Boulos and Saint-Simon

Image: Action Group

By Francisco Quartim de Moraes*

Lessons from the French Revolution.

On April 20, 2020, Jair Bolsonaro stated: “I am the Constitution”. Guilherme Boulos did not escape the analogy of this statement with that attributed to the King of France Louis XIV, who in 1655 would have replied to the Parisian magistrates who contested his edicts: “I am the State”. On his twitter he commented: “A reminder for Bolsonaro: the dynasty of Louis XIV ended in the guillotine…”. Pretending to discern in this good-natured irony a serious threat to the physical integrity of the Chief Executive, the Federal Police summoned Boulos to give a statement, based on the so-called security law enacted by the military dictatorship.

The allusion to the guillotine refers to the French Revolution; the police intimidation maneuver to the main precursor of modern socialist thought,[1] Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). An aristocrat by origin, a staunch Jacobin, right at the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789, he abdicated his titles of nobility and his feudal properties, claiming only the dignity of a citizen. In 1819, in the ultra-reactionary environment of the Bourbon Restoration, Saint-Simon published in the magazine The organizer one of his most famous texts, later entitled The parable, in which he argues that a society in which those who work receive absurdly less than those who are idle and unproductive was a world upside down: “Today's society is a veritable inverted world. The nation has accepted as a fundamental principle that […] the less favored daily deprive themselves of a part of what they need in order to increase the superfluous of the big landowners. The biggest culprits, […] who squeeze the totality of citizens […] are in charge of punishing minor crimes against society. Ignorance, superstition, laziness and a taste for expensive pleasures form the privilege of the supreme leaders of society, and those who are able, economical and industrious are only employed as subordinates and as instruments. […] the incapable men are in charge of directing the capable ones; the most immoral men who are called upon to form the virtue of citizens, are the great culprits who are assigned to punish the errors of petty delinquents” (SAINT-SIMON, La Parabole).

There he imagines a hypothetical situation in which 30.000 of the main intellectuals, poets, agrarian producers, industrialists and workers would disappear, concluding that this would be an irrecoverable disaster for France. Then he assumes a situation in which 30.000 nobles, politicians and most important usurers in France would disappear, concluding that this disappearance would cause individual sadness, but that economically and politically the French State would not suffer. Methodical and patient, he listed, name by name, each member of the French royal family.

The reaction that this list provoked in the monarchy, in the nobles, in the politicians and in the French haute bourgeoisie was immediate; they understood it not only as a threat to the social order, but also to the very physical integrity of the royal family. Arrested, considered dangerous and subversive, Saint-Simon was put on trial in March 1820. One of the accusations was that The parable had encouraged the assassination of the Duke of Berry (nephew of King Louis XVIII and son of the future Charles X), which took place on the night of February 13, 1820, by citing him by name as one of the powerful whose disappearance would not be harmful to France. The accusation was absurd: the murderer of the Duke of Berry, the worker and Bonapartist militant Louis Louvel, caught red-handed and executed four months later, had demonstrably acted alone. But the icy edge of the guillotines of the Revolution still reverberated around the necks of the French nobility. It took a great deal of effort by Saint-Simon's defense lawyers to clear him. The legal expenses took the magazine The organizer bankrupt and himself, who had once possessed an enormous fortune, on the verge of indigence.

In the Saint-Simonian parable, the energetic defense of social transformations aimed at objectively improving the living conditions of the poorest is inseparable from the denunciation of incapable, idle and pernicious rulers. This denunciation is understood to have reactivated in the governing circles of the restored monarchy terrible memories of France in 1789-1794, when monarchical absolutism was overthrown and the old feudal class ruthlessly decimated by the revolutionary courts. But in Brazil, the military dictatorship ended with conciliation and impunity for the torturers defended by the deadly militia captain. It's our world upside down...

*Francisco Quartim de Moraes is a doctoral candidate in Economic History at USP.


[1] Friedrich Engels, for example, stated in the Anti-Duhring (1877) that he possessed: «(...) ample and genial vision, which makes all the non-strictly economic ideas of the socialists after him, to be contained in germ in his work.

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