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Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61
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By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] Continue reading