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Pierre Leroux, "Individualism and Socialism" (part 1)

Now available thanks to Shawn P. Wilbur at Out of the Libertarian Labyrinth:


By Pierre Leroux

(1834.—After the massacres on the Rue Transnonain.)

At times, even the most resolute hearts, those most firmly fixed on the sacred belief of progress, come to lose courage and to feel full of disgust at the present. In the 16th century, when one murdered in our civil wars, it was in the name of God and with a crucifix in the hand; it was a question of the most sacred things, of things which, when once they have procured our conviction and our faith so legitimately dominate our nature that it has nothing to do but obey, and even its most beautiful appanage disappears thus voluntarily before the divine will. In the name of what principle does one today send off, by telegraph, pitiless orders, and transform proletarian soldiers into the executioners of their own class? Why has our epoch seen cruelties which recall St. Bartholemew? Why have men been fanaticized to the point of making them coldly slaughter the elderly, women, and children? Why has the Seine rolled with murders which recalls the arquebuscades of window of the Louvre? It is not in the name of God and eternal salvation that it is done. It is in the name of material interests.

Our century is, it seems, quite vile, and we have degenerated even from the crimes of our fathers. To kill in the manner of Charles IX or Torquemada, in the name of faith, in the name of the Church, because one believes that God desires it, because one has a fanatic spirit, exalted by the fear of hell and the hope of paradise, this is still to have in one's crime some grandeur and some generosity. But to be afraid, and by dint of cowardice, to become cruel; to be full of solicitude for material goods that after all death will carry away from you, and to become ferocious from avarice; to have no belief in eternal things, no certainty of the difference between the just and the unjust, and, in absolute doubt, to cling to one's lucre with an intensity rivaling the most heated fanaticism, and to gain from these petty sentiments energy sufficient to equal in a day the bloodiest days of our religious wars, this is what we have seen and what was never seen before.

What indeed is the principle conquerors of the day have put forward? In the name of what idea have they declared in advance that they would bequeath to posterity the example of a decimated generation? And what is the drive that they have made play to gain that victory? It is neither an idea nor a principle. Everyone knows it. It is not a secret for anyone that the great words order and justice today only conceal the interests of the shops. Business is bad, and it is the innovators, it is said, that stand in its way: war then against the innovators. The workers of Lyon associate in order in order to maintain the rate of their salary: war, then, and war to the death, against the works of Lyon. Always, at the bottom of all of this, are the interests of the shops. In the days of mourning, so often renewed these past three years, the people have been told: here is a holy, just, legitimate idea, by virtue of which you can kill men. It is not so. But on the eve of each riot one cries to the people: Tomorrow your profit will be diminished, your daily receipts will be less, your material satisfaction will be compromised And that has been enough, and we have seen the shopkeepers in hunting gear, armed with double-barreled rifles, to aim more accurately and to kill two instead of one, go merrily to hunt among the blocks. Is there in such a spectacle something to trouble our convictions, and to make us doubt progress; and, since we are condemned to civil war, must we long for civil war as our ancestors knew it, atrocious but religious, deliberately bathing itself in blood, but with eyes lifted towards heaven? In that fury which, according to Bonald, often sent the innocent and the guilty, pell-mell, before their eternal judge, because it deliberately sacrificed the earth to heaven, we must regret the presence of the monster egoism, which has nothing of God, which, like the harpies, has only the hunger of its belly!

In past times, there was the nobility, and there was the clergy: the nobility had a maxim not to occupy itself with lucre; the clergy condemned usury, and regarded as inferior the condition of merchants. There were certainly men then who knew no other morality than their own selfish interests, and no other reason for things than their calculating tables; but they had not set the tone and did not lay down the law for society; they were not the arbiters and legislators. If they wished to rise that far, and to apply their narrow rules to things in general, they were ridiculous, and the poets availed themselves gladly of the comedy and satire, where they came immediately below the lackeys. Today these men enjoy the leading role; the very same society has no other law, no other basis nor end, than the satisfaction of their affairs. Humanity has not lived and suffered to bring about the reign of the merchants. Jesus Christ once chased the merchants from the temple: there are today no other temples than those of the merchants. The palace of the Bourse has replaced Notre Dame; and we know no other blazon than the double-entry cash-books. One passes from a boutique to the Chamber of Deputies, and one carries in public affairs the spirit of the sales counter. Our ancestors made crusades: we, we wisely calculate that that cost the bourgeois the conquest of Algiers, and we will gladly abandon to the English the civilization of Africa, if it gets a little expensive. The zeal of St. Vincent de Paul appears stupid to the general councils: is it not a revolting iniquity to charge the rich for the upkeep of the children that the poor abandon! Since money is everything, and the order of the bourgeois has replaced nobles and priests, is it astonishing that the blood of one bourgeois does not appear to us overpaid by the blood of a thousand proletarians, and is it not completely natural put the interests of the shops on a level with the blood of men? I kill, says the merchant, because I have been disturbed in my affairs: it is a compensation that is due to me for the loss that I feel. By this account, Shylock was right to want to carve human flesh: had it not been purchased?

Seen in this way, our century could not be more base. Material interests, there is the great watchword of society; and many innovators have themselves ignominiously eliminated from their mottoes the moral and intellectual amelioration of the people, in order to preserve only their material betterment.

Is it the case that we will sink more and more in this way, and that the shame may be reserved for France that, having proclaimed to the world the brotherhood of man, it transforms itself into what Napoleon has called with scorn a nation of shopkeepers, supported in their avaricious domination by the facile courage of an army of stipendiaries?

We know of noble hearts, of high intelligences, which fear it. We fall back, they cry, into Roman corruption and into the moral of the barbarians: of what use to us are eighteen hundred years of Christianity, and the conquests of science and industry?

It is to these generous, but discouraged, hearts, that I intend to respond, in occupying myself with political economy, that is, with the material aspect of society. I will attempt first, today, to expose for them the sense of that greediness which shows itself, it is true, among all the classes, but which, among men of power, struts about so hideously, sheltered by the bayonets of our soldiers; and in the subsequent articles, I will attempt to demonstrate that if the social question presents itself in our time primarily as a question of material wealth, it is because the human sciences are very close to finding the solution.


We say, then, that that exclusive preoccupation with material things which reigns today, that species of domination by egoism and the material, is nothing which must surprise or discourage us. In all periods of renewal, the renovation of material things has been one of the forms of progress. Every great human evolution is at once material, moral, and intellectual, and cannot not have these three aspects. To imagine that Christianity, for example, or any other great religious revolution, has related solely in its principles what is called heaven and not to the things of the earth, to morals or ideas, and not to interests, would be an absurd illusion, conceivable only by those who know the foundation of Christianity only by the sermons of their priest, but impossible for whoever has glanced at history. Christianity has been able to say: "My kingdom is not of this world; but by doing so it has powerfully altered the material constitution of that world, out of which it would direct the contemplation of men, towards a mysterious future. In the presence of pagan society, founded on individualism and slavery, Christianity posed the Essene way of life and the community of good; and from that new form given to material life resulted the dissolution of pagan society, the overthrow of the Roman world, and, as a result, the uselessness of slavery and its abolition. In the Protestant era, wasn't something analogous seen? Didn't we then see Christianity, attempting to regenerate itself, struggle for earthly goods against the Church, holder of those goods? Material interests played a huge role in the Reformation. The Reformation began in the 14th century with a violent and general struggle in Europe against the religious orders. It was the religious orders, that society in community without women and children, which, consequently, was only an exception and allowed to subsist outside of it the great, the true society, had however amassed such an enormous portion of the property, that the other society could no longer live; it was necessary then to recapture from it the land and all the instruments of labor that it had monopolized. Thus in the greatest and most exalted epochs, one finds again the question of material life.

But today it is evident that that which was only a secondary characteristic of previous revolutions must become a principle characteristic. Indeed, what do we want and where do we tend, on the faith of all the prophecies? The one who truly follows Jesus Christ with an intelligent heart, and not as a copyist without intelligence, does not say so absolutely that the kingdom of God is not on earth.(1) He understands that the epoch of realization approaches more and more. The stoicism of Zeno and the Christian stoicism are with reason relegated to their place in history. These two doctrines, or rather that doctrine, is today without social value. That was the debut of an immense career that Humanity has had to follow up to us. But where we have arrived today, heaven and earth begin to be without connection and without relation; and, instead of returning us toward the point of departure, towards the detachment and the retreat into ourselves of Jesus Christ and of Zeno, we must, by the efforts of our thought and the energy of our soul, transform the earth in such a way that the justice of heaven reigns there, in order one day to find that heaven so promised to our wishes.

The idea has been elaborated and preached by Christianity to all men, of a better world than the one which existed, of a world of equality and fraternity, of a world without despots and without slaves. Christianity has raised up humanity by hope; it has mystically announced its destiny; it has connected to the memories of its cradle, to its primitive and natural liberty, to its traditions of a past golden age, of Eden and of the native parade, the firm and assured sentiment of a golden age to come, of a paradise on earth, where the good will reign after the defeat of evil, and where man, redeemed by the divine word, will again find happiness, and enjoy an unalterable felicity. And, at that prophecy, one sees human society divide itself in two: the religious society, indifferent to the present enjoyments of the earth, or only using them in order to practice complete equality, community, individual non-property, as symbol of what will one day be the justice of heaven; and the secular society, which continua, under the teachings of the other and under its spiritual government, human life such as one had known it previously. Now, by Protestantism and by Philosophy, the religious society has been destroyed, and there is today only one society. The consequence, I repeat, isn't it clear and evident? Isn't it obvious that the principles of the world prophesied and awaited for so many centuries by the religious society must be realized more and more in the only society that exists today? Or else Humanity would have declined and degenerated, Christianity would have been an imposture and a chimera, and everything, in the eighteen hundred years which have passed, would only be comedy and deception. The earth, then, is promised to justice and equality.

Christianity, Reform, Philosophy, follow one another like the acts of a drama which approaches its dénouement. Those who consider history on in a casual manner, and page by page, must often find contradictory and incoherent that which is harmonic and continuous. Seeing the Reformation succeed Catholicism, and Philosophy succeed the Reformation, how many people are shocked, and see there only negation, discord and uncertainty! It is because they do not understand the series and the generation of things. So for them, there is death, there is nothingness, in these alternations and these contrasts, while for us, it is life. Their eyes offended by deep darkness, there where a dazzling light shines in ours. For what contradiction is there between the successive of a single drama, between the connected and coherent phases of a single evolution? It is only necessary to rise up enough to grasp and contemplate all at once the spirit of evolution in its entirety; and for anyone who is enlightened, that effort is not difficult. That alleged anarchy of Catholic Christianity, of the Reformation, and of Philosophy, succeeding and combating each other by turns, is not a very obscure enigma, the sense of which would be difficult to discover. We see Christianity first raise above the world its mystical paradise, like the seed which begins to form in the air, and which then waits until the winds spill it on the ground. The Reformation came after, which spread the promise to all of society, and, by laying waste to all pious retreats where the spiritual life had been concentrated, made only one single people, that it raises to spiritual dignity. Then in its turn comes Philosophy, which further extends this level, and which finally, explaining the prophecy, interprets the reign of God on earth as perfectibility. Christianity, Protestantism, and Philosophy, have thus driven towards the same end, and accomplished by various phases one single work. We are the last wave that the hand of God has pushed up to here on the shore of time: but the consequence of all the previous progress has not escaped us, and that obvious competition of three great phases which divided the centuries which preceded us is the token of all the progress to come.

Thus the earth, I repeat, is promised to justice and equality. Material goods are in themselves neither good nor bad. All the metaphysicians have come to see in matter and in body the limit of forces, the place where finite intelligences meet and are mutually revealed. Bodies and matter are the field of our faculties, the necessary means of their exercise, the milieu in which they are manifested. That there is in us, and in each of us, a force, created or uncreated, which animates us, constitutes us, and survives the destruction of what we call our body, is for me an obvious truth; but it is always the case that the force, either in this life, or in our previous or future lives, exerts itself only through the intermediary of bodies, precisely because it has limits and it is finite. The Christians, in the good days of Christianity, and even during the history of Christianity, have never understood the activity of the soul at the end of time without the resurrection of the body; and it has always been of the belief that man is, according to the expression of Bossuet, a soul and a body united together, an intelligence destined to live in a body. The Manicheans alone, exaggerating and distorting spiritualism, have entered into the error of regarding matter as absolute evil; and, by that same error, they fell inevitably under the empire of evil, in wanting to escape it.

Thus, whether we appeal to religious traditions and to the previous life of Humanity, or whether we consult only modern reason and the general agreement of the men of our era; far from condemning the use of material goods, we must see that none of our most noble faculties can be exercised without the mediation of these goods.

From this is follows that, all having been called to the spiritual life and to the dignity of men by the words of the philosophers, all must soar, and that legitimately, towards the conquest of material goods.

It is his dignity, it is his capacity as a man, it is his liberty, it is his independence, that the proletarian demands, when he aspires to possess material goods; for he knows that without these goods he is only an inferior, and that engaged, as he is, in the labors of the body, he partakes more of the condition of the domestic animals than that of man.

It is the same sentiment which pushes those who these goods to preserve them. Of course, we are not the apologists of the wealthy classes, we are with the people, and we will always be for the poor against the privileges of the wealthy; but we know that, whatever the softness and the egoism which reign in these classes, men absolutely corrupted and bad are the exception. In the present struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, that is of those who do not possess the instruments of labor against those who possess them, the bourgeoisie represents even, at first glance, more obviously than the proletarians, the sentiment of individuality and liberty. The wealthy possess that liberty, and they defend it, while the proletarians are so unhappy and so deprived of it, that a tyrant who promised to free them by enriching them could perhaps, in their ignorance, make of them for some time his slaves.

We find then good and legitimate that tendency of those who possess liberty and individuality to preserve it; but couldn't they find equally just and legitimate the demands of those who do not possess them, and want to?

There is, we say, the sense and the justification of that struggle for material goods, which seems, at first glance, the dominant character of our era, and which would dishonor it if one did not consider what it reveals, and if one had not studied the religious necessity scope of it. That demand for material goods is not at all immoral: very far from that, it is the result and the consequence of all the previous progress of Humanity.

Certainly, the philosophers who only hold as good, in human nature, the side of devotion, must find our era deplorable in all regards. For pure devotion, where will they find it? In their hearts, doubtless, and in the hearts of a certain number of generous men who take up the cause of the people. But society, viewed en masse, and in its truest aspect, did not meet their expectations. Devotion, as they sanctify it, they will find it neither in the wealthy classes nor among the poor, neither in the bourgeoisie nor among the proletarians. The first want to preserve, and the others to acquire: where is the devotion?

It is that pure devotion, however noble it may be, is only an individual passion, or, if you wish, a particular virtue of human nature, but is not human nature in its entirety. A man who, in all his life, will be posed from the standpoint of devotion, would be an insane being; and a society of men for whom the single rule would be devotion, and who would regard as bad every individual act, would be an absurd society. Thus, every theory which would found itself on devotion as on the most general formula of society, and who would deduce then from that expression some laws and institutions that is would have a hope of applying with force to society, would be false and dangerous.

But, on the contrary, a general principle which represents and expresses complete human nature, is the principle of liberty and individuality.

Our fathers put on their flag: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Let their motto still be our own. They did not conclude from I know not what social system to the individual; they did not say: Society must inevitably be organized in such and such a manner, and we are going to chain the citizen to that organization. They said: Society owes satisfaction to the individuality of all, it is the means of liberty for all.

The sentiment of liberty, as the Eighteenth Century and the French Revolution have felt and promulgated them, is an immense progress over the devotion or devoutness of Christianity, and it would be a regression to desire today to despotically organize society according to the particular views that one may have, instead of founding it on the principles of individuality and liberty.

Proclaim the system that will best satisfy the individuality and liberty of all, and do not fear that the devotion of the people would be lacking for you; for such an aim will be felt by all, and it is the only one which could excite devotion today. But devotion for its own sake would be as absurd a theory as the art for art's sake of certain litterateurs.


(1) Jesus, in the Gospel, did not say, "My kingdom is not of this world; that was the bad translators who, by suppressing three words in one phrase of St. John, have made it say this. Jesus said literally, "My kingdom is not yet of these times." And as his kingdom, as it is explained in the same passage, is the reign of justice and truth, and as it adds that this kingdom will come on the earth, it follows that, very far from have prophesied that the principles of equality will never be realized on earth, Jesus on the contrary prophesied their realization, their reign, their arrival.

[continued in next post...]

Note: Thanks to buermann for the proofreading assist.

Read the whole thing at Out of the Libertarian Labyrinth.


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