French Solidarism of Leon Bourgeois

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= French left-Republican movement, and the official ideology of the french Third Republic which counted a 'solidarist' prime minister, Leon Bourgeois

Margaret Kohn: "Solidarism provides a justification of social rights, and does so in a way that is distinct from the welfare-as-charity model."


Source: From an essay to be pubished in the journal Political Theory.

Margaret Kohn:

"Solidarism rests on the claim that the division of labor creates a social product that does not naturally belong to the individuals who control it as their private property. This claim provides the foundation for the principle that the wealthy have a quasi-contractual debt to society that they are obliged to repay.


Solidarism was a critique of possessive individualism and the economic inequalities that it legitimized. According to the solidarists, the modern division of labor produces a social product. Once this fact is acknowledged, it becomes necessary to reconsider the unquestioned status of the right to private property in liberal-republican thought.


For the proponents of solidarism, solidarity was more than just a feeling of benevolence or fraternity. According to the 1765 Encyclopédie Commercial, the term solidarity had a distinctive and precise legal meaning. Solidarité referred to the obligation of a group of borrowers to discharge the debt of others. It was the opposite of a limited liability corporation. The members were each liable for the entire contracted obligation. In the 1800’s, however, the meaning expanded considerably, and solidarité was used as a synonym for fraternité, the third of the key principles of the French revolution. Solidarity was also connected to the Christian ideals of charity and brotherly love. Fouillée refocused the concept and linked it back to its earlier meaning as collective responsibility for debt. He defined solidarity as a way of describing society’s obligation to repay a debt owed to its poorer members.


The solidarists developed a distinctive and compelling theory to justify social policies that are today described as social rights. They typically eschewed the language of right, because it was associated with the right to property and was used to limit the power of society and the state. Instead, they promoted the language of debt and obligation, but, like the social rights tradition, they emphasized that social solidarity is something different from charity. They emphasized that providing for the dispossessed is not a discretionary choice and the proposed policies were meant to dismantle hierarchical relations rather than reproduce them.

Given the theoretical sophistication of solidarism, and the way that it provides a distinctive normative foundation for social rights, it is puzzling that the concept and its intellectual history has largely been forgotten. One reason may be that in Europe the idea of solidarity became conventional wisdom. Without forceful critics, there was no need for thoughtful defense. Until recently, the left and right basically agreed on the legitimacy of the welfare state and the capitalist economy and differed over the degree and form of redistribution, but the ideological terrain has shifted dramatically The right has been more effective in the past twenty years at shifting the terrain by convincing people that privatization, deregulation, and low taxes increase freedom, which creates prosperity for all, or at least for those who deserve it."

The Solidarist Theory of Rent

Margaret Kohn:

"The final component of solidarism is an explicit defense of the economic theory that is implicit in the critique of dispossession: the theory of rent. It builds on Ricardo’s famous definition of rent as “unearned increment.” Ricardo pointed out that the same amount of labour and capital, when applied to the same amount of land, can yield vastly different amounts of revenue for the owner. The difference between the two yields is “unearned increment,” and this makes it possible to distinguish between the value that is created through the labour of the entrepreneur and the capitalist. Gide points out that rapid urbanization and the resulting increase in land prices is a striking illustration of this phenomenon. He notes that a quarter acre of land in Chicago which cost $20 in 1830 was valued at $1,250,000 in 1894. Rent, however, is not simply a term that applies to land and real estate. It applies to all analogous differences in revenue from identical inputs. Several factors help explain the different rate of return: some factors may be natural like soil fertility; others, like demand for the product or position relative to the market, are social. In the case of the quarter acre in Chicago, the increased value did not reflect entrepreneurial activity or improvement, but simply the fact that other people decided to build a bustling city around it, a city that for many complicated reasons became the dominant metropolis of the region. This concept of rent underpins the solidarist idea of the social product and the normative theory derived from it. The unearned increment that is created socially does not naturally belong to the property owner and should be reallocated to benefit society. In principle this could apply to agricultural land, but the most striking examples of rent occur in places where the division of labour, infrastructure, and social networks inflate the value of land and labour. The solidarists were the first to propose a version of the theory of the urban commonwealth and to use it to justify social rights: free public education, including adult education and enough leisure to learn; comprehensive insurance against disability, illness, and poverty; and a basic standard of living.


Gide concedes that solidarity by itself does not furnish a principle of moral conduct, but he also makes a number of interesting points in response to this objection. He suggests that “solidarity supplies us with a leverage of incomparable strength.” The social ties created through the division of labour are like the rope attaching two mountain climbers. Their fates are linked; if one falls, his partner may save him or be dragged to his own death. This is a prudential argument, and a dimension practical reason rather than a moral argument: once they are aware of its scope, interdependence can motivate elites to accept their obligations by showing that it is in their interest to do so. Interdependence also serves to reinforce a sense of responsibility and a deeper understanding of social position. Proponents promoted solidarism as an ethical ideal in order to encourage elites to extend recognition and care towards a larger circle of people. Bourgeois’s concept of debt is another way of answering the moralist’s objection. The common-wealth is created to benefit everyone and those who have taken more than their share owe a debt to the dispossessed."

More Information

  • Note there are also other movements with the same name, see the Wikipedia article
  • Jack Ernest S. Hayward, “The Official Social Philosophy of the French Third Republic: Léon Bourgeois and Solidarism,” International Review of Social History 6, no. 01 (1961): 19–48.