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A History of Russian Economic Thought
Published by EH.NET (February 2007)
Vincent Barnett, _A History of Russian Economic Thought_. New York: Routledge, 2005. xiv + 172 pp. $135 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-35264-9.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Natalia A. Makasheva, Department of Economics, Moscow State University, and Warren J. Samuels, Department of Economics, Michigan State University
Vincent Barnett attempts “to resurrect some of the memories, thoughts and experiences of long-neglected Russian economists of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” “to rekindle and extend interest in the West about the history of Russian economic ideas divorced from predominantly Marxian or planning-related concerns, to present some of the most important elements of these ideas in a clear and unbiased fashion, and to reconstruct some feeling of the context in which they arose” (p. viii). He thus seeks “to ‘bring Russia in from the cold,’ that is, to reintegrate the history of Russian ideas with other European and even some international currents of economic thinking” (p. 4).
The passage of time will clarify the extent to which the book is successful along those lines and in correcting any stereotypical vision of Russian economic thought. Nonetheless, the book provides support for those who perceive the history of economic thought to follow multi-current streams, not a single universal path of development.
Barnett covers, to varying degrees, numerous complicated and unsettled methodological, historical and theoretical questions. Some questions are beyond the book’s scope, but those included form a picture of the general context of Russian economic thought and the legacy of particular Russian economists.
Barnett covers the period from 1870 to 1940, occasionally extended to provide insights into Russian economic thinking before 1870, after Stalin, and during the period of the post-soviet transition. His procedure is to examine legacies of several prominent economists and some important debates on politically and economically significant issues. The entire period under consideration is divided based upon significant political-economic events, manifest in such chapter titles as “Prelude: The Russian Economic Mind before 1870”; “The Russian Economic Mind under Tsarism, 1870-1890”; “Socialism and Development in Late Tsarism, 1890-1913”; “Economic Theory in Late Tsarism, 1890-1913”; and “The Russian Economic Mind under Stalinism, 1929-1940.”
As for the period covered, Barnett claims that the first Russian translation of Marx’s _Capital_ in 1872 and the marginal revolution beginning around 1870 were “two events of notable significance for the development of Russian economic thought in the last three decades of the nineteenth century” (p. 29), but explains their controversial significance. That in Russia Marxist ideas gained popularity in the debate over the future social and economic organization of the country makes sense. This was the narodniks’ focus of attention from the late 1860s into the 1890s, initially with Marx and after his death with Engels (Perepiska, 1951). Translation of the theoretical _Capital_ did not appreciably influence this debate. The very notion of a “marginal revolution” has been questioned by some western historians of economic thought. In Russia, marginalism was only a marginal current. The year 1870 seems appropriate, however, for another reason. It was within the period following the commencement of the reforms undertaken by Alexander II, which greatly influenced the social and economic life of the country. The year 1940 seems to have been selected because it was the year just prior to the Great Patriotic War, the latter undoubtedly a milestone in the history of Russia (Soviet Union), albeit a date of negligible importance for the history of Soviet economic thought as such.
Also relevant is the elusive meaning of the adjective “Russian.” Barnett appropriately touches upon this point, albeit briefly, in the Introduction and returns to it in the Conclusion. What is meant by “national economics”? The answer is rather clear when we speak about schools which can be identified by their scope and method without references to the nationality of their adherents, such as Austrian economics, for example. However, any attempt to identify Russian economic thought as a school (as some present-day economists in Russia do) is condemned to fail. A “soft definition,” according to which Russian economic thought is a singular cohesive entity, might be more precisely called “conglomeration.” A definition embracing “economic thinkers who lived within Russian and/or Soviet borders” (p. 138) seems appropriate but has problems. Questions arise in part because of territorial changes occurring during the twentieth century. The result is that some Russian economists found themselves abroad. More important, the Revolution turned some Russian economists into émigrés and others into Soviet economists. In a recent article on E.E. Slutsky, Barnett calls him a “Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian economist” (Barnett 2005, p. 305). Not mentioned is a well-known economist, Boris Brutskus (1874-1938), (who wrote on agrarian problems, economic history, planning and market economies), who drew considerable attention during Perestroika. While he perhaps should have been mentioned, doubts arise as to his unambiguous assignment to Russian economic thought. Born in today’s Lithuania, he received his education in Moscow and Warsaw, worked in St. Petersburg-Petrograd (1898-1922), was exiled in 1922, then lived in Berlin and died in Jerusalem. This example is not unique.
Barnett presents several useful summaries. One is “Timeline: Key Developments in Russian Economics and Statistics,” which provides parallel lists of Russian ministries of finance and of prominent Russian economic writings. Two Appendixes present lists of both the first Russian translations of the works of Western economists and of Russian and Western economic theorists and their principal corresponding contributions. Few gaps are shown in the dates of birth and death of Russian economists, two of which can be filled, the deaths of A.A. Konyus in 1990 and I. Kh. Ozerov in 1942.
Barnett identifies important features of the history of Russian economics, including the significant political and social factors in its development and, to an extent, the evolution of the economic world-outlook of some prominent economists. These render doubtful any notion of progress in Russian economics by Western standards as well as this widely accepted classification: narodnik economics, Marxism (Russian Marxism, Legal Marxism), bourgeois-liberal economics, economic ideas of liberal professors (mix of historical school, social economics, etc.). Russian economic thought comprises numerous interlaced and “overlapping fibres” (p. 135), or, in Normano’s words, is akin to “a musical fugue” (Normano 1945, p. ix), namely, a sequentially instrumented piece. Still, the influence of major currents of Western economic thought induced Russian economists to both imitate and creatively adapt them.
The number of Russian economists given a few lines to a few pages exceeds thirty; those only mentioned are at least as numerous. Among the economists well-known in the West are M.I. Tugan-Baranovsky, E.E. Slutsky, and N. D. Kondratiev, whose ideas have been for years of particular concern to Barnett (Barnett 2004, 1998) as well as V. K. Dmitriev. Among the economists less well known in the West are the economist-mathematician N.N. Shaposhnikov, the money and banking specialist P.P. Migulin, the public finance theorist and historian of finance I.Kh. Ozerov, W.S Woytinsky, and many others. Barnett relates their professional concerns, the originality of their results, their impacts on practice, and their strengths and weaknesses.
No coverage can be exhaustive and any author’s choice of names can be questioned. Individuals deserving attention might have been included in a more extensive book. These include A.A. Isaev (1851-1924), author of a popular textbook on political economy in the period also known for his _Crises in the Economy_; D.I. Pikhno (1853-1913), whose demand and supply approach in _Grounds of Political Economy_ (1890) yielded results similar to Alfred Marshall’s; Pikhno’s pupil, A.D. Belimovich, the leader of the Kiev School and professor at several foreign universities; and I.I. Yanzhul (1846-1914), academician, professor and influential public figure whose name was well known to the educated public and whose writings on factory legislation, the labor question, customs policy, etc., received wide acceptance.
Barnett’s new book provides much objective information about Russian economic thinking during its most flourishing historical period and valuable insights into the nature of the interlacing ideas and contending views of Russian economists. Putting a new perspective on the history of Russian economic ideas may contribute to the multi-national study of the history of economic thought. It is a welcome addition to the scarce English-language literature. (A much longer, more detailed and much more finely nuanced review by Leonid Shirokorad of St. Petersburg is to be found in the _European Journal of the History of Economic Thought_ 13 (3) (September 2006): 433-44.)
Barnett, V. (2005). “E.E. Slutsky on William Petty: A Short Introduction,” _Journal of the History of Economic Thought_ 27(3): 305-307.
Barnett, V. (2004). “E.E. Slutsky: Mathematical Statistician, Economist, and Political Economist,” _Journal of the History of Economic Thought_ 26(1): 5-18.
Barnett, V. (1998). _Kondratiev and the Dynamics of Economic Development: Long Cycles and Industrial Growth in Historical Context_. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Normano J. F. (1945). _The Spirit of Russian Economics_. New York: John Day.
Perepiska, K. _Marksa i F.Engelss s russkimi politicheskimi deyatelyami_ (_Correspondence of K. Marx and F. Engels with Russian Political Figures_). Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1951.
Natalia Makasheva is professor of the history of economic thought at Moscow State University -- Higher School of Economics; and Head of the Economics Department at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences. She and Vincent Barnett, along with Warren J. Samuels, co-edited _The Works of Nikolai D. Kondratiev_, four volumes, London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998. She has recently published “Economic Science in Russia in the Period of Transformation (the late 1980’s-1990’s)” (in Russian), _Ekonomicheskie i socialnye problemy Rossii_ (_Economic and Social Problems of Russia_). Moscow: INION RAN, 2006.
Warren J. Samuels is Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University. His most recent book is _The Legal-Economic Nexus_, New York: Routledge, 2007.
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