The Return of Political Economy


Charles S. Maier in Eurozine:

“The return of political economy to history” – this was the title of the Berlin Colloquium a few months ago. But had political economy ever really disappeared? Perhaps, relative to other specializations, it had claimed less attention from historians in recent decades; but of course it was hardly less relevant to developments in the world that historians were supposed to study. Why had it apparently ceased to serve as a methodology or approach? This little essay will try to suggest an answer. A related problem has bothered economists, who have taken note of the supposed disappearance of economic history and the history of economic thought as central concerns of their profession. The search for a remedy prompted a Cambridge, Massachusetts discussion two months after the Berlin meeting, as the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) summoned economists and economic historians to reflect on how economic history might claim a larger role in both economics and history departments.

The premise of both gatherings, in which this author participated – and no doubt of others as well, at which he was not present – was the same. Important approaches to analyzing society and economy, past and present, had fallen into disuse, even as they promised important and even necessary insight. From the viewpoint of the economists, “mainstream” analysis – the axiomatic “macro” and “micro” theory that culminated in general equilibrium theory expressed in partial differential equations – was thriving. From the viewpoint of the historians, social history, cultural history, the history of international and civil conflict, had claimed the efforts of young researchers, intellectuals, and the public in general for more than a decade. But somehow economic history, the history of economic thought and the history of political economy, had been eclipsed. But now, so the participants in both gatherings concluded, political economy was back or deserved to be back.