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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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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...

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