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Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes

Few ideas are as closely associated with Marxism as the concepts of class and class conflict. It is, for instance, impossible to imagine what a Marxist philosophy of history or a Marxist revolutionary theory would be in their absence. Yet, as with much else in Marxism, these concepts remain ambiguous and contradictory. For instance, while Marxist doctrine supposedly grounds classes in the process of production, The Communist Manifesto asserts in its famous opening lines:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another…

On examination these opposed pairs turn out to be, either wholly or in part, not economic, but legal, categories.

Neither Marx nor Engels ever resolved the contradictions and ambiguities in their theory in this area. The last chapter of the third and final volume of Capital, published posthumously in 1894, is titled, "Classes." Here Marx states: "The first question to be answered is this: What constitutes a class?" "At first glance" it would seem to be "the identity of revenue and sources of revenue." That, however, Marx finds inadequate, since "from this standpoint, physicians and officials, e.g., would also constitute two classes…" Distinct classes would also be yielded by

the infinite fragmentation of interest [sic] and rank into which the division of social labor splits laborers as well as capitalists and landlords — the latter, e.g., into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mine owners and owners of fisheries.

At this point, there is a note by Engels: "Here the manuscript breaks off." This was not on account of Marx's sudden demise, however. The chapter dates from a first draft composed by Marx between 1863 and 1867, that is, sixteen to twenty years before his death. Engels's explanation is that "Marx used to leave such concluding summaries until the final editing, just before going to press, when the latest historical developments furnished him with unfailing regularity with proofs of the most laudable timeliness for his theoretical propositions." This explanation would be more convincing if in the intervening years before his death Marx had elsewhere provided a clear definition of classes consistent with the other parts of his theory.

But whatever the defects of the Marxist concept of classes and of conflicts among them, it remains the case that Marxism is so closely identified with these ideas that an important fact is often lost sight of: not only was the notion of class conflict a commonplace for decades before Marx began to write, but a quite different theory of class conflict had been worked out which itself played a role in the genealogy of Marx's ideas.

Marxism and the Classical Liberal Doctrine

Adolphe Blanqui was the protégé of Jean-Baptiste Say and succeeded him in the chair of political economy at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. In what is probably the first history of economic thought, published in 1837, Blanqui wrote:

In all the revolutions, there have always been but two parties opposing each other; that of the people who wish to live by their own labor, and that of those who would live by the labor of others…. Patricians and plebeians, slaves and freemen, guelphs and ghibellines, red roses and white roses, cavaliers and roundheads, liberals and serviles, are only varieties of the same species.

Blanqui quickly makes clear what he understands to have been at issue in these social struggles:

So, in one country, it is through taxes that the fruit of the laborer's toil is wrested from him, under pretense of the good of the state; in another, it is by privileges, declaring labor a royal concession, and making one pay dearly for the right to devote himself to it. The same abuse is reproduced under more indirect, but no less oppressive, forms, when, by means of custom-duties, the state shares with the privileged industries the benefits of the taxes imposed on all those who are not privileged.

Blanqui was by no means the originator of this liberal analysis of the conflict of classes; rather, he drew on a perspective that was widespread in liberal circles in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Marx and Engels were aware of the existence of at least some forms of this earlier notion. In a letter written in 1852 to his follower, Joseph Weydemeyer, the first exponent of Marxism in the United States, Marx asserts:

no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes.

Yet, as with much else in Marxism, these concepts remain ambiguous and contradictory.

The two most prominent "bourgeois historians" whom he names are the Frenchmen, Francois Guizot and Augustin Thierry ; two years later, Marx referred to Thierry as "the father of the 'class struggle' in French historiography.

This "bourgeois" lineage of the Marxist theory was freely conceded by Marx's immediate followers. Towards the end of his life, Engels suggested that so little did individuals count in history, as compared to the great underlying social forces, that even in the absence of Marx himself, "the materialist conception of history" would have been discovered by others; his evidence is that "Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, and all the English historians up to 1850" were striving towards it. Franz Mehring, Plekhanov, and and other scholars of Marxism in the period of the Second International emphasized the roots of the Marxist class conflict doctrine in the liberal historiography of the French Restoration. Lenin, too, credited "the bourgeoisie," not Marx, with having originated the theory of the class struggle.

Sources of Industrialisme

Of the French historians mentioned, only Augustin Thierry had delved deeply into the subject and had, in fact, participated in shaping a coherent, radical-liberal analysis of classes and class conflict. The purpose of this paper is to sketch the background and content of this original analysis and to discuss various points that arise in connection with it. The possibility that it might prove superior to Marxism as an instrument for interpreting social and political history will also be canvassed.

Liberal class conflict theory emerged in a polished form in France, in the period of the Bourbon Restoration, following the final defeat and exile of Napoleon. From 1817 to 1819, two young liberal intellectuals, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, edited the journal, Le Censeur Européen; beginning with the second volume (issue), Augustin Thierry collaborated closely with them. The Censeur Européen developed and disseminated a radical version of liberalism, one that continued to influence liberal thought up to the time of Herbert Spencer and beyond. It can be viewed as a core-constituent — and thus one of the historically defining elements — of authentic liberalism. In this sense, a consideration of the worldview of the Censeur Européen is of great importance in helping to give shape and content to the protean concept, "liberalism." Moreover, through Henri de Saint-Simon and his followers and through other channels, it had an impact on socialist thought as well. Comte and Dunoyer called their doctrine Industrialisme, Industrialism.

There were several major sources of Industrialism. One was Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the last and most famous of the Idéologue school of French liberals, whose friend, Thomas Jefferson, arranged for the translation and publication of his Treatise on Political Economy in the United States before it appeared in France. Tracy's definition of society was crucial:

Society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges. It is never anything else, in any epoch of its duration, from its commencement the most unformed, to its greatest perfection. And this is the greatest eulogy we can give to it, for exchange is an admirable transaction, in which the two contracting parties always both gain; consequently, society is an uninterrupted succession of advantages, unceasingly renewed for all its members.

Tracy's position was that "commerce is society itself … It is an attribute of man… It is the source of all human good … " For Tracy, in the words of a student of his thought, commerce was a "panacea," "the world's civilizing, rationalizing, and pacifying force."

Comte, Dunoyer, and Augustin Thierry and his brother Amédée were frequent guests at Tracy's salon in the rue d'Anjou, a center of liberal social life in Paris. Here the young liberal intellectuals mingled with Stendhal, Benjamin Constant, Lafayette, and others.

Marx wrote: "No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle…"

Constant's work, De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation, which appeared in 1813, is another major source of Industrialist thought. Dunoyer credits Constant with being the first to distinguish sharply between modern and ancient civilization, thus opening up the question of the distinctive aim of modern civilization and the form of organization appropriate to that aim. From the reactionary author Montlosier was derived the view of the importance of conquest in the social predominance of the nobility over the commoners. The liberal reaction against the militarism and despotism of the Napoleonic period also played a part.

The Role of Jean-Baptiste Say

There is little doubt, however, that the chief influence on Industrialism was Jean-Baptiste Say's Traité de l'économie politique, the second edition of which appeared in 1814 and the third in 1817. Comte and Dunoyer probably became personally acquainted with Say during the Hundred Days, in the spring of 1815. Together with Thierry, they were participants at Say's salon. (Comte later became Say's son-in-law.) The third edition of Say's Traité was accorded a two-part review of over 120 pages in the Censeur Européen.

Say held that wealth is comprised of what has value, and value is based on utility.

[The different ways of producing] all consist in taking a product in one state and putting it into another in which it has more utility and value … in one way or another, from the moment that one creates or augments the utility of things, one augments their value, one is exercising an industry, one is producing wealth.

All those members of society who contribute to the creation of values are deemed productive, but Say awards pride of place to the entrepreneur. Say was one of the first to realize the boundless possibilities of a free economy, led by creative entrepreneurs. As one commentator summarizes his message:

The productive power of industry is limited only by ignorance and by the bad administration of states. Spread enlightenment and improve governments, or, rather, prevent them from doing harm; there will be no limit that can be assigned to the multiplication of wealth.

There exist, however, categories of persons who merely consume wealth rather than produce it. These unproductive classes include the army, the government, and the state-supported clergy — what could be called the "reactionary" classes, associated by and large with the Old Regime.

However, Say was quite aware that anti-productive and anti-social activity was also possible, indeed, altogether common, when otherwise productive elements employed state power to capture privileges:

But personal interest is no longer a safe criterion, if individual interests are not left to counteract and control each other. If one individual, or one class, can call in the aid of authority to ward off the effects of competition, it acquires a privilege and at the cost of the whole community; it can then make sure of profits not altogether due to the productive services rendered, but composed in part of an actual tax upon consumers for its private profit; which tax it commonly shares with the authority that thus unjustly lends its support. The legislative body has great difficulty in resisting the importunate demands for this kind of privileges; the applicants are the producers that are to benefit thereby, who can represent, with much plausibility, that their own gains are a gain to the industrious classes, and to the nation at large, their workmen and themselves being members of the industrious classes, and of the nation.

Thus, while there was a harmony of interest among producers (between employers and workers, for instance), a natural conflict of interests obtained between producers and non-producers, as well as between those members of the producing classes when they choose to exploit others through government-granted privilege. As one scholar has put it, the cry of Say — and of his disciples — could be, "Producers of the world, unite!"

Social Philosophy of the Censeur Européen

The essential achievement of Comte, Dunoyer, and Thierry in the Censeur Européen was to have taken the ideas of Say and other earlier liberals and forged them into a fighting creed.

Industrialism purports to be a general theory of society. Taking as its starting point man, who acts in order to satisfy his needs and desires, it posits that the purpose of society is the creation of "utility" in the widest sense: the goods and services useful to man in the satisfaction of his needs and desires. In striving to meet his needs, man has three alternative means available: he may take advantage of what nature offers spontaneously (this is pertinent only in rather primitive circumstances); he may plunder the wealth that others have produced; or he may labor to produce wealth himself.

In any given society, a sharp distinction may be drawn between those who live by plunder and those who live by production. The first are characterized in several ways by Comte and Dunoyer; they are "the idle," "the devouring," and "the hornets." The second, are termed, among other things, "the industrious" and "the bees." The attempt to live without producing is to live "as savages." The producers are "the civilized men."

Cultural evolution has been such that whole societies may be designated as primarily plundering and idle, or as productive and industrious. Industrialism is thus not only an analysis of social dynamics, but also a theory of historical development. Indeed, much of Industrialist theory is embedded in its account of historical evolution.

The "Industrialist Manifesto"

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of struggles between the plundering and the producing classes. Following Constant, plunder through warfare is said to have been the method favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans. With the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, Germanic barbarians established themselves, through conquest, as the lords of the land: feudalism developed — especially in France, after the Frankish invasion and in England after the Norman conquest. It was essentially a system for the spoliation of domestic peasants by the warrior elite of "noblemen." Under feudalism, there was

a kind of subordination that subjected the laboring men to the idle and devouring men, and which gave to the latter the means of existing without producing anything, or of living nobly.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the nobility exploited not only its own peasants, but especially the merchants who passed through their territories. The nobles' castles were nothing but thieves' dens. With the rise of the towns in the eleventh century, one may even speak of "two nations" sharing the soil of France: the plundering feudal elite and the productive commoners of the towns.

To the rapacious nobility there eventually succeeded the equally rapacious kings, whose "thefts with violence, alterations of the coinage, bankruptcies, confiscations, hindrances to industry," are the common stuff of the history of France. "When the lords were the stronger, they viewed as belonging to them everything they could lay hold of. As soon as the kings were on top, they thought and acted in the same way." With the growth of the wealth produced by the commoners, or Third Estate, additional riches became available for expropriation by the parasitic classes. Comte is particularly severe on royal manipulation of money and legal tender laws, and quotes a seventeenth century writer on how "discountings [les escomptes] enriched the men of money and finance at the expense of the public."

In modern times, the main types of the idle classes have been the professional soldiers, monks, the nobles, bourgeois who were ennobled, and governments.

"Peace and Freedom"

A pro-peace position was central to the Industrialist point of view — indeed, the motto on the title page of each issue of the Censeur Européen was: paix et liberté — "peace and freedom."

The Industrialist attack on militarism and standing armies was savage and relentless. In a typical passage, for instance, Dunoyer states that the "production" of the standing armies of Europe has consisted in

massacres, rapes, pillagings, conflagrations, vices and crimes, the depravation, ruin, and enslavement of the peoples; they have been the shame and scourge of civilization.

Particularly anathematized were wars engendered by mercantilism, or "the spirit of monopoly … the pretension of each to be industrious to the exclusion of all others, exclusively to provision the others with the products of its industry." In the course of a jeremiad against the imperialist foreign policy of the English, Dunoyer states, significantly:

The result of this pretension was that the spirit of industry became a principle more hostile, more of an enemy to civilization, than the spirit of rapine itself.

Monasticism, in the Industrialist view, encouraged idleness and apathy. In the modern period, the nobles, no longer able to live by directly robbing the industrious, began to fill government positions, and lived by a new form of tribute, "under the name of taxes." Members of the bourgeoisie who achieved noble status no longer tended to their own businesses and, in the end, had no means of subsistence but the public treasury. Finally, governments, while burdening the producers with taxes, "have very rarely furnished society with the equivalent of the values they received from it for governing."

The Industrialist writers anticipated that with the greater perfectioning of society would come the ultimate triumph of their cause. Comte looked forward to "the extinction of the idle and devouring class" and to the emergence of a social order in which "the fortune of each would be nearly in direct ratio to his merit, that is, to his utility, and almost without exception, none would be destitute except the vicious and useless."

State Functionaries as Exploiters

The class of contemporary exploiters that the Industrialist writers investigated more than any other was the government bureaucrats. As Comte put it:

What must never be lost sight of is that a public functionary, in his capacity as functionary, produces absolutely nothing; that, on the contrary, he exists only on the products of the industrious class; and that he can consume nothing that has not been taken from the producers.

The contribution of Industrialism to the prehistory of the theory of Public Choice has received little attention. True to the Industrialist concentration on the "economic factor," Dunoyer surveyed "the influence exercised on the government by the salaries attached to the exercise of public functions." In the United States — always the model Industrialist country — official salaries, even for the president, are low. Typically, American officials receive an "indemnity" for their work, but nothing that could be called a "salary." In France, on the other hand, public opinion is shocked not by the exercise of power being made into "a lucrative profession," but by its being monopolized by a single social class.

Public expenditures, however, bear almost an inverse relationship to the proper functioning of government: in the United States, for instance, where government costs some 40 million francs a year, property is more secure than in England, where it costs more than 3 billion. The characteristics of public employment are the reverse of those in private business. For example:

ambition, so fertile in happy results in ordinary labor, is here a principle of ruin; and the more a public functionary wishes to progress in the profession he has taken up, the more he tends, as is natural, to raise and increase his profits, the more he becomes a burden to the society that pays him.

As increasing numbers of individuals aspire to government jobs, two tendencies emerge: government power expands, and the burden of government expenditures and taxation grows. In order to satisfy the new hordes of office-seekers, the government extends its scope in all directions; it begins to concern itself with the people's education, health, intellectual life, and morals, sees to the adequacy of the food supply, and regulates industry, until "soon there will be no means of escape from its action for any activity, any thought, any portion" of the people's existence.

Functionaries have become "a class that is the enemy of the well-being of all the others."

Since the enjoyment of government jobs has ceased to be the private preserve of the aristocracy, it has become the object of everyone in society. In France there are perhaps "ten times as many aspirants to power than the most gigantic administration could possible accommodate…. Here one would easily find the personnel to govern twenty kingdoms."

Similarities with Marxism

The emphasis by the Censeur Européen liberals on the ravenous exploitation of the productive classes by the growing class of state functionaries opens another point of contact with Marxism. As has been sometimes noted, Marxism contains two rather different views of the state: most conspicuously, it views the state as the instrument of domination by exploiting classes that are defined by their position within the process of social production, e.g., the capitalists. Sometimes, however, Marx characterized the state itself as the independently exploiting agent. Thus, Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, writes, quite in the Industrialist spirit:

This executive power, with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million, with appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores, sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy…

All regimes assisted in the growth of this parasite, according to Marx. He adds:

Every common interest was straightway severed from society, counterposed to it as a higher, general, interest, snatched from the activity of society's members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse, and the communal property of a village community, to the railways, the national wealth, and the national university of France…. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor.

In a later work, The Civil War in France, Marx writes of "the State parasite feeding upon, and clogging, the free movement of society."

Thus, the conception of the "parasite-state" is clearly enunciated by Marx. By now it should be clear, however, how incorrect it is to assert, as does Richard N. Hunt, that Marx originated this conception. Several decades before Marx wrote, the Censeur Européen group had already singled out the parasitic state as the major example in modern society of the plundering and "devouring" spirit.

Interestingly, another similarity between Industrialism and Marxism is in the notion of ideology. According to the Industrialist view, there are ideas and values that serve the interests of the productive and of the exploiting classes, respectively. Comte mentions, for instance, the typically feudal judgment, that those who sweat for their wealth are ignoble while those who "gain it by shedding the blood of their fellows" are glorious; such an essentially barbaric idea, he asserts, had to be hidden and veiled by placing it in the context of classical antiquity.

Comte even indicates the existence of what could be called "false consciousness," that is, the harboring by members of one class of ideas contrary to their own interests and useful to the interests of an opposing class. He states:

The war waged by the slaves against their masters has something base to our eyes. These are men who fight so that the product of their industry should not be the spoils of those who enslaved them; it is an ignoble war. The war waged by Pompey against Caesar charms us; its object is to discover who will be the party who will tyrannize the world; it takes place between men equally incapable of subsisting by their own efforts; it is a noble war. If we trace our opinions to their source, we will find that the majority have been produced by our enemies.

The Early Thierry and Industrialism

In the period of his association with the Censeur Européen, Augustin Thierry shared the Industrialist philosophy of Comte and Dunoyer, with perhaps even more radical emphases. His review-essay on Tracy's Commentaire sur l'Esprit des Lois de Montesquieu is particularly important in this connection. Thierry seconds Tracy's firm adherence to laissez-faire.

Government should be good for the liberty of the governed, and that is when it governs to the least possible degree. It should be good for the wealth of the nation, and that is when it acts as little as possible upon the labor that produces it and when it consumes as little as possible. It should be good for the public security, and that is when it protects as much as possible, provided that the protection does not cost more than it brings in…. It is in losing their powers of action that governments improve. Each time that the governed gain space, there is progress.

As against Montesquieu, Thierry sides with Tracy: "commerce consists in exchange; it is society itself"; and "Taxation is always an evil."

The functions of government are to ensure security, "whether there is a danger from outside or whether the mad and the idle threaten to disturb the order and peace necessary for labor." In a simile freighted with meaning in the rhetoric of Industrialism, Thierry asserts that any government that exceeds these limits ceases to be a government properly speaking:

its action can be classed with the action exerted upon the inhabitants of a land when it is invaded by soldiers; it degenerates into domination, and that occurs regardless of the number of men involved, of the arrangement in which they order themselves, or what titles they take … 

Sharing the horror of militarism of the other Industrialist authors, Thierry quotes Tracy with approval on "the absurd and ruinous wars which have been too often waged to maintain the empire and exclusive monopoly over some faraway colonies." This is not true commerce, he declares, but "the mania for domination."

Thierry goes on to sketch a radical-liberal program of very great scope indeed. First of all, the spirit of the free communes of the Middle Ages, which battled the plundering nobility, must be revived; that spirit will inspire men "to oppose the league of civilization to the league of the dominators and the idle." The intellectual movement will be allied to a great social movement:

An invisible and ever-active power, labor spurred on by industry, will precipitate at the same time all of the population of Europe into this general movement. The productive force of the nations will break all its fetters … Industry will disarm power, by causing the desertion of its satellites, who will find more profit in free and honest labor than in the profession of slaves guarding slaves. Industry will deprive power of its pretexts and excuses, by recalling those the police keep in check to the enjoyments and virtues of labor. Industry will deprive power of its income, by offering at less cost the services which power makes people pay for [qu'il se fait payer]. To the degree that power will lose its actual force and apparent utility, liberty will gain, and free men will draw closer together.

Appropriately enough, in view of the remarkable sentence in the above passage for which emphasis has been supplied, Thierry unequivocally enunciates the cosmopolitanism of a liberalism tending towards sheer anarchism. States are merely "incoherent agglomerations that divide the European population … dominions formed and increased by conquests or by diplomatic donations." Eventually, the bonds linking men to states will be shed. Then

the passage from one society to another will scarcely be felt. Federations will replace states; the loose but indissoluble chains of interest will replace the despotism of men and of laws; the tendency towards government, the first passion of the human race, will cede to the free community. The era of empire is over, the era of association begins.

Thierry stresses the role of historical writing in aiding in the great struggle. "We are the Sons of these serfs, of these tributaries, of these bourgeois that the conquerors devoured at will; we owe them all that we are." History, which should have transmitted memories of this tradition to us, "has been in the pay of the enemies of our fathers … Slaves emancipated only yesterday, our memory has for a long time recalled to us only the families and the acts of our masters." As if presaging his own work on the chartered towns of the Middle Ages, he adds:

If a skillful and liberal pen were finally to undertake our history, that is, the history of towns and associations … all of us would see in it the meaning of a social order, what gives it birth and what destroys it.

Critique of Industrialism

As far as criticism of the Industrialist viewpoint is concerned, only three problems can be indicated here, and a more comprehensive discussion of its shortcomings must be postponed to another occasion.

First, it is likely that by sidestepping the issue of rights — property, Comte claims, is better called "a fact," or even a "thing," than a right — the Industrialist writers set the stage for difficulties arising later on in their theory.

Second, by concentrating on production rather than on exchange of rightful property, they create false targets of attack. Thus, "monks" — they really mean the religious altogether — are deemed "idlers," placed in the same category as feudal lords and brigands, and, quite deliberately, no distinction is made among paupers between those who live on voluntary charity and those who live from state aid. (It would seem that the Industrialists did not totally understand the implications of positing the existence of "immaterial" as well as "material" values.)

Finally, in regard to the state: again, by speaking blithely of production rather than voluntary exchange, the Industrialists appear to be trying to avoid the tricky issue of the "production" of a good — security — that is forced upon the "consumer."

Guizot and Mignet

Although Franois Guizot has often been placed in the same category as Thierry as a historian of class conflict, especially by Marxists, his views were substantially different. Guizot had no connection with the Censeur Européen group, being a supporter instead of the juste milieu views of the Doctrinaire, Royer Collard. As a leader of the doctrinaires (of whom it has been said that no school of thought ever deserved the name less), Guizot lacked any guiding theory, such as Industrialism, to apply in his historical works. Always an eclectic, he wrote for a while in the 1820s in the then popular idiom of class conflict. But he never held that one of the competing classes would or should triumph. On the contrary, the struggle, according to Guizot, was already in his own day eventuating in a grand synthesis, whereby aristocracy and Third Estate would combine in the "French Nation." Shirley M. Gruner aptly summarizes Guizot's standpoint:

[He] liked to be popular and therefore liked to be considered up-to-date in his ideas. Nor does he wish to appear "unscientific." Therefore he never denies anything outright but seeks to modify a little here and there so that finally nothing is left of it. There is no head-on opposition … This is in fact the whole problem of Guizot — his indecisive decisiveness so that not only in history but in politics the basically constitutional conservative appears at time [sic] to long for the trappings of a radical liberal. And it has also been in the interest of certain groups, for instance the Communists of 1848, to suggest that there was not much difference between Guizot and the other "bourgeois" liberals.

As a thinker (and, of course, in his political role), Guizot was essentially oriented towards the state. A major purpose of his account of French history was to show that "the bourgeoisie and the power of the Crown were not only allies but forces pressing towards each other." He thoroughly endorsed the historical collaboration of the Crown and the Third Estate, which reached a kind of apotheosis in the July Monarchy, particularly under Guizot's own ministry. Over the years, Guizot's influence on Thierry grew, and it was all in the direction of emphasizing the historical contributions of all "classes" to the creation of la grande Nation, especially the assistance accorded to the Third Estate by the Monarchy in its rise to recognition and preeminence. This tendency in Thierry's work culminates in his Essai sur l'Histoire de la Formation et des Progrès du Tiers État, which appeared as the introduction to a collection of documents whose publication was inspired by Guizot.

François Mignet, a friend of Thierry and fellow historian, is often mentioned as another of the liberal precursors of Marxist class conflict theory. But although Mignet did, of course, write of the struggles of the aristocracy and the Third Estate during the Revolution, an immense gulf separated him from the original class conflict analysis of the Industrialists. A sort of reductio ad absurdum of the glorification of the bourgeoisie in and of itself, irrespective of any connection with production, was reached by Mignet when in 1836 he wrote of the French Revolutionary armies:

All the old aristocratic armies of Europe had succumbed to these bourgeois, at first disdained and then feared, who, forced to take up the sword and having made use of it as before of the word, as previously of thought, had become heroic soldiers, great captains, and had added to the formidable power of their ideas the prestige of military glory and the authority of their conquests.

Mignet also chided Charles Comte for his deprecation of the "Great Men" of history. Comte's views here were part of the "transvaluation of all values" attempted by the Industrialists, whereby, for instance, a small manufacturer or a shepherd was to be more highly valued than destructive conquerors like Caesar or Pompey. But Mignet was of a more Hegelian, not to say pedestrian, turn of mind. According to him, Comte

forgot that the greatest advances of humanity have had as their representatives and defenders the greatest captains… that Napoleon's sword had, for fifteen years, led to the principle of modern equality penetrating all of Europe. He likewise disputed the difficult art of governing the peoples … 

Friend and collaborator of Adolphe Thiers (virtually the personification of the corrupt bourgeois state in nineteenth century France), and, like Thiers, a glorifier of Napoleon, Mignet simply inhabited a different intellectual world from Say, Comte, Dunoyer, and the young Thierry.

Thierry's Defection

This is not the place to attempt a detailed account and explanation of how Thierry exchanged his relatively sophisticated Industrialist analysis of class conflict for a considerably coarser one. At some point, Thierry seems to have come to believe that a rigorous Industrialist interpretation "falsified" history by subjecting it to too rigid a theoretical scheme. After his first essays on English history, in the Censeur Européen, he had begun to feel, he added, the need to leave to each epoch its originality: "I changed style and manner; my former rigidity became more supple….

The type of general and purely political considerations to which I had confined myself up until then seemed to me for the first time too arid and limited. I felt a strong inclination to descend from the abstract to the concrete, to envisage the national life in all its facets and to take my point of departure in solving the problem of the antagonism of the different classes of men in the bosom of the same society the study of the primitive races in their original diversity.

The "tinge of politics was effaced," Thierry explains, as he devoted himself more to "science." In fact, he did not cease to write as the historian of the oppressed and downtrodden, as the chronicler, first, of the sufferings of defeated "races" like the Saxons at the time of the Norman Conquest, then of the rise to power and pride of the Third Estate in France.

But Thierry's treatment of class conflict in his more famous works is defective and, ultimately, fatally flawed: the conceptual apparatus he employs is too blunt an instrument for purposes of social dissection. When he deals with the history of France in the medieval and early modern period, for instance, the industrious, creative element of society is identified tout court with the "Third Estate," the exploiting idlers and parasites with the feudal nobility and its descendants alone. Thus, crucial distinctions existing within the Third Estate, or bourgeoisie, of the sort that Say had already exposed and drawn attention to, are omitted. The earlier analytical dividing line between those who act on the market, through exchange, and those who use force, above all through the state, disappears. Thierry thus sinned against his own methodological principle: "The great precept that must be given to historians is to distinguish instead of confounding."

The Final Stage

In Thierry's last major work, Essay on the History of the Formation and Progress of the Third Estate, virtually nothing is left of the original Industrialist doctrine. Instead, we are presented with what amounts to a case study in complacent and self-satisfied Whiggish historiography. It turns out that the events and figures of some 700 years of French history have all conspired to bring about the triumph of what is now Thierry's ideal, the modern, centralized French State, based on equality before the law, to be sure, but rich in power and historical glory, as well. Over and over again, the French kings are praised for having worked to elevate the Third Estate, largely by providing jobs for its members, and, in the traditional manner, for having "created" France. Richelieu is eulogized both for his foreign and domestic policies, equally admirable, and for "multiplying for the commons, besides offices, places of honor in the State." Colbert, the architect of French mercantilism, is glorified as a commoner who planned "the industrial regeneration of France," and is applauded for his distribution of largesse to writers, scholars, and "all classes of men." One could go on.

Thierry had experienced the socialist agitation of 1848 and the June Days; the specter of social revolution haunted him to the end of his life. He was anxious that the socialist trouble-makers should not be able to draw sustenance from his work on the role of classes in French history. In the Preface to the Essay, Thierry implies that now, in 1853, there is no further need for the concept of classes: "the national mass" is "today one and homogeneous." Only "the prejudices spread by systems that tend to divide" the homogeneous nation into "mutually hostile classes" could suggest otherwise. The present-day antagonism between bourgeoisie and workers, which some wish to trace back for centuries, is "destructive of all public order." Thus, ironically, one of the thinkers who was a major inspiration for the socialist idea of class conflict ended by categorically denying any class conflict in the modern world, and he did so in part out of fear of the dangers the idea posed now that it had been reshaped by the socialists.

Liberals and the July Monarchy

The July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, which came to power in 1830, was notorious for its corruption on behalf of the bourgeoisie, especially in the form of massive and blatant jobbery. This was the regime of which Tocqueville wrote:

[The middle class] entrenched itself in every vacant government job, prodigiously augmented the number of such jobs, and accustomed itself to live almost as much upon the Treasury as upon its own industry.

Many of the liberals were major beneficiaries of the new regime, rewarded for the support they had given, and continued to give, to Louis Philippe. Dunoyer was made prefect in Moulins, and Stendhal consul at Trieste, while Daunou was reappointed as director of the National Archives. Other historians of the liberal party under the Restoration did as well, or better. Guizot, of course, was one of the chief figures of the new order. With Mignet, Thiers, Villemain, he "divided up the premier offices of the state, the most brilliant favors of the regime." Thierry himself, however, now blind, had to make do with occasional grants and was reduced to pleading for a steady job as research historian. At one point, a plan to eliminate literary pensions, which would have included his own, distressed him in the extreme. Thus, any analysis of the reasons behind the conservative drift of many French liberals after 1830 — and of their abandonment of the dangerous idea of the conflict of classes — would have to take account not only of the growing threat of socialism, but also of the new links to power and wealth that the "liberal" regime of Louis Philippe afforded them.

Back in 1817, in the heyday of the Industrialist movement, Dunoyer had lamented the fact that "the idle and devouring class has constantly been recruited from among the industrious men…" "The destiny of civilization," he declared, "seems to have been to raise up the men of the laboring classes only to see them betray her cause and pass to the ranks of her enemies." There is perhaps a sense in which these words were prophetic of the fate of some of the Restoration liberals, including the Industrialist thinkers themselves.

Other Liberal Class-Conflict Theories

The Industrialist doctrine of class conflict was by no means the first or only treatment of this question in the history of liberal theory. In the United States, some Jeffersonians and Jacksonians also grappled with the question of class, in the politically relevant sense, and came to conclusions reminiscent of the Industrialist school. John Taylor of Caroline, William Leggett, and John C. Calhoun were keen observers and critics of the social groups whom they believed were utilizing political power in order to exploit the rest of society, the producers.

John Taylor was outraged by what he saw as the betrayal of the principles of the American Revolution by a new aristocracy based on "separate legal interests," the bankers privileged to issue paper money as legal tender and the beneficiaries of "public improvements" and protective tariffs. American society has been divided into the privileged and the unprivileged by this "substantial revival of the feudal system."

Two decades later, in the 1830s, the northern radical, William Leggett, denounced the same exploiting classes. A thoroughgoing Jeffersonian and disciple of Adam Smith and J.-B. Say, Leggett held that the principles of political economy are the same as those of the American Republic: Laissez-faire, Do not govern too much. This system of equal rights was being overthrown by a new aristocracy, among whom Leggett particularly singled out the state-connected bankers for attack.

Have we not, too, our privileged orders? our scrip nobility? aristocrats, clothed with special immunities, who control, indirectly, but certainly, the power of the state, monopolize the most copious source of pecuniary profit, and wring the very crust from the hand of toil? Have we not, in short, like the wretched serfs of Europe, our lordly master…? If any man doubts how these questions should be answered, let him walk through Wall-street.

The American aristocracy naturally favored a strong government, including control of the banking system. Leggett, in contrast, demanded "the absolute separation of government from the banking and credit system."

John C. Calhoun, in his Disquisition on Government, focused attention on the taxing powers of the state, "the necessary result" of which

is to divide the community into two great classes: one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes and, of course, bear exclusively the burthen of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are the recipients of their proceeds through disbursements, and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer words, to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers. But the effect of this is to place them in antagonistic relations in reference to the fiscal action of the government and the entire course of policy therewith connected.

Liberal class conflict rhetoric was often applied throughout the nineteenth century; in England, it is a recurrent theme in the agitation for repeal of the corn laws, used by Cobden, Bright, and others. It underlies the attack by William Graham Sumner on the "plutocrats," capitalists who use the state rather than the market to enrich themselves.

Bringing the State Back In

Today a revival appears to be under way of the concept of the state as creator of classes and class conflict. For instance, a group of scholars including Theda Skocpol, has produced an anthology with the significant title, Bringing the State Back In.   In an introductory chapter, Skocpol speaks of "an intellectual sea change" taking place, by which the "society-centered ways of explaining politics and governmental activities" popular in the 1950s and 60s are being reversed, and government itself is looked upon as "an independent actor."

We must recognize, she asserts, the capacity of the state to act independently of the various groupings of "civil society" more systematically than is allowed by the Marxist notion of "relative autonomy." In particular, in regard to relations with other states, a state may often act in ways that cannot be explained by its concern for private interests, even for collective private interests. Skocpol notes that while state actions are often justified by reference to their appropriateness for the long-run interests of society or the benefits that accrue from them to various social groups (which would tend to shift the center of attention once more to society), "autonomous state actions will regularly take forms that attempt to reinforce the authority, political longevity, and social control of the state organizations whose incumbents generated the relevant policies or policy ideas." Citing Suzanne Berger, Skocpol stresses that the view that social "interests" determine politics is one-sided and shallow, if for no other reason then because

"the timing and characteristics of state intervention" affect "not only organizational tactics and strategies," but "the content and definition of interest itself"… Some scholars have directly stressed that state initiatives create corporatist forms … the formation, let alone the political capacities, of such purely socioeconomic phenomena as interest groups and classes depends in significant measure on the structures and activities of the very states the social actors, in turn, seek to influence.

Class Conflict in Marxist Regimes

From a scientific point of view, the liberal theory — which locates the source of class conflict in the exercise of state power — would seem to have at least one pronounced advantage over the conventional Marxist analysis: liberal theory is able to shed light on the structure and functioning of Marxist societies themselves. "The theory of the Communists," Marx wrote, "may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." Yet Communist societies, which have essentially abolished private property, do not appear to be on the road to the abolition of classes. This has led to some deep soul-searching and confused analysis among Marxist theoreticians and justified complaints regarding the inadequacy of a purely "economic" analysis of class conflict to account for the empirical reality of the socialist countries. Yet the liberal theory of class conflict is ideally suited to deal with such problems in a context where access to wealth, prestige, and influence is determined by control of the state apparatus.

This article is excerpted from chapter 5 of the book Requiem for Marx and is based on a talk given at the Mises Institute's Marx and Marxism conference held in October, 1988. Professor Raico's talk is available in MP3.
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