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Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Œuvres économiques complètes, II et III

Richard Whatmore
p. 261-263
Référence(s) :

Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Œuvres économiques complètes II : De la richesse commerciale, Eds. Pascal Bridel, Francesca Dal Degan, Nicolas Eyguesier, Paris : Economica, 2012, 406 pages, ISBN : 978-2-7178-6451-9

Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Œuvres économiques complètes III : Ecrits d'économie politique, 1799-1815, Eds. Pascal Bridel, Francesca Dal Degan, Nicolas Eyguesier, Paris : Economica, 2012, 466 pages, ISBN : 978-2-7178-6452-6

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Crédits : Economica

1Everyone knows that if a list of the most turbulent periods in European history had to be made then very close to the top would come the period between the French Revolution and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Many of Europe’s oldest independent states ceased to exist, including Venice and Genoa. Many longstanding states, including the Swiss cantons and the Dutch Republic, vanished for a period of time. In their place new states were created, and sometimes replaced by newer states still, all ultimately within the French Empire. One of the great ironies of an era of singular upheaval was the attempt to establish social sciences that sought to identify what was stable and constant in human societies. The most important science was political economy, because it was recognized across the political spectrum that the most advanced commercial society was more likely than any other to be successful in war. One of the major issues of the time was what kind of commercial society was compatible with economic wellbeing and national and international stability. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was a key text here, because in the fourth book Smith had damned the ‘mercantile system’, the corruption and monopolising tendency of which had created in modern Europe a ‘retrograde order’ centred on Britain. The implication of Smith’s work, although not spelled out by Smith himself, was that corrupt forms of commerce were bad and would corrode the power of the states that relied upon them.

2Exactly this issue came to the fore at the end of the eighteenth century. If Smith was right, it was unlikely that Britain would be able to stand against the moral forms of commerce being advanced by revolutionary France. The opposing view was that revolutionary France was the most hypocritical state in history and the supposedly moralized commerce associated with it actually masked a very brutal form of reason of state in the economic sphere. Britain, by contrast, was capable of reform, and therefore capable of combatting the worst excesses of the mercantile system. Taking a stand on each side of the argument had direct implications for the survival of states because Britain and France represented alternative futures for Europe. Either Britain was an imperial power seeking dominion through trade or a benevolent state promoting wealth for all. Either France was fostering liberty in all lands or a monstrous despotism encouraging disorder and terror. Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi addressed precisely this dilemma in his economic writings between 1799 and 1815, all of which are included in this splendid edition of his collected economic writings hailing from the Centre Walras-Pareto d’études interdisciplinaires de la pensée économique et politique at the University of Lausanne.

3Sismondi’s major contribution to economic literature during this period, and the work that made his name in the sense that he henceforth became known as a significant political economist, was De la Richesse commerciale, ou principes d’économie politique appliqués à la législation du commerce, published in 1803. The remarkable fact is that this is the first new edition of the work since its appearance. The editors, in an illuminating introduction, reveal that the Genevan context of the publication is key to understanding Sismondi’s argument in the book. Sismondi was the product of a union between two of the more affluent Genevan families, many of whose members opposed the local movements for democratic government and greater economic equality within the city that led to revolution in 1782 and a French-led invasion. Sismondi’s domineering mother, Henriette Ester Gabriele Girodz, was an enemy to popular movements of any kind. Gédéon François Simonde, Sismondi’s father, was a pastor. As a citizen he entered the Council of 200 at Geneva in 1782, and favoured both the French invasion and the crushing of the democrats in that year. The Simondes owned houses within Geneva and outside the walls of the city, in addition to holding substantial French government bonds. Although Sismondi’s family fled to England after revolution commenced at Geneva in the early 1790s, they continued to move within the circles of the Genevan diaspora. Sismondi returned after Geneva was annexed by France in 1798. De la richesse was published by J. J. Pascoud within the city in 1803. Bridel, Dal Degan and Eyguesier reveal that the argument of De la richesse was heavily directed towards resolving the tension between the imperial economic interests of France and the interests of once-cosmopolitan and independent Geneva. Sismondi felt that France was creating its own version of the mercantile system in its dealings with Geneva. The consequences were going to be stultifying for Genevan merchants. The argument of the De la richesse was that the French were behaving like Smith’s portrayal of the British in the Wealth of Nations, and creating an unstable economic empire in consequence.

4The third volume of the collected works is equally good news for scholars of the period because it puts together for the very first time Sismondi’s ad hoc writings on a large number of questions in political economy between 1799 and 1815. These have been collected from manuscripts held at Pescia, Geneva and Paris and reproduced with informative introductions to every text. They reveal Sismondi to have contributed to the grand question of the future of Europe’s economy during a time of unparalleled uncertainty. Sismondi’s nuanced and informed approach to the science of political economy saw him attack slavery and what he saw as corrupt controls upon behaviour in every sphere of life. The point made by the editors is that the association of Sismondi with liberalism is accurate, but that Sismondi’s perspective upon liberty was so distinctive as to need to be mapped out with regard to every particular issue ; this is easier than one might think because Sismondi wrote about every conceivable issue to do with liberty from the outset of his long career as an author. In putting together texts from his study of Tuscan agriculture, which fascinated Sismondi throughout his life, to his critiques of the physiocrats and Herrenschwand, and his view of paper money and international trade in addition to further commentary upon the economic condition of Geneva, the editors have done something remarkable. They have paved the way for a reassessment of Sismondi’s economic thought and its relationship to his historical writings. Nothing could be better or more timely and these volumes can’t be praised highly enough in consequence.

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Richard Whatmore, « Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Œuvres économiques complètes, II et III », Œconomia, 4-2 | 2014, 261-263.

Référence électronique

Richard Whatmore, « Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Œuvres économiques complètes, II et III », Œconomia [En ligne], 4-2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 20 janvier 2019. URL :

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