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The Foundations of Industrialism

Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer and Liberal Thought in France


Robert Leroux

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.
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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...

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