Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), was a French utopian thinker. He was born into an aristocratic family — a background which contributed to his arrest during Robespierre’s Terror — whose contact with Parisian social life introduced him to the ideas of the French Enlightenment and personalities such as Rousseau and d’Alembert. At first, Saint-Simon seemed destined for the military, and fought in the French army alongside the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Yet the significance of his experiences was more intellectual than martial.
It was not my vocation to be a soldier; I was destined for a quite different, and I might say quite contrary kind of activity. To study the advance of the human mind in order subsequently to work for the improvement of civilisation: that was the aim I set myself.
During his time in America, he saw the first signs of such a civilisation in the liberal, tolerant and democratic ideals of the American Revolution. After the French Revolution, he made a fortune from property speculation and founded a salon, but he was always committed to his studies, which included physics, mathematics and physiology.
Saint-Simon’s ideas were original and radical. He rejected both the feudal order and orthodox Christianity, because they justified oppression and were incapable of taking society forwards. He argued that humanity and society should be studied scientifically, the state should be responsible for social welfare, European nations should co-operate and even form a federation, and science, industry and art should lead the age.
Saint-Simon was a left bourgeois radical rather than a true socialist — in his proposed society the working classes would be subordinate to a technocratic elite. But in his view that “all men ought to work”, of property as historically relative, of the replacement of the state with an “administration of things” that directed the processes of production — later theorised by Marx, Engels and Lenin as the ‘withering away’ of the state — he lays a foundation for socialist ideas.
Saint-Simon’s contribution to aesthetics is not very well known. But Saint-Simon valued art as a form of labour, and we owe to him not only the notion of an avant-garde opposed to the cultural norms of its time, but the idea of artists as leaders and shapers of society, which was to be revived in various forms by individuals and governments inspired by Marxism.
Saint-Simon and aesthetics
As early as 1802, Saint-Simon made the following appeal in his Lettres d’un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains (Letters of an Inhabitant of Geneva to his Contemporaries):
Scientists, artists and all those of you who devote some of your power and resources to the process of enlightenment: you are the section of humanity with the greatest intellectual energy, the section most able to appreciate a new idea... It is up to you to defeat the force of inertia. So mathematicians; as you are the vanguard, begin!
In the Letters, Saint-Simon began the development of a theory that the existing order should be replaced by rule by scientists, industrialists and artists, the most able agents of progress who should replace the clergy at the head of a new, secular and international religion based upon the sciences. As Engels observed in his brief summary of Saint-Simonism:
According to Saint-Simon, science and industry, both united by a new religious bond, destined to restore that unity of religious ideas which had been lost since the time of the Reformation — a necessarily mystic and rigidly hierarchic ‘new Christianity’.
Artists commanded in particular the spiritual respect necessary to replace the feudal barons and the clergy and construct a new society. In his later work The Industrials’ Catechism  (1823–24), Saint-Simon proposed that poets, painters, musicians and sculptors, amongst others, should be recruited to an Academy of Sentiments, to write a code of morality for industrial society.
By the 1820s he had decided that “the industrial class is the fundamental class, the nourishing class of all society, without which no other class could exist”, and should therefore be dominant over scientists and artists. But artists were still to play an essential spiritual role. Artists too were producers, because “they contribute greatly to the prosperity of our manufacturers by the designs and models with which they furnish the artisans”. But they were to be judged not only by the immediate ‘usefulness’ or exchange value of their work, but by their contribution to transforming social relations. This, inevitably, means that their role was political.
It was Saint-Simon’s follower, Olinde Rodrigues, who coined the term ‘avant-garde’ (French for ‘advance guard’ or ‘vanguard’). In the essay L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”) of 1825 , Rodrigues speaks through the character of an artist in an appeal for leadership:
We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use, in turn, the lyre, ode or song, story or novel; we inscribe those ideas on marble or canvas, and we popularise them in poetry and in song. We also make use of the stage, and it is there above all that our influence is most electric and triumphant...
[If the arts] support the general movement of the human spirit, if they assist the common cause, and contribute to the growth of general well-being, producing useful sensations for mankind... an immense future of glory and success will immediately open up before them. Their energies will return, and they will be raised up the highest point they could possibly attain: for when harnessed in the direction of the public good, the force of the imagination is quite simply incalculable.
The Saint-Simonian view of art, then, was a productivist aesthetic in which artists should be part of the political vanguard helping build the morality and cohesion of society, develop economic productivity, and convince the population of the benefits of the new golden age.
The academic Margaret Rose has pointed out that we also need to consider the legacy of others of Saint-Simon’s followers, such as Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin, who called for a ‘liberation of the senses’ from the ‘spiritualist’ tradition of Christianity. Although these ideas about the ‘emancipation of the flesh’ did not come from Saint-Simon himself, they grew from his critique of Christian orthodoxy and became part of the ‘Saint-Simonian’ discourse taken up by subsequent thinkers.
Saint-Simon and Marx
With the spread of the more advanced socialism of Marx, Saint-Simonism quickly lost ground and his immediate following dispersed. Nonetheless, with his materialism, productivism and progressive anti-feudalism, Saint-Simon helped to shape the intellectual landscape in monarchist Prussia in which Marx began his own work.
Marx read Saint-Simon in the 1830s and probably again in the 1840s, and it is clear from references in The German Ideology that he was extremely familiar with Saint-Simon’s writings. In fact, French utopian socialism was later identified by Lenin — along with German philosophy and English political economy — as one of the three ‘component parts’ of Marxism. As Lenin summarised:
When feudalism was overthrown and “free” capitalist society appeared in the world, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Various socialist doctrines immediately emerged as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. Early socialism, however, was utopian socialism. It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation.
But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society.
Saint-Simon would not have considered himself a utopian. Dedicated to science, he believed the study of humanity and social organisation would allow the creation of a harmonious society. With the correct theory, humanity would be able to intervene in creating its own future. This idea was, in Keith Taylor’s words, “sufficiently original to justify the view of Saint-Simon as one of the founders of modern historicism” .
Yet Saint-Simon’s ideas were utopian nonetheless, because neither his conception nor his means of realising it were achievable. His plan for introducing the industrial society was to ask a range of figures — industrialists, philanthropists, even the King — to establish it on the grounds that it was a good idea. Once established, this society would be without repression, because it would be rational and administrative. Bourgeois and worker alike had a common interest in things running smoothly. Saint-Simon misunderstood the class divisions of bourgeois society and the bourgeoisie’s dependence upon exploitation for the extraction of surplus value. It was Marx’s great achievement to take early socialism such as Saint-Simon’s and place it “on a real basis” (Engels, op. cit.).
But to what extent can we find Saint-Simon’s influence on Marx’s aesthetics?
The first point of contact is in the view of artistic labour outlined in the 1844 Manuscripts. Like Saint-Simon, Marx rejected the separation of art and labour found in the German idealists Kant, Hegel and Schiller. Art, for Marx, was a form of labour, not the antithesis of it, and was not defined by whether or not it was exchanged for money. There is an important distinction for Marx, which we do not find in Saint-Simon, between alienated and non-alienated labour, between art produced for the satisfaction of the artist and art produced as part of a capitalist production line. But in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx calls for a liberation both of the senses and of the worker (humans “burdened with care and in need could have no sense for the finest play”) through the abolition of private property. Rose concluded that for Marx
art was, as it had been for Saint-Simon, an integral part of production in general, and was therefore to be liberated together with man the maker from the distortions which he saw as characteristic of industrial capitalism.
Marxism and the avant-garde
Rose also argues that Marx was sympathetic to the idea of artists as an avant-garde, through his association with Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer.
In the context of Prussia in the 1840s, the poet Heine chose a Saint-Simonist aesthetic as a way of supporting artistic freedom against the state patronage granted to the ultra-conservative Nazarenes. The Nazarenes were a German school of reactionary painters, inspired by the religious art of the late Middle Ages and turning to the Catholic church to restore the spiritual unity broken by the Reformation.
Peter von Cornelius, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1813. Cornelius’ work is typical of the anachronistic religiosity of the Nazarenes.
Whereas the Nazarenes enjoyed the patronage of Friedrich Wilhelm III and IV of Prussia, the work of writers critical of the establishment was being banned under the Karlsbad Decrees, a set of censorship instructions issued in 1819. Heine, himself influenced by Saint-Simon and equally opposed to orthodox Christianity, saw in these paintings an expression of the feudalism and oppressive spiritualism that stood against the creation of a progressive society. As an alternative he posed the Saint-Simonian concept of the artist as a producer, administrator and moral guide, linking this with the ‘liberation of the flesh’ — “of materialism over spiritualism, and of sensualism from Puritanism” (Rose). Heine extended this approach through a critique of Hegel, from whom he drew the idea of the ‘Hellenes’: free, natural and sensuous in spirit, as a counter-position to the ‘Nazarenes’ and the moralising prudery of the forces that patronised them. The philosopher Feuerbach, whose materialism was very influential on the young Marx, also saw Christianity and its art as a spiritual illusion that alienated human beings from their material existence.
This radical bourgeois opposition to the feudal elements dominant in Prussia was the intellectual background against which the Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer asked Marx to write a tract on Christian art in 1842. Part of a project aimed at reinventing Hegel as a progressive ‘Jacobin Hellene’, Marx’s contribution was meant to explore an alternative reading of Hegel as hostile to state-approved religious art. Marx never completed this work, but it seems likely from his reading, excerpting and other evidence — discussed in Mikhail Lifshitz’s 1933 classic The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx — that he intended to follow Heine and Feuerbach in criticising the feudal Romanticism of Christian art and its patronage by a reactionary monarchy, and to assert instead a materialist ‘Hellene’ aesthetic granting freedom to the artist. For example, in his 1842 series of articles in the Rheinische Zeitung criticising the Karlsbad Decrees, Marx rails against the suppression of writers’ freedoms as a betrayal of the Enlightenment and criticises the medievalism of Friedrich Wilhelm IV.
From this period of Marx’s early career, therefore, Rose detects the influence of Heine’s opposition of Hellenes and Nazarenes on Marx and describes it as “a latent Saint-Simonian aesthetic in his work”. Although in 1842 Marx was already moving beyond Bauer’s Left Hegelianism, and would attack it, with Engels, in The Holy Family (1845), he always remained a materialist who asserted in the 1844 Manuscripts that the human senses could (through the overthrow of private property) be liberated to a fully sensuous life. There is no reason to think he ever parted from his commitment to freedom of expression for writers.
Lifshitz goes further, seeing the early Marx as a supporter of the ‘one-sided’, partisan artist, although in an undeveloped form. He refers back to the views of Hegel and Goethe on genius — “Genius, they thought, is marked not by a spineless neutrality to all things, but rather by its definite attitude, its one-sidedness”. It is in this context that Marx wrote the following in the margin of one of his books:
It has been observed that great men appear in surprising numbers at certain periods which are invariably characterised by the efflorescence of art. Whatever the outstanding traits of this efflorescence, its influence upon men is undeniable; it fills them with its vivifying force. When this one-sidedness of culture is spent, mediocrity follows.
Following up on this connection and Marx’s articles on press freedom, Lifshitz argues that Marx saw the way out of a society dominated by self-interest “in the identification of the artist’s individuality with a definite political principle, in the open and vigorously stressed ‘accent and dialect’ of a political party”.
Support of a partisan avant-garde in Marx’s writings seems to be implicit and never explicit. Rose and Lifshitz show that a case can be made from a close and contextualised reading, but we should be cautious about this. After all, Marx admired Balzac’s art even though the novelist had reactionary politics, and Engels made comments against ‘tendency’ fiction. The crucial point is that there is a difference between seeing artists as “able to lead, rather than simply reflect, social development” (Rose), and demanding that they do so.
Certainly Marx, Engels and others saw art not only as a part of production but as one that can be socially influential. Engels for example assumed this when he wrote approvingly on Carl Hübner’s painting The Silesian Weavers of 1844:
Let me on this occasion mention a painting by one of the best German painters, Hübner, which has made a more effectual Socialist agitation than a hundred pamphlets might have done. It represents some Silesian weavers bringing linen cloth to the manufacturer, and contrasts very strikingly cold-hearted wealth on one side, and despairing poverty on the other... The painting has been exhibited in several towns of Germany, and, of course, prepared a good many minds for Social ideas.
The painting depicts an episode during the revolt of weavers in the then Prussian province of Silesia in June 1844, whose living standards were falling because of competition in the textile industry. Engels’ approval of the painting’s preparing minds for socialist ideas strikes an obvious echo with Saint-Simon’s avant-garde, “spreading new ideas amongst men”.
Whereas the artistic merit of Hübner’s painting is slight, social realism of this sort was to find much more significant expression in Russia. The realist painters known as the Peredvizhniki (in English, the Itinerants or Wanderers), such as Repin, Kramskoi and Surikov, created powerful works of social comment, encouraged by the radical Realism of critics like Chernyshevsky and Belinsky.
There is a difference between artists criticising an existing order to encourage support for progressive ideas, and artists becoming part of the leadership of a new society and extolling its benefits. Nonetheless there is an obvious resonance here with Saint-Simon’s concept of an avant-garde of artist-producers helping to construct a new order. The idea was kept alive by Plekhanov, who for example derided Cubist art on the grounds that it failed to identify with the revolutionary class and play a social role, and becomes more explicit at the turn of the twentieth century after the Russian Revolution.
Saint-Simon’s most concrete legacy for Marxist aesthetics was his influence upon the Constructivist movement in Russia, especially after the Revolution. In nineteenth century Russia, where the most progressive elements were constrained by backward peasant masses on one hand and an autocracy on the other, the concept of an avant-garde intelligentsia leading a transformation of society kept its appeal. However, in such a backward country, the reconstruction of society by engineers and industrialists was an impractical prospect: it was only in the Soviet Union, with its self-conscious drive towards industrialisation and progress, that artists could put into practice a programme resembling that of Saint-Simon.
The Constructivists — whose leading figures included Rodchenko, Tatlin, Lissitzky and Stepanova — sought to create a functional, productive and socialist art that would combine art with engineering and industry. Instead of separating themselves from everyday life, artists had to engage with it directly, applying their creativity to objects useful for domestic and factory use. As Rodchenko sloganised, “art that is useless for life should be kept in museums of antiquities”. The movement acquired its own academies with the founding of Vkhumetas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, 1917) and Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture, 1920), workshops mandated to explore a productivist art. Needless to say, there was no place amongst the Constructivists for the more bizarre and quasi-religious aspects of Saint-Simonism. Their art was practical, socialist and proletarian in character, and they were explicitly interested in how art could participate in the building of the Soviet workers’ state.
We shall study Constructivism in much more detail another time. But with its emphasis upon linking socialist ideology with engineering and industrial design, Constructivism is perhaps the most direct implementation of Saint-Simonian ideas about the artistic avant-garde ever attempted.
It is one of the many tragedies of the decline into bureaucratism under Stalin that Constructivism, a genuine movement formed by supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution, eventually found itself under dogmatic attack. Suspicious of a genuinely autonomous art, Stalin and his fellow philistines formulated an ‘official’ Soviet style that, ironically, owed more to the Russian critics and Peredvizhniki of the nineteenth century than to the movements that flourished after 1917. In what Rose describes as “a cynical parody of the Constructivists’ description of the artist as engineer”, Stalin called for writers to be ‘engineers of human souls’. The oppressive consequences of this programme for the arts is well known (Socialist Realism is also a topic that we will at some point examine in its own right). The concept of an artistic avant-garde extolling the benefits of the new society had come a long way since Saint-Simon, and here took its darkest turn.
Not only did Saint-Simon have a significant influence upon Marxism as a political doctrine, but his conception of an avant-garde of artist-producers survives in the aesthetics of many Marxists past and present. In my view the most important artistic question raised by the legacy of Saint-Simonism is this: Is it objectively correct to expect artists to play a leading role in the creation of a socialist society?
This needs to be explored in detail, so for now we shall be brief. Marx himself railed in the 1840s against restrictions on the press:
The law permits me to write; it asks only that I write in a style other than my own! I am allowed to show the face of my mind, but, first, I must give it a prescribed expression! Where is the man of honour who would not crimson at this imposition...?
As we have seen, the role of artists as an avant-garde leadership is only implicitly supported in Marx’s writings, and it does not appear as a demand at all. The best standpoint, as this blog will consistently argue, is that artists should enjoy creative independence. Where they wish their art to serve the class struggle as a natural part of their creative make-up, then their contribution should be embraced, but there can be no compulsion, no ‘historical duty’ to obediently enlist their art for battle like conscripts seizing their rifles. In this sense, the imposition of Socialist Realism was a disastrous mistake. Stalinism could no more conjure up great ‘proletarian’ art on demand than it could build socialism in one country.
It is an essential goal for the socialist future that artistic activity will be both universal and free. Saint-Simon did not demand state direction of art in the Stalinist fashion, but his vision of artists’ role was flawed too, in its own way. It is not objectively correct to expect artists to sing the praises of any new order, however flattering it may seem to elevate artists to the elite. The role of political leadership belongs to the revolutionary working class. What is correct is to respect artistic freedom — and there is nothing of any substance in the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky that says differently .
• Saint-Simon’s works are not easy to find in English. The best source is Keith Taylor, Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825): Selected Writings on Science, Industry, and Social Organization (1975).
• The single item by Saint-Simon on the MIA: his Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries (1803).
• You can find extracts from The New Christianity (1825) here.
• Saint-Simon is one of the thinkers discussed in Keith Taylor, The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists (1982).
• Margaret Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts (1984). An invaluable discussion of Saint-Simon’s influence upon Marxism.
• Engels’ summary of Saint-Simon’s politics in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880).
 From Lettres à un Américain (1817).
 Saint-Simon, Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries (1803).
 Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880).
 In Saint-Simon’s terminology, an ‘industrial’ (French ‘industriel’) was a productive worker.
 Saint-Simon, ‘Comparison between the National (Industrial) Party and the Anti-National Party’, Le Politique (April 1819).
 The term ‘avant-garde’ is sometimes ascribed to Saint-Simon, but the volume in which the essay appears is in fact a collaboration with four followers — amongst them Rodrigues, who seems to have written this particular piece. See the section on the avant-garde in Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (1987).
 ‘The artist, the scientist and the industrialist’ from Opinions Literary, Philosophical and Industrial (1825). Cited in Harrison, Wood and Gaiger, Art in theory, 1815–1900: an anthology of changing ideas (1998).
 Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts (1984). Rose’s study has been a primary source for this article.
 Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism (1913).
 Keith Taylor, The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists (1982).
 Rose, op. cit.
 Marginal note by Marx in Johann Jakob Grund, Der Malerei der Griechen, cited in Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933).
 Engels, Rapid Progress of Communism in Germany (1844–45). Engels’ remarks were later taken by some on the left as evidence of his advocation of realism, even of Socialist Realism. This is unsupported by the text, which praises the painting for spreading socialism, not its style as such. The revolt also inspired a poem by Heine and a play by Hauptmann.
 Marx, Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842).
 The only caveat is that the Bolsheviks reserved the right to censor anti-revolutionary work while the Revolution was not yet concluded. Lenin’s pamphlet Party Organisation and Party Literature (1905) is sometimes held up as evidence that he thought writers should be subordinate to the will of the party, but the work comments on the need to respect party discipline in political literature, not creative fiction.