Charles Fourier, French socialist thinker, was born at Besancon in 1772 and died in Paris in 1837. The sources of his thought remain obscure. To a great extent he was an autodidact, who owed much to his reading and still more to his reflections on what he read. Fourier’s inclination was to become a military engineer, but his family—wealthy merchants—made him a tradesman in Marseilles. A setback in business in 1799, combined with his lack of business ability, reduced Fourier to the role of civil servant at Lyons. After 1816, when he inherited an income from his mother, he was finally able to devote himself entirely to his writing. In 1823 he settled permanently in Paris. Although he left a large body of published writings as well as many unpublished manuscripts, he never did write the “Grand Traite” that was to lay out his whole system in detail.
To use the language of the time, Fourier was a capitalist whose personal experience made him sensitive to the social plagues and the vices of a civilization based on commercial lies. The sole thought of his life was to find a “way out” that he might propose to his contemporaries. His first major book (1808) painted a cosmic fresco, showing blind humanity the path toward happiness and abundance. All his life he waited for the benefactor (king, minister, or financier) who would enable him to make even a partial test of his social “invention,” or scheme.
This scheme assumes a correspondence between the cosmic order and the social order. It applies to the latter order the law of gravity established for the former by Newton and then applies to both orders a law of evolution, with eight ascending periods followed by the same number of descending periods. The peak is the reign of “harmony,” in which “association” will be fully triumphant; however, humanity is still immersed in the fifth period, called “civilization” to distinguish it from the barbarism from which humanity has only recently emerged. The goal is the free governance of things by individuals who are at once completely free, fully mature, and highly organized. This goal explains the importance that Fourier attached to education, his criticism of the family and of the relations between the sexes, and finally his theory that the “passions” should be put to use instead of being repressed. The means of achieving this goal is the “phalanstery,” a basic social unit whose organization rests on the mathematical rationality of social phenomena (the dimensions of groups, the balance of age groups, the alternation of activities) and which encompasses all aspects of the life of its members.
Fourier, an antirevolutionary and a strong opponent of Saint-Simon and Owen, believed his social system to be consistent with any form of government, including the monarchical one. Had not the French monarchy already shown great adaptability, having been feudal in the Middle Ages, absolute under Louis xiv, and bourgeois under Louis Philippe? There seemed to Fourier no reason why it could not also adapt to the new industrialism. This strange man thus combined traits that in others are generally mutually exclusive—political conservatism, social reformism, moral anarchism (at least in his conception of free love), and anti-Christian religiousness. Fourier believed in the goodness of human nature and rejected the dogma of original sin. He saw harmony as the law of the cosmos and held that what is true for nature must be true for society. This is why he gave to Newton’s work the same importance that Marx was to see in that of Darwin; however, Marx abstracted from Darwinism a process of struggle, while Fourier found in Newton’s theory a mechanism of attraction.
Fourier had only a limited influence on the development of society: his realm was that of thought, not of action. Yet the only thinkers who acknowledged a direct debt to Fourier were the Russian revolutionaries Herzen, Petrachevsky, and Tchernichevsky. While he was in some ways far ahead of his time, in many other respects he was a man of the past: his views apply much more to an agricultural and trading society than to one that is industrial and technological. Marx, of course, scorned him as a “Utopian socialist.” Nevertheless, Fourierism did not remain an abstract Utopia. For thirty to forty years Fourierist ideas were realized in a series of community experiments, both in France and in a number of other countries, especially in the United States. For the most part, these experiments were attempts at the collective operation of a large rural estate, and they foreshadowed more modern forms of social organization. One of these enterprises took on an urban and industrial aspect—the familistere at Guise (in northern France). Today there remains not only a factory (like any other factory) but also a set of dwellings that is a unique example of Fourierist architecture. Some of Fourier’s disciples put little trust in the success of these partial realizations of his scheme and held that a total transformation of society was called for. Rallying around Victor Considerant, 1808-1893, they entered into political life and became a real force for some years, but with the advent of Napoleon in they could do no better than merge into the bourgeois opposition to the Second Empire. As Charles Gide pointed out some time ago (1924), there is a direct relationship between Fourierism and the cooperative movement which played an important role before 1914 and of which there are now new developments, for example, in Yugoslavia, Israel, and the countries of the Third World.
(1808) 1857 The Social Destiny of Man: Or, Theory of the Four Movements. New York: Dewitt. ⇒ First published as Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées géneratés: Prospectus et annonce de la découverte.
1822 Traité de I’association domestique agricole. 2 vols. Paris: Bossange.
1829-1830 Le nouveau monde industriel et sociétaire: Ou invention du procédé d’industrie attrayante et naturelle distribuée en series passionnées. Paris: Bossange.
1835-1836 La fausse Industrie morcelée, répugnante, mensongére, et l’antidote: L’industrie naturelle, combinée, attrayante, véridique donnant quadruple produit. 2 vols. Paris: Bossange.
1841-1845 Oeuvres complétes de Ch. Fourier. 6 vols. Paris: Librairie Sociétaire.
1851-1858 Publication des manuscrits de Charles Fourier. 4 vols. Paris: Librairie Phalanstérienne.
BESTOR, ARTHUR E. 1950 Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenist Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Bibliothéque Internationale de sociologie de la coopération. ⇒ A monographic series published since 1955; each volume has a separate author and publisher.
Bo, GIUSEPPE DEL 1957 Charles Fourier e la scuola societaria: 1801-1922. Milan (Italy): Feltrinelli. ⇒ A very valuable catalogue of the Fourierist collection assembled by the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Institute.
BOURGIN, HUBERT 1905 Fourier: Contribution a I’etude du socialisme francais. Paris: Sociêtê Nouvelle de Librairie et d’Edition. ⇒ Still the basic work on Fourier, in part outdated but not replaced.
DESROCHE, HENRI CH. 1962 Fourierisme ambigu: Socialisme ou religion? Revue Internationale de philo-sophie 16:200-220.
DESROCHE, HENRI CH. 1964 Coopération et développe-ment: Mouvements coopératifs et strategic du développement. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
GAUMONT, JEAN 1924 Histoire générale de la coopération en France: Les idées et les faits, les hommes et les oeuvres. 2 vols. Paris: Fédération Nationale des Coopérateurs de Consommation.
GIDE, CHARLES 1924 Fourier: Precurseur de la coopération. Paris: Association pour l’Enseignement de la Coopération.
HEMARDLINQUER, J. J. 1964 La “découverte du mouvement social”: Notes critiques sur le jeune Fourier. Mouvement social 3, no. 48:49-70.
Phalange: Revue de la science sociale. ⇒ Published from 1832-1849 under varying titles by the Bureau de Phalange. Fourier was a frequent contributor from 1832-1840.
POULAT, ÉMILE 1957 Les cahiers manuscrits de Fourier: Étude historique et inventaire raisonné. Paris: Entente Communautaire. ⇒ Contains an important chapter by Henri Desroche.
POULAT, ÉMILE 1962 Écritures et tradition fouriéristes. Revue Internationale de philosophie 16:221-233.
ZIL’BERFARB, JOGANSON J. 1964 Sotsial’naia filosofiia Sharlia Fur’e i ee mesto v istorii sotsialisticheskoi mysli pervoi poloviny XIX veka (The Social Philosophy of Charles Fourier and Its Place in the History of Socialist Thought in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century). Moscow: Nauka.
FOURIER, CHARLES (1772–1837), French social theorist.
Charles Fourier can best be described as the nineteenth century's complete utopian. A social critic who advocated "absolute deviation" from existing philosophies and institutions, he surpassed Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in the intransigence of his rejection of his own society. A psychologist who celebrated the passions as agents of human happiness, he carried to its ultimate conclusion the utopian denial of original sin. A social prophet who designed work schedules, dinner menus, and nursery furniture for his utopia, he was obsessively concerned with giving precise definition to his conception of the good society.
Central to Fourier's thinking was the belief that in a rightly ordered world there would be no disparity between our desires and our ability to satisfy them. All basic human drives were meant to be expressed, he argued, and most social ills were the result of instinctual repression. Fourier's utopia was an attempt to spell out precisely the kind of society that would have to exist to make possible the economic, social, psychic, and sexual liberation of humanity.
The key institution in Fourier's utopia was the Phalanx, a community of 1,620 men and women of varied tastes, inclinations, ages, and social backgrounds. Within this community, work and play would be organized in small groups (and "series" of groups); children would be raised collectively; and all activities would be organized according to the "dictates" of the passions, those innate drives that Fourier regarded as the basic forces in the social universe.
Fourier was an autodidact who spent much of his life working as a traveling salesman and clerk for silk merchants in the city of Lyon. His utopian ideas first took shape in the 1790s as part of a larger "theory of the destinies" that he began to formulate in the hope of filling the intellectual and moral vacuum created by the French Revolution. His first book, the Théorie des quatre mouvements (1808) was ignored, and a second book, the Traité de l'association domestique-agricole (1822) was ridiculed in the Paris press. Still, in 1816 Fourier acquired a disciple, a functionary at the Besançon prefecture named Just Muiron.
With Muiron's encouragement and financial assistance Fourier moved to Paris in 1822, and he spent the rest of his life seeking the support of a wealthy patron who would subsidize the creation of an experimental community or "trial Phalanx," which would demonstrate to the world at large the merit of his theory. The patron never appeared, but by 1832 Fourier did manage to attract a group of disciples committed to spreading his ideas and applying them in a model community.
After Fourier's death in 1837 the leadership of the Fourierist movement was assumed by Victor Considerant (1808–1893), who popularized Fourier's theory and established a daily newspaper. Considerant's great accomplishment was to create an audience for Fourier's ideas and to bring them within the orbit of the existing socialist movement. In the process, however, Considerant and his colleagues transformed Fourier's doctrine, weeding out the "extravagant" sexual and cosmological speculations and shifting the emphasis from instinctual liberation to the organization of work.
Only one practical application of Fourier's ideas had much success in France. This was the Familistére or stove factory created by Jean-Baptiste Godin (1817–1888) at Guise, which survived into the twentieth century. In America, however, some twenty-five Fourierist phalanxes were established in the 1840s and a few more later. The most famous, Brook Farm, attracted numerous writers and intellectuals, one of whom, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), left a wry portrait of the community in his Blithedale Romance.
For more than a hundred years after Fourier's death, scholars focused on the question of his socialism. Was he a socialist, they asked, given the fact that he called for the payment of interest on invested capital and the retention of some forms of private property? And what was the relation of his thought to the "scientific socialism" of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895)? More recently attention has been given to Fourier's psychological writings and notably his analysis of love and repression. He has been seen as a precursor not of Marx but of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)—or at least of the radical Freud recovered in the 1950s and 1960s by Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.
Fourier has also rightly been seen as an early male feminist. His writings include vigorous pleas for the emancipation of women, and his insistence that "the extension of the privileges of women is the fundamental cause of all social progress" became a battle cry of early radical feminism.
Although Fourier was long viewed primarily as a "precursor," his reflections on attractive labor, female emancipation, and instinctual liberation are now recognized as original contributions to social theory in their own right; and he is seen as a thinker who probed deeply and imaginatively into the problem of the relationship between the human instincts and human society.
Beecher, Jonathan. Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World. Berkeley, Calif., 1986.
Beecher, Jonathan, and Richard Bienvenu, eds. and trans. The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Boston, 1971.
Fourier, Charles. The Theory of the Four Movements. Edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Ian Patterson. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.
Guarneri, Carl J. The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.