William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up - Chapter 13 - The Utopists: Owen, Saint Simon, and Fourier

It is now necessary for us to turn for a while from the political progress of Socialism, to note the school of thinkers who preceded the birth of modern scientific or revolutionary Socialism. These men thought it possible to regenerate Society by laying before it its short-comings, follies, and injustice, and by teaching through precept and example certain schemes of reconstruction built up from the aspirations and insight of the teachers themselves. They had not learned to recognize the sequence of events which forces social changes on mankind whether they are conscious of its force or not, but believed that their schemes would win their way to general adoption by men's perception of their inherent reasonableness. They hoped to convert people to Socialism, to accepting it consciously and formally, by showing them the contrast between the confusion and misery of existing civilization, and the order and happiness of the world which they foresaw.

From the elaborate and detailed schemes of future Society which they built up they have been called the Utopists; the representatives of the different phases of their school are three most remarkable men, born within a few years of each other, whose aspirations and insight have done a very great deal to further the progress of Socialism, in spite of the incompleteness of their views.

Robert Owen was born at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in 1771, of a lower middle-class family; he became a successful manufacturer through his own industry and quick-wittedness in the beginning of the rise of the Great Machine Industries, when 'manufacturing' was advancing 'by leaps and bounds'. He was a born philanthropist in the better sense of the word, and from the first showed in all matters unbounded generosity and magnanimity. In the year 1800, when he was not yet thirty, he became the manager of the New Lanark Mills, and set to work on his first great experiment, which was briefly the conversion of a miserable, stupid, and vicious set of people into a happy, industrious, and orderly community, acting on the theory that man is the creature of his surroundings, and that by diligent attention to the development of his nature he can be brought to perfection. In this experiment he was entirely successful, but it was not in him to stop there, as the plain words he said of his success showed clearly enough: 'Yet these men were my slaves.'(1) He took part in all kinds of projects of a philanthropical nature, still founding all his action on his theory of the perfectibility of man by the amelioration of his surroundings, and became the first great champion of co-operation, although he did not suppose, as the co-operators of the present day do, that anything short of universal co-operation would solve the social question. In 1815, he pressed a meeting of Glasgow manufacturers to petition Parliament to shorten the hours of labour in the cotton mills, and the change which he experienced from the approbation of the governing classes to their reprobation, may well date from that proceeding of his, as a bourgeois biographer of his hints. But he still kept his position of a popular philanthropist, even after his declaration in favour of cc-operation, until he at last cut himself off from respectability, by openly attacking Society through its received religions (August 21, 1816), from which date onward he was scouted by all that 'Society', of which he was now the declared enemy. But he was in nowise daunted. In 1823, he proposed Communistic villages as a remedy fo the distress in Ireland; he established, in 1832, an exchange in Gray's Inn Road, in which labour was equitably exchanged against labour; and in 1825 he bought New Harmony from a community already established there (the Rappites), and made his great experiment in living in common; and late in life he published his 'Book of the New Moral World', which contains the exposition of his doctrine.

It will be thus seen that he was unwearied in practical experiments. His shortcoming was the necessary one of the utopist, a total disregard of the political side of progress; he failed to see that his experiments, useful as they were from that point of view, could never develope (sic) out of the experimental state as long as the governors of Society forcibly uphold the so-called 'rights of property', and he ignored the antagonism of classes necessarily existing under this system, and which in the long run must bring about the Socialism which he, the most generous and best of men, spent his whole life in attempting to realize. He died in 1858.

Saint Simon was born of a noble family at Paris in 1760. He acquired and ran through a fortune, deliberately experimenting in the various forms of 'life' from extravagance to abject poverty. There was in him none of that tendency to practical experiment in quasi-Socialistic schemes which characterized Robert Owen. His philosophy was mingled with a mysticism which had a tendency to increase, a tendency to form a new religion rather than to realize a new condition of life, and which was carried into the absurdities of a kind of worship by his immediate followers, more or less imitated by the Positivists of our own day, whose founder, Auguste Comte, was his most cherished disciple. His Socialism was of a vague kind, and admitted the existence of classes of talent as expressed by the motto of Saint Simonism, 'From each according to his capacity, to each according to his deeds'. In spite, however, of the tendency to mysticism, he showed singular flashes of insight in matters historical and economic, and intellectually was certainly ahead of Robert Owen. He may be said to have set himself the task of learning all life by whatever means and at whatever expense, in order to devote himself to the new religion, 'whose great aim is the swiftest possible amelioration of the moral and physical condition of the poorest and most numerous class'.

Frederick Engels well says of him: 'As early as his "Letters from Geneva", Saint Simon laid down that all men ought to work, and that the Reign of Terror had been the reign of the non-possessing masses. To face the fact in 1802 that the French Revolution was a struggle between the noblesse, the bourgeoisie, and the non-possessing classes was a discovery of genius. In 1816 he asserted that politics were but the science of production, and predicted their absorption by economy. The knowledge that economic conditions serve as the base of political institutions only shows itself here in the germ; nevertheless, this proposition contains clearly the conversion of the political government of men into an administration of things and a direction of the process of production; that is to say, the abolition of the State, of which such a noise has since been made'.

Internationalism also was clearly enunciated by Saint Simon. We quote Engels again: 'With an equal superiority over the views of his contemporaries, he declared in 1814, immediately after the entry of the allies into Paris, and again in 1815 during the war of the hundred days, that the sole guarantee of the peace and prosperous development of Europe, was an alliance between France and England, and of those two countries with Germany. Certainly it needed a courage by no means common to preach to the French of 1815 alliance with the victors at Waterloo.'

It is worth noting that one of the schemes of the Saint Simonians, which was most ridiculed at the time, was the cutting of the Isthmuses of Suez and Panama, and that M. de Lesseps was a Saint Simonian.

Saint Simon died in great poverty in 1825, with words of hope for the future of the party on his lips.

Charles Fourier was born in 1772 at Lyons; his father was a draper. He lost his property in the Revolution, and afterwards went into business as a broker. Amidst his dealings with Society, he was early struck by the shortcomings and injustices of individualism and competition. In his first book, 'The Theory of the Four Movements', he elaborates the proposition that human nature is perfectible through the free play of the appetites and passions, and asserts that misery and vice spring from the restraints imposed by Society. His criticism of modern Society is most valuable as anticipating that of scientific Socialism; unlike his contemporaries he has an insight into the historical growth of Society: 'He divides it into four periods of development, Savagery, Barbarism, Patriarchalism, and Civilization, meaning by the latter the Bourgeois Civilization(2).' His saying, 'In civilization poverty is born even of superabundance', may well be noted in these days, and compared with Robert Owen's in 1816, 'Our best customer, the war, is dead'.

As a basis of the reconstruction of Society, Fourier advocated Industrial Co-operation; but here his Utopianism led him to the trap of formulating dogmatically an electorate scheme of life in all its details, a scheme which could never be carried out, however good the principlse (sic) on which it was based might be. His scheme arranges for phalanxsteries as the unit of co-operation, in which all life and all industry, agricultural and other, should be carried on, and all details are carried out by him most minutely, the number of each phalanxtery being settled at 1600 souls. His most valuable idea was the possibility and necessity of apportioning due labour to each capacity, and thereby assuring that it should be always pleasurable, and his dictum that children, who generally like making dirt- pies and getting into a mess, should do the dirty work of the community, may at least be looked on as an illustration of this idea, though laid down as a formal law. His system was not one of pure equality, but admitted distinctions between rich and (comparatively) poor; and advocated a fantastic division of wealth between labour, capital, and talent. The abolition of marriage was a tenet of his doctrine.

In 1812, Fourier's mother died and left him some property, and he retired into the country to write his 'Treatise on the Association of Domesticity and Agriculture'. Afterwards he came to Paris again, became a clerk in an American firm, and wrote in 1830 his 'New Industrial World'. It is lamentable to have to relate that in 1831 he wrote attacking both Owen and St Simon as charlatans, in spite of the curious points of resemblance he had to either of them. He died in 1837, but not till he had founded a school, of which Victor Considerans, author of the 'Destinée Sociale', was the most distinguished member. The Fourierists started a paper in 1832, which expired in two years, but was revived in 1836, and finally suppressed by Government in 1850. A scheme for realizing the Phalanxtery experimentally was set on foot in 1832 by a deputy of France, but it failed for lack of funds; so that of the three great Utopists, Owen was the only one who had the fortune, good or bad as it may be considered, of seeing his schemes tried by experience. Cabet, indeed, a revolutionist of '48, founded a community in America under the name of Icaria, which was (and is, for it still exists) more nearly an approach to genuine Communism than any of the other communities which have owed their origin to Utopian Socialism. Of these communities there remains a word to be said as a warning to those who are young in Socialism. Although as experiments in association something may be learned from them, their conditions of life have no claim to the title of Communism, which most unluckily has often been applied to them. Communism can never be realized till the present system of Society has been destroyed by the workers taking hold of the political power. When that happens it will mean that Communism is on the point of absorbing and transmuting Civilization.

1.Yet in 1806, when owing to the rise in cotton he could not continue manufacturing, he stopped the mills and paid his people their full wages till he could go on again in fou months time, a prodeeding which cost him £7000back.

2.Frederick Engels in 'Socialisme Utopique', and 'Socialisme Scientifique', as also the quotations aboveback.

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 42, 30 October 1886, PP. 242 - 243