Gabriel Bonnot de Mably

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Mably, Gabriel Bonnot de

 

Born Mar. 14, 1709, in Grenoble; died April 23, 1785, in Paris. French political thinker, Utopian communist, and historian. The son of a nobleman, Mably studied in a Jesuit college and seminary but subsequently abandoned his career in the church. In 1742 he entered the diplomatic corps, leaving in 1746 to devote the rest of his life to scholarly pursuits.

Mably’s view of society was based on the theories of social contract and natural law. Social life, he asserted, originally rested on the collective ownership of land, which was destroyed with the emergence of private property. Polemicizing against the Physiocrats, he argued that private property was not an element of the natural order, but rather originated “by the will of the people” who could not foresee its consequences. He held that private property was the source of all mankind’s misfortunes (Izbr. proizv., Moscow and Leningrad, 1950, p. 125) and that a modest life under a system of communal property made people virtuous and happy. Mably’s was an ascetic communism. He believed that although the system of communal ownership corresponded to the principles of reason, it would be impossible to reestablish such a system. The advocate of a communist system could not hope for success. In a society divided into the rich and the poor there was no force capable of realizing communism, for the rich had no desire for a communal system, and the downtrodden people had no knowledge of the principle of equality.

Thus Mably rejected the 18th-century philosophers’ belief in the omnipotence of reason and approached the idea that man’s outlook and actions depend on his property status. He believed that all that could be accomplished in practice was a lessening of property inequality by restricting necessities and eliminating luxury. He considered the people to be the source of supreme authority in the state and recognized their right to alter existing governments. He justified revolutions and civil wars directed against violence and despotism.

By propagandizing popular sovereignty, Mably’s works helped prepare the ideological groundwork for the Great French Revolution. His communist ideas were mentioned by G. Babeuf and P. M. Buonarroti, and he became well known in Russia, where A. N. Radishchev translated Reflections on the History of Greece, or The Reasons for the Prosperity and Misfortune of the Greeks (1773).

WORKS

Collection complete des oeuvres, vols. 1-15. Paris, 1794-95.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Nachal’nye osnovaniia nravoucheniia, parts 1-3. Moscow, 1803.
O izuchenii istorii, parts 1-3. St. Petersburg, 1812.

REFERENCES

Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 315.
Safronov, S. S. “Politicheskie i sotsial’nye idei Mabli.” In the collection
Iz istorii sotsial’no-politicheskikh idei. Moscow, 1955.
Volgin, V. P. Razvitie obshchestvennoi mysli vo Frantsii v XVIII v. Moscow, 1958.
Volgin, V. P. Frantsuzskii utopicheskii kommunizm. Moscow, 1960.
Lecercle, J. L. “Utopie et réalisme politique chez Mably.” In the collection Studies on Voltaire and the XVIII century, vol. 26. Geneva, 1963.

A. A. MAKAROVSKII