The Coming of Capitalism

From Calvin to Rousseau

by Herbert Lüthy, translated by Salvator Attanasio
Basic Books, 308 pp., $7.95

The essays in this volume, Professor Lüthy tells us in his Preface, are all concerned with “the social order, the government of men and the paths of subversion.” They are not, he admits, arranged in any logical order and originally

…were merely scattered reflections, with back trackings, repetitions and apparent contradictions, inscribed in the margin of fifteen years of investigation of a wholly different order, through yellowed balance sheets and notaries’ jottings, in the rudely shaken human setting of French Calvinism.

(In other words the ideas, and much of the text itself, come from Professor Lüthy’s La Banque Protestante en France, published in two volumes and 1,312 pages between 1959 and 1961.) In retrospect, however, Professor Lüthy has discovered that all his reflections are variations on a theme which he describes in the Preface as “the constant placing into question of any hierarchical order in the name of an affirmation of equality that was initially a theological postulate.”

It would not be possible without a great deal of labor to discover how far the difficulty of following these and many other sentences is the fault of the translator, Salvator Attanasio, but often (and probably much more often than the present reviewer has had the patience to detect) it plainly is so. A phrase, for example, which literally translated runs: “If the peasant mass imprisoned in its customs and the tangled servitudes of its status….” emerges in Salvator Attanasio’s translation: “If the peasant mass imprisoned its customs in the tangled servitudes of its status….” “Analyse d’ensemble” is translated “concerted analysis” instead of “comprehensive analysis.” “Agricultural rent” appears as “ground rent” and “regalian rights” as “right of domain.” Worst of all certain important terms, and particularly one of Professor Lüthy’s key terms, “les parties prenantes,” are not translated at all, but left in French without explanation. Yet it would have been easy to put in a note to explain that the “prenantes” in medieval terminology were the recipients of the rents and dues of a fief, and that they constituted the class of persons whom Quesnay (in Professor Lüthy’s view the best interpreter of eighteenth-century French society) described as “useful to the State only through their consumption. Their revenues exempt them from labor; they produce nothing.” If this had been done it would at least have been possible to gain some idea of what Professor Lüthy had in mind.

After every allowance, however, has been made for the defects of the translation, and for the careless production of the book in general (in the Preface, for example, which is unsigned and undated, reference is made to Chapter XI although the book ends with Chapter X), Professor Lüthy himself cannot be absolved from the charges of carelessness and obscurity. His writing, nevertheless, is greatly to be preferred to that of many people who are more pernickety in these matters, for what he has to say can be remarkably illuminating.

He is a writer of wide knowledge and an unusual degree…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.