Presses universitaires de Franche Comté (2014)
Herbert Spencer is one of the most enigmatic figures of modern intellectual history. His evolutionary writings were immensely popular during the second half of the nineteenth century, yet he quickly fell out of favour. Furthermore, while Spencer advocated liberal individualism and minimal State intervention, many of his most avid readers supported moderate to extreme left wing positions. My book examines how and why Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution came to inspire diverse and even opposed political doctrines in France and Italy. I show that toward the end of the 1870’s, key figures in both countries were no longer satisfied with simply exploring Spencer’s theories and expressing the various criticisms and caveats they had. They were more and more engaged in active adaptation of concepts such as the “organic analogy” to their own positions. I traced the contributions of these thinkers (e.g. Emile Durkheim and Enrico Ferri) in two major areas: the theoretical models they proposed for the various social disciplines, and the political doctrines that accompanied these models. The results of my comparative study reveal that the complex dialectic between themes such as “the struggle for existence” versus “class struggle,” or “evolution” versus “revolution,” resulted in an unexpected shift. In France, the search for a solidarité backed up by the new evolutionary science led to an interpretation of Spencer’s ideas that promoted the welfare state. In Italy, Spencer’s most important followers developed a socialist, and even a Marxist reading of his theory, thus investing his model of social progress with a different meaning than the one originally attributed to it.