Taking the State Back Out: Rethinking Alexander Gerschenkron
Alexander Gerschenkron is one of the most celebrated economic historians ever to set foot in the American academy. Gerschenkron, Austrian-trained and Russian-born, found favor not only among economists but also among students of sociology and political science, who admired his theories on relative “backwardness” and his often time infamous rhetoric and fiery speeches. In particular, those interested in the so-called latecomers to development, such as Latin American and East Asian scholars have taken up Gerschenkron as a model to follow. As Paul Gootenberg has argued, late developers should follow the Gerscenkonian model of state-driven industrialization, because of Gerschenkron’s “broad affinities…with [the] statist model of industrialization” (Gootenberg 2001: 31). But Gootenberg and others in the field share a distorted view of the “Gerschenkron model”, particularly with regard to Gerschenkron’s assumptions of or affinities for, the state. As I argue here, Gerschenkron was not enamored with the state or necessarily state-driven industrialization at all. Scholars who claim such have given only a cursory reading to Gerschenkron’s essays on economic development. In this essay I hope to highlight and correct this misreading as well as suggest a more fruitful research agenda for engaging Gerschenkron in the contemporary debate.
Gerschenkron: A (Very) Short Review
Gerschenkron spent most of his career examining the differences between the
early industrializers of Western Europe in contrast to the late industrializers of Eastern Europe and
Gerschenkron’s approach highlighted what he saw as a weakness in the mainstream development literature of the day. Both Marxist-laden dependency theory, and W.W. Rostow’s modernization theory were linear approaches that did not take serious enough the domestic intricacies of industrialization. “The only difficulty in [stage theory] is that these beautiful exercises in logic have been defeated by history,” Gerschenkron alleged (Gerschenkron 1970: 101). Marxist approaches were limited in their attempts to explain development because Marxists blamed all of the problems of the backward countries on the advanced when in many ways backward countries developed quite distinctly from advanced ones (Gerschenkron 1962: 6). Rostow and the modernizationists, despite an avowed “non-communist manifesto,” relied too much on the “one path for all” theory. Given Gerschenkron’s historical examples that industrialization occurred in any number of ways, he rejected the notion that certain “prerequisites” were required for development (Gerschenkron 1962: 33).
The State, Misconceptions and Gerschenkron
In short, Gerschenkron used a historical perspective to explain the varieties of industrialization processes that occurred among the early industrializers and the late industrializers. Yet, Gerschenkron’s admirers have focused overwhelmingly on only one aspect of his research: the role of the state with respect to late industrializers. Peter Gourevitch suggested that for both early industrializers and late industrializers Gerschenkron emphasized that state strength and central organization matter fundamentally to economic development (Gourevitch 1978: 885). Ronald Rogowski in his studies on political cleavages highlights Gerschenkron’s seminal contribution to his work on the role of the state among the latecomers to industrialization (Rogowski 1987: 1130). And Paul Gootenberg’s analysis of Gerschenkron’s hijos (or progeny) in Latin America all place emphasis on his supposed ideas of state-building and industrialization as potentially helpful for latecomers in that region of the world (Gootenberg 2001: 36).
Unfortunately, scholars created only a caricature of Gerschenkron to satisfy their own academic devices. The caricature was in no way malicious — in fact I will demonstrate why scholars might understand Gerschenkron in such a way — but it is certainly misleading. First, it is easy to understand why some of these scholars might be attracted to what they consider as Gerschenkron’s state-centered position. Gourevitch’s second-image reversed school argued that domestic politics were vital to understanding the international system. Rogowski’s interests in domestic political cleavages might find Gerschenkron’s analysis on statist industrialization helpful. Gootenberg’s interest in Latin American development — or in some cases underdevelopment — could find potential solace in the idea that states have the ability to break away from the pitfalls of the international economic order.
Second, Gerschenkron suffers from what might be called academic “cherry picking” — highlighting some aspects of his research while minimizing of downplaying other, equally as crucial, aspects. Gerschenkron indeed argued that states mattered in the late “late” industrialization. His most famous case of this was
One aspect that puts into question Gerschenkron’s supposed statist framework is his view that state industrialization proceeded with great human costs. Peter the Great’s industrial projects continued despite the loss of substantial human lives (Gerschenkron 1970: 76). Industrial
Two, Gerschenkron’s own research detailed that not all late, or late “late”, industrializers followed
A third and final point casts some doubt on a “state-centered” Gerschenkron model that can be used to examine development in
Gerschenkron and a New Research Agenda
Thus far I have argued that scholars have overwhelming focused on Gerschenkron’s use of the state, often times misreading his views on it and ignoring other aspects of his literature. I propose instead to engage Gerschenkron’s work in two different respects: first, his notions of entrepreneurial spirit and trust, and secondly, his ideas on the role of ideology with regard to development. Doing so will provide a more fruitful research agenda to explore those states and regions still struggling with development and industrialization.
Entrepreneurial spirit and trust are two common themes that creep into Gerschenkron’s work. In his analysis of
The role of ideology is also overlooked among scholars utilizing Gerschenkron. In the introduction to “Economic Backwardness…” he considered ‘ideology’ crucial in separating the advanced countries from the backward ones. Ideology is used in a very general sense for Gerschenkron and he never clarified exactly what ideology was, whether that is a general mood or spirit (Gerschenkron 1962: 7). But what one can gather is that industrialization was not just a top-down process, but required the incorporation of an “industrial ideology” espoused by both the government and its citizens. Industrialism only was possible when the “mountains of routine and prejudice,” were removed, and despair was replaced by hope (Gerschenkron 1962: 24).
Why might engaging Gerschenkron’s notions of entrepreneurial spirit and ideology be helpful in studying the development possibilities of Latin America, Africa,
This essay hoped to dispel some commonplace views held by scholars on the
work of Alexander Gerschenkron, in particular his supposed views on state-driven industrialization among the backward countries. While he acknowledges that state-led industrialization mattered in the cases of
 As he noted: “Except for a brief allusion, the question as to what extent European historical experience can be used for elucidating the current problems of underdeveloped countries must…remain outside the scope of this paper” (Gerschenkron 1962: 52).
 Gerschenkron’s essay “Attitudes, Entrepreneurship and Development” provides an insight into what a research agenda such as this might look like. In the early 1950s, scholars like Joseph Schumpeter supervised entire institutes dedicated to determining the importance of the entrepreneur in economic development. But eventually this type of research lost favor among academics and has not received any serious attention in fifty years.