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September 2015

Freethought and Freedom: Jean Meslier on Property

Was Meslier a communist? Smith explores this tricky issue.

In the penultimate chapter of his Testament, the atheist-priest Jean Meslier wrote:

You and your descendants will always be miserable and unhappy…as long as there is such a great and enormous disproportion of states and conditions; as long as you do not possess and enjoy in common the goods of the earth; as long as the good and bad and the pains of life are so badly shared among you, since it is not at all just that some bear all the pains of labor and all the discomforts of life while others enjoy alone without pain or labor all the goods and comforts of life.

Meslier’s belief that people should “possess and enjoy in common the goods of the earth” raises the question of whether he advocated a type of communism, as Michel Onfray and other interpreters have maintained. In my last essay, I stated that although there may be “some justification” for ascribing communistic ideas to Meslier, “I think it would be incorrect to identify Meslier’s ideas about property as communistic.”

Having reread Meslier’s remarks about property, this time with more care, I feel that I must revise my previous conclusion. Meslier’s ideas may indeed be described as communistic, but only in the older meaning of the term.

There are two major problems here. First, Meslier’s comments about property are fragmentary and, at times, inconsistent; they certainly don’t qualify as a theory of property, so it is difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. Second, to label his comments about property “communistic” will almost certainly mislead those readers who associate communism with a strong, authoritarian state. Although, as I explained previously, Meslier was no anarchist, neither was he a cheerleader for strong, expansive central government. We see this in his unrelenting criticisms of taxes and tax-collectors, and in his assaults on the French bureaucracy and other state functionaries who enforced the will of the sovereign. Again and again Meslier attacked the predatory class of French officials (including the clergy) who lived off the labor of the working class while producing nothing themselves.

Nevertheless, Meslier’s position on property may be described as communistic in the same way that this label has been applied to early Christian communities in the Roman Empire. The ideal of common property, in contrast to private property, was advocated for many centuries by leading Catholic theologians. As the eminent historian Ernest Barker wrote in his Introduction to The Social and Political Ideas of Some Great Medieval Thinkers (ed. Hearnshaw, 1923):

It had been a general doctrine in the Church since the days of St. Augustine that communism was the ideal condition of society; and the great canonist Gratian is following tradition when he writes “by the law of nature all things are the common property of all men”—a principle followed by the primitive Church in Jerusalem, and taught by Plato.

According to Meslier, “In all appearances the Christian religion in the beginning wanted its followers to restore this way of living in common, as if it were the best and most suitable for men.” Meslier then quoted one of two passages in the Acts of the Apostles (2.44-45, RSV) that were frequently cited by advocates of Christian communism. After the apostle Peter had baptized around 3000 people and formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem, “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” A similar passage occurs a little later, in Acts 4.32, 34-37:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common….There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas…sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Meslier believed that this arrangement “did not last so long among [Christians] because greed slipped into their hearts and soon broke up this common union of goods and set division among them as it was before.” Nevertheless, the ideal of common property survived in monasteries, and this is why monks “are always kept in such a thriving condition that they lack nothing and never feel the miseries or discomforts of poverty, which makes most men so unhappy in life.” Indeed, if monks ever “stopped possessing their goods in common and began sharing them so that each one of them enjoyed their share separately as seemed good to them, they would soon be like the others exposed and reduced to all the miseries and discomforts of life.” The monastic practice of holding all goods in common should serve as a model for French society in general:

It would certainly be the same with all the parishes if the people there wanted to agree to live peaceably together in common, to all work usefully in common and to enjoy equally in common each in their district, the goods of the land and the fruits of their labor….[T]hey could, if they wanted, in this way of living in common, obtain everywhere an abundance of all goods and thus protect themselves from all the miseries and discomforts of poverty, which would empower them all to live happily and contently instead of enjoying separately, as they do, all the goods of the land and commodities of life and being exposed to and dragged into all kinds of evils and miseries….So, it is clearly an abuse, and a very great abuse in them to possess separately, as they each do, the goods and commodities of life and to enjoy them separately, since they are deprived of so many great benefits and are exposed to and dragged into so many great evils and miseries.

Although the passages from Acts (quoted above) were frequently cited by later proponents of Christian communism and socialism, it is important to note that they describe a voluntary pooling of resources among the members of a relatively small community. No coercion, and certainly no coercion by a government, was recommended or sanctioned. Nor is private property per se attacked in those passages; on the contrary, the reference to Joseph Barnabas says that he “sold a field which belonged to him,” thereby suggesting that he had legitimate title to that land.

The voluntary activities of early Christian communities were noted by a number of Church Fathers. For example, Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240) observed that all institutions of the Roman government, even its charities, were based on coercion. Among Christians, in contrast, “everything is voluntary.” Rather than rely on coercive taxation, Christians contributed voluntarily “to support the destitute, and to pay for their burial expenses; to supply the needs of boys and girls lacking money and power, and of old people confined to the home.” Christians “do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.” Early Christians with wealth often sold their personal property and then donated the proceeds to a common fund that was distributed to other Christians, according to need. There was no suggestion that such donors did not justly own the property they decided to sell, or that private property itself is the product of exploitation.

Did Meslier’s ideal society, like that of the early Christians, involve a voluntary system of communal property? It is difficult to answer this question with certainty. Throughout the Testament Meslier insisted that the worker who produces a good should have the right to dispose of that good for his own benefit, and that it is a grave injustice to expropriate the fruits of his labor. In this context, Meslier appeared to advocate a purely voluntary system of communal property—a system in which private goods are voluntarily converted into common goods because of the (supposed) economic advantages of the latter system, as when a destitute person may draw from a common stock of resources rather than starve.

But matters become considerably more cloudy when we learn the details of Meslier’s ideal society, as explained in Chapter 48 of the Testament. Here Meslier expressly condemned the “individual appropriation” of property—a position difficult to reconcile with other statements in his book. Instead of individual appropriation, people should possess property in common and enjoy that property in common. Meslier proposed a decentralized system of common ownership, one centered in local communities—“the same city, town, village, or parish,” etc. The inhabitants of these communities may be regarded as members of the same family, as brothers and sisters who have “the same or similar food and being all equally well clothed, well housed, well bedded, and well heated, and applying themselves also equally to the labor, i.e., to the work or to some honest and useful job, everyone pursuing his profession or what would be most necessary or most appropriate according to the time and season and the possible need for certain things.” These communities would not be under the “leadership of those who may want to dominate haughtily and tyrannically over the others, but under the leadership and direction of those who are the wisest and have the best intentions for the advancement and maintenance of the public good.” These communities would form alliances with other communities for the sake of peace and to provide mutual aid in time of need.

As we dig deeper into Meslier’s scheme for an ideal society, it becomes evident that coercion would be necessary to implement his utopia. And it is perfectly correct to describe Meslier’s social plan as utopian, especially given his repeated assertions that all misery, want, and exploitation would disappear if only people, suitably educated, would adopt reason as their guide instead of succumbing to the false and absurd claims of religion. (I daresay that Meslier could have learned some important things about human nature and avoided making some boneheaded claims if he had taken more seriously the insights of the better Christian philosophers and theologians.) Meslier’s call for a communistic utopia was nothing new; similar ideas are found in the writings of Plato, Thomas More, and others. The main difference between Meslier’s utopia and those proposed by earlier writers lies in Meslier’s rejection of a centralized authority who plans and directs the activities and institutions of an entire society. Meslier proposed instead a federation of smaller communities, but this was a distinction without a difference so far as the need to coerce unwilling participants is concerned.

Consider one of the more disturbing passages in the Testament. Despite his praise of the common property found in monasteries, Meslier detested monks, especially those mendicants who begged for their food and other necessities. Now, we might think that soliciting voluntary contributions would, in principle, be unobjectionable for a philosopher with libertarian proclivities. But monks, according to Meslier, produced nothing of social value, so he would have forbidden this practice and forced monks to do what he deemed honest labor:

[T]he profession of priests, and particularly of monks, is nothing but a profession of errors, superstitions, and impostures and, consequently, far from being a profession considered useful and necessary in a good and wise republic, it should, on the contrary be regarded as harmful and pernicious. And so, instead of rewarding the people of such a profession, we should rather absolutely forbid all the superstitious and abusive functions of their ministry and absolutely force them to do some honest and useful work like others.

Something is clearly out of whack in Meslier’s version of a free and enlightened society.

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