The 1840s Battle against Socialism by les Économistes

The 1848 Revolution in France saw the first attempt by socialists to create a government which would introduce some key aspects of the modern welfare state as we know it today, namely government guaranteed (taxpayer funded) unemployment relief, make work schemes, and the right to a job for all workers. This was vigorously opposed by a group of free market political economists (known as “les Économistes”) who became organised during the 1840s in Paris and played an active and important role during the Revolution in opposing socialism in the press, on the streets, and in the Chamber of Deputies. This talk will examine how les Économistes organised themselves to fight socialism, some of the key ideas in their ideological battles, the strategies they adopted, and the lessons present day liberals can draw from their struggle.

David M. Hart was born and raised in Sydney and has degrees from Macquarie University, Stanford University, and King’s College, Cambridge. He taught in the history department at the University of Adelaide for 15 years before moving to the U.S. to work for Liberty Fund, a non-profit educational foundation based in Indianapolis. For the past 13 years he has been the Director of the Online Library of Liberty Project and is the academic editor of a large translation project for LF of the works of two of the leading members of the French Economists, Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari. David has also co-edited two anthologies of French Classical Liberal thought, one in French and one in English.

david hart

Frenchman Pierre Leroux invented the word “socialist” to describe his ideal community in which everybody enjoyed liberty and equality without the injustices he believed were created by private property and the free market. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848 and drew up an elaborate proposal for a new constitution based upon socialist ideas. All aspects of the new society had to be drawn up in advance by the legislators, including the flag, the colours of clothing people were allowed to wear, and the national tree which had to be planted everywhere.

The national colours were to be white, gold, azure, and purple and each of the main divisions of government would require the citizens who worked in it to wear the colour corresponding to their division – white for administrators, gold for those who worked in scientific occupations, azure for those who worked for the legislative branch of government, and purple for the executive branch. Outside of working hours, all citizens had to wear all four colours of the national flag to show their solidarity with the state.

Leroux chose the poplar tree as the state tree because its shape best exemplified the similarity and equality of all citizens. Every commune in France would be required to plant rows of identical popular trees in order to make this point clear to the citizenry. In the cartoon, a grateful-looking Leroux receives a gift of four small poplar trees by an inmate of the largest insane asylum in France – Charenton. He is wearing bells which he uses to warn people that he is mad and to keep away from him. He is also carrying signs which refer to the philosophical idea of the ‘self’ and the ‘non-self’, perhaps suggesting that Leroux’s socialist ideas would lead to the destruction of ‘the self’ if his ideas about egality were implemented.

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