History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 405-406
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The Myth of Adam Smith
The Myth of Adam Smith. By Salim Rashid. Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 1998. x; 227 pp. $80.00
No one can doubt that Rashid's wide-ranging study of the pamphlet literature of the time has considerably advanced our understanding of the British intellectual context of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Now we learn that his long study has led to a deeply disillusioned assessment of Smith's place in that context. Unlike the "enthusiasm" of his first reading, he must now "struggle to find something nice to say about Smith" (vii). Here, his struggle meets with only limited success.
Only the first and last chapters of the work are wholly new; the intervening eight [End Page 405] chapters reproduce earlier published articles, typically with minor emendations, although chapter 7 offers significant additional material, among which we find the suggestion of a strong partisan element in Smith's popularity arising from "the appeal of the Wealth of Nations to Whig-Radical thinkers" (173). These originally disparate pieces are woven into an indictment both of Smith and of historians of thought. As to the former, we learn that a reading of the Wealth of Nations within its intellectual context demonstrates "that what is true is not original and what is original is not true." Indeed, "Smith's only virtue appears to be pedagogy" (3). Worse, "Smith himself bears considerable responsibility" for the modern "mythical" view of his merits by "failing to acknowledge clearly his considerable debts to the past" (4, 210). As to historians of thought, we are faulted for a failure to throw off the old "orthodoxy" (209). Of course, none of this is new; Rashid claims here only to supply the previously missing evidence to support the charges (6).
Particularly with respect to the second of these charges, the collection exhibits the problem typical of its genre: despite the author's effort, the several parts cannot be made to convey a wholly coherent argument. Thus, though much is made in chapters 1 and 7-10 of the "paucity" of Smith's citations (here said to bespeak a "self-conscious originality" ), when we come to chapter 4 we learn that, while there are "grounds for cavil" at Smith's references, "these are not points of great significance by themselves. . . ." Indeed, "Inattention to detail is not the greatest failing for someone who paints on a great canvas" (56). Are we then to hold Smith accountable for a failure of "elementary courtesy towards the Encyclopédie" (24) in his treatment of the division of labor, or are we rather to adopt a more tolerant stance in deference to his "great canvas"?
Other puzzles arise, not least being a curious insertion, in the closing pages, of the claim that "the 'surplus value' of Marx is but a developed form" of "Smith's determined insistence that all value was created by labor" (213-14). As no earlier chapter treats this hoary dispute, many will find this bald assertion surprising, especially those familiar with Samuel Hollander's Classical Economics (1987), which nevertheless is quoted in support.
There is value in making more easily accessible in this way Rashid's impressive knowledge of the eighteenth-century British intellectual environment, but those readers who do not already share his rather captious view of Smith's place in that environment are unlikely to be persuaded by this collection.