Thus one remains in perplexity and uncertainty, equally attracted and repulsed by two opposite attractors. Yes, the sympathies of our era are equally lively, equally energetic, whether it is a question of liberty or equality, of individuality or association. The faith in society is complete, but the faith in individuality is equally complete. From this results an equal impulse towards these two desired ends and an equal increase of the exclusive exaggeration of one or the other, an equal horror of either individualism or of socialism.
That disposition, moreover, is not new. It already existed in the Revolution. The most progressive men felt it. Take the Declaration of Rights of Robespierre: you will find formulated there, in the most energetic and absolute manner, the principle of society, with a view to the equality of all; but, two lines higher, you will find, also formulated in the most energetic and absolute manner, the principle of the individuality of each. And nothing which would unite, which harmonizes these two principles, placed thus both on the altar; nothing which reconciles these two equally infinite and limitless rights, these two adversaries which threaten, these two absolute and sovereign powers which both [together] rise to heaven and which each [separately] overrun the whole earth. These two principles once named, you cannot prevent yourself from recognizing them, for you sense their legitimacy in your heart; but you sense at the same time that, both born from justice, they will make a dreadful war. So Robespierre and the Convention were only able to proclaim them both, and as a result the Revolution has been the bloody theater of their struggle: the two pistols charged one against the other have fired.
We are still at the same point, with two pistols charged and [pointed] in opposite directions. Our soul is the prey of two powers that are equal and, in appearance, contrary. Our perplexity will only cease when social science will manage to harmonize these two principles, when our two tendencies will be satisfied. Then an immense contentment will take the place of that anguish.—PIERRE LEROUX, “INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIALISM.” (1834)
We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.—PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON, THE THEORY OF PROPERTY. (1864)
In 1834, when Pierre Leroux wrote “Individualism and Socialism,” the immediate occasion was “the massacres on the Rue Transnonain,” a particularly brutal and senseless slaughter of civilians by soldiers during a brief insurrection against the July Monarchy in Paris. After a soldier was killed by sniper fire in the street, members of the guard killed nearly all the inhabitants of No. 14 Rue Transnonain, in a room-to-room spree.
“Madame d’Aubigny: At five o’clock the soldiers came from the Rue de Montmorency; after a sustained fire they got possession of the barricade.
“A short time after another party of voltigeurs came down the Rue Transnonain, preceded by sappers; they endeavoured, but in vain, to break open the door of our house, which is unusually solid.
“‘It is the line!’ exclaimed the people in the house; ‘Ah, there are our liberators! We are saved!’
“M. Guitard, my husband, and myself went downstairs, in all haste, to open the door. Being quicker than the two gentlemen, I ran before them to the porter’s lodge, pulled the rope, and the door opened. The soldiers rushed into the passage, and, turning half round to the right, shot my husband and M. Guitard, at the moment they had reached the last step of the staircase. They fell amidst a shower of balls. The explosion was so great that the windows of the lodge, which I had not had time to shut before the soldiers ran in, were all broken to pieces. A giddiness seized me for a moment, and when I came to myself, it was to see the lifeless body of my husband stretched near that of M. Guitard, whose head was nearly separated from the neck by the numerous shots he had received. Quick as lightning the soldiers, headed by an officer, ran up to the second floor. A folding door soon gave way before them; a second door, one with glass windows, presented itself; they knocked at it furiously, and it was immediately opened by an old man, M. Breffort, senior. ‘We are,’ he said to the officer, ‘peaceable people here; we have no arms of any sort. Do not assassinate us.’ The words had scarcely passed his lips ere he fell, pierced with three bayonet wounds. He uttered a cry: ‘You old ragamuffin,’ exclaimed the officer, ‘if you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll finish you.’ Annette Besson rushed from an adjacent room to assist him. A soldier turned round, plunged his bayonet into her neck just beneath the jaw, and then, firing his musket at her, blew her head to pieces, the fragments sticking against ‘he opposite wall. A young man, Henry Larivière, was following her. He was fired upon so close that the powder set his clothes in flames; the ball was buried deep in his lungs. As he was falling, mortally wounded, a bayonet stroke cut open his forehead deeply, and exposed the skull; twenty other wounds were added to dispatch him. The room was already a mere pool of blood; M. Breffort, senior, notwithstanding his wounds, had managed to crawl to an alcove; he was pursued by soldiers, when Madame Bonneville came forward, and covering him with her body, her feet in the blood on the floor, her hands raised to Heaven, exclaimed: ‘All my family are stretched at my feet, there remains only myself to kill, only myself” And five bayonet wounds cut open her hands. On the fourth floor, the soldiers who had just killed M. Lepere and M. Robiquet, said to their wives: ‘My poor souls you are sadly to be pitied, as well as your husbands. But we are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you can be.’—from LOUIS BLANC, THE HISTORY OF TEN YEARS, pp. 279-280.
The incident is now perhaps best remembered because of Daumier’s depiction of it, but for many years, until more horrifying massacres displaced it, it occupied a very important place in the catalog of crimes by authority against the people.
Leroux’s response to the events was interesting. The horror of the crime was not that it is in any way unprecedented. For from it—history has witnessed no shortage of massacres. Human beings have murdered one another for any number of reasons, not least because they believed it was the will of some god or gods, or of some god’s earthly representative. Such killing is criminal, but, Leroux suggests, it may at least retain a certain “grandeur.”
Our century is, it seems, quite vile, and we have degenerated even from the crimes of our fathers. To kill in the manner of Charles IX or Torquemada, in the name of faith, in the name of the Church, because one believes that God desires it, because one has a fanatic spirit, exalted by the fear of hell and the hope of paradise, this is still to have in one's crime some grandeur and some generosity. But to be afraid, and by dint of cowardice, to become cruel; to be full of solicitude for material goods that after all death will carry away from you, and to become ferocious from avarice; to have no belief in eternal things, no certainty of the difference between the just and the unjust, and, in absolute doubt, to cling to one's lucre with an intensity rivaling the most heated fanaticism, and to gain from these petty sentiments energy sufficient to equal in a day the bloodiest days of our religious wars—this is what we have seen and what was never seen before.Crime, murderous crime, may even be “generous,” by Leroux’s reading—at least by comparison to the sort of petty, senseless murder which took place in the Rue Transnonain. “[W]e are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you…” And what is it that is behind the “pitiless orders” that the soldiers are compelled to follow? “Business is bad, and it is the innovators, it is said, that stand in its way: war then against the innovators.” The rationale for slaughter is “neither an idea nor a principle,” but simply “material interests.” This is a “base” motivation—Leroux makes his opinion in this regard quite clear. Like so many other radicals of his time, he was a strong believer in progress, not just in the perfectibility of humanity, but of a strong impulse, knit within the very fabric of human history, towards ever-increasing perfection. William B. Greene would describe that impulse in terms of a “Blazing Star,” always shining in the distance, and always calling attentive human beings on to increasingly ideal projects and states. Proudhon would come to think of “the Revolution” as embodying it, not as an inevitability, but as a sort of immanent justice, with a tendency to shake up human affairs when it was ignored or thwarted. For progressives and perfectionists, the apparent senselessness or “baseness” of their age was potentially a rebuke. Strong critics of the absolutisms of the past, they were still drawn strongly to ideas and principles, and to the belief that, ultimately, there was some order to “universal history,” even if the responsibility for making that order real fell more and more squarely on human, rather than divine, shoulders.
It’s no great surprise, then, that a radical of Leroux’s type would end up seeing in the apparent disarray and exhaustion of his era, not just the end or the failure of something, but an indication of progress-to-come. If everything now revolves around “the shops,” if we make war and sacrifices for the sake of the day’s profits, it is because all of society’s forces are focused on a problem of overwhelming importance—“if the social question presents itself in our time primarily as a question of material wealth, it is because the human sciences are very close to finding the solution.”
In 1851, Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress began with a similar denunciation of French society: “France has exhausted the principles that once sustained it. Its conscience is vacant, just like its reason.” It ended by asserting the primacy of revolutionary progress against all forms of absolutism, and it pointed to the extreme disarray of the present as evidence of a potential reorganization in progress. Despite some heated debates and significant differences between them, Proudhon and Leroux shared a good deal, with regard to their philosophies of history. Their relationship was nothing if not complex. Proudhon spoke highly of Leroux, even in the midst of their conflicts, using language which one suspects he would not have been unhappy to have had addressed to himself:
We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles,— not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation. (WHAT IS PROPERTY? p. 401.)Proudhon undoubtedly also learned a great deal from Leroux, although he made those lessons his own, incorporating them into a body of work in many ways superior to Leroux’s. Once the heat had died down in the debates of 1848-49, and particularly after the coup d’état, there were fewer reasons, either personal or practical, for Proudhon to distance himself from political rivals, fewer open debates, and with both men in exile for much of the remainder of Proudhon’s life, fewer opportunities for conflict. While he was never one to give too much credit to his influences, it seems fairly clear that his mature work benefited from a broader range of them.
It is possible that Leroux’s influence may have been pressed on him as well. We know very little about his relations to the other anarchists of his time, but we know that Leroux’s thought had a decisive influence on both the American mutualist William B. Greene and the libertarian communist Joseph Déjacque. And we know that Greene and Proudhon were at least acquainted. Greene had forged his own variety of mutualism by joining the work of Proudhon and Leroux. While he was among the most prominent advocates of Proudhon’s system of “mutual banking” and free credit, he had obviously followed the French debates on the subject with some care, and seems to have taken Leroux’s side when it came to the question of joining the mutual bank to producer and consumer cooperatives. Greene was known for his tendency to speak his mind, even when it drew ridicule from his peers in New England. If he did indeed converse with Proudhon, would he have remained silent on those questions? They were certainly potential sore points: it is quite possible that the insistence by others on a “triad” of reforms was among the factors that led Proudhon to entirely separate from the project of the Bank of the People, when his erstwhile partners attempted to revive it as the “Laborers’ Mutuality.” At this point, we can only speculate. In any event, the later works certainly seem more open to the idea of supplementing credit reforms with other sorts of association.
But the relationship is really more complicated than the example of Greene, or even Déjacque, suggests. From our vantage point in the present, Leroux appears not just as an influence on various anarchists, but as himself a worker in the field of libertarian radicalism—and perhaps a fairly unique one. Leroux is famous, or infamous, for the notions of the circulus,—a sort of proto-ecological answer to Malthus, emphasizing the re-cycling character of natural system,—the triad,—an adaptation of Trinitarian thought to social science,—and the twin doctrines of life and humanity—which emphasized the interdependence of individuals and characterized all living beings as both objective and subjective, acting as agents and as a social environment (and source of social subsistence, even nutrition!) for other agents. The third set of notions was adopted in one form or another by Greene, Déjacque, and Proudhon, and enjoyed a short vogue in New England radical circles, thanks to Orestes Brownson. Its origins were in Christianity, and in Saint-Simonian neo-Christianity. The first tied Leroux to the early anarchist, or proto-anarchist, William Godwin, in the battle against Malthus. And the second, while it also had theological origins, was at the same time a response to the thought of another proto-anarchist figure, Étienne de La Boétie.
De La Boétie’s youthful anti-authoritarian tract, De la Servitude Volontaire (known in English as The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, Slaves to Duty, or Slaves by Choice), was subtitled “Le Contr'un.” One translation attempts to render the phrase as “The Anti-Dictator,” which gets the gist of things, if it lacks the elegance of the original. “Contr’un” is apparently a rare construction, and it’s an enormously suggestive one in many ways. It’s tempting to survey all the ways in which one might be “against one” or the “counter-one,” from Proudhon’s theory of offsetting absolutisms to Derrida’s play with the intertwined notions of “(no more one/more than one) voice.” For our immediate purposes, however, it is enough to know that Leroux took this notion of the “contr’un” very seriously, making it one of the key elements of his 1846 “Discourse on the Doctrine of Humanity.” Given his other preoccupations, it will perhaps come as no surprise that he believed the counter-one could be found in another number, in the three of the triad.
Leroux never claimed to be an anarchist, and there is no particular reason to claim him for the tradition at this point. He probably falls fairly comfortably into the category of “mutualist,” which has always had connotations broader than, say, “Proudhonian” and which, in its most general form, has always, I think, leaned towards anarchism, but has never been precisely identical with it. (Even Proudhon considered the “approximation of an-archy” just one of the projects of mutualism.) What we probably can do, with some real present benefit, is to examine Leroux’s thought a little more closely, specifically in the context of other early anarchists, acknowledging his unusually direct connections to figures like Godwin and de la Boétie, as well as his equally direct influence on early mutualism and libertarian communism. In particular, we can look more closely at the moment where he made the other terminological contributions for which he is remembered—the invention of the terms “individualisme” and “socialisme.”