The Solidarists Thesis (Solidarism)

The Solidarists Thesis

The current is seldom very clear when the tributaries are numerous, and the stream must deposit its sediment before it becomes limpid. So here much greater precision was needed if the doctrine was ever to become general in its scope or even popular in its appeal.

M. Leon Bourgeois, one of the leaders of the Radical-Socialist party, to his eternal credit attempted some such clarification by em­ploying the term 'solidarity,' hitherto so vaguely metaphysical, in a strictly legal fashion to designate a kind of quasi-contract. Quite a sensation was caused by M. Bourgeois's work—a result due alike to the prominent position of the author and the opportune moment at which the book appeared. The greatest enthusiasm was shown for the new doctrine, especially in the universities and among the teachers in 100,000 elementary schools. An equally warm welcome was extended to it in democratic circles, where the desire for some kind of lay morality had by this time become very strong. It becomes neces­sary, accordingly, to give a more detailed analysis of the theory than was possible within the compass of the small volume in which it was first expounded.

In the first place it must be noted that the doctrine connotes some­thing more than the mere application or extension of the idea of natural solidarity to the social or moral order. On the contrary, it is an attempt to remove some of the anomalies of natural solidarity. A firm belief in the injustice of natural solidarity, or at least a conviction that things are so adjusted that some individuals obtain advantages which they by no means desire while others are burdened with disad­vantages which are none of their seeking, lies at the root of the doctrine. There is a demand for intervention in order that those who have bene­fited by the accidents of natural solidarity should divide the spoils with those who have been less fortunate in drawing prizes in the lottery of life. It is for Justice to restore the balance and correct the abnor­malities which a fickle sister has created. Just as it has been seen that man may utilize the forces of nature, against which he formerly was wont to struggle, to further his own ends, so solidarity puts forth a claim for the co-operation of Justice to correct the anomalies begotten of brute strength, believing that only in this way is real advance possible or any kind of improvement even remotely attainable.

Natural solidarity tells us that as a result of the division of labour, of the influence of heredity, and of a thousand other causes which have just been described, every man owes either to his forebears or his con­temporaries the best part of what he has, and even of what he himself is. As Auguste Comte has put it, "We are born burdened with all manner of social obligations." Nor is it an uncommon thing to meet with the word 'debt' or 'obligation' in the articles of the French Constitution. In the Constitution of 1793, for example, the duty of public assistance is spoken of as a sacred debt. But the term was loosely employed in the sense of noblesse oblige or richesse oblige, every individual being left free to carry out the obligation as best he could in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. It is neces­sary, however, to transform the duty into a real debt, to give it a legal status, and when not voluntarily performed a legal sanction as well. If we are anxious to know exactly how this is to be done we have only to turn to Articles 1371-81 of the Civil Code, where in the chapter dealing with quasi-contracts we shall come across a section headed " Of Non-conventional Contracts."

The title would seem to imply the validity of debts not explicitly contracted—that is to say, the existence of obligations which have not involved any volitional undertaking on the part of either party con­cerned. The first case, that of injury inflicted upon others, whether wilfully or not, is referred to as quasi-misdemeanour, and other in­stances mentioned in the section are spoken of as quasi-contracts. Illustrations, which are plentiful enough, include payments made when not really due, attention to the business of another without any definite mandate authorizing such interference, the obligation of the inheritor of property to pay off debts incurred by the previous owner, the recognition of the common interest which people living in the same neighbourhood possess, and which also exists between those who own property and those who lease it, between those who use it and those who inherit it.

Wherever anything of the nature of a quasi-contract exists we may be tolerably certain that it is the product of de facto or natural solidarity.

Such solidarity may take its rise in the mere fact of propinquity or the mere feeling of neighbourliness; but more often than not it involves a measure of control over the lives of others, which is one of the out­standing features of a regime of division of labour. Then follow the familiar phenomena of fortunes amassed to the detriment of others through the acquisition of unearned increment and the operation of the laws of inheritance—the source of so many inequalities. Nor must we forget the prejudicial effect of quasi-misdemeanour upon the for­tunes of others. The result is that the whole of society seems built, if not upon an original explicit contract, as Rousseau imagined, at least upon a quasi-contract; and seeing that this quasi-contract receives the tacit submission of the parties concerned, there is no reason why it should not be legally binding as well.
Now the existence of a debt implies that some one must pay it, and the next question is to determine who that some one ought to be.

Obviously it can only be those who have benefited by the existence of natural solidarity—all those who have amassed a fortune, but whose fortune would be still to make but for the co-operation of a thousand collaborators, both past and present. Such individuals have already drawn more than their share and have a balance to make up on the debit account. This debt should certainly be paid. It is all the better if it is done voluntarily, as an act of liberality arising out of goodness of heart—quia bonus, as the Gospel narrative puts it, of the rich good man. But this is hardly probable. Most people will pay just when they are obliged to; but such people have no right to consider themselves free, and no claim to the free disposal of their goods until they have acquitted themselves honourably. Individual property will be respected and free when every social debt which it involves has been adequately discharged, and not before then. Until this is done it is useless to speak of the existence of competition.

The next question is to dermine who is to receive payment. Pay­ment ought to be made to those who, instead of benefiting by the existence of natural solidarity, have suffered loss through its operation —the disinherited, as they are rightly called. All those who have not received a fair share of the total wealth produced by the co­operation of all naturally find themselves in the position of creditors. It is not easy to name them, perhaps, but the State can reach them a helping hand in a thousand different ways. State action of this kind was formerly spoken of as public assistance; nowadays it is termed solidarity or mutual insurance.

The payment may take the form either of a voluntary contribution to help some solidarist effort or other, or of an obligatory contribution levied by the State. Some advocate progressive taxation, for if it be true that profits tend to grow progressively in proportion as an increase in the variety and strength of the means of production takes place, why not a progressive tax as well?1 Besides, the tax would be of a semi-sacred character, because it would mean the discharging of an impor­tant social debt. Nor is there anything very extravagant in the demand that the State should see that every one makes a contribution in pro­portion to his ability, seeing that the natural function of the State is to be the guardian of contracts.

It is still more difficult to assess the rate of payment. The conditions under which payment would be made, says M. Bourgeois, would be such as the associates themselves would have adopted had they been free to discuss the terms of their engagement. In other words, every­thing must be regulated as if society were the result of an express convention, or rather of a retroactive contract mutually agreed upon. The difficulty is to determine the conditions which individual asso­ciates would demand as the price of their adhesion to the terms of the contract. We shall have to imagine what they would demand were they able to make fresh terms.

But we are not much farther ahead after all, for the individual him­self knows nothing at all about it. Renouncing the attempt to solve the insoluble, one has to fix some kind of minimum claim which the disinherited may reasonably expect to see fulfilled. Such a minimum claim would be a guarantee against the ordinary risks of life. Society would become a kind of association for mutual insurance, with the good and bad fortune spread out equally over everybody.

But a quasi-contract is something very different from this. Contracts and quasi-contracts are based upon the giving and receiving of equiva­lent values, do ut des, whereas mutual insurance is a kind of substitute for direct liability. A contract is essentially individualistic—mutualism is primarily socialistic.

This idea of a quasi-contract contributed not a little to the success of M. Bourgeois's theory, but it makes no vital contribution to the doctrine itself, and he might very easily have omitted it altogether. It is nothing better than an artifice, almost a logomachy, invented for the express purpose of affording some kind of justification for demand­ing a legal contribution by treating it as an implicit or retroactive contract. It is more of a concession to individual liberty than anything else. A taxpayer grumbles at a tax which goes to provide pensions for the old, but it is pointed out to him that the contribution is owing from him in virtue not of an explicit agreement, perhaps, but at least of a quasi-agreement.

But what useful purpose can be served by such ironical subterfuge? If it can be shown that owing to inferior moral education the law must have the making of a conscience for those who have none, and must enforce a certain minimum of social duties which appear neces­sary for the preservation of life and the perpetuation of social amenities, what is that but a form of State Socialism? If it is pointed out, on the other hand, that moral progress consists in transforming debts into duties rather than vice versa, one readily realizes that it is best to multiply the number of free institutions of a solidarist complexion, such as mutual aid and co-operative societies, trade unions, etc.

Another objective which the quasi-contract theory had in view was to supply the debtor with a kind of guarantee that nothing would be required of him beyond the exact equivalent of his debt.1 But, as we have already noted, it would be a somewhat illusory guarantee, because it is almost impossible to determine the amount of the debt in the first place. Since the amount of this debt is in some way to be fixed by law it may be well to begin with it.
Should the legislator find himself driven to accept M. Bourgeois's valuation, the demands made upon the taxpayer will not be so exorbi­tant after all. The whole mass of obligations is summed up under three heads:

1. Free education for all classes of the community. Intellectual capital more than any other kind of capital is a collective good, and should never be other than common property, upon which every one may draw whenever he wishes. A necessary corollary would be a shorter working day.

2. A minimum of the means of existence for everybody. It is diffi­cult to imagine a retroactive contract which refuses to grant men the right to live. Regarded in this light, the 'guarantism' of Sismondi and Fourier, the ' right to work' of Louis Blanc and Considerant, gain new significance and throb with fresh vitality.

3. Insurance against the risks of life, which, being fortuitous, are escaped by none. We know the promptness with which the feeling of kinship is aroused whenever one of these accidents happens on a scale somewhat larger than usual and assumes the proportions of a catas­trophe. Why should it be otherwise when a single individual falls a victim to the fickleness of fate?
If M. Bourgeois has given his theory a distinctly politico-legal bias, M. Durkheim has taken good care to approach the question from the standpoint of moralist and sociologist.

M. Durkheim draws a distinction between two kinds of solidarities.

The first of these, which he regards as a quite inferior type, depends upon external resemblances, and is of a purely mechanical character, like the cohesion of atoms in a physical body. The other, which consists of a union of dissimilars, is the result of division of labour, and of such is the union between the various members of the human body. Durk­heim regards this kind of unity as of immense significance, not so much because of its economic consequence as of its important moral results, "which might even supply the basis of a new moral order." Seeing that individuals really follow divergent paths, the struggle for existence cannot be quite so keen as it is generally supposed to be, and this differentiation between the individual and the mass enables the former to dissociate himself from the collective conscience. Durkheim's desire was to see the new ethic developed by the professional associations; hence the important role which trade unionism holds in his philosophy. Without disputing the validity of the distinction thus made, we may be allowed to question the advisability of treating one kind of solidarity with such contempt and of showing such enthusiasm for the other. Our hope is that the future lies with the former kind. For what is the object of evolution if it is not to make what seems similar really alike? The world is not merely marching in the direction of greater differentia­tion; it is also moving towards a deeper unity. This seems a well-established fact, at least so far as the physical world is concerned. Mountains are brought low and the hollow places filled. Heat is dissipated throughout space, causing minute gradations of tempera­ture, and the establishment of a kind of final equilibrium. The same law applies to human beings. Differences of caste, of rank, of manners and customs, of language and measurements, are everywhere being obliterated. And it seems by this time a tolerably well-established fact that the wars of the past were wars between strangers—strangers in race or religion, in culture or education—and consequently it was between people who were dissimilar that they appeared most violent. Therefore the march towards unity also represents a movement in the direction of peace.

Such a conception of solidarity seems more akin to the ideal which we have formed respecting it, and has by far the greatest moral value; for if I am to be responsible for the evil that has befallen another, or to be considered an accomplice in the evil which he has done, that can only be just in proportion to the extent to which that other is also myself. The practical result will be a preference for such modes of association as will group men together according to some general characteristic—a co-operative association rather than a trade union; for while the interest of the latter is in opposition both to that of the producer and to that of the public, the method of association in the former case is the most general imaginable, for every one at some time or other must be regarded as a consumer.