3.8 Utopian Socialists

Ideologies of Change

Three early socialist movements stand out as exemplary of so-called “utopian” socialism: the Saint-Simonians, the Owenites, and the Fourierists. Each was named after its respective founder and visionary. The binding theme of these three early socialist thinkers was not only radical proposals for the reorganization of work, but the idea that economic competition was a moral problem, that competition itself is in no way natural and instead implies social disorder. The Saint-Simonians called egoism, the selfish pursuit of individual wealth, “the deepest wound of modern society.” In that, they found a surprisingly sympathetic audience among some aristocratic conservatives who were also afraid of social disorder and were nostalgic for the idea of a reciprocal set of obligations that had existed in pre-revolutionary Europe between the common people and the nobility. In turn, the early socialists believed that there was nothing inherent in their ideas threatening to the rich – many socialists expected that the privileged classes would recognize the validity of their ideas and that socialism would be a way to bridge the class divide, not widen it.

The Saint-Simonians, named after their founder Henri de Saint-Simon, were mostly highly educated young elites in France, many from privileged backgrounds, and many also graduates of the École Polytechnique, the most elite technical school in France founded by Napoleon. Their ideology, based on Saint-Simon’s writings, envisaged a society in which industrialism was harnessed to make a kind of heaven on earth, with the fruits of technology going to feed, clothe, and house, potentially, everyone. They were, in a word, the first “technocrats,” people who believe that technology can solve any problem. The Saint-Simonians did not inspire a popular movement, but individual members of the movement went on to achieve influential roles in the French industry, and helped lay the intellectual foundations of such ventures as the creation of the Suez Canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Bate, F. "Bird's eye view of New Harmony." 1838.
Bate, F. “Bird’s eye view of New Harmony.” 1838. Wikimedia. March 5, 2019.

The Owenites were initially the employees of Robert Owen, a British factory owner. He built a community for his workers in New Lanark, Scotland that provided health care, education, pensions, communal stores, and housing. He believed that productivity was tied to happiness, and his initial experiments met with success, with the New Lanark textile mill realizing consistent profits. He and his followers created a number of cooperative, communalist “utopian” communities (many in the United States), but those tended to fail in fairly short order. Instead, the lasting influence of Owenism was in workers organization, with the Owenites helping to organize a number of influential early trade unions, culminating in the London Working Men’s’ Association in 1836.

The Fourierists were part of a very peculiar movement, because their founder Charles Fourier was a very peculiar man. Fourier, who may have been at least partially insane, believed that he had unlocked a “science of the passions.” According to Fourier, the reason that most people detested what they did to survive was that they were not doing the right kind of work. There were 810 specific kinds of personalities in the world, each of which was naturally inclined toward a certain kind of work. Thus, if 1,620 people (one man and one woman of each type) were to come together in a community, and each did the kind of work they “should” do, perfect happiness became possible. For example, according to Fourier, murderers were just people who should have been butchers, and children should be trash collectors, because they loved to play in the dirt. These planned communities would be called “Phalanxes,” after the fighting formations of ancient Greece.

Considérant, Victor. "Description du phalanstère et ikipedia ions sociales sur l'architectonique." c. 19th century.
Considérant, Victor. “Description du phalanstère et ikipedia ions sociales sur l’architectonique.” c. 19th century. Wikimedia. September 8, 2009.

Fourier was far more radical than most other self-understood socialists. For one, he advocated complete gender equality and even sexual liberation – he was very hostile to monogamy, which he regarded as unnatural. Regarding marriage as an outdated custom, he imagined that in his phalanxes children would be raised in common rather than lorded over by their parents. Above and beyond forward-thinking ideas about gender, some of his concepts were a bit more puzzling. Among other things, he claimed that planets mated and gave birth to baby planets and that once all of humanity lived in phalanxes the oceans would turn into lemonade.

Practically speaking the importance of the Fourierists is that many phalanxes were actually founded, including several in the United States. While the more oddball ideas were conveniently set aside, they were still among the first real experiments in planned, communal living. Likewise, many important early feminists began their intellectual careers as Fourierists. For instance, Flora Tristan was a French socialist and feminist who emerged from Fourierism to do important early work on tying the idea of social progress to female equality.

In general, the broad “Utopian” socialism of the 1840s was quite widespread leading up to 1848, it was peaceful in orientation, it was democratic, it believed in the “right” to work, and its followers hoped that the higher orders might join it. There was an enormous revolutionary explosion all over Europe in 1848. From Paris to Vienna to Prague, Europeans rose up and, temporarily as it turned out, overthrew their monarchs. In the end, however, the revolutions collapsed. The awkward coalitions of socialists and other rebels that had spearheaded them soon fell to infighting, and kings (and in France, a new emperor) eventually reasserted control. Socialists made important realizations following 1848. Democracy did not lead inevitably to social and political progress, as majorities typically voted for established community leaders (often priests or nobles). Class collaboration was not a possibility, as the wealthier bourgeoisie and the nobility recognized in socialism their shared enemy. Peaceful change might not be possible, given the forces of order’s willingness to employ violence to achieve their ends. Russia, for instance, invaded Hungary to ensure the continued rule of (Russia’s ally at the time) Habsburg Austria. After 1848 socialism was increasingly militant, focused on the necessity of confrontational tactics, even outright violence, to achieve a better society. Two post-Utopian and rival forms of socialist theory matured in this period: state socialism and anarchist socialism.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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