V. I. Lenin
Original publication: marxists.org
Editing: Roderic Day

The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism (1897)

25 minutes | English | Marx & Engels The Soviet Union

This essay is adapted from Chapter II, Part I of A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism: Sismondi and our Native Sismondists (1897).

On the eve of the 20th century, Lenin was engaged in sharp public disagreements with contemporary political rivals within the anti-capitalist movement in Russia, particularly a representative of the Narodnik movement, Nikolai F. Danielson. While Narodniks championed the very large rural peasantry, Marxists championed the small but growing urban proletariat as vanguard of the Revolution.

Lenin here charges the Narodniks of uninformed utopianism by likening them to a pre-socialist liberal critic of capitalism, the well-heeled and patriarchal “romanticist” Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Contrasting both unfavorably to Marx, Lenin traces ample similarities between works of the two theorists.

Editorial Notes: Lenin addressed Danielson by his pen name, Mr. N.—on, in the original text. Several references to Marx, originally oblique due to the censor (e.g. “the author quoted above”), were made explicit. Some footnotes were brought inline.

The distinguishing feature of the period in which Sismondi wrote was the rapid development of exchange (what in modern terminology we refer to as “money economy”), which manifested particularly sharply after the remnants of feudalism were destroyed by the French Revolution. Sismondi unambiguously condemned “the development and growth of exchange,” denounced “fatal competition,” called upon the “government to protect the population from the consequences of competition,” and so forth:

Rapid exchanges corrupt the good faith of the people. Constant concern for selling at a profit cannot but lead to attempts to demand too high a price and to cheat, and the more difficult life becomes for one who gains his livelihood by constant exchange, the more he is tempted to resort to cheating. [1]

Commercial wealth is only of secondary importance in the economic system; and land wealth [territoriale] which provides the means of subsistence must increase first. The whole of that numerous class which lives by commerce must be called upon to participate in the fruits of the earth only to the extent that these fruits exist; [this class] must grow only to the extent that this produce grows. [2]

Our Narodniks attack money economy with the same kind of naïveté! Has Mr. Danielson, who fills page after page with complaints about the growth of commerce and industry outpacing the development of agriculture, taken even one step beyond this patriarchal romanticist?

The complaints of the romanticist and of the Narodnik merely testify to a complete misunderstanding of capitalist economy. Can there be a capitalism under which the development of commerce and industry does not outpace agriculture? Why, the growth of capitalism is the growth of commodity economy, i.e. of a social division of labour which separates from agriculture one branch of the processing of raw materials after another, breaking up the single natural economy in which the production, processing and consumption of these raw materials were combined. That is why capitalism always and everywhere signifies a more rapid development of commerce and industry than of agriculture, a more rapid growth of the commercial and industrial population, a greater weight and importance of commerce and industry in the social economic system as a whole. As capitalism develops, agriculture, always and everywhere, lags behind commerce and industry, it is always subordinate to them and is exploited by them and it is always drawn by them, only later on, onto the path of capitalist production. It cannot be otherwise. Mr. Danielson’s complaints prove again and again that his economic views have not developed past Sismondi’s superficial, sentimental romanticism. “This unwise spirit of enterprise [esprit d’entreprise], this excess of trading of every kind, which causes so many bankruptcies in America, is due, without a doubt, to the increase in the number of banks and to the ease with which illusory credit takes the place of real property [fortune réelle],” and so forth endlessly. [3]

Why did Sismondi attack money economy (and capitalism)? What does he offer in place of it? Small independent production: the natural economy of the peasants in the countryside, artisan production in the towns. Here is what he says of the former, in a chapter titled “Of Patriarchal Agriculture”:

The first owners of land were themselves tillers, all the field work was done by the labour of their children and their servants. No social organisation [4] guarantees more happiness and more virtue to the most numerous class of the nation, a larger prosperity [opulence] to all, greater stability to the public order. […] In those countries where the farmer is the owner [où le fermier est propriétaire] and where the produce belongs entirely [sans partage] to the people who perform all the work, i.e, in those countries whose agriculture we call patriarchal, we see at every step signs of the tiller’s love for the house in which he lives, for the land which he tills. […] Work itself is a pleasure to him […] In those happy countries where agriculture is patriarchal, the particular nature of every field is studied, and this knowledge is passed on from father to son. […] Large scale farming, directed by richer men, will perhaps rise above prejudice and routine. But knowledge [l’intelligence, i.e., knowledge of agriculture] will not reach the one who works and will be badly applied. […] Patriarchal economy improves the morals and character of that numerous section of the nation which has to do all the work in the fields. Property cultivates habits of order and frugality, constant abundance destroys the taste for gluttony [gourmandise] and intemperance. […] Entering into exchange almost exclusively with nature, [the tiller] has less reason than any industrial worker to distrust men, and to resort to the weapon of dishonesty against them. [5]

The first farmers were simple labourers; they themselves performed the bulk of the agricultural work; they kept the size of their enterprises commensurate with the working capacity of their families. […] They did not cease to be peasants: they themselves followed the plough [tiennent eux-mêmes les cornes de leur charrue]; they themselves tended their cattle, both in the fields and in the barns, they lived in the pure air and got accustomed to constant labour and to modest food, which create sturdy citizens and stalwart soldiers. [6] They hardly ever employed day labourers to work with them, but only servants [des domestiques], always chosen from among their equals, whom they treated as equals, who ate with them at the same table, drank the same wine, and wore the same kind of clothes as they did. Thus, the farmers and their servants constituted one class of peasants, inspired by the same feelings, sharing the same pleasures, subjected to the same influences and bound to their country by the same ties. [7]

Here, then, you have the famous “people’s production”! Let it not be said that Sismondi does not understand the need to unite the producers: he says plainly that “he too” (like Fourier, Owen, Thompson, and Muiron) “wants association.” [8] Let it not be said that he stands for property: on the contrary, he places the weight of emphasis on small economy and not upon small property. [9] It goes without saying that this idealisation of small peasant economy looks different under different historical and social conditions. But there can be no doubt that it is small peasant economy that is glorified by both romanticism and Narodism.

Similarly, Sismondi idealises primitive artisan production and guilds.

The village shoemaker, who is at once merchant, factory owner, and worker, will not make a single pair of shoes without an order [whereas capitalist manufacture, not knowing the demand, may suffer bankruptcy]. [10]

Undoubtedly, from both the theoretical and the factual standpoint, the institution of guilds [corps de métier] prevented, and was bound to prevent, the formation of a surplus population. It is also beyond doubt that such a population exists at the present time, and that it is the necessary result of the present system. [11]

Many more excerpts of a similar nature could be quoted, but we shall postpone our examination of Sismondi’s practical recipes until later. Here let us confine ourselves to what we have quoted in order to probe Sismondi’s point of view. The arguments we have quoted may be summed up as follows:

  1. money economy is condemned for destroying the small producers’ security and the close relations among them (in the shape of the nearness of the artisan to his customers, or of the tiller to other tillers, his equals);
  2. small production is extolled for ensuring the independence of the producer and eliminating the contradictions of capitalism.

Let us note that both these ideas constitute an essential part of Narodism, and endeavour to probe their meaning. [12]

The criticism of money economy by the romanticists and the Narodniks amounts to the following: such an economy leads to individualism and antagonism (via competition), and this leads to the producer’s insecurity and the instability of the social economy. [13]

First, about “individualism.” Usually, the contrast is made between the association of the peasants in a given community — or of the artisans and handicraftsmen of a given craft — and capitalism, which destroys the ties that bind them, and puts competition in their place. This argument is a repetition of the typical error of romanticism, namely: the conclusion that since capitalism is torn by contradictions it is not a higher form of social organisation. Does not capitalism, which destroys the medieval village community, guild, cartel and similar ties, replace them with others? Is commodity economy not already a tie between the producers, a tie established by the market[14]

The antagonistic character of this tie, which is full of fluctuations and contradictions, gives one no right to deny its existence. And we know that it is the development of contradictions that, with ever-growing force, reveals the strength of this tie, compels all the individual elements and classes of society to strive to unite, and to unite no longer within the narrow limits of one village community, or of one district, but to unite all the members of the given class in a whole nation and even internationally. Only a romanticist, with his reactionary point of view, can deny the existence of these ties and their deeper importance, ties based on the common role played in the national economy, as opposed to on territorial, professional, religious, and other such interests.

If arguments of this kind earned the name of romanticist for Sismondi, who wrote at a time when these new ties engendered by capitalism were still in the embryo, all the more do our Narodniks deserve such an estimation: the enormous importance of these ties today can only be denied by those who are totally blind.

As regards insecurity and instability, and so forth, that is the same old song we dealt with when discussing the foreign market. Attacks of this kind betray the romanticist who fearfully condemns precisely that which scientific theory values most in capitalism: its inherent striving for development, its irresistible urge onwards, its inability to halt or to reproduce the economic processes in their former, rigid dimensions. Only a utopian who concocts fantastic plans for spreading medieval associations (such as the village community) to the whole of society can ignore the fact that it is the “instability” of capitalism that is an enormously progressive factor, one which accelerates social development, draws larger and larger masses of the population into the whirlpool of social life, compels them to ponder over its structure, and to “forge their happiness” with their own hands.

Mr. Danielson’s phrases about the “instability” of capitalist economy, about the lack of proportion in the development of exchange, about the disturbance of the balance between industry and agriculture, between production and consumption, about the abnormality of crises, and so forth, testify beyond all doubt to the fact that he still shares the viewpoint of romanticism to the full. Hence, Marx’s criticism of European romanticism applies word for word to Mr. Danielson’s theory:

Let us hear what old Boisguillebert says: “The price of commodities,” he says, “must always be proportionate; for it is such mutual understanding alone that can enable them to […] reciprocally give birth to one another. […] As wealth, then, is nothing but this continual intercourse between man and man, craft and craft, etc., it is a frightful blindness to go looking for the cause of misery elsewhere than in the cessation of such traffic brought about by a disturbance of proportion in prices.” [15]

Let us listen also to a modern economist: “The great law as necessary to be affixed to production, that is, the law of proportion, which alone can preserve the continuity of value. […] The equivalent must be guaranteed. […] All nations have attempted, at various periods of their history, by instituting numerous commercial regulations and restrictions, to effect, in some degree, the object here explained. […] But the natural and inherent selfishness of man […] has urged him to break down all such regulations. Proportionate Production is the realisation of the entire truth of the Science of Social Economy.” [16]

Fuit Troja. [17] This true proportion between supply and demand, which is beginning once more to be the object of so many wishes, ceased long ago to exist. It has passed into the stage of senility. It was possible only at a time when the means of production were limited, when the movement of exchange took place within very restricted bounds. With the birth of large-scale industry this true proportion had to [musste] come to an end, and production is inevitably compelled to pass in continuous succession through vicissitudes of prosperity, depression, crisis, stagnation, renewed prosperity, and so on.

Those who, like Sismondi, wish to return to the true proportion of production while preserving the present basis of society are reactionary, since, to be consistent, they must also wish to bring back all the other conditions of industry of former times.

What kept production in true, or more or less true, proportions? It was demand that dominated supply, that preceded it. Production followed close on the heels of consumption. Large-scale industry, forced by the very instruments at its disposal to produce on an ever-increasing scale, can no longer wait for demand. Production precedes consumption, supply compels demand.

In existing society, in industry based on individual exchange, anarchy of production, which is the source of so much misery, is at the same time the source of all progress.

Thus, one or the other: Either you want the true proportions of past centuries with present-day means of production, in which case you are both reactionary and utopian. Or, you want progress without anarchy: in which case, in order to preserve the productive forces, you must abandon individual exchange. [18]

The last words address Proudhon, against whom Marx was polemizing, thus formulating the difference between his own viewpoint and the views both of Sismondi and of Proudhon. Mr. Danielson would not, of course, approximate to either one or the other in all his views. [19] But look into the content of the passage given. What is Marx’s main thesis, his basic idea, which brings him into irreconcilable opposition to his predecessors? Undoubtedly, it is that he places the question of the instability of capitalism (which all these three authors admit) on a historical plane, and regards this instability as a progressive factor. In other words: he recognises, firstly, that existing capitalist development, which proceeds through disproportion, crises, etc., is necessary development, and says that the very character of the means of production (machines) gives rise to the desire for an unlimited expansion of production and the constant anticipation of demand by supply. Secondly, he recognises elements of progress in this development, which are: the development of the productive forces, socialisation of labour within the bounds of the whole of society, increased mobility of the population and the growth of its consciousness, and so forth. These two points exhaust the difference between him and Sismondi and Proudhon, who agree with him in indicating the “instability” of capitalism and the contradictions it engenders, and in their sincere desire to eliminate these contradictions. Their failure to understand that this “instability” is a necessary feature of all capitalism and commodity economy in general brought them to utopia. Their failure to understand the elements of progress inherent in this instability makes their theories reactionary. [20]

And now we invite the Narodnik gentleman to answer this question: Does Mr. Danielson agree with the views of scientific theory on the two points mentioned? Does he regard instability as a characteristic of the present system, and of present-day development? Does he admit the existence of elements of progress in this instability? Everybody knows that he does not, that, on the contrary, Mr. Danielson proclaims this “instability” of capitalism to be simply an abnormality, a digression, and so forth, and regards it as decadence, retrogression that “robs” from stability, and idealises that very economic stagnation (recall the “age-old foundations,” “time-hallowed principles,” and so forth) whose destruction is the historical merit of “unstable” capitalism. It is clear, therefore, that we were quite right in including him among the romanticists and that no “quotations” and “references” on his part will change this character of his own arguments.

We shall deal again with this “instability” later (in connection with the hostility of romanticism and Narodism to the diminution of the agricultural population to the advantage of the industrial population); but at present let us quote a passage from A Critique of Some of the Propositions of Political Economy in which the sentimental attacks on money economy are examined.

These distinctive social characters [namely, seller and buyer] are, therefore, by no means due to individual human nature as such, but to the exchange relations of persons who produce their goods in the specific form of commodities. So little does the relation of buyer and seller represent a purely individual relationship that they enter into it only in so far as their individual labour is negated, that is to say, turned into money as non-individual labour. It is therefore as absurd to regard buyer and seller, these bourgeois economic types, as eternal social forms of human individuality, as it is preposterous to weep over them as signifying the abolition of individuality.

The following extract from M. Isaac Pereire’s Leçons sur l’industrie et les finances [Lessons from Industry and Finances] (Paris, 1832), shows that delicate spirits can be deeply hurt even by the quite superficial aspect of antagonism which is represented by purchase and sale. The fact that the same Isaac is the inventor and dictator of the Crédit mobilier and as such a notorious wolf of the Paris stock exchange points to the real significance of such sentimental criticism of economics.

M. Pereire, at that time an apostle of St. Simon, says: “Since individuals are isolated and separated from one another, whether in their labour or their consumption, they exchange the products of their respective occupations. The necessity of exchanging things entails the necessity of determining their relative value. The ideas of value and exchange are therefore closely linked and in their present form both are expressions of individualism and antagonism. […] The value of products is determined only because there is sale and purchase, in other words, because there is antagonism between different members of society. Preoccupation with price and value exists only where there is sale and purchase, that is to say, where every individual is compelled to fight in order to obtain the things necessary for the maintenance of his existence.” [21]

The question is: wherein lies Pereire’s sentimentality? He talks only about the individualism, antagonism, and conflict inherent in capitalism, he says the very thing our Narodniks say in different keys, and, moreover, they seem to be speaking the truth, because “individualism, antagonism, and conflict” are indeed necessary attributes of exchange, of commodity production. His sentimentality lies in that this Saint-Simonist, carried away by his condemnation of the contradictions of capitalism, fails to discern behind these contradictions the fact that exchange also expresses a special form of social economy, that it, consequently, not only disunites (it does that only in respect of the medieval associations, which capitalism destroys), but also unites men, compelling them to enter into intercourse with each other through the medium of the market. These contradictions replace local and social-estate associations with unity along the lines of social status and social interests of a whole country, and even of the whole world.

It was this superficial understanding, caused by their eagerness to “trounce” capitalism (from the utopian point of view) that gave Marx occasion to call Pereire’s criticism sentimental.

But why should we worry about Pereire, the long-forgotten apostle of long-forgotten Saint-Simonism? Would it not be better to take the modern “apostle” of Narodism?

Production […] was robbed of its popular character and assumed an individual, capitalist character. [22]

You see how this disguised romanticist argues: “people’s production became individual production.” And as by “people’s production” the author wants to imply the village community, he points to the decline of the social character of production, to the shrinking of the social form of production.

But is that so? The “village community” provided (a questionable claim, conceded only for the sake of the argument) for organised production only in the one individual community, isolated from all the other communities. The social character of production embraced only the members of the one village community[23] Capitalism, however, gives production a social character in a whole country.

“Individualism” means the destruction of social ties; but these ties are destroyed by the market, which replaces them by ties between masses of individuals who are not bound together by a village community, a social estate, a given trade, the restricted area of a given industry, etc. The tie created by capitalism manifests itself in the form of contradictions and antagonism and, therefore, our romanticist refuses to see this tie (although the village community, too, as a form of organisation of production also possessed its own forms of contradiction and antagonism, inherent to old modes of production). The utopian point of view transforms his criticism of capitalism, as well, into a sentimental one.


  • W. Atkinson, 1840. Principles of Political Economy. London.
  • Boisguillebert, 1707. Dissertation sur la nature des richesses. Daire’s ed.
  • N. F. Danielson, 1893. Sketches on Our Post-Reform Social Economy.
  • Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi, 1819. Nouveaux principes d’économie politique ou de la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population. [New Prinicples of Political Economy]. Seconde édition, Paris 1827, Vols. I & II.

[1] Sismondi I, p. 169. 

[2] Sismondi I, pp. 322-323. 

[3] Sismondi II, p. 111. 

[4] Note that Sismondi — exactly like our Narodniks — at once transformed the peasants’ independent economy into a “social organisation.” Obvious juggling. What is it that links together these peasants from different localities? The division of social labour and the commodity economy that superseded feudal ties. We at once see the elevation of one division of the commodity-economy system to utopian heights, and the failure to understand the other divisions. “The form of industry based on the ownership of the instruments of production by the peasantry.” (Danielson, p. 322) Mr. Danielson does not even suspect that this ownership of the instruments of production by the peasantry is — historically and logically — the starting-point of that same capitalist production! 

[5] Sismondi I, pp. 165-170. 

[6] Compare these fairytales to the statements of the “progressive” publicist of the late nineteenth century (liberal Narodnik S. N. Yuzhakov), cited by Mr. Struve in his Critical Remarks, p. 17. 

[7] Sismondi I, p. 221. 

[8] Sismondi II, p. 365. 

[9] Sismondi II, p. 355. 

[10] Sismondi II, p. 262. 

[11] Sismondi I, p. 431. 

[12] In reality Mr. Danielson’s writing is such a heap of contradictions that one could arbitrarily choose any number of his propositions and find that they are in no way connected to each other. But there can be no doubt about his idealization of peasant economy by the use of the hazy term “people’s production.” A haze is a particularly suitable atmosphere in which to don all sorts of disguises. 

[13] Danielson, pp. 321, 335. 

[14] “In actual fact, society, association are denominations which can be given to every society, to feudal society as well as to bourgeois society, which is association founded on competition. How then can there be Socialists, who, by the single word association think they can refute competition?” Sharply criticising the sentimental condemnation of competition, Marx plainly stresses its progressive aspect, its driving force, which promotes “technical progress and social progress.” [24] 

[15] Boisguillebert, pp. 405, 408. 

[16] Atkinson, pp. 170 and 195. 

[17] Troy is no more. — Ed. 

[18] Karl Marx, 1847. The Poverty of Philosophy. Ch. 1, Part 2. [web] 

[19] But it’s not clear why he wouldn’t. Is the main difference that these authors approached the problem more ambitiously, making claims about the place and significance of the economic system in the development of the whole of mankind, as opposed to limiting their outlook to one country and inventing for it a special theory? 

[20] This term is employed in its historico-philosophical sense, describing only the error of the theoreticians who take models for their theories from obsolete forms of society. It does not apply at all to the personal qualities of these theoreticians, or to their programmes. Everybody knows that neither Sismondi nor Proudhon were reactionaries in the ordinary sense of the term. We are explaining these elementary truths because, as we shall see below, the Narodnik gentlemen have not grasped them to this day. 

[21] Karl Marx, 1859. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Ch. 2, Part 2, Section A. [web] 

[22] Danielson, pp. 321-22. 

[23] According to the Zemstvo statistics (Blagoveshchensky’s Combined Returns), the average size of a village community, for 123 uyezds in 22 gubernias, is 53 households, with a population of 323 of both sexes. 

[24] Karl Marx, 1847. The Poverty of Philosophy. Ch. 2, Part 3. [web]