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An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate.

An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate. By Gareth Stedman Jones. (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. 278. $29.50.)

In the 1790s, Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet and Thomas Paine each wrote treatises that marked a sea change in discussions about poverty. Buoyed by Adam Smith and Turgot's "positive future-oriented conceptions of commercial society," confident in the benefits of "social mathematics," and stimulated by the apparent successes of the republican and democratic revolutions in America and France, Condorcet and Paine envisioned an egalitarian, commercial society that would eliminate poverty and provide a system of social insurance as an essential right (26). In An End to Poverty?, Gareth Stedman Jones recaptures the long overlooked work of Condorcet and Paine on these social issues, and he positions them in their rightful place at the origin of social democracy. In retracing both the history of Paine and Condorcet's thought and the reactions to it across nineteenth-century Britain and France, Stedman Jones marks a brilliant, original path through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century intellectual history and shows the relevance of this history to present-day debates.

Early on in the text, Stedman Jones clearly demonstrates that Paine and Condorcet's work marked a turning point in conceptions of poverty, away from the notion that "the poor ye always have with you" and toward the modern aspiration to eliminate poverty. Why, then, did the reaction to these treatises generate initial resistance followed by centuries of neglect? As Stedman Jones writes, "So deep was the repression of this brief republican moment in modern British history that memory of [Paine and Condorcet's plans for social insurance]--or at least discussion of it among the governing classes--all but disappears" (227). It appears that their work was rejected initially because of the social and political context in which Paine and Condorcet wrote. With the British backlash against republicanism in the period of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, Paine's ideas were rejected outside of radical circles. In France, the political and social turmoil of the 1790s and early nineteenth century ensured that there was little will to support the seeming utopianism of Condorcet's views on poverty. In the longer term, the optimism and creative energy of Paine and Condorcet were shunted beyond the margins by other heirs of Adam Smith, writers on political economy like Malthus, Mill, Say, and Blanqui. Condorcet and Paine may have demonstrated that traditional attitudes toward poverty were no longer tenable, but no influential thinker picked up on their solution to eliminate pauperism through the innovation of social security. Instead, proposals ranged from Jean Baptiste Say's belief in the need to educate the working classes into more industrious and frugal manners, through Leon Bourgeois and Emile Durkheim's "solidarism" of the late nineteenth century.

In one sense, this book is a tale of omission; in examining developments in political economy through the nineteenth century, we see over and over again the evident lack of attention to Paine and Condorcet's ideas. At the same time, Stedman Jones's contrast of these ideas with subsequent political economists' debates over poverty allows him to show the intellectual history of this era in a new and revealing light.

Susannah Ottaway

Carleton College
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Author:Ottaway, Susannah
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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