Louis Blanc

Louis Blanc

It is not the most original work that always attracts most attention. Stuart Mill, writing of Saint-Simonism and Fourierism, claims that "they may justly be counted among the most remarkable productions of the past and present age." To apply such terms to the writings of Louis Blanc would be entirely out of place. His predecessors' works, despite a certain mediocrity, are redeemed by occasional remarks of great penetration; but there is none of that in Louis Blanc's. More­over, his treatment is very slight, the whole exposition occupying about as much space as an ordinary review article. And there is no evidence of exceptional originality, for the sources of its inspiration must be sought elsewhere—in the writings of Saint-Simon, of Fourier, of Sismondi, and of Buonarotti, one of the survivors of the Babeuf con­spiracy, and in the democratic doctrines of 1793. In short, Blanc was content to give a convenient exposition of such socialistic ideas as the public had become accustomed to since the Restoration.

Nevertheless, no sooner was the Organisation du Travail published in 1841 than it was read and discussed by almost everybody. Several editions followed one another in rapid succession. The title, which is borrowed from the Saint-Simonians, supplied one of those popular formula which conveniently summed up the grievances of the work­ing classes in 1848, and during the February Revolution Louis Blanc came to be regarded as the best-qualified exponent of the views of the proletariat. Even for a long time after 1848 the work was con­sidered to be the most characteristic specimen of French socialistic writing.

Its success was in a measure due to the circumstances of the period. The brevity of the book and the directness of the exposition made the discussion of the theme a comparatively easy matter. The personal notoriety of the author also had a great deal to do with the interest which his work aroused. During the short career of the July monarchy Blanc, both in the Press and on the platform, had found himself one of the most valiant supporters of the advanced democratic wing. His Histoire de Dix ans gave him some standing as a historian. Later on the role which he played as a member of the Provisional Government of 1848, and afterwards at the inauguration of the Third Republic, contributed to his fame as a public man. And, last of all, his unfor­tunate experience in connexion with the failure of the national work­shops, for which he was unjustly blamed, added to the interest which the public took in him.

All this, however, would not justify his inclusion in our history were it not for other reasons which give to the Organisation du Travail some­thing more than a mere passing interest.

In no other work is the opposition between competition and associa­tion so trenchantly stated. Every economic evil, if we are to believe Blanc, is the outcome of competition. Competition affords an explana­tion of poverty and of moral degradation, of the growth of crime and the prevalence of prostitution, of industrial crises and international feuds. "In the first place," writes Blanc, "we shall show how competi­tion means extermination for the proletariat, and in the second place how it spells poverty and ruin for the bourgeoisie." The proof spreads itself out over the whole work, and is based upon varied examples gleaned from newspapers and official inquiries, from economic treatises and Government statistics, as well as from personal observations carried on by Blanc himself. No effort is spared to make the most disagreeable facts contribute of their testimony. Everything is arranged with a view to one aim—the condemnation of competition. Only one conclusion seems possible: " If you want to get rid of the terrible effects of competition you must remove it root and branch and begin to build anew, with association as the foundation of your social life."

Louis Blanc thus belonged to that group of socialists who thought that voluntary associations would satisfy all the needs of society. But he thinks of association in a somewhat different fashion from his pre­decessors. He dreams neither of New Harmony nor of a Phalanstere.

Neither does he conceive of the economic world of the future as a series of groups, each of which forms a complete society in itself. Fourier's integral co-operation, where the Phalanstere was to supply all the needs of its members, is ignored altogether. His proposal is a social workshop, which simply means a co-operative producers' society. The social workshop was intended simply to combine members of the same trade, and is distinguished from the ordinary workshop by being more democratic and equalitarian. Unlike Fourierism, it does not contain within itself all aspects of economic life. By no means self-contained, it merely undertakes the production of some economic good, which other folk are expected to buy in the ordinary way. Louis Blanc's is simply the commonest type of co-operative society. The schemes of both Owen and Fourier were much more ambitious, and attempted to apply the principle of co-operation to consumption as well as to production.

Nor was the idea altogether a new one. A Saint-Simonian of the name of Buchez had already in 1831 made a similar proposal, but it met with little success. Workers in the same trade—carpenters, masons, shoemakers, or what not—were advised to combine together, to throw their tools into the common lot, and to distribute among themselves the profits which had hitherto gone to the entrepreneur. A fifth of the annual profits was to be laid aside to build up a "perpetual inalienable reserve," which would thus grow regularly every year. " Without some such fund," says Buchez, with an unerring instinct for the future, association will become little better than other commercial under­takings. It will prove beneficial to the founders only, and will ban every one who is not an original shareholder, for those who had a share in the concern at the beginning will employ their privileges in exploiting others.

Such is the destiny that awaits more than one co-operative society, where the founders become mere shareholders and employ others who are simply hirelings to do the work for them.

Whereas Buchez was greatly interested in petite industry, Blanc was in favour of the great industry, and that seems to be the only difference between his social workshop and an ordinary co-operative society. But in Blanc's opinion the social workshop was just a cell out of which a complete collectivistic society would some day issue forth. Its ultimate destiny did not really interest him very much. The ideal was much too vague and too distant to be profitably discussed. The im­portant thing was to make a beginning and to prepare for the future in a thoroughly practical fashion, but "without breaking altogether with the past." That seemed clearly to be the line of procedure. To give an outline of what that future would be like seemed a vain desire, and would simply mean outlining another Utopia.

It is just because his plan was precise and simple that Louis Blanc succeeded in claiming attention where so many beautiful but quite impossible dreams had failed. Here at last was a project which every one could understand, and which, further, would not be very difficult to adopt. This passion for the concrete rather than the ideal, for some practical formula that might possibly point the way out of the morass of laissez-faire, may be discovered in more than one of his contem­poraries. It is very pronounced in Vidal's work, for example. Vidal was the author of an interesting book on distribution which unfor­tunately seems to be now quite forgotten. Much of the success of the project, like that of the State Socialism of a later period, was un­doubtedly due to this feeling.

The projected reform seemed exceptionally simple. A national workshop was to be set up forthwith in which all branches of produc­tion would be represented. The necessary capital was to be obtained from the Government, which was expected to borrow it. Every worker who could give the necessary moral guarantee was allowed to compete for this capital. Wages would be equal for everybody, a thing which is quite impossible under present conditions, largely because of the false anti-social character of a good deal of our education. In the future, when a new system of education will have improved morality and begotten new ideas, the proposal will seem a perfectly natural one. Here we come across a suggestion that seems common to all the associationists, namely, the idea of a new environment effecting a revolution in the ordinary motives of mankind. As to the hierarchy of the workshop, that will be established by election, except during the first year, when the Government will undertake to conduct the organization, because as yet the members will hardly be sufficiently trained to choose the best representatives. The net revenue will be divided into three portions, of which the first will be distributed between the various members of the association, thus contributing to a rise in their wages; the second portion will go towards the upkeep of the old, the sick, and the infirm, and towards easing the burdens of some other industries; while the third portion will be spent in supplying tools to those who wish to join the association, which will gradually extend its sway over the whole of society. The last suggestion inevitably reminds us of Buchez's "inalienable and perpetual capital."

Interest will be paid on the capital employed in founding the in­dustry, such interest being guaranteed against taxation. But we must not conclude that Blanc favoured this condition because he believed in the legitimacy of interest, as Fourier did. He was too pronounced a disciple of the Saint-Simonians ever to admit that it was legitimate. The time will come, he thinks, when it will no longer be necessary, but he gives no hint as to how to get rid of it. For the present at any rate it must be paid, were it only to enable the transition to be made. " We need not with savage impatience destroy everything that has been founded upon the abuses which as a whole we are so anxious to remove." The interest paid, along with the wages, will form a part of the cost of production. The capitalists, however, will have no share in the net profit unless they have directly contributed to it.

It seems that the only difference between the social workshop and the present factory is its somewhat more democratic organization, and the fact that the workers themselves seize all the profit (i.e., over and above the net interest), instead of leaving it, as was hitherto the case, to the entrepreneur.

But this social workshop, as we have said, is a mere cell out of which a new society is expected to form. The amusing feature is this, that the new society can only come into being through the activity of competition—competition purged of all its more abominable features, that is to say. "The arm of competition must be strengthened in order to get rid of competition." That ought not to be a very difficult task, for the "social workshop as compared with the ordinary private factory will effect greater economies and have a better system of organization, for every worker without exception will be interested in honestly per­forming his duty as quickly as possible." On every side will private enterprise find itself threatened by the new system. Capital and workers will gravitate towards the social workshop with its greater advantages. Nor will the movement cease until one vast association has been formed representing all the social shops in the same industry. Every important industry will be grouped round some central factory, and " the different shops will be of the nature of supplementary establishments." To crown the edifice, the different industries will be grouped together, and, instead of competing with one another, will materially help and support each other, especially during a time of crisis, so that the understanding existing between them will achieve a still more remark­able success in preventing crises altogether.

Thus, merely by being given greater freedom the competitive regime will gradually disappear, to make way for the associative regime, and as the social workshops realize these wonderful ideals the evils of competition will disappear, and moral and social life will be cleansed of its present evils.

The remarkable feature of the whole scheme is that hardly any­thing new is needed to effect this vast change. Just a little additional pressure on the part of Government, some capital to set up the work­shops, and a few additional regulations to guide it in its operations, that is all.

This is really a very important point in Louis Blanc's doctrine, which clearly differentiates it from both Owen's and Fourier's. They appeared to think that the State was not necessary at all: private initiative seemed quite sufficient. It was hoped that society would renew itself spontaneously without any extraneous aid, and this is still the working creed of the co-operative movement. Wherever the co-operative movement has flourished the result has been entirely due to the efforts of its members. But Louis Blanc's attention was centred on the highly trained artisan, and the problem was to find capital to employ him. Were they to rely upon their own savings, they would never make a beginning. Moreover, somebody must start the thing, and power is wanted for this. That power will be organized force, which will be employed, however, not so much as an ally, but rather as a 'starter. Intervention will necessarily be only temporary. Once the scheme is started its own momentum will keep it going. The State, so to speak, "will just give it a push: gravity and the laws of mechanics will suffice for the rest." That is just where the ingenuity of the whole system comes in, and as a matter of fact the majority of the producing co-operative societies now at work owe their existence to the financial aid and administrative ability of public bodies, without which they could hardly keep going.

Louis Blanc, accordingly, is one of the first socialists to take care to place the burden of reform upon the shoulders of the State. Rodbertus and Lassalle make an exactly analogous appeal to the State, and for this reason the French writer deserves a place among the pioneers of State Socialism.

This appeal of the socialists is beautifully naive. On the one hand they invite the adherence of Government to a proposal that is frankly revolutionary, in which case it is asked to compass its own destruction —naturally not a very attractive prospect. On the other hand the project seems harmless enough, and the support which the Government is asked to extend further emphasizes the modest nature of the under­taking. State socialism cannot escape the horns of this dilemma by proclaiming itself frankly conservative, as it has done in Germany.

Louis Blanc, like Lassalle after him, was much concerned with im­mediate results, and he failed to notice this objection. He paid con­siderable attention to another line of criticism, however, and one that he considered much more dangerous. He sought a way of escape by using an argument which was afterwards frequently employed by the State Socialists, as we shall see by and by.

The question was whether State intervention is contrary to liberty or not. "It clearly is," says Louis Blanc,
if you conceive of liberty as an abstract right which is conferred upon man by the terms of some constitution or other. But that is no real liberty at all. Full liberty consists of the power which man has of developing and exercising his faculties with the sanction of justice, and the approval of law.

The right to liberty without the opportunity of exercising it is simply oppression, and wherever man is ignorant or without tools he inevitably has to submit to those who are either richer or better taught than himself, and his liberty is gone. In such cases State intervention is really necessary, just as it is in the case of inferior classes or minors. Lacor-daire's saying is more pithy still: "As between the weak and the strong, liberty oppresses and law sets free." Sismondi had already employed this argument, and much capital has been made of it by every opponent of laissez-faire.

In the writings of Louis Blanc may be found the earliest faint out­line of a movement that had assumed considerable proportions before the end of the century. State socialism, which was as yet a temporary expedient, by and by becomes an important economic doctrine with numerous practical applications.

The events of 1848 gave Louis Blanc an opportunity of partly realizing his ideas. We shall speak of these experiments when we come to discuss the misdirected efforts of the 1848 socialists. But the ideas outlined in the Organisation du Travail were destined to a more permanent success in the numerous co-operative productive societies which were founded as a result of its teaching. They are still quite popular with a certain class of French working men.

Though inferior to both Fourier and Owen, Blanc gave consider­able impetus to the Associative movement, and quite deserves his place among the Associative socialists.

Beside Louis Blanc it may be convenient to refer to two other writers, Leroux and Cabet, who took part in the same movement right up to the Revolution of 1848.
Pierre Leroux exercised considerable influence over his contem­poraries. George Sand's works are full of social dissertations, and she herself declares that most of these she owed to Leroux. However, one can hardly get anything of the nature of a definite contribution to the science from his own writings, which are vaguely humanitarian in character. We must make an exception, perhaps, of his advocacy of association, and especially of the idea of solidarity, a word that has been exceedingly fortunate in its career. Indeed, it seems that he was the first to employ this famous term in the sense in which it is used to-day—as a substitute for charity.

Apparently, also, he was the first to contrast the word 'socialism' with its antithesis 'individualism.' The invention of these two terms is enough to save his name from oblivion in the opinion of every true sociologist.

Cabet had one experience which is rare for a socialist: he had filled the office of Attorney-General, though only for a short time, it is true. Far greater celebrity came to him from the publication of his novel, Le Voyage en Jcarie. There is nothing very original in the system out­lined there. He gives the usual easy retort to those who question him concerning the fate of idlers in Icaria: "Of idlers in Icaria there will be none." In his enthusiasm for his ideal he went farther than either Owen or Considerant by personally superintending the founding of a colony in the United States (1848). Despite many a grievous trial the settle­ment managed to exist for fifty years, finally coming to grief in 1898. Cabet is frankly communistic, and in that respect resembles Owen rather than Fourier, although he always considered himself a disciple of the latter. But this was perhaps due to his admiration for Fourier, with whom he was personally very well acquainted. Although he was a communist he was no revolutionist. He was a good-natured fellow who believed in making his appeal to the altruistic feelings of men, and was sufficiently optimistic to believe that moral conversion was not a difficult process.