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Social theory




Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), French social philosopher and reformer, is a controversial figure in modern social thought, who—without writing a single enduring work—had a crucial role in the early nineteenth-century developments of industrial socialism, positivism, sociology, political economics, and the philosophy of history. In his final years he inspired a Christian socialist movement with a secular gospel of human brotherhood. By scholarly standards his works—mostly reformist essays and brochures—are highly deficient: overly polemical, weak in organization and conceptual clarity, and often marred by confusions between questions of value and fact. Much of his subsequent influence is due to students and disciples, who systematized, popularized, and also partly reshaped his ideas, and especially to Auguste Comte, his onetime protégé and collaborator, whose work in sociology and philosophy greatly overshadows Saint-Simon’s.

In retrospect, Saint-Simon’s main significance for the social sciences is threefold. He was one of the first to grasp the revolutionary implications of “industrialization” (a word he himself coined) for traditional institutions and morality and to conceptualize the industrial system as a distinctive type. He was also among the earliest to advocate a naturalistic science of society as a rational guide to social reconstruction. But he is most important as provisional formulator of an “evolutionary organicist” theory, whose influence is reflected in social evolutionary doctrines as diverse as those of Herbert Spencer, Lester Ward, and Karl Marx. He directly inaugurated the “positivist organicist” school—most notably represented by Comte and Emile Durkheim—which for a century thereafter was to vie with utilitarianism, Marxism, and Hegelian historicism for theoretical predominance in the social sciences (Martindale 1960, part 2). Through Durkheim, his organicist concept of social order carries over into contemporary “functionalism” in anthropology and sociology.

Recent biographers have depicted Saint-Simon as a brilliant, but erratic, figure, possessed from early life with a consuming passion for greatness which led him into various endeavors, turning to serious studies and his writings after the most varied social experiences. He was born in Paris to the socially marginal, relatively impoverished side of a prominent noble family that claimed descent from Charlemagne. His boyhood education, through tutoring, included conventional exposure to Enlightenment ideas and Catholicism, both profoundly influential in his later thought. At 17 he was commissioned into the army, remaining for four years, during which he fought with some distinction in the American Revolution. From this time until the French Revolution he tried a variety of ambitious promotional ventures with little success. During the Terror of 1793–1794 he was imprisoned for a year, narrowly escaping a death sentence. This experience left him with a lasting dread of revolutionary violence. After his release, he amassed a considerable fortune—by speculating in confiscated church lands—which he lavished on an extravagant Paris salon, catering particularly to scientists and intellectuals, from whom he acquired a broad, if superficial, education. But his funds were spent by 1804, and he lived his last twenty years in modest circumstances, at times verging on poverty, largely cut off from his former glittering life.

Social theory

At 42, with poverty threatening, Saint-Simon took up his new career as writer and social reformer. Throughout the turbulence of the Napoleonic empire and the Bourbon restoration, he presented a many-sided analysis of problems confronting Europe, proposing numerous remedies that gradually broadened into a full-scale social reconstruction program. The emphasis shifts at several points, and few of the ideas, taken singly, are new. What is new is the underlying rationale of evolutionary organicism: a partly conscious synthesis of the scientific naturalism and rationalist faith of Condorcet and the Enlightenment; the more practical materialism of the rising entrepreneurial bourgeoisie; and the authoritarian emphasis upon ideological unity found in Burke and in restorationists like Bonald and de Maistre.

The starting point is the conservative ideal of “organic” equilibrium, according to which society is unified under a single organizational system, undisturbed by conflicts between individuals or social classes. To Saint-Simon such integration requires both a “temporal” system of institutions (for government, the economy, and other coordinative activities) and a “spiritual” ideology of worldly existence and conduct that would give coherent justification to the temporal system and command the allegiance of the highly educated as well as the general populace. Under such an established order, individuals are viewed as beholden to the system for survival and well-being, and a mutual interest of all social classes in the system’s success is assumed.

Conservative versions of organicism had generally accepted a single equilibrium state with traditional sanction. Saint-Simon was among the first to relativize organicism by adding the evolutionary idea of social development. He conceived of an orderly progression of stable organic civilizations that represent different stages of advancement. Each system in turn is viewed as appropriate to its time of formation, only to become obsolete as a higher level is reached. Thus, in the history of Western man, Saint-Simon discerned two main organic systems. The first, predominant in ancient Greece and Rome, had a polytheistic ideology, a slave economy, and monolithic political rule. By the eleventh century, it had been supplanted by the second, characterized by feudalism and Catholicism, after centuries of disorganization and conflict between the two rival systems. The triumph of medievalism was assured by its superiority over its predecessor in promoting a more rational theology, a more humane form of bondage, the separation of temporal from spiritual power, and technological improvements. In this analysis, Saint-Simon, like the Enlightenment philosophers, accepted the growth of knowledge and ethical understanding as primary criteria and determinants of evolutionary progress. He posited a broad, overriding trend in human history, from anthropomor-phically theistic interpretations of the world to scientific naturalism, and, correlatively, from domination by the strong to productive cooperation and humane morality. As enlightenment progresses, new civilizations are formed, based on new ideologies initially introduced by advanced elites and subsequently reflected in popular institutions. But the transition from one system to another is very slow, since organic civilizations require centuries to develop and, once established, are strongly resistant to change.

Saint-Simon believed that all Europe had been in a transitional crisis since the fifteenth century, when medievalism began to give way to a new system founded on industry and science. He wrote as the new system’s advocate, urging heads of state and influential groups to hasten its inception as the only way to restore stability; he was, thus, the first of many meliorists to present reforms as evolutionary necessity (“Our intention merely is to promote and explain the inevitable.”). His early writings during Napoleon’s reign stress ideological aspects of the crisis and contain his main positivist doctrines (1807; 1813a; 1813b). The groundwork of positivism as an empiricist philosophy of knowledge had already been established by Bacon, Hume, and others. Saint-Simon’s contribution, later amplified in Comte’s more rigorous work, was its evolutionary reformulation as part of a comprehensive reconstruction program. He argued that theistic Roman Catholicism—the spiritual basis of medievalism—had been undermined by the sciences and by such secularists as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists. But these modern intellectual forces, while aiding progress by exposing an outdated system, had been negativistic in failing to provide an adequate replacement. Needed, instead, was a new, encompassing “positive” philosophy based on the sciences, as fundament for the new social order. All sciences were to contribute, including a new social science (called social physiology, to indicate that social phenomena were to be viewed as part of life’s natural development) that would “inductively” derive the new moral codes and policies for the future society by historical extrapolations—a task for which no explicit methodology was offered. A new scientific advisory group would insure the application of results to social policy, so “that men henceforth [would] do consciously and more effectively what they previously [had] done slowly, unconsciously and indecisively” (Oeuvres de Saint-Simon, vol. 18, p. 166). Popular attitudes were to be correspondingly changed by a scientific program of mass education that would eventually establish a nontheistic religion of “physicism.” Thus, Saint-Simon envisioned nothing less than a total scientific transformation of Western civilization and implied that while positivism would serve as a new philosophy for the educated, it would function as a religion for the masses.

After Napoleon’s downfall Saint-Simon shifted his attention from the ideology of the new system to its temporal structure and policies. In a series of periodicals, L’industrie (1816–1818), Le politique (1819), L’organisateur (1819–1820), and Du systeme industriel (1821–1822), he supported the third estate against the re-established nobles and clergy. These periodicals contained many of his own articles presenting his main socialist doctrines—but a strange socialism it is, resembling venture capitalism and technocracy as much as Marxism or primitive communism. In contrast with the latter, he abandoned the ideal of the small equalitarian communal unit, still partly upheld by Fourier and others. The future society portrayed is, above all, one of productive achievement, with poverty and war eradicated through bold, large-scale industrialization under planned scientific guidance. It is an open-class system in which caste privileges are abolished, work is provided for all, and rewards are assigned according to merit. The state changes from “government” (characterized by class domination and national rivalries) to a welfare system managed scientifically by expert public servants who are mainly concerned with economic regulation; the power of the state is drastically reduced, and what is left is transferred from war lords and idlers to the productive workers. But, unlike Marx, Saint-Simon opposed all violence, whether revolutionary or not, hoping that the feudal rulers would relinquish their power peacefully as they became persuaded of their fate. He also differed from Marx in viewing bourgeoisie, scientists, and proletariat alike as members of the productive working class: all are natural allies in the struggle against feudalism and cobeneficiaries of the future industrial system. In fact, he saw bankers, engineers, and manufacturers (under scientific advisement) as the best qualified revolutionary leaders of the working-class coalition and hoped that, through their managerial effectiveness and wisdom, destructive class struggles would disappear in the future. The most basic contrast, however, is that despite Saint-Simon’s emphasis on material prosperity as a political goal, he was more an ideological than an economic determinist. The desired evolution ultimately depends, for him, on the enlightened good will of those in power, and to foster this good will, in his final work, “New Christianity” (1825), he espoused a secular Christian revival that would instill in all social classes an awareness of their common destiny.


Saint-Simon’s ideas caused little stir until his death, when a movement was formed in his name, inspired by “New Christianity” and propounding a gospel of brotherly love, concern for the poor, and the reconciliation of spiritual values with material progress. During eight stormy years of organized existence, it attracted surprisingly many of Europe’s outstanding young intellectuals (at various times including Carlyle, Mill, Buchez, Carnot, Blanc, Chevalier, and Heine, to name only a few) by appealing to a rising discontent with capitalism and a sense that reform was needed. First led by Bazard, the movement reworked Saint-Simon’s ideas into the famous Doctrine of Saint-Simon (1830; often dubbed socialism’s “Old Testament”), for which he is best remembered. But while the doctrine retained and made more coherent Saint-Simon’s evolutionary formula, concept of crisis, stress on planning, pacifism, work ethic, and call for restored social unity, it also introduced important changes. In a position closer to Marxism, it condemned capitalist exploitation along with feudalism; abolition of inheritance, socialization of property, and equality of the sexes were all added to the program; the whole approach became more authoritarian and antiscientific in spirit. This trend came to a climax in 1832, after a bitter schism in which, under Enfantin’s charismatic direction, one faction of Saint-Simonians became a hierarchical religious sect, complete with mystical liturgy, substituting a sensate monism of flesh and spirit for the remnants of scientific empiricism. Enfantin quickly fell into disrepute for attacking marital “hypocrisy” and advocating “free love” (which Saint-Simon himself had indulged in but never preached), and the sect was disbanded for its heresies; but not before its earlier doctrine had become a part of the intellectual heritage of the West.

Martin U. Martel

[See alsoElites; Evolution, article onSocial Evolution; Socialism; and the biographies ofComte; Condorcet; Durkheim; Fourier; Le Play; Marx; Owen; Spencer; Ward, Lester F.]


The periodicals edited by Saint-Simon, L’industrie (1816–1818), Le politique (1819), L’organisateur (1819–1820), and Du systeme industriel (1821–1822), are often catalogued by libraries under Saint-Simon’s name. Manuel 1962 describes them as appearing intermittently, in part to evade the rules of censorship applied to serial publications, but chiefly because Saint-Simon found it difficult to raise the money necessary to publish them.

1807 Introduction aux travaux scientifiques du dix-neu-vième siècle. Paris: Scherff.

(1813a) 1876 Memoire sur la science de l’homme. Volume 40 of Oeuvres de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin. Paris: Dentu.

1813b Travail sur la gravitation universelle. Paris. → No publisher given.

(1825) 1952 New Christianity: Dialogue. Pages 81-116 in Saint-Simon, Selected Writings. Edited and translated by F. M. H. Markham. Oxford: Blackwell. → First published in French. A new French edition was published in 1943 by Aubry.

Henri de Saint-Simon: Social Organization. New York: Harper, 1964. → Also published in 1952 by Macmillan under the title Henri de Saint-Simon: Selected Writings.

Oeuvres de Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon. 6 vols. Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1966. → Volumes 1-5 reprinted from Oeuvres de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin, 1865— 1878. Volume 6 reprinted from other works.

Oeuvres de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin. 47 vols. Paris: Dentu, 1865–1878. → Saint-Simon’s writings are in Volumes 15, 18-23, and 37-40.

Selected Writings. Edited and translated with an introduction by F. M. H. Markham. Oxford: Blackwell, 1952.


charlÉty, Sebastien (1896) 1931 Histoire du Saint-Simonisme (1825–1864). New ed. Paris: Hartmann.

Cole, G. D. H. 1953–1960 A History of Socialist Thought. 5 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan.

The Doctrine of Saint-Simon; an Exposition: First Year, 1828–1829. Translated by Georg C. Iggers. (1830) 1958 Boston: Beacon. → First published in French. The translation is based on the third, revised and enlarged edition.

durkheim, Émile (1928) 1958 Socialism and Saint-Simon (Le socialisme). Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch. → First published in French. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

gouhier, Henri G. 1933–1941 La jeunesse d’AugusteComte et la formation du positivisme. 3 vols. Paris: Vrin.

HalÉvy, Élie (1938) 1965 The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War. Translated by R. K. Webb. New York: Doubleday. → First published in French.

hayek, Friedrich A. Von 1952 The Counter-revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Manuel, Frank E. 1956 The New World of Saint-Simon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

manuel, Frank E. 1962 The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published by Harper in 1965.

Martindale, Don 1960 The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

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