Plans for the Future During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many visionary men and women desired to change the political and social structures of their world. Reformers who believed they could chart the future course of society by employing reason and scientific observation called themselves socialists because they were especially interested in engineering new forms of social organization. The core of this movement existed in France, where it was led by people such as Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), and Charles Fourier. Although the founders of the early socialist movements were men, women were particularly attracted to these groups and often became leading voices in their development.
Early Life Charles Fourier was born and raised in the city of Besançon in eastern France. He was the only son, the youngest of four children, and was educated at the local college of Besançon. His father died when Fourier was only nine years old. When he was eighteen, his mother enrolled him as an apprentice in business and commerce, first in Rouen and later in the much larger city of Lyons. Working at various jobs, as well as serving in the military during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution (1789–1799), Fourier never succeeded in the business world. When his mother died in 1812, she left him a considerable inheritance, which allowed him to leave work and retire to the countryside to write.
Social Radical Like most socialists, Fourier observed that industrialization had created vast progress and unimaginable wealth, but the wealthy profited disproportionately to the rest of society. In response he spent the last thirty years of his life creating a blueprint for social and economic equality. His writings did not become widely known, but by the mid 1820s he had managed to attract some devoted students. He moved to Paris in 1826 and three years later published his most accessible work, Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et sociètaire (The New Social and Industrial World). In 1832 his followers began publishing two journals, Le Phalanstère and La Phalange, which further disseminated his views.
Philosophy. In his works Fourier criticized contemporary civilization and urged change according to a scientific model of human organization. He believed that the universe operated according to fixed natural and social laws that humans needed to discover and live by in order to enjoy fruitful lives. Society would operate best, he said, when people created communities called phalanges (phalanxes) that were organized according to individual personalities and emotions. Fourier calculated that there were just over eight hundred individual characteristics among twelve basic human passions. The perfect community would include all these human characteristics in people of different ages, genders, and abilities. Such communities would comprise between 1,600 and 2,000 men, women, and children, who would work and live together in a single building called a phalanstery. There residents would be grouped not according to family organization but according to age and wealth. They would work according to their natural inclinations and be paid according to their own contributions to the labor of the group.
Marriage and Family Life Fourier believed that the evils of modern civilization originated in the repressive bourgeois family structure. He charged that men treated their spouses as if they owned them and worked only for them, while mothers and children had little freedom to express their deepest sentiments. He believed that humans should create more-equitable relationships between the sexes and that equality could exist only if people were freed from the restraints of marriage. To accomplish such equality, he advocated free love and the collective raising of children within the community. He sharply criticized the French Revolutionaries for not going far enough in their marriage reforms. He was ahead of his time when he wrote that “the extension of the privileges of women is the fundamental cause of all social progress.”
Later Years A Utopia, by definition, does not exist. Fourier and the other socialists of his time attempted to attract wealthy patrons to finance the creation of new communities to serve as models of social organization that they hoped would attract new members and eventually spread to the rest of society. Fourier’s only attempt to found a phalanx, near Rambouillet in 1832, failed. By 1833 Fourier was extremely ill, and he died on 10 October 1837.
Legacy. Fourier’s philosophy gained admirers throughout Europe, from Russia to Spain, and in the United States, where more than forty communities based on Fourier’s ideas were attempted in the early nineteenth century. One such community was Brook Farm (1841–1847) in Massachusetts, the well-known Transcendentalist community whose founding members included George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though all these communities failed, historians generally credit Fourier and his contemporary socialists for their early feminist critiques of society and for inspiring the more-radical socialist philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels decades later.
Jonathan Beecher, Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
Michael Spencer, Charles Fourier (Boston: Twaync, 1981).