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Was Gustave de Molinari an Anarchist until the Very End?

  • Gustave de Molinari

In his talk “Was Molinari a True Anarcho-Capitalist?” at last year’s Libertarian Scholars Conference, David M. Hart discussed Gustave de Molinari’s views towards anarcho-capitalism in fifteen texts. In doing so, Hart concluded we ought to revise Murray Rothbard’s assumption that Gustave de Molinari’s approach toward anarcho-capitalism weakened in the years nearing the 1900s.

During his talk, Hart discusses the recent discovery of archival papers by Benoît Malbranque (of Institut Coppet) and I. It was hoped this would reveal more on Molinari’s stance toward anarcho-capitalism.

Here are some first findings.

Molinari's Minarchist Approach in Newspapers

As historian Maarten Van Dijck noted, Molinari took a minarchist approach1  rather than an anarcho-capitalist approach in his newspaper L’Économiste belge. Why? Well, Van Dijck has two suspicions.2 First, he suspects—similar to Rothbard—that Molinari weakened his stance on government after facing a backlash by his fellow economists at the Société d'économie politique in 1849 after the publication of Les soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare and La production de la securité. Bastiat and Charles Coquelin (who reviewed Molinari’s Les soirées in the Journal des économistes) felt that de Molinari took logique to the extreme. They argued (along with Charles Dunoyer) that a government was necessary to stimulate competition among industries.3 Unfortunately, this explanation is highly unlikely. If Molinari was indeed motivated to soften his stance on government after the backlash of 1849, why did he continue to promote anarcho-capitalism in his Cours d’économie politique, published in 1855 as a summary of his well-received courses in political economy at Musée de l’industrie?4 Well received since L’Independence belge, a popular newspaper in the mid-1850s, noted:

We are not afraid to predict his success by the impression of his easy and brilliant words. The audience, by their applause, ratified our appreciation.5

However, Van Dijck noted that there was a second—more likely—motivation for his minarchist shift in l’Économiste belge.6 Even though the Belgian—liberal—elite of the mid-1850s was liberty minded, they were resistant to anarcho-capitalist ideas. For example, his anarchist tendencies would cost Molinari the election in 1859.7

Molinari knew that his public was more moderate than he was. In a letter to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the mutualist anarchist, Molinari wrote:

Can you give me a fragment of your brochure for the next issue of L’Économiste belge? And can you choose a passage that fits the moderate tone of my audience?8

It seems that Molinari was more moderate in his writings simply to appease his audience, which may have been the case in his later works as well—and might also be the origin of Rothbard’s confusion.

1880s–90s: Gustave de Molinari the Anarcho-Capitalist

If not in his writings, how can we say for sure that Molinari maintained his anarcho-capitalist views throughout his life? Well, we get some insights into his personal thoughts in his letters and interviews written in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

In the November 7, 1885, issue of L’Économiste française, Arthur Mangin wrote a short history of “an-archie” (in the tradition of Proudhon) and noted that Molinari belonged to the school of an-archists.9

One day after the article was published, Molinari took up his pen and wrote to Mangin, disapproving of both the qualification and the label anarchist. Anarchists are—according to de Molinari—followers of the tradition of Proudhon:

My dear colleague,

You call me—indeed, in very kind terms—a disciple of Proudhon and a pure anarchist, because I formulated the theory of "freedom of government" or political freedom. This obliges me to repeat to you—among ourselves because I am not asking you to publish my letter—that there is nothing in common between this theory and that of anarchy or an-archy, that is, the absence of government. I thought I had made clear in my last two large volumes what had been the raison d'être of governmental monopoly and political servitude, why this raison d'être had gradually ceased to exist, and how freedom of government had become possible. It seems that I am not clear enough, since a mind as sharp as yours did not understand me.

I am therefore obliged to write a third volume to make the first two intelligible. 

For the time being, I shall confine myself to pointing out to you that freedom of government or political freedom is only an application of the general principle of freedom—and that it does not imply the abolition of government any more than the abolition of the gabelle [an impost on salt], for example, and its replacement by free production and the optional compensation of salt implied the abolition of salt and curing.

In short, it is a liberal-radical if you will—and not an anarchist—who shakes your hand.

G. de Molinari10

In another portrait of Molinari—undated but probably written sometime in the late 1880s—Charles Benoist, a French journalist, noted that de Molinari, then editor in chief of Journal des économistes, continued to strive for anarcho-capitalist ideas. In the portrait, published in 1932, Benoist noted:

The economist who had described the state as a "necessary evil" was still a heretic to him. For him, the state was certainly an evil, but not a necessary evil. In almost every case, if not absolutely in all cases (and I don't see which one escaped), he was ready to do without it. Why would he not form private companies that would distribute order, security, in a word the government, like water, gas or electricity?11

"Il regrette Paris et ses anciennes occupations"

Does this mean that Gustave de Molinari kept his anarcho-capitalist beliefs until the very end? Well, in several letters between his daughter-in-law, Marie Leroy, and his son, Gustave, we get a remarkable insight into the final week of Molinari’s life. In January 1912, Molinari found himself with Marie Leroy in Adinkerke. He left Brussels never to return. In one of these letters, Marie Leroy noted that he grew frustrated with his family and his past in Paris. In a letter, dated January 23, 1912, five days before he passed away, Marie Leroy wrote: 

He [Molinari] regrets Paris and his former occupations. I must say that his desire to leave this has increased since receiving letters from former Parisian acquaintances.12

Most notable of his sudden frustration toward his previous achievements is that only a few months before this discussion, he wrote his final13 book, Ultima Verba. Why the sudden shift? More research needs to be conducted—preferably by a psychologist.

  • 1. Christian Albert, "Het tijdschrift 'L’économiste belge' 1855-1868: Zijn stellingen en invloed" (thesis, University of Antwerp, 1976), pp. 28–33.
  • 2. Maarten van Dijck, De wetenschap van de wetgever: De klassieke politieke economie en het Belgische landbouwbeleid 1830–1884 (Leuven, Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2008), 54–56.
  • 3. For the full discussion see: "Compte-Rendu d’une séance de la Société d’économie politique de Paris (octobre 1849)," Journal des économistes 24 (1849): 315–22. For a commentary on this discussion, see: Murray N. Rothbard, Classical Economics: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 2 (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1995), pp. 453–55.
  • 4. Gilbert Faccarello, "Bold Ideas. French Liberal Economists and the State: Say to Leroy-Bealieu," European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 17, no. 4 (2010): 746.
  • 5. "L'impression de sa parole facile et brillante nous ne craignons pas de lui prédire le succès. L'auditoire a, par ses applaudissements, ratifie notre appréciation." "Bruxelles," L’Independance belge, Jan. 1, 1852.
  • 6. Maarten van Dijck, “From Science to Popularization, and Bach—the Science and Journalism of the Belgian Economist Gustave De Molinari," Science in Context ;21, no. 3 (2008): 388.
  • 7. Dries van Thielen, "Gustave de Molinari’s Short-Lived Flirtation with the Socialists," Power and Market, Sept. 11, 2018, https://mises.org/power-market/gustave-de-molinaris-short-lived-flirtation-socialists.
  • 8. "Voulez-vous me donner pour la prochain n° de L’Économiste belge un fragment de votre brochure…en choisissant ce qui peut aller le mieux au tempérament généralement modéré de mes lecteurs?" Gustave de Molinari to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Feb. 14, 1859, letter 164/609, MS 2950 (Tome IX – Lettres adressées à P-J Proudhon Delhasse à Devos), Archive Ville de Besançon, France.
  • 9. Arthur Mangin, "Les theoriciens de l'an-archie," L'Économiste française, 1885, 563–66.
  • 10. Mon cher confrère,

    Vous me qualifiez—à la vérité en termes très aimables—de disciple de Proudhon et de pur anarchiste, parce que j’ai formulé la théorie de la « liberté de gouvernement » ou de la liberté politique. Cela m’oblige à vous répéter—entre nous, car je ne vous demande pas de publier ma lettre—qu’il n’y a rien de commun entre cette théorie et celle de l’anarchie ou de l’an-archie, c’est-à-dire de l’absence de gouvernement. Je croyais avoir exposé clairement dans mes deux gros derniers volumes quelle avait été la raison d’être du monopole gouvernemental et de la servitude politique, pourquoi cette raison d’être avait cessé peu à peu d’exister, et comment la liberté de gouvernement était devenue possible. Il paraît que je n’ai pas assez clair puisqu’un esprit aussi vif que le vôtre ne m’a pas compris.
    Me voilà donc obligé d’écrire un troisième volume pour rendre les deux premiers intelligibles. Pour le moment, je me bornerai à vous faire remarquer que la liberté de gouvernement ou la liberté politique n’est qu’une application du principe général de la liberté—et qu’elle n’implique pas plus la suppression du gouvernement que l’abolition de la gabelle par exemple et son remplacement par la production libre et la compensation facultative du sel n’ont impliqué la suppression du sel et de la salaison.

    Bref, c’est un libéral-radical si vous voulez—et non un anarchiste—qui vous serre la main.

    G. de Molinari

    Gustave de Molinari to Arthur Mangin, Nov. 8, 1885, ​private collection of Dries van Thielen.
  • 11. "L’économiste qui avait qualifié l’État de 'mal nécessaire' était encore un hérétique pour lui (Gustave de Molinari). Pour lui, l’État, assurément, était un mal, mais non un mal nécessaire. Dans presque tous les cas, sinon absolument dans tous (et je ne vois pas lequel échappait), il était prêt à s’en passer. Pourquoi ne se formerait-il pas des sociétés privées qui distribueraient l’ordre, la sécurité, en un mot le gouvernement, comme l’eau, le gaz ou l’électricité?" Charles Benoist, "Mes débuts littéraires," Revue bleue, politique et littéraire, 1932, 329.
  • 12. "Il regrette Paris et ses anciennes occupations. Je dois dire que son désir de quitter ceci s’est accentué depuis la réception des lettres des anciennes connaissances parisiennes."
    Marie Leroy de Molinari to [Gustave de Molinari (son)], Jan. 23, 1912, private archive of the Molinari family.
  • 13. While in Adinkerke, de Molinari started an (unfinished) biographical study titled "Chapitres de ma vie." The first and only chapter can be found in the private archive of the Molinari family.

Dries Van Thielen

Dries Van Thielen is a Belgian historian with an interest in nineteenth-century political economics and migration patterns. He's currently connected with the Coppet Institute, a French thinktank promoting 19th century Classical Liberalism. This article is loosely based on the introduction of his Dutch translation of De la production de la sécurité (along with Joeri Vandendriessche, expected to appear in 2018/2019 by Liberaal Archief). A French version appeared earlier in Laissons Faire .

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