Utopian Socialism

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features of utopian socialism
utopian socialist movements

The term utopian socialism was first given currency by Friedrich Engels in his pamphlet "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" (1880). For Engels the term referred to a group of early-nineteenth-century social theories and movements that criticized nascent capitalism and contrasted to it visions of an ideal society of plenty and social harmony. The three principal utopian socialists were the Frenchmen Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837) and the British factory owner Robert Owen (1771–1858). Although these thinkers differed in significant ways—only Fourier was in any strict sense a utopian—all three attempted to find some solution for the social and economic dislocations caused by the French and Industrial Revolutions. All three began to write around 1800, published major works a decade later, and attracted followers who created Owenite, Saint-Simonian, and Fourierist movements in the 1820s and 1830s.

"Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" offers a shrewd, well-informed, and sympathetic interpretation of the work of the utopian socialists. But this essay (originally part of a polemic against the German economist Eugen Dühring) was never intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of utopian socialism. Instead Engels emphasized aspects of utopian socialism that anticipated the Marxist critique of capitalism and dismissed much of the rest as "fantasy" unavoidable at a time when capitalist production was "still very incompletely developed." Engels praised Fourier as a brilliant satirist of bourgeois society, Owen as an articulate spokesman for the demands of the working class, and Saint-Simon as the inspired prophet of a postcapitalist industrial order. At the same time, however, Engels criticized the utopian socialists for ignoring the importance of class conflict and failing to think seriously about the problem of how the ideal society might be brought into being. What the utopian socialists had failed to grasp, in Engels's view, was that the development of capitalism and the growth of the factory system were themselves creating the material conditions both of proletarian revolution and of humanity's ultimate regeneration.

Despite its polemical origins, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" provided a paradigm within which historians worked for almost a century. In histories of socialism from G. D. H. Cole to George Lichtheim, the utopian socialists were seen as "precursors" whose theories were flawed by their faulty understanding of history and class conflict. The problem with this perspective is that it is both teleological and reductionist: teleological because it assumes that socialism reached its final "scientific" form in the writings of Karl Marx, and that the work of the utopians was valuable only insofar as it anticipated that of Marx; reductionist because it treats the development of socialism largely as a reflection of the rise of the working-class movement.

features of utopian socialism

Since the late twentieth century, however, some historians have called for a reassessment of utopian socialism that would grasp its inner logic and place it in its historical context. Viewed in this perspective, utopian socialism would seem to have four main features.

First, it can be seen in economic terms as a reaction to the rise of commercial capitalism and as a rejection of the prevailing economic theory that the best and most natural economic system is one in which the individual is free to pursue private interests. Coming at an early point in the development of capitalism, the utopian socialists had a firsthand view of the results of unregulated economic growth. They shared a sense of outrage at the suffering and waste produced by early capitalism, and they all called for at least some measure of social control over the new productive forces unleashed by capitalism.

Second, the critique and the remedies proposed by the utopian socialists were not, however, merely economic. They were writing out of a broader sense of social and moral disintegration. Competition for them was as much a moral as an economic phenomenon, and its effects could be seen just as clearly in the home as in the marketplace. Thus the utopian socialist critique of bourgeois society resembled that of conservatives such as Thomas Carlyle and socially conscious novelists such as Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens. Utopian socialists believed that the French and Industrial Revolutions had produced a breakdown of traditional associations and group ties, that individuals were becoming increasingly detached from any kind of corporate structure, and that society as a whole was becoming increasingly fragmented and individualistic. Egoism was the great problem: the Saint-Simonians called it "the deepest wound of modern society." And the utopian socialists' vision of a better world was clearly the result of a search for some substitute for the old forms of community that egoism and individualism were destroying.

Third, the utopian socialists all disliked violence and believed in the possibility of the peaceful transformation of society. Fourier and Saint-Simon had lived through the French Revolution and had been imprisoned during the Terror; they had no desire to see their ideas imposed by force or violent revolution. In any case they believed that this would not be necessary. Like Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon expected to receive support for their ideas from members of the privileged classes. In that sense they were social optimists, and their optimism was rooted in their belief in the existence of a common good. Like the Enlightenment philosophes, they were convinced that there was no fundamental or unbridgeable conflict of interests between the rich and the poor, the propertied and the propertyless.

Finally, there is an important point to be made about the form in which the utopian socialists presented their ideas. Each described himself as the founder of an exact science—a science of social organization—that would make it possible for humankind to turn away from sterile philosophical controversy and from the destructive arena of politics and to resolve, in scientific fashion, the problem of social harmony. But one of the striking features of the thought of the utopian socialists is that while they consistently presented their theories as rooted in the discovery of the true laws of human nature and society, they also spoke in the tones of religious prophets. For them the laws of nature were the laws of God, and the new science was the true religion. This blending of science and religion, and prophecy and sociology, was one of the hallmarks of the thinking of the utopian socialists and their followers in the period prior to 1848.

utopian socialist movements

The movements created by the followers of Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fourier flourished during the period 1830–1848. First on the scene were the Saint-Simonians, a group of brilliant young people, many of them graduates of the École Polytechnique, the most prestigious school of engineering and applied science in France. Gathering around Saint-Simon in his last years, they regarded him as the prophet of a new world in which science and love would work together to bring about the material and moral regeneration of humanity. After his death in 1825, they founded journals and organized lecture tours designed to elaborate and spread his ideas. By 1830 they had created what they themselves described as a "faith"—a new religion that aimed simultaneously at harnessing the productive forces of the emerging industrial society, at bettering the condition of "the poorest and most numerous class," and at filling what they perceived as the moral and religious vacuum of the age. Eventually the movement was torn apart by a series of painful schisms, in the course of which the charismatic Prosper Enfantin (1796–1864) made himself "supreme father," excommunicated various "heretics," and issued a call for the "rehabilitation of the flesh." After a brief period of communal living, a spectacular trial, and a general exodus to Egypt in search of the "female messiah," the Saint-Simonian movement broke up. But in their sober years of maturity many of the former Saint-Simonians went on to play important roles in French public life, promoting the colonization of North Africa, the development of railroads, and the industrialization of France during the Second Empire (1852–1870).

The Owenites and the Fourierists were less spectacularly eccentric than the Saint-Simonians. But each group attracted many followers during the 1830s and 1840s. For a time in the early 1830s the Owenites were deeply involved in labor organization and the effort to create a great national federation of trade unions. This effort peaked in 1833–1834, but for another decade the principal Owenite journal, The New Moral World, continued to attract a substantial working-class readership. Most of the energy of the Owenites, however, went into a series of attempts to create working-class communities in which property was held in common and social and economic activity was organized on a cooperative basis. Inspired to some degree by the successful model factory that Owen himself had created at New Lanark in Scotland, seven such communities were created in Britain between 1825 and 1847 and another in America at New Harmony, Indiana. None of them lasted very long. But the cooperative trading stores created by working-class followers of Owen were more successful, and the history of the modern cooperative movement is generally traced back to the founding of an Owenite store in Rochdale, England, in 1844.

The followers of Fourier also attempted to create experimental communities or "phalanxes" based on his theory (or rather on a watered-down version of his theory). Their efforts focused particularly on America, where some twenty-five Fourierist phalanxes were established in the 1840s. In France the Fourierists turned away from community building in the late 1840s and drew closer to the democratic and republican critics of the July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848). Under the leadership of the social reformer Victor Considerant (1808–1893), Fourierism became a political movement for "peaceful democracy," which was to play a brief but significant role in 1848.

The 1840s in France were also marked by the rise of a new generation of utopian socialists who emerged to create sects and ideologies of their own. Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), a former conspiratorial revolutionary who had been influenced by Owen while an exile in England, attracted a substantial working-class following with the austere and authoritarian communist utopia described in his novel, Voyage en Icarie (1839). Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), a former Saint-Simonian, propounded a mystical humanitarian socialism, arguing that social reform should be guided by a new religion of humanity. The Christian socialist Philippe Buchez (1796–1865) helped found a working-class journal, L'Atelier, and inspired groups of artisans to form producers' cooperatives. There was also an important group of feminist socialists, many of whom had passed through Saint-Simonianism or Fourierism, who began to find a voice in the 1840s. Flora Tristan (1803–1844), Pauline Roland (1805–1852), and Désirée Véret (1810–1891?) all pursued and deepened Fourier's insight that the emancipation of women is the key to all social progress. And Tristan's proposal for a workers' union in L'Union ouvrière (1843) can now be seen as a kind of early syndicalist utopia.

As they spread and multiplied, the ideologies of utopian socialism became part of a broad current of democratic and humanitarian thought in which the boundary lines between socialism and democratic republicanism became blurred. By 1848 utopian socialism had merged with other ideologies of the democratic Left to form a single movement that was broadly democratic and socialist. The shared foundation that held this movement together included a faith in the right to work and in universal (male) suffrage, a belief that the differences between classes and nations were not irreconcilable, and a program of "peaceful democracy" which assumed that if politicians would only appeal to the higher impulses of "the people," a new era of class harmony and social peace would begin.

In 1848 with the fall of the July Monarchy in France and of repressive police states in much of the rest of Europe, European radicals at last had their chance at power. But universal suffrage proved to be no panacea for the Left. In France the working-class insurrection of June 1848 shattered the dream of the utopian socialists that a "democratic and social republic" might usher in a new age of class harmony. Thereafter the program of "peaceful democracy" ceased to have any political meaning. The result of the failure of the 1848 revolutions, then, was to crush the idealistic and humanitarian aspirations of the second generation of utopian socialists and to destroy the vision of class collaboration that had been central to their thought.

See alsoFourier, Charles; Owen, Robert; Roland, Pauline; Saint-Simon, Henri de; Socialism; Tristan, Flora.


Beecher, Jonathan. Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986.

——. Victor Considerant and the Rise and Fall of French Romantic Socialism. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001.

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Engels, Friedrich. "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific." In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 683–717. 2nd ed. New York, 1978.

Harrison, J. F. C. Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York, 1969.

Johnson, Christopher H. Utopian Communism in France: Cabet and the Icarians, 1839–1851. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974.

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Manuel, Frank E. The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, Mass., 1962.

Stedman Jones, Gareth. Introduction to The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 3–187. London, 2002.

Jonathan Beecher