It may perhaps be well to state here the motive which induced me to undertake this work. When called, about twelve years ago, to the chair of History and Political Economy which I occupy to-day in the school of commerce, I was not long in perceiving that there existed between these two sciences relations so intimate that a person could not study the one without the other, nor thoroughly understand them separately. They lend each other constant support; the first furnishes the facts; the second explains their causes and deduces the consequences from them. As I advanced in the exposition of doctrines, examples were wanting; and the study of events was in its turn incomplete, until political economy cast its light upon them. Gradually, while combining the labors of my two courses and strengthening them by each other, I came upon a multitude of prejudices which passed for truths, even among the best instructed and most advanced men. Thus, the authors of all the treatises on political economy, without exception, traced its origin no farther back than the first attempts of Quesnay and Turgot; as if never, before the works of these celebrated men, had any systematic writing called the attention of savants and statesmen to the phenomena of the production of wealth.
From this time, I devoted myself earnestly to researches among the historians of all ages for the facts of most interest in the study of economic and social questions. I had soon found paupers at Rome and at Athens, as there are at Paris and at London; and I must confess that privileges, taxes, and fiscal vexations were no more rare among the ancients than in our day. Then, as now, the least ray of peace and liberty was followed by a shower of riches and prosperity; the same causes, in short, produced the same effects, notwithstanding the difference of customs and institutions. The distress of the people may always be recognized by the inequality of the burdens, the vicious distribution of the profits of labor, and the prevailing tendency of a few designing classes to place abuses under the protection of law [FR: la prédominance de quelques castes, ingénieuses à placer les abus sous la protection de la loi = a few castes which are clever/ingenious at ...].
But the world did not always remain indifferent, in the presence of these social calamities; and more than once, in the course of the centuries, magnanimous protests were made in favor of the disregarded rights of humanity. A few noble sovereigns aided in these efforts, which were sometimes perseveringly followed up, at others interrupted by the misfortunes of the times. There was, then, a political economy among the ancients, as there is among the moderns; not a systematic and formulated political economy, but one arising from facts, and practiced before being written. Such has been, moreover, the course of all sciences since the origin of society. The first comers conceive, act, execute; the later ones reason, and improve and complete the work of their predecessors. To well appreciate the labors of modern economists, we must then become acquainted with the principal phases of the social movement which has been going on since the ancients, by means of revolutions, and which presents in its progress so many sudden and glorious enthusiasms and so many dramatic catastrophes.
It is this movement which I have attempted to trace in the work I offer to the public. The great states of antiquity and those of the middle ages did not fail without a cause; so great wealth was neither created nor destroyed without its creation or its annihilation being connected with causes susceptible of analysis and worthy of meditation. It is impossible not to recognize the finger of Providence in these successive transformations of the social principle, which takes refuge now in one institution, now in another, without distinction either of time or place, as if to hold itself continually at the disposition and service of humanity. Here, it is a great man who preserves the sacred fire; in another place a slave rekindles it; Sokrates at Athens, Spartacus at Rome. From the very depths of barbarism issue the first rays of labor and of order; Charlemagne conquered the wave which had born him along ; the Hanse towns arose from the depths of marshes which served as a retreat for piracy.
The feudal system, so fatal to the laborers, who were enslaved to the land, is full of instruction valuable to the political economist. It was the extreme division of sovereignty, as we to-day behold the extreme division of property. The Roman Empire, momentarily reconstructed by Charlemagne, had seen centralization carried to its last degree: the feudal system shows us that great political power reduced to atoms. On the one hand, we see gigantic syntheses; on the other, almost microscopic analyses. What a difference must there not be between the political economy of the chief of forty millions of subjects and that of a country squire looking down upon the country from the height of his castle keep! But, from hatred of this castle, the bourgeois begin to settle down in cities, to organize themselves into brotherhoods, to make themselves respected by their numbers. Their money is no longer taken from them, it is borrowed from them; and this apparently insignificant fact affords to the economist an explanation of an entirely new social order.
I have followed these great events step by step, and it has seemed to me that the political economy of the ancients had no other pretensions than that of the moderns. In all the revolutions, there have been but two parties confronting each other; that of the people who wish to live by their own labor, and that of those who would live by the labor of others. These two classes [Editor: *** Blanqui doesn't use word "classes" but "on" = "les parties"***] dispute with each other the powers and the honors only in order to repose in that beatific region where the conquering party never lets the conquered sleep in tranquillity. Patricians and plebeians, slaves and freemen, guelphs and ghibellines, red roses and white roses, cavaliers and roundheads, liberals and serviles, are only varieties of the same species. The question that divides them is always that of their well-being, each one wishing, if I may be permitted a common expression, to draw the coverlid over himself at the risk of uncovering his neighbor. So, in one country the fruit of his labor is taken from the workman by taxes, under pretence of the welfare of the state; in another, by privileges, declaring labor a royal concession, and making one pay dearly for the right to devote himself to it. The same abuse is reproduced under forms more indirect, but not less oppressive, when, by means of custom-duties, the state shares with the privileged industries the benefits of the taxes imposed on non-privileged classes.
See the Romans in their conquered countries and the Spanish in their American colonies: more than a thousand years apart, you find the same contempt for human life, the same abominable paradoxes on the necessity of some being worked for the profit of others. This is more distressing than what happens among animals, where the devouring species live on the devoured without at least erecting their voracity into a system, and because they cannot do otherwise. All these horrible social iniquities have been propagated for ages, under various forms, sometimes tempered by the progress of human reason, but always alive at the bottom, and everywhere sustained, sometimes with audacity, sometimes with hypocrisy. At one time, it is the clergy who seize all the property and deign to give alms to the dispossessed human race, threatening with anathema whoever dare trouble the repose of the house of God. Farther on, the tithe belongs to the lords, because they are lords, and because there are no lords without tithes. Peasants are still sold in Russia, like agricultural implements, and the English aristocracy haggle with the poor Irish about a few blades of straw and the scanty supply of potatoes which they share with the cattle.
It is not, then, so far as one may think from the Greek and Roman political economy, cruel, insatiable, inexorable, to the political economy of more than one country in Europe. In our beautiful France, so rich in vines and harvests, several millions of men eat no bread, and drink only water. Salt abounds under their feet, but the tax weighs on their heads, and the gabelleur, the odious tax-gatherer of the middle ages, has only changed his name and dress. If one discovers a new plant, tobacco, for example, the law will forbid its cultivation. We may well exclaim with Rousseau: “Everything is good when it comes from the hand of the Creator: everything degenerates in the hand of man.” Those poor girls of Lyons whose fairy fingers weave satin and poplin, have no chemises; the canuts who decorate with their magnificent tapestry our palaces and our temples, are often without sabots.
No, this is not the final word of Providence, for of those who formerly would have been bound, struggling for breath, to the soil, not a few live to-day in the bosom of opulence, and this number is constantly increasing. There is not an important event of history which does not concur in this great result. After the crusades, land begins to be divided; maritime commerce opens new sources of profit; the arts and manufactures emancipate thousands of vassals. Listen to the sad complaints of the people: what do they ask, when they raise their voices? Reductions of the taxes. What wished those wild peasants of the Jacquerie, weary of seeing themselves decimated by famine, by leprosy, and by despair? A more equitable distribution of the profits of labor. They were still more modest they asked people who did not work, to at least let them live from the humblest part of the fruit of their toil. The first who had that audacity perished under torture, as might have happened at Rome if any slave had dared to ask the least right of his master.
Thus appear to the economist all the struggles whose sanguinary details fill the pages of history. It would be a great error to suppose that the truly religious thought of the general welfare passed unperceived through these two thousand years of wars and continued efforts for its triumph. We shall see in the course of this work, that more than once the cloud which hid it from the eyes of people, was dispelled for the best governments, charged with the destinies of civilization. Most of these were obliged to act in an empirical manner, and without proclaiming their projects, for fear of causing them to fail: others obeyed, without suspecting it, the law of progress, which led them on in spite of themselves: but never has there been a complete dearth of courageous men to accelerate this great work; and I have been more than once surprised, in taking a survey of history, at the boldness and clearness of their views.
The Capitularies of Charlemagne, the Institutions of Saint Louis, the maxims of the commercial government of the Italian republics, are all full of clear and definite provisions, having for their aim the development of public wealth, according to the intelligence and the prejudices of the times, to be sure, but with the most generous and lofty intentions. In private and public assemblies which discussed affairs, remarkable opinions were often enunciated; I have had occasion to quote very curious fragments of these scientific opinions. If these productions are no longer known, it is because, down to our time, readers have preferred the narration of facts to a strict analysis of the causes which brought them about. Besides, these writings, examined separately, do not seem of great importance; it is only when compared with each other and studied methodically, that they truly represent the links of a chain of economic doctrines adopted by governments at each memorable epoch, as a rule of conduct.
Sometimes, when after long discords, the two principles of exploitation and of liberty seem near succumbing before each other, and make, so to speak, a final summation, the social problem appears in all its simplicity, just as our fathers laid it down on the famous night of August 4, 1789; as the insurgent communes of Spain had already submitted it to Charles V by Padilla; as, in short, it tends to become formulated before the Commons of England since the reform of 1832. All the theories of political economy, then, may be reduced to short maxims which clearly sum it up in the view of the people: freedom to work: freedom to have the profits of one’s labor. The protestant reformation, the insurrection in the Netherlands against Philip II, the independence of the colonies of North and South America, the civil wars and the foreign wars, are only symptoms of this irresistible movement which bears humanity along. I have thought it better to point out carefully its principal economic phases, than to neglect entirely European history and make a science as ancient as society commence almost with our century.
Such a course would have been prescribed me by a simple feeling of justice, even if the nature of my subject had not made it a duty. It is an error to believe that, even if we take no account of the systems attempted by governments, political economy dates simply from the second half of the 18th century. More than two hundred years before, Italy had very remarkable treatises on a multitude of special subjects which depend upon it. The republics of Venice, Genoa, and Florence, knew too well how riches are multiplied, not to have left good examples to follow and good books to consult. Several accounts rendered by their doges and their podestats might be placed on a par with the most complete messages of American presidents. I have quoted a discourse of the doge Moncenigo marked by the most judicious economic maxims, and a budget of Florence, more clear and more circumstantial in its brevity than are ours with their indecipherable columns. And the system of Law, which our authors affect to reject in the heroic times of political economy, what was it, pray, if not the uncertain dawn of public and private credit as developed in our day? What! Should the fine financial reforms of Sully, the bold attempts of Colbert, the famous Navigation Act of the English, as well as the revolution effected by the crusades, the vast operations of the Jews, and the monetary convulsion which followed the discovery of the New-World, pass unheeded!
If the study of the causes which have retarded or developed the progress of public wealth were nothing but a simple affair of arithmetic, it would not perhaps be necessary to go back so far; I could have counted for nothing the advent of Christianity and have limited myself to a simple recital of the fine dissertations of the economists on value and utility. But because I think I have seen in political economy a science truly social, rather than a theory of finance, I have wished to show, as far as the vison of man can extend, the providential thread which guides nations in the accomplishment of their destiny. I firmly believe that some day there will be no more pariahs at the banquet of life, and I find the source of that hope in the study of history, which shows us the generations marching from conquest to conquest in the career of civilization. By the progress that has been made, I judge of that yet to be; and when I see labor, extricated from the Roman galleys, take refuge in feudal servitude, then organize into corporations and fly across the seas on the wings of commerce, to rest at length in the shadow of political liberty, I feel that there is in economic science something besides a question of words, and I trust I shall be pardoned for having sketched in bold outlines the history of its progress through nations and ages.
The first volume contains such an exposition from the time of the ancients to the ministry of Colbert. More than once, in tracing it, I have experienced regret for having circumscribed my subject within the limits which I had imposed upon myself. The materials which I had at hand were immense in quantity, for the most part unpublished, though extracted from works well-known. A simple list of them arranged in order would alone form an economic monograph extremely curious; and more than one well-informed reader would be very much astonished to find, in these too long-neglected documents, an inexhaustible mine for study and meditation. Such facts are not what we ordinarily look for among historians, and most of the latter have at all times so well understood the indifference of the public to facts of this kind,, that they have been very quiet about them, and feared so much to burden their annals with them, that we are obliged to obtain them mostly by induction. Armies and courts occupy the foreground; the human species, that which neither kills nor pillages, hardly figures even in the background, and that at a distance so obscure that one scarcely knows what became of it for thirty centuries.
The writers on political economy must be excused for having shared in that respect the general indifference, or, if one prefers, the general ingratitude. They almost all date from the eighteenth century, because it was then, for the first time, that humanity really asked for its accounts and laid out in clear terms the programme of the future. But, in truth, that science did not spring fully armed from the brain of the economists during that century. In proof, I should wish but their gropings, their disputes, and their unfortunate attempts. It was reserved for their successors of the English school to lay the true foundations of the economic edifice and to prepare the way for the reform which is to be accomplished in our day. The history of that period, so rich in productions forever celebrated in the annals of science, forms the second part of my book. It will be perceived what efforts I have had to make to keep from exceeding the limits necessary to the unity of my recital. I use this word intentionally, to justify myself in advance from a reproach which I fear to have incurred from some exacting minds. I had two routes to take: I could follow the beaten track, develop the preliminary discourses of J. B. Say, M. de Sismondi, and Mr. McCulloch on the course of political economy since Quesnay, adding a few words of politeness for the preceding centuries, or I could go further back, and connect political economy with general history, noting their reciprocal influence from the ancients to our day.
The reader will judge whether this latter course, which I have taken, was the better. By placing myself at this point of view, I avoided entering into discussions of doctrines, controversies, and in consequence, interminable tedious passages. I ran over history at one breath, pausing simply at epochs of great influence on wealth and civilization. I showed labor always finding a refuge, in one country or another, and preparing wealth everywhere as an aid to liberty. I attempted, in short, to connect the present with the past, in place of treating the science as a hybrid hatched in the breath of the eighteenth century, prolem sine matre creatam. I wished ancestors for this fine science, which concerns the welfare of the human race and holds in trust the means of procuring for it the remedy compatible with the infirmities of our nature and the exigencies of our social condition. On seeing how slowly reforms come about, and estimating at their just value the obstacles they have encountered, the most ardent reformers of our epoch will learn to moderate their impatience and to demand of the times in which we live only their concurrent part in the movement which bears us along. On this subject, I have told all that our past conquests permit us to expect in the near future. I have created no system; I frankly acknowledge that I have not in manuscript any plan of universal regeneration and prosperity. I have recounted what our ancestors have done and what our predecessors have proposed, to realize the part that can be realized of that generous utopia. Some day, doubtless, I shall increase my book, if I obtain for this first attempt the sole success of which I am ambitious, that of popularizing economic science by showing that its elements are found in the history of nations as well as in the writings of economists.
I have terminated my work by a critical bibliography of the most important works on political economy which have been published, in all the European languages. This catalogue is certainly far from being complete; but it is the most extended which has appeared up to this time, and it may serve as a basis for a quite important special library. I have read and made notes on most of the writings whose titles I have given and whose subject matter I have analyzed, so that the friends of the science may know the spirit of an author, before undertaking to read his works. It will readily be perceived that this part of my work was not the least difficult; but I hope thereby to have reinstated more than one economist who has been ignored, and to have made our fellow citizens acquainted with a fruitful source of investigation and information. This simple catalogue will alone suffice to prove that the science is more ancient than is supposed, and that it had already attained its majority when people supposed it still in the cradle. I hesitated a moment as to whether I should include in my list of names living writers, and especially whether I could characterize their works with impartiality; but their absence would have had greater disadvantages than the risk my judgment makes me incur, and I determined to speak of these contemporaries as if they were dead, while earnestly praying that they may yet live a long time.
One important motive especially influenced my decision. The living economists, with a few exceptions, form a new school, as far from the utopias of Quesnay as from the severity of Malthus; and I see with a philosophic and patriotic satisfaction that this school originated in France and is composed almost entirely of Frenchmen. This school it is which will mark out the course of political economy during the nineteenth century. It will consider production no longer as an abstraction independent of the fate of the workers: it is not sufficient for it that wealth be created, but it must be equitably distributed. In its view, men are really equal before the law as before the Eternal. The poor are not a text for declamations, but a portion of the great family, worthy of the deepest solicitude. It takes the world as it is, and knows how to stop at the limits of the possible; but its mission is to increase daily the circle of guests at the legitimate enjoyments of life. I say that this school is eminently French, and I am proud of my country that it is so.
May I be permitted, in closing, to render it an homage which will be contested by no one, since it comes from the simple display of its titles. See the books for which we are indebted to it for the past twenty years; the Nouveaux Principes d’Economie Politique, by M. Sismondi; the Traité of M. Destutt de Tracy, that courageous man preeminent for good sense and probity; the excellent book of Duchâtel on La Charité; the Nouveau Traité d’Economie Sociale, by M. Dunoyer, so deeply marked by judgment and philanthropy; the Traité de Legislation, by M. Ch. Comte, which gave the last blow to colonial slavery; L’Economie Politique Chrétienne, by the viscount of Villeneuve-Bargemont, which has described in so new and so remarkable a manner the pest of pauperism in Europe; L’Economie Politique of M. Droz, which has made the science an auxiliary to morals, and L’Essai sur l’Esprit d’Association, by M. Delaborde, to which we are fortunate to have recourse to-day, in the general disorder of unlimited competition. These works have already powerfully modified the rigid theories of Malthus and the algebraic formulæ of Ricardo. Independent in form and often in the choice of subject, they nevertheless are connected by a common thought, which is the general welfare of men, without distinction of nationality.
Nor have I been unmindful of the services rendered to science and to humanity by the Saint-Simonian school, at the time when the good spirit of its founders knew how to keep it from the invasion of mysticism and Utopias. This school has scattered in Europe the germs of a reform which is manifesting itself on every side: it has recognized the rights of the working class, and defended them with a talent and a strength of conviction which must have made an impression on even its fiercest adversaries. The Saint-Simonians often made mistakes, like the Economists of the eighteenth century, with whom they have more than one point of resemblance; but whatever may be said of their intentions and their morality, they were, above all, men of heart and of probity. England herself, who railed at them, imitates them; and the new works on political economy published in that country, are all impregnated with their reformatory ideas. It is the Saint-Simonian school which has described most forcibly the sufferings of the laboring classes, and if the great problem of the relief of these multitudes is not yet solved, it remains at least in the order of the day among all civilized peoples.
It is upon this ground that all questions of political economy must henceforth be decided. The true aim of the science from this time forward is to call the greatest possible number of men to a share in the benefits of civilization. The terms division of labor, capital, banks, association, free trade, have no other signification. Such is, at least, the tendency of the modern school, to which I have the honor to belong, and under the inspiration of which appears the work which I to-day offer the public. If some conscientious minds should wonder that I could embrace in two volumes the history of a science as important and as vast as political economy, I would reply to them with one of its most illustrious founders: “The history of a science does not resemble a narration of events. It can be only a statement of the more or less fortunate attempts that have been made at different times and in different places, to ascertain and solidly establish the truths of which it is composed. It becomes more and more brief as the science grows more nearly perfect.”
[1.]RTL’s note: A peasant rebellion of 1358.
[2.]RTL’s note: The date of the official legal abolition of feudalism in France.
[3.]RTL’s note: Juan López de Padilla (1490-1521), one of the leaders of the Castilian rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire.
[4.]RTL’s note: “A child created without a mother.”
[5.]J. B. Say, Cours Complet d’Economie Politique, Vol. ii.