E. Belfort Bax

A French Economist on Collectivism [1]

(July 1884)

E. Belfort Bax, A French Economist on Collectivism, To-day, July-December 1884, Vol.II No.3 (New Series), pp.295-303.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, 1886, pp.38-47.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

Some one (Macaulay I think) said that a new doctrine passed through three stages, that of ridicule, argument, and acceptance. The new Economy, must have certainly reached the second of these stages, to judge by the flood of literature, which pretends to be serious in combating the theory of Scientific Socialism, that is pouring from the press both English and foreign. Whether the traditional Economists will reach the third stage, ere the shadow of death overtakes them and the society they represent, is doubtful. There is one virtue conspicuously absent in English writers on the same side, which strikes one at the first glance in M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s new work. He has certainly read what he is professing to criticise, but beyond this our praise for his fairness can hardly extend. His book is from beginning to end a tissue of cases of verbal quibble, of ignoratio elenchi, and here and there even, we fear, of wilful misrepresentation. We do not know whether it is the moral or the intellectual side of M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s character that is to blame for these things, but there they are.

In an introductory chapter the author sketches the progress of Socialism within the last few years. He here endeavours to fix the terms Socialist, Collectivist, Communist. The first he justly regards as generic, covering a variety of views more or less divergent. But the retention of the term Communism for the crude utopic conception of the direct, equal and periodical division of the objects of consumption, involves an ignoring of the more recent history of the word, which is surely, to say the least, injudicious. However, if we once grant M. Leroy-Beaulieu his definitions, we must admit that he adheres to them fairly consistently throughout. A general and somewhat discursive criticism follows (embracing Henry George, Laveleye, Marx, Schäffle, &c.), of the charges brought by Socialist and semi-Socialist writers against the current economic régime. This includes some chapters on primitive Communism, types of which are found in the Russian Mir and the Javan village community. The first division of the book terminates with a somewhat rambling homily on the terrible results likely to ensue from land-nationalisation. The second part is devoted to a more systematic attempt at criticism of the theoretic portions of Marx and Schäffle. (By-the-bye, why does M. Leroy-Beaulieu exclude the writings of Frederic Engels and Rodbertus from his animadversions?).

In an ordinary magazine review it is obviously impossible to touch upon all the points raised in a work such as the present. We are, therefore, forced to confine ourselves to a few typical instances of M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s mode of treatment. An attempt is made at starting to confound sundry definitions established among Socialists. The method, we may observe, of obliterating real distinctions by verbal jugglery, and thus apparently landing an opponent in a reductio-ad-absurdum, is a specious one, and a favourite with sophists. By taking a conception in its most abstract sense, carefully emptying it of all empirical content, it is easy enough to make everything nothing and nothing everything. It is this which Hegel means when he declares the identity of Being and non-Being. The pure abstract form of any conception can be turned inside out or outside in without making any difference. Thus the wily Liberal posed the honest Home-Ruler, who was pleading for his cause on the ground of the right of peoples to self-government, by contending that if Ireland were justified in detaching itself from the United Kingdom, so, on like grounds, was any English county, town, or even any group of persons inhabiting a particular plot of land, and that ergo the right of Ireland to self-government was illusory. Now M. Leroy-Beaulieu, as we were saying, tries this dialectical trick on. But he is not altogether successful in the performance. A little more practice is wanted. For instance, in seeking (p.17) to prove the fallacy of the distinction between Bourgeois and Proletaire, he asks whether the well-salaried manager of a wealthy company, or the captain of a large vessel, &c., inasmuch as these cannot be said to possess the instruments with which they work, are therefore to be ranked as proletaires; adding that if so, nine-tenths of those the Socialists disdainfully term Bourgeois are Proletaires. The answer to this is obvious, viz., that these middle-men are placed in a position of advantage with reference to the instruments of production which practically amounts pro tanto to possession. This position of advantage may arise from social connections, exceptional ability, or other things, but anyway it lifts them out of the arena of the labour market, and gives them a control (more or less) over the means of production, which the proletaire has not. Again, M. Leroy-Beaulieu sneeringly complains that, under a Collectivist régime, no one would be allowed to mend his neighbour’s trousers or shirt for a monetary consideration, inasmuch as he would be then employing his needle and thread for purposes of production, which would be a return to Individualism, and hence illegal. Let M. Leroy-Beaulieu reassure himself. All those who desire, to make a living by an individualistic mending of shirts and trousers will be allowed full liberty to satisfy their aspirations. We will not vouch for their being much patronised, for the probability of repairs of this character being executed better, more rapidly, and with less expenditure of labour in the State or communal factory is great. But, any way they would have their economic liberty to fatten on.

We find the assumption running through the whole of M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s book that the collectivist intends to suppress private production and exchange by prohibitory laws. This is a crucial instance of his want of grasp of the subject. Is it by prohibitory laws that the grande industrie has supplanted the petite industrie in well-nigh every branch of production? Prohibitory laws will be quite unnecessary when private enterprise ceases to be profitable, as it must when the whole of the means of production, distribution, and credit, on a large scale, are in the possession of the people themselves. References to primitive communism, whether as established in the Russian Mir, the Javan village, or the ancient German commune, are obviously quite pointless as arguments in discussing the organisation of the future, for the simple reason that they belong to an anterior moment of social evolution. Primitive undifferentiated Communism develops its own contradiction; a progress to some form of Individualism is inevitable; this again in its turn discovers within itself the germs of destruction. In the very act of realising its fullest and most complete life, its doom is sealed. The individual ceases to be producer, although possessing full control over the exchange of the commodities produced. The next step in progress is the differentiated Communism or Collectivism, which with the production already more than half-way socialised, completes the process, and gives to the community a control over the exchange of that which is its collective product. [2]

To confute the Collectivist by proving what he never doubts, namely, the tendency of primitive Communism to issue in Individualism is surely an ignoratio elenchi of the baldest kind. Yet an important portion of M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s criticism is based thereon. “Faut il recommencer,” says M. Leroy-Beaulieu, p.150, “une experience deja faites pendant de longs siècles et qui a echoué partout.” The fact is, of course, that the experience has never been made and never could have been made till now. Our author evidently regards progress as linear. A very little acquaintance with the course of historic development would have sufficed to show him that (if we may employ metaphor in the matter) it is rather spiral, that is, that the same fact invariably returns in a higher form, in short that the straight line theory is a fallacy. Even Mr. Herbert Spencer recognises this in a manner. And if it be recognised, what becomes of the argument that because one form of collective ownership was the economic beginning of Social evolution, that therefore another form cannot be regarded as the end. (See pp.148, et seq.)

We must confess to being surprised at the apparent inability of a Professor of Political Economy at the College de France to grasp the distinction between mere production per se and capitalistic production. We are told that Robinson in his island would have had capital if he had given himself the trouble to construct a wheelbarrow, since everything is capital that tends to increase the productivity of human labour. This again is either crass ignorance or a mere quibble about words, and does not really upset existent distinctions. It is quite clear that a radical distinction exists between production for the sake of using the product, and production for the sake of effecting a gain on the exchange of the product. It is this latter kind of production that Marx understands in accordance with current usage, as capitalistic production. To say that our ancestors of the stone age possessed capital in so far as they had flint implements wherewith to fashion their spear-heads, and that the distinction between these and the locomotive is only one of degree is certainly to evade the question. M. Leroy-Beaulieu may define capital in whatever eccentric way he likes, but in common fairness let him not blame Marx for not using the word according to his definition.

On page 254, M. Leroy-Beaulieu allows the cloven hoof to come out which proves him to be in hopeless confusion as to the dialectical method on which the whole of the critical portion of the Kapital is based. Marx describes money “as the final product of the circulation of commodities” adding “this final product of the circulation of commodities is the first form of the appearance of Capital.” This our eminent critic declares “inexact” in the first place because “Capital,” according to the Leroy-Beaulieu definition be it remembered, (which the prophetic spirit of Marx doubtless ought to have foreseen) can exist apart from money. (Our author had previously declared it possible to exist apart from exchange altogether, so that its existence apart from money must under these circumstances “go without saying.”) We then read “Dans bien des sociétés l’usage de l’or et de l’argent dans les échanges est rélativement nouveau, au moins comme fait universel.” Precisely; and this only proves that the principle enunciated by Marx is true no less historically than it is logically. The exactitude of Marx’s proposition was never more concisely admitted.

The truth of the thesis that capital everywhere presents itself historically in opposition to land, as money in one or other of its forms, is conceded, but pronounced to have hardly any importance from an economical paint of view. We are not surprised that it should have little, in the eyes of the author of the present volume, although, as a matter of fact, it gives us the philosophic key to the whole economic problem. Land is necessarily opposed to money, inasmuch as they are separated by the whole universe of commodities. They are logically antithetical by a whole series of momenta. At the one extreme of the process is Land, as the formless Matter of the economic world, at the other Money, as its matterless form. Land is the infinite possibility of all economic things, as yet undetermined to anything in particular. Money on the other hand is the indefinite actuality of all such things, their determination as exchange-value. Between these two economically unreal extremes lies the real world of commodities for use, brought into being by the action of human labour on land or its natural products. Labour determines land or its products, gives it a specific and an individual form, in the commodity. The issue of the series of specific forms, ascending in complexity, is the money or pure form, which although possessing no specific content in itself, is the abstract expression for the whole world of commodities to which it has led up. This abstraction, like Almighty God according to Scotus Erigena, may best be defined as “pure nothing,” from the real, i.e. the “utility” point of view. But as a matter of fact the Economists like the Theologians, have given their “pure-nothing” a local habitation and a name. Its name, too, is “Wonderful” “Counsellor,” “Mighty God” (of the 19th century), the Everlasting Father (of the “self-made” Man), and (pace Mr. John Bright,) the “Prince of Peace.” The abstract symbol or expression for exchange-value, money, acquires a fictitious reality in proportion as exchange-value itself dominates the world, in other words, as commodities are produced for exchange and not for use, and on this, be it remembered, does our capitalistic system rest.

The third chapter of the present work contains an impassioned homily on “Prescription,” which is said to be the sole safeguard against universal war, &c. The idea of “prescription” is apparently introduced to screen the present possessors of landed property which was originally confiscated from ecclesiastical and public lands. As an argument against “nationalisation” it is however singularly inept. It applies a principle which, in our anarchical society rightly enough obtains as between one individual and another, to the relations of the individual to the community – a very different thing. The so-called “prescriptive right” simply means that mere possession gives a right to the individual possessing, as against any other individual, who cannot prove a greater right qua individual. But as against society, prescription has no existence. “Society gave and society taketh away; blessed be the name of Society.”

As regards nationality, the principle of prescription is similar. So long as nationalism exists, each nation by virtue of established possession has the right to undisturbed enjoyment of its own territory as against any other nation. But once place politics on an international footing and it is evident one nation will not be able to plead prescription against any measure decided upon, by the European or the World-federation for the common good. So much for M. Leroy-Beaulieu’s attempted assimilation of the principle of individual to that of national land-ownership. (see Chap. V)

We had noted many more things concerning M. Leroy-Beaulieu and his book for animadversion, but enough we think has been said to show its general character. Of course we have the stock arguments, that the capitalist is an organiser of labour, that the difficulties of direction and organisation in a Socialist State would be insuperable, that Mr. Giffen, who is described as a “statisticien très exact,” says that the position of the working-classes is ameliorating, &c., &c. A great deal is made of the endeavour to prove that the “grief historique” of Marx is unfounded because, forsooth, it is possible to discover other subsidiary causes contributing to the origination of the accumulation of capital besides those leading ones mentioned by Marx. We would observe in conclusion that the case of Scientific Socialism must be indeed strong, when a leading French economist like M. Leroy-Beaulieu, after having taken in hand the case against it, cuts so sorry a figure.

E. Belfort Bax




1. Le Collectivisme. Examen critique du nouveau Socialisme, par Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Membre de L’institut, &c., Paris Guillemin et Cie.

2. The above, of course, is an exposition in the abstract of the law of economic development. In the absence of other factors every society and, a fortiori, the history of the world would follow precisely this course, just as in the absence of all resistance motion would pursue a straight line to infinity. But, as a matter of fact, in the concrete there are other elements present which retard, accelerate, or modify, this process at any particular stage. Ethical, religious, and political forms react upon the economical. Thus in the earliest civilisations of the world we find the religious element in the society dominating the whole; a hierarchy overlays the original basis, which while modifying it, preserves it from dissolution. In the classical period a partial individualism obtains in economics but is not yet reflected in Ethics or religion. In the period of the later Roman Empire, Individualism obtains in Ethics and religion, but the political hierarchy remains, and its forms are assimilated by the new ecclesiasticism (partly as a necessity of its existence). A new element now supervenes. The Germanic barbarians in full village community pour in. The Roman imperial order, and the hierarchy of the Church, the forms of both of which are indirectly traceable to the organisation of the early theocratic monarchies, were now met by simple primitive communism, Christian individualism remaining, in theory at least, the ethical basis of society. The fusion of these principles had as its result Catholic-feudal Europe. Now a complete Collectivism of society can never arise except out of one in which Individualism is completely worn out, i.e., in which it has completely prevailed not merely in Economics, but in Politics, Religion, and Ethics. In our modern society, for the first time in the world’s history, this condition is realised. Individualist anarchy dominates in every department of human life. In the 16th century the mediaeval hierarchy was broken up. From that time forward Individualism has steadily extended its sway, and now reigns supreme. Hence it is that now, for the first time in the world’s history, a Collectivist reconstruction becomes possible.


Last updated on 15.7.2006