Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Charles Bettelheim and the Genesis of a "Planning Doctor"

Allisson François, University of Lausanne

In the 1950s and 1960s, Charles Bettelheim (1913-2006) was the French economist who whispered Soviet planning into the ears of Nasser in Egypt, Nehru in India and Che Guevara in Cuba, to mention just three examples. If this convinced Marxist was relatively isolated in the French academic world, he enjoyed a very important international reputation in the developing countries that had not chosen to turn towards Washington during the Cold War. His seminars at EHESS were also populated with students from these countries, and he was overwhelmed by requests for official missions, supervision of master and PhD dissertations from these countries. Rather than questioning his conversion to Maoism, this article explores the question of how he became one of the most influential « planning doctors » of the 20th century. By reconstructing Bettelheim’s formative period (1936-1950), this article attempts to answer this question. Thus, we attempt the difficult task of complementing the pioneering work of Denord and Zunigo (2005), on the period of Bettelheim’s life where he left the least traces, including in the archives. We do so by focusing on three distinct moments. First, in the 1930s, when Bettelheim approached Soviet planning theoretically, with his doctoral thesis on the Soviet economy under the direction of Gaëtan Pirou in Paris, and practically, with his first visit to Moscow, which was full of teachings. Second, during the Second World War, as a period that is complicated with his dismissal from the French university under the Vichy regime. This period is also the occasion for him to study closely the Nazi economy, on behalf of a Trotskyist group. Thirdly, in the immediate post-war period, he worked at the Ministry of Labor, was in charge of a mission for the French delegation to the International Labor Organization, taught at the National School of Administration (ENA), and finally settled into an academic career with his appointment to the 6th section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1948. This was also the period of his involvement in the « Revue internationale » with his friends of the time, Pierre Naville, Pierre Bessaignet, and Gilles Martinet. A journal of a plural left which will tear itself apart. It was the occasion for Bettelheim to position himself and to find his way. Reference: Denord, François and Xavier Zunigo (2005), « `Révolutionnairement vôtre´. Économie marxiste, militantisme intellectuel et expertise politique chez Charles Bettelheim », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 2005/3(158): 8-29.


Keywords: Charles Bettelheim, planning doctor, Soviet economy, Nazi economy, WWII