Summary of Social Economy – I

Here’s the first section of a text introducing the ideas of Jean-Guillaume-César-Alexandre-Hippolyte baron de Colins, the chief theorist of “rational socialism,” also known as “collectivism.” Although Colins and his school are now largely forgotten, they were an important influence in the period of the First International. Indeed, in the early debates between mutualism and collectivism, the influence of Colins’ collectivism was probably as significant as that of Marx. This first section is largely biographical.

Summary of Social Economy According to the Ideas of Colins
 Agathon de Potter

I composed, a long time ago, an extremely brief summary of the social science discovered by Colins. It was published in the Revue trimestrielle (of Brussels) in 1861.

I have persuaded that it would be very useful to present, in short form, all that which relates more particularly to the economic part of rational socialism. That is what I propose to do in the lines that will follow.

I will speak successively of the personality of Colins, of his ideas on social economy, ideas that I will outline dogmatically; then I will describe the organisation of property as it will exist in the future society, then I will show the working of the institutions relatives to that organization; I will end finally by formulating and responding to the objections that have been presented against the new social theory.


What I can say of Colins comes down to just a few things.

I extract the details that follow from a notice that was published in a Swiss journal by one of his devoted disciples, M. Hugentobler, to whom one owes the publication of a large part of the manuscripts of the Belgian socialist. I will only report its most interesting points, those which are connected to Colins’ studies.

Jean-Guillaume-César-Alexandre-Hippolyte baron de Colins, born in Brussels on December 24, 1783, was son of the chevalier Celins de Ham, chamberlain of the Emperor at Brussels. He was raised exclusively by his mother until the age of seven and a half years.

At that age, his father, owing to political circumstances, placed him in the home of an old friend, ancient Jesuit, honest man, vicar of Dison.

At 18 years, he was appointed in order to go to represent to the island of Santo Domingo the richest inhabitant of the colony. Arrived at Paris, he learned of the loss of Santo Domingo.

The invasion of England would take place. He enrolled voluntarily as a simple hussar in the 8th regiment.

Posted in Lille to learn his trade, he pursued a course in mathematics and won the 1st prize in geometry.

He won all his promotions on the battlefield.

In 1810, he was posted by his regiment to the Imperial [Veterinary] School of Alfort to study hippiatry. He was authorized to follow the course of agriculture and rural economy. In 1811, he won the 1st prize. In 1812, he was put out of competition as too strong. In 1813, the Imperial Society of Agriculture awarded him a gold medal while he was on the battlefield of Leipzig. In 1814, it received him as a member.

During his stay at Alfort, he studied medicine and attended lectures in Paris.

In 1818, he was received as a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1819, he proceeded to the Spanish Antilles in order to clear lands. He arrived at Havana, provided for the espitaine général of the island with recommendations given by the ambassadors of France and the Low Countries, certifying that he had followed a different political line from theirs, but that he was a man of honor, deserving the esteem of the honest men of all the parties.

Welcomed as a doctor in Havana, he was appointed Fiscal of the tribunal de médecine, a district of 300 square miles. The best days of my life, “he said, have been passed in Havana, because I’m only occupied with medicine for the poor.

In 1830, seeing the tricolor floating in the harbor of Havana, he departed for France.

It was around 1833 that he dedicated himself exclusively to the study of the sciences and to their coordination, with the aim of arriving at the knowledge of the rule of actions, whether individual or social.

He then wrote and had published in Paris, at his own expense, the Pacte social.

From 1834 to 1844, he attended all the courses of five faculties, of the Jardin des Plantes, etc. He wanted to redo his education, interrupted by his campaigns and voyages.

Religious by education, he saw that contemporary science is essentially irreligious and materialist. Since materialism cannot be the basis of order, he set out to prove that contemporary science is a false science, and he was successful. He thus reached the knowledge of the real, scientific religion, the only one possible in the presence of examination, become from then on incompressible.

To labor at the exposition of the scientific religion and of all its consequences relative to social organization became, from then on, the task of his entire life.

In 1848, the Republic condemned him to transportation.

In 1851, he caused to appear the first volume of Qu’est-ce que la science sociale? [What is Social Science?]; in 1853, the second volume appeared, and in 1854, the third and forth volumes.

While he was in prison, in 1848, he took part in the editing of the journal Révolution démocratique et sociale. He was also the editor of the Tribune des peuples, and wrote some articles in the Presse.

From 1856 to 1858, the following works were published by Colins:

L’économie politique, source des révolutions et des utopies prétendue socialistes, volumes I, II and III. Two or three volumes remain to be published;

Qu’est-ce que la liberté de conscience? letter to M. Jules Simon;

Lettre à M. P.-J. Proudhon on his work: de la Justice dan la révolution;

La Société nouvelle, sa nécessité;

La Souveraineté;

La Science sociale, of which only five volumes have appeared.

Colins died November 12, 1859. He worked to his last day on a great work which was sadly unfinished and which was published, in 1861, under the title of la Justice dans la science, hors l’Église et hors la révolution. He left many manuscripts of which some have been published in the Philosophie de l’Avenir.

I will add to that which precedes some words that I copy from an unedited notice composed by my father and place by him à la suite de the voluminous collection of letters that he received from Colins, when he left Paris and France permanently to establish himself in Brussels.

“I had got to know M. de Colins in Paris, through M. Sari, the brother of the brother-in-law of M. de Colins, whom I had often seen in Rome at the home of the ex-king Louis.

“He struck me, from the first, by his paradoxes, and he drew me towards him by the liveliness with which he supported them. For my part, I never found the means to refute them. The originality of M. de Colins made me attentive to his paroles: the rigor and strength of his reasoning soon ended by captivating me. We would always struggle with ardor, but I constantly lost ground. I fought by yielding only inch by inch. But I certainly felt that I weakened each day; and the more I tried to take up my advantages, the more I allowed them to take hold of me.”

In his work titled la Réalité, my father expose in the following manner the final result of these incessant discussions.

“For more than ten years, I have struggled against the new doctrine of which I now make myself the proponent. My preconceived opinions, my prejudices, the education of my youth and that which followed it, and perhaps, without knowing it, vanity and laziness, rejected that doctrine with all the power of an ingrained habit. I gave in finally only when the moral pressure had become irresistible.”

Now that I have said the little that I know of the personality of the Belgian socialist, I will outline dogmatically his principal ideas in social economy.

(1) The first edition of that excellent Summary being exhausted, we have judged it necessary to immediately make a new one, in order to fulfill the needs of the propaganda. Our readers will be able, thanks to this work of Agathon De Potter, to gain a general idea of the economic theory that he developed more fully in his Économie sociale likewise in the course of publication under the auspices of the Revue.— N. D. L. R.

(2) “I declare that it is to my friend Adolphe Hugentobler that I dedicated my work entitled Science Sociale, when I said: A LUI; PAR LUI; POUR TOUS.”

(3) It is interesting to note that it was in this work, published in 1835, that the idea of the collectivity of the soil first arose. Here is the passage to which I make allusion:

“Social Problem.

“What is the organization of property which could at the same time render, from now on, humanity as happy as possible, relative to its state of instruction and of wealth, and to carry it by the shortest way e to enjoy all the happiness of which it is susceptible?”

And Colins responds with the following series of measures:

“1°…..; 2°…..; 3°…..;

“4° Property [real estate; proprieté immobilière] belongs to all…..”
The epigraph of that work: Observer et réfléchir; Dieu et liberté, shows clearly that if the author had discovered at that time the solution du problem of the organization of property, he did not yet possess the full knowledge of the moral truth.

We know that these last three volumes were published about twenty years ago.
N. D. L. R.

(4) We know that these last three volumes were published about twenty years ago. — N. D. L. R.

(5) Of the 20 volumes of the Science sociale there remains to be published only volumes 8, 9, 10 and 20, of which we have given numerous extracts some time ago. — N. D. L. R.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2700 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.