Early Secular Communism

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This article
is excerpted from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
volume 2, chapter 9: “Roots of Marxism: Messianic Communism,” section
2, “Secularized Millennial Communism: Mably and Morelly.” An MP3
audio file of chapter 9, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach, is available
for download

During the
havoc and upheaval of the French Revolution, the communist creed,
as well as millennial prophecies, again popped up as a glorious
goal for mankind, but this time the major emphasis was a secular
context. But the new secular communist prophets were faced with
a grave problem: What will be the agency for this social change?
In short, religious chiliasts never had problems about agency,
i.e., how this mighty change would come about. The agent would
be the hand of Providence, specifically either the Second Advent
of Jesus Christ (for premillennialists), or designated prophets
or vanguard groups who would establish the millennium in anticipation
of Jesus’s eventual return (for postmillennialists). King Bockelson
and Thomas Müntzer were examples of the latter. But if the
Christian millennialists possessed the assurance of the hand of
Divine Providence inevitably achieving their goal, how could secularists
command the same certainty and self-confidence? It looked as if
they would have to fall back on mere education and exhortation.

The secularist
task was made more difficult by the fact that religious millennialists
looked to the end of history and the achievement of their goal
by means of a bloody apocalypse. The final reign of millennial
peace and harmony could only be achieved in the course of a period
known as "the tribulation," the final war of good against
evil, the final triumph over the Antichrist.[1]
All of which meant that if the secular communists wished to emulate
their Christian forbears, they would have to achieve their goal
by bloody revolution – always difficult at best. It is no
accident, therefore, that the heady days of the French Revolution
would give rise to such revolutionary hopes and aspirations.

The first secularized
communists appeared in the shape of two isolated individuals in
mid-18th century France. The works of these two men would later
burgeon into an activist revolutionary movement amidst the hothouse
atmosphere and the sudden upheavals of the French Revolution. One
was the aristocrat Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709–85), the elder
brother of the laissez-faire liberal philosopher Etienne Bonnot
de Condillac. In contrast to his brother the distinguished philosopher,
Mably devoted himself to being a lifelong writer on a large variety
of subjects.[2]
A man whose works, as Alexander Gray wittily writes, "are deplorably
numerous and extensive." Mably’s prolix and confused writings
were astoundingly popular in his day, his entire collected works,
ranging from 12 to 26 volumes, being published in four different
editions within a few years of his death.

Mably’s main
focus was to insist that all men are "perfectly" equal
and uniform, that all men are one and the same everywhere. He
professed to discern this alleged truth in the laws of nature.
Thus, in his chief work Doutes proposes (1786), an attack
on the libertarian natural rights theory of Mercier de la Rivière,
Mably presumes to interpret the voice of Nature: "Nature
says to us … I love you equally."[3]

As in the
case of most communists after him, Mably found himself confronted
with one of the great problems of communism: if all property is
owned in common and each person is equal, then the incentive to
work is negative, since only the common store will benefit and
not the individual worker in question. Mably in particular had
to confront this problem, since he also maintained that man’s
natural and original state was communism, and that private property
arose to spoil matters precisely because of the indolence of some
who wished to live at the expense of others.[4]

Mably’s proposed
solutions to this grave problem were scarcely adequate. One was
to urge everyone to tighten their belts, to want less, to be content
with Spartan austerity. His other answer was to come up with what
Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung would later call "moral incentives":
to substitute for crass monetary rewards the recognition of one’s
merits by one’s brothers – in the form of ribbons, medals,
etc. Alexander Gray notes that Mably makes use of such "distinctions"
or "Birthday Honours Lists," to stimulate everyone to
work. He goes on to point out that the more "distinctions"
are handed out as incentives, the less they will truly distinguish,
and the less influence they will therefore exert. Furthermore,
Mably "does not say how or by whom his distinctions are to
be conferred."

Gray adds that
in a communist society in reality, many people who don’t
receive honors may and probably will be disgruntled and resentful
at the supposed injustice involved, yet their "zeal doesn’t

Thus, in
his two proffered solutions, Gabriel de Mably was resting his
hope on a miraculous transformation of human nature, what the
Marxists would later see as the advent of the New Socialist Man,
willing to bend his desires and his incentives to the requirements
of, and baubles conferred by, the collective. But for all his
devotion to communism, Mably was at bottom a realist, and so he
held out no hope for its triumph. On the contrary, man is so steeped
in the sin of selfishness and private property that only the palliatives
of coerced redistribution and prohibitions of trade are even possible.
It is no wonder that Mably was not equipped to inspire and stimulate
the birth and growth of a revolutionary communist movement.

If Gabriel
de Mably was a pessimist, the same cannot be said of the highly
influential work of the unknown Morelly, author of Le
Code de la Nature
(The Code of Nature), published
in 1755, and going into five further editions by 1773. Morelly had
no doubts of the workability of communism: for him there was no
problem of laziness or negative incentives. There was no need, in
short, for any change in human nature or the creation of a New Socialist
Man. In a vulgarization of Rousseau, man is everywhere good, altruistic,
and dedicated to work: it is only institutions that are degrading
and corrupt, specifically the institution of private property. Abolish
that, and man’s natural goodness would easily triumph. (Query: where
did these corrupt institutions come from, if not from man?) Banish
property, and crime would disappear.

For Morelly,
the administration of the communist utopia would also be easy.
Assigning every person his task in life, and also deciding what
material goods and services would fulfill his needs, would apparently
be a trivial problem for the ministry of labor or of consumption.
For Morelly, all this was merely a matter of trivial enumeration,
of listing things and persons. Here is the ancestor of Marx and
Lenin’s dismissal of the gigantic problems of socialist administration
and allocation as merely a question of book-keeping.

But things,
after all, are not going to be that easy. Mably, the pessimist on
human nature, was apparently willing to leave matters to voluntary
actions of individuals. But Morelly, the alleged optimist, was cheerfully
prepared to employ brutally coercive methods to keep all the "good"
citizens in line. Once again, as in Mably, the edicts of the proposed
state would be written clearly by Nature, as revealed to the founder
Morelly. Morelly worked out an intricate design for his proposed
government and society, all allegedly based on the clear dictates
of natural law, and most of which were to be changeless and eternal
– to Morelly, a vital part of the scheme.

In particular,
there is to be no private property, except for daily needs: every
person is to be maintained and employed by the collective, every
man is to be forced to work, to contribute to the communal storehouse
according to his talents, and will then be assigned goods from
these stores according to his needs, to be brought up communally,
and absolutely identically in food, clothing and training. Philosophic
and religious doctrines are to be absolutely prescribed; no differences
are to be tolerated; and children are not to be corrupted by any
"fable, story, or ridiculous fictions." All buildings
must be the same, and grouped in equal blocks; all clothing is
to be made out of the same fabric. Occupations are to be limited
and strictly assigned by the state.

these laws are to be sacred and inviolable, and anyone attempting
to change them is to be isolated and incarcerated for life.

As in all
the communist utopias, Mably’s and Morelly’s, as Alexander Gray
makes clear, are ones under which "no sane man would on any
conditions consent to live, if he could possibly escape."
The reason, apart from the grave lack of incentives in utopias
to produce or innovate, is that "life has reached a static
state…. Nothing happens, nothing can happen in any of them."[6]

It should
be added that these utopias were debased, secularized versions
of the visions of the Christian millennialists. In the Christian
millennium, Jesus Christ (or, alternatively, his surrogates and
predecessors) comes back to earth to put an end to history; and
presumably, there will be enough enchantment in glorifying God
without worrying about the absence of earthly change. And, as
we have seen, this is particularly true in Joachim of Fiore’s
envisioned millennium of people without earthly bodies. But in
the secularized utopias there reigns, at best, gray gloom and
stasis totally contrary to man’s nature on earth.

however, Christian millennialism was also revived in these stormy
times. Thus, the Swabian German pietist Johann Christoph Otinger,
during the mid-18th century, prophesied a coming theocratic world
kingdom of saints, living communally, without rank or property,
as members of a millennial Christian commonwealth. Particularly
influential among later German pietists was the French mystic and
theosophist Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803), who in
his influential Des
Erreurs et la Verite
(Errors and Truth) (1773), portrayed
an "inner church of the elect" allegedly existing since
the dawn of history, which would take power in the coming age. This
"Martinist" theme was developed by the Rosicrucian movement,
concentrated in Bavaria. Originally alchemist mystics during the
17th and 18th centuries, the Bavarian Rosicrucians began to stress
the coming takeover of world power by the inner church of the elect
during the dawning millennial age.

The most
influential Bavarian Rosicrucian author, Carl von Eckartshausen,
expounded on this theme in two widely read works, Information
on Magic (1788–92) and On Perfectibility (1797).
In the latter work, he developed the idea that the inner church
of the elect had existed backwards in time to Abraham and then
forwards to a world government to be ruled by these keepers of
the divine light. This third and final age of history, the age
of the Holy Spirit, was now at hand. The illuminated elect destined
to rule the new communal world were, fairly obviously, the Rosicrucian
Order itself, since their major evidence for the dawn of the third
age was the rapid spread of Martinism and Rosicrucianism itself.

And these
movements were indeed spreading during the 1780s and 1790s. The
Prussian King Frederick William II and a large portion of his
court were converted to Rosicrucianism in the late 1780s, as was
the Russian Czar Paul I a decade later, based on his reading of
Saint-Martin and Eckartshausen, both of whom he considered to
be transmitters of divine revelation. Saint-Martin was also influential
through his leadership of Scottish Rite Masonry in Lyons, and
was the main figure in what might be called the apocalyptic-Christian
wing of the Masonic movement.[7]


We are simplifying here from the often daunting complexities of
millennial thought. For example, in the highly developed premillennial
doctrines of 20th-century "fundamentalism," the period
of the tribulation will be a very hectic 7 years, the "70th
week" of the Book of Daniel, in which not only the Anti-Christ
("the Beast"), but also "The Dragon” (the Anti-God),
the "False Prophet" (the Anti-Spirit), "The Scarlet
Woman," and many other evil beings will be overcome. Thus,
see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism
and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism:
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 58–9.

In his day and later, Mably was often referred to as an "abbé,"
but he had left the clergy early in life.

Quoted and translated in Alexander Gray, The
Socialist Tradition
(London: Longmans Green, 1946), p. 87.

Ibid., p. 88.

Ibid., pp. 90–91.

Ibid., pp. 62–3.

On Saint-Martin, Eckartshausen and their influence, see the
revealing article by Paul Gottfried, "Utopianism of the
Right: Maistre and Schlegel," Modern Age, 24 (Spring
1980), pp. 150–60.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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