to introduce socialism (whatever that might have meant to them), they became the managers of a continuing, if somewhat revised, capitalism. In the dialectic of politics it is sometimes, perhaps often, the continuing task of each party both to abet and to limit the other, for example, in Moscovy. Performing that task transcends the vagaries of ideological perception.
If investment increases (say. due to an increase in the expected rate of profit generated by a newly optimistic psychology), income will tend to increase, as will also consumption. The reverse will also likely happen, i.e., a story of shocks coupled with either positive or negative multipliers. One point is the multiplier account. Another point is that, ceteris paribus, income can change as a result of a policy-induced change in either consumption (working, through the expected rate of profit, on investment) or investment (working, through the marginal propensity to save, on consumption). Each sequence is accompanied by its heroic account. One group of voters applauds one; another resonates with the other. Those who invoke a one-sided view of the two processes narrow the possibilities permitted by economic theory. But neither view is more ideological or more politicized than the other. The same applies to tax versus subsidy externality policies.
Religious people who are successful in life in their own mind, may tend to dispose of their discretionary income in a trade-expanding way; similarly, people engaged in trade who are successful may act in a religion-enhancing way. Neither practice is more ideological or more politicized than the other.
Apropos, therefore, of this and other books, on the Russia of Moscovy, policy might have reflected Eastern Orthodoxy or mercantilism or both, but be interpreted as the opposite. I submit, first, that any story told about the different pieces of Russian history, like that of the U.S., could stress one side or the other, yet the evidence remain incapable of conclusive affirmation of either side. I submit, second, that neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor mercantilism is more ideological or more politicized than the other. I submit, third, that any one-sided choice of a story is a function of sentiment or ideological position coupled with a desire to have a seemingly absolute account whose value is more important for influencing present-day policy than for interpreting the past. I should not be understood as attributing such to the motives of either the editors or the other authors, but to the logical situation of interpretation. There is no one complete, true history; there are interpretations.
One reader of a draft of this review suggested that by the time that the questions of politicization and of controversy over development path were largely and practically “solved” in the Western countries, they were still on the agenda in Russia. I believe that they have neither ever been solved nor off the agenda in the Western countries. To that reader politicization means the entry of policy and ideology into practical solution policies and into economic theory; that it is impossible to either estimate the degree of politicization or eliminate it; and that its degree and meaning depend on political and legal arrangements, hierarchical system of power and so on. This reader also feels that no history of economic thought can be the “true” story, only a story bearing signs of their time, place and the views of the people who were engaged in doing economics. This reader also believes that intellectual history cannot be reduced to one or two problems, however important they might be: intellectual history is a multi-stream process.
Another reader of the draft identifies as a missing issue differences in state attempts to control intellectual discourse. The actions can take different forms: the termination or intimidation of professors who challenge the dominant political “line” or “consensus,” government funding of economic research with a pronounced bias favoring “mainstream” research where “mainstream” reflects both professional orthodoxy and the economic system around which orthodoxy and the national economy is built, and so on.
All of which suggests that the work of contemporary historians of economic thought is richer and less presumptuous than the work of earlier generations. The history of economic thought is itself a vast interpretive field with numerous opportunities for interpretation.
Warren J. Samuels is Professor of Economics, Emeritus at Michigan State University. He is the founding editor of _Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology_. His book of essays on the use of the concept of the invisible hand is in the initial stage of the production process.
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