Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - French Socialists Before Marx (2001)

Pamela Pilbeam, French Socialists Before Marx (Acumen, 2000)
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: April 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 12: Summer 2001  

Marxism has been described as a convergence of German philosophy, British political economy and French socialism. But far more has been written about Marx’s debt to Hegel and Ricardo than about his relation to Fourier. Yet it was the “Utopian Socialists” who first attempted to define the socialist goal. Today, after the collapse of Stalinism, with no more ‘actually existing socialism’ to muddy the waters, the question acquires a new relevance.

In this context, Pamela Pilbeam’s account of the early French socialists makes an interesting contribution to the discussion. Pilbeam has examined the remnants of Utopian socialism in the French provincial archives, and she has amassed a wealth of detail on the early socialists. Figures like Ange Guépin and Jeanne Deroin are rescued from obscurity, and she shows the distinctions between Fourier and the later Fourierists.

The lines were often blurred, not simply between reform and revolution, but between fantasy and reality, and between politics and philanthropy. One minute the Fourierists were prophesying that human beings would grow tails; the next they were founding agricultural colonies for young offenders, such as that at Mettray, where Jean Genet was later to be an inmate. Pilbeam is excited by the thought of socialists giving literacy classes and free clinics. But such activities, however laudable, in no way challenged the existing order.

Pilbeam deals with the early socialists’ attitudes to religion, education and the emancipation of women. In particular she shows that there was a rich current of feminism within the French socialist milieu. It was the Jacobin tradition - rooted in an artisan world where the family was a unit of production - that sought to banish that feminism from the left and allowed the French right to take credit for female suffrage. She also shows the radical challenge made to the norms of the bourgeois family, pointing out that Fourier “encouraged a sex life as active, and as public, as that of a promiscuous pigeon”. The account is illustrated with some contemporary drawings, notably Daumier’s cartoon of the cloakroom at an 1848 Women’s Club, where a lady is handing in an umbrella and a husband. (Daumier was a misogynist, but the image could easily be recuperated by radical feminism.)

In the second part she deals with the idea of association before and during the Second Republic. This is valuable in that she shows clearly that, for the French Utopians, socialism was on no way equated with centralised state ownership and control. But she is at her weakest in discussing the events of 1848. She denies any socialist content to the June Days (presumably because socialism has no necessary connection to the self-activity of the working class) and blames a “Marxist slant” on the history of the Second Republic for the erroneous belief that the National Workshops had something to do with socialism. She is apparently unaware that in 1850 Marx wrote that the workshops were “English workhouses in the open” and a place of “tedious, monotonous, unproductive earthworks”.

Pilbeam’s own sympathies are very much with reformist socialism and she is visibly hostile to the insurrectionary tradition running from Babeuf to Blanqui. Here perhaps she draws the lines too sharply; many workers turned to Fourier for a vision of the future, but to Blanqui when they needed a gun. Indeed, Pilbeam notes that Blanqui had co-operative relations with Fourierists. And she fails to draw out some of the paradoxes of early socialism, such as the fact that the Fourierists were among the most enthusiastic advocates of the colonisation of Algeria.

Pilbeam tries to draw parallels with the present, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. In my view she is fundamentally mistaken when she seeks to connect the various Utopian socialists with Blair’s New Labour and Jospin’s “plural left”. Even the most moderate philanthropist of the 1840s wanted to narrow the gap between rich and poor; Blair is quite happy to widen it.

More relevant would be a comparison with the emerging anti-capitalist movement. This, like Utopian socialism, contains a mass of different and sometimes contradictory impulses, in revolt against an unjust and decaying civilisation. It is absolutely right to celebrate the humane aspirations and intellectual diversity of both movements. But it is also necessary to argue for rigorous clarity in analysis and strategy. It is here that the “scientific socialism” of Marx (which contrasts sharply with the bizarre pseudo-science of French socialists like Considérant, who saw history developing in accordance with “plans established by God in conformity with mathematical laws”) acquires its full and urgent relevance.

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