The Foundations of Industrialism

Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer and Liberal Thought in France

by Robert Leroux (Author)
©2016 Monographs XII, 141 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 72


From its beginnings, the doctrine of industrialism has inspired writers of varying persuasions. Saint-Simon is often closely associated with it, however, he represents only the socialist variant of the doctrine. By contrast, the variant that relates to liberalism has been virtually overlooked. Jean-Baptiste Say, Benjamin Constant and Joseph Droz, for example, provided crucial elements that would eventually lead two friends, Charles Comte (1782–1837) and Charles Dunoyer (1786–1862), to define industrialism in a more complete manner that was in fact radically opposed in many aspects to the notions of Saint-Simon. This shows that the term «industrialism» has many meanings. Mechanization, the production of wealth, the age of trades and specialization, the notion that progress is unstoppable, the question of liberty and individualism – these are the main themes that we find in the writings of the liberal proponents of industrialism. For Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, industrialism was a kind of philosophy of history, the purpose of which was to identify the tortuous stages through which the idea of liberty had developed. In doing this, as Robert Leroux explains, they shared a conviction, or perhaps a concern, based on clear historical evidence, that liberty is a fragile thing, and that its victory will never be final.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Foundations of Industrialism
  • Joseph Droz
  • Jean-Baptiste Say
  • Benjamin Constant
  • Chapter 2. Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer: Different Takes on a Shared Path
  • Le Censeur and Its Pitched Battles
  • The Question of Freedom of the Press
  • The Problem of Pauperism
  • Comte and Dunoyer as Students of Jean-Baptiste Say
  • Comte, Dunoyer and Industrialism
  • Chapter 3. The Foundations of Political Economy in France
  • Making a Political Project Scientifically Respectable
  • Charles Comte’s Theory of Liberalism
  • Reflections on Method
  • The Critique of Rousseau
  • Laws and Progress
  • The Problem of Slavery
  • The Question of Property
  • Chapter 4. Charles Dunoyer and the Stages of Liberty
  • The Need for an Industrial Regime
  • The Maturing of a Body of Work
  • In Defense of Liberty
  • For Freedom in Education
  • The Role of Government
  • The Right of Petition
  • The Issue of Free Trade
  • Chapter 5. The Revolution of 1848
  • The Standpoint of Guizot
  • The Standpoint of Tocqueville
  • Dunoyer and the Critique of Socialism
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Author Index

← x | xi →


English-speaking readers—separated from the authors discussed here by as much as two centuries—may be uncomfortable with the term “industrialism”, and may wonder why it is used in place of “industrialization”. The distinction is perhaps subtle: in its generally accepted meaning, industrialization is a process that involves mass production and mechanization, while industrialism is a school of thought that concerns itself, from either a supportive or a critical viewpoint, with the moral and intellectual aspects of the industrialization process. Similarly, the term “industrialist” is more likely in this context to refer to the proponents of “industrialism” than to the actual owners and operators of industry, and “industry” itself is frequently used to denote the quality of “industriousness” or what we might call work ethic. “Moral” and “morality” are often used in the sense of “psychological” or “mental” processes, as in “sciences of the mind”, as opposed to physical phenomena. The reader might be struck by the similarities between the 18th notion of “commercial society” and the liberals’ idea of “industrial society”. Although they use different terms they both mean societies increasingly dominated by free markets and free exchange. It seems they are grasping the word to describe a similar kind of society they had in mind. ← xi | xii →

The reader may also find the term “political economy” a rather quaint alternative for a discipline that we now call simply “economics”. The term has been retained in this book because it more accurately renders the économie politique that was employed by the 19th century French authors considered here.

Finally, I would like to thank David M. Hart for his thoughtful and useful comments.

← xii | 1 →


Industrialism had many and varied origins. While some scholars detect its first ramifications in the thinking of the physiocrats1, others—and they are more numerous2—trace its birth to the work of Saint-Simon. It is true that Saint-Simon, who is often called the first socialist, strove constantly in his writings to define the principles of an industrial doctrine and an industrial society. Caught up in the turmoil of his times, he was acutely interested in the question of how society had moved from a feudal and theological system to an industrial and scientific one. Saint-Simon dreamed of a society freed from the yoke of the metaphysicians, one that would give pride of place to scholars and industrialists, to whom he willingly assigned the task of “completing the Revolution”3. The idea was to promote the establishment of a new elite, an industrial class that, he insisted, “must be accorded first rank, because it is the most important of all; because it can do without all the others, while no other class can do without it—in a word, because everything is accomplished ← 1 | 2 → through industry, we must do everything for industry. The other classes must work for it, because they are its creatures, and it alone sustains them”4. For Saint-Simon, industrialism was less a scientific theory than a political project. “We invite all industrialists who are motivated by the public good and who recognize the relationships that exist between the general interests of society and those of industry, not to let themselves be known any longer as ‘liberals’; we invite them to hoist a new flag and to inscribe on their banner the motto ‘industrialism’.”5 Saint-Simon, then, was calling upon his contemporaries not to confuse industrialism and liberalism. We might perhaps assume that he was thinking in particular of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer who, following in the wake of Jean-Baptiste Say, intertwined industrialism and liberalism so tightly.

Comte and Dunoyer are strangers to us today. With the exception of a few scholars of the history of ideas, no one reads them anymore.6 The name of Saint-Simon, by contrast, is still closely associated with industrialism, no doubt because of the dual influence he exerted on Comtian positivism and on the emergence of socialist thinking.

Yet industrialism of a liberal persuasion has been important in the history of ideas. Not only did it propagate a resolutely “scientific” message concerning social phenomena, it also led frequently to a radicalization of liberal thought.7 Hence the need felt by many authors to develop a vision of the world that would be consistent with the events and the issues of a time marked by singular ← 2 | 3 → upheaval. Jean-Baptiste Say, Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant have been widely read but, apart from a few fleeting references in historical treatises on economic thought, little has been written about Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. That is why, as the reader will readily confirm, the longest chapters of this book are those devoted to their thinking. Those chapters seek, indeed, to fill a gap by shedding light on an obscure but decisive moment in the history of liberal ideas in France.

For liberals, the central feature of industrialism is its faith in human endeavor and in individual initiative.8 The new world that was taking shape before their eyes sparked mixed feelings, characterized both by bursts of enthusiasm and by gnawing concerns. They were not given to wild theorizing: they cast their ideas in context, they offered answers to the crises that often emerge in the world of science.

A further word on the primacy accorded to Comte and Dunoyer in this book. First friends, later adversaries of Saint-Simon, they made industrialism the appendage of liberalism. As publishers of the journal Le Censeur, which they founded in 1814 and in 1817 renamed Le Censeur européen, they committed themselves, at the risk of their own safety, to a multitude of battles on behalf of liberty. Their journal was the frequent target of lawsuits and persecution, and it ceased publication in 1819. Thereafter the two authors devoted themselves, each alone, to a body of work that was less polemical and more explanatory. But this shift from the normative to the positive was not always complete.

The writings of Jean-Baptiste Say certainly had a considerable influence on them. The author of the Traité d’économie politique, which played such a decisive role in disseminating the ideas of Adam Smith in France, laid the markers for an approach to economics that suited the scientific dogma of the time. While they admired Say, Comte and Dunoyer were far from slavish disciples.9

For Comte and Dunoyer alike, the 1820s were particularly productive in intellectual terms; it was during this decade that their work took on its definitive shape10. In 1825, Dunoyer published his most important book, L’industrie ← 3 | 4 → et la morale considérées dans ses rapports avec la liberté, dealing with industry and morality in relation to liberty, and in 1826 and 1827 Comte followed suit with his two substantial treatises on legislation and on property, the Traité de législation and the Traité de la propriété. In reading these works, we make an important discovery: Comte and Dunoyer now subscribed to an evolutionary approach that was not apparent in the works of their younger years. While one retraced the origins of property, the other set out to explain the roots of the idea of liberty. In this way they made a fundamental contribution to French liberalism but—a point often overlooked—they also participated in the development of the social sciences of the time. The turn of the century saw the overthrow of what had been considered certainties. Morality had to be recast, and the relationship between man and society re-examined according to the criteria of the emerging social sciences. The pace of time was accelerating and chaos was taking hold. Liberal thinkers took note of this and they too sought to bring to light previously unsuspected human laws. They scrutinized liberty, they identified its origins, and they did battle against the obstacles that, as they saw it, were holding back its progress.

Because this book confines itself to industrialism of a liberal persuasion, the reader may have the impression that it is addressing only half of what is a far broader issue. Yet industrialism, thus circumscribed, deserves to be dissected in order to identify its principles both moral and intellectual.

This book is divided into four sections of varying length. The first examines some of the ideas that herald the works of Comte and Dunoyer. Those ideas are fundamental for they contain, albeit in embryonic form, the key elements around which industrialism and liberalism would come together in a symbiotic relationship. How does a society that is beginning to industrialize address the issue of freedom of trade? How are the relationships between the individual and society articulated? How does industry foster the development of liberty? The works of Joseph Droz, of Jean-Baptiste Say and of Benjamin Constant do not offer definitive answers to all these questions, but they lay fertile ground for further thinking.

The second and third sections constitute the core of this book. They focus on Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, who had the great merit of casting the doctrine of industrialism in a new light. These two authors follow in the footsteps of Say, even as they foreshadow the works of the economist Frédéric Bastiat. For historians of French liberal thought, there is no doubt that Comte and Dunoyer fill an important gap: they carry on an intellectual tradition by looking closely at fundamental themes such as freedom of the press and ← 4 | 5 → pauperism. In their works, which draw their inspiration from common sources, they strive not to defend economic freedom alone but to promote liberty in all its forms. Hence their vision of political economy, which is at once a science of struggle, at least in their early writings, and a science that claims to belong to the “experimental school”11 or, to put it another way, the “observation method”.12 In the 1820s and thereafter, Comte and Dunoyer take on board the prevailing belief in the powers of science. In their respective works, they then seek to justify the role and the place of scientific method. They are deeply influenced by the model of the natural sciences, and of physiology in particular. Starting from this foundation, they develop and expound upon a series of themes such as slavery, pauperism, property, free trade and the right of petition. A philosophy of history begins to emerge from their works with particular clarity. Taking the lead, Dunoyer maintains—and this is one of his key ideas—that liberty is not the natural state of man but has developed gradually over time.

In this line of thinking, they arrive at the notion that industry may have facilitated the establishment of liberty. Yet nothing is definitive. Liberty is too fragile, too uncertain for it to be declared victorious. Dunoyer became profoundly convinced of this, following the Revolution of February 1848. He was disturbed at the rise of socialism, and he saw liberty once again under threat. A “demagogic-socialist” republic has been installed, he complains in a hastily penned essay. Because of the caustic language he was fond of using, Dunoyer became the very symbol of radical liberalism13. The fourth and final section of this book seeks to explain the intellectual stance of Dunoyer by stressing the points that set him apart from two of his contemporaries, François Guizot and Alexis de Tocqueville.


XII, 141
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Droz Dunoyer Comte age of trades
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XII, 141 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Leroux (Author)

Robert Leroux is Full Professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He has written widely on the history of social sciences in France, liberalism and political thought. The French version of his book on Frédéric Bastiat was awarded the Prix Charles Dupin by the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Paris (2008).


Title: The Foundations of Industrialism
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156 pages