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Aug 21, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: The Political Theory of Jean Meslier

Smith critically examines the claim that Meslier was a communist anarchist.

In his lengthy article “Jean Meslier and the ‘Gentle Inclination of Nature’,” the French philosopher Michel Onfray characterized Meslier as “Atheist, deChristianizer, anarchist, communist, materialist, internationalist, revolutionary, [and] leftist.” This is quite a bundle of labels; and given that Onfray is a widely acknowledged expert on Meslier, it is risky to challenge his judgments about the atheist-priest.  But Onfray is himself a left-anarchist; and, in my judgment, he occasionally succumbs to the natural tendency to find heroic precursors to his own views, even when this involves reading more into a text than is actually there. That Onfray is aware of this tendency is evident from his observation: “In 1919 the Bolsheviks engrave his name on an obelisk in Moscow. Meslier becomes a precursor enrolled in the Soviet adventure!”

In his classic study, The Great Anarchists: Ideas and Teachings of Seven Major Thinkers (1908), Paul Eltzbacher divided anarchism into two basic types: communist and individualist anarchism. Eltzbacher—an individualist anarchist in the school of Benjamin Tucker—went on to say (p. 292) that the “Anarchistic teachings have in common only this, that they negate the State for our future.” Now, since Michel Onfray dubbed Meslier a communist anarchist, we should begin with the question of whether Meslier was an anarchist at all. Although Meslier vehemently criticized the French monarchy and other governments of his day, condemning them as engines of despotism and ruthless exploiters of the poor, it does not follow that he endorsed the anarchist teaching that all governments are necessarily unjust and should be abolished. (Of course, our opinion about this issue will depend on how we define “government” and “state.” For my thoughts on this controversy, see my essay “State and Society, Part 1.” )

So was Meslier an anarchist? I find nothing in his Testament to support the claim that he was. On the contrary, Meslier repeatedly affirmed the need for just governments that pursue the common good rather than the private good of privileged groups. He believed, for example, that “all well-ruled republics need experts to teach virtue and to instruct men in good manners as well as the arts and sciences.” If anything, this and similar remarks indicate that Meslier wished to assign to his ideal government powers that modern libertarians would reject, especially in the field of education. Children should “all be raised, nourished, and supported in common with public and common goods.” Similarly, they should “be equally well educated in good manners and honesty, as well as in the arts and sciences, as much as necessary and suitable for each with respect to usefulness for the public and the need that it could have of their service.” By educating all children “in the same principles of morality and rules of propriety and honesty, it would be easy to make them all wise and honest, to make them all work together and tend to the same good and make them all capable of usefully serving their country. This would certainly be advantageous for the public good and human society.” In contrast, educational diversity “inspires in men only opposition and different temperaments, opinions, and sentiments, which makes them unable to tolerate one another peaceably and, consequently, to agree with others unanimously about the same good, which is a cause of continual troubles and divisions among them.”

Although these passages do not explicitly call for the state to provide an education that is at once universal and uniform, a secular state system is almost certainly what Meslier had in mind. The same proposal would later become standard fare among French philosophes and freethinkers, and this widespread call for state education was one of the most anti-libertarian aspects of Enlightenment thought.  No self-respecting anarchist would agree with the proposal to place education in the hands of the state, nor would most anarchists agree with Meslier that education should be the same for all children. In the view of William Godwin, Benjamin Tucker, and other prominent anarchists, to entrust the state with the job of teaching values to children is like entrusting the fox to guard the henhouse.  As Godwin put it in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (3rd ed., 1797), “Government will not fail to employ [education] to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions.”

Elsewhere in the Testament Meslier clearly expressed his belief that an orderly society requires some measure of political authority.

All men are equal by nature; they all hold equally the right to live and to walk upon the earth, the right to enjoy their natural liberty and to share in the goods of the land, with everyone working usefully to have the things that are necessary and useful in life. But, since they live in society and since a society or community of men cannot be ruled well or sustained in good order without some kind of dependence and subordination between them, it is absolutely for the good of human society that there be some kind of dependence and subordination among them.

This is the language of a defender of government, not the language of an anarchist. Meslier demanded only that a government “be just and well proportioned, i.e., that it should not exalt some and debase others, flatter some and trample others, give to some and leave nothing for others….” Similar statements recur throughout the Testament, so how Michel Onfray reached the conclusion that Meslier was an anarchist remains a puzzle to me.

Let us now turn to the question of whether Meslier, if not an anarchist, was a “communist” of some kind. Before proceeding, however, we should recall that the Testament, written over a period of ten years while Meslier was in his fifties, is disorganized and repetitive, and it sometimes substitutes over-the-top polemicism for reasoned arguments. Meslier apologized for some of these flaws, explaining that he wrote the Testament in bits and pieces, when he could find free time from his priestly duties. In some respects, therefore, the Testament resembles an intellectual journal more than a polished manuscript, with the result that even careful readers are bound to feel frustrated when attempting to understand Meslier’s position on some important controversies. It is important to keep this difficulty in mind while exploring the issue of whether “communism” is an appropriate label for Meslier’s ideas about property.

“Communism” is a highly charged label, one brimming with negative connotations. But if we strip “communism” down to bare essentials and use the term to signify only the doctrine that all or most goods should be the common property of society rather than individually owned, then there may be some justification in dubbing Meslier a “communist.”  I say there may be some justification because Meslier was unclear about some key features of his political philosophy. In the final analysis, however, I think it would be incorrect to identify Meslier’s ideas about property as communistic. 

Consider Meslier’s comments about the French nobility, in Chapter 43 of the Testament. Meslier asserted that the first nobles were “bloody and cruel people, thieves and parricides” who acquired and sustained their privileged status by brute force. Thus instead of glorifying the nobility, the French people “should rather be ashamed of such a criminal and hateful birth and source, and the people should only have hatred and aversion for them.” The class system in France “clearly puts all the authority, all the goods, pleasures, satisfactions, wealth, and even the idleness on the side of the rulers, the rich, and the nobles, and puts on the side of the poor everything that is painful and distressing.” Note that Meslier condemns “the rich,” along with rulers and nobles, as exploiters of the poor. So how should this inclusion be understood? Should we interpret Meslier to mean that wealth per se can only be acquired at the expense of the poor? Although this economic interpretation would probably be favored by modern socialists and communists, since it would corroborate their own belief in economic exploitation and class struggle, more plausible, in my judgment, would be to understand Meslier as condemning only those people who acquired their wealth by the political means of state coercion.

My interpretation, if correct, would mean that Meslier did not object to wealth earned through voluntary market transactions; rather, his targets were those state functionaries who became rich by plundering the public via taxes and tithes, along with those merchants and manufacturers who benefitted from state-granted monopolies and other privileges. The “rich” are again mentioned in this passage from the same paragraph:

The disproportion is all the more unjust and detestable for the people since it makes them entirely dependent on the nobles and the rich, and it makes them, so to speak, their slaves, to the point of making them suffer not only their put-downs, scorn, and abuse, but also their persecution, injustice, and mistreatment.

Again, we must ask: What did Meslier mean by “the rich”? In the course of explaining his position, Meslier quoted the following passage from another writer—the anonymous author of a book titled Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy.

There is nothing so vile and so abject, nothing so poor and despicable as the peasantry of France. Moreover, they work only for the rulers and the nobles, and with all their work they still have great trouble to earn enough bread for themselves. In a word, the peasants are absolutely the slaves of the rulers and nobles, whose lands they give value to and from whom they rent their farms. They are no less oppressed by the public taxes and the salt taxes than by the individual burdens that their masters impose on them, without even considering what the clergy unjustly demand of these poor unfortunates.

Here the exploiting class is expressly identified as those who make money through the coercive mechanism of government. Thus, given Meslier’s scathing denunciations of taxes, it is reasonable to conclude that his condemnation of the “rich” pertained specifically to those members of the ruling class who acquired their wealth through taxes, tithes, and other governmental revenues coercively extracted from the ruled. But Meslier never explicitly distinguished between the economic and political means of acquiring wealth, so a certain amount of guesswork is required to reach this conclusion.

On the other side of the ledger we have Meslier’s criticisms of private property, as we see in his approval of Pascal’s contention that “the usurpation of all lands and the evils that ensued came only from the fact that each individual wanted to appropriate for himself the things that should have been left in common.” Likewise, the “divine Plato” banished from his utopia the words “mine” and “thine”—“judging rightly that so long as there was something to divvy up, there would always be dissatisfaction, which breeds troubles, divisions, wars, and lawsuits.”

Elsewhere in the Testament, Meslier wrote:

In brief, if all the goods…were wisely governed and dispensed, no one would have to fear drought or poverty for themselves or their families, since all the goods and riches would exist equally for everyone, which would certainly be the greatest good and happiness that could happen to men.

The key question about such passages, which recur at various places in the Testament, is whether Meslier thought that the economic equality he desired should be brought about by voluntary means, or whether such equality should be coercively imposed by government. I shall take up this problem, which is essential to determining whether or not Meslier qualified as a “communist” in any significant sense of the word, in my next essay.

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