Although the causes of the French Revolution were in the main material and economic, and the influence of the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau and others upon the mass of the people have been exaggerated, there can be no doubt that the views of Morelly, Mably, L’Ange, Chaumette and, later, Babeuf had an important effect in producing the sections of Communists, peaceful and forcible, who afterwards were prominent in French social risings and conspiracies. These authors and agitators do genuinely come under the head of Utopian Socialists. That is to say, their deification of man as a degenerated product from what the eighteenth-century deity, Nature, had made him in the beginning, and their elaboration of a human society, developed not from historic growth, but from their ethical conceptions of what man ought to be, are, in their essence, ideals, and, as applied to the conditions of their day, ideals alone. They believed that it was then possible, by appeals to human sentiment and human reason, to arrive at a series of communal arrangements which would supply the world with its material needs, and thus remove all the chief stimuli to crime. Private property would, in this way, be replaced by collective and communal property; rapacious individuals and predatory classes would alike disappear. Convinced of the natural goodness of human nature, they wished to remove all the artificial surroundings which had diverted it from the true relationships that should subsist among mankind.
The first and, on the whole, the most influential of these pleasing theorists was Morelly. His principal work was first published in 1755, or thirteen years before Rousseau’s Contrat Social. It was entitled Code de la Nature ou le Veritable esprit de Ses Lois – de tout temps négligé ou ineconnu [?]. But twelve years before, in his Essai sur l’Esprit Humain, and two years afterwards, in 1745, in his Essai sur le Coeur Humain, he had analysed human passions and human intelligence, and set forth a new plan of education. In his earliest book he gives two motives of the intelligence: “the desire for knowledge and the love of order.” His Code de la Nature was also preceded by the Basiliade, a purely fanciful work, which he claimed to have translated from the Hindu of the famous Indian fabulist, Pilpay; probably, as one of his admirers and critics says, in order to avoid the ridicule which might otherwise have been evoked by his very advanced opinions. The Code de la Nature is the more formal expression of the semi-poetical ideas contained in the Basiliade. To give anything but an outline of Morelly’s opinions would be out of place; but it is certainly not fair to think of him as a mere imitator of Plato or Sir Thomas More. His sketches of what might be done in the way of economic reorganisation and education, physical, moral and intellectual, anticipated Owen, probably influenced St Simon, and unquestionably acted as guides to Fourier, in his proposals for the establishment of communal phalansteries. Were it possible to pull up human society by the roots and transplant it into communal cities, Morelly’s plans were perhaps as good as any that could be laid down. Moreover, it is interesting to note that his supernal admiration for Nature, in her creation and adaptation of man, did not blind him to the defects of her handiwork, when modified by the embruting institution of private property, which Morelly frankly denounced as the root of all evil. And he was a harsh judge.
Those who were not prepared to work under Morelly’s communal associations were to undergo punishments of the old familiar kind, until they could appreciate the infinite advantages of brotherly co-operation in the provision for and enjoyment of life. Thus we have it under his own hand that “anyone who attempted to abrogate the sacred laws in order to introduce detestable private property, after having been tried and condemned by the supreme senate, shall be incarcerated for life in a dungeon constructed in the public cemetery, as a raving madman and an enemy of society. The name of the culprit will be for ever effaced from the roll of citizens.” His children will be brought up in other communities, without, however, suffering in any way for the sins of their parent. Adultery, idleness and other trivial offences arc punished in various ways. In fact, Morelly’s designs for enforcing the fraternity of Communism upon the recalcitrant were a sort of mild admixture of Incadom and Bolshevism. But these mistaken suggestions for his new world, like his cut-and-dried ideas of “cities” not exceeding one thousand, or at most two thousand, inhabitants, may be passed over as genial aberrations. Yet the objects he had in view as the essential conditions of success in his cooperative communities have since been considered applicable on a much wider scale, and in an immensely more advanced society, by many who label themselves scientific Socialists. The human mind, in this as in some other cases – notably in mathematics – seems to have been partially anticipatory of social forms still to be reached by inevitable human evolution. It is well to repeat that these previsions were first formulated in 1745 and given definite shape in 1755, one hundred and seventy-five years ago, forty-four years before the fall of the Bastille and the commencement of the French Revolution. His objects were :
Of the moral results which would accrue to all members of society were this system of general fraternal co-operation universally applied, Morelly naturally writes with vigour and enthusiasm. He rightly assumes that the provision of wealth for a society whose members all shared the common effort of production by the light labour of all would be perfectly easy even with the unscientific methods of agriculture – their most important industry – then prevailing. In 1802, nearly sixty years later, Owen made his famous declaration that “wealth might be made as plentiful as water” if all worked moderately; and he found no one disposed to refute him. But it is remarkable that Morelly, like his successor, Owen, considering the reorganisation of society from the ethical standpoint, and wishing to make human animals into highly intelligent and noble men, should accept the economic basis as the inevitable groundwork of his improved society – Utopian as that society certainly was in his setting forth. It is not surprising, however, that humane and enthusiastic Frenchmen, such as Chaumette and others during the French Revolution, and Baboeuf, Blanqui, Raspail and many afterwards, should be moved to attack the victorious bourgeoisie, who did their utmost to prevent Morelly’s ideas from taking practical shape.
These ideas, neglected, except at first (when Le Code de la Nature was ascribed to Diderot), by the lettered class, had steadily crept in among the people; and it is no wonder that truly patriotic revolutionists, who saw how little the whole French working class had gained by the Revolution itself, control of the army and its chiefs? The fate of the unfortunate Baboeuf, who, with his associates, strove to make head against this growing domination of the new bourgeoisie, in favour of the democratic elements of the revolution and the starving people – for times were still desperately bad – did not encourage others to follow in his wake. He suffered death by the guillotine, not because of any political crime that he had committed, but because he acted on the principles of that very Revolution which these wealthy reactionary parvenus had championed and then basely abandoned.
The seed which Morelly had sown, and Chaumette, Le Roux, L’Ange and others watered, brought forth, unfortunately, only self-sacrifice and death for those who allowed the fruits of his conceptions to allure them. Jaurès puts the position very clearly. “Not the most far-sighted of them all championed the substitution of common property for the oligarchical property of the great manufacturers or the distributed property of the master craftsmen.” “The more Utopian communists of the eighteenth century thought only of an agrarian communism” – this is generally true, though it is certainly not so manifest in the case of Morelly – “and their industry appeared to them as the field for personal initiative and individual property. The master craftsmen likewise adhered passionately to their relative autonomy and to their property, no matter how illusory it might be. It needed nearly a century and the growth of the great mechanical factories, to teach the master craftsmen of Lyons, of Roanne, of Saint Etienne that the social evolution inevitably condemned them to become proletarians: barely even to-day do they begin to conceive of the communal system. How could they have done so more than a hundred years ago? “The most that could have been achieved,” Jaures continues, “was a demand for protective legislation limiting the day’s work, fixing a minimum wage with liberty of combination.” What does all this mean save that, however desirous men of genius may be to build up a Kingdom of Heaven upon earth for mankind, it is wholly impossible to create one either by force, or by reason, until such time as the inevitable course of evolution has placed the means of bringing this about at the disposal of humanity. Meanwhile the many are crushed under the fortunes of the few, and a new slavery replaces the old.
Morelly was a philosopher and a man of letters. L’Ange, the Utopian Socialist and communal propagandist of Lyons, was an artisan. He, too, half-a-century after Morelly, was even more of a Utopian Socialist than the theorist of the library. He saw clearly enough that the workers produce all the wealth and are deprived of the whole of what they create, save just enough to keep body and soul together, by the idlers who dub themselves owners. But manual toiler of the great silk manufacturing centre of Lyons as he was, he could go no further than the land problem. There is no conception of the organisation of the victims of a class war as one great army against the exploiters of labour. Moreover, he appeals to the King, and looks for some heaven-sent deliverer to come forward and liberate the people from their oppressors. But nothing can be more outspoken than this: “The truth which enlightens us tears asunder the absurd veil of property, with which our enemies drape themselves in the insolent pride of sloth. The gold on which they plumed themselves is only useful and wholesome when in the hands of us labourers; it becomes pestiferous when accumulated in the safes of capitalists, who are to the body politic what ulcers are to our physical frames ... the land is settled only by us: we are they who work, we are the first owners, the first and last useful occupiers. The idlers who call themselves owners can but grab the surplus over and above our actual subsistence; that proves at least our co-ownership. But if, naturally, we are co-owners and the sole cause of all returns, the right to reduce our subsistence and to deprive us of the surplus is the right of a brigand.” L’Ange therefore demands from the King the surrender of his Civil List and the expropriation of all landed property. Later, when democracy had made way and L’Ange himself had been elected to the municipality of Lyons, he no longer appealed to the King, but set to work to elaborate schemes for production, instead of complete expropriation, which anticipated the designs of Fourier. Whether L’Ange had ever studied the works of Morelly does not appear, but probably the ideas promulgated by that Socialist were known in Lyons as general projects of social reconstruction.
I have thus dealt with these two, even now comparatively unknown, authors because in their works we find the origins not only of the communistic designs of direct action under arms, as set forth by Chaumette and Babeuf, but also the outlines of the programmes of Fourier, Cabet, Victor Considerant, and even of the founders of Brook Farm. Here, too, we have the anarchistic communism summarised by Proudhon in his famous La Proprieté c’est le Vol, a repetition in more striking form of L’Ange’s claim that the ownership of the non-producers and the idle is “brigandage”; and here is even the outline of Kropotkin’s eloquent Appeal to the Young. It is all, in fact, an echo of the cry of the oppressed toilers ringing down through the centuries, and yet another proof of the futility, as a matter of practice, of endeavouring to attain results which the conditions of the time decree to be unrealisable.
In France more than in any other country the desire to anticipate events, to proceed from the ideal to the real, from theory to practice, is a permanent influence with the people; and in Paris, of all cities, the dreams of a higher humanity urge on men and women to deeds of hopeless heroism. But the French Revolution, by planting the peasantry firmly on the soil, furnished a vast body of individualist conservatism to outweigh the fine humanitarian collectivism of the towns; while still keeping the peasants themselves ill-requited toilers at the most arduous of all occupations – the cultivation of small plots of land.
Last updated on 7.7.2006