Liberty Matters

Revolutionary Moments and the Expansion of Production of Pamphlets II: When the Economists Took to the Streets


My third example of a liberal explosion of "idea production" occurred in Paris between late 1847 and the end of 1849 during the first, more fluid phase of the French Revolution of February 1848. With the successful example of the English Anti-Corn Law League in their minds the French free traders with Frédéric Bastiat at their head tried to replicate that success in France. Bastiat became a full-time activist for the French Free Trade Association, speaking at large public meetings across France (they will be translated and published in volume 6 of Liberty Fund's Collected Works of Bastiat) and writing weekly articles for the association's journal Le Libre-Échange.[87] In the Fall of 1847 both Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari got lectureships at the Athénée in Paris where they delivered lectures which they later turned into important and original treatises on economics: Bastiat's Economic Harmonies (1850, 1851) and Molinari's Cours d'Économie politique (1855).[88]
Their free-trade and scholarly activities were suspended when revolution broke out in February 1848 and they turned their attention to fighting the new enemy of socialism. In this Bastiat and Molinari were joined by other economists like Charles Coquelin, Alcide Fonteyraud, and Joseph Garnier in setting up popular organizations to confront socialism directly on the streets of Paris. They began by starting a popular magazine, La République française (which had 30 daily issues in late February and March 1848), to promote liberal ideas in the new market place for ideas which Parisian streets had become with the collapse of the regime and of censorship.[89] They competed with literally hundreds of small ephemeral magazines that advocated every idea across the political spectrum. In addition to magazines there were political clubs in most districts of Paris where ideas were publicly debated and from which street marches and demonstrations were organized, especially by the socialists. By some countssome 200 clubs existed in Paris alone. The political economists started their own club, what I call "Club lib" (Club de la liberté du travail [(The Freedom of Working Club]), to counter the socialists head on, but it only lasted a few weeks before socialist threats and violence forced it to close. Molinari later regretted that the economists had not fought back harder and kept the club open longer.
The political economists started a second magazine in June, Jacques Bonhomme (a modern American colloquial translation might be "Joe Six-Pack"), to again take free-market ideas to the streets.[90] Some of the articles that appeared in this magazine were designed to be reprinted as larger posters which could be pasted to the walls around the streets of Paris in order to promote their cause. It is quite possible that the first draft of Bastiat's famous essay "The State" which appeared in the first issue of Jacques Bonhomme, also appeared as a poster on the streets of Paris -- at least until it was torn down by rival socialist groups.[91] It is also quite possible that Bastiat and Molinari were on the streets handing out copies of their magazine or even sticking their posters to the walls. They both certainly were eyewitnesses to street violence. In both February and June Bastiat left vivid accounts in his correspondence of his witnessing killings of protesters by troops -- he even intervened on one occasion to negotiate a cease-fire with the soldiers so he could organize the removal of the dead and injured from the street barricades.[92]
In addition to their street activities some of the political economists (Faucher, Wolowski, Bastiat) successfully stood for election in the Constituent Assembly, where they worked against socialist legislation . Another activity was the publication by the Guillaumin publishing firm of dozens of short anti-socialist pamphlets and essays, which were aimed at a popular audience. Guillaumin even produced a separate catalog of the firm's anti-socialist literature in order to advertise the material. Part of this pamphlet war included Bastiat's dozen or so anti-socialist pamphlets like "The State" (September 1848), "Property and Law" (May 1848), and "Justice and Fraternity" (June 1848).[93] Guillaumin also arranged for the writing and publication of several books of "conversations" between "an economist" and "a worker" or "a socialist" in order to popularize free-market ideas to a broader audience. Molinari wrote his book of conversations Les Soirées de la rue Saint Lazare (Evenings on Saint Lazarus Street) as part of this campaign during the spring and summer of 1849; in it he defended free-market ideas from conservative and socialist criticism as well as advocated the complete privatization and competitive supply of every kind of public good imaginable, including police and defense services.[94] It was also during 1849 that Bastiat was racing against time to complete his magnum opus Economic Harmonies before he died. It too had some revolutionary new economic ideas concerning subjective value theory, exchange, the nature of rent, and Malthusian population theory. This suggests that sometimes revolutionary moments can be a spur to original thinking not just a defense of older notions which have come under attack.
Yet another activity was the decision taken in 1849 by Guillaumin to produce a monumental compendium of free-market ideas which would once and for all destroy socialist economic ideas and which would provide the economic data and theories with which politicians and bureaucrats could devise sounder government economic policies. This was the Dictionnaire de l'Économie politique (Dictionary of the Political Economy -- there was only one kind of political economy for the Parisian political economists and that the free market), edited by Charles Coquelin and to which Molinari was a major contributor. It appeared in two very large volumes in 1852-53[95] (An aside: the dictionary has to rank as one of the greatest publishing achievements of the classical-liberal movement in the 19th century and it is a very great pity is not better known.)
The threat of socialism came to an end with the cancellation of the National Workshops program in May/June 1848; the defeat of the right-to-work clause in the new constitution in September 1848; and the police crackdown on the political clubs and magazines; and the arrest, trial, imprisonment, execution, or deportation of thousands of radical socialists and republicans in 1849. In spite of their efforts, the political economists were not able to defeat socialism intellectually. As Molinari noted “socialisme d’en bas” (socialism from below, i.e. the street) was crushed by the police baton and the National Guard's rifles, but “socialisme d’en haut” (socialism from above, i.e. from within the new Bonapartist bureaucracies) survived and even flourished.[96] Some early deaths (Bastiat, Coquelin) and exile (Molinari) depleted the ranks of the political economists in Paris, and this brief, though quite extraordinary liberal moment came to an end.
Again, the questions arise, where did their liberal ideas come from? and what motivated them to take the actions they did in 1848? Their economic ideas clearly came from the Physiocrats (Quesnay and Turgot, whose work Guillaumin published in new, critical editions during the 1840s), Adam Smith, and J.-B. Say's Treatise (1803, 1814). Their ideas about class analysis and economic evolution came from the social theory which had been developed by Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer during the 1820s and 1830s, culminating in Dunoyer's magnum opus De la Liberté du travail in 1845 (the economists named their political club after this book).[97] The trigger to action was the coming to power of a socialist group in early 1848 and their actions were guided by the economic and political ideas which I have just outlined above. These ideas inspired them to become active in starting a free-trade movement and then becoming active on the streets of Paris and in the National Assembly during the revolution.
We can also identify quite clearly some of the key actors in this liberal movement: the intellectual entrepreneur was the publisher and organizer Gilbert-Urbain Guillaumin (1801-1864); the investors in idea production were businessmen and manufacturers like Horace Say (1794-1860), the son of J.-B. Say, and Casimir Cheuvreux who donated money and the use of their homes for functions, and then a number of other writers, speakers, and editors who are too numerous to mention. We also see some of the leading intellectuals "multi-tasking" as academics, journalists, editors, authors, public speakers, politicians, and street activists, as well as others who had more specialized skills and who were active in only one of these activities at any given moment. What the movement lacked however, were many "consumers" of liberal ideas.
The impact of the French political economists on others was slight. The workers marching in the streets were not inspired by Bastiat's and Molinari's free-trade pamphlets and magazines to swing over to the liberals's side. They did have some impact in the Assembly in checking the socialist National Workshops (Bastiat's work in the Finance Committee of the Assembly was crucial) and blocking the insertion of a right-to-a job clause in the new constitution, but these minor victories were swept aside when Louis Napoléon became first President of the Second Republic, then Prince-President, and finally Emperor of the Second Empire. Napoléon III, as he wished to be known, had a more lasting impact by creating a new kind of bureaucratic interventionist state which Marx termed "Bonapartism".[98]
In France in 1848, like other European countries, "liberalism from below" appears to have failed on many levels, yet liberalism's salvation may have been a form of "liberalism from above," as one of the economists active in 1848, Michel Chevalier, went on to work within the Bonapartist state and continued to lobby for free trade. This work was rewarded when Napoléon III chose Chevalier to sign a free trade treaty with England in 1860. The person who signed the agreement on behalf of England was none other than Bastiat's mentor and source of inspiration, Richard Cobden.
[87.] These are now online for the first time at my personal website <>. Le Libre-Échange. Journal du travail agricole, industriel et commercial. Première année, No. 1: 29 novembre 1846; No. 52: 21 novembre 1847. Edited by Frédéric Bastiat and Charles Coquelin; and Le Libre-Échange. Deuxième année, No. 1: 28 novembre 1848; No. 20: 16 avril 1848.
[88.] Frédéric Bastiat, Harmonies économiques (Paris: Guillaumin, 1850, 1851); Gustave de Molinari, Cours d'Économie politique. 1st edition 1855. 2nd revised and enlarged edition (Bruxelles et Leipzig: A Lacroix, Ver broeckoven; Paris: Guillaumin, 1863).
[89.] La République française. Daily journal. Signed: the editors: F. Bastiat, Hippolyte Castille, Molinari. Appeared 26 February to 28 March. 30 issues. Available online at <>.
[90.] Jacques Bonhomme, (Paris: 11 June - 13 July, 1848). Online <>.
[91.] Bastiat, "The State (draft)" (11-15 June, 1848), in Collected Works, vol. 2, pp. 105-6. </titles/2450#lf1573-02_label_195>.]
[92.] See the "Selected Quotations from Bastiat's Collected Works vol. 1", The 1848 Revolution" </pages/selected-quotations-from-bastiat-s-collected-works-vol-1#1848>.
[93.] In Collected Works, vol. 2 </titles/2450>.
[94.] Molinari, Gustave de, Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare; entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété (Paris: Guillaumin, 1849). Online version: </titles/1344>. Translation forthcoming from Liberty Fund.
[95.] The aim of the chief editor Coquelin and the publisher Guillaumin was to assemble a summary of the state of knowledge of liberal political economy with articles written by leading economists on thematic topics, biographies of key historical figures, bibliographies of the most important books, and economic and political statistics. The result was a two-volume, nearly 2,000 page, double-columned encyclopedia of political economy which appeared in 1852-53. See, Coquelin, Charles, and Gilbert-Urbain Guillaumin, eds. Dictionnaire de l’économie politique, contenant l’exposition des principes de la science, l’opinion des écrivains qui ont le plus contribué à sa fondation et à ses progrès, la Bibliographie générale de l’économie politique par noms d’auteurs et par ordre de matières, avec des notices biographiques et une appréciation raisonnée des principaux ouvrages, publié sur la direction de MM. Charles Coquelin et Guillaumin. (Paris: Librairie de Guillaumin et Cie., 1852-53). 2 vols.
[96.] Molinari, "Obituary of Joseph Garnier," Journal des Economistes, Sér. 4, T. 16, No. 46, October 1881, pp. 5-13 Quote p. 9.
[97.] Charles Dunoyer, De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s'exercent avec le plus de puissance (Paris: Guillaumin, 1845).
[98.] Karl Marx, "Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon" ("The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte"), Die Revolution (New York), 1852.