Economic History and History of Economics: Gerschenkron’s example

I’ve been thinking of the relationship between the history of economics and economic history for quite some time now, as just a specific instance of the relationship between intellectual history and history tout court. Among historians of economic thought this is a (surprisingly) contentious topics, with some people fearing that too much economic history in the history of economic thought would deprive economic theory of its abstract and pure character. The relationship between economic realities and economic theories – or ideas more in general – has been my major academic interest so far: how did economists observe reality, how did they contributed to policy making?  I feel quite strongly that one cannot study the history of economic thought without inevitably referring to the economic context that economists experienced and appraised (there is a clear and problematic difference between reality per se and reality as appraised – or should I say apprehended? – by economists). But I never really thematized the relationship between economists and their, except by referring to a still vague concept of “response paradigm”. There seem to be simply too many different ways economists interacted with economic “realities” for us to pigeonhole them in clear-cut historiographical categories.

The topic is not a preserve for historians of economics. Among economic historians, Alexander Gerschenkron has been intensely discussing it at least since the 1950s and until his death. Gerschenkron’s interest in intellectual history and the history of economic ideas derives from multiple sources, I will least two:

a. a concern for the effects of religious and intellectual traditions over development and backwardness;

b. the theoretical dispute with the Marxists over materialism;

The theoretical dispute with Marxists interpretations of history led Gerschenkron to stress the human ability to react in creative and differentiated ways to the challenges of backwardness, for instance, by inventing the universal bank (Germany in the 1860s) or “mercantilism” (England and France in the 17th century). This was, in particular, an attack against the Soviet interpretation of Marxism, which insisted on identifying necessary stages of human history: slavery, feudalism, capitalism that preceded the advent of the socialist society.

This frightening painting by Vl. Surykov shows how succesful persecuted religious minorities can become in this life.

But Gerschenkron, for similar reasons, also wanted to disprove Max Weber’s hypothesis on protestant ethic: protestant ethic might have helped the beginning of the capitalist development of North-Western Europe, but it was nothing like a pre-requiste: any other religious minority would have had a similar incentive to focus on economic development, as it had been the case with the Old-Believers in early 19th-century Russia.

Such a vindication of variety in human history led Gerschenkron to stress the variety of responses that the challenges of economic development had stimulated. This is particularly clear in his treatment of “mercantilism” and of Russian populism.  Actually, Gerschenkron seems rather dismissive of intellectual debates (“logomachies”). When dealing with mercantilism (Europe in the Russian mirror), Gerschenkron treats it as a set of policies rather than an intellectual doctrine. According to him, economic ideas – I think it is more correct to talk about ideas, rather than theories – often “lagged behind economic history” (Europe in the Russian mirror, 4), like the much belied Minerva’s owl. To the economic historian, this seemed the case of the debate between Russian Marxists and populists on Russian industrialization, which by the 1890s “had been impressively resolved by the actual flow of event,” namely Russia industrial spurt. Gerschenkron equally believed that  Ivan Pososhkov (1652-1726), whom he ranges among the “mercantilists,” represented the late stage of Russian mercantilism, when mercantilist prescription were beginning to become obsolete.

Some of the people who supervised the Russian boom of the late 19th century harboured conscious economic ideas!

Then, if he was so dismissive of what he perceived as futile battles of words, how can Gerschenkron help us in approaching the problem of the relationship between economic history and the history of economic thought? First of all, he is not always that dismissive: the studies on Russian populism collected in Economic backwardness in historical perspective examine the works of writers, such as Chernishevskij and Aleksander Herzen, who were too radical to influence the government of Russia. But Gerschenkron was not as dismissive when talking about poeple who were at the same time prominent intellectuals and high-ranking officials such as Sergej Witte and Nikolaj Bunge. But even if Gerschenkron was not particularly entrailed by the action of economists on the economy, even if he did not recognise the transformative power of economic ideas, he certainly did acknowledge the fact that economists were reacting to what they perceived as challenges for the states (whether the 19th century industrialising states or the mercantilist states of the early 18th century). In this sense, his problematic and acritical notion of backwardness may indeed an interesting euristhics: for the 19th and 20th century, it enables the intellectual historian to range together economists who belonged to countries with similar degrees of “backwardness” (whatever that might be) and who devised similar response strategies.



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