In their headlong rush to tear down the infrastructure of privilege and exalt equality and liberty, the French Revolutionaries ripped apart the social fabric which had developed in France over the centuries. In the wake of their orgy of destruction, intermediate social bodies were weakened or abolished, amongst which were the corporations or guilds. In addition to promoting the collaboration of employers and workers, these institutions had also regulated wages, prices, and the quality of raw materials. They also monitored the methods of production and the quality of the finished product. They also took care of the religious, social, and economic needs of their members. At times, the corporations of the past had been guilty of abuses. Nevertheless, rather than reforming their abuses, the revolutionaries summarily annihilated them, inaugurating an era of individualism, with a menacing socialism in the offing. On March 2, 1791 the corporations were dissolved and on June 14 of that same year the Chapelier Law was passed, prohibiting workers to assemble, organize, or strike.
In the late nineteenth century, René de La Tour du Pin attempted to resolve the prevailing social problems by proposing a social system called corporatism. He maintained that intermediate bodies needed to be resurrected, nurtured, and put firmly in place to occupy the void left between the individual and the State, thereby establishing a firm solidarity between employers and workers engaged in the same line of work. Whereas Marx saw the relations between employers and workers as one of unceasing warfare, La Tour du Pin saw that they could be of mutual understanding and collaboration. His modernized corporations, rather than dividing men from each other, would unite them. Beyond this, the corporations would act as buffers, curbing both the centrifugal tendencies of the individual and the stifling heavy hand of the State.
On April 1, 1834, Charles-Humbert-René was born to René-Henri-Gabriel-Humbert de La Tour du Pin-Chambly, Marquis de La Charce, and his wife Charlotte-Alexandrine in the village of Arrancy-en-Laonnais. As a boy René was “homeschooled” by both of his parents, his father providing him with lessons in mathematics and the classics, his mother instructing him in geography and history. A local priest taught him religion; his physical education was rounded out by regular instruction in fencing, horsemanship, and gymnastics. Even as a young boy, René became acutely aware of the meaning of noblesse oblige. While visiting some of the peasants on the family estate with his father, the latter counseled, “Always remember that you will only be the administrator of this land for its inhabitants.” His appreciation of his social duty at an early age would bolster his sense of duty as well as his idea of the social function of property.
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At the age of eighteen, René entered the military academy of Saint-Cyr. Becoming a soldier for him was more than a mere matter of choice—he was “obeying” the family tradition and continuing the family profession. After graduating, René served in the Crimea, Northern Italy, Algeria, Mexico, and France itself during the Franco-Prussian War. While in exile after a French military defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, La Tour du Pin met a like-minded fellow officer, Albert de Mun. This was a productive period of intellectual growth for both men. During this time, both officers began reading books on the “Social Question” by both the French deputy Émile Keller and the Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler. They found their social vocation at this time and decided to serve their country and their church by devoting themselves to the people.
Under the inspiration of Maurice Maignen, a lay brother of St. Vincent de Paul, both De Mun and La Tour du Pin were drawn into a deeper service of the workers. In December of 1871, with Maignen and other like-minded men, they founded the “Society of Catholic Workers Circles,” a workingman’s club which served the spiritual, intellectual, moral, and material needs of the working classes. La Tour du Pin he founded the Society’s “Council of Studies,” a section devoted to developing “firm principles of Catholic social teaching” for the restoration of a Christian society. To that end, he produced a monthly bulletin, Association catholique, a periodical containing contributions from leading European sociologists and theologians.
After meeting Léon Harmel, La Tour du Pin’s ideas about a “Christian Corporation” began to crystallize. Harmel was carrying out an interesting experiment in his family’s textile mill at Val-des-Bois in the Champagne. Not only did he provide his workers with wages sufficient for their material needs, but he also provided low-rent cottages for them and promoted collective action among the workers and helped them to establish religious confraternities. More than anything else, it was Harmel’s “Christian Corporation” which provided La Tour du Pin with a practical, organic, and living example of a corporation adapted to the exigencies of the modern world.
In 1884 La Tour du Pin became the secretary and moving spirit of the “Fribourg Union,” an international body of social thinkers who met in Fribourg, Switzerland under the auspices of Gaspard Mermillod, Bishop of Lausanne. The group met each year from 1885 to 1891. Inspired by both theory and action, this body was composed of social thinkers from Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and later, Belgium. The members critiqued the social problems arising from modern society and focused their attention on principles that would usher in a Christian Social Order. As the secretary of the group, La Tour du Pin was the link to all the members of the group and he was the one who organized the sessions. After some of the members met with Leo XIII on the “Worker Question,” the pope expressed his desire to issue an encyclical on that topic. He asked the members to submit a document with the Fribourg Union’s views on “work, property, and the reorganization of society.” Soon after this, Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum in 1891.
At the heart of La Tour du Pin’s ideal of corporatism was his understanding of the reciprocal duties and responsibilities of workers and employers. For La Tour du Pin the corporation must provide the workers with a corporative patrimony, authenticate their mastery of the trade, and provide them with a means of representation in the government of the corporation. Given that property is one of the key foundations of society, La Tour du Pin maintained that the working classes need to have access to an indivisible and inalienable collective property which would participate in the prosperity of the industry. This corporative patrimony would be used by the workers for unemployment, pensions, security, and professional schooling. Both owners and workers would make contributions to this fund. In so far as the fund would participate in the prosperity of the industry, members would participate in an early form of profit sharing. The welfare of workers would be maintained by the corporations, thus obviating the encroaching social welfare State, and thereby creating fertile soil for political decentralization.
Since production is the goal of an association of work, La Tour du Pin insisted that all agents of production must be represented in the government of the corporation. Consequently, he was opposed to separate syndicates for both workers (trade unions) and owners (employers’ associations), since owners and workers are then artificially divided, regarding each other as adversaries rather than esteeming each other as collaborators. La Tour du Pin, therefore, advocated corporations (mixed syndicates) as they unite owners and workers for a common purpose. La Tour du Pin also maintained that a corporation must have a government, a “governing council” to ensure that the rules and good practices of the trade are followed by the members. Just as a town council exercises jurisdiction over the individual homes so should the “corporative council” exercise jurisdiction over individual workshops. In such a system, the various occupations would regulate themselves, thus rendering unnecessary the myriad bureaucratic regulatory agencies of the modern State. Whereas only masters were allowed to be members of the governing council in the past, La Tour du Pin insisted that workers should also have representation on the governing council. Insisting that all members should have some realistic representation in the government of the corporation, he maintained that those who contribute more to the good of the corporation should have a more heavily weighted representation.
Unfortunately, the term “corporatism” is today often regarded in a pejorative way, on account of its association with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. The corporations in Fascist Italy and certain other twentieth-century corporatist states were not truly representative, but rather organs of state control. According to La Tour du Pin, true corporations, as authentic intermediate bodies, must arise organically from the members of communities below, thus making them truly representative. If they are created by State fiat, they are not truly representative, and they fail to respect the principle of subsidiarity, as formulated later by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno. Nevertheless, the State should create a healthy and secure atmosphere for the growth of such intermediate bodies, harmonizing them with the common good of the nation.
Some have accused La Tour du Pin as being out of touch with the modern world and being rooted in the medieval past. This charge is baseless. Nevertheless, the corporative system may still seem strange and alien to modern man. Commenting on this, the Catholic sociologist Marcel Clément observes:
The whole process we are considering is a task of restoration—the restoration of a social order which was so utterly shattered by individualism that the very concept of what must be done has become utterly alien to the thinking of men of our time; and it is the very fact of the strangeness of the concept of the normal social order, as it appears to a diseased society, which prompts critics of corporative concept to argue that the popes are taking us back to the Middle Ages when they speak of professional corporations! This is the measure of the extent to which our minds have been conditioned by individualism.
La Tour du Pin’s great social contribution was taking the institutions of the past, the corporations and the social orders, refashioning them, revivifying them, and applying them to the exigencies of the modern world. Today, as we live in an age in which the incongruous admixture of individualism and statism reigns supreme, there is much to be gleaned from La Tour du Pin’s ideas on corporations, decentralization, and representation by social function.