Principles of Socialism: Manifesto of 19th Century Democracy

Victor Considerant, Principles of Socialism: Manifesto of 19th Century Democracy, Joan Roelofs trans. (Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 2006).

Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism: Manifesto of 19th Century Democracy, originally written in 1843, is at once a passionate and insightful effort to foment a movement for social reform and a work that captures the crippling limitations of what has been termed ‘utopian’ socialism. Although the utopian socialists, most importantly Considerant’s mentor Charles Fourier, earned the praise of Marx and Engels for their critical analysis of bourgeois society, it is hardly surprising that Considerant’s Manifesto fails precisely where Engels notes utopian socialism inevitably fails: in spite of his insight, Considerant’s socialism relies on counterintuitive methods of resistance, reform and social transformation and is premised on the artificial faith that socialism will reshape the world simply through the discovery of powerful theory and its presentation to the rational –- and infinitely perfectible –- subjects of the world. This Manifesto is thus the work of a thinker stuck between the Romantic and Enlightenment traditions, and bound by the limitations of both.

Considerant, like most utopian socialists, was mobilized by the failure of the French Revolution. Although the bourgeois revolutionary project survived the early frost of Thermidor, the reaction against the revolution -– and the Terror it employed –- clouded even progressive minds. This left a problematic and conflicted intellectual legacy to add to the burdens of unfulfilled democratic promises. The task that thinkers like Fourier and Considerant set for themselves was nothing less than reconstructing the world in the wake of the revolution’s traumatic upheavals. This legacy clearly marks Considerant’s Manifesto, in which organization – of both a reformist movement and a new associational social structure – is a central and omnipresent concern, almost an overwhelming mania. Considerant’s aim is to liberate human beings from the enervating -– even fatal -– social structure of the world around them, and thereby enable individuals to collectively take control of their destiny through a restructuring of social, political and economic relations, thus constituting themselves as genuinely human subjects in a world turned upside down. It is little surprise, therefore, that in the Manifesto, Considerant relies heavily, and often uncritically, on the language of Christian salvation, and frames socialist demands and goals as consecrated aspects of God’s will for mankind.

The Manifesto, although not a strictly original theoretical effort, was important as a vehicle for diffusing Fourier’s ideas. Without Considerant’s efforts the works of Fourier would likely be forgotten or thoroughly discounted. In reshaping the work of Fourier into a program addressed to a broad audience, Considerant gradually crafted a Fourierist vision able to stand apart from that of the master himself. The Manifesto marks an essential moment in the transformation of Fourierism into an international movement; with 1847 re-publication, Considerant’s emerged as a self-identified socialist thinker and activist.

In these pages the passionate aspects of Fourier’s theory are muted, the plans for a utopian social order are simplified to the basic principle of association, and a new and stalwart commitment to reform rises from the ashes of what has been stripped away. Considerant, indeed, makes no effort to discuss the practical development of a phalanstery, and instead proposes centralized administration for his utopia of associational relations. This Manifesto reflects Considerant’s growing realization that hands-on political involvement was necessary to the realization of social progress. In stripping away many of the most unique elements of Fourier, Considerant not only cast off individual concepts that might prove offensive to the public; he also rejected the generally apolitical quality of Fourier’s vision. The Manifesto thus is a work of intellectual and political cunning in which Considerant draws the cutting insights of Fourier into an attempt to reshape real world politics and social organization. In this sense, Considerant makes a clear advance from his mentor, and presages the evolution of socialism.

Considerant poignantly articulates the moral and social degradation of bourgeois society through an account -– astonishingly advanced for its time -– of the economic relations between classes and individuals. He saw, for example, that the bourgeoisie was cementing and expanding its dominance through its control over the means of production, and was able to accurately and starkly portray –- as was Fourier before him -– the proletariat as starving amidst overproduction and a new advent of luxuries. For Considerant, indeed, free competition is a dehumanizing monstrosity that abnegates all meritorious human qualities, like compassion and the striving for perfection. Considerant demands that all individuals have the right to do work that is meaningful and engaging. He thus stands in unison with Marx and Engels, and as his Manifesto was widely known in the 1840s, it is quite possible that it influenced Marx and Engels in writing the Communist Manifesto.

The limits of Considerant’s work, however, might actually be of more interest than the striking potential of his texts. He envisions a socialist renaissance as a project not of the working class but of all humanity. Although he describes ‘class warfare’ and the antagonistic relation of workers to the bourgeoisie, he believes that his Manifesto will serve as a rallying point for cross-class initiative. He emphatically resists the growing demand for the abolition of private property, and limits his reformist goals to the establishment of a democratic constitutional monarchy. He entirely rejects the use of violence. He hoped that a democratic state could be created peacefully in response to his appeal, and that this state would then undertake social reform.

The primary failing of Considerant’s work is that his penetrating insights into bourgeois society, even though tempered with his activism, are without realistic means of implementation. In the title of this work, for example, Considerant is among the first social reformers to link the advent of socialism with the prior development of democracy. He fails to note, however, the obstacles placed by the capitalist order in the way of democratic process. He cannot understand that the brutal economic system of capitalism is perfectly rational in its own instrumental terms. Nor does he see that the bourgeoisie, on the basis of its class interest, will resist any socialist scheme. Perhaps most dangerously, he values stability as much as he does progress. True progress toward social justice is impossible without the revolutionary consciousness that Considerant rejects as retrograde (at one point, he goes so far as to thank the doctrinaires for restraining the revolutionary torrent!). Although he was aware of class conflict, he failed to grasp its full meaning and implications. As a result, his methods and goals are perfectly antipodal to those of Marx and Engels.

For Marx, critically, the bourgeois character of the leaders of the democ-soc movement shows most evidently in their insistence that the citizens of Paris ought to join the 1849 protests unarmed -– and this suggestion came precisely from Considerant. Considerant’s efforts between 1848 and 1849 show that he was unable to bridge the divide between the classes, as his appeals for conciliation fell only on deaf ears. Considerant himself, therefore, came to see the dangers of depending on the democratic process to provide democratic outcomes.

It seems odd, at first glance, that Marx and Engels chose to label the works of Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier and their disciples ‘utopian,’ as all socialism is in part predicated on the utopian conviction that human emancipation can and must be achieved under a new system of social, political and economic organization. Considerant’s work, however, provides a clear example of why the label was applied: Considerant’s Manifesto is the work of a thinker who sees the concrete realities and injustices propagated under capitalism, but is unable or unwilling to develop categories of understanding and explication capable of making sense of that vision. Because Considerant failed to truly grasp the import of class conflict and the capitalist order -– and because he never probed the material conditions that demanded the genesis of the socialism he advocated -– he developed a method of resistance that was incapable of altering or challenging bourgeois dominance in any meaningful way. From the perspective of Marx and Engels, Considerant’s failure to make the logical move and develop a concrete basis for genuine resistance is an almost counter-revolutionary abdication. Considerant is, therefore, a ‘utopian’ in the original meaning of the word -– his program as a method of resistance can lead us ‘no place.’ Considerant thus could proceed no further than these pages: although his insights are of dramatic importance to the development of future socialist theories and movements, his resistance method as such is stillborn.

Marx and Engels have been accused – by writers such as Georges Sorel, Morris R. Cohen, Harold J. Laski and W. Tcherkesoff – of plagiarizing their Communist Manifesto from Considerant’s Manifesto. A present-day rereading of Considerant’s work can lay these hollow accusations to rest. Although Considerant and Marx and Engels begin from the same premise, they adopt diametrically opposed means, which inevitably lead to radically different ends. The fallacious charge of plagiarism must be cut away so that we can see Considerant’s contribution as an important forefather of Marx. Considerant, indeed, enters history not as a visionary theorist of utopian systems, but as a path-breaking activist. Through his efforts as a journalist, lecturer, popularizer, organizer and political office holder in the 1840s, Considerant provides an excellent model for a disciplined, and yet flexible and effective, socialist practice. His argument for a non-violent political transition to a democratic socialism, coupled with his tireless efforts as an activist, prefigures the trajectory of the Social Democratic parties that began to form in Europe following the union of Ferdinand Lassalle’s General German Worker’s Party united with Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel’s Social Democratic Labor Party to form the SPD in 1875. Considerant thus leaves us the important dual legacy of his criticism of bourgeois society, which presages scientific socialism, and his own political praxis, which is a harbinger of the Second International.

Great thanks must be offered to Joan Roelofs for ably translating the Manifesto and thereby bringing Considerant back to our attention. A careful and thorough investigation of figures like Considerant is essential to our continued study and practice of socialism today. Considerant’s Manifesto helps show how vibrant –- and varied –- the socialist tradition has been since its earliest expressions. Considerant’s optimism, moreover, should serve as both an inspiration and a warning to intellectuals and activists today hoping to dedicate themselves, as he did, to the achievement of a better world.

Reviewed by Rutgers University
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