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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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Those who adhered more or less closely to the school of industrialism had a considerable influence not only on liberalism but also on political economy and on the social sciences in general. It is useful to revisit this dual influence.

With the rediscovery of the French liberal writers of the 19th century, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer have slowly come to be reread. But this new interest still seems largely confined to scholars specializing in liberal thought. It is to be hoped that their works will be republished and thus made accessible to a wider audience, although this is perhaps not likely to happen in a country like France, which has traditionally shown little attachment to liberalism.1 In his day, Frédéric Bastiat was among the first to consider that these two intellectual heirs of Jean-Baptiste Say were important authors who deserved particular attention. Bastiat indeed saw himself as part of an intellectual tradition which he wanted to prolong and make better known.

There is no doubt that Charles Comte’s treatise had a profound impact on the young Bastiat’s thinking. “I know of no book that makes one think harder, that casts such a new and revealing light on men and society, that produces the same sense of evidence. Given the unfair oblivion to which young ← 125 | 126 → scholars seem to have consigned this magnificent genius, I might not have the courage to speak out in this way, knowing how much I mistrust...

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