The History of Socialism (Part II) | Louis Blanc

Louis Blanc delivered a series of lectures to working-class Frenchmen in London in December 1849 (Click here for Part One). The text of these speeches was then printed in George Julian Harney’s Democratic Review in January 1850, and then quickly forgotten. Stephen Basdeo has transcribed the text of Blanc’s speeches, which is the first time they’ve been published in an accessible format since 1850. Part Two will follow later this week. This was the final lecture of Louis Blanc’s that appeared in the Democratic Review. There were likely more delivered which would no doubt have expanded his points.[1] Although modern readers might raise an eyebrow at some of Blanc’s sentiments today, they offer an important insight in pre-Marxist socialism—notable here by its respect for the Christian religion, in contrast to the communism of Karl Marx which came later.

Louis Blanc

A Course of Lectures delivered to the French Workmen residing in London

(From Le Nouveau Monde. Translated Expressly for the Democratic Review)


In my last Lecture I observed, that Socialism could not be quite new, precisely because its roots extend into the depths of consciousness, because it is composed of ideas essential to the mind of man, and, consequently, contemporary with humanity itself; that the Socialists have ancestors; that far from denying it, they glory in it; that they reckon, in fact, among their sires the noblest spirits and the greatest hearts that have adorned the human race at each epoch of history; that to this illustrious, this immortal family, belonged a philosopher surnamed the divine—a reformer worshipped as a God: Plato and Jesus.

I observed, moreover, that Socialism, like every other science, has had its successive developments and its progress;—that many errors were mingled with sublime truths in the writings of several of our predecessors; that the object is, whilst rejecting the former, to accept the latter, and to set them in order, to make a harmonious and imposing assemblage thereof;—that this is precisely the mission that has devolved upon the nineteenth century, the letters patent of its historical originality;—that, as regards the result of this mission, if courageously accomplished, it cannot be doubtful, Socialism having become what it was never before this time, the great business of the world.

These principles being laid down), let us go back through the known ages of history to their starting place; let us question, in each century, the men of genius who have laboured in the science of universal happiness; let us relate their battles against falsehood, their successes, their reverses, and let us follow, one by one, the ideas that form that immense golden chain which is called the Socialist tradition—be this our endeavour, citizens, cheered by your good-will, and supported by your sympathies.

In the solemn review that we are going to make together, the first name that presents itself at the distance of nearly 3000 years is that of Lycurgus. I begin with Lycurgus, because, amongst all famous reformers, he is in fact the first respecting whom history has given us certain and precise information. For, where does the lineage of great men actually begin? No one knows. Thick darkness shrouds the infancy of the earth.

The life of Lycurgus, such as it has been handed down by Plutarch, opens with a curious and assuredly very strange anecdote, when we think of the part that the Spartan legislator played in the world. Everyone knows the relation of Plutarch. Lycurgus was the brother of Polydectes, king of Lacedemon, the latter being killed whilst trying to separate some people who were fighting, Lycurgus succeeded him. But it happened that the wife of Polydectes was pregnant at the death of her husband. This was soon known, and Lycurgus immediately declared that royalty would accrue to the child, if it should prove a son. Thereupon the widow proposed to him secretly to bring about a miscarriage, if he would consent to marry her. Though horror stricken, Lycurgus feigned to lend an ear to this proposition. He only remarked to his sister-in-law that it was unnecessary for her to run the risk of an abortion, and that nothing would be easier than to get rid of the child directly after birth. He thus amused this woman till the end of her pregnancy, and he no sooner learnt that she was in labour than he sent trust worthy persons to her, commissioning them to bring him the child, if it was a boy, whatever business happened to engage him at the time. It was a son that was born, and when it was brought to Lycurgus, he was engaged in supping with the magistrates. He took the child in his arms, shewed him to the bye-standers, and said, “Spartans, a king is born unto you!” and he named him Charilaus, that is, the “People’s Joy.”

Thus the fact that marks, at its commencement, the career of one of the first known legislators of equality, was a homage rendered to the principle of hereditary monarchy, it was a recognition of the right of authority in a little, weak, squalling creature; it was the consecration of inequality in the very particular where it is most hostile to the dignity of man!

For the rest, if, as we shall see, Lycurgus gave forth views equally new and profound, on a part of what constitutes modern socialism, yet he had only either contradictory or confused and cloudy notions respecting many essential things; and, in the first place, though called upon to reform the state, not only did he maintain both the slavery and the subjection of the unfortunate race of Helots, but he also divided the class of the free citizens into two very distinct categories, raising to the first the warriors, to whom were reserved all the advantages of the system of equality, and casting into the second the artizans, who were treated by him as inferior members of the parent state. The result of this was, that idleness appeared a title of nobility, and was placed in the list of virtues. A Spartan who happened to be at Athens on a day that justice was administered there, hearing a man condemned on account of idleness, said, “Shew me this man who has been condemned for having lived as a free man!” So low had Lycurgus degraded the mechanical arts, thereby founding an audacious and violent aristocracy.

Every error has its logic. Directly that war became the dominant idea, the formation of warriors would of necessity become the chief care of the legislator. It was so with Lycurgus. Hence arose the common but excessively severe and savage education that was given to the children; hence came the barbarous order of casting into an abyss near Mount Taggetus, every child that was born weak or deformed, and did not promise to be a good defender of the state; hence the regulations which recommended successful theft as a trick of address to the young Spartan; which caused gymnastic exercises to degenerate into murderous strife, and communicated the instinct of wild beasts to men, as well as the resolution of dying under the infliction of stripes without a groan; hence, in short, the laws that degraded the condition of woman, and undermined the family tie by discarding virtue’s safeguard, modesty.

Before we pursue this subject, or shew to what a length Lycurgus went astray on this point, suffer me, citizens, to call your attention to the importance of the family. It is the family that specially characterises the human race and distinguishes it most completely from the brutes. The human race alone can have a history, because it alone consists in an unbroken line of generations united to each other by affection and memory.

I recorded lately in the Nouveau Monde, with what formalities the celebration of marriage was carefully accompanied at Rome. These formalities, at once noble and touching, the symbolical dress of the bride, the worship of chastity reconciled by invocations in common with that of love, those beautiful children perfumed with essences to whom the torches of Hymen were given, the keys offered to the wife as a sign of the domestic sovereignty reserved for her sex, all this shewed the legislator’s intention of striking the imagination in a durable way, and impressed a kind of sacred character on the family. Unhappily they had only the patricians in view. Marriage was forbidden to the Romans of the lowest tribes, and was replaced by a sort of regular concubinage. Accordingly, what was the result? That the corruption lodged in the heart of society, penetrated the whole of it to the surface. “Nature,” says M. Bert, in an interesting work, unhappily, by his death, left incomplete, “Nature, sacrificed to state purposes, took cruel revenge. The political law, made to propagate noble generations, miscarried, and the privileged families soon degenerated. It was Roman law that handed down to us this beautiful axiom. The child follows his father’s condition; but history, belying the law , informs us that the blood of the parents was lost for want of posterity, or was disgraced in an ignoble posterity. The heirs of great citizens served under freemen sprung from their ancestors’ slaves;” and once on this fatal slope, Roman society necessarily descended the whole declivity. They were reduced, in the noble families, to substitute adopted for natural children. The family of the Scipios had to adopt the son of Paulus Emilius in order to hand down their name.

Soon after, the Republic having made way for the Empire, this general dissolution was precipitated. Monsters of immodesty and debauchery succeeded a Lucretia, who preferred death to shame, to Veturia denying her son sooner than Rome, to Cornelia the worthy mother of the people’s champions. On all hands men rushed to pleasure, freed from the cares it entails; abortions abounded; the old, world-subduing race of Romans vanished.

If other examples are wanted to prove how close is the connection between the fate of national races and the condition of the family, history can furnish a host of them: whence comes the depopulation of Turkey? Whence the impoverishment of the Turkish blood? Whence the fact that the East has seen so many ephemeral races? The laws will tell you, which have ill-regulated the condition of women, falsified the family, the source of great nations, and given up multitudes a prey to the devourer called Polygamy.

On the other hand, wherever women have been esteemed, and the family held sacred, there have been societies full of life. Recollect what the few English families were, who, in the first half of the seventeenth century, emigrated to America, and the prodigious increase of the United States will be accounted for.

If we judge the institutions of Lycurgus by this light, which is the true one, doubtless, some parts of them will be found very defective. His aim being to give a vigorous military constitution to Sparta, all that the legislator claimed from the women, was to give birth to good soldiers in prospect. Hence he forbade girls to marry prematurely; he gave them a virile education, they were required at an early age to appear naked amidst the dust of the gymnasium, racing, casting the discus, witnessing the conflicts of the young men, either to cheer them by plaudits or to excite them by scorn. Hence also the mother was obliged, if her child was unhappily deformed, to suffer him to be cast into the abyss devoted to this purpose. Hence the virgin’s modesty, the wife’s dignity, the mother’s tenderness, all that constitutes the family, vanished before the mad and methodical wish to secure robust citizens for Lacedemon. Who will deny the superiority, at least, in one respect, of chivalry where the worship of women exercised so powerful and gentle a character? Recall that impassioned respect for weakness, that religion of the soul, that sceptre acknowledged in grace and modesty, which swayed the ferocity of feudal manners, and then compare! The difference was because the Socialist of Socialists had appeared, and the human race possessed a book that it was never to lose—The Gospel.

[1] Louis Blanc, ‘The History of Socialism’, Democratic Review, April 1850, 418–22.