The Associative Socialists

The Associative Socialists

The name "Associative Socialists" is given to all those writers who believe that voluntary association on the basis of some preconceived plan is sufficient for the solution of all social questions. Unfortunately the plans vary very considerably, according to the particular system chosen.

They differ from the Saint-Simonians, who sought the solution in socialization rather than in association, and thus became the founders of collectivism, which is quite another thing. The advocates of socialization always thought of 'Society' with a capital S, and of all the members of the nation as included in one collective organization. The term 'nationalization' much better describes what they sought. Associationism, on the other hand, more individualistic in character and fearing lest the individual should be merged in the mass, would have him safeguarded by means of small autonomous groups, where federation would be entirely voluntary, and any unity that might exist would be prompted from within rather than imposed from without.

On the other hand, the Associationists must be carefully distin­guished from the economists of the Liberal school. Fortunately this is not very difficult, for by means of these very associations they claim to be able to create a new social milieu. They are as anxious as the Liberals for the free exercise of individual initiative, but they believe that under existing conditions, except in the case of a few privileged individuals, this very initiative is being smothered. They believe that liberty and individuality never can expand unless transplanted into a new environment. But this new environment will not come of itself. It must be created, just as the gardener must build a conservatory if he is to secure a requisite environment. Each one has his own particu­lar recipe for this, and none of them is above thinking that his own is the best. It is this conception of an artificial society set up in the midst of present social conditions, bound by strict limitations which to some extent isolate it from its surroundings, that has won for the system its name of Utopian Socialism.

Had the Associationists only declared that the social environment can and ought to be modified, despite the so-called permanent and immutable laws, just as man himself is capable of modification, they would have enunciated an important truth and would have forestalled all those who are to-day seeking a solution of the social question in syndicalism, in co-operation, and in the garden-city ideal.

On the other hand, had they succeeded in carrying out their plans on an extensive scale, if we may judge by the desire to evade them on the part of those experimented on, it seems probable that the new kind of liberty would have proved less welcome than the liberty which is enjoyed under the present constitution of society.

They would have been very indignant, however, if anyone had charged them with desiring to create an artificial society. On the contrary, their claim was that the present social environment is arti­ficial, and that their business was not to create but merely to discover that other environment which is already so wonderfully adapted to the true needs of mankind in virtue of its providential, natural harmony. At bottom it is the same idea as the ' natural order' of the Physiocrats, much as their conception differs from that of the Physiocrats—an incidental proof that the order is anything but 'natural,' seeing that it varies with those who define it. Some of their sayings, however, might very well have been borrowed directly from Quesnay or Mercier de la Riviere—for example, that of Owen's in which he speaks of the commune as God's special agent for bringing society into harmony with nature. It is just the "good despot" of the Physiocrats over again. Or take Fourier's comparison in which he ranks himself with Newton as the discoverer of the law of "attraction of passion," and believes that his "stroke of genius," as Zola calls it, lies in knowing how to utilize the passions which God has given us to the best advantage.

What is still more interesting is that this newer socialism marks a veritable reaction against the principles of 1789. The Revolutionists hated every form of association, and suspected it of being a mere sur­vival of the old regime, a chain to bind the individual. Not only was it omitted from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but it was formally prohibited in every province—prohibitions which have been withdrawn only quite recently. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to the spirit of the Revolution than the beliefs which inspired Owen, Fourier, and Gabet, the founders of the new order.
But the men of 1789 were not so far wrong, nor were they deceived by their recollections of corporations and guilds, when they expressed the belief that any form of association was really a menace to liberty. There is an old Italian proverb which states that every man who has an associate has also a master. The Liberal school has to a certain extent always shared these apprehensions, and ample justification might be found for them in the many despotic acts of associates, whether capitalists or workmen.

But the 'associative' socialists of the early part of the last century were impressed, even more than Sismondi and Saint-Simon were, by the new phenomenon of competition. The mortal struggle for profit among producers and the keen competition for wages among working men which immediately ensued upon the disappearance of the old framework of society seemed to them to wear all the hideousness of an apocalyptic beast. With wonderful perspicacity they predicted that such breakneck competition must inevitably result in combination and monopoly. Voluntary association of a co-operative character (they paid hardly any attention to the possibilities of corporative association)' appeared to supply the only means of suppressing this competition without either endangering liberty or thwarting the legitimate ambi­tions of producers. And it is not very clear as yet that they were altogether mistaken in their point of view.

The two best known representatives of this school are Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Although they were contemporaries—the one was born in 1771, the other in 1772—it does not appear that they ever became known to one another. Owen never seems to have paid any attention to Fourier's system, and Fourier never refers to "Owen's communistic scheme" without showing some trace of bitterness. Indeed, it is doubtful whether he knew anything at all about it except from hearsay.

Such reciprocal ignorance does little credit to their powers of observation. Still, it is easily explained. Despite a certain similarity in their plans for social regeneration—for example, they both proceed to create small autonomous associations, the microcosms which were to serve as models for the society of the future, or the yeast which was to leaven the lump—and notwithstanding that after their deaths they were both hailed as the parents of one common offspring, co-operation, they spent their whole lives in two very different worlds. Without any rhetorical exaggeration and without making any invidious distinc tions we may truthfully say that Owen was a rich, successful manuj facturer and one of the greatest and most influential men of his day and country, while Fourier was a mere employee in the realm of industry, or a "shop-sergeant," as he liked to call himself. Later on Fourier became the recipient of a small annuity; but his reputation, only spread slowly and with much difficulty among a small circle of friends. Contrary to what might have been expected, the millionaire manufacturer was the more ardent socialist of the two. A militant communist and an anti-cleric, he loved polemics, and advanced his views both in the Press and on the platform. His humble rival was just a grown-up boy with the habits of an old woman. He scarcely ever left his house except to listen to a military band; he wrote sedu­lously, attempting to turn out the same number of pages each day, and spent most of his life on the look-out for a sleeping partner, who, unfortunately, never turned up.