Henri Saint-Simon: first utopian socialist? 


Saint-Simon is generally regarded as the first of the utopian socialists, though it is open to question whether he was actually a utopian or even a socialist. He nevertheless can be considered to be a founder of social science. Born into a French aristocratic family in Picardy, France in 1760, he claimed descent from Charlemagne. In 1778, he joined the army and was sent to America in 1780 to join their struggle for independence from Britain, being captured by the English navy in 1782 while attempting to return to France. Released the following year, he travelled to Mexico to promote a project for a canal across the Panama isthmus, and in 1787 offered his services to the Spanish government to assist them in building a canal between Madrid and the Atlantic, a project which never happened.  

Active in Picardy politics as president of the municipal assembly in Falvy, he was arrested by the Jacobins as a counter-revolutionary but released in 1894 after the fall of Robespierre. He studied physics and mathematics at the École Polytechnique before taking up the study of medicine. In 1802, Saint-Simon wrote his first study of social organisation, Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva. His thesis was that the threat of revolution and anarchy could only be overcome through a comprehensive social reform, based on science and industry. Progress was dependent on the collaboration of the industrious classes – entrepreneurial employers and the actual productive workers. He proposed a new religion of science to be organised at national and international level, which he called The New Christianity. 

In his Introduction to the Scientific Studies of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1808, Saint-Simon argued for a new theoretical system which incorporated all existing knowledge. In 1814, his Reorganisation of European Society, prompted by the meeting of the Congress of Vienna, proposed a federation of European nations through a system of parliamentary assemblies, with a European parliament – a basis to claim being a progenitor of the European Union. Saint-Simon promoted his industrial programme through a series of journals – L’Industrie in 1816 and L’Organisateur in 1820, followed by a series of booklets on The Industrial System.  

Despairing of the lack of support from liberals, after a failed suicide attempt he then produced a new journal, The Industrials Catechism, with the collaboration of a Jewish intellectual, Olinde Rodrigues, and a young French scholar, August Comte, who first published his System of Positive Politics in the third part of The Industrials Catechism. Saint-Simon believed that through scientific analysis, the future could be predicted, and, in this sense, he was a historical determinist.  

However, like Marx, he believed that human action could change the pace of social change. Like Marx, he believed that history was a perpetual struggle between the productive classes and the idle classes; but while Marx saw entrepreneurs as capitalist exploiters, to Saint-Simon they were an essential component of the productive class. After his death in 1825, some of his followers developed a universalist religious cult living in a communistic commune in Paris. Others followed careers as engineers, economists and technicians, working within the French empire and beyond, including in Algiers and in Egypt, with Ferdinand de Lesseps initiating the Suez Canal before attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to implement Saint-Simon’s project in Panama, a project eventually realised by American engineers in 1914. Meanwhile, August Comte developed the positivist theory which was to have a significant impact on politics and social reform in Britain as well as in France. 

“In the great enterprise of working directly for the establishment of the system of public good, the artists, the men of imagination, will lead the way. They will proclaim the future of the human race. They will inspire society to increase its well-being by presenting it with a rich picture of new prosperity and by showing that all members of society will soon share the pleasures which have hitherto been the prerogatives of a very small class…

“The scientists, the men whose chief occupation is to observe and reason, will demonstrate the possibility of a great increase in well-being for all classes of society, for the most hard-working class, the proletariat, as well as for the richest class. They will show what are the most certain and most rapid means of guaranteeing continuity of work for the mass of producers. They will lay the foundations of public education. They will establish laws of hygiene for the social body, and, in their hands, politics will become the complement of the science of man…

“The most important industrials, relating all ideas to production, will judge what is immediately practical in the projects of public utility conceived and elaborated in concert by the scientists and artists. They will plan methods of execution to be directed by the bankers, who are always at the head of financial movements.” 

Further reading: 
Taylor, Keith: The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists (Frank Cass, 1982) 
Taylor, Keith ed.: Henri Saint-Simon: Selected Writings (Croom Helm 1975) 
Manuel, Frank: The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (Harvard 1956) 
Jennings, Jeremy: Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians in the Cambridge History of Socialism. Volume 1 (Cambridge 2022) 

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