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Lebret, a pioneer - Part 1

By Denis Goulet

Denis Goulet ( 1931–2006 ) was a human development theorist and a founder of work on development ethics as an independent field of study. Goulet’s definition of Development Ethics is that it is a field that examines the ethical and value questions related to development theory, planning, and practice.
Goulet was a professor emeritus in the Department of Economics and Policy Studies at University of Notre Dame. He had also served as a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
He took his undergraduate and masters degrees in Philosophy from St. Paul’s College, he took a master’s degree in Social Planning from IRFED in Paris; and took his PhD in Political Science from the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

The text below is an exerpt of the volume of his collected essays, “Development Ethics at Work: Explorations – 1960-2002.”

Published by Routledge, the book consists of a compilation of essays documenting Goulet’s contributions to the field of development ethics. Spanning more than four decades of his work, it includes accounts of the early journeys of his thinking, an exposition of the main themes he has explored, and the transition from early alternative development to alternative globalizations.
Goulet examines the evolution of development ethics and the ways a development ethicist can function in varied development arenas; explores the ethical dimensions of competing change strategies; and investigates the language of interdependence which prevails in development discourse.

L.J. Lebret was a remarkable man. I cannot undertake here a review of either his entire life or the vast number of published works and institutional creations he left in his wake. Fortunately for us, these have been well documented by others(1).

Lebret’s Life and Accomplishments

A brief biographical sketch will do here. Louis-Joseph Lebret was born in 1897 to a family of fishermen; his birthplace was the hamlet of Minihicsur-Rance near Saint-Malo, a major port of Brittany. Throughout his life he never ceased to display the qualities one associates with seafarers:
hardy respect for nature, boundless curiosity in lands and cultures other than his own, unshakable common sense in the face of life’s tragedies, and ever-fresh willingness to take new risks.

Lebret joined the French navy at eighteen; a year later he entered the Naval Academy. During World War I he saw active service off the coast of Belgium and Holland and in the Middle East. Afterward, he was briefly director of the port of Beirut. In 1922 he was named an instructor at the Naval Academy, where he rapidly gained a reputation as a gifted mathematician. The following year, however, Lebret, now twenty-six, abandoned his promising naval career to enter the Dominicans. After ordination, he was assigned to the convent of Saint-Malo, where he was supposed to rest because of poor health. But men of Lebret’s stamp can never rest. He plunged headlong into the social struggles of Brittany’s impoverished fishermen, whom he loved so deeply because they were his own people.

Very rapidly Lebret concluded that the misery and exploitation which surrounded him were not ephemeral or accidental evils. On the contrary, they had deep-rooted, structural causes. The Depression itself was but a traumatic symptom of the contradictions inherent in world capitalist economy. During the next decade Lebret investigated links between unemployment and the fishermen’s starvation wages, between the chaotic local organization of fishing enterprises and the international effort of large firms to monopolize choice fishing banks, between the tremendous vulnerability of small fish merchants and the broad market structures they could not control. By 1939 Lebret had personally conducted over four hundred surveys of social and economic conditions in numerous fishing ports, from the Baltic through Great Britain to the Mediterranean. All the while he was actively engaged, in tandem with a remarkable fisherman-turned-political-militant, Ernest Lemort, in creating a network of fishermen’s labor unions, maritime associations, cooperatives, and groups working to restructure Europe’s entire fishing economy.

During this period he began to devise the unique research methodology which was later to become one of his hallmarks(2). Conventional research tools had proved of little help when his set task was simultaneously to understand interlocking structures and to educate fishermen to assert mastery over them. Furthermore, the vast local differences he encountered between Denmark and Italy, Tunisia and England, forced him to adopt procedures of great flexibility which could readily be adapted to various localities. Ever both a philosopher and a mathematician, Lebret strove to ally empirical measures with critical reflection on the human values encountered in the real world of people’s everyday lives.

This vast labor was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The French government drafted Lebret to protect French fisheries and, later, to help oversee its merchant marine policy. Shortly after the German Armistice, Lebret, now living in the unoccupied southern zone of France, wrote The Mystique of a New World, in which he defined his position vis-à-vis capitalism, Nazism, and communism. The Vichy government censored the book, allowing it to appear only in truncated form. After the war it was published complete as The Discovery of the Common Good.

During World War II, one of Lebret’s major creations took form. In 1941 he launched, from Marseille, an interdisciplinary research center, Economy and Humanism. Its scope included all the problems affecting a human economy—institutions and systems, the myriad forms of social change, ideologies, competing pedagogies, economic sectors, the dynamisms whereby a populace may play a role in decisions affecting its own conditions. Lebret was not alone in the endeavor; he was joined by economist Francois Perroux, peasant philosopher Gustave Thibon, agronomist J.M. Gatheron, industrialist Alexandre Dubois, and theologians Fabien Moos and Henri Desroches. The composition of the team was not fortuitous. As François Malley reports, Lebret sought:
fruitful collaboration among professional theologians, economists and social scientists…. He had felt the need to call upon those who were competent, philosophically and theologically, to engage in a kind of in-depth reflection which required them to take some distance; it also required a level of technical and theoretical interests which could not be shared by team members more deeply committed to direct action(3).

That during the German Occupation Lebret should have succeeded in recruiting such a remarkable team was a tribute to his talent for attracting powerful personalities and leaving them free to grow in their own direction. Lebret himself wrote:
Coordination is doubly difficult at Economy and Humanism because we are a group whose fundamental principle is respect for the liberty of each one, for the vocation of each member. To take each person into account means to allow each one to achieve personal fulfillment in order to succeed in the total work. Each one, therefore, will push ahead, take the initiative(4).

This charism was later to win Lebret a multitude of disciples—even among many who had never worked with him directly—in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. After his death they sent testimonials, telegrams, and letters by the hundreds(5). I myself can vouch that mere association with Lebret constituted intellectual and human stimulation of the highest order.

But let me return to Economy and Humanism in 1941. It was, perhaps, the first serious team effort at studying the multiple dimensions of what later came to be called the development problem. Its goal was to examine critically the theoretical and political bases of competing economic systems, to create instruments for linking the analysis of small units with an understanding of national or world units, to discover how social change could be planned in cooperation with a populace and in harmony with its values and objectives, and to discover guidelines for intelligent action at all levels. Such an ambitious enterprise, hampered by scarce resources, inevitably met setbacks. And, over time, respect for the personal vocation of each member of Economy and Humanism led to several partings of the ways; in 1945, Perroux, Gatheron, and Thibon moved to other tasks. Additionally, after the war the team made several geographical moves, dictated by the adjustments imposed by reconstruction throughout France. No one was more aware than Lebret himself of the difficulty in allying research to action, in keeping a team of secular and religious social scientists collaborating, especially when many resources—building, libraries, and personnel—were provided by the Dominicans. In his 1945 annual report, he summarized the group’s polarities: internal cohesion and adventurous response to outside needs; administrative efficiency and the mystique of a movement aimed at transforming broad social structures; the requirements of scientific research and of popularization for the masses; a movement which was to open new possibilities for large numbers of people everywhere and a tightly knit party; members of the team who belonged to religious orders and those who were lay persons with families to support; volunteers and salaried personnel; the board of directors and the core staff; and finally, colleagues recruited from working or peasant classes and others whose style and approach were more bourgeois(6). We may grasp the breadth of the enterprise by examining the manifesto published by the founders of Economy and Humanism in 1942. After denouncing the structural bankruptcy of liberalism and state socialism alike, the authors declare:
We believe that dead-ends exist only in systems, not in the facts. The problem has been erroneously formulated both by neo-liberalism and by neo-socialism. Authority and a distributive economy do not necessarily mean a statist economy at the national level. Nor do market and free economy necessarily mean an omnipresent market and the tyranny of price. To define a communitarian of economy is, therefore, to liquidate these errors and to set in their place a positive construction. Terminological dishonesty and verbal confusions are so prevalent that we deem it necessary to define our own vocabulary and to distinguish terms which are often treated as equivalents: corporatism, the corporation, community(7).

The document then analyzes in detail what the authors understand by community, by an economy based on need and service to humans rather than on growth or profit, by the status of property in such an economy, by the organizational units needed to maintain human scale in exchanges and production, and by the research tasks facing the group if it is to base its projections in the real world of complex technology and rapid communications. We can discern here the imprint Lebret left on all his creations—the powerful synthesis of thought and action, the sweeping vision allied to a patient regard for detail, and the critical analysis of structures joined to a perceptive understanding of the range of human motivations in diverse cultural settings.

The 1942 manifesto of Economy and Humanism is not without shortcomings. In retrospect, one finds its conceptual framework too closely tied to the closed economy which characterized a wartime, occupied, two-zone France. Besides, some of the basic themes—the rejection of a profit economy, the need to transform social structures radically, the vital distinction among diverse kinds of needs—are still framed in terms derived from the period’s dominant ideologies. Nonetheless, as Wiadimir d’Ormesson wrote in Le Figaro, the document brought a fresh wind of hope to a humiliated France(8).

Today, thirty years later, Economy and Humanism is still a vigorous institution [Editor’s note : Economie et humanisme has ceased all activities in 2007. However, there are now new projects in the air, especially in South America]. Through its bimonthly review, books, and public training sessions, it continues to disseminate research findings to a wide constituency. After the lean early years it now enjoys a solid reputation as an interdisciplinary research, teaching, and action center. Its research emphases are the European economies, the sociology of change, new pedagogical methods, and the training of personnel for mobilizing social change.


[1] - See François Malley, Le Père Lebret, l’Economie au Service des Hommes (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1968); P. Viau, ed., 1897—1966—Le Père Lebret mimeo (Paris, 1966); Thomas Suavet,Actualitê de L.J. Lebret (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières, 1968).

[2] - One of his most influential books, now out of print, is Guide Pratique de l’Enquète Sociale, 3 vol. (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières, 1950—55).

[3] - Malley, Le Père Lebret, p. 68.

[4] - Ibid., p. 67.

[5] - For a representative sampling of these, see Viau, Le Père Lebret.

[6] - See Mafley, Le Père Lebret, pp. 72—77.

[7] - L.J. Lebret, Rene Moreux, et al., Manifeste d’Economie et Humanisme (Marseille, 1942), p. 15. Translation mine.

[8] - See Malley, Le Père Lebret, p. 58.

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