Sismondi, Jean-Charles Leonard de

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SISMONDI, JEAN-CHARLES LEONARD DE (1773–1842), Swiss economist and historian.

Jean-Charles Leonard Simonde, who adopted the name de Sismondi, constituted a bridge between the old and the postrevolutionary Europe. Eccentric in life, interests, and politics, he crossed national, disciplinary, and political borders. A brilliant economist, Sismondi was also, at the same or different times, a venerated historian, amateur politician, literary scholar, novelist, agronomist, and constitutionalist.

Sismondi was convinced that his constitutional studies, which showed in essence that constitution and laws lie at the base of liberty and determine the character of a people and citizenship, had real impact on Europe's political ideas. Recherches sur les constitutions des peuples libres (Inquiries into the constitutions of free nations; begun in 1796 and published in the 1830s), informed the project of Napoleon's liberal constitution that Sismondi—a republican and an opponent of Napoleon's dictatorial rule—helped Benjamin Constant in drafting in 1815.

Sismondi's contemporaries saw him above all as a historian of civic patriotism and active participation. Inquiries into the constitutions of the Italian republics led him to study their history, which resulted in his most remarkable historical work, Histoire des républiques italiennes au Moyen Age (History of the Italian republics in the Middle Ages), a "sixteen-volume hymn to the liberties of the medieval commune." From the appearance of the first volumes in 1807 (the whole cycle took until 1818 to complete), History was acclaimed as the founding work of a new historiography and Romantic nationalism. This detailed study traces the development of the Italian communes during the Middle Ages, their flourishing during the Renaissance (understood as the rebirth of freedom), and their subsequent decadence under the Medicis' tyranny, with public morality in decline and the pursuit of wealth replacing political involvement. In those free self-governed civic republics Sismondi found the origins of liberalism, whose fundamental tenets were that liberty is gained and defended through struggle; that freedom from political tyranny is inseparable from freedom from social misery; and that creativity and genius flourish only among free people.

Among Italians, History achieved an instant cult status. At the time when the movement toward Risorgimento (Italian national unification) was beginning to search for a past usable as a model for national regeneration, this book conceived Italy's civilization in a unitary way, integrating culture and politics. By representing Italy's history as a history of freedom, it became a founding text for a Risorgimento ideology.

In the same period, Sismondi turned his attention to the literatures of southern Europe. His approach was consonant with Madame de Staël's (1766–1817) historical and relational notion of literature as a mirror of a nation's esprit. Published starting in 1813, De la littérature du midi de l'Europe (Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe) subordinated theory and literary criticism to historical exposition and related literature to politics, institutions, and national character.

Sismondi the economist first rose to international fame in 1803 with De la richesse commerciale; ou, Principes d'économie politique appliqués à la législation du commerce (On commercial wealth; or, principles of political economy applied to the legislation of commerce). It was basically the first comprehensive exposition of the doctrine of Adam Smith in a language other than English; in addition, it was perceived as opposing Napoleon's "system" in politics and economy. Instantly famous, Sismondi was acclaimed as the faithful interpreter of Smith. But it would be the "second Sismondi," the heterodox, who would make a lasting impact on economic sciences.

After years devoted to other concerns, Sismondi returned to the mechanisms of economy in the years 1817 to 1819, after the "general glut" made him realize the extent of social misery among industrial workers. Unemployment, hunger, sixteen-hour workdays, child labor, urban crime, violence, and class conflict at an unprecedented level were signs of disequilibrium, itself an unavoidable consequence of an uncontrolled production of commodities driven exclusively by the desire to accumulate wealth. Thus came Sismondi's final "conversion" from laissez-faire to the economics for the common good, marked by his Nouveaux principes d'économie politique; ou, De la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population (1819; New Principles of Political Economy; or, Of Wealth in Its Relation to Population), a book that later both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin would consider his most important contribution to political economy. New Principles is a critique of the capitalist system and of the discipline of political economy. The system of liberal economy—free market, self-interest, invisible hand, competition, technological progress—is blamed for bringing about a society that hinders rather than promotes general happiness. In this system, where the pursuit of wealth takes precedence over people and the majority has no share in the accumulated wealth, limitless production has become a goal in itself.

Sismondi believed that political economy had been and could again become a science of public happiness, of society and of government. So he believed it was in Adam Smith's "true doctrine," concerned with social utility and collective welfare. But in the half-century following the publication of Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), political economy degenerated into a science concerned exclusively with the creation of wealth.

Sismondi's posthumous fortunes changed several times. His historical and literary studies seemed entirely forgotten, while his economic analysis, inspired by moral principle, stirred a strong interest, though almost exclusively among Marxists (Marx himself argued with Sismondi through Das Kapital). From that period dates the representation of Sismondi's thought as petit bourgeois, utopian, and backward looking, for Lenin the bad inspiration of Russian populists and what György Lukács would later name "romantic anti-capitalism." Some dissident thinkers, however, considered Sismondi as a founder of the future Sozialpolitik, and there has always existed a consistent following of Sismondi the agronomist, the prophet of the Tuscan mezzadria sharecropping system, as a harmonious solution for all rural societies.

See alsoAgricultural Revolution; Liberalism; Marx, Karl; Staël, Germaine de.


Salis, Jean-Rodolphe de. Sismondi (1773–1842): La vie et l'oeuvre d'un cosmopolite philosophe. Paris, 1932.

Marta Petrusewicz