Obituary - Suzanne de Brunhoff

Suzanne de Brunhoff was that rare Marxian economist: never dogmatic, always innovative. What Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the Anticritique well captures her attitude: ‘Marxism is a revolutionary world outlook which must always strive for new discoveries, which more than anything else dislikes formulations valid once and forever, and whose living force is best preserved in the clash of self-criticism and in the lights and thunders of history.’ Like Luxemburg, de Brunhoff was both a theoretician and a fighter against exploitation and oppression. She maintained the key pillars of the critique of political economy: the labour theory of value; the centrality of class struggle; the unrelenting criticism of capitalism. At the same time she challenged the limits of the Marxist legacy, and maintained a fruitful dialogue with the Keynesian and Sraffian traditions. Her main contributions have been on money, the State, international monetary relations, Europe’s ‘single currency’, and financial liberalisation.

Her first book, Capitalisme Financier Public (1965), is dedicated to the economic role of the State in France from 1948 to 1958. Her international standing came with La Monnaie chez Marx (1967), translated into English as Marx on Money. The monetary aspects of Capital were neglected, with few exceptions, before her work. For de Brunhoff, adopting Schumpeter’s categories, Marx’s was a ‘monetary analysis’ embedded into a ‘monetary theory of credit’: money, non-neutral and endogenous, has not to be identified either with credit or capital. The ‘universal equivalent’ marks a market-based monetary constraint because of the uncertain eventual social validation: though money does not suffice to explain capitalist exploitation, it is crucial to understand the objectivity of capitalist crisis. Published after L’Offre de Monnaie (1971) and La Politique Monetaire with Paul Bruini (1973), her second masterpiece is État et Capital (1976), translated into English as The State, Capital and Economic Policy. Taking stock of the 1971 collapse of the Bretton Woods system and of the great structural crisis of 1974, she integrates historical and logical arguments, with a decisive advance of the analysis. The State is a non-capitalist (external and immanent) institution necessary to manage the reproduction of the two ‘special’ commodities, labour-power and money as universal equivalent. ‘Economic policy’ emerges after the 1930s, when currencies became irredeemable at the national level. Fiscal, monetary, and social policies must assure the ‘connection’ between money and labour power; the Central Bank transforms the banking ante-validation of realisation into a pseudo-social validation, possibly opening an ‘inflationary gap’. The 1971 disconnection of dollar from gold and floating exchange rates opened the way to a fragmented international monetary system, and made accelerated inflation the new form of the crisis of overproduction. In that book she carried on a dialogue with the most interesting expression of Italian operaismo, the journal Primo Maggio, which interpreted economic and monetary policy after 1971 as a direct class confrontation opposing the State as ‘collective capitalist’ to ‘socialised labour’.

In the 1970s she fostered connections among a younger generation of French Marxists. In 1973 she promoted the founding of ACSES (Association pour la Critique des Sciences Economiques et Sociales), and with Michel Beaud et Claude Servolin published an article in Le Monde dedicated to la ‘crise de la science économique’, interpreted as a political crisis of the economists. In Les rapports d'argent (1979) she criticised some of the most brilliant economists of the younger generation (Aglietta, Benetti and Cartelier) because they dismissed Marx’s theory of money and value and substituted ‘power as domination’ for class exploitation and surplus value. She was critical of the re-emerging ‘equilibrium’ approach (Neoclassicism and Monetarism: see her book L'heure du marché, critique of liberalism, 1986): likewise she was unconvinced by a ‘political economy of the commodity without money’ (Neoricardianism) or a ‘political economy of money without value’ (most monetary heterodoxies). After the 1980s she showed how the international economic arena was made unstable by the clash between great currencies. In the 1990s she attacked the Euro ‘single currency’ project: de Brunhoff favoured instead a ‘common currency’ (a reference to Keynes’s bancor, adapted to Europe). She advocated the Tobin tax as a step towards capital controls: these are the years of her participation in ATTAC (Association pour la taxation des transactions financières et pour l'aide aux citoyens).

Suzanne de Brunhoff was born Simone Blum on the 16th of June, 1929, in Strasbourg, the daughter of Léon Blum, an Alsatian Jew, and Thérèse Lion, from Caen, whose mother had created in Normandy the comité de soutien for Alfred Dreyfus. Her father died in 1930: he was a famous physician, who introduced insulin therapy in France; her mother, progressive and feminist, was among the first female lawyers. The family lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine: in 1940 they crossed the ‘demarcation line’ just before the German invasion, moving to the free zone (Grenoble), and then hiding in Annecy when Nazis occupied all of France. To avoid deportation the family surname had to be changed to Baulieu, and she adopted the name Suzanne. After the war she moved to Paris, where in 1950 she married Mathieu de Brunhoff (the pediatrician, son of Jean de Brunhoff, creator of the children’s character Babar).

The early experience of Nazism and of racism, as well as French colonialism in Indochina and Algeria, made her a tenacious defendant of equality in political and social rights. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. She was unfairly excluded from the winners of the agrégation — a competitive examination for public education preliminary to an academic career — despite the support of Georges Canguilhem, the famous philosopher of science, who defended her, appreciating what he called her ‘masculine intelligence’. She then obtained a doctorat de 3° cycle in Sociology and a doctorat d’Etat in Economics. Her early forays in political economy were influenced by the historians Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, as well as by the philosophers Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. In 1960 she became researcher in economic theory at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), and later Director (thanks to the letters of Maurice Allais and Piero Sraffa). She taught at the University of Paris VII, was supervisor of 3° cycle dissertations at Paris X, and lectured at Columbia, the New School and UNAM in Mexico City. A member of the French Communist Party, she began to distance herself because of its ambiguous position on the Algerian War, and was part of the Réseau Curiel actively helping the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Her last years were plagued by Alzheimer’s disease. Suzanne de Brunhoff died peacefully on the 12th of March 2015. She leaves two daughters, Marianne and Agnès, as well as four grandchildren: Elsa, Adélaide, Ulysse (of Marianne) and Nathanael (of Agnès).

Riccardo Bellofiore
Università Degli Studi di Bergamo

From issue no. 172, January 2016, pp.21-22

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