“New” Socialist Ideas in the 1848 Revolution

The French political caricaturist Amédée de Noé mocked the leading socialist figures of the 1848 Revolution in this panel of 6 cartoons. He ridicules their claims that their ideas were new and original by pointing out the true origins of their ideas for reform. It turns out they “borrowed” all their ideas from other people. His panels depict socialist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Victor Considerant; utopian socialist activists such as Pierre Leroux and Étienne Cabet; as well as socialist politicians such as Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte.

"New" Socialist Ideas in 1848: An Anti-Socialist Cartoon by Amédée de Noé


Amédée de Noé, dit Cham, “Ce qu’on appelle des idées nouvelles en 1848” (Paris?: Imp. Aubert & Cie, 1848). Lithograph (26.5 x 41.1 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb41520291k.


[Amédée de Noé (1818-1879)]



Sometime during 1848 the 30 year old French caricaturist Amédée de Noé (1818-1879) (nicknamed "Cham") drew this panel of six anti-socialist cartoons in which he ridiculed the claims of leading advocates of socialism that their ideas were new and that they were the key to solving France's economic and political problems. He directs his barbs against leading socialist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Victor Considerant;utopian socialist activists such as Pierre Leroux and Étienne Cabet; as well as socialist politicians such as Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte.

Socialist ideas had developed considerably during the 1840s. Two of the leading critics were Proudhon, who criticised the very foundation of private property rights in Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou Recherches sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernement (1840) in which he answered his own question "What is Property" with the stirn rebuke that "property is theft; Louis Blanc in books such as Organisation du travail. Association universelle. Ouvriers (1841) and Le Socialisme. Droit au travail, réponse à M. Thiers (1848) where he argued that a new form of labour organisation was required to replace wage labour in privately owned factories and workshops which were privately owned by "capitalists;" and Victor Considerant who argued similarly in Droit de propriété et du droit au travail (1848).

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Their criticism of the free market and wage labour centred on a number of points, such as the argument that the labour theory of value developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo lead inevitably to socialist conclusions. If, the socialists argued, labour was the main source of the creation of value, then workers were not being given the full value of their labour since sizable profits were going to the owners of factories who did not do physical labour. Hence their profits were “unearned” and thus unjust. A second argument concerned another plank in classical political economy, namely that the rent coming from land was a "gift" of the soil or the sun and not the result of human labour. Again, the socialists argued, that this "rent" was unearned and therefore wrong and should be eliminated or reduced, or land redistributed to propertyless. The third major objection concerned the arguments of Robert Malthus who argued that the size of the population (especially impoverished workers) was limited by the capacity of agriculture to increase output. It was inevitable he argued that there would be periods of hardship, even famine, which could not be avoided unless strict "moral restraint" on the part of the poorest workers was exercised to limit the size of their families. The socialists argued that this proved the inhumanity of the capitalist system and thus the need for government support and redistribution programs to ease the hardship endured by the workers.

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The socialists' criticism was countered by the political economists who came to the defense of the free market and private property during the 1840s, especially during the revolutionary period of 1848-49 and its immediate aftermath. The leading figures in the defence of private property and the free market system came from figures such as the social theorist Charles Dunoyer, the economists Frédéric Bastiat, Michel Chevalier, and Gustave de Molinari, and the politicians Adolphe Thier and Léon Faucher. The key works in this liberal response are the following: Charles Dunoyer, La Liberté du travail (1845); Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms I (1846) and II (1848), Adolphe Thiers, Discours prononcé à l’Assemblée Nationale sur le droit au travail (1848), Adolphe Thiers, De la propriété (1848), Léon Faucher, Du droit au travail (1848), Michel Chevalier, Lettres sur l’Organisation du travail (1848), Frédéric Bastiat’s series of 12 anti-socialist pamphlets (1848–1850), Gustave de Molinari, Les Soirées (1849), and Bastiat's debate with Proudhon in Gratuité du crédit (Oct. 1849 - Feb. 1850).

The economists developed a thorough-going critique of socialism, the main points of which are still used today. These included the following:

  • the incentive problem: the idea that communally organised living and working arrangements destroy incentives for individuals to work hard since all profits go to community to be equally distributed
  • the division of labour problem: people with key skills (such as managerial, financial, technical, organisational, entrepreneurial skills) are in short supply and thus need to be paid for their extra contribution to productive process
  • the risk problem: all economic activity involves risks (such as possible loss, miscalculation, natural disaster) which need to be rewarded
  • the injustice of expropriation: in order to create a new socialist system existing justly owned property has to be confiscated and given to new communally organised groups, thus the property rights of the original owners is violated
  • the individual liberty problem: socialists envisaged that the new communal institutions would be organised like the army or a government bureaucracy such as the post office (this was also Lenin's idea in the early 20th century). These new organisational structures would be hierarchical, with command exercised from above, and in many cases the socialists wanted to have communal eating and sleeping arrangements
  • the human nature problem: socialists assumed that human nature is not fixed but malleable, hence they thought it would be possible to create a “new socialist man” who would be completely adapted to communal living and working; economists on the other hand believed that humans were social but not communist, self-interested (broadly understood) but not willing to sacrifice their interests to the community’s; and that individuals had vastly different tastes, preferences, skills, and interests
  • the public choice problem: this was the idea that rulers were not selfless, disinterested parties but had their own agendas which they pursued (such as ambitions for greater power and influence, higher salaries, more staff to administer, and so on)
  • the problem of ignoring economic laws - the economists believed that the economy was governed by economic laws (such as the law of supply and demand) which cannot be ignored or wished away either by well meaning people or by economic predators.

See the following for more detailed examples of the classical liberal criticism of socialism:

  • Alexis de Tocqueville's speech in the Constituent Assembly criticisning the socialist's plan to enshrine in the consdtitution a "right to a joib" (right to work) clause
  • Frédéric Bastiat's series of "petits pamphlets" or anti-socialist pamphlets which he wrote between June 1848 and July 1850
    • Property and Law (May 1848) - directed at Louis Blanc and critiques of property in general
    • Justice and Fraternity (June 1848) - directed against Leroux
    • Individualism and Fraternity (June 1848) - directed against Blanc and the Montagnard socialist faction
    • Property and Plunder (July 1848) - directed against Blanc, Consicderant, Proudhon
    • Protectionism and Communism (January 1849) - directed at the protectionist Mimerel committee
    • Capital and Rent (February 1849) - directed at Proudhon (not available online yet)
    • Peace and Freedom, or the Republican Budget (February 1849) - directed critics of his proposed budget cuts
    • Parliamentary Conflicts of Interest (March 1849) - directed at bureaucrats and civil servants
    • Damn Money! (April 1849) - directed at general misperceptions about nature of money (not yet available online)
    • The State (June 1848 and September 1848) - directed against the radical socialist Montagnard faction
    • Free Credit (October 1849 - February 1850) - directed again at Proudhon (not yet available online)
    • Baccalaureate and Socialism (early 1850) - to oppose a bill before the Chamber in early 1850 on education reform which was supported by Thiers
    • Plunder and Law (May 1850) - against Louis Blanc and the Luxembourg Commission
    • The Law (July 1850) - against Louis Blanc and his 18th century predecessors
    • What is Seen and What is not Seen (July 1850) - directed against all those who misunderstood the operation of the free market
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Gustave de Molinari in his book Les Soirées (1849) (which was subtitled "Discussions on Economic Laws and the Defence of Property") identified 6 natural laws of political economy which included the following:

  • “la loi naturelle de l’économie des forces ou du moindre effort” (the natural law of the economising of forces, or of the least effort) - by this he meant that individuals attempted to gain the most that they could with the least amount of effort.
  • “la loi naturelle de la concurrence” (the natural law of competition) or “la loi de libre concurrence” (the law of free competition) - Molinari thought that there was a Darwinian struggle for survival by all living creatures. In the case of human beings, this competition could be either “productive competition” in the case of industrial or economic activity, or “destructive competition” in the case of war or politics.
  • “la loi naturelle de la valeur” (sometimes also expressed as “la loi de progression des valeurs”) (the natural law of value, or the progression of value) - by this Molinari meant that in a free market the price of goods and services will be lowered as a result of competition to their “natural value” or cost of production.
  • “la loi de l’offre et de la demande” (the law of supply and demand) which he also sometimes called “la loi des quantités et des prix” (the law of supply and prices) - this was short hand for saying that prices vary according to their supply and demand in the market place and that both consumers and producers alter their behavior as a result.
  • “la loi de l’équilibre” (the law of economic equilibrium) - which is Molinari’s version of Bastiat’s theory of Harmony, that if markets are left free to function they will tend to produce order not chaos, and there will arise a balance between the demand for products by consumers and the supply of those products by producers

Molinari also distinguished between two different kinds of socialism, socialism from below (which was democratic and republican republican and advocated during 1848 by people like Louis Blanc, Pierre Leroux, Étienne Cabet, and Victor Considerant) and socialism from above (which was adopted by an alliance of bureaucrats, Bonapartists, militarists, crony capitalists, and whose main advocates were politicians such as Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte).

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Molinari's colleague Frédéric Bastiat also contributed greatly to the debate about socialism in the period between 1848 and his death in late 1850. It was at the height of the socialist rioting in June 1848 that he wrote perhaps his most important essay "The State" which later became a pamphlet. One of his insights into the nature of the State was that exploitation by a small ruling elite made some economic sense in that the mass of consumers and taxpayers were forced to pay subsidies and benefits to small group of beneficiaries (e,g, slaves vs. the slave owners, consumers vs. the owners of protected industries). The net transfer of wealth from the majority to the minority made some political and economic sense. However, the transfers of wealth and property envisaged by the socialists in 1848,or what one might call democratic or socialist “exploitation” made no sense because everybody couldn’t benefit from taxing everybody else (including themselves). He asked, if all were paying taxes or higher prices how could everybody benefit? From this Bastiat developed his definition of state “as the great fiction whereby everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else”. He (and other liberals like Molinari) concluded that the net beneficiaries, even in a democratic, republican, socialist state would be those who worked for the state or ran it, or who were friends of those who ran it. Both also began to develop the "public choice" insight that politicians and bureaucrats are self-interested and pursue agendas which are not the same as the “interests of the people,” which was the rather naive view of the socialists in 1848.

Amédée de Noé mocked both these types of socialism in his cartoon. This first image shows the entire panel of 6 cartoons. The smaller images which follow are close ups of the individual cartoons with some explanation of the socialist concerne3d, their ideas, and some historical context to help explain the joke.



“Ce qu’on appelle des idées nouvelles en 1848” (What are called New Ideas in 1848)


[See a larger version of this image]

1. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the demolition expert:


[Proudhon, the demolition expert, being horrified to be the owner of a new idea, borrows his entire system from different Greek and Roman philosophers.]

The anarchist-socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, carrying a pick with which he destroys the foundations of the free market, is confronted by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, a Greek legislator, and a Roman soldier, who accuse him of having plagiarised their ideas about property being a form of theft and the need for agrarian laws to forcibly redistribute property among the poor. Proudhon wrote a very influential book in 1840 called "Qu'est-ce que c'est la propriété?" (What is Property?) to which he gave the notorious answer "Property is theft". In 1848-49 he attempted to establish a People's Bank which would be funded by subscriptions and make zero or low interest rate loans to workers, since he believed that charging interest on loans was unjust. It failed because it was unable to raise sufficient capital to open.


2. Pierre Leroux, the madman:

[Pierre Leroux borrows his little poplar trees from an inmate of the national mental institution of Charenton.]

The socialist Pierre Leroux invented the word "socialist" to describe his ideal community in which everybody enjoyed liberty and equality without the injustices he believed were created by private property and the free market. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848 and drew up an elaborate proposal for a new constitution based upon socialist ideas. All aspects of the new society had to be drawn up in advance by the legislators, including the flag, the colours of clothing people were allowed to wear, and the national tree which had to be planted everywhere. The national colours were to be white, gold, azure, and purple and each of the main divisions of government would require the citizens who worked in it to wear the colour corresponding to their division - white for administrators, gold for those who worked in scientific occupations, azure for those who worked for the legislative branch of government, and purple for the executive branch. Outside of working hours, all citizens had to wear all four colours of the national flag to show their solidarity with the state. Leroux also chose the poplar tree as the state tree because its shape best exemplified the similarity and equality of all citizens. Every Commune in France would be required to plant rows of identical popular trees in order to make this point clear to the citizenry. In the cartoon a very grateful looking Leroux receives a gift of 4 small poplar trees by an inmate of the largest insane asylum in France - "Charenton." He is wearing bells which he uses to warn people that he is mad and that they should keep away from him. He is also carrying signs which refer to the philosophical idea of the self (the me) and the non-self (non-moi) perhaps suggesting that Leroux's socialist ideas would lead to the destruction of "the self" if his ideas about egality were implemented.


3. Étienne Cabet, the pilgrim and his gullible followers:

[The pilgrim Cabet borrows all his plans for colonisation from the Scot (John) Law who was the first inventor of the Mississippi and Icarus (schemes).]

The utopian socialist Étienne Cabet believed in the equality of property ownership and the strict regulation and control of all economic activity by elected representatives of the community. He wrote a book in 1840 about his ideal society, called "Icarus", and went to America in 1848 in order to put his ideas into practice with communities in Texas, Illinois, and Missouri. In this cartoon Cabet is dressed like a pilgrim and is sitting on an empty contribution box, reading his book on Icarus. He is surrounded by hungry birds called "gobe-mouche" (fly gobblers) which also means someone who is very gullible. Posters on the wall refer to other failed attempts to set up communities or businesses in America. John Law was a Scottish financier who worked for Louis XV to set up the first central bank funded by fiat paper money, believing that paper money was preferable to gold. He consolidated all the government chartered companies in French-controlled Louisiana into one monopoly company called the Mississippi Company which issued shares. An over issue of these shares caused a speculative bubble which burst catastrophically in 1720. The Champs d'asile was a community established in Texas in 1817 for veterans of Napoleon's defeated Grande Armée. It failed the following year. The reference to "Gobemoucherie de 1785" is not clear. Note that an alligator from Louisiana or Texas has swallowed one of the "gobe-mouche."


4. Victor Considerant, the creator of a “new socialist man”:

[Victor Considerant borrows phalansterian tails from monkeys in the zoo.]

Victor Considerant was a follower of the socialist Fourier and was the leading advocate of "the right to work" which the socialists attempted to enact in the early months of the 1848 Revolution. Fourier and Considerant believed that the creation of socialist communities and socialist ways of living and working would create a new kind of human being with different moral values (selfishness would disappear) and even new physical features. To bring this about people would be forced to live in small communities known as "phalansteries" which would house about 1,600 individuals who would live and work together communally. Fourier believed that the institution of monogamous marriage would eventually disappear and would be replaced by a system of free love. Considerant believed that human's physical shape would gradually change when they lived in highly regulated socialist communities. The cartoon refers to his idea that humans might eventually evolve "queues" (tails) which had an eye at the end of it. Considerant has such a tail and has gone to the monkey cage in the botanical gardens (zoo?) to cut off the monkey's tails to add to his collection for the new "Phalansterian Republic."


5. Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who dreams of a new socialist Terror:

[The tribune Ledur-Rollin borrows his newest ideas from Cambon, Danton, and other people who have been deceased for 50 years.]

The 1848 revolutionary politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin struts before Danton who was a political leader during the French Terror 1792-94. Danton leans against some of his most important revolutionary legislation such as the law issuing paper money (assignats), price controls (the "Maximum"), and the law imprisoning suspected enemies of the revolution. Ledru-Rollin when he was in the Provisional Government supported a 45% increase in taxes, the "right to a job" legislation, and the suspension of payments in gold by the central bank. To the right sits one of the notorious "knitting ladies" who supposedly sat watching the beheading of aristocrats, profiteers, and other enemies of the Revolution during the Terror.


6. Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, the socialist “Prince-President”:

[Prince Louis borrows all his cast-off clothess from his uncle.]

Napoleon Bonaparte wearing his underwear, gives his nephew Louis Napoleon his sword, grey coat and hat. Louis Napoléon was elected President of the Second Republic in December 1848 but had ambitions to become the dictator of France. He began calling himself the "Prince-President" and later seized power in a coup d'état in December 1851 and then suspended the constitution and declared himself emperor in December 1852. He was influenced by the socialist and interventionist ideas of Saint-Simon.