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Pierre Leroux, "Individualism and Socialism" (part 2)

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


By Pierre Leroux

[continued from previous post...]


One can paint a portrait equally hideous and true of man in the state of absolute individuality and of man in the state of absolute obedience. The principle of authority, even disguised under the good name of devotion, is no better than the principle of egoism, hiding itself under the good name of liberty.

We also reject with all the forces of our soul Catholicism under all its disguises and in all its forms, whether it attaches itself again, by I know not what puerile hopes, to the old debris which are at Rome with the ruins of so many centuries, or whether, by who knows what jesuitism [escobarderie], it pretends to incarnate itself anew in Robespierre, become the legitimate successor of Gregory VII and the inquisition. And at the same time we regard as a scourge, no less fatal than papistry, the present form of individualism, the individualism of English political economy, which, in the name of liberty, makes men rapacious wolves among themselves, and reduces society to atoms, leaving moreover everything to arrange itself at random, as Epicurus said the world is arranged. For us, the papal theories of every sort and the individualist theories of every species are equally false. They could be fatal, if they were not equally powerless; but papistry, dead for some many centuries, will not prevail against the entire modern era, and the modern era, as we have demonstrated elsewhere, carries in itself the promise and the seed of a society, and is not the destruction and negation of every society.

Liberty and Society are the two equal poles of social science. Do not say that society is only the result, the ensemble, the aggregation of individuals; for we will arrive at what we have today, a dreadful pell-mell with poverty for the greatest number. Theoretically you would have still worse; for, society no longer existing, the individuality of each has no limits, and the reason of each has no rule: you would arrive at moral skepticism, at general, absolute doubt, and in politics at the exploitation of the good by the malicious, and of the people by some rascals and some tyrants.

But do not say any more that society is everything and that the individual is nothing, or that society comes before the individuals, or that the citizens are not anything but some devoted subjects of society, functionaries of society who must find, for good or ill, their satisfaction in all that which contributes to the social aim; do not make of society a sort of large animal of which we would be the molecules, the parts, or the members, of which some would be the head, the others the stomach, the others the feet, the hands, the nails or the hair. Instead of society being the result of a free and spontaneous life for all those who compose it, will not want the life of each man to be a function of the social life that you would have imagined: for you will arrive by that path only at brutalization and despotism; you would arrest, you would immobilize the human spirit, all while pretending to lead it.

Do not attempt to bring back to us the government of the Church; for it is not in vain that the human spirit for six centuries against that government, and has abolished it.

Do not attempt to apply to our era that which was suitable in previous eras, the principle of authority and sacrifice; for the authority and self-sacrifice of the previous life of Humanity aimed precisely to arrive at individuality, at personality, at liberty. That was good in the past, but it was good precisely on the condition that it would lead to a goal, and that once Humanity arrived at that goal, it would cease to be, and that this government of the world would make place for another.

We are even today the prey of these two exclusive systems of individualism and socialism, pushed back as we are from liberty by that which claims to make it reign, and from association by that which preaches it.

Some have posited the principle that every government must one day disappear, and have concluded from it that every government must from now on be confined to the narrowest dimensions: they have made of government a simple gendarme charged with responding to the complaints of the citizens. Moreover, they have declared the law atheist in any case, and have limited it to ruling the disagreements of individuals with regard to material things and the distribution of goods according to the present constitution of property and inheritance. Property thus formed has become the basis of that which remains of society among men. Each, retired on his bit of land, became absolute and independent sovereign; and all social action is reduced to making each remain master of the plot of land that inheritance, labor, chance, or crime had obtained for him: Each by himself, each for himself. Sadly, the result of such a renunciation of all social providence is that each does not have his bit of land, and that the portion of some tends always to increase, and that of the others to diminish; the well-demonstrated result is the absurd and shameful slavery of twenty-five million men over thirty.

Others, on the contrary, seeing evil, have wanted to cure it by an entirely different process. Government, that imperceptible dwarf in the first system, becomes in this one a giant hydra which embraces in its coils the entire society. The individual, on the contrary, absolute sovereign and without control in the first, is no longer anything by a humble and submissive subject: he was once independent, he could think and live according to the inspirations of nature; he became a functionary, and only a functionary; he is regimented, he has an official doctrine to believe, and the inquisition at its door. Man is no longer a free and spontaneous being, he is an instrument who obeys in spite of himself, or who, fascinated, responds mechanically to the social action, as the shadow follows the body.

While the partisans of individualism rejoice or console themselves on the ruins of society, refugees that they are in their egoism, the partisans of socialism, (2) marching bravely to what they call an organic era, strive to discover how they will bury every liberty, all spontaneity under what they call organization.

The first, entirely in the present and without future, have come as well to have no tradition, no past. For them the previous life of Humanity is only a dream without consequence. The others, carrying in the study of the past their ideas of the future, have taken up with pride the line of the catholic orthodoxy of the Middle Ages, and they have said anathema to all of the modern era, to Protestantism and to Philosophy.

Ask the partisans of individualism what they think of the equality of men: certainly, they will keep themselves from denying it, but it is for them a chimera without importance; they have no means of realizing it. Their system, on the contrary, has for consequence only the most unspeakable inequality. From this point their liberty is a lie, for it is only the smallest number who enjoy it; and society becomes, as a result of inequality, a den of rascals and dupes, a sewer of vice, suffering, immorality and crime.

Ask the partisans of absolute socialism how they reconcile the liberty of men with authority, and what they make, for example, of the liberty to think and to write: they will respond to you that society is a grand being of which nothing can disturb the functions.

We are thus between Charybdis and Scylla, between the hypothesis of a government concentrating in itself all the lights and all human morality, and that of a government deprived by its very mandate of all light and all morality; between an infallible pope on ones side and and a vile gendarme on the other.

The first call liberty their individualism, they will gladly call it a fraternity: the others call their despotism a family. Preserve us from a fraternity so little charitable, and let us avoid a family so intrusive.

Never, it is necessary to avow it, have the very bases of society been more controversial. If one speaks of equality today, if one shows the misery and absurdity of the present mercantilism, let one blacken a society where the disassociated men are not only strangers among themselves, but necessarily rivals and enemies, and all those who have in their heart the love of men, the love of the people, all those who are children of Christianity, Philosophy and the Revolution, become inflamed and approve. But let the partisans of absolute socialism come to outline their tyrannical theories, let them speak of organizing us in regiments of scientists and regiments of industrials, let them go as far as declaring against the liberty of thought, at that same instant you feel yourself repulsed, your enthusiasm freeze, your feelings of individuality and liberty rebel, you start back sadly to the present from dread of that new papacy, weighty and absorbent, which will transform Humanity into a machine, where the true living natures, the individuals, will no longer be anything by a useful matter, instead of being themselves the arbiters of their destiny.

Thus one remains in perplexity and uncertainty, equally attracted and repulsed by two opposite attractors. Yes, the sympathies of our era are equally lively, equally energetic, whether it is a question of liberty or equality, of individuality or association. The faith in society is complete, but the faith in individuality individuality is equally complete. From this results an equal impulse towards these two desired ends and an equal increase of the exclusive exaggeration of one or the other, an equal horror of either individualism or of socialism.

That disposition, moreover, is not new; it already existed in the Revolution; the most progressive men felt it. Take the Declaration of Rights of Robespierre: you will find formulated there the most energetic and absolute manner the principle of society, with a view to the equality of all; but, two lines higher, you will find equally formulated in the most energetic and absolute manner the principle of the individuality of each. And nothing which would unite, which harmonizes these two principles, placed thus both on the altar; nothing which reconciles these two equally infinite and limitless rights, these two adversaries which threaten, these two absolute and sovereign powers which both [together] rise to heaven and which each [separately] overrun the whole earth. These two principles once named, you cannot prevent yourself from recognizing them, for you sense their legitimacy in your heart; but you sense at the same time that, both born from justice, the will make a dreadful war. So Robespierre and the Convention were only able to proclaim them both, and as a result the Revolution has been the bloody theater of their struggle: the two pistols charged one against the other have fired.

We are still at the same point, with two pistols charged and [pointed] in opposite directions. Our soul is the prey of two powers that are equal and, in appearance, contrary. Our perplexity will only cease when social science will manage to harmonize these two principles, when our two tendencies will be satisfied. Then an immense contentment will take the place of that anguish.


In waiting for that desired moment, if one asks us for our profession of faith, we have just made it, and we are ready to repeat it; here it is: we are neither individualists nor socialists, taking these words in their absolute sense. We believe in individuality, in personality, in liberty; but we also believe in society.

Society is not the result of a contract. For the sole reason that men exist, and have relations between themselves, society exists. A man does not make an act or a thought which does not concern more or less the lot of other men. Thus, there is necessarily and divinely communion between men.

Yes, society is a body, but it is a mystical body, and we are not its members, but we live in it. Yes, each man is a fruit on the tree of Humanity; but the fruit, in order to be the product of the tree, is no less complete and perfect in itself; he contains in germ the tree which has engendered him; he becomes himself the tree, when the other will fall from old age under the shock of the winds, and it will be him who will bring new blood to nature. Thus each man reflects in his breast all of society; each man is in a certain manner the manifestation of his century, of his people and of his generation; each man is Humanity; each man is a sovereignty; each man is a law, for whom the law is made, and against which no law can prevail.

Because I live bodily in the atmosphere, and I cannot live an instant without breathing, am I a portion of the atmosphere? Because I cannot live in any way without being in relation and in communion with the external world, an I a portion of that world? No; I live with this world and in this world: that is all.

And just so, because I live in the society of men and by that society, am I a portion, a dependency of that society? No, I am a liberty destined to live in a society.

Absolute individuality has been the belief of the majority of the philosophers of the Nineteenth Century. It was an axiom in metaphysics, that there existed only individuals, and that all the alleged collective or universal beings, such as Society, Homeland, Humanity, etc., were only abstractions of our mind. These philosophers were in a grave error. They did not understand what is tangible by the senses; they did not comprehend the invisible. Because after a certain amount of time has passed, the mother is separate from the fruit that she carried in her womb, and because the mother and her child form then two distinct and separate beings, do you deny the relation which exists between them; do you deny what nature shows you even by the testimony of your senses, to know that that mother and that child are without one another beings that are incomplete, sick, and threatened with death, and that the mutual need, as well as the love, make from them one being composed of two? It is the same for Society and Humanity. Far from being independent of all society and all tradition, man takes his life in tradition and in society. He only lives because he as at one in a certain present and in a certain past. Each man, like each generation of men, draws his sap and his life from Humanity. But each man draws his life there by virtue of the faculties that he has in him, by virtue of his own spontaneity. Thus, he remains free, though associated. He is divinely united to Humanity; but Humanity, instead of absorbing him, is revealed in him.

If there are still in the world so many miserable and vicious men, of we are all affected by vice and misery, that reveals to us the ignorance and immorality which still afflicts Humanity. If Humanity was less ignorant and more moral, there would no longer be so many miserable and vicious beings in the world.

We are all responsible to one another. We are united by an invisible link, it is true, but that link is more clear and more evident to the intelligence than matter is to the eyes of the body.

From which it follows that mutual charity is a duty.

From which it follows that the intervention of man for man is a duty.

From which follows finally a condemnation of individualism.

But from that follows as well, and with an equal force, the condemnation of absolute socialism.

If God had desire that men should be parts of Humanity, he would have enchained them to one another in one great body, as the members of our body are connected to one another. To desire to enchain men thus, would have been as if, having recognized the invisible link that unites the mother and child, and which makes only one being of the two, you would desire to deny, because of that, their personality and enchain them to one another. You would return them by this to the previous state where they made strictly only one being; and, by reason of what they are now, you would constitute a state that is monstrous and as abnormal the state of absolute separation where you would have first desired to hold them. They are two, but they are united; there is relation and communion between them, but not identity. The one being who reunites them is God, who lives at once in the one and the other; and if he has separated them, it is in order that they should each have their individual life, even though they are connected to one another, and that under the relation that unites them they make only one single being. What is more, it is clear that the common life which unites them will be as much more energetic, as their individual lives are more grand. If the mother is happy, the child will be happy; and if the soul of the child is opened to enthusiasm and to virtue, the love of the mother will be will be exalted in it. Thus the social body will be made more happy and more powerful by the individuality of all its members, than if all men had been enchained to one another.

We arrive thus at that law, as evident and as certain as the laws of gravitation: "The perfection of society is the result of the liberty of each and all."

At the end of the day, to adopt either individualism or socialism, is to not understand life. Life consists essentially in the divine and necessary relation of individual and free beings. Individualism does not comprehend life, for it denies that relation. Absolute socialism does not comprehend it better; for, by distorting that relation, it destroys it. To deny life or to destroy it, these are the alternatives of these two systems, of which one, consequently, is no better than the other.


(2) It is clear that, in all of this writing, it is necessary to understand by socialism, socialism as we define it in this work itself, which is as the exaggeration of the idea of association, or of society. For a number of years, we have been accustomed to call socialists all the thinkers who who occupy themselves with social reforms, all those who critique and reprove individualism, all those who speak, in different terms, of social providence, and of the solidarity which units together not only the members of a State, but the entire Human Species; and, by this title, ourselves, who have always battled absolute socialism, we are today designated as socialist. We are undoubtedly socialist, but in this sense: we are socialist, if you mean by socialism the Doctrine which will sacrifice none of the terms of the formula: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Unity, but which reconciles them all. (1847.) — I can only repeat here, with regard to the use of the word Socialism in all of this extract, what I said previously (pages 121 and 160 of this Volume). When I invented the term Socialism in order to oppose it to the term Individualism, I did not expect that, ten years later, that term would be used to express, in a general fashion, religious Democracy. What I attacked under that name, were the false systems advanced by the alleged disciples of Saint-Simon and by the alleged disciples of Rousseau led astray following Robespierre and Babœuf, without speaking of those who amalgamated at once Saint-Simon and Robespierre with de Maistre and Bonald. I refer the reader to the Histoire du Socialisme (which they will find in one of the following volumes of this edition), contenting myself to protest against those who have taken occasion from this to find me in contradiction with myself. (1850.)

Read the whole thing at Out of the Libertarian Labyrinth.

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