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Pierre Leroux (1797-1871)

Pierre Leroux (1797-1871) Literary critic, philosopher and mystical humanitarian socialist, whose thought best summarizes "French social romanticism" (Evans). Long described in Communist historiography as having taken "no part in the struggle of 1848" (Viard), Leroux has been rehabilitated in some recent works as one of the more influential and popular socialist thinkers of the period, not only in France but also among radical intellectuals throughout Europe. Before 1848 he had developed a reputation as an incisive literary critic of the Romantic school and as a leading French antagonist to Victor Cousin's eclectic philosophy. A popular encyclopedia edited by himself and the ex-Saint Simonian Jean Reynaud, L'Encyclopédie nouvelle, and three seminal books -- De l'égalité (1838), Refutation de l'éclectisme (1839) and especially his philosophical-religious summa, De l'Humanité (1840) -- established his reputation among contemporaries as "incontestably one of the greatest French philosophers" (Heinrich Heine, 1842) and the leading voice of the group of social utopians called "Humanitarians." Leroux founded no utopian school but exercised extensive influence informally through his publications and his celebrated personal acquaintances, notably his lifelong friendship with George Sand, whose novel Spiridion (1839) reflected Leroux's influence.

Leroux's participation in the events of 1848 began at Boussac (Creuse), where, with the financial assistance of Sand and in collaboration with his brother Jules, the militant typographer, he had set up a printing shop in 1844 that became the nucleus of a colony of unemployed workers, journalists and lawyers. Leroux intended this Société typographique et agricole as an experiment in egalitarian cooperative living, combining farming with industry and serving to link Paris with the provinces as well as intellectuals with workers in the movement for social reform. Leroux and his group were active in the regional republican movement during the months before the February revolution, and immediately after the revolution Leroux was elected mayor of Boussac. He left Boussac permanently after being elected as deputy for Paris to the Constituent Assembly on June 4, winning more votes than Proudhon.

In the revolutionary events of 1848, the authorities arrested Leroux, along with Blanqui, Barbès and Raspail, following the invasion of the assembly by the crowd on May 15, 1848, but released him shortly thereafter. He tried to prevent the massacre of prisoners in the June insurrection and criticized government leaders for their lack of moderation in these events. He continued to speak for workers' causes and to defend socialism in the constituent and legislative assemblies throughout the second republic as a partisan of the Mountain, although he refused to support Proudhon's bank of the people and to participate in Ledru-Rollin's attempted insurrection of June 1849. His "trinitarian views"--which referred to his concept of human nature as a "triad" of sensation, feeling and knowledge--evoked ridicule from conservatives in the debates on the constitution but found expression in manifestos of workers' associations organized under the republic. Leroux also proposed the first bill ever to call for granting the vote to women, as spokesman for the "socialist workers" in November 1851. The feminists Pauline Roland and Jeanne Deroin counted themselves among his followers, and Roland praised Boussac as a model socialist community. Fleeing to London to resist arrest for protesting the coup d'état of December 1851, he spent most of the Second Empire in near obscurity, even though he was allowed to return to France in 1859. He died in Paris during the Commune in 1871. Like other utopian socialists, Leroux denounced market society, industrial capitalism and bourgeois individualism. He emphasized the need for a democratic and egalitarian solution to the social question based on a new understanding of humanity, one that was universal and total rather than the prevalent partial, individualist understanding which regarded society as ordered by castes of family, country and property. This "humanity," for Leroux, embodied all anterior generations, as well as the spiritual communion of all the living. It was a mystical notion of humanity, implying the need for a new faith or ideal, the religion of humanity, to guide social reform. In the light of this new faith, "solidarity," or "moral communion," would replace Christian charity as the essential bond of human relations.

This mystical and speculative turn to Leroux's thought was its most original trait but earned him much scorn and neglect, even among socialists, in the less Romantic period after 1848. Numerous commentators, including several historians of 1848, have characterized his thought as nebulous and contradictory. He has also been subject to much misinterpretation. He has been described variously as a Hégélian, a liberal Protestant and a believer in reincarnation, none of which he was. He was nonetheless very popular among militant workers in 1848. They fondly regarded him, with his dark, thick and disheveled beard, as their philosophus hirsutus. They considered him one of their own, as much for his personal modesty, impoverished material circumstances and large family (he had nine children) as for his democratic and egalitarian ideas.

George Sheridan


Evans, David Owen. Le Socialisme romantique: Pierre Leroux et ses contemporains. Paris: Librairie Marcel Rivire, 1948.

Thomas, P. Flix. Pierre Leroux: Sa vie, son oeuvre, sa doctrine. Paris: Alcan, 1904.

Lacassagne, Jean-Pierre, ed. Histoire d'une amitié (d'après une correspondance inédite 1836-1866): Pierre Leroux et George Sand. Paris: Klincksieck, 1973.

Reybaud, Louis."Les Humanitaires" in Etudes sur les réformateurs ou socialistes modernes, II. Bruxelles: Société typographique Belge, 1849.

Viard, Jacques. Pierre Leroux et les socialistes européens. Le Paradou: Actes Sud, 1982.

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