Mark Blaug
Menger, C.
Hayek 1931
Thünen, Johann Heinrich von
Harrod, R. F.
Schwartz, Anna

Honorary member's speeches

Honorary Member's Speech at the 2012 ESHET Conference in Saint Petersburg by Donald Winch

I am very grateful for the honour bestowed on me by this Society in this location and year. I am also, to be frank, slightly surprised by your decision for two reasons. The President has said some kind things about my work, though I’m aware that much of it does not conform to mainstream expectations in the field: it contains more intellectual history than history of economics in the conventional sense. Secondly, sympathetic as I am to the aims of this Society, I am also conscious that I have not been as closely associated with its activities as other historians of economics, including my friend and contemporary, Andrew Skinner, who died towards the end of last year. You would not expect me to apologise for the first of these, but I can offer a slight excuse for the second. The Society came into being just before I retired. Unlike Andrew in Glasgow I had worked in an institution that was brand new when I joined it in the 1960s. After nearly four decades at the University of Sussex I was perhaps less keen than others to take on the obligations that inevitably accompany new institutions.
By way of apology I planned to offer some personal reflections on the city in which we find ourselves. It is probably fortunate that circumstances have made most of this unnecessary. My only previous visit to this city was in 1970. Compared with today the visit was made under similar academic but very different political and economic circumstances. It was a year when memories of Leningrad were focussed on the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. I was part of a small group of historians of economics within a much larger international gathering of economic historians, the first of its kind to visit the Soviet Union. Bob Coats and Terence Hutchison had organised a session on economics and policy, the theme chosen by your incoming President, Annalisa Rosselli, for her address yesterday afternoon. It was a theme that brought us close to the economic historians and was of genuine interest to all three of us. I had recently finished a book on the subject and gave a short and entirely forgettable paper on the subject to justify my journey.
On this occasion, in 2012, we are not here on tolerance from another academic tribe. We are here in our own right, and if I had been asked to suggest a theme for this conference that was capable of uniting our professional interests with the locale I would have chosen an eighteenth-century subject. Any visitor to St Petersburg who also happens to be a student of the history of economic thought, it seems to me, is bound to be drawn to Catherine the Great and to the fascinating historical phenomenon known as Enlightened Absolutism. My own point of entry into this period was via the work of Adam Smith, and I am still intrigued by the implications of Smith’s definition of political economy as ‘a branch of the science of a legislator’ – a branch attached to a trunk labelled jurisprudence. Employing the same image of a branching tree, the science could also be labelled, as it was by Denis Diderot and other philosophes, as one of the branches of ‘la science de l’homme public’. It was certainly as an expert on jurisprudence and the sciences relevant to legislation in a post-feudal or commercial world that Smith’s first Russian disciples, Semyon Desnitsky and Ivan Tret’yakov, came to Glasgow in the 1760s to prepare themselves to become experts in the process of Westernization to which Catherine was committed. Those who have studied Desnitsky’s use of Smith’s maxims on taxation tell us that they found their way, word for word, into Catherine’s famous Nakaz, her instructions to the Russian legislative commission charged with the task of creating a modern code of law in 1768. Through his Russian pupils, then, Smith joined Montesquieu and Beccaria as sources that could be absorbed into the Nakaz -- a document that was famously to provide Diderot with an opportunity to make acute critical observations on the nature of despotism that could not fail to anger Catherine, his erstwhile patronne, and would not have pleased his other target, the French monarchy.
Catherine’s Russia remained an object of huge interest and personal opportunity to the next generation of would-be exponents of the Enlightenment science of legislation. Here the prize English specimen is Jeremy Bentham, who spent two years in Russia in the 1780s when his brother Samuel was working for Prince Potemkin as a naval architect and industrial factotum. Jeremy was too much of a hermit even to visit St Petersburg or Moscow; he could address proposals to Catherine, but preferred not to meet her. It was in the relative isolation of Krichev in White Russia that he wrote three of his most famous works: the groundwork for his complete code of law, his proposals for a Panopticon prison, and his Defence of Usury, an act of homage to and a critique of Adam Smith’s opinions on the control of interest rates and of ‘projectors’, like Bentham himself, who made use of borrowed funds to finance their projects. When he returned to England in 1788 Bentham joined the intellectual circle created by the Marquess of Lansdowne, who as the Earl of Shelburne, had been proud to testify that he owed his conversion to the principles of free trade to a ten-day journey from Edinburgh to London that he spent with Adam Smith. Bentham’s journey to and from Russia was much longer ; and it took the momentous happenings of 1789 in France to divert his attention as a would-be advisor to legislators away from Catherine’s Russia to events closer to home.
Students of late eighteenth-century European intellectual history, especially perhaps the Chairman of your Council, Gilbert Faccarello, will be aware of the ramifications of this truly cosmopolitan episode, and I would like to think that it will continue to provide reflective meat and drink to members of this Society. I hope it also goes some way towards explaining why I am thankful for the honour you have bestowed on me, and for the opportunity it has given me to revisit this highly evocative lieu de memoires.