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INDIVIDUALISM vs SOCIALISM
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INDIVIDUALISM vs SOCIALISM
It is clear that, in all of this writing, it is necessary to understand by socialism, socialism as we define it in this work itself, which is as the exaggeration of the idea of association, or of society. For a number of years, we have been accustomed to call socialists all the thinkers who occupy themselves with social reforms, all those who critique and reprove individualism, all those who speak, in different terms, of social providence, and of the solidarity which unites together not only the members of a State, but the entire Human Species; and, by this title, ourselves, who have always battled absolute socialism, we are today designated as socialist. We are undoubtedly socialist, but in this sense: we are socialist, if you mean by socialism the Doctrine which will sacrifice none of the terms of the formula: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Unity, but which reconciles them all. (1847.) — I can only repeat here, with regard to the use of the word Socialism in all of this extract, what I said previously (pages 121 and 160 of this Volume). When I invented the term Socialism in order to oppose it to the term Individualism, I did not expect that, ten years later, that term would be used to express, in a general fashion, religious Democracy. What I attacked under that name, were the false systems advanced by the alleged disciples of Saint-Simon and by the alleged disciples of Rousseau led astray following Robespierre and Babœuf, without speaking of those who amalgamated at once Saint-Simon and Robespierre with de Maistre and Bonald. I refer the reader to the Histoire du Socialisme (which they will find in one of the following volumes of this edition), contenting myself to protest against those who have taken occasion from this to find me in contradiction with myself.—PIERRE LEROUX, “INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIALISM.” (Note from 1850 COLLECTED WORKS.)
The debates over who coined what term are of largely antiquarian interest. We know that by 1843, some form of the word “socialism” already existed in English, in Owenite circles. But we also know that Leroux’s claim is not too far off the mark, in any language. And we do not seem to have any earlier treatment of the two terms—socialism and individualism—together.
Individualism and Socialism—these are the two rival solutions to the problem of “material interests,” and once they have been loosed on the field, their opposition threatens to become practically the whole of politics. Leroux identifies them in order to reject them both—at least individually. When Proudhon adopted roughly the same dynamic, the terms were “property” and “community,” but little else changed. Both look forward to a moment when the two tendencies will be “harmonized” or “synthesized.” Later, both would adopt a more dynamic sort of solution. Greene, tackling the problem in a different context and at a slightly later date, was able to name his third term more directly: “socialism” becomes, for him, the third, relational term, completing a triad with individualistic “capitalism” and “communism.” In some ways, of course, all of this is simply reinventing the wheel, since the three terms all seem to correspond to Fourier’s three “distributive passions:” centralizing Composite, decentralizing Cabalist, and alternating Papillion. And the target of the dynamic is the error Fourierists called simplism, “the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that real progress is null or negative.”
Leroux opens the debate between individualism and socialism in order to be done with it, to focus attention on a broader, more complete dynamic, which he sees as the key to solving the problem of “material interests.” But he is not prepared to offer much more than a statement of the problem, and the vaguest sketch of the solution. His analysis of individualism and socialism leads him to an affirmation of relation:
We are all responsible to one another. We are united by an invisible link, it is true, but that link is more clear and more evident to the intelligence than matter is to the eyes of the body.But he can’t move far past the intuitive rejection of social simplism—a double rejection, coupled with a double affirmation. He has the outline of the triad, which he will come to see as the “true contr’un,” the key to a libertarian politics which should not simply fall prey to the internecine warfare between visions of freedom, and his general project is launched, but he has also named these two principles, in a more definite fashion that has been done before—and this conjuration is no small matter.
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.As we know, in the intervening years, individualism and socialism have “made a dreadful war.” And the libertarian movement which Leroux inherited and influenced has been split every bit as decisively as the cultures surrounding it, by that warfare. In some ways, we have made very little progress from the situation described by Leroux and Proudhon: the exhaustion of ideas, the wars in the service of commercial profit, the complicity of competing visions of liberty in the continuing misery and slaughter—all of these are familiar to us. What is perhaps least familiar to us is the notion that there is an alternative, the possibility of a “synthesis of community and property” (as Proudhon put it) in a liberty which would extend to all, and would harmonize and socialize the conflict of interests without sacrificing individuality. Where that notion has appeared, in those intervening years, it has often been called mutualism. But mutualism, too, has often proclaimed its philosophy, without being able to push very far towards its realization.
If the goal of mutualism, Proudhon’s “third form of society” or some timelier approximation, is our goal, then it’s up to us to trace its history back to the roots, strengthening and clarifying where we can. If mutualism is to be more than just an indistinct third option, a constant compromise, then it is necessary to take up the tradition precisely where it is most strongly “charged”—and most potentially dangerous. What better place to start, then, than Leroux’s description of those “two pistols charged one against the other”?
The passage, quoted at the beginning of the essay, is striking. Individualism and socialism first appear as “two opposite attractors,” equally attractive and repellant,” but as a magnet might attract or repulse. “Liberty and Society,” Leroux claims elsewhere in the essay, “are the two equal poles of social science.” The individual, all individuals, remains “in perplexity and uncertainty,” held in a complex field of forces, which pushes and pulls us in every direction at once. Drawing on Leroux’s work on the nature of “life,” we can conclude that our magnetic uncertainty is as much related to ourselves as to our attractors. Indeed, the “objective and subjective” nature of life makes such a distinction difficult at best. We, too, are “charged,” and bear at the very heart of our nature as living beings “two opposite attractors.” We, too, are a sort of magnet.
Leroux moves quickly through his exposition: the disposition of charges and forces moves things quickly to crisis. Uncertainty leads to increased tension, as forces attempt to align in one direction or another. This leads rapidly to “horror.” And it is fear, after all, that leads to the “base” violence of the Rue Transnonain, and all the violent uncertainty of the present age.
It has all happened before, Leroux assures us, citing the example of the French Revolution. And suddenly the charged poles are charged pistols—and they have been fired, putting an end to the promise of the Revolution.
And “we are still at the same point”—Leroux and his contemporaries, but also, it seems, ourselves in the present—but that “same point” seems to get richer and more highly charged every time Leroux returns to it. “We are still at the same point, with two pistols charged and pointed in opposite directions.” When the pistols appeared, in the midst of the discussion of magnetic uncertainty, they were in the hands of Robespierre and the Convention. Now “we” possess them, “pointed in opposite directions.”
Is that “we” a matter of opposed individuals? One stands with the pistol of individualism, and another with the pistol of socialism, while we reenact the standoff of the last revolution? Or is it somehow our general condition that we, each individually, bear both pistols, “pointed in opposite directions,” in order to fend off multiple foes? “Our soul is the prey of two powers,” Leroux says, but that hardly resolves things—particularly when examined in the light of Leroux’s other works. In that light, there is probably no choosing between interpretations. The individual is already social, already “prey” to two absolutist tendencies, even in conditions of relative isolation. We carry the potential for “dreadful war” in our “soul,” as we recognize the legitimacy of the antagonists in our heart, just as soon as they are named. And all of this seems entirely natural, as soon as human beings begin to seriously pursue their liberty.
[continued in Part 3]
[continued in Part 3]