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Lebret, a pioneer - Part 3

By Denis Goulet

The Human Ascent and the Creation of New Civilizations

Human progress, to Lebret, is no historical necessity; it is always achieved by human wills struggling to master the determinisms they face from nature, from their own limitations, from the social systems they have forged, and from their own technological and cultural artifacts. In other words, progress or “development” takes place when growing freedoms can find their expression in institutions, norms of exchange, patterns of social organization, educational efforts, relations of production, and political choices which enhance the human potential. What is ultimately sought are the basic conditions under which all persons may fulfill themselves as individuals and as members of multiple communities.

Notwithstanding his evident sympathy with Marx’s view of the nonalienated society, Lebret rejected what he took to be a truncated model of humanism which considered spiritual and personal excellences only in their bastardized expressions.(1)
Like Teilhard de Chardin, he believed that to imprison human destiny within the confines of an immanentist view of history is to close the door to genuine transcendence; in effect, it diminishes the stature of man. Viewed in the light of modern Marxist humanists, such as Ernst Bloch, Ernst Fischer, and Leszek Kolakowski, it is clear that Lebret’s position is fully compatible with that of vanguard neo-Marxists. Lebret saw freedom as simultaneously an end and a means: an end because men are not fully human unless they make themselves free; a means because they can use their freedoms either to fulfill or to demean themselves, either to build community or to oppress others, either to transcend themselves and make history or to function as mere consumers of civilization.

As a profoundly religious man, Lebret firmly placed hope in the liberating potential of authentic religion. One of his favorite themes was depassement—the ability of each human being to overtake or transcend his own limitations and reach a higher level of achievement, perhaps even reaching the level of mysticism. There is a vibrant Promethean quality to his portrait of the fully developed person and developed society, as there is to the profiles sketched by Marx, the revolutionary humanist, and by Teilhard, the cosmic poet of evolution. Because of his hope in transcendence, Lebret never accepted the mass-consumer model of development or any form of socialism which unilaterally stressed an egalitarian society primarily in terms of partners in production. To him, opening toward metahistorical transcendence was a requisite of the full blooming of development potentialities. There was nothing sectarian or doctrinaire about this approach: he was not preaching some twentieth-century version of the Christian commonwealth. On the contrary, he appealed to persons of every ideological and religious persuasion—including those who gloried in calling themselves nonideological pragmatists or secular humanists. He called on everyone to grasp the historical grandeur of human destiny as an adventure in possibility. He believed it possible for men to eliminate misery, to create just structures, to devise educational systems which free men to “be more,” to create exchange mechanisms which foster reciprocity, to prepare a new breed of developer whose loyalty is to the masses and who is tough-minded (as he must be if the technical complexities are to be mastered) while remaining tender-hearted (as he must if compassion and human communion are to influence decisions which necessarily involve high costs in human suffering). Developers of this calibre could serve at all levels as ferments and catalysts of new action, as educators of themselves and of others in an ascending spiral of human growth in responsibility, moral grandeur, and emotional, rational, and esthetic expression. The ideal, Lebret conceded, might never be reached, but the direction was unmistakable. The creative energies released in the effort societies make to reach that ideal are what creates history. What a mistake it would be, therefore, to consider development simply as modernization or as an effort to overcome an economic or technical lag. No, development is the historical quest for new values, new institutions, and a new culture in each society; it elicits new norms for interaction within and among societies; its mandate is nothing less than to prepare a new universe and a whole galaxy of new civilizations.

In Lebret’s thought, the nexus between development and the creation of new civilizations is so intimate that he could only define the former in terms of the latter. He further asserted that his definition is anchored in essential human values, and, consequently, that it is valid for all social groupings, from village to nation, and for all cultures. In a variety of works, he repeatedly defined development, with but slight variations, as the series of transitions, for a given population and all the sub-population units which comprise it, from a less human to a more human phase, at the speediest rhythm possible, at the lowest possible cost, taking into account all the bonds of solidarity which exist (or ought to exist) amongst these populations and sub-populations(2).

Under this definition, the discipline of development becomes the study of how to achieve a more human economy(3). The expressions “more human” and “less human” must be understood in the light of a distinction Lebret considered vital: the difference between plus avoir (“to have more”) and plus être (“to be more”). In translation one cannot do justice to this terminology, but its message is unmistakable. Societies are more human or more developed, not when men and women “have more,” but when they are enabled “to be more.” The main criterion of value is not production or possessions but the totality of qualitative human enrichment. Doubtless growth and quantitative increases are needed, but not any kind of increase or at any price. The world as a whole will remain underdeveloped or will fall prey to an illusory antidevelopment so long as a few nations or privileged groups remain alienated in an abundance of luxury (facility) goods at the expense of the many who are thereby deprived of their essential (subsistence) goods. When such situations prevail, both rich and poor suffer from insufficient satisfaction of their “enhancement” needs. One grasps the scope of Lebret’s concept of development by reflecting on the attributes he regards as essential to it. If it is to be genuine, he asserted, development must be:

It must serve the basic finalities, namely, to build a human economy, to satisfy all human needs in an equitable order of urgency and importance.

All major problem sectors must be attacked in a coordinated fashion. There can be no sacrifice of agriculture to industry, of one segment of the population to another. (This does not rule out a strategy of deliberately unbalanced growth, provided it is judiciously pursued and constantly rectified.)

Even when revolutionary innovations are introduced, they must respect the people’s past history and their present capacities. No elitist imposition from above, in total rupture with a people’s cultural heritage and absorptive capacity, is justified.

Unless development leads a society to the capacity to direct itself autonomously, it is invalid. This demands a battle against dependency, parasitism, passivity, and inertia.

There is no development unless all the people benefit from it, unless the common good is achieved. Privilege systems, excessive gaps between the city and the countryside, alienating divisions of labor are all ruled out. The policy implications of these attributes are, of course, as far-reaching as Lebret’s very concept of development(4).


This portrait of Louis-Joseph Lebret as the of development ethics does not, I fear, do him justice. I have said nothing of his imaginative approach to development planning, nor have I explained what he meant by optimum resource harnessing of idle resources, the elimination of waste, the mobilization of latent energies, the establishment of new development poles, the mobilization of regions and zones into a network amically structured space.” I have also failed to describe his contributions to the ethics of technical assistance, his theory of education for development, his methodological innovations in micro-analysis (the portrayal of the situation in nutrition, transport, services, cultural life, and income by graphic circular diagrams eminently suited to public education). Furthermore, been silent about his model for multi-specialty teams—some mobile, some permanent – operating at various geographic levels (local, small region, great region, entire nation, multinational units). My despair grows because I have not even hinted at his reflections on the proper role to be played by the United Nations and other world organizations, and by voluntary agencies such as churches, labor unions, student groups. I am also frustrated by my failure to present—even in summary—the many other development themes which Lebret touched upon, not only with grace but with insight, realism, and creativity. Among these are the role of single-party government in Africa, the proper modes of development aid and technology transfers, the criteria for selecting leaders within ministries. The list goes on and on. My difficulty can be traced to the fact that Lebret stands as a giant in an infant discipline. Not that he had no defects or that his work was perfect. How could this be, since he was but human? One major failing was his inability to imagine that others, even intimate colleagues, could not perceive as clearly as he the panoramic synthesis between the small issue and the big problem, or the synthesis of the links tying everything together. Another defect was the excessive complexity and heaviness of his methodological instruments, a weakness he openly acknowledged(5). And to those who did not know him or realize his many personalities, his works at times sounded technocratic, at times politically naive. Indeed there was something naive about him: it was the naiveté of one who never gives up on human beings no matter how deeply they have interiorized myths of their own making. But his political instincts constantly grew more sophisticated and critical, especially after his missions to Vietnam (1959—61) and to Lebanon (1960). As for the charge of technicism, it is simply mistaken. As I have written elsewhere:
One of Louis-Joseph Lebret’s supreme glories is to have been simultaneously a wise man, a planner and a technician. His greatest glory, however, is to have been a man—fully a man—and a friend to all “groups,” all peoples, all civilization. Solidarity and universality—these are what he lived(6).

By 1966, Lebret knew he was fatally ill. He yearned only to live two more years, long enough to complete four books he had planned(7). He never finished them. I regret, in particular, thaa weakness he openly acknowledgedt his projected synthesis on the ethics of development was never written.. As one who has labored to trace a path through the thickets of development ethics, I know that Lebret’s book would have made a difference. Whenever he did something, whenever he met someone, it made a difference. This is the measure of a man.


[1] - See Malley, Le Père Lebret, pp. 55, 71.

[2] - Lebret, “Editorial,” p. 1.

[3] - See Lebret, Dynamique Concrete du Développement, p.40.

[4] - Ibid., pp. 75-83, presents a detailed explanation of these characteristics.

[5] - See Malley, Le Père Lebret, p. 83.

[6] - Denis Goulet, “Lebret’s Thought and the U.S. Presence in the Third World,” Développement & Civilisations, no. 30 (June 1967), p.53.

[7] - See Vincent Cosmao, “Préface,” in L.J. Lebret, Développement=Révolution Solidaire (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières, 1967), pp. 8—9.

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