Early Nineteenth Century Utopian Philosophy

The largest issue of the second half of the Nineteenth Century was the containment of people.  The problem of how to control a growing population in  Europe and an alien population in colonized lands occupied the century’s philosophical minds.  In contrast to the Enlightenment philosophers who wrote in abstract absolutes, the mid-century philosophers were more concerned with the particular and the pragmatic. The materialist philosophers and socialist writers had been farsighted in their discussions of the impact of the Industrial Revolution. These early Nineteenth Century thinkers were more utopian than practical but they were moved by the plight of the workers who were being dehumanized and alienated in an industrial system based upon the demands of the machine.

Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon and his follower, Charles Fourier, in France and Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen in England (and later in America) were products of the Eighteenth Century and disciples of the Enlightenment.  They envisioned a better way of life, based upon shared responsibility and rewarding and fulfilling labor.  These utopians were not revolutionaries but reformers.  From a practical point of view, they were ineffectual, but from a philosophical and social perspective, their ideas of equality and open-mindedness, especially towards the equality of women and tolerance of sex, are still advanced to this day.  However, there is a dark side to this early socialism.  In comparison to today’s socialists and socialism as practiced in Europe, the Nineteenth Century utopian socialists were closer to Twentieth Century totalitarian rulers than their benign-sounding classification would suggest.

According to Paul Taylor in The Birth of the Modern, Saint-Simon was a witness to the French Revolution but he felt that the Industrial Revolution was the most important.  It was he who coined the terms “industrialization” and “industrialist” as terms of admiration. Saint-Simon saw these “new” men as those who would improve society and thus elevate the standard of living by all people and raise the lower classes to a higher level.  It was Saint-Simon, not Marx, who coined the phrase, “To each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”   Like Marx, Saint-Simon saw society in a fundamentally new way: people were not  “citizens” or individuals but as part of a class.  His remarks about needs and abilities can be construed as benefiting the “industrial class,” which had the ability but then would have to assist the lower class which had needs that should be met.  Certainly Saint-Simon’s reputation as the “first socialist” is probably justified, due to his idea of social responsibility, for his favored industrialists were expected to repay the less fortunate and to spread the benefits of their wealth.

Obviously, Saint-Simon’s theories would have been an effective way to free the creative hands of the “new men” and to control the teeming masses of the poor, and his follower Charles Fourier was quite explicit in how people should behave in modern society.  He was gifted with a vivid imagination and saw a future when the Mediterranean Sea would turn to lemonade and women would have four men in her life at the same time.  While the world is still waiting for the lemonade stage, many of Fourier’s ideas have been attempted by people who wished to experiment with a communal way of life.  Fourier’s idea of a garden city became one of the long lasting dreams of city planners, such as Frank Lloyd Wright.

The English utopian socialist, Robert Owen, also attempted to build actual communal settlements, which were inspired by the idea of improving the living conditions industrial society.  However, like many of the socialists of the early part of the Nineteenth Century, Owen’s ideas were centered upon control of the very people who had a history of being unruly demanders for their basic rights.  His communal villages, from New Lanark in Scotland and New Harmony in Indiana, were marred by his authoritarian rule over his “human machines.”   Although it was in Owen’s new organization, All Classes of All Nations, that the term “socialism” was first used, like all the so-called radical socialists, Robert Owen created systems of dominance and subordination.

Perhaps the best-known practitioner of control over those who needed to be controlled, Jeremy Bentham imagined the most famous building never built, the Panopticon, a model prison that allowed for maximum surveillance with minimum staffing.  As a social architect, Bentham, who witnessed the worst of the British Industrial Revolution, recommended rounding up the poor and the criminal and incarcerating them.   His ideas sound positively Twenty-first Century in his demands that people be taken care of before they committed a crime and that these social undesirables should be part of a universal registry of names, a sort of national ID. Writing in Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault used Bentham’s unbuilt Utopian prison as the starting place for what turned into a society of surveillance or a “carceral” society.

Utopian socialists, then, were visionary but their visions were at odds with “liberty, equality, and fraternity” and more in line with totalitarian social engineering that included, not freeing individuals for self-actualization, but in cataloguing them for future reference.  The distance between Saint-Simon and Bentham can be measured by their projections for a future society.  Saint-Simon sounds almost conservative today in his dream of the shrinking state.  In the future, there would be no poverty and ignorance, and, therefore, no need for government.  On the other hand, the vision of Bentham necessitated greater government, the kind of government that would patrol the streets, actively seeking the poor and future criminals.

What makes the arguments of the early socialists interesting is that they were taking place against a backdrop of monarchies, constitutional and otherwise. Reading between the lines, it is possible to hear the voices of men of privilege, suspicious of the lower classes, called, by Marx, the Roman name, the “proletariat” and trusting of the power of the ruling class. True communal equality was hard to imagine.  Communism had been a concept ever since the French Revolution and by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, and ideas of communal equality and the redistribution of wealth throughout society were well established. Those in charge who were being enriched by the capitalist system liked it the way it was saw and no reason to be kinder or gentler to their workers.  The assembly line might result in alienation, the repetitive motions required by factory labor might be boring, and the safety and health conditions under industrialization might be dangerous, but the industrialists saw only profit, which trumped the needs of the workers.  At Mid-Century, Karl Marx would take the dialectical method of Hegel and turn it into Dialectical Materialism, taking Hegel’s idealism into the realm of materialism.  The ideas of utopian and positivist thinkers filtered down to the Realist artists who began to look carefully and critically at what the “modern” had wrought.

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Social Philosophy”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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