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Guyot, Yves (1843-1928)

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Source: The Tyranny of Socialism, ed. J.H. Levy (London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1894).


In the general election for the Chamber of Deputies in August last, M. Yves Guyot lost his seat for the 1st Arondissement of Paris. The occasion was a notable one, and may find its place in the political history of our times beside, say, the expulsion of Mr. Bradlaugh from the House of Commons. I do not mean that there was any close parity in the circumstances of the two occasions. M. Guyot was the victim of no outrageous resort to physical force. He was beaten in fair constitutional fight. He lost his election because those whose votes he sought preferred his rival. But he, like Mr. Bradlaugh, suffered repulse because of his devotion to individual liberty. Like Mr. Bradlaugh, he hesitated not a moment, neither trimmed nor wavered, but took a firm foothold on the ground to which he was driven back, and resumed at once the good fight for human freedom and equality, which, like Mr. Bradlaugh—I venture to say—he will fight till death looses his grasp on the banner which he has held aloft through many long years of political strife.

Republican, Freethinker, Individualist, like the friend—M. Guyot’s friend and mine—with whom I have compared him, the odds against him were tremendous; and it was wonderful that he attained so respectable a minority of votes. He had the misfortune to be the partisan of no interest, save those of his country and humanity, which he does not dissociate. He had ranged against him Royalists and Clericals, Bonapartists and Boulangists, Protectionists and Socialists, Chauvinists and Anarchists. I was told by an eminent French economist, several weeks before the election, that his success was impossible. That, notwithstanding this, he has a very large number of supporters in France, and is one of the leaders of French opinion, is beyond doubt; but while the system—unjust as it is absurd—of local majority representation obtains, we may expect that the best men will be excluded from parliamentary functions, and a pseudo-democracy will bring discredit and perhaps ruin on popular government.

M. Guyot was born on 6th September, 1843, at Dinan (Côtes-du-Nord). His family, on his father’s side, came, originally, from the neighbourhood of Rennes. His grandfather, Yves Guyot, was, in 1793, Mayor of Ercé, and was a friend of Le Chapelier, the Deputy of Rennes to the States General. His father was a barrister at Rennes, and there the author of the present volume was brought up.

In 1864, he went to Paris, and at once came into notice as a lecturer. In 1866, he published his first work, The Inventor. In 1868, after the repeal of the press law requiring “preliminary authorisation,” he was called to Nimes to take the editorship of a Republican journal—the Independant du Midi. Republican meetings were brutally dispersed at that time by the myrmidons of Louis Napoleon; but M. Guyot called private meetings all over the Department of the Gard—a part of Eastern Languedoc. He appears to have escaped the clutches of the Imperial law so far as these meetings were concerned, but was condemned to a month’s imprisonment on account of his part in the Baudin subscription.

He returned to Paris on the outbreak of the Franco-German war, and became editor of the Rappel. During the siege of Paris, he took part in the Battle of Buzenval. At the time of the Commune, he was a member of the Parisian Rights League (Ligue des Droits de Paris), which attempted to put an end to the struggle between the Commune and the French Government. From September, 1871, to July, 1872, he was editor of the Municipalité, which was subsequently amalgamated with the Radical. In 1872, he also published “Political Prejudices,” and “Worn-out Ideas,” and commenced a “History of Proletarians” in collaboration with M. Sigismond Lacroix.

In November, 1874, he was elected a Municipal Councillor of Paris for the Quartier St. Avoye. In 1875, he became chief editor of La Réforme Economique, a magazine founded by M. Menier, who is better known in England by his chocolate than by his politics, but whose “Treatise on the Taxation of Fixed Capital—though disfigured by many economic crudities—is worth reading by the student of taxation. The title of the book is misleading, as the tax proposed by M. Menier is not on Fixed Capital as ordinarily understood, but on what may be called Fixed Property, including land, household furniture, etc. This misuse of the term “capital” is not only contrary to scientific usage, but is open to the still weightier objection that it confounds the raw material of the globe, which is the gift of nature, with those instruments and materials of production which are the result of human labour, and consequently rent with interest. Unfortunately, M. Guyot follows M. Menier in this, and it has done more than anything else against the success of his Science Economique1 in this country—the classic land of economic science.

In the last two months of 1878, he took a step which I regard as the crucial one in his career, and which made him known and loved by those who were battling in defence of personal rights on this side of the English Channel: I refer to the publication of his Lettres d’un Vieux Petit Employé—Letters of an Old Petty-Official.” In these never-to-be-forgotten letters he thoroughly exposed the abominable system embodied in the Police des Mœurs, and partially copied in the Contagious Diseases Acts which for twenty years soiled the Statute Book in this country. M. Guyot has never ceased to wage uncompromising war against this iniquity. His book, “Prostitution under the Regulation System,” is the best on the subject; and his pamphlet, “English and French Morality,” directed against M. Stead’s “Modern Babylon” crusade, may be considered as an appendix to this work. M. Guyot’s labours in this cause—in many ways the touchstone of political morality—have been long and arduous. He has, without stint, placed at its service his ardent and brilliant oratory, and his light but always trenchant pen. And he has been rewarded. It was in the prosecution of this cause that he first made the acquaintance and afterwards won the friendship of Madame Emilie Ashurst Venturi, the friend and biographer of Mazzini—a woman friendship with whom was in itself a religion. When she died, in March, 1893, broken-hearted at the tragic end of Mr. Parnell, one of the most eloquent of the tributes to her memory, which appeared in Personal Rights, was from his pen. She was the incarnation of the spirit of justice; and he, in his reverent homage to her, bowed to that principle which is the soul of politics.

Towards the end of 1879, M. Guyot published, in the Lanterne, his Lettres d’un infirmier sur les asiles d’ aliénés (“Letters of a Hospital Attendant on the Asylums for Lunatics”), in which he continued the struggle for individual liberty against the encroachments of the new medical despotism.1

In February, 1880, he once more became a Municipal Councillor of Paris—this time for the Quartier Notre Dame, in which the Prefecture is situate—and was very active, especially on questions of local taxation. In 1884, he was replaced on the council by M. Ruel. But, in the meantime, he had, in 1881, in response to a numerously supported invitation, contested the 1st Arondissement of Paris, at the general election for the Chamber of Deputies, against M. Tirard, then Minister of Commerce. He failed, but with honour. He had a very respectable following, and the trial of strength was conducted on both sides with a courtesy which reminds one of the well-known story of Fontenoy.

M. Guyot is not the man to allow a parliamentary defeat to damp his energies, and his Science Economique (1881), Dialogue entre John Bull et George Dandin (1881), Etudes sur les Doctrines Sociales du Christianisme (1882), La Famille Pichot (1882), La Prostitution (1882), La Morale (1883), L’Organisation Municipale de Paris et de Londres (1883), Lettres sur la Politique Coloniale (1883), La Police (1884), Un Fou (1884), give some idea of the industry of his pen in those years.

At the general election of 1885, M. Guyot was elected to the Chamber of Deputies on the second ballot, by 283,009 votes. He was named almost at once “Reporter” of an important Bill introduced by Messrs. Floquet and Nadaud. This Bill, on his report, was agreed to unanimously by the Chamber, and became law on 23rd December, 1887.

M. Guyot made a report in the name of the French Budget Commission of 1887, on the various questions raised by the Income Tax. This report has since been published in book form. Chapter XIV. of that volume contains a vindication of the proposed Tax on Capital—in M. Menier’s sense of that term.

On the 22nd February, 1889, M. Guyot became Minister of Public Works in M. Tirard’s Cabinet; and when the latter resigned, on 14th March, 1890, and was succeeded by M. de Freycinet, M. Guyot retained his portfolio. In 1889 and 1892, he presided at two congresses called to consider the laws on the title and the transmission of real property. M. Guyot has always been an ardent champion of the Torrens Act and the registration of title of landed property. He was, from the first, a strong opponent of the Boulangist craze, and wrote a pamphlet entitled La Verité sur le Boulangisme. He maintained his equanimity during the Panama excitement. He very much resembles the man with whom I have compared him—Mr. Bradlaugh—in his thoroughness and in his sobriety. Like Mr. Bradlaugh, he seems likely to end by winning the respect of the Conservatives to whom he is opposed.

M. Guyot is now editor of the Paris Siècle, and has through it excellent means of making the weight of his counsels felt. On the approach of the general election of August last, he, no doubt, thought that the time had come for a more complete manifesto than could be put in the Siècle. The present volume may be regarded as the result. It has both the virtues and the defects of a brochure de combat—vivacity and directness on the one hand, heat and hurry on the other. With M. Guyot’s general contention I am thoroughly in accord. My general criticism of his position—where we seem to differ—would be as follows:—

  • (1.)While the right of property is energetically defended, I cannot see that any general theory of property, from the Individualistic standpoint, is made out. My own firm conviction is that no tenable ethical basis of property can be found, save that which derives proprietary rights from rights of person, and declares the right of a human being to use and transfer that which he has produced by his own faculties, as an indirect assertion of right of control of those faculties. If this is so, it is clear that proprietary rights in the raw material of the globe—which no man made or could make—can have no foundation in morals.M. Guyot seems disposed to rest them on the aphorism: Nul n’est tenu de rester dans l’indivision—nothing is permanently held in common. But, in the first place, this begs the question. The very point at issue is whether something shall be held dans l’indivision. In the second place, this aphorism itself is much in need of evidence to sustain it—evidence which, I venture to say, it is not likely to get, and of which none is proffered. In the third place, the principle is one any all-round application of which is remote from M. Guyot’s intention. He would not sell all the public roads, parks, buildings, forts, ships, and other things held dans l’indivision, by the French nation and the departmental and other local governments, and divide the proceeds among the people, or pay off the national debt with it. The only real defence of private property in land—in the economic sense of that term—is prescription. As I have said elsewhere: “However lacking in moral justification private property in land may have been originally, it has been recognised by the State; innocent persons have been induced to make investments in it; the transfers have been made according to forms prescribed by the State, which has also received a commission on each such transaction in the shape of a stamp duty. Under such circumstances, if we resolve—as I hope and believe we will—that private property in land shall cease to be, the cost of the change—so far as there is any—must be borne by the whole nation, as in the case of slave emancipation, and not by those only who happen to be in the possession of land when it is determined that this change must be made. I hold it to be a maxim of universal application that no change in the laws of property should be retrospective in its application.”
  • (2.)My second point of difference with M. Guyot relates generally to the thirteenth chapter of the Second Book. I cannot agree that the Socialists are orthodox economists, with the implication that we Individualists are heretics to economic science. Some twenty years ago, when I wrote most of the economic articles of the Examiner, Karl Marx endeavoured to convince me that he was “a good Ricardian,” and sent me the proof sheets of the French edition of Das Kapital. But the conclusion I arrived at was that Marx used his Ricardo like most clergymen use their Bible—reading it not so as to extract its meaning, but so as to impose on it a meaning obtained from another source.The “Iron Law of Wages” is a perfectly accurate statement of what the remuneration of labour tends to be in the “natural” state—that is, in the absence of the prudential check to population. As M’Culloch very clearly puts it: “The race of labourers would become altogether extinct, were they not to obtain a sufficient quantity of food and other articles required for their own support, and that of their families. This is the lowest amount to which the market rate of wages can be permanently reduced; and it is for this reason that it has been defined to be the natural or necessary rate of wages.” The so-called Iron Law of Wages would be a true formula of what “natural wages” are, even if the minimum price of labour were £1,000 a year, and money had its present purchasing power. This is a hard saying to people who have not learned to distinguish between a law of tendency and a law of actuality; but it is just as reasonable to mistake the First Law of Motion for a general description of the actual movements of material bodies as to mistake the Iron Law of Wages for a general statement of what workmen actually receive as the reward of their labour.M. Guyot falls into the same sort of error in refuting Malthus. He shows that, during a term of years, in France—the country par excellence of the prudential check—the property bequeathed and inherited at death has grown faster than the population, and infers from this that the Malthusian Law is a figment. It has been my good or ill fortune during the last thirty years, to read many refutations of Malthus, but this, in the vernacular of the Old Kent Road, “takes the cake.” Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the property received by legatees on the death of proprietors is a safe and sufficient index of the general prosperity of the country. What then? The fact that, during a given period in a given place, wealth had increased faster than population, is no more inconsistent with the Law of Population than is the rising of a balloon inconsistent with the Law of Gravitation. At every moment of the balloon’s upward course, it was tending to fall to the earth’s centre. At every moment of the upward course of the reward of labour and waiting in France, the French population was tending to increase beyond the actual means of subsistence. How this tendency was counteracted is too well known, especially to M. Guyot, to need statement.
  • (3.)M. Guyot is one of the fairest and most courteous of controversialists; but the circumstances under which this book was produced, and, indeed, the general course of the struggle between Socialism and Individualism in France—and on the Continent generally—is such that neither side is able to do justice to the intentions of the other. Socialists have been cruelly unfair in their imputations on M. Guyot—one of the most upright and public-spirited of French statesmen—and it cannot be wondered at if he sometimes pays them back in kind. For my own part, I desire to say that my chief feeling towards many of the Socialist leaders, whom I have known, is one of regret that they have given their industry and talents to a cause which I hold to be ruinous to the best interests of humanity, and which I certainly shall oppose by all honourable means. Socialism has its black sheep. What cause has not? But that which fills me with grief is that it has so many white ones. The most miserable circumstance of our time is that so much of its devotion and self-denial is running into Socialistic channels. It is this misdirected self-abnegation, characteristic of the Dark Ages, which is carrying us back to them. Buckle has shown that the leaders of the Inquisition were not only actuated by good motives, but were exemplary men in private life. Elevation of purpose, though a condition of the best achievements, is also a condition of the worst. The maximum of evil is never done save by the agency of men and women of disinterested lives and virtuous intentions.

J. H. Levy.

[1]An English edition of this work, which should be read for the many pearls of wisdom to be found scattered in its pages, was published, in 1884, by Messrs. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

[2]His novel, Un Fou (“A Madman”), published in 1884, is interesting in this connection. Another of his novels, Un Drole, passed through two editions.

Last modified April 13, 2016