Third Study: The Principle of Association


I begin with the principle of Association.

If I wanted merely to flatter the lower classes, the recipe would not be difficult. Instead of a criticism of the social principle, I should deliver a panegyric of workers’ societies, I should exalt their virtues, their constancy, their sacrifices, their spirit of benevolence, their marvellous intelligence; I should herald their triumphs. What could I not say on this subject, dear to all democratic hearts? Do not the workers societies at this moment serve as the cradle for the social revolution, as the early Christian communities served as the cradle of Catholicity? Are they not always the open school, both theoretical and practical, where the worker learns the science of the production and distribution of wealth, where he studies, without masters and without books, by his own experience solely, the laws of that industrial organisation, which was the ultimate aim of the Revolution of ’89, but of which our greatest and most famous revolutionists caught only a glimpse? What a topic for me, for the manifestation of a facile sympathy, which is not the less disinterested, in that it is always sincere! With what pride do I recall that I too wanted to found an association, more than that, the central agency and circulating organ of workers’ associations! And how I cursed that Government, which, with an expenditure of 300 millions, could not find a cent which it could use for the benefit of poor workers…!

I have better than that to offer to associations. I am convinced that at this moment they would give much for an idea, and it is ideas that I am bringing them. I should decline their approval, if I could obtain it only by flattery. If those of their members who may read these pages will but deign to remember that, in treating of association, it is a principle, even less than that, a hypothesis, that I discuss: it is not this or that enterprise, for which, in spite of its name, association is in nowise responsible, and of which the success in point of fact, does not depend upon association. I speak of Association in general, not of associations, whatever they may be.

I have always regarded Association in general — fraternity — as a doubtful arrangement, which, the same as pleasure, love, and many other things, concealed more evil than good under a most seductive aspect. It is perhaps the effect of the temperament which nature has given me, that I distrust fraternity as much as I do passion. I have seen few men who were proud of either. Especially when Association is presented as a universal institution, the principle, means and end of the Revolution, does it appear to me to hide a secret intention of robbery and despotism. I see in it the inspiration of the governmental system, which was restored in ’91, strengthened in ’93, perfected in 1804, erected into a dogma and system from 1814 to 1830, and reproduced in these latter days, under the name of direct government, with an impulse which shows how far delusion of mind has gone with us.

Let us apply the criterion.

What does society want today?

That its tendency toward sin and poverty should become a movement toward comfort and virtue.

What is needed to bring about this change?

The reestablishment of the equilibrium of forces.

Is Association the equilibrium of forces?


Is Association even a force?


What, then, is Association?

A dogma.

Association is so much a dogma, in the eyes of those who propose it as a revolutionary expedient, something finished, complete, absolute, unchangeable, that all they who have taken up this Utopia have ended, without exception, in a SYSTEM. In illuminating with their fixed idea the different parts of the social body, they were bound to end, and in fact they did end, by reconstructing society upon an imaginary plan, much like the astronomer, who, from respect for his calculations, made over the system of the universe.

Thus the Saint Simonian school, going beyond the idea of its founder, produced a system: Fourier produced a system; Owen, a system; Cabet, a system; Pierre Leroux, a system; Louis Blanc, a system; as Babeuf, Morelly, Thomas More, Campanella, Plato, and others before them, who, each starting from a single principle, produced systems. And all these systems, antagonistic among themselves, are equally opposed to progress. Let humanity perish sooner than the principle! that is the motto of the Utopians, as of the fanatics of all ages.

Socialism, under such interpreters, became a religion which might have passed, five or six hundred years ago, as an advance upon Catholicism, but which in the nineteenth century is as little revolutionary as possible.

No, Association is not a directing principle, any more than an industrial force. Association, by itself, has no organic or productive power, nothing which, like the division of labour, competition, &c., makes the worker stronger and quicker, diminishes the cost of production, draws a greater value from materials, or which, like the administrative hierarchy, shows a desire for harmony and order.


The union of forces, which must not be confounded with association, as we shall shortly see, is equally with labour and exchange, a producer of wealth. It is an economic power of which I was, I believe, the first to accentuate the importance, in my first memoir upon Property. A hundred men, uniting or combining their forces, produce, in certain cases, not a hundred times, but two hundred, three hundred, a thousand times as much. This is what I have called collective force. I even drew from this an argument, which, like so many others, remains unanswered, against certain forms of appropriation: that it is not sufficient to pay merely the wages of a given number of workers, in order to acquire their product legitimately; that they must be paid twice, thrice or ten times their wages, or an equivalent service rendered to each one of them.

Collective force, in its bare metaphysical aspect, is another principle which is not less a producer of wealth. Moreover its application is found in every case in which individual effort, no matter how often repeated, would be ineffective. Nevertheless, no law commands its application. It is remarkable that the utopian socialists have never thought of boasting of it. It is because collective force is an impersonal act, while association is a voluntary agreement: there may be points wherein they meet, but they are not identical.


The question remains whether Association is one of these essentially immaterial [economic] forces [such as competition, division of labour, property, &c.,], which by their action become productive of utility and a source of prosperity; for it is evident that only on this condition can this principle of association — I make no distinction of schools — be advanced as the solution of the problem of the proletariat.

In a word, is Association an economic power? For twenty years now it has been heralded and its virtues set forth. How is it that no one has demonstrated its efficacy? Can it be that the efficacy of Association is more difficult to demonstrate than that of commerce, credit, or the division of labour?

For my part, I answer categorically: No. Association is not an economic force. It is in its nature sterile, even injurious, since it places fetters on the liberty of the worker. The authors who have advocated utopian fraternities, by which so many are still attracted, have attributed, without reason or proof, a virtue and efficacy to the social contract, which belongs only to collective force, the division of labour, or to exchange. The public has not perceived the confusion; hence the experiments of societies with constitutions, their varying fortunes, and the uncertainty of opinion.

When an industrial or commercial society aims at setting to work one of the great economic forces, or at carrying on a business, of which the nature requires that it should remain undivided, such as a monopoly, or an established line of trade, the society formed for this object may result successfully, but it does so not by virtue of its principle, but by virtue of its methods. So true is this that whenever the same result can be obtained without it, the preference is to dispense with association. Association is a bond which is naturally opposed to liberty, and to which nobody consents to submit, unless it furnishes sufficient indemnification; so that, to all utopian socialists, one may oppose this practical rule: Never, except in spite of himself, and because he cannot do otherwise, does man associate.

Let us make a distinction between the principle of association, and the infinitely variable methods, of which a society makes use when affected by external circumstances foreign to its nature; among which I place in the first rank the economic forces. The principle is one which would defeat the enterprise, unless another motive were found: the methods are what permit one to merge himself in it, in the hope of obtaining wealth by a sacrifice of independence.


The formula of association then is as follows; it is thus enunciated by Louis Blanc:

From each according to his ability.

To each according to his needs.

The Code, in its different definitions of civil and commercial society, is in accord with the orator of the Luxembourg [Commission]: any derogation from this principle is a return to individualism.

Thus explained by Socialists and jurists, can Association be generalised and become the universal higher law, the public civil law of a whole nation?

Such is the question proposed by the different social schools, and all unanimously answer it in the affirmative while varying their modes of application.

My answer is: No, the contract of association, under whatever form, can never become a universal rule, because, being by its nature unproductive and harassing, applicable only to quite special conditions, its inconveniences growing much more rapidly than its benefits, it is equally opposed to the advantageous use of labour, and to the liberty of the worker. Whence I conclude that a single association can never include all the workers in one industry, nor all industrial corporations, nor, a fortiori, a nation of 36 millions of men; therefore that the principle of association does not offer the required solution.

I may add that association is not only not an economic force, but that it is applicable only under special conditions, depending on the methods. It is easy to verify this second proposition by the facts, and thence to determine the part played by association in the nineteenth century.


Association formed without any outside economic consideration, or any leading interest, association for its own sake, as an act of devotion, a family tie, as it were, is an act of pure religion, a supernatural bond, without real value, a myth.

[ . . .]

But if association is not a productive force, if on the contrary it imposes onerous conditions, from which labour naturally seeks to free itself, it is clear that association can no longer be considered an organic law; that, far from assuring equilibrium, it would tend rather to destroy harmony, by imposing upon all general obligation, instead of justice, instead of individual responsibility. Association therefore cannot be maintained from the point of view of right, and as a scientific factor; but only as a sentiment, a mystic principle, a divine institution.

Nevertheless the champions, despite everything, of association, feeling how sterile is their principle, how opposed to liberty, how little therefore it can be accepted as the sovereign formula of the Revolution, are making the most incredible efforts to sustain this will-o’-the-wisp of fraternity. Louis Blanc has gone so far as to reverse the republic motto, as if he wanted to revolutionise the revolution. He no longer says, as everybody else says, and according to tradition, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; he says Equality, Fraternity, Liberty! We begin with Equality nowadays; we must take equality for our first term; upon it we must build the new structure of the Revolution. As for Liberty, that is deduced from Fraternity. Louis Blanc promises liberty after association, as the priests promise paradise after death.

I leave to you to guess what kind of socialism it will be which plays thus with transpositions of words.

Equality! I had always thought that it was the natural fruit of Liberty, which has no need of theory nor of constraint. I had thought, I say, that from the organisation of economic forces, the division of labour, competition, credit, reciprocity, above all, education, that Equality would be born. Louis Blanc has changed all that. A new Sganarelle, he puts Equality on the left, Liberty on the Right, Fraternity between them, like Jesus Christ between the two thieves. We cease to be free, as nature made us, in order to become equal, which only labour can make us, as a preliminary, by State order; after which we become more or less free, according to the convenience of the Government.

From each according to his capacity;

To each according to his needs.

Equality demands this, according to Louis Blanc.


Who then shall determine the capacity? who shall be the judge of the needs?

You say that my capacity is 100: I maintain that it is only 90. You add that my needs are 90: I affirm that they are 100. There is a difference between us of twenty upon needs and capacity. It is, in other words, the well-known debate between demand and supply. Who shall judge between the society and me?

If the society persists, despite my protests, I resign from it, and that is all there is to it. The society comes to an end from lack of associates.

If, having recourse to force, the society undertakes to compel me; if it demands from me sacrifice and devotion, I say to it: Hypocrite! you promised to deliver me from being plundered by capital and power; and now, in the name of equality and fraternity, in your turn, you plunder me. Formerly, in order to rob me, they exaggerated my capacity and minimised my needs. They said that products cost me so little, that I needed so little to live! You are doing the same thing. What difference is there then between fraternity and wage-labour?

It is one of two things: either association is compulsory, and in that case it is slavery; or it is voluntary, and then we ask what guaranty the society will have that the member will work according to his capacity and what guaranty the member will have that the association will reward him according to his needs? Is it not evident that such a discussion can have but one solution — that the product and the need be regarded as correlated expressions, which leads us to the rule of liberty, pure and simple?

Reflect a moment. Association is not an economic force; it is only a bond of conscience, obligatory before that inward tribunal, and of no effect, or rather of an injurious effect, in relation to labour and wealth. And it is not by the aid of a more or less skilful argument that I prove it: it is the result of industrial practice since the origin of associations. Posterity will not understand how, in a century of innovation, writers, reputed to be the first to understanding social matters, should have made so much noise about a principle which is entirely subjective, and which has been explored to its foundations by all the generations of the globe. In a population of 36 millions, there are 24 millions occupied with agriculture. These you can never associate. What use would it be? To work the soil requires no social mapping-out; and the soul of the peasant is averse to association. The peasant, remember, applauded the repression of June 1848, because he saw in it an act of liberty against communism.

Out of the 12 millions remaining, at least 6 millions, composed of mechanics, artisans, employers, functionaries, for whom association is without object, without profit, without attraction, would prefer to remain free.

There are then 6 million souls, composing in part the wage-working class, whom their present condition might interest in workers’ associations, without closer examination, and upon the strength of promises, I venture to say in advance to these six million persons, fathers, mothers, children, old men, that they will hasten to free themselves from their voluntary yoke, if the Revolution should fail to furnish them with more serious, more real reasons for associating themselves than those which they fancy they perceive, of which I have demonstrated the emptiness.

Association has indeed its use in the economy of nations. The workers’ associations are indeed called upon to play an important part in the near future; and are full of hope both as a protest against wage-labour, and as an affirmation of reciprocity. This part will consist chiefly in the management of large instruments of labour, and in the carrying out of certain large undertakings, which require at once minute division of functions, together with great united efficiency; and which would be so many schools for the labouring class if association, or better, participation, were introduced. Such undertakings, among others, are railroads.

But Association, by itself, does not solve the revolutionary problem. Far from that, it presents itself as a problem, the solution of which implies that the associates enjoy all their independence, while preserving all the advantages of union; which means that the best association is one into which, thanks to a better organisation, liberty enters most and devotion least.

It is for this reason that workers’ associations, which have now almost changed their character as to the principles which guide them, should be judged, not by the more or less successful results which they obtain, but only according to their silent tendency to assert and establish the social republic. Whether the workers know it or not, the importance of their work lies not in the petty interests of their company but in the negation of the capitalist regime, [both] stock-market speculator [agioteur] and governmental, which the first revolution left undisturbed. Later, with the political lie, mercantile chaos and financial feudality overcome, the companies of workers, abandoning luxury goods and toys, will have to take over the great departments of industry, which are their natural prerogative.