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Saint-Simon, Henri de



SAINT-SIMON, HENRI DE (1760–1825), French social theorist.

Henri de Saint-Simon was one of the most idiosyncratic and unclassifiable thinkers of the immediate postrevolutionary era in France. He was also one of the most original and influential. He has variously been regarded as a founder of socialism and as a prophet of organized capitalism, as a romantic and as a technocrat. Some have seen him as an apologist for the managerial state, whereas others have interpreted him as a forerunner of anarchism who anticipated the withering away of the state. In the nineteenth century the publication of his collected works was financed by a famous banking family, the Pereires, who also provided for the care of his grave, but his name also features on the "Obelisk to the Fighters for Freedom" in Red Square in Moscow.

Born into an impoverished branch of a famous noble family, Saint-Simon had little formal education and in 1778 entered the army as a commissioned officer, in which capacity he served under Lafayette in the War of American Independence. Disgusted by the experience of war, he subsequently left the army and was drawn into various speculative engineering projects, including the building of a Panama canal. But it was the French Revolution that enabled his entrepreneurial activities to thrive, and he made a small fortune by speculating on the "national property" confiscated from the church and émigré nobles. He survived imprisonment during the Terror, and was to thrive again, economically and politically, under the Directory. Under the Consulate he set himself up as a patron of the natural sciences, but overreached himself and squandered much of the fortune he had acquired. But it was his contacts with the scientists of the É cole Polytechnique and the École de Médecine that helped launch him on the career as a social theorist in which he would make his enduring reputation.


Saint-Simon published nothing until he was past forty, but was prolific in the last two decades or so of his life. Early sketches of his ideas included the Lettres d'un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains (1803; Letters from a resident of Geneva to his contemporaries), Introduction aux travaux scientifiques du XIXe siècle (1808; Introduction to scientific works of the eighteenth century), and the manuscript Mémoire sur la science de l'homme (1813; Memoir on the science of man). But these works were notoriously chaotic, and had he died in 1813 Saint-Simon would probably have been remembered only as a quixotic and idiosyncratic nobleman. What made his reputation was his period of collaboration with two gifted secretaries, the future historian Augustin Thierry and the embryonic positivist Auguste Comte. With Thierry's help he published De la réorganisation de la société européenne (1814; On the reorganization of European society), which envisaged the unification of Europe under the leadership of Britain and according to the principles of a beneficent liberal capitalism. During this Anglophile phase Saint-Simon was a mainstream liberal proponent of constitutionalism. But the period of collaboration with Comte saw Saint-Simon react against constitutional liberalism, which he came to see as a purely negative doctrine that lacked constructive capacity. The central concept in his thought was that of "industry," by which he meant not factory production but any goal-oriented activity. Industry, he argued, was pacific and cooperative and bound men together in society: hence, in a society geared to industry rather than to war, the "government of men" would give way to the "administration of things." He expounded these ideas in Du système industriel (1821; On the industrial system) and in his Catéchisme des industriels (1823–1824; Catechism of the industrialists). He and Comte also came under the influence of the theocrats Louis de Bonald and Joseph-Marie de Maistre, for whom there could be no social order without a recognized moral and intellectual authority. Saint-Simon now returned to a doctrine he first adumbrated in 1813, and assigned a crucial role to a scientifically educated elite, which would take the lead in forging a new spiritual consensus that would be the functional equivalent of Catholic doctrine in medieval Europe. In a final phase, after his break with Comte, his interest turned more explicitly toward the cause of the spiritual regeneration of modern society, which he expounded in Le nouveau christianisme (1825; The new Christianity).


What really made Saint-Simon's reputation was the small group of gifted and dedicated disciples that formed at the end of his life, notably Olinde Rodrigues, Prosper Enfantin, and Amand Bazard, who organized a series of lectures in Paris in 1828 to propound Saint-Simonian ideas. These were published under the title Exposition de la doctrine de Saint-Simon (1829; Expostion on the doctrine of Saint-Simon). It was these Saint-Simonians who interpreted their master's ideas in such a way as to recruit him posthumously to the incipient socialist movement. They were also fervent advocates of the emancipation of women, and Rodrigues attributed to the dying Saint-Simon the enigmatic pronouncement that "man and woman together constitute the social individual." For a time, in and around the Revolution of 1830, Saint-Simonism seemed to be the creed of the future, and its influence reached Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill in Britain and Heinrich Marx (Karl's father) and the poet Heinrich Heine in Germany. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels identified Saint-Simon, along with Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, as an exponent of the kind of utopian socialism that their own "scientific" socialism was destined to supplant.

In 1832, two intrepid Saint-Simonian missionaries landed in England, a land ripe, they thought, for conversion. They were to be disappointed, and in France too the movement dissipated in the disappointing aftermath of the Revolution of 1830. Thereafter Saint-Simon's reputation suffered an eclipse, and Comte—whose influence in his lifetime was limited—came to be seen as the formative influence on the positivist tradition. The revival of Saint-Simon's influence occurred at the end of the nineteenth century: the path was cleared with the work of Paul Janet (1878), and in the 1890s there was a flurry of interest in him as a pioneer of socialism. Georges Weill and Émile Durkheim both took this line, which was echoed by Henry Michel in his classic L'idée de l'état (1898; The idea of the state). In the first two thirds of the twentieth century there was consistent scholarly interest in Saint-Simon. English-language editions of his selected writings appeared in 1952, 1975, and 1976, but nothing has appeared since then. A flurry of postwar publications on Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians largely petered out in the late 1970s, along with the waning of the kind of technocratic corporatism, which he has been seen as anticipating. But given the protean shape of Saint-Simon's social and political thought, a puzzle still remains. He has not yet, for instance, been rediscovered as a prophet of globalization. Even advocates of European integration, who have rarely missed a chance to recruit posthumous supporters, have largely failed to turn their attention toward Saint-Simon. One exception to this contemporary neglect is worth comment. In 1985 François Furet, Pierre Rosanvallon, and their allies chose the name "Fondation Saint-Simon" for a think-tank they established, which was finally wound up shortly after Furet's death in 1999. Given the neoliberal affinities of this group, the prophet of corporatism might seem an unlikely hero. But Saint-Simon appealed nicely to their project of ideological convergence.


Saint-Simon is best understood as one of those thinkers who sought to "close" the French Revolution. For him the Revolution, like the Enlightenment that gave birth to it, was an essentially destructive process that was to be welcomed insofar as it put an end to the world of feudalism, but that must yield to a new "organizing" force. His "socialism" should be seen in this light. He wrote at a time when socialism was usually divorced from the revolutionary tradition, and was instead associated with a quasi-religious zeal for spiritual renewal. His "new Christianity" was an appropriate culmination of his intellectual odyssey, and probably makes him a more sympathetic figure than the soulless technocrat.

See alsoBonald, Louis de; Comte, Auguste; France; Maistre, Joseph de; Utopian Socialism.


Carlisle, Robert B. The Proffered Crown: Saint-Simonianism and the Doctrine of Hope. Baltimore and London, 1987.

Ionescu, Ghita, ed. The Political Thought of Saint-Simon. Oxford, U.K., 1976.

Manuel, Frank E. The New World of Henri St. Simon. Cambridge, Mass., 1956.

Simon, W. M. "History for Utopia: Saint-Simon and the Idea of Progress." Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956): 311–331.

H. S. Jones

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