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The Reception of David Ricardo in Continental Europe and Japan

Editor(s):Faccarello, Gilbert
Izumo, Masashi
Reviewer(s):Peach, Terry

Published by EH.Net (October 2014)

Gilbert Faccarello and Masashi Izumo, editors, The Reception of David Ricardo in Continental Europe and Japan.  Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2014.  vi + 249 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-82771-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Terry Peach, Department of Economics, University of Manchester.

This book is described as “a coherent and unique collection of chapters exploring the reception and diffusion of David Ricardo’s writings in different languages.” As there exists no other study of this kind, the claim to uniqueness is unobjectionable; but the alleged coherence of the volume is not so obvious: the seven chapters of which it comprises are of widely differing length, focus and quality.

The first essay by Alain Béraud and Gilbert Faccarello on the reception of Ricardo in French (1800-1875) is the longest and most comprehensive chapter. While it may seem odd that a single contribution should take up one quarter of the book, in this instance the length seems justified: Ricardo’s work attracted more attention in France (and Switzerland) than in other parts of continental Europe, and French translations and critical interpretations were singularly important in influencing Ricardo’s reception elsewhere. Unfortunately for the understanding of Ricardo, however, the translations were dismal. The 1819 version of the first edition of Ricardo’s Principles by Constâncio is described as “defective, with many errors and approximations that obscured [Ricardo’s] meaning,” while the 1847 effort by Fonteyraud was “almost appalling.” Here it could have been useful to be informed in greater detail about the precise nature of the “defects” and how they may have influenced Ricardo’s (mis-) interpretation. However, it was not only inaccurate translations that were a potential stumbling block. By the time of his literary transmission across the channel, French political economists had developed theories that “all confer a fundamental role on utility and demand” and were viewed as antithetical to, and inimical of, Ricardo’s ideas. Furthermore, readers of the 1819 translation would have been subjected to J.B. Say’s critical notes on the text, indisposing them to a favorable reception (or to an accurate understanding of the book, in Ricardo’s own opinion).  The upshot of these and other influences was that there was “a suspicious and even hostile reception of Ricardo’s writings,” which were criticized, inter alia, for being too abstract and unrealistic, too concerned with material interests, culpably neglectful of demand influences on value, and in some cases, as with the (misunderstood) theory of rent, downright fallacious.

Similar criticisms of Ricardo were articulated by German writers, as we find mentioned in Christian Gehrke’s review of a narrow selection of literature from the period from 1817 to 1914. Running to 61 pages, in this case the length, and certainly the focus, seem more difficult to justify. The author admits that his discussion is “restricted in several respects,” including an exclusive concern with the theory of value and distribution and a limitation on the authors discussed (strikingly, Marx’s reception of Ricardo is dealt with only “indirectly”). The restriction is excused on grounds of “time and space,” which may explain the startlingly abrupt ending of a chapter bereft of concluding remarks. The deeper problem is that the author is pursuing two disparate objectives, one the investigation of the reception of Ricardo’s works, the other an account of “some of the more important German contributions to the development of the classical approach to value and distribution.” The significance of the self-serving fiction of “the” classical approach is that it allows some contemporary followers of Piero Sraffa, including Gehrke, to present themselves as proud standard-bearers of a venerable historical tradition. This chapter is more concerned with the “tradition” than it is with Ricardo’s reception.

The two following and relatively brief chapters cover the reception of Ricardo’s ideas in Portugal up to 1848 (José Luís Cardoso) and Spain from 1818 to 1869 (Salvador Almenar). As it turns out, it was more a case of lack of reception, with Ricardo criticized, when not being ignored, for many of the same perceived foibles that irked those French critics who were themselves influential in shaping Portuguese and Spanish opinion.

Similar considerations apply to Ricardo’s (non-) reception in Italy as recounted by Anna La Bruna and Annalisa Rosselli, especially with the theory of value and distribution. With arresting modestly, the authors confess that there is nothing further for them to add in that area, and instead devote their contribution to inquiring whether Ricardo’s monetary ideas fared any better. They did not. While their conclusion may at this point in the book seem familiar, the authors are to be congratulated for their clear exposition and, uniquely, for providing an informed account of Ricardo’s own position on the issues discussed.

With a French influence also operating in Russia, “their Russian counterparts adopted a respectfully critical attitude towards Ricardian economics,” reports Denis Melnik. By the 1870s, when the Principles was first translated into Russian, Ricardo was typically treated as of only antiquarian interest, later to be enlisted (by Rubin) in a Marxian reconstruction of economic thought. Melnik proclaims joyously, presumably to the applause of Gehrke et al, that the translation into Russian of Sraffa’s work has opened a “new chapter in the long theory of the diffusion of Ricardo’s theory [sic] in Russia.”

The final contribution, on Ricardo’s reception in Japan by Masashi Izumo and Shigemasa Sato, has something in common with Melnik’s in that both extend their discussion of Ricardo’s influence to the present day, no doubt because there is little to say about the earlier period. Izumo and Sato do refer to Ricardo’s “widespread acceptance in Japan” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but this “acceptance” was second or third hand via the likes of Fawcett and J.S. Mill, with the Principles only translated into Japanese in 1921. In more recent times Ricardo has increasingly captured the attention of historians of economic thought. Some indication is given of their directions of research, albeit a very sketchy one.

A general theme in this volume is that Ricardo’s works were poorly received in one country after another. This would be in marked contrast to the position in the UK if, as claimed in the Introduction and the first chapter, Ricardo’s domestic reception had been one of general acclaim. But that was not the case. Granted, Ricardo did have his devoted supporters — they numbered precisely two according to James Mill, who identified himself and McCulloch — but his ideas received a barrage of criticism that continued well into the 1830s: there was nothing approaching a victory for Ricardo’s “New School” (as it came to be called) either during his lifetime or in the decades immediately following it. Other countries may have lacked the supporters, but in terms of criticism they were merely following the UK example, both in tone and detail.

Terry Peach, University of Manchester (, is the author of Interpreting Ricardo (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and editor of David Ricardo: Critical Responses, Volumes I to IV (Routledge 2003) which documents the UK reception of Ricardo over the period 1817-1848. With Cheng Lin and Wang Fang he recently co-edited The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought (Routledge 2014)

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII