How should the influential and controversial figure of Adam Smith be seen? Smith is, arguably, the most famous of Scottish thinkers. He is frequently dismissed by the left as an apologist of the free market and all its woes. But this is a serious misunderstanding argues Richard Gunn.

In his Understanding Power, published in 2003, Noam Chomsky comments on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.1 In his On Anarchism of 2013, an equivalent passage appears.2 I quote part of the On Anarchism version:

“Well, that’s real scholarship: suppress the facts totally, present them as the opposite of what they are, and figure, “probably nobody’s going to read
anyhow, because I didn’t.” I mean, ask the guys who edited it if they ever read to page 473 – answer: well, they probably read the first paragraph, then sort of remembered what they’d been taught in some college course.” 3

Here, I do not take issue with specific editions of the Wealth of Nations. And I put it on record that Adam Smith scholars whom I have encountered have unfailingly been scrupulous where textual matters are concerned. However, I report that undergraduate students – I have in mind Bush-era students from the U.S.A. – proceed (or have proceeded) as though “real scholarship” as sarcastically described by Chomsky is their aim.

In part, the fault in such hasty readings lies with Smith himself. The first three chapters of the Wealth of Nations emphasise that the division of labour is vital to the increase in productivity that ‘commercial society’ 4 has seen. It is several hundred pages later that Smith delivers the damning verdict that he passes when the division of labour is seen not in narrowly economic but broadly social terms:

“He [the worker in commercial society where a social division of labour prevails] naturally loses…the habit of…exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging…” 5

The scenario which Smith has in mind, and fears, is one where a worker whose labour is subdivided finds that the blinkers which are inseparable to such a division are moulded to his or her eyes or head. Such a worker cannot change the angle of his or her vision; he or she cannot shift from issues that are particular to the task performed to questions of a universal or, at least, more far reaching kind. Conversation involves a shift to universal or, at least, more far reaching perspectives and this becomes problematic where a detail worker is concerned. In the opening chapter of the Wealth of Nations, Smith persuades himself that ‘a great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided , were originally the inventions of common workmen,’6 but the passage just cited on increasing stupeifaction casts doubt on whether growing enlightenment is the division of labour’s most likely result. Later in Smith’s argument, a reader learns that education which is needed to keep commercial society on course. The enthusiasm for the division of labour which prevails in the opening chapters and the darker tones of his later discussion pull in opposed directions. The point may be stated using Chomsky’s terms.

If a reader bases his understanding of the Wealth of Nations solely on chapters I-III, a reader – whether a Smith scholar or a student of the Bush era – forms a misleading (and misleadingly roseate) impression of Smith’s views. If a reader bases his or her understanding on the Wealth of Nation’s opening chapters, a distorted impression of Smith (a distortedly roseate impression) results. If the first chapter lauds the inventiveness of the ‘common workmen’ whose labour is subdivided, Smith later on concedes that education partially ‘paid by the publick’ is needful to keep commercial society on its rails. The positive view of the division of labour which prevails in the Wealth of Nations’ opening chapters and the passage (already quoted) on stupidity and ignorance pull in directions that are opposed.

This point can, I suggest, be generalised. In my comments, I have focused on the issue of the division of labour. For a reader of the Wealth of Nations, this issue is all important. We should be clear, however, that the division of labour is only one topic amongst others where, on a reading of Smith as a proto-neoliberal author, discordancies exist. To take just one example: ‘merchants and manufacturers’ are presented in the Wealth of Nations in far from flattering terms. Writing on Smith, John Dwyer goes so far as to say that merchants and manufacturers ‘were…the target of most of Smith’s criticisms in his great economic work’.7 Their difficulty is that merchants and manufacturers press for a social monopoly8 and a high rate of profit (which they see as being in their interest) does not coincide with the good of society as a whole.9 Here, I mention Smith’s portrayal of merchants and manufacturers only in passing. It jars with the right wing interpretation of Smith as a free market liberal for whom entrepreneurship has a heroic ring.10

My defence of Noam Chomsky’s observations on Smith in 2003 and 2013 have bearing on how Smith’s writings should be read. Too frequently in, at any rate, Anglophone discussion, left wing radicals take it for granted that Smith upheld what would, later, be neoliberal views.11 Perhaps it comes as a surprise to the present reader that Chomsky, who writes as an anarchist, should provide pointers towards Smith’s arguments. Whether this counts as surpising, I propose that Chomsky is valuable in just this way. In the remainder of my paper, I find a similar value in comments which Prince Pyotr Kropotkin’s writings contain.

In his Modern Science and Anarchism, a short work published in 1923, Kropotkin refers to what he terms Adam Smith’s ‘best work’. This work, which Kropotkin refers to as The Origin of Moral Feeling,

found that the moral sentiment of man derives its origin from a feeling of pity and sympathy which we feel toward those who suffer: that it springs from our capacity of identifying ourselves with others; so much so that we almost feel physical pain when we see a child beaten in our presence, and our nature revolts at such behaviour.12

I quote Kropotkin not because I regard him as an infallible historian of ideas. To touch on the obvious point first, Kropotkin in the passage quoted gets the title of Smith’s ‘best work’ wrong. By The Origin of Moral Feeling, he means The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the first edition of which was published in 1759. The relation between the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations has come to be referred to as the ‘Adam Smith problem’ – to borrow Goçmen’s title.13 The ‘problem’ is that of how Smith’s chief works are related and, before leaving the title which Kropotkin foists on Smith, we may note that there is something felicitous in Kropotkin’s mistake. Although Smith did not write a book entitled The Origin of Moral Feeling, the Theory of Moral Sentiments addressed the question of the foundation or ‘origin’ on which ethical judgements rest. Smith’s contemporaries – for example, Henry Home (Lord Kames),14 Thomas Reid15 and Adam Ferguson16 – were quick to appreciate that Smith’s remarks on sympathy and pity in the Theory of Moral Sentiments address the question of the basis on which ethical evaluation rests. Although present-date commentators are less explicit in pointing to foundations as the Theory’s central topic, Kropotkin’s use of the term ‘origin’ keeps alive a tradition of reading that obtained in Smith’s day. If, indeed, Smith employed the title that Kropotkin foists upon him, it may be that present-day debates on Smith would have had a sharper focus than is currently the case.

Besides the issue of ‘foundations’ and ‘origin’ what else may be learned from Kropotkin’s brief passage on Smith? The circumstance that most dramatically confronts a reader of Modern Science and Anarchism is the remark that the Theory of Moral Sentiments – or, as Kropotkin calls it, the Origin of Moral Feeling – is Smith’s ‘best work’. Elsewhere, I have argued that Smith’s comments on pity and sympathy are, in effect, a discussion of human interaction:17 when Smith discusses sympathy or empathy, and when he argues that individuals see themselves ‘with the yes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them’, he is, in effect, anatomising a form of to-and-fro intersubjectivity that lies at the core of human society per se. Read in this way, the Theory of Moral Sentiments may or may not be Smith’s ‘best’ work. It is, however, immensely ambitious and it is central to Smith’s work.

In a moment, I shall relate the Theory of Moral Sentiments (thus interpreted) to the Wealth of Nations. I shall outline way in which the ‘Adam Smith problem’ may be solved. Before attempting this, I take a step closer to the detail of the Theory of Moral Sentiments’ discussion.

Let me proceed by quoting a further anarchist theorist. In her autobiographical Living My Life, Emma Goldman refers to Kropotkin as ‘the most outstanding exponent of anarchist communism’.18 Here, I do not attempt to fill out the term ‘communism’ but ask a seemingly tangential question. Do the categories of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments help us to clarify the sort of society that Kropotkin, as an anarchist, has in mind?

The answer to this question is, surprisingly, ‘Yes’. The Theory of Moral Sentiments pictures an interrelation between a Self and an Other – in effect, a conversation – where each subject places him or herself in the position which the other holds. Neither subject can know the other’s sensations directly but each may, through imagination, ‘place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station’.19 Smith pictures a conversation between such subjects as one which involves two distinct conversational or interactive roles. One role is that of ‘the spectator, whose sentiments…I endeavour to enter into’ and the other is ‘the agent, the person whom I properly call myself’.20 If the conversation or interaction is one where ‘all participants’ have an equal chance to perform different ‘speech acts’,21 then the situation is characterized by a maximal amount of liberty and where something approaching what Goldman terms ‘anarchist communism’ may appear. I do not, here, enter into the interpretative work which an account of Smith along these lines require. But I sketch ideas that indicate what may be a conceptual bridge between Smith’s ‘best work’ and anarchistic thought.

I return to the promised discussion of the ‘Adam Smith problem’. What relation might there be between the Theory of Moral Sentiments and issues that the Wealth of Nations explores? Connections appear, I suggest, if the stupidity and ignorance entailed by the division of labour22 are thought of as problems of compartmentialisation. It may be that Smith considers that in a commercial society, where a social division of labour is omnipresent, labourers are tied, day in and day out, to the tasks that they perform. It is because they are tied and restricted in this fashion that they cannot engage in ‘rational conversation’ where universal (or more universal) issues are at stake. If the Theory of Moral Sentiments attempts to identify a to-and-fro dynamic of conversational interaction that is essential to all society, ‘commercial’ society eats at the foundations of social life per se. If this is, indeed, the line of argument that Smith is pursuing in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations, it is absurd to see his work as a hymn of praise to market relations. The Wealth of Nations carries on from Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality of 1755, which Smith admired,23 and projects a critique of political economy (to employ Karl Marx’s phrase).


1) N. Chomsky Understanding Power (London: Vintage Books2003) pp. 390-1.
2) N. Chomsky On Anarchism (London: Penguin Books 2013) pp. 36-7.
3) On Anarchism p. 37.
4) A. Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [henceforth WN] p. 37.
5) WN p. 782.
6) WN p. 20.
7) J. Dwer The Age of Passions (East Linton: Tuckwell Press 1998) p. 43.
8) WN p. 84
9) WN p. 266
10) For a reading of Smith much closer to my own – and to Chomsky’s – than to neoliberalism’s, see N. Davidson, P. McCafferty and D. Miller Neoliberal Scotland (Newcastle uon Tyne: Cambridge Schoilars Publishing 2010) pp. 3-6.
11) A welcome exception to this generalisation is D. Goçmen’s The Adam Smith (London: I.B. Tauris 2007). Goçmen’s valuable study is cited in Davidson et al. Neoliberal Scotland at p. 5.
12) P. Kropotkin Modern Science and Anarchism, Second Edition, (London: Freedom Press 1923) p. 8.
13) Referred to in Davidson et al. Neoliberal Scotland p. 5, footnote 21.
14) H. Home [Lord Kames] Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (Indianapolis: Liberty Press 2005) p. 71.
15) See E.H. Duncan and R.M. Baird ‘Thomas Reid’s Criticisms of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments’ Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 28, No. 4 (1977).
16) A Ferguson ‘Of the Principle of Moral Estimation: David Hume, Robert Clerk, Adam Smith’ in his Selected Philosophical Writings (Aberdeen: Imprint Academic 2007) pp. 164-5.
17) See R. Gunn ‘From Smithian Sympathy to Hegelian Recognition’ in H. Hapuku, M. Aydin, Ismail ŞirinerF. Morady and Ū. Ҫetin, eds. Politik ﺃ Iktisat ve Adam Smith (Istanbul: Yon Yayinlari 2010) pp. 2-4. The paper, which was given at the International Conference on Political Economy: Smith at the University of Kocaeli in October 2009, is available at my website:
18) E. Goldman Living My Life (London: Penguin Books 2006) p. 111.
19) TMS pp. 109-110.
20) TMS p. 113.
21) I quote from T. McCarthy The Critical Theory of Jūrgen Habermas (Cambridge: Polity Press 1984) p. 306.
22) See the passage from WN quoted at note 5, above.
23) See A. Smith ‘Letter to the Edinburgh Review’ in Smith’s Essays on Philosophocal Subjects’ (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics) 1980 pp. 250-6.