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1 Whether it is a question of assistance to the underprivileged, social justice, or global equilibrium, the notion of solidarity is always invoked as a matter of course. It has acquired the status of an undisputed republican principle. But what exactly does this mean? Can this principle serve as a guide for public action or does it only reflect a vague moral duty of assistance or an expression of philanthropy? Faced with the erosion of social ties, the precarisation of work, and the crisis of redistribution mechanisms, it seems urgent today to “rethink solidarity” (Paugam, 2011).

2 Has this already been an object of consideration? Reference is sometimes made to the famous distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity proposed by Émile Durkheim in 1893, in the Division du travail social. The work published in 1896 by Léon Bourgeois (1851-1925), Solidarité, only receives a much more discrete reference. Bourgeois was an important figure of the radical Republic whose life was a constant struggle for cooperation and peace. By developing “an overall theory of human rights and duties in society”. Bourgeois brought the idea of solidarity into public law and political life. It is undoubtedly to him that we must return if we want to understand the current revival of this idea—after so many years of being half-forgotten—as well as to develop a clearer understanding of its power and limitations.

3 His very small book exposed a true doctrine, and a doctrine which contributed to discussion and confrontation, continuously being enriched by the objections which were made to it. [1] The resulting “uninterrupted congress”, according to the expression of Célestin Bouglé (1907), gives us an idea of the seriousness with which the difficulties of the doctrine were examined from its very inception. If some of these difficulties are specific to the period, many of them are still with us: Can the republican state intervene in the distribution of wealth without encroaching on the freedom of individuals? And if so, to what extent? Can the Republic be social while being liberal? How can social assistance be reconciled with individual responsibility? Here we see a remarkable attempt at the conceptual elaboration of a democratic and liberal republican model of which we are the heirs. This “liberal socialism”, not without its contradictions and perhaps even a logical impasse, represents a key moment in our political and intellectual history.

4 Solidarité was published by Armand Colin in November 1896. With this little book with its lapidary title, the very old idea of mutual solidarity among all men acquired a new meaning: it no longer described the objective reality of human interdependence with its psychological and moral consequences, nor even an altruistic ideal called to replace Christian charity. It was presented as a doctrine that is both scientific and practical, capable of founding political legislation. Léon Bourgeois, previously known for his refereeing skills and his devotion to public affairs, became an opinion leader and a potential party leader. [2]

5 The book was an immediate success. On 3 December the same year, Ferdinand Buisson, former assistant of Jules Ferry in Public Education, made the idea resonate throughout the Sorbonne with the opening of his course on the science of education. As is customary, he paid tribute to his predecessor Henri Marion, the author of a psychological work entitled De la solidarité morale (1880). But he is clearly referring to Léon Bourgeois when he proclaims that we are all debtors to society: “Of all the new feelings that have sprouted in silence in the depths of public consciousness over the last one or two generations, and whose blossoming one of these days will astonish those who, having observed nothing, have learned nothing, the strongest and most profound is the feeling of social duty. Let us put it this way, it is the social debt that we all bear, and of which for a long time we seemed no more aware than of the pressure of the air that envelops us” (Buisson, 1896).

6 A new obligation appeared with this notion of “social debt”, which was totally unknown until then: the strict duty of each towards the community, or social solidarity. The main person responsible for this was a lawyer who had just resigned from the presidency of the Council: Léon Bourgeois. Thereafter, many Republicans, including those among the socialists, adopted the doctrine. The Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1900 was marked by Solidarity. Alexandre Millerand, then Minister of Commerce and future President of the Republic, proclaimed: “Science reveals to men the secret of the material and moral greatness of societies—in a word: Solidarity.”

7 The Social Republic had found both its “word” and its doctrine. What were the ingredients of this success? Not the least of them was the personality of its inventor, a moderate radical with an exceptional political background, of which we should say a few words.

[Box] Bibliography of Léon Bourgeois

Bourgeois L. (1896), Solidarité, Paris, Armand Colin. New edition edited by M.-C. Blais, Le Bord de l’eau, 2008.
Bourgeois L. (1897), L’Éducation de la démocratie française. Discours prononcés de 1890 à 1896, Paris, Édouard Cornély.
Bourgeois L. (1901), Congrès international de l’Éducation sociale, Paris, Félix Alcan.
Bourgeois L. (1902), Croiset Alfred et al., Essai d’une philosophie de la solidarité. Conférences et discussions, Paris, Félix Alcan.
Bourgeois L. (dir.) (1904), Les Applications sociales de la solidarité. Leçons professées à l’École des hautes études sociales, Paris, Félix Alcan.
Bourgeois L. (1910), Pour la Société des Nations, Paris, Fasquelle.
Bourgeois L. (1913), L’Organisation internationale de la prévoyance sociale, Paris, Association internationale pour la lutte contre le chômage.
Bourgeois L. (1914), La Politique de prévoyance sociale, Paris, Fasquelle.
Bourgeois L. (1923), L’OEuvre de la SDN (1920-1923), Paris, Payot.

Who was Leon Bourgeois?

8 Léon Bourgeois is best known for his role in the founding of the Radical and Radical Socialist Party in 1905. Less well known is that he was the inventor of solidarisme and the great advocate of international law.

9 When the book Solidarité was published in 1896, this important state official was a distressed person. His experience as head of government had lasted six months. The opposition between the Senate and the radicals hostile to this “republican peerage” had resembled a permanent guerrilla warfare since 1875. Although he was not a neophyte, he paid the price in April 1896. At 45, he was the first radical deputy called to the highest office in the Third Republic, a republic which had never been able to carry out the programme announced in 1869 by Léon Gambetta. He already had an important administrative career and several ministerial responsibilities. A deputy who had been victorious against Georges Boulanger and had been a minister three times, he had already confronted the Senate as Minister of Education with a plan to reform the universities.

10 After studying law and a brief administrative career, he was appointed Prefect of the Tarn at the age of 31. It was in this capacity that he had to act as referee during the first major strike of the miners of Carmaux in 1882. There, the young prefect refused to call the army to force the resumption of work, as requested by the leaders of the Compagnie des Mines. The workers’ demands, he said, were legitimate, and an untimely deployment of force “would open the door to revolutionary doctrines” (Trempé, 1971: 657–659). During these events, Léon Bourgeois acquired a reputation as a warm humanist, negotiator, and mediator. We can see above all the motive that would determine his thinking: faced with the growing diffusion of Marxist socialism among the working masses, a doctrine had to be found which could respond to the just demands of the workers, without encouraging revolutionary violence. Léon Bourgeois was a man of order and a man of law: it was on the side of the law that he sought the answer.

11 The experience that triggered the publication of Solidarité was a significant personal advance for Bourgeois followed by a resounding personal failure. The Republic has been going through a period of tension and reactions for the past six years: crisis of the parliamentary regime, financial scandals, anarchist attacks, controversial colonial policy, etc. A man of moderation and conciliation was required. In November 1895, just after France’s occupation of Madagascar, an operation that entailed enormous expenses and human losses, Félix Faure called Léon Bourgeois to the presidency of the Council. He asked him to form a conciliation cabinet. But because he could not obtain the participation of the moderate Republicans, who were still opposed to the draft income tax bill, Bourgeois formed a homogeneous radical cabinet, nine of whose eleven members were masons like himself. He did not hide his intention of implementing a tax reform involving the creation of an income tax. This was indeed one of the essential points of the radical programme which had never before been implemented. His declaration of principles had already been based on solidarity. He described his plan as follows: “A government faithful to the old republican spirit …, capable of maintaining peace and public order without failure, but constantly concerned with improving the lot of the small and the weak and with the better distribution of the burdens and benefits of social organization, convinced, in a word, that the Republic is not only the name of a political institution, but the instrument of moral and social progress, the continuous means of reducing inequality of conditions and increasing solidarity among men.” [3]

12 Just after his resignation he published a much more consensual and universalist text. There was no longer any reference to “the fate of the small and the weak”. Everyone, rich as well as poor, had duties and responsibilities. It referred only to legal equality: “there is no question of establishing conditions of equality, but rather of not increasing natural inequalities through legal inequalities.” His declaration then indicated the main reforms envisaged: establishment of contradictory debate in judicial investigation, a progressive inheritance tax, a general income tax (instead of direct taxes), a workers’ pension system, and a law on associations with a view to preparing the regulation of the separation of church and state.

13 In January 1896, Bourgeois filed his income tax bill. The Assembly adopted it, but the Upper House did not even agree to consider it. The hostility of the Senate was expressed shortly afterwards in the vote of the appropriations necessary for the repatriation of the troops in Madagascar. On 27 April, he was forced to resign. But this experience provided him with an additional platform to advance his views. He gave an increasing number of public conferences: social reform also involves working on public opinion. He knew that part of the Republican camp, still divided between opportunists and “intransigents”, remained hostile to the income tax project. He had to find a way to convince them so as to achieve unity of the republicans. In addition, the long depression of 1873–1895 brought the “social question” to the forefront. Since the 1884 law authorizing trade unions, the working class had been organized, labour conflicts multiplied, and the Marxist theories of Jules Guesde’s Workers Party received an increasingly favourable response. What could be counter-posed to the seduction of the revolutionary solution? This would be the idea of solidarity, this practical idea that had long been at the heart of Bourgeois’ commitment to mutuality, cooperation, and education. By giving it theoretical foundations, it was transformed into a political doctrine.

14 After the rejection of his income tax project, he resumed his activity as a propagandist for cooperation and solidarity. President of the Commission for Assistance and Social Security, he prepared the law of 1898 on industrial accidents. Involved in the workers’ cooperative movement and in a multitude of associations (Société française des habitations à bon marché [French Company of Low Income Housing], Alliance d’hygiène sociale pour la lutte contre la tuberculose [Social Health Alliance for the Struggle against Tuberculosis], Association des cités-jardins [Association of Garden Cities], etc.), he was the main architect of the 1901 law on associations.

15 This exceptional career as an activist and politician quickly led him to move beyond the framework of national solidarity to advance the idea of a “League of Nations”. In 1899, he led the French delegation to the Hague Peace Conference. A treaty adopted at the end of this conference established a contractual link of solidarity between states (Article 27). It established rules for the treatment of conflicts between states: arms limitation, conciliation and arbitration bodies, and international tribunals. The second conference, in 1907, ended with a treaty that recognized the “solidarity that unites civilized nations”. Faced with migratory flows and the internationalisation of the labour market, Léon Bourgeois argued at the international level in 1913 for a universal organisation to combat “social evils”: unemployment, invalidity, sickness, and conditions associated with old age (Bourgeois, 1913). In 1919 he became the first president of the League of Nations established by the Treaty of Versailles (Guieu, 2004, Zeyer, 2006). That same year, he refused the presidency of the Republic, but accepted the presidency of the Senate. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920, and died on 29 September 1925.

16 What is striking in this exceptional journey is the coherence of a life in the service of peace. If Léon Bourgeois fought for justice, it was not because of an ideal that he sometimes called “metaphysical”, but because justice was the condition of peace, and because men were joined together to live in peace. If he ardently devoted himself to educational questions, it was because it was vital for the community to “prepare the young citizen for a life superior to personal life, superior to selfish life, to interest” (“Le devoir moral de solidarité”, in Bourgeois, 1897, p. 153). As early as 1884, he worked alongside Jean Macé at the Ligue de l’enseignement [League of education], where he gave numerous lectures, and then at the Musée social, which he opened in 1895. With the aim of spreading the idea of solidarity, he founded a Social Education Society in 1899 which held its first congress within the framework of the 1900 Universal Exhibition. [4] In 1902, under the title Essai d’une philosophie de la solidarité, he published a series of lectures given at the École des hautes études sociales in 1901–1902. Another essay, Les Applications sociales de la solidarité, followed in 1903–1904.

17 The doctrine of solidarity very rapidly gained in popularity in France. It became, in Bouglé’s words: “a sort of official philosophy for the Third Republic” (Bouglé, 1907). The sociologist, striving to give the doctrine the philosophical foundations it still lacked, openly became its propagandist. What exactly was this undertaking which obtained such credit in its time? What was innovative about it?

A necessary link between human beings

18 In reality, the notion of solidarity runs through the whole of 19th century France: it expresses the difficulties in conceptualizing the social bond at the end of the Revolution. Before 1789, individuals were bound by corporate or inherited affiliations. They became free and equal in law. Solidarity became necessary for understanding a now crucial problem: what could link individuals who were now irrevocably emancipated? Developed as a legal conception (article 1202 of the 1804 Civil Code defines solidarity as “a commitment by which people commit themselves to each other and each one for all”), it spread first in the progressive circles of the Restoration (Leroux, 1840), then in the philosophy of the Republic (Charles Renouvier, Henri Marion) as well as in emerging social science, before experiencing an immense political consecration with the book of Léon Bourgeois. It does not claim to give the world a new philosophical doctrine, nor does it claim any originality. By defining “a precise rule of the rights and duties of each person in the solidarity action of all”, it aspires to lay the foundations for positive legislation accompanied by constraints exercised by the state. The bond of solidarity is presented as a universal bond that dominates other community attachments, but at the same time it can only be adequately formulated in a given political organization. That is a first point.

19 Moreover, the doctrine tries to be totally free of its former attachments to theological or metaphysical thought. No reference to the mystical union of all men with God, nor to the participation of each in a postulated harmony among all the members of Humanity. Bourgeois wanted to make the doctrine of solidarity totally autonomous, independent of any dogma, and radically secular. For this the doctrine was only supported by positive scientific data. In his view the organic link, whether biological or social, had been sufficiently proven by science. On the one hand was the guiding idea, that is, the a priori idea of justice and reciprocity, and on the other, there were the facts demonstrated by the social and natural sciences. Only the logical “combination” of the two orders of reality could establish a valid theory of human obligations.

20 The third point was fundamental. The problem posed was indeed that of the foundations of the bond between human beings, but there was no reference by Bourgeois to the inclusion of individuals in a totality that pre-existed them. Contrary to a concept of solidarity advocated by some socialist schools, solidarisme claimed a strictly individualistic basis. If one accepts that the situation of partner and debtor creates obligations between human beings, the only problem is to demonstrate that this situation entails obligations which result from a well understood contract between equals. By giving pre-eminence to the person, a “real” being living in society, Bourgeois proceeds to an original approach to contractualist individualism.

21 As an informed observer of his time, Bourgeois notes a constellation of ideas which, expressed under various names, come down to a single observation: “There is a necessary bond of solidarity between each individual and all others.” The politician saw in this natural law of interdependence an unexpected way of giving a scientific and theoretical basis to the reforms promised by his party. He was convinced that “an exact study of the causes, conditions, and limits of this solidarity” would make it possible to rigorously determine human rights and duties.

22 As a good radical and notorious Freemason, he developed his doctrine without any religious reference. However, he referred to the work of a Protestant, Charles Gide, founder of a school of social economy which he named “the school of solidarity”, drawing its inspiration from the first mutual and cooperative associations (Gide, 1890). This professor of economics at the University of Montpellier admitted that in solidarity he had found a way of reconciling the teachings of the Gospel with those of science. He became one of the main propagandists of the solidariste doctrine. In the 1927–1928 university year during which, having become a professor at the Collège de France, he gave a course on solidarity (Gide, 1934).

23 As for Durkheim, whose De la division du travail social (1893), appeared three years earlier than Solidarité, Bourgeois does not seem to have read the passage on mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. The essential source from which he drew was a work published in 1880 by the philosopher Alfred Fouillée, La Science sociale contemporaine. In this book, published the same year as Marion’s De la solidarité morale, Fouillée does not invoke solidarity, except to note its harmful effects, but rather seeks to define a “reparative” justice corresponding to the demands of fraternity. [5] He then devoted an entire book to the question of property and assistance, to show to what extent redistribution was only justice if we recognized that all individual property included a social share, (Fouillée, 1884). It was in this book that he proposed this striking image that would later be taken up on numerous occassions: “He who invented the plough still ploughs, invisible, next to the ploughman” (Fouillée, supra, p. 21). But the book that probably triggered our politician-jurist’s “main idea” was the one in which the philosopher tried to oppose an idealistic and normative right to the legal objectivism of what at the time was called “the German school of law” (Fouillée, 1878).

24 This diversity of approaches was sufficient to “reconcile the facts and the ideal”, an ambition explicitly stated by Bourgeois. It was from this diversity, combined with a fundamental unanimity that he aspired at arriving at a synthesis that would not be a compromise, but would rather overcome contradictions from “a higher viewpoint”, building on this lowest common denominator: the unanimous recognition of a necessary bond of solidarity among all men.

The components of the idea

25 One can see that the doctrine of solidarity is a collective work on two levels. First, because its designer found the basis for his arguments in the greatest philosophers and scholars of the nineteenth century. [6] In addition, it was elaborated in confrontation with very critical followers and even some virulent detractors, such as the publicist Ferdinand Brunetière. Bourgeois endeavoured to make these contributions and contradictions a coherent whole capable of founding a global political doctrine. It is relatively easy to identify the three pillars on which rests what is now presented as a doctrine: the fact of natural and social solidarity; the idea of social debt; the notion of quasi-contract.

The law of reciprocal dependence

26 First of all, there is the law of reciprocal dependence between all living beings as well as between living beings and their environment. This universal law, recognized since the most remote times—for example among the Stoics—is today attested to by the immense progress of biological sciences. As a being of nature, man does not escape this law. His whole being is the “result of the countless movements of the world around him”: his health, through the spread of diseases; his material sustenance, through the necessary division of labour; his thought through its influence as well as the influences on it. Even his innermost feelings are the product of his exchanges with his fellow men. Everyone is united to the rest of the world, dependent on them. In addition, the evolution of species is moving in the direction of cooperation. The Darwinian Theory had already advanced the meaning of vital evolution: there is progress from the protozoan to the metazoan and to the “hyperzoan”, and this progress is the result of association. Higher organisms, more complex and more differentiated, are associated, and no longer simply aggregated with each other. For example, Henri Milne-Edwards (1857-1881) says that among such higher organisms there is a competition and coordination of vital acts, an association of forces. Higher organisms, one can say, are “social” organisms. This is what allows the author to establish his first certainty: there is nothing more than a degree in evolution between natural solidarity and social solidarity. But this is precisely the mark of progress. In the history of organisms, association is the creative element. This is sufficient to shift from what in the world of biology is called “the vital act”, to what we humans call “action” and to make the formula transposable in human societies by generalizing it: “It is the competition of individual actions in solidarity action that gives the synthetic law of universal biological evolution,” says Bourgeois. The principle of association is the general condition for progress.

27 However, Bourgeois was aware of a difficulty inherent in this evolutionist bias. How do we move from the instinctive “vital act” to solidarity action? If this is the product of evolution, it is difficult to make it a moral or legal norm without falling into a kind of naturalist sophism which, as the author well knew, makes the bed of the most unbridled liberalism. What must be cannot derive from what is. To want social solidarity is not to let natural solidarity do its work. Human society is not an animal organism. Action in humans is not just life’s effort to conserve and develop. It is a deliberate and voluntary act. Therefore, an appeal to moral conscience is necessary. Is it not precisely the domination and orientation of natural determinism towards its own ends which characterizes humanity? Society is “a union of developing consciences”. It seeks the rules of right and wrong, of right and duty. Modern consciousness “wants” the realization of the idea of justice. Only the reconciliation of this collective will with natural laws remains to be accomplished.

28 In addition, the belief that association produces “progress” is probably confirmed at the species level, but is less evident at the individual level. The naturalist bias comes up against simple observations: the lion is in solidarity with its prey, like the boss with the worker. The combination of forces produces coordination as well as the crushing of the weakest. Vital competition is as real as cooperation. Simply from the point of view of the evolution of animal societies, the debate is undecidable. When a Herbert Spencer emphasizes the struggle for life and livelihood of the fittest, there will always be a Pierre Kropotkin to show the positive effects of mutual aid and coordination of forces. In human societies themselves, war is as constant as the aspiration for peace and concord, and when men come together to help each other, they most often do so to confront common enemies. As the well-known saying goes: “Unity is strength.” There was no lack of alert thinkers to remind them of this.

29 Bourgeois responded consistently to these objections. In higher organizations, he says, the progress resulting from association is the progress of each element as well as the progress of the whole. The development of the aggregate promotes the development of the organism, and vice versa. But he clearly saw that the formula is not convincing, even if it was theorized by the great Emmanuel Kant who affirmed that man, in nature, is at the same time end and means since he is his own end and the means to a universal end. Again quoting Fouillée, Bourgeois says it is still necessary to find how to reconcile “the development of individual life” and “the development of social life”.

30 It is here that knowledge of the law of solidarity can enlighten us. It forces us to stop considering man as an abstract being, who has rights which are themselves abstract, but as a real “person” to be considered in his relationship with all others, with his time, with his predecessors, and with his posterity. Only then will it be possible to formulate a “concrete” theory of human rights, a theory that will also be objective since it will conform to natural needs. It is also at this price that we will succeed in overcoming the eternal problem of the relationship of the part to the whole, in other words the contradiction between individual ends and collective ends. For today it is no longer possible to ignore that “man is no longer an end for himself and for the world: he is both an end and a means. He is a piece and part of a whole. He is a being having his own life and having the right to preserve and develop that life; but at the same time he belongs to a whole without which that life could neither be developed nor preserved” (Bourgeois, reedition 2008, p. 77).

The notion of debt

31 Bourgeois established here the notion of debt. This would be the second pillar of his theory. This notion was necessary for him to give content (as a lawyer he says “a subject”) to a very particular contract which would constitute the third and last pillar. For he was forced to rely on another moral reality which is still the fruit of evolution: as we know, humanity has moved from the regime of status to the regime of contract. Today, men are willing to connect with others, but on their own initiative and to achieve their personal ends. They enter into contractual relations with their fellows for all their private affairs. Would it be possible to think of a general contract that would link each individual to all the others? Bourgeois was convinced of this, and he would elaborate the theory of the “quasi-contract” when he established the foundations to the idea of social debt.

32 Because we are dependent on each other, we are debtors, whether we like it or not. And this is doubly true: as heirs and partners. There is debt between generations, and a debt to contemporaries. A heritage has been transmitted to us, which allows us to live. We must not only return this “common capital” to our successors, but also increase it. We are also partners, sharing services, and benefiting from the work of our fellows. Like the shareholders of a large corporation, if we share the profits, we must share the burden.

33 The idea of debt had a considerable impact. We can easily explain the phenomenon. It is based on an enigmatic feeling, deeply religious in fact, which associates the recognition felt for the author of a good deed with the propensity to give him something in return, at least a thank you. The word also evokes an anthropological fact discovered by the first ethnologists. In primitive societies, the ancestors, who gave life, receive in exchange honours and consideration. A gift calls for a gift in return. Studies concerning what these ethnologists now call “culture” also mention this transmission between the generations of all the tools (Bourgeois uses the expression “human tools”) that men develop to shape their common world: languages, knowledge, know-how, technical objects, rules of behaviour, religion, etc. Even in the least developed societies, everyone knows that they, in turn, must pass on a legacy from which they have benefited. It seems that one of the first obligations inscribed in the depths of human consciousness is the obligation to give back what one has received. There is yet another thing that Bourgeois cannot ignore: in the post-revolutionary imagination, the idea of debt has acquired a sacred dimension. Didn’t the Declaration of Human Rights of Year I, which was not implemented but inspired all the social struggles around 1848, say: “Public relief is a sacred debt. Society owes maintenance to unfortunate citizens, either procuring work for them or in providing the means of existence for those who are unable to labor.” (art. 21)? Bourgeois could find no better way to justify the principle of the legal obligations of all the partners than this three-fold term, attested in nature, in history and in law.

34 And yet—but this was no doubt another sign of its appeal and its power—the idea would be bitterly debated. There were in fact many difficulties. We’re all debtors, so be it. But who are the creditors? Is the social debt a debt of each to all or a debt of society to each? To whom should this debt be paid? When will its reimbursement stop (with regard to our predecessors, as we will not fail to object, the question takes on a dizzying allure)? Who will determine the distribution of profits and losses, benefits and expenses among the partners? Whether one takes the image of the succession—which involves the acceptance of losses with profits—or that of a joint-stock company, in both cases there is a voluntary act by the partners, and the possibility of withdrawal. But who asked to be born? Is there not, for many, only suffering and misery in this “gift of life”?

35 In short, the notion speaks for itself, but above all it says how difficult it is to try to base the law on facts. For it is one thing to recognise real solidarity, to become aware of a collective heritage. It is quite another to infer a series of positive obligations from this exchange and heritage. In law, debt is an obligation linked to a promise. A loan is explicitly accompanied by a repayment clause, and it is the consent that creates a debtor and a creditor. It is clear that it is difficult to transpose the individualist model of the contract into this situation of undivided inheritance for which no consent has been given. Bourgeois did not totally solve this problem. How could repayment of the “social debt” be made compulsory?

The quasi-contract theory

36 The lawyer then took one last card out of his deck. He borrowed a very old notion, and relatively obscure one for his contemporaries, from the Civil Code, that of a quasi-contract. These are obligations which are formed “without any agreement being entered into, neither on the part of the person who is bound by them nor on the part of the person who has undertaken them” (arts. 1370-1371). Thus, comments Bourgeois, “the quasi-contract is nothing other than the contract retroactively agreed.” Of course, the examples given by the code—joint ownership, recovery of undue payments—presuppose the initial act of a personal will. Whether the debt is recognised or “presumed to be recognised”, it always refers to a previously established contract, even if this is not the case for current debtors. On the contrary, the society in which we are born has never been the object of a contract, and, even with its illustrious theorist, the original contract is only an interpretative hypothesis. [7] However, we are associated in fact with each other in time and space. It is therefore possible to affirm that we are obliged by a particular kind of “quasi-contract”.

37 The important point which, strangely enough, is a precursor, is the fact that this quasi-contract which has never been formulated, entails placing the partners in a kind of “original position” of equivalence. It is, says Bourgeois, a kind of “ideal contract” that would respect the just will of the partners if they were able to put themselves in each other’s shoes. Whatever the inequalities of condition, the social quasi-contract postulates an “equality of value” between all individuals. It presupposes conscious and free beings, who would have been able to discuss and give their consent: “It is therefore the presumption of consent given by their equal and free wishes that are the sole basis of law” (Bourgeois, 1896, p. 93). This is indeed the function already fulfilled by the existing positive law, when it declares invalid certain contracts extorted by fraud or deceit. The quasi-contract is imposed in the same way that other quasi-contracts are imposed by the code, i.e. as obligations that are formed without an agreement. It can thus become the basis of law and of all social obligations.

38 By extending the legal obligation in this way, Bourgeois believed that he had demonstrated the basis of everyone’s obligations towards everyone. This type of bond is a counterpart to the benefits everyone derives from living in society. Whoever participates in the exchange of services necessary for the maintenance of his individual life has the obligation to contribute to the expenses of the current association, “to maintain and preserve it”. But he also has the obligation to increase common capital, to “work for a better humanity, a state where human activities can develop more freely”. Once again, Bourgeois did not miss the opportunity to formulate his conception of humanity’s progress in terms of increasing individual freedom. This is the fundamental point in the conflict between individualism and collectivism which he proposed to overcome. Solidarity can resolve the question of the relationship between the individual and the “whole”—humanity, society, or state—without crushing the individual and without making the “whole” an entity superior to its component elements.

39 But the great victory of Bourgeois was to have succeeded in formulating a new rule of “human law”, which completed the system of law, hitherto divided into private law and public law. Obligations are strict and rigorous, and the political organization is legitimate in enforcing them: “Their non-performance will amount to the violation of a contract and, according to the ordinary rule of justice, may entail sanctions, the legal expression of the natural reactions of the injured party by other beings, as already exists in the event of non-performance of obligations under civil or public law” (Bourgeois, 1901, p. 80). The contractual regime would now be extended from private law to a right that was beginning to be described as “social”. Let contracts between individuals multiply, but also let “the general contract that holds them all together be formed in full clarity”. Here we derive the general formula of man’s obligations in society.

40 Thus, the reform party hit two birds with one stone with the doctrine of solidarity. It acquired a political theory and specified the role it attributed to the state. This would be based on the model of individual associations, “like a large shareholder corporation”. It would have to guarantee the execution of this general contract, and to apply the sanctions. But its role ends here. Once the debt is paid, we enter the sphere of freedom. Bourgeois is very firm on this point, which distinguishes him from all collectivist projects just as much as from a tutelary state in the Bismarckian mode. He refuses any concretisation of the state. In no case can it be conceived of as a person-entity, external and superior to individuals. And the same is true of society: “As is the case with the state, the political form of the human association, society, i.e. the association itself, is not an isolated being with a real existence outside of the individuals who make it up and which may be the subject of particular and superior rights that are enforceable against human rights.”

41 The book closes with an enthusiastic statement. The quasi-contractual obligation would likely replace the moral duty of charity formulated by Christianity, as well as the “more precise, but still abstract, notion of republican fraternity”. The solidarity doctrine completed the French Revolution, fully developing the individualistic philosophy of the eighteenth century and the still abstract ideals of the Revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

42 This thesis was taken up and discussed by renowned academics, and it was the subject of scholarly discussions, sometimes even in the absence of its author, in very respectable scientific institutions: Revue de métaphysique et de morale, École des hautes études sociales [School of higher social studies], Académie des sciences morales et politiques [Academy of political and moral science]. In the ten years following the publication of Solidarité, Bourgeois very astutely submitted his idea to public debate. He built his doctrine in exchange and confrontation, and was able to pass a number of reforms under this flag. [8]

43 But we must not neglect the political situation: in May 1896, Millerand’s famous speech in Saint-Mandé marked the entry of the socialists into the reformist and parliamentary path. The republican left had to find the means to unite with those socialists who declared the abandonment of revolutionary action and wanted to gradually substitute collective property for capitalist property. The fall of Léon Bourgeois’s “radical-homogeneous” ministry (which had been supported by the socialists), and Jules Méline’s installation as president of the Council (supported by the right) called for restructuring the republican camp. How could these diverse lefts be united, beyond the fragile cement that anticlericalism could constitute? As Daniel Halévy points out, the left of government lacked a unifying tool, a doctrine. [9] Many of these men, Bourgeois, Buisson, and later Bouglé and Gabriel Séailles, felt the need to provide conceptual foundations for the radical party’s program: social justice, defence of property rights, and redistribution of wealth by the state. Faced with the rise of Marxist socialism, the party in gestation had to defend individual property against collectivist aims, while distinguishing itself from the doctrines of economic liberalism. After the publication of his little book, Bourgeois endeavoured to give philosophical labels to this doctrine which looked like it would become the philosophy of the party which was founded in 1901. It must be said that it was effectively relayed by a multitude of networks, the beginnings of those “committees” which would later constitute the organic structure of the party. Confrontations were well underway amongst the freemasons, as well as in the free thinker associations, teachers’ fraternal associations, mutualist associations, the Musée social, the League of Education, peoples’ universities, and the School of Higher Social Studies.

44 The great problem at the end of the 19th century was the search for a compromise between liberalism and socialism. In the context of social and political struggles, there was an insurmountable conflict between the doctrines involved. Bourgeois proposed its solution. Liberalism is true. There are only individuals, and freedom is the law of life. Socialism is true too. Men are necessarily partners, and no one can be deprived of his status as a free partner. The synthesis between these two truths can only be a kind of “liberal socialism” (Bourgeois, 1902, p. 33–34). [10] Solidarity is the only notion capable of meeting these two requirements that a worthy Republic must meet: the autonomy of consciences and their social obligation towards each other. Drawing a third path between liberal atomism and collectivist socialism, it makes it possible to conceive of a democracy no less social than liberal.

45 This original synthesis raises a number of difficulties. Questioned by his socialist friends (Charles Andler, Gaston Richard, [11] and Georges Renard [12]), Bourgeois had to define his doctrine’s relationship to collectivism and specify the limits of state intervention. How could the state be empowered to intervene in the distribution of wealth without infringing on private property? Bourgeois proposes sharing social risks; why not profits? Did he recognize the class struggle? Faced with the Marxist idea according to which class antagonisms are irreducible in a capitalist society, Bourgeois replied that the law of solidarity proved that there was a deeper collective unity than the conflict of opposing interests. If being socialist meant taking the social question seriously, then solidarity was socialism. If it meant denying charity, recognising workers’ rights, and finding legal and peaceful ways to improve the lot of those who have only their labour power, it was still socialism. But on two important points, the doctrine of solidarity left no doubt: it did not accept the class struggle, and it considered private property as a fundamental right, because it was “the material manifestation and the surest guarantee of human freedom”. [13] As for the collectivization of the means of production, it was definitively rejected. Solutions to social conflicts should not go so far as to call into question the freedom—including economic freedom—of actors. The doctrine of solidarity re-established the fundamental thesis without which republican construction no longer makes sense: the union of people-citizens takes precedence over the struggle between classes.

A doctrine for the Social Republic

46 The idea of solidarity thus provides a basis for a new conceptualization of the functions of the state. It reduces its power while widening its attributions. The state, subject to the law, loses its power of domination. But the state finds it necessary to intervene in order to guarantee the social pact, preserve the rules of justice and equality in contracts, and ensure services of general interest. This state is in conformity with the essence of society, which is to show solidarity objectively. However, in order to function it subjectively requires the voluntary assistance of social actors, which is necessarily republican.

47 It is understandable why solidarity quickly became the obligatory basis of education. The essential difficulty is in fact to induce men to freely consent to a fair contract for the exchange of services. Bourgeois, very attached to the self-organisation of civil society through cooperatives and mutualist organisations, wanted “to place the instrument of restorative justice in the hands, not of the state acting by authority and arbitrarily imposing on men the conditions of social existence, but in the hands of all men freely consenting to the payment of the common debt”. [14] The Social Republic can only rely on the agreement of its citizens. This requirement for free consent is fundamental. Until 1914, it took the form of intervention in all educational bodies. One theme would flourish: everyone’s awareness of what they owe to the community, in other words “education for social consciousness”. What is important is that men perceive themselves as social beings and that they naturally accept the obligations that arise from their relationship with others. The signification of the Social Republic is therefore education for solidarity. And yet, both philosophically and practically, the idea encountered crucial difficulties, many of which are still with us. How can we socialize youth? In education, can we reconcile the training of the individual and his integration into the collective?

48 In practice, the doctrine aimed at justifying a redistributive tax policy, at regulating contracts between employers and employees, and at pooling risks and benefits through compulsory insurance. Very quickly, however, it led to the expansion of the state’s missions by setting up services that met the basic needs of all citizens. To use the definition of Léon Duguit, a lawyer close to solidarity lawyers, “any activity the establishment of which must be ensured, regulated and controlled by those in power,” falls within the public service “because the performance of this activity is essential to the realisation and development of social interdependence, and because it is of such a nature that it can only be completely achieved by the intervention of the governing force” (Duguit, 1927). Let us note here that solidarity is both what is and what must be: if no individual can exist or exercise his freedom outside the social whole to which he belongs, then everyone must act to strengthen this relationship of mutual dependence. “Social cohesion” is still unmentioned but the state establishment of services of general interest is based on the conviction that all have an interest in increasing mutual interdependence.

49 The idea of solidarity helps overcome the liberal limitations by showing how freedom can generate positive obligations that preserve that freedom. While liberal ideology triumphs in economics, solidarity proclaims the truth of individualism rethought in the light of the fact of society. Against the individualism of laissez-faire, it reintroduces the individual by right, but a concrete individual assuming his links with his fellow human beings. In this sense, solidarity is at the origin of this democratic-liberal synthesis which is being pursued once again today. Compulsory mutual insurance, assistance to the poorest through taxation, free and permanent education, guaranteed minimum income, all these tools were examined. But there was already hesitation about practical applications, for example as regards the distribution of these obligations between individuals and the state, or the low effectiveness of education in “social consciousness”. The problem we face today in the age of globalization is the risk of social duty being transformed into unlimited entitlements, ignoring the political community, which alone can guarantee these rights. Yet it is up to this community and its citizens to constantly redefine the principles of justice on which they rely.


  • [1]
    Léon Bourgeois himself republished his text seven times, increasing it with the lectures he gave on this theme and the discussions that followed. In 2008 we republished the 1912 edition, published by Le Bord de l’eau.
  • [2]
    Under his leadership and that of a few others (including René Goblet, Henri Brisson, and Ferdinand Buisson), the Radical and Radical Socialist Party was founded on 23 June 1901.
  • [3]
    Declaration by Léon Bourgeois in the House on 4 November 1895, quoted by Maurice Hamburger (1932, pp. 97–98).
  • [4]
    The proceedings of this congress, which took place from 26 to 30 September 1900, were published in 1901 (Congrès international de l’éducation sociale, 1901).
  • [5]
    “There is a right that arises from the very violation of the right, that of reparation. There is always a certain amount of general injustice that is attributable not to any one man in particular, but to society as a whole and that is often the legacy of the past. Hence the need for restorative justice” (Fouillée, 1880, pp. 357–358).
  • [6]
    For the genesis of the idea of solidarity, I refer to my book (Blais, 2007). Also consult Serge Audier’s book published 3 years later (Audier, 2010).
  • [7]
    Bourgeois rejected Rousseau’s thesis for two reasons. The first is that the contract does not constitute the social contract, but is the result of the evolution of societies, which, as Henry Sumner Maine has shown, have moved from the status regime to that of the contract. The second is that, in the contract that associates them, men do not abdicate their freedom but, on the contrary, find it once the debt has been paid.
  • [8]
    Laws on work accidents, on workers’ pensions, on assistance to the elderly, progressive income tax, legislation on agricultural cooperatives and cooperative credit, etc.
  • [9]
    “Their tradition—somewhat tired through over-usage—lacked a rejuvenating thought, a formula, a word. Now in that year 1896, Léon Bourgeois had the talent to find this formula, this word: Solidarity. His little book, published under this title, was widely read” (Halévy, 1934, p. 37).
  • [10]
    The phrase “liberal socialism” became quite common in 1902. It was first used by Charles Renouvier in 1879. It was taken up in 1890 by the radical MP Alfred Naquet (Naquet, 1890) and in 1896 by the economist Léon Walras (Walras, 1896, p. 171).
  • [11]
    Professor of philosophy, author of a book on socialism (Richard, 1897) in which, under the name of socialism, he refers to “the remarkable aspiration for solidarity that agitates our epoch”.
  • [12]
    Georges Renard, professor at the Arts et Métiers and later at the Collège de France, was the author of the book, Le régime socialiste (Renard, 1898).
  • [13]
    “Here we are all determined to oppose what is called the class struggle. We do not recognize classes. We do not want any distinction of this kind. But the system that will most effectively combat those doctrines that seek to draw from the class struggle I do not know what impossible improvement of society, is this system that will make it possible to bring citizens closer together by the exchange of the services they render to each other, by the effect of the duties they perform towards each other, the improvement of the condition of each one, and the improvement of the condition of society as a whole.” Speech of Bourgeois to the Chambre des deputes, March 1896, in Hamburger M., op. cit. p. 136.
  • [14]
    Closing speech of the Congress of Social Education, in Solidarity, op. cit. p. 145.

The concept of Solidarité emerged among progressive circles during the French Restoration. This article traces the process that resulted in the shift of this concept from the domain of the natural and social sciences to that of the political sphere. Léon Bourgeois, a radical Prime Minister under the third Republic, instigated this change in 1896. He formulated a political doctrine (“Solidarism”) based on the irrefutable fact that all individuals were interdependent and therefore subject to mutual obligations. This model, combining socialist and liberal ideas, was a possible challenge to both the unbridled liberalism as well as to the collectivist ideas emerging at the time. Today, this liberal-democratic synthesise has yet to find a place in public solidarity policies at both the national and international levels.


Aux origines de la solidarité publique, l’œuvre de Léon Bourgeois

Cet article retrace le processus qui a permis à l’idée de Solidarité, née dans les milieux progressistes de la Restauration, de passer du champ des sciences naturelles et sociales vers la sphère politique. Ce transfert est l’œuvre d’un premier ministre radical de la Troisième République, Léon Bourgeois qui, en 1896, formula une doctrine politique reposant sur les obligations générées par le fait irrécusable de l’interdépendance entre tous les hommes. Sous le nom de « solidarisme », il inventa ainsi un modèle à la fois social et libéral susceptible de s’opposer au libéralisme sans frein comme aux idées collectivistes montantes. C’est cette synthèse démocratico-libérale qui se cherche encore aujourd’hui à travers les politiques publiques de solidarité, au niveau national comme international.


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Marie-Claude Blais
Philosopher and lecturer at the University of Rouen.
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