The political and institutional origins of the Great Leap Forward

In the late 1950s, China embarked itself in one of the most colossal social engineering projects in contemporary history. Millions of individuals were shifted from agriculture to industry from 1958 to 1961 and communes were implemented in the countryside with the purpose of increasing agricultural production. The results of such enterprise, the Great Leap Forward (GLF), were catastrophic: according to Yang (2008), estimates suggest that between 16.5 and 30 million individuals starved to death between 1958 and 1961. This essay argues that the causes behind the GLF lay not only in politics and ideology but also in institutional factors. To prove this claim, this paper (i) contextualizes the discussion by exploring the heritage left by Soviet development model and its discontents, assesses the (ii) political and (iii) institutional origins of the GLF and then (iv) concludes.

The Soviet heritage

According to Naughton (2007), with the implementation of the first 5-Year Plan (5YP), China incrementally adopted a Soviet-inspired command economy model that had a strong focus in heavy industry. Almost completely deployed in 1957 after the virtual extinction of private proprietorship and the further progress of collectivization in agriculture[1], it featured (i) government ownership of all large factories and communication firms and the collectives as the production unit of the economy in the countryside, (ii) the assignation of production targets to firms and allocation of resources among producers by planners, (iii) the use of planner-set prices to channel resources from agriculture to industry[2] and (iv) reinforcement of the Government’s grip on the economy through a hierarchical personnel system in which the Communist Party (CCP) controlled managerial career paths. Naughton (1991) argues that the interaction of this set of characteristics endowed China with two major features: (i) a mechanism to increase savings and investment - in particular, the monopoly control over the commercial system and the price distortions that punished agriculture were equivalent to a form of forced savings from farm activities. And (ii) institutions that had both the capacity to make resource allocation decisions and a strong bias towards physical capital. These elements resulted in high growth rates for the industry while did little for agriculture. Collectivization, the policy expected to increase production in the countryside, failed to improve productivity. Agricultural output and incomes in rural China, therefore, remained relatively depressed.

Politics: contradictions, disenchantment with the Soviets and radicalisation

In September 1956 and following the implementation of the 5YP, the CCP held its 8th National Congress in Beijing. Being the first meeting of its kind since the seizure of power in 1949, it concluded that the nature of the contradictions present in the Chinese society had changed: after the establishment of an essentially socialist system, the traditional class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was not anymore the main challenge that China faced. Concretely, and according to Bachman (1991), the coexistence of an advanced political superstructure with a backwards-economic structure was the principal problem that the Chinese society would have to deal with in the following years. This notion was augmented by the –almost- completion of collectivization, which –as MacFarquhar (1974) argues- was a key milestone in the revolutionary path as showed the consolidation of the CCP as the ultimate ruler of China and the eradication of exploitive relations in the countryside. Simultaneously, the need for transformation was particularly clear in rural areas, where the implementation of collectives –although ideologically satisfying- did not bring the material benefits expected by the party leadership and living standards remained unacceptably low. There was, therefore, a clear call to develop the country’s productive forces to guarantee that the most relevant contradiction and obstacle to communism would be overcome. 

The economic modernization plea emerged in the context of a growing disenchantment with the Soviet Union. This disillusionment can be traced back to several factors. First, political differences between Mao Tse Dong and Nikita Khrushchev arose relatively quickly. According to Luthi (2010) and MacFarquhar (1974), the latter infuriated the former by denouncing Stalinism in a speech privately read in the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956. Concretely, Mao’s bitterness had origins in at least two issues: (i) the denunciation itself took him completely by surprise, which implies that he was not consulted in the elaboration of a statement that eventually would mark a departure from Stalin, which was arguably the most important individual in the communist sphere until his death. This pictured the CCP’s Chairman as a second-tier leader in the world of international communism. Also, (ii) the content of speech, which criticized Stalinism’s emphasis on the cult of personality, could be interpreted as an indirect criticism to Mao –who was the center of the CCP’s image and its face to the people. In the same page, and as Luthi underlines, there were increasing differences between the CCP and CPSU leaders regarding the way that communism should deal with imperialism. In particular, Mr. Khrushchev believed in the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West while Chairman Mao was skeptical of such strategy, favoring a more frontal confrontation and interpreting the Soviet’s stance as a potentially dangerous revisionism. Finally, the disillusionment was also a problem of dissatisfaction with the Soviet development model after the implementation of the 5YP: as Bachman (1991) suggests, bureaucratic Stalinism was increasingly seen as too rigid to deal with the contradictions mentioned beforehand and excessively focused in heavy industry, which could be a problematic approach in an eminently rural country like China. The relative lack of dynamism of economic activity in the countryside after collectivization led to a very unbalanced growth that was undesirable in the eyes of the CCP leaders. Thus, the conjugation of political differences regarding imperialism and Stalinism –both as a political standing and a development strategy- led to a retreat from Soviet-originated policies. 

As Zhu (2012) suggests and was previously argued in this essay, the state of the Chinese economy in 1956 called for a transformation of economic realities that would allow the overcoming of the contradictions. A new development strategy that answered to China’s characteristics, as MacFarquhar (1974) suggests, was needed. It was not clear, however, which one should be implemented. In the context of the Hungarian riots of 1956 which highlighted the risks of a party disconnected from the people and following Liu Shaoqi’s advice on the need for experimentation with ‘limited democracy’[3], Chairman Mao launched the Hundred Flowers campaign (HF), which was an attempt to find ways to transcend those contradictions through dialogue between the party and the intelligentsia. This liberalization strategy should not only lead to Chinese ways to overcome the country’s problems but also to a further legitimization of the regime as it would bring the non-Communist groups closer to the CCP[4]. Furthermore, incorrect thinking and ideas would perish when confronted with socialism and communism due to ideological superiority. Unfortunately for those who raised their voices, such was not the case: dialogue allowed for the ventilation of discontent among elites regarding CCP policies and criticism reached a level that was higher than the expected and tolerated by the Chairman. As Bachman (1991) argues, this led to Mao’s disappointment of the elites, a return to the party as the leader of social transformation and a rejection of the moderate reformism that was preferred by the intelligentsia. If there were to be a new development strategy for China, it would be a radical one.


As has been argued in this essay, politics are central to understand why China decided to look for (i) a different development model and (ii) a non-moderate reform program in the late 1950s. However, as Bachman (1991) argues, institutional considerations are necessary to rationalize the choice of policies that later made the GLF. In particular, Bachman suggests that bureaucracies had an essential role in determining the specifics of the policies implemented as they determined the choices available to CCP leaders. Although the Chairman was an extremely powerful individual and the ultimate decision maker, his actual power was constrained as (i) technical staff from different ministries restricted the policy menu that was made available him and (ii) his inputs and explicit preferences were, sometimes, overridden at the time of discussion. In the case of the GLF, the policy menu was restricted to an impossible trilemma that featured markets and price incentives, industrial aid to agriculture and mass mobilization. According to Bachman, the leadership had to choose out of the options presented by a moderate “financial coalition” –which essentially was made of officials working for the Ministries of Finance, Trade and Agriculture– and the “planning and heavy industry coalition” –which consisted of bureaucrats with strong ties to heavy industry and central planning agencies. In the context of the political radicalization that emerged after the failure of the HF campaign, the latter group was able to push the policy discussion towards a big-push, planned development effort as the measures proposed by the former were seen as too timid and close to the ideas of the intelligentsia. Furthermore, the aggressive industrial policies proposed by the heavy industry coalition promised to do more with less, faster and better –which was an appealing message in an environment that was looking for rapid progression towards communism- and were made compatible with the political desire of mass mobilization. All these developments led, again, to a growth strategy that over-relied in heavy industry, continued to exploit the countryside systematically and ended increasing China’s dependence on trade with the Soviet Union[5]. Therefore, if politics explain why the GLF was launched, institutions are essential to understand its specifics, which exacerbated the economic disproportions it was supposed to correct.


In the late 1950s, China embarked itself in the GLF, one of the vastest social engineering projects in recent history. Conceived as a Chinese answer to the contradictions and flaws left by the Soviet-Stalinist development model, an attempt to mark distance from the Soviet Union and an answer to a failed dialogue with the intelligentsia, the political origins of the GLF are undeniable. However, as has been argued in this essay, institutional aspects are critical to rationalize the specific shape that the GLF took. Concretely, bureaucracies with strong ties to the industrial sector were central to define the specifics of the policies implemented between 1958 and 1961. Those details were not irrelevant and can explain differences between the ex-ante motivations of the GLF and its ex-post results.

Bachman, D. (1991). Bureaucracy, economy, and leadership in China: The institutional origins of the great leap forward. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luthi, L. (2010). Sino-Soviet Relations during the Mao Years, 1949-1969. In T. P. Bernstein & H. Li (Eds.), China learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-present. Lanham: Lexington-Books.

MacFarquhar, R. (1974). The origins of the cultural revolution. Contradictions among the people 1956-1957.

Naughton, B. (1991). Pattern and Legacy of Economic Growth in the Mao Era. In K. Lieberthal (Ed.), Perspectives on modern China: Four anniversaries. Armonk: M.E.-Sharpe.

Naughton, B. (2007). The Chinese economy: Transitions and growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT-Press.

Yang, D. T. (2008). China's Agricultural Crisis and Famine of 1959–1961: A Survey and Comparison to Soviet Famines. Comparative Economic Studies, 50(1), 1-29.

Zhu, D. (2012). The Hungarian revolution and the origins of China's Great Leap policies, 1956–57. Cold War History, 12(3), 451-472.


[1] Collectivization in China was incrementally progressive: Naughton (2007) suggests that by 1954 just 2% of the households were involved in cooperatives or collectives. By the end of 1957 and after the acceleration of social transformations with the Socialist High Tide, the figure reached 98%.

[2] This implies that prices lost relevance as the signalization tool to allocate resources in the economy and became instrumental to a forced saving strategy, which aimed to transfer agricultural surpluses to the industrial sector.

[3] This concept can be associated with a form of restricted popular participation where the party’s ideological and directional role was not questioned. Dialogue was open to find answers in terms of organizational and economic methods or details, but the principle of ideological purity of the CCP and its eminence in the political system was not object of debate.

[4] This integration would be the consequence of both the elimination of capitalist elements -the intelligentsia’s source of power and a task that was already accomplished- and, at the same time, the willingness of the Communist center to integrate it.

[5] According to Bachman (1991), the GLF years were characterized by record levels of Sino-Soviet trade.

Japanese colonialism and Korean development: an institutional perspective

The impressive performance of South Korea’s economy since the 1960’s has drawn the attention of development and economic history scholars alike. As Kohli (1994) notes and is the case in other places of the World that have dealt with foreign conquerors, colonial legacy is among the causes often assessed as possible explanations of divergent income levels. In particular, and after Acemoglu et. al. (2001), the nature of institutions left by the colonizers has been found to have major impacts in the development paths of former colonies. In this tradition and for the case of Chōsen, this essay aims to address the question of the kind of colonial institutional heritage left by the colonizers and its implications for later economic development in Korea. To accomplish that and after a brief literature review, this work analyzes historical and social relations that arose under Japanese rule in Korean territory from 1910 to 1945 and the type of interactions they led to, as well as their relevance for the later development of capitalism in South Korea. The emergence of non-extractive relations and their persistence after the violent 1950’s allow for the conclusion of a Nippon ancestry in one of East Asia’s economic success stories.

Colonialism, economic development and Chōsen

According to North (1981), institutions can explain large differences in incomes across countries: strong property rights, rule of law and non-distortionary policies lead to higher investment in physical and human capital, as well as a more efficient use of those production factors. Under this framework, Acemoglu et. al (2001) rationalize the different paths followed by former colonies, even when they were colonized by the same colonizer –for instance, French and English territories in North America vis-à-vis their counterparts in Africa. In particular, it is argued that there were different types of colonization policies across territories that led to different kinds of interactions: on one side and in places such as Latin America and India, European powers set up extractive states, characterized by weak property rights and lack of protection against government expropriation, because the main objective of those colonial missions was to transfer as much resources as possible to the metropolis. On the other side and in countries like the United States and Australia, Europeans migrated massively and established settlements where they tried to replicate their homeland inclusive relations, with their strong emphasis on private property and limits to government power. The either extractive or inclusive nature of the colonization was, in turn, influenced by the feasibility of settlements: places where the disease environment was favorable to colonizers were more likely to witness the development of European styled institutions. Furthermore, those power arrays and rules of the game are likely to persist as local elites –after independence and once in control of power- usually do not have incentives to alter the nature of political arrangements that govern interactions between individuals and organizations[1]. Summarizing, the set of relations briefly outlined above implies that current institutions –essential to current performance, according to North- are closely related to their early counterparts due to persistence. These, in turn, were the result of very particular colonizing strategies that were determined by the prospect of long-term settlements. Thus, colonial institutional legacies are central for discussions regarding economic development in the context of colonization[2].

Perhaps following this debate and the later rise of the South Korean economy, the Japanese involvement in Korea has been object of debate among scholars. Narratives of exploitation, such as in Choi (1970), underline the parasitic nature of colonial relations and the exploitive nature of the Japanese presence. Others, as in Haggard et. al. (1997), suggests its relative irrelevance for later economic growth as important discontinuities –namely, the violent events of the 1950’s- imply that the success that started in the 1960’s can not be explained by the events that took place between 1910 and 1945. Some research, as that of Buzo (2002), recognizes the colonizer’s record in terms of quantitative economic growth. Using the theoretical framework provided by Acemoglu et. al (2001), this essay aims to deepen this discussion by exploring the nature of the Japanese involvement in Korea and its implications for one of Asia’s economic growth miracles.

The occupation

As Schmid (2002) notes and following years of indirect involvement in Korean affairs, Japan formally annexed Korea in the summer of 1910. Its rule, which lasted until 1945, had multiple facets and effects that continue to be object of debate[3]. Among those and following the discussion above, the nature of the relations that emerged under Japanese occupation is of particular interest to this inquiry. This question has no immediate answer as, opposed to the majority of cases of former European colonies and as Delissen (2000) notes, Chōsen was neither a conventional settlement nor a command-only territory: even if the number of settlers and migrants from Nippon was substantially higher than in any contemporary colony in Asia, it lagged behind comparable figures for other settlement imperial enterprises. For instance, the Japanese individuals living in the peninsula –excluding military personnel– oscillated around 3% of the total population in the 1940’s while the comparable figures for other territories under Dutch or French rule in Asia never exceeded 0.4%[4]. Thus, more definitive conclusions regarding the nature of the Japanese institutional heritage demand a deeper study of other relations that emerged between 1910 and 1945.

Several reasons point out to a long-term interest of Japan in Korea. Among those –and perhaps the most recurrent in the reviewed literature- is its high strategic value in the context of Japan’s struggle for territorial integrity and Western imperialism in Asia. As Buzo (2002) and Pyle (2007) underline, the relevance of the Korean peninsula for the Nippon strategic planners can be explained by its geographical location and proximity to the Japanese mainland[5]. In particular, the possibility that foreign powers set foot in Korea was a particular source of concern for Japanese elites as, they feared, this could jeopardize their country’s independence by providing a base for attacks against Japan. As McClain (2002) points out, this anxiety was exacerbated by Korea’s modernization program relative lack of success as it implied that Koreans, by themselves, would be unable to deal successfully with the alien threat. The conjugation of these elements, as McClain and Buzo suggest, show the structural relevance of the Korean affaire for Japan and, as consequence, the long-term nature of its importance in the Nippon struggle to remain an independent country. Thus and as per its strategic importance, Korea was a well-rooted and long-term matter of unease for Japan.

Perhaps associated with the rise of the imperialist mentalité among Nippon elites that McClain (2002) claims, the notion that Korea could become an integral part of Japan started to emerge. As Buzo (2002) and Kohli (1994) comment, Tokyo intended that the peninsula –in the long run- would cease to be a colony and become a territory ruled as another common prefecture. This aspiration led to the application of forced assimilation policies that aimed to demonstrate the historical inevitability of the annexation and extinct Korea as a separated, identifiable and autonomous nation. The strategies the Japanese used to culturally integrate their subjects included the mandatory surrender of Korean surnames and the elimination of Korean language classes. However, and as disturbing as it can be, the envisioned integration to the mainland implied that the kind of institutions implemented would be compatible with those previously existing in Japan. As both Kohli (1994) and Buzo suggest, the modernization effort of Korea under Japanese rule was based on the highly successful experience of the Meiji reform after the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakufu. This development, in the context of colonial institutional heritage discussion, is relevant as it recalls process followed by European colonizers in places where inclusive or non-extractive relations emerged. As Acemoglu et. Al (2001) underline, Neo-Europes - the colonies where many Old World individuals migrated and settled and that include, among others, the United States, Canada and Australia- were characterized by the attempt to replicate European institutions such as private property and checks against government power in the economy. In Korea, and as per its structural relevance and long-term nature of the Japanese commitment, the stage for similar developments was just set.

If Japan’s long term pledge to and expectation of permanent rule in the Korean peninsula paved the way for the emergence of non-extractive relations, what finally determined the inclusive nature of the institutional relations that arose in Korea was the notion that the new colony would have to pay its own way: As McClain and Buzo (2002) suggest, at the time of annexation, the fiscal position of the Japanese government was relatively weak as it had to deal with the debts of previous wars. Contrary to other countries in Latin America and Africa, and as Aviles (2009) underlines, Korea had no immediate mean of paying its own way as it lacked major natural resources or relevant tax income that could finance its modernization. As a result, a way to pay for the Korean transformation had to be found. In particular and as Seth (2006) emphasizes, the first step in this direction was the implementation of an extensive land survey that would detail individual holdings and be the base for the enactment of a land tax that eventually would pay for the public administration and the provision of public goods such as infrastructure and education. As Yoo & Steckel (2010) suggests, in this process, the colonial state not only developed managerial capacities[6] and the ability to expand itself efficiently but also defined clearly private property in Korea’s most relevant production factor by the time: land. Also, and as Buzo points out, increased revenues allowed for the creation of a Police Force whose function would not be limited to essential law enforcement -as it extended also to the delivery of essential social services such as education, health and flood control. These developments -with their strong emphasis in property rights, rule of law and provision of public goods- allow for an inclusive characterization of the institutions that emerged under Japanese rule in Korea.

This non-extractive nature of the colonial heritage led to concrete improvements and relevant developments. For instance, the establishment of private property and the rule of law, as Kohli (1994) and Yoo & Steckel (2010) suggest, paved the way for the development of the financial sector in Korea as it improved the enforcement of contracts and suddenly endowed Korean farmers with an asset they could pledge as collateral when applying for a loan to, say, build an irrigation canal. Also, as Kohli and Seth (2006) underline, the reforms developed and acquired capacities under Japanese rule transformed the government from a predatory, highly personalistic, unpredictable and weak polity to a Meiji-inspired, efficient, professional and dense bureaucracy[7] that was able to lead social and economic transformations. In particular and with the implementation support of the Police, the colonial administration significantly improved the provision of public goods and social services. As Buzo (2002), Pratt (2006) and Seth (2006) show, railroad networks expanded substantially and the number of children in schools rose from roughly 10,000 to about 1.7 million between 1910 and 1941. Furthermore, informal institutions such as cooperative arrangements between corporations and the public sector started to emerge in this period of time. As Kohli affirms, these developments would lay the basis for South Korea’s developmental state –one of the key structures associated with the later economic rise of South Korea.

In the argument briefly outlined at the beginning of this essay, institutional persistence is relevant as it links current institutions with their early colonial counterparts. Usually, this inertia is explained by political economy equilibrium where elites are either reluctant or unable to alter power arrangements. In the case of South Korea, this is not immediately clear as the occurrence of some events –war, the American occupation, etc.- that may have led to relevant discontinuities that would imply, to some degree and as Haggard et. al. (1997) point out, the irrelevance of the colonial heritage to the later success of the South Korean economy. However, this concern may be overstated as structures and capacities that emerged between 1910 and 1945 remained relatively intact after the violent developments of the 1950’s: as Kohli (1994) and Cumings (1984) argue, a later American occupation had no choice but to keep the prevalent institutional legacy as different choices would have led to massive nationalist uprisings. Thus, it was Japan’s creation that persisted later in history.


Institutions are central to economic performance. In the context of colonization, the institutional heritage left by the colonizers is of capital relevance as early institutions determine their later counterparts due to persistence. In particular, the either extractive or inclusive nature of the colonial legacy is essential to understand income paths of former colonies. In the Japanese intervention in Korea, inclusive interactions emerged as a result of its strategic relevance, expectation of permanent rule and full integration to Japan and –in particular- the self-financing approach to colonization in the context of a relatively poorly endowed country. These interactions led to the emergence of private property rights, rule of law and a state capable of providing public goods such as education and infrastructure. Even after the ferocious occurrences of the 1950’s in the Korean peninsula, those institutions persisted and became the building blocks of the developmental state. Further narratives concerned with the Japanese colonial legacy in Korea should not leave this behind.


Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. A. (2001). The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation. American Economic Review, 91(5), 1369-1401. doi:10.1257/aer.91.5.1369

Aviles, A. (2009). Impacts of Japanese colonialism on state and economic development in Korea and Taiwan, and its implications for democracy. (Unpublished master's thesis). Naval Postgraduate School.

Besley, T., & Persson, T. (2009). The Origins of State Capacity: Property Rights, Taxation, and Politics. American Economic Review, 99(4), 1218-1244. doi:10.1257/aer.99.4.1218

Buzo, A. (2002). The making of modern Korea. London: Routledge.

Choi, H. (1969). The Strengthening of the Economic Domination by Japanese Colonialism (1932-1945): Statistical Analysis. Yonse Taehakkyo Taehakwon, 349-378.

Cumings, A. (1984). The Japanese colonial empire: 1895-1945 (pp. 478-496) (R. H. Myers & J. Zhen, Eds.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Delissen, A. (2000). Denied and besieged: The Japanese community of Korea, 1876–1945. In R. A. Bickers & C. Henriot (Eds.), New frontiers: Imperialism's new communities in East Asia, 1842-1953. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Haggard, S., Kang, D., & Moon, C. (1997). Japanese colonialism and Korean development: A critique. World Development, 25(6), 867-881. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(97)00012-0

Kohli, A. (1994). Where do high growth political economies come from? The Japanese lineage of Korea's “developmental state”. World Development, 22(9), 1269-1293. doi:10.1016/0305-750X(94)90004-3

McClain, J. L. (2002). Japan, a modern history. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

North, D. C. (1981). Structure and change in economic history. New York: Norton.

Pratt, K. L. (2006). Everlasting flower: A history of Korea. London: Reaktion.

Pyle, K. B. (2007). Japan rising: The resurgence of Japanese power and purpose. New York: Public Affairs.

Schmid, A. (2002). Korea Between Empires. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seth, M. J. (2006). A concise history of Korea: From the neolithic period through the nineteenth century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Snyder, S. (2014). Overcoming the Japan-South Korea Historical Identity Complex Retrieved January 24, 2015, from

Yoo, D., & Steckel, R. (2010). Property Rights and Financial Development: The Legacy of Japanese Colonial Institutions. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers. Retrieved from


[1] Acemoglu et. Al. (2001) argue that if elites inherit extractive institutions, they have incentives to become the new exploiters. When the heritage is inclusive and property rights enforcements are on place, it may not pay for elites to switch to extractive institutions as the costs of inclusive institutions have been already assumed by the colonial powers. 

[2] The empirical exercise developed in Acemoglu et. Al. (2001) backs this claim as, once institutions are accounted for, developing economies are not poorer than their developed counterparts. 

[3] As Snyder (2014) points out, episodes -such as the confort woman- that took place under Japanese rule continue to affect today’s Japan-Korea bilateral relation. 

[4] In a similar note, 3% is a small number when compared with the figures of Australia and New Zealand, where migrants and settlers became a major part of the total population. 

[5] According to Buzo (2002), Korea was in Prime Minister Yamagata’s strategic advantage line. This implies that by the late 1880’s, the Korean peninsula was already among the primary concerns for Japan. As a result Japanese involvement in Korea did not began with the annexation but can be traced back to earlier times. 

[6] The link between taxation, development of capacities and state building is in Besley & Persson (2009). Usually, taxation demands the creation of public administration skills –registries, territorial knowledge and mapping, etc.- that lead to higher capacities. 

[7] Figures in Seth (2006) show that there was roughly one Police officer for each 800 households, while the total amount of bureaucrats reached 87,552 in 1937. Comparatively and in per capita terms, there were as much as 15 times more colonial officials in Korea than in French Indochina.

Looking for sonnō and jōi in early Meiji Nippon

The Meiji Restoration is widely regarded as one of the most important events in Japan’s modern history: as Ma (2005) suggests, the rise of Japanese industry and the emergence of a truly capitalist economy can be traced back to the institutions introduced by the Ishin. As Wilson (1992) underlines, there were several subjectivities behind the occurrence of this historical development –being the sonnō jōi and the shishi one of them. Although there is debate regarding the relative weigh of nationalist and xenophobic ideas in this movement’s mentality, there is consensus regarding their existence and absolute importance. On the other hand, and as was expressed in the Imperial Charter Oath and observed in later reforms, foreign elements and knowledge were to be sought by the early Meiji leadership. This divergence between the ex-post results and ex-ante motivations raises several questions. One of them is whether the Restoration itself can be tagged as a success for the sonnō jōi. This essay, while discussing the movement’s mind-set and the reform path taken by Japan after 1868, aims to show that such was not the case.

Sonnō jōi: ideas and power

According to Hane & Perez (2009), the roots of the movement can be traced back to the domain of Mito, where intellectuals such as Aizawa Seishisai, Yukoku Fujita and Toko Fujita defended ideas that underlined the divinity of Japan, the superiority of its Imperial House and a deep mistrust of Western ways and culture. Essentially -although not entirely-, it was made of samurai warriors -also known as shishi- that lived under traditional values and codes (duty, courage, honour, etc) that lead them to be self-righteous, intolerant and guided by their passions, not reason. They saw themselves as the saviours of their country, those standing with truth and justice in the right side of history. Nonetheless, this perception is not shared by Hane & Perez and Jansen (1995), who coincide to tag them as individuals lacking the vision to distinguish a major role for Japan in the world and, as one could imagine, the program needed to accomplish such aspiration. Shishi used to be, as Jansen summarizes it, modest individuals that were poorly informed about domestic and international issues that, therefore, offered simplistic solutions to the challenges faced by the Japanese society in the second half of the 19th century.

There has been, however and as briefly mentioned above, debate regarding the relative relevance of nationalist and xenophobic ideas in the sonnō jōi mind. In particular, Wilson (1992) downplays the importance of the jōi (expel the barbarians) as he argues that it was just an addition to the sonnō (revere the emperor) made by political thinkers and that –even if recalcitrance towards foreigners existed- the main motive behind those subscribing the movement was a desire to bring Japan back from the chaos that it had been submerged into since the arrival of the West. This vision contrasts with Hane & Perez (2009), as the handle of the foreign threat was a very important issue to the movement itself as (i) it was at the heart of the sonnō jōi rupture with the Tokugawa Bakufu -when the shōgun signed the Harris treaty openly defying the Emperor’s directive and under conditions that would be seen as unequal and (ii) it was a source of friction within the movement. As Hane & Perez suggest, some leaders -such as Yoshida Shōin- were intensely antiforeign, adherent to the notion of Japan's divine nature and opposed to the opening of the country to overseas knowledge –with the notable exception of military techniques[1] (Cotterell, 2011). Others, such as Sakuma Zōzan, favoured –perhaps with pragmatism and after the failure of the 1863 expulsion[2] (Beasley, 1972)- the idea of embracing Western science and technology while retaining elements of inner life regarded as typically Japanese. The latter leaders, for instance, were object to attacks: Zōzan’s support of the country-opening policy costed him his life[3], as fellow sonnō jōi advocates killed him because of that particular policy position. Bearing this in mind, and for the purpose of this essay, the high relevance of nationalist and xenophobic elements in the mind-set of the sonnō jōi will be taken into account while addressing the primary concern of this enquiry.


Whether the Meiji Restoration can be seen as a triumph for the “revere the emperor, expel the barbarian” movement is a complex question. To address it, the coherence between the mind-set discussed above and the policies implemented after 1868 will be assessed. As McClain (2002) suggests, the Ishin was an attempt to centralize power and neutralize alternative forms of it. In the same page, Jansen (1995) underlines that it replaced a decentralized power structure inherited from feudal times with a central State under the aegis of a modern monarch. These modifications, as both Jansen and Tsuzuki (2000) comment, were accompanied by a lack of a clear-consistent idea or guide for reform. However, there were certain notions of what direction should be taken by Japan. These sealed the first steps taken by the new Meiji leadership, in its quest to conquer the dream of domestic prosperity and equality with the West.

Perhaps the first document that outlined the course of new reforms was the Imperial Charter Oath: containing five articles, it called for (i) the establishment of deliberative assemblies, (ii) the commitment of all classes with the administration of the State, (iii) freedom to pursue one’s aspirations, (iv) breaking with customs that went against the “just laws of Nature” and (v) the pursuit of knowledge from abroad in order to strengthen the base of power of the Empire. Following (iv) and (v), the new Meiji administration set up several missions[4] whose aim was to learn from abroad the best practices regarding science, technology, industrial development and political organization. McClain (2002) suggests that one of the most important was the Iwakura Mission, which consisted of 49 high-rank officials and 58 students, lasted almost two years (initially, it was expected to last just seven months) and visited over 20 countries and territories in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It had the double objective of renegotiating the unequal treaties signed by the Tokugawa Bakufu and increase the Japanese knowledge of the West to push modernization ahead. As it was evident that the former target could not achieved in the short term[5], the latter became the focus of the entire trip, with Meiji officials concluding that political reform and industrialization should be at the heart of the reform agenda.

The particular bias mentioned above paved the way for the organization of other missions with more specific aims. For instance, and according to Ma (2004), following the Iwakura Mission, a group of sericultural experts was sent to Italy in 1873 to learn the most advanced technologies in silk farming and weaving. The visit resulted not only in increased appropriation of frontier techniques but also in the beginning on the first Japanese system of technological innovation, diffusion and education as the experts -while studying in a specialized sericultural institute- realized the relevance of research for industrial purposes. Similarly, and as Tsuzuki (2000) tells, a mission led by Itō Hirobumi –who would eventually become the first Prime Minister of Japan- was sent to Europe in order to study different Constitutional architectures and propose one that would serve Japan’s need well. The result from that inquiry would be known as the Meiji Constitution, which was proclaimed in 1890 and lasted until 1947.

All this implies, of course, a open embracement –not to say an active pursue- of foreign elements in the earliest steps taken by the Ishin leaders in matters of public policy. Later Western-borrowed institutional developments, such as the establishment of the Bank of Japan or the provision of essential public goods such as infrastructure (Goldsmith, 1998), would confirm the practice of taking the best from abroad to strenghten the country. In this regard, the contrast with the sonnō jōi ideas discussed above is evident as many of the shishi openly rejected Western culture, beliefs and institutions. Thus, if there was a victory for them in the Meiji Restoration, it would be fair to state that the jōi was not part of it.


As was briefly mentioned above, the Ishin is usually associated with the centralization of power under the figure of the Emperor. Although there is consensus regarding the significance of the Imperial figure in the reviewed literature, it should be stated that there is room for nuance: the fall of the Tokuwaga Bakufu and the restoration of the Emperor, were accompanied also by the rise of the Meiji oligarchs. These individuals, essentially from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains and legitimated by Imperial backing (Wilson, 1992), became the rulers of day-to-day issues in Japan: shortly after the events in 1868, many of them became members of the Dajōkan, which reported to the Emperor, acted as the Council of State and had executive and legislative functions (Cheng, Rosett & Woo, 2003). In short, they were running Japan.

This political outcome did not please everyone. As one political observer of that time -quoted in Tsuzuki (2000)- complained, the political organization that emerged after the Restoration looked like a new shogunate. It also has been argued by Tsuzuki that the new leaders manipulated the image of the Emperor for their own political interests. Thus, the resulting balance of power in early Meiji Japan was not, as Wilson (1992) suggests, an actual restoration but a situation where both the Emperor was personally powerless –the oligarchs ruled using his mandate- and the source of legitimacy –and political power- that allowed those who governed in his name to suppress opposition and build a new nation-state in a Western way. Was this what the shishi had originally in mind? It would be hard to defend such position. As Deal (2006) notes, they wanted the Emperor to claim back his role as direct ruler of Japan. As has been shown, such was not the case.

Besides, and as Tsuzuki (2000) underlines, the 1870’s were years of discontent for the samurai class. Not only their ideas had been left out of the power array following the Restoration but also the oligarchs started executing a plan to create a modern army that would exclude the warrior class and –as fiscal pressures mounted- finished their stipend with a one last time payment. As was previously mentioned, the Ishin was about neutralizing alternate forms of power. The long-standing samurai, shishi included, would be no exception.


The Meiji Restoration was one of the most important historical developments of recent Japanese history: it marked the beginning of modern Japan. One of the groups behind its occurrence was the sonnō jōi, made essentially of violent samurai warriors and famous for its radical positions regarding the introduction of foreign elements in the Japanese society. As the new leadership took early steps toward reform, it became relatively clear that these actions did not answer to the shishi’s original ideology: On one hand, knowledge from abroad was actively sought and embraced in several fields while transforming domestic political and economic institutions. On the other, although the Emperor was made again head of state, the actual rulers of the country were a small group of powerful individuals that eventually used the Imperial divinity for their own political interest. Furthermore, later policies implemented by the Meiji oligarchs marginalized the samurai warrior class. Thus, the Meiji Restoration cannot be assessed as a victory for the sonnō jōi movement –at least in the way that it was originally conceived.


Beasley, W. G. (1972). The Meiji restoration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cheng, L., Woo, M. Y., & Rosett, A. I. (2003). East Asian law: Universal norms and local cultures. London: Routledge-Curzon.

Cotterell, A. (2011). Asia: A concise history. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia).

Deal, W. E. (2006). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York NY: Facts On File.

Goldsmith, R. W. (1998). The takeoff into sustained economic growth, 1886 - 1913. In Meiji Japan. London: Routledge.

Hane, M., & Perez, L. G. (2009). Modern Japan: A historical survey. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Jansen, M. B. (1995). The Emergence of Meiji Japan. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ma, D. (2004). Why Japan, Not China, Was the First to Develop in East Asia: Lessons from Sericulture, 1850–1937. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 52(2), 369-394. doi: 10.1086/380947

Ma, D. (2005). Between Cottage and Factory: The Evolution of Chinese and Japanese Silk-Reeling Industries in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 10(2), 195-213. doi: 10.1080/13547860500071451

McClain, J. L. (2002). Japan, a modern history. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Perez, L. G. (2013). Japan at war: An encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Tsuzuki, C. (2000). The pursuit of power in modern Japan, 1825-1995. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, G. M. (1992). Patriots and redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Interestingly, this was the sort of policy positions that triumphed in Qing China after the arrival of the West. The divergent path of reform –and results- between Japan and China confirm the notion that the attitude towards foreign knowledge was not a minor issue.

[2] Beasly (1972) affirms that the failure of expulsion transformed the sonnō jōi to the extent that they were not any more what they used to be. In this regard, this essay deals with the tension between the ideas of the original movement and the eventual outcomes that followed the Restoration. As Perez (2013) notes, some shishi transformed themselves from violent samurai to important and pragmatic Westernizers.

[3] Hane & Perez (2009) underline that, ultimately, the notoriety and political power of the sonnō jōi was linked to its readiness to use force against those who disagreed with the movement’s position.

[4] It is worth noting that the Iwakura Mission was not the first Japanese embassy. The first one was sent to the United States in 1860.

[5] McClain (2002) affirms that the United States government made it clear to the mission that such renegotiation could not take place until Japan had shown to the World that it was a civilized and modernized nation. The way to accomplish that would be drafting and proclaiming a Constitution.

Los salarios en David Ricardo: extravíos e interpretaciones.

Los planteamientos de David Ricardo, inclusive casi doscientos años después de ser publicados, siguen generando controversia y debate entre los teóricos de la economía. En particular, diferentes interpretaciones sobre su concepción de los salarios y la pregunta sobre la integrabilidad de sus construcciones a un marco de trabajo neoclásico han sido puntos esenciales de una discusión que parece no terminar. Este ensayo busca señalar algunos extravíos de estos últimos desarrollos y presentar algunas soluciones que se han propuesto para hacer frente a los problemas que han surgido de esta controversia. Para ello, se resumirán con brevedad algunas contribuciones sobre teorías de los salarios que fueron relevantes en el siglo XVIII, se presentará la propuesta de Ricardo, sus nuevas interpretaciones y algunas debilidades de estas. 


Según Stirati (1994), el análisis de los temas concernientes a los salarios estuvo, hasta la publicación de La Riqueza de las Naciones de Adam Smith, más concentrado en temas de política económica –tales como los efectos nocivos de salarios elevados sobre las exportaciones o la productividad de los obreros– que en intentos por encontrar los determinantes de la remuneración a los trabajadores a través del tiempo y en diferentes lugares del planeta. Este énfasis no implica, sin embargo, que no existieran algunos intentos por explicar el pago obrero. En concreto, y como afirma Stirati, resulta claro que en Cantillón y Petty, por ejemplo, se encuentran apartados que sugieren el papel esencial de elementos de carácter consuetudinario en la definición de la remuneración salarial necesaria para la subsistencia de los asalariados y sus familias. Esto puede notarse en Cantillón (1755), cuando afirma que “[…]. En algunas provincias del sur de Francia, el peón se mantiene con el producto de una y media acres de tierra […]. Pero en el Condado de Middlesex el peón usualmente gasta la producción de entre 5 y 8 acres de tierra […].” (Traducción propia). De esta manera, resulta que en estos autores se identifica una conexión entre el nivel de los salarios en un período histórico y lugar espacial particular con los hábitos y costumbres propios de ese momento. Así pues, es evidente que estos pagos pueden variar en el tiempo y de país a país, así como dentro un mismo país. 

Por otra parte, y derivado de lo mencionado en el párrafo anterior, es importante mencionar algunos de los puntos más relevantes de la propuesta teórica de Adam Smith sobre el tópico salarial. En primer lugar, resulta que fue el primero en proponer el esquema de precios duales para los pagos que reciben los trabajadores. Puesto de otra manera, una innovación presente en La Riqueza de las Naciones fue sugerir que los salarios tenían una versión natural y otra corriente, siendo esta última el resultado de desviaciones accidentales de los primeros. Según Stirati (1994) este esquema, si bien ya había sido propuesto por Cantillón para los precios de las mercancías, no había sido introducido en el mercado de trabajo. En segunda instancia, y en lo que se refiere a lo que determina los salarios naturales, definidos como la tasa ordinaria o promedio que es pagada a los asalariados, Smith se inclina por el contexto institucional en el que se desarrollan las negociaciones salariales entre empleados y empleadores y el estado de las riquezas de la nación. En relación al primer elemento, Smith (1776) sugiere que los salarios corrientes “dependen de los contratos hechos entre ambas partes cuyos intereses de ninguna manera son los mismos. El trabajador desea tanto como puede, el empleador tan poco como sea posible. Los primeros están dispuestos a combinarse para subir el precio del trabajo, mientras que los últimos para bajarlo.” (Traducción propia). Dado que este proceso de negociación no es simétrico en términos de poder, pues como lo plantea Smith “[…]. Muchos trabajadores no podrían subsistir una semana, pocos un mes y si acaso escasos un año sin empleo.” (Traducción propia), el salario natural tiende a situarse en el nivel más bajo posible –que no es otro que el de subsistencia, aquel necesario para sostener al trabajador y a su familia. Esta tendencia se ve reforzada, además, por la mayor facilidad relativa que tienen los empleadores para agruparse y negociar con los muchos, dispersos y débilmente organizados trabajadores[1]. Por otra parte, y en lo que es concerniente al segundo elemento que determina los salarios naturales, las sociedades con mayores (menores) niveles de acumulación de riquezas deberían observar salarios naturales más elevados (bajos) en la medida de que la posición de negociación de los trabajadores mejora (empeora) al hacerse más escasa (abundante) la mano de obra.[2]

Así pues, es claro que elementos institucionales, sociales y customarios fueron esenciales en la elaboración de construcciones y apuntes teóricos sobre los salarios de los economistas previos a David Ricardo. 

El salario ricardiano 

De forma análoga a Adam Smith, Ricardo propone que los pagos a los trabajadores tienen un precio natural y un precio de mercado. Esto puede notarse en el inicio del capítulo salarial de Principios de Economía Política y Tributación cuando Ricardo (1821) cuando afirma que “La mano de obra, al igual que las demás cosas que se compran y se venden, y que pueden aumentar o disminuir en cantidad, tiene su precio natural y su precio de mercado. El precio natural de la mano de obra es el precio necesario que permite a los trabajadores, uno con otro, subsistir y perpetuar su raza, sin incremento ni disminución.”. El determinante principal de este último, a diferencia de los precios naturales de los demás bienes mercantiles en la economía ricardiana, no era el trabajo equivalente que había detrás de su elaboración pues, como es evidente, el trabajo no puede determinar el trabajo. Puesto de otra forma, es difícil justificar -inclusive hoy en día, con los avances de la ciencia occidental- que existen fábricas donde se produce mano de obra[3] y, a partir del trabajo equivalente que requiere su producción, se pueda determinar su precio –es decir, el salario. Para evitar esta aporía teórica, David Ricardo sugirió tratar la remuneración salarial, en su dimensión natural, de una manera diferente a la de los precios de las otras mercancías que se transan en los mercados. De esta manera, propone que el nivel natural de los salarios está asociado al valor real de un paquete mínimo de consumo, definido de forma consuetudinaria y que, en consecuencia, puede variar. Esto es claro cuando Ricardo (1821) sugirió que los salarios naturales “[…]. En un mismo país varía en distintas épocas, y difiere cuantiosamente de un país a otro. Depende esencialmente de los hábitos y costumbres de la gente.”. 

Por otra parte, el salario de mercado se define como aquel que efectivamente se paga a los trabajadores por su labor. En la medida en que Ricardo estaba de acuerdo con el esquema de la gravitación universal[4] propuesto por Cantillón y Smith, este debe tender hacia su par natural. A diferencia de sus antecesores, sin embargo, David Ricardo propuso algunos mecanismos de ajuste que permitirían la convergencia entre ambos tipos de salarios. Según Stirati (1994), estos son fundamentalmente de oferta –es decir, la demanda de trabajo no aparece como un factor determinante a la hora de asegurar el cumplimiento de la gravitación- y de dos tipos: un primero, que se refiere a los ajustes del salario natural tras los cambios en los precios de mercado de los bienes que forman la canasta y un segundo, que consiste en ajustes poblacionales que modifican el salario de mercado en la medida en que estos afectan la relación entre población y empleo en el largo plazo. Estas propuestas, sin embargo, no han estado exentas de críticas. En concreto, Stirati sugiere que no existe claridad sobre la motivación que existe para que los cambios en los precios de los bienes de la canasta se reflejen de forma inmediata en el valor de la canasta misma –es decir, que los trabajadores no pierdan poder de compra real de forma inmediata. Adicionalmente, los cambios en los precios de estos bienes pueden ser accidentales por lo que tampoco es evidente que esta forma de ajuste permita que, a lo largo del tiempo, la diferencia entre los salarios naturales y los de mercado se minimice. 

Derivado de los inconvenientes planteados anteriormente, resulta que la gravitación terminará dependiendo del segundo aparato de ajuste: la población. Esta opción, sin embargo, es también problemática pues –entonces- la convergencia de los dos tipos de salarios dependerá de un elemento que es de difícil variación: a diferencia de lo que sucede con todos los demás bienes de la economía mercantil, que se pueden producir o retirar del mercado de forma relativamente rápida y siempre con el sustento conceptual de la maximización de utilidades, la mano de obra no puede producirse con la raudez necesaria para que se convierta en un mecanismo de convergencia sistemático entre los diferentes tipos de salarios. Este problema no se presenta, por ejemplo, en Smith pues si bien se recoge a la población, su magnitud y, consecuentemente, su poder de negociación frente a los empleadores, el rol que juega no es el de mecanismo de ajuste sino de determinante del salario natural sobre el cual se debe gravitar. Así pues, en la utilización de los cambios poblacionales como herramienta de convergencia de los diferentes tipos de remuneraciones salariales yace uno de los pecados ricardianos. Como se verá más adelante, este no ha sido gratuito. 

Nuevas interpretaciones 

En las últimas décadas, y a partir de las discusiones planteadas en el acápite anterior de este ensayo, han surgido renovados análisis de la obra de David Ricardo. En particular, ha recibido especial atención la propuesta de integrar a la economía ricardiana dentro de un marco de trabajo neoclásico o, aunque sea, marginalista. Esto puede notarse en Hollander (1992) cuando, al discutir sobre la presencia de análisis de oferta y demanda dentro del trabajo de Ricardo, afirma que “Existe una tradición que sugiere que la teoría de la demanda jugó un rol pequeño, si es que alguno, en el análisis ricardiano. Nada podría estar más lejos de la verdad.” (Traducción propia). En la dimensión salarial de esta discusión, esta postura emergente se ha manifestado a través de la propuesta de endogeneizar el salario, que resultaría de la interacción de las curvas de oferta y demanda de trabajo de largo plazo y del mecanismo descrito en el pecado ricardiano del acápite anterior. Esto es claro cuando Hollander (1982) cita a Ricardo (1821) y su tesis de que el salario “será sólo suficiente para mantener a la población […]. Supongamos que las circunstancias del país son tales que los trabajadores más pobres son llamados no sólo a continuar su raza, pero a incrementarla; sus salarios deberían regularse de forma acorde. Pueden multiplicarse, si un impuesto les ha quitado una parte de sus salarios y los ha reducido a sus necesidades más escuetas?.” (Traducción propia) y sugiere que no podría existir una expresión más clara de una relación funcional entre la población y el nivel de salarios. 

Esta postura, como habría de esperarse, ha sido objeto de numerosas críticas. En primer lugar, y haciendo referencia al intento general de incorporar la economía ricardiana a un marco de trabajo marginalista, Roncaglia (1982) sugiere que el análisis económico de David Ricardo, como el de todos sus pares clásicos, parte de una concepción circular del sistema de producción y consumo que es sustancialmente diferente al unidireccional de insumos y bienes de consumo que ofrece el enfoque que hoy en día es preponderante. En particular, el proceso de producción, central en la economía de los clásicos, es, dentro del enfoque marginalista, apenas un medio que conecta las satisfacción de los gustos de los agentes con sus dotaciones iniciales de bienes escasos. Adicionalmente, un elemento teórico característico de la aproximación neoclásica es la presencia de agentes optimizadores –lo que se refleja, además, en la modelación y que permite la construcción de curvas funcionales de oferta y demanda– que brillan por su ausencia en los apuntes ricardianos. Así pues, y teniendo en cuenta estas diferencias primordiales, una integración de Ricardo a la economía neoclásica parecería, a lo menos, difícil. 

En segunda instancia, y volviendo al debate salarial, la propuesta de endogenización del salario a partir de curvas de oferta y demanda ha sido también polémica por varias razones: en primer lugar, hay evidencia que sugiere que Ricardo era fundamentalmente escéptico sobre el rol de la oferta y la demanda para explicar los fenómenos asociados a los precios naturales. Esto es evidente en Ricardo (1821) cuando sugiere que “Es el costo de la producción lo que en últimas regula el precio de los bienes y no, como se dice usualmente, la proporción entre oferta y demanda: la proporción entre oferta y demanda podría, incluso, por algún tiempo, afectar el valor de mercado de un bien, hasta que este sea suministrado en mayor o menor abundancia, de acuerdo a cómo haya incrementado o disminuido la demanda; pero este efecto será solo de temporaria duración”. (Traducción propia). Teniendo esto en cuenta y contando con la existencia de la canasta, el papel de elementos de oferta y demanda en el salario natural de Ricardo parece, a lo menos, elusivo. Adicionalmente, en la nueva interpretación que aquí se ha presentado, hay explícitas relaciones funcionales entre población y salarios que en ningún caso fueron expuestas por David Ricardo. En este sentido, Hollander (1995) ha admitido que no reclama que Ricardo haya puesto en claro algunos puntos que él sugiere, pero que estos puntos –dentro de ellos la relación funcional clara entre el salario natural y la población- no son lógicamente incompatibles con lo que ha escrito David Ricardo. Así pues, y como lo sugiere Roncaglia (1982a), estas confesiones son relevantes en la medida en que confirma que esos elementos no están presentes en Ricardo. Esto lleva, de forma inevitable, a pensar que las interpretaciones de Hollander no serían otra cosa más que -en el mejor de los casos- actos de fe y -en el peor- imposiciones descaradas. Ya, varias décadas luego de la publicación de Principios de Economía Política y Tributación y un par de años antes de que Hollander recibiera su título doctoral, Piero Sraffa (1966) se encargaría de endogenizar el salario dentro de un sistema de ecuaciones que describiría un esquema de producción circular y de excedentes, coherente con el marco analítico que utilizó David Ricardo y sin tener que recurrir a violencias filológicas. 

Lo problemático de este asunto es, en todo caso, que las atribuciones que se le imponen arbitrariamente al pensamiento ricardiano no son menores pues, como es claro en la endogenización del salario y la consecuente eliminación de elementos sociales y consuetudinarios en su determinación natural, cambian la estructura del mismo y, por esta vía, distorsionan los avances y retrocesos de la escuela clásica. 


Como se ha mostrado en este ensayo, la teoría de los salarios de David Ricardo recogió elementos importantes de sus predecesores, tales como la existencia de una remuneración natural y la relevancia de aspectos de carácter institucional y consuetudinario para su determinación. Esto no implica, sin embargo, que la propuesta teórica recogida en Principios de Economía y Tributación haya estado exenta de aportes al cánon de conocimiento ya existente. En particular, el intento por describir mecanismos de ajuste que permitirían la gravitación del salario de mercado entorno al natural fue una innovación que, aunque imperfecta, permitió que se abriera un nuevo frente de discusión y de investigación. En este desarrollo, sin embargo, han aparecido nuevas interpretaciones que forzan las propuestas de Ricardo dentro de un marco de trabajo neoclásico o marginalista. Como se ha dispuesto en este ensayo, este intento es un extravío pues la estructura analítica ricardiana es fundamentalmente diferente a la preponderante y, al final del día, los elementos usados para justificar su integración no están presentes de forma explícita en el pensamiento económico de David Ricardo. Resulta así, que esta imposición es, por su naturaleza distorsiva, dañina para el análisis de la contribución de Ricardo a la escuela clásica y, en consecuencia, para el desarrollo del análisis económico mismo. 

Cantillón, R. (1755). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général (1964 ed.) (H. Higgs, Ed.). Nueva York: A. M. Kelley.

Hollander, S. (1982). A Reply. The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 4(3), primavera, 360-372.

Hollander, S. (1992). Classical Economics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hollander, S. (1995). Ricardo, the new view. Londres: Routledge.

Ricardo, D. (1821). Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (P. Sraffa, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricardo, D. (1973). Principios de Economía Política y Tributación (P. Sraffa, Ed.). México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Roncaglia, A. (1982). Hollander's Ricardo. The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 4(3), primavera, 339-359.

Roncaglia, A. (1982). Rejoinder. The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 4(3), primavera, 373-375.

Smith, A. (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1976 ed., The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith) (A. S. Skinner, W. B. Todd, & R. N. Campbell, Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stirati, A. (1994). The theory of wages in classical economics: A study of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and their contemporaries (J. Hall, Trans.). Aldershot: E. Elgar.

Straffa, P. (1966). Producción de mercancias por medio de mercancias. Barcelona: Oikos Taus.

Notas al pie

[1] Otro punto relevante es la existencia de leyes que prohibían la agrupación de los trabajadores y afectaban, en consecuencia, su capacidad para hacer colusión y ganar poder de negociación.

[2] Una descripción más detallada de los argumentos de Smith en este particular pueden encontrarse en Smith (1776).

[3] Este asunto es especialmente claro en la economía capitalista. En otros tipos de economía, como la esclavista, es más difuso. Sin embargo, esa discusión está más allá del alcance de este ensayo.

[4] Ver Ricardo (1821) para notar que comparte la noción de gravitación propuesta por Cantillón y Smith.

Política, Estado y ciencia: nexos en Europa moderna.

Las narrativas modernas sobre la revolución científica, se han caracterizado por intentar esbozar un panorama en el cuál los grandes desarrollos de ciencia fueron el resultado de un esclarecedor proceso de hallazgo de la verdad. Caracterizado por ser cartesiano e individual, sería ajeno consideraciones de carácter social. Este ensayo buscará mostrar que esta posición es problemática por varias razones: en primer lugar, el surgimiento de las instituciones que marcarían el devenir de la ciencia moderna está condicionado, al menos de forma parcial, a un momento histórico de convulsión en Europa occidental. En segunda instancia, la concepción de esa misma institucionalidad estuvo acompañada por elementos de carácter político, filosófico y de poder que podrían haber matizado su desarrollo más adelante. Y, finalmente, existe evidencia que sugiere que la composición de la alta dirección de organismos como la Real Sociedad de Londres estaba sujeta, entre otras cosas, a eventos de carácter político.

El  contexto
Según Shapin (1996, pp. 123), la sociedad europea vivió durante siglos en un permanente estado de crisis. Las causas de la inestabilidad característica de este período, que iniciaría en la baja Edad Media e incluiría al siglo XVII, se encontrarían en la remarcable cantidad de eventos que tuvieron lugar en esta época. Estos llevarían al cuestionamiento de la legitimidad de las instituciones que habían regulado el comportamiento humano por centurias. Así pues, el surgimiento de naciones-Estado, el descubrimiento del Nuevo Mundo, la invención de la imprenta y la reforma protestante; habrían sucedido en un período de tiempo tan corto que no permitirían que el establecimiento se adaptara.

La tensión entre el orden social instituido y las nuevas tendencias derivadas de los eventos mencionados anteriormente también terminaría por abarcar y afectar a la ciencia: los viajes a América, afirma Nieto (2009), sembrarían cuestionamientos sobre la pertinencia del cánon de conocimiento de científicos clásicos como Plinio. Además, Shapin (1996, pp. 126) sostiene que el monopolio del clero y el gremio universitario sobre el estudio y la formulación de filosofía natural llegó a su fin, pues empezaron a surgir opciones diferentes de producir conocimiento. De esta manera, las cortes reales de la Europa continental -una consecuencia de la consolidación de las naciones-Estado- terminarían por emplear a científicos y especialistas en diversas materias para que trabajaran al servicio de los intereses de la corona y no de los de la iglesia[1].

La transformación en la manera de hacer ciencia, sin embargo, no terminaría allí. En particular, Shapin (1996, pp. 133) sostiene que uno de los rasgos que marcaría esta época sería la crisis de la universidad como el centro de conocimiento por excelencia. Esto se justificaría en que su estructura jerárquica y patriarcal se interpretaría como una herencia del establecimiento que estaba en crisis y como un obstáculo para el progreso del saber. Así pues, los egos de los profesores, sus discusiones marginadas del mundo experimental y de las necesidades de la sociedad civil, se constituirían en elementos que socavarían la reputación de las instituciones universitarias como centros para producir conocimiento. Esta crisis generaría, entonces, el espacio y los incentivos para el surgimiento de un concepto de institución diferente: las sociedades y las academias. Estas, que posteriormente se convertirían en el espacio donde la revolución científica tendría lugar, serían el reflejo de las aspiraciones sociales de la época. Esto no es otra cosa que decir que estudiarían hechos y no palabras. Tampoco replicarían irreflexivamente el cánon de filosofía natural existente, sino que experimentarían y construirían hechos que servirían a la sociedad civil[2].

Las sociedades científicas serían, entonces, un producto de su propio contexto histórico y una respuesta a la falencia del establecimiento para responder las demandas de conocimiento de la sociedad europea del siglo XVII.

El Estado y las sociedades científicas
Según Shapin (1996, pp. 130), el filósofo inglés Francis Bacon consideraba que existían dos razones que justificaban una relación estrecha entre conocimiento y Estado: en primer lugar, que este último renunciara a controlar al primero, implicaría que podrían aparecer tendencias de saber que cuestionaran su legitimidad misma. Y, en segunda instancia, la habilidad de las disciplinas científicas, debidamente organizadas y guíadas por un método adecuado, para encontrar y desarrollar técnicas para dominar el mundo natural sería –y es- enorme. Así pues, existía un fuerte llamado para la integración de la ciencia con las ramas del poder público. Esta concepción sería evidente en La Nueva Atlántida, obra del mismo Bacon, donde una civilización utópica contaría con una institución de ciencia financiada por las arcas públicas. Esta, la Casa de Salomón, no sólo administraría el conocimiento sino que también contaría con sabios dedicados a conocer las causas de las cosas para empoderar a la sociedad civil.

Como afirma Nieto (n.d.), la Real Sociedad de Londres tendría a Bacon como su filósofo de cabecera pues, aunque con algunas diferencias de la mítica Casa de Salomón, esta tendría un enfoque eminentemente práctico. Sin embargo, otras organizaciones continentales, como la Academia de la Experiencia de Florencia y la Real Academia de Ciencias de Paris, lograrían un nivel más elevado de integración con el Estado. Según Shapin (1996, pp. 131) la sociedad francesa habría recibido soporte público para comprar y desarrollar los instrumentos necesarios para llevar a cabo experimentos. Por otra parte, la sociedad italiana fue financiada desde el inicio por miembros de la real familia Medici quienes, según Beretta (2000), confiaban en la tradición experimental como un mecanismo para encontrar conocimiento con ventajas prácticas muy concretas. Adicionalmente, Beretta sugiere que esta misma confianza terminaría por sesgar la naturaleza del tipo de ciencia que se llevaría a cabo en esa organización: era necesario desarrollar herramientas y conocimiento que fueran útiles a los intereses políticos y sociales de la autoridad que permitía su existencia.

Así pues, elementos de carácter político y filosófico parecen haber sido claves a la hora de determinar la existencia y el rumbo inicial del tipo de ciencia que se desarrollaba en las instituciones científicas de la Europa moderna.
El poder político y la evolución de las sociedades científicas
Existe evidencia que sugiere que eventos de turbulencia política se trasladaban, al menos eventualmente, a la Real Sociedad de Londres a través de la recomposición de sus directivas: Según Mulligan & Mulligan (1981), uno de los cargos más poderosos dentro de la jóven Real Sociedad de Londres era el de Secretario: aquellos que lo ocuparon, a través de la coordinación de las prácticas y el control de correspondencia, tendrían una influencia remarcable sobre el destino de la organización. Estos determinarían qué individuos serían aceptados como miembros y el tipo de prácticas que se llevarían a cabo en la institución. Esta posición de liderazgo sería, entonces, clave para estudiar el devenir de la que sería la sociedad científica más importante del mundo por varios siglos. Según Shapin (1994) la preferencia por caballeros[3] para membresías notables sería marcada. Sin embargo, el análisis de Miller (1998) propone que la dinámica de la alta dirección de la institución podría encontrar explicación, además, en elementos de cultura intra-organizacional y de política: en el siglo XVIII, por ejemplo, se asocian varios cambios de jefatura de la Real Sociedad de Londres con períodos de crisis en el gobierno y turbulencia política en general.

Cabe concluir, entonces, que puestos relevantes en la sociedad de ciencia más importante del planeta -cuya influencia sobre el tipo de prácticas que marcarían el desarrollo de conocimiento posterior está probada- fueron sujetos de consideraciones de carácter político. Esto, entonces, pudo haber sesgado hacia horizontes particualres su desarrollo y, en consecuencia, el tipo de ciencia que patrocinó.

En las narrativas modernas sobre la revolución científica parece predominar una visión cartesiana sobre la naturaleza de las transformaciones que tuvieron lugar en el siglo XVII. Como se ha expuesto en este ensayo, este enfoque puede estar equivocado pues ignora consideraciones de carácter social que determinaron, al menos de forma parcial, el rumbo de los procesos de generación conocimiento. Así pues, el contexto en que surgieron las sociedades y academias, así como su relación con el Estado y la política, son demasiado relevantes como para ser ignorados. Una historia que los incluya en su construcción y que determine con mayor claridad su rol es necesaria.

Beretta, M. (2000). At the source of Western science: The organization of experimentalism at the Accademia del Cimento (1657-1667). Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 54(2), 131-151.
Miller, D. P. (1998). The ‘Hardwicke circle’: The Whig supremacy and its demise in the 18th-century Royal Society. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 52(1), 73-91.
Mulligan, L., & Mulligan, G. (1981). Reconstructing Restoration Science: Styles of Leadership and Social Composition of the Early Royal Society. Social Studies of Science, 11(3), 327-364.
Nieto, M. (2009). Ciencia, Imperio, Modernidad y Eurocentrismo: El mundo Atlántico del siglo XVI y la comprensión del Nuevo Mundo. Historia Crítica, edición especial.
Nieto, M. (n.d.). Las sociedades científicas del siglo XVII y la tradición experimental. Historia De La Ciencia - Mauricio Nieto. Consultado en Noviembre 24, 2012, en
Shapin, S. (1994). Who Was Robert Boyle? En A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shapin, S. (1996). The scientific revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[1] Esta separación es, también, una de las características de la edad moderna y consecuencia de los fenómenos ya mencionados.
[2] Este énfasis práctico es relevante pues implica una crítica al academicismo de las universidades y su desconexión con las necesidades del mundo fuera de los claustros.
[3] Una definición de lo que implicaba ser caballero en el siglo XVII puede encontrarse en Shapin (1994). En todo caso, es importante hacer énfasis en que no es el mismo caballero típico de la Edad Media.