[OPE-L] A Dutch economic historian reminisces about her Marxian study of public finance

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Tue Sep 04 2007 - 15:58:53 EDT

(I have translated here some comments by Dutch economic historian Wantje Fritschy of the Free University of Amsterdam):

"My interest originated in a time you will remember, our student years. Just like many of our contemporaries at the end of the 1960s, I studied in those years the work of Karl Marx. I thought then that I should immerse myself in the role of the state in capitalism. I had begun in 1967 with Egyptology and art history, but under the influence of the student movement of 1968-1969 I thought I had to do something "socially relevant" as it was called then. I considered Egyptology and art history very interesting, but it seemed to me that those studies did not qualify for social relevance, and I began to study history. I then encountered economics for the first time, a discipline I never had as high school girl, and I immediately chose economic and social history. It seemed the most socially relevant subject within history, and a good basis to learn something about the role of the state in capitalism.

It seemed to me a rather difficult subject. Therefore I decided to focus on the small Dutch state, which was actually only established in 1813. I decided to start with the first capitalist enterprise which depended for its success on state intervention, namely the railways construction. That became my first confrontation with the history of state finances. A version of that thesis was, despite the Marxist perspective, accepted as an article in the (hardly revolutionary) journal "Economic and Social-Historical Yearbook". Honestly speaking, I have to say that, by that time, my fascination with history had gained the upper hand over social relevance. 

When I had to think about a topic for my thesis, I went back to the end of the 18th century. People at that time thought that revolutionary changes were needed in the Netherlands, not just politically but also socio-economically, and I thought that was interesting. I then began to ask myself what changes the Batavian revolutionaries wanted to bring about in financial policy to realise their goals, and what possibilities there were for such a policy. The margins for revolutionary changes turned out to be small, given the limits imposed by state finance. In the 18th century, people thought that finance was the "nerve centre" of the state. That seemed a correct insight to me. I noticed just how much insight into state finances contributes to insight into the functioning of the state, and in processes of state formation.

People often think: taxation and all that, what a boring topic. People are turned off by figures. But I thought it a challenge to make an exciting story out of apparently unattractive archival material. In my opinion that was possible, and I still think my thesis became an exciting book. (...) I met Marjolein 't Hart who had the same interest. She studied an earlier period, the 16th century, with Prof. Blockmans in Leyden and she already had many international contacts. She collaborated in a big European project on the history of state finances. This led to the publication of among others "Economic systems and state finance". Later I became acquainted with the international group around Bonney (...) [and] Peter Matthias and Patrick O'Brien." 



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