The French social philosopher and reformer Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), was one of the founders of modern industrial socialism and evolutionary sociology.
The Comte de Saint-Simon was born in Paris to the poorer side of a prominent noble family. From childhood on he was filled with great ambitions that took him on many different paths. First commissioned into the army at 17, he served 4 years, during which he fought with some distinction in the American Revolution.
On his return to Europe, Saint-Simon tried a series of bold commercial ventures but had limited success before the French Revolution. During the Terror of 1793-1794 he was imprisoned for a year and barely escaped execution. This experience left him deeply opposed to revolutionary violence. After his release, for a short time he obtained a sizable fortune by speculating in confiscated properties, which he spent on a lavish Paris salon that attracted many intellectual and government leaders. But his funds were soon exhausted, and he lived his remaining years in constant financial difficulties.
In 1802 Saint-Simon turned to a new career as writer and reformer. In numerous essays and brochures written during the chaotic years of Napoleon's rule and the Bourbon restoration that followed, he developed a broad-ranging program for the reorganization of Europe. Although many of its ideas were commonplace, his program is distinctive for its blending of Enlightenment ideals, the more practical materialism of the rising bourgeoisie, and the emphasis on spiritual unity of restorationists.
All three strands are joined in Saint-Simon's evolutionary view of history—as a determined progression from one stable form of civilization to another—which gave his program a distinctive rationale. Each higher form was thought to be based on more advanced "spiritual" as well as "temporal" (that is, political-economic) principles, reflecting a more general process of cultural enlightenment. But each in turn also is destined to become obsolete as further cultural progress occurs.
Saint-Simon argued that all of Europe had been in a transitional crisis since the 15th century, when the established medieval order (based on feudalism and Catholicism) began to give way to a new system founded on industry and science. He wrote as the new system's advocate, urging influential leaders to hasten its inception as the only way to restore stability. In this he was one of the first ameliorators to argue for reform as an evolutionary necessity.
Saint-Simon's earlier writings, during Napoleon's reign (Introduction aux travaux scientifiques du XIX sie‧cle, 1807-1808; and Mémoire sur la science de l'homme, 1813), stress the spiritual side of the transitional crisis. He argued that disorder was rampant because theistic Roman Catholicism, the spiritual basis of medieval society, was being undermined by the rise of science and secular philosophies. Although the trend was inevitable, Saint-Simon was highly critical of many scientists and intellectuals for their "negativism" in breaking down an established creed without providing a replacement. Instead, he called for the creation of an integrative social science, grounded in biology, to help establish a new "positive" credo for secular man in the emerging social order. This "positivistic" notion was developed by his one-time disciple Auguste Comte.
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); La Politique (1819); L'Organisateur (1819-1820); and Du Syste‧me industriel (1821-1822). These contain his main socialist writings, but his doctrines often are closer to venture capitalism and technocracy than to Marxism or primitive communalism. Saint-Simon's future society is above all one of productive achievement in which poverty and war are eliminated through large-scale "industrialization" (a word he coined) under planned scientific guidance. It is an open-class society in which caste privileges are abolished, work is provided for all, and rewards are based on merit. Government also changes from a haphazard system of class domination and national rivalries to a planned welfare state run by scientific managers in the public interest.
Saint-Simon's final work, Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825), inspired a Christian socialist movement called the Saint-Simonians, who were devoted to a secular gospel of economic progress and human brotherhood. After his death, his ideas were reworked by followers into the famous Doctrine de Saint-Simon (1829). This was the first systematic exposition of industrial socialism, and it had great influence on the Social Democratic movement, Catholic reforms, and Marxism.
Further Reading on Comte de Saint-Simon
F. M. H. Markham edited and translated Selected Writings of Saint-Simon (1952). The best account of Saint-Simon's life and work is Frank E. Manuel, The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (1956). Other accounts include Mathurin M. Dondo, The French Faust: Henri de Saint-Simon (1955), and the section on Saint-Simon in Manuel's The Prophets of Paris (1962). For his place in socialist thought see volume 1 of G. D. H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought (1953).