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 philosophical minds of the century.  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. Indeed, the human body metamorphosed into a machine itself. In the third chapter of his book, Discipline and Punish, the Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault wrote of the automata, based on “the theory of dressage, at the center of which reigns the notion of ‘docility,’ which joins the analyzable body to the manipulable body.” 

Foucault continued, “A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved. The celebrated automata, on the other hand, were to only a way of illustrating an organism, they are also political puppets, small-scale models of power..What was so new in these projects of docility that interested the eighteenth century so much? It was certainly not the first time that the body had become the object of such imperious and pressing investments; in every society, the body was in the grip of very strict powers, which imposed upon it constraints, prohibitions or obligations. However, there were several new things in these techniques. To begin with, there was the scale of the control; it was a question of treating the body, en masse, wholesale, as it if were an indissociable unity, but of working it ‘retail,’ individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercions, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself–movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body.” Foucault noted that “Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence–in monasteries, armies, workshops, but in the course of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries the disciplines had become general formulas of domination..” By the eighteenth century, “What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior..Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.”

This need to “discipline” the body, was centuries in the making, evolved slowly and manifested itself in a dispersal of power that was, as Foucault was fond of pointing out, everywhere and no where, disciplining and controlling the body politic. Rather than controlling the population through spectacles of brutality, such as a parade of crucifixions down a Roman highway, people were disciplined from childhood to adulthood, incarcerated when they disobeyed the norms of socialization, isolated from society. But beyond controlling people, broader concerns were discussed in the early nineteenth century. Now that there was no monarchy or central power dictating the shape and form of society, how should people live together? What  was the best way to come together politically and how should people rule themselves? These were not so much issues of democracy but concerns about social formations. Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and his follower, François-Marie-Charles Fourier (1772-1837), 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. The key term for socialists was “harmony,” a concept of social togetherness in which a variety of types can harmonize in peace, without conflict. As visionary as their ideas seem, these men were products of the Enlightenment and attempted to create a discourse on socialism that was based on “scientific” principles, which explain the psychological nature of human beings.

In his unfinished book on socialism, Emile Durkheim defined socialism: “Socialism, on the contrary, is entirely oriented toward the future. It is above all a plan for the reconstruction of societies, a program for a collective life which does not exist as yet or in the way it is dreamed of, and which is proposed to men as worthy of their preference. It is an ideal. It concerns itself much less with what is or was than what ought to be..It aspires to a complete remolding of the social order.” Later on he writes about “two different kinds of socialism: a worker’s socialism or  a state socialism, but the separation is a simple difference of degree. There is no workers’ socialism which does not demand a greater development of the state: there is no state socialism disinterested in workers.” The context of socialism, as it emerged after the French Revolution, is important. Disillusioned observers of a massive social change that resulted in the restoration of another monarchy under Napoléon could look only to the future. The present had proved to be disappointing, not living up the promisees of the Revolution. 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 to society.  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.”

In his book, Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists, Keith Taylor noted that the words “socialism” and “socialist” became widely used during the 1830s, indicating the novelty of the new ideas on political and social organization. Taylor continued, speaking of the “socialists,” “Because they lived and worked during an age notable for its optimistic view of history and its romantic faith in unbounded progress through the application of human reasoning, we should not be surprised to find that the notion of social perfectibility underlies much of their thought. In their numerous descriptions of ideal societies all elements of serious human conflict are absent, and the characteristic condition is one of true harmony..an earthly paradise is finally established in which man’s various needs, both physical and spiritual, find complete satisfaction.” Like Marx, Saint-Simon saw society in a fundamentally new way: people were not  “citizens” or individuals but were part of a class.  His remarks about needs and abilities can be construed as benefiting the “industrial class,” which had the ability to produce and succeed in the new capitalistic economy, but then would have to assist the lower class which had its own 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.

It is important to understand the economic context that gave rise to socialism. As Taylor explained, “The period in which the early socialists were formulating their theories was one of wide speared socio-economic upheaval, a period in which the development of capitalist industrialism was causing all western societies (although at different rates of change, a severe dislocation to the situation of many social groups. Most importantly, it was a period in which a new working class was being created..As a consequence of this process of dislocation, traditional social values associated with an essentially pre-capitalist (perhaps even pre-industrial) society lost much of their relevance, and new norms were called for which were more appropriate to the stage of socio-economic development attained in the western countries.” While San Simon was fully alert to the upheavals that industrialism would bring, the other major socialist, Fourier, felt that it was more  useful to study and reorganize society into a new shape. Born in Besançon, the capital of Franche-Comté, Charles Fourier came from Courbet country. A witness to the French Revolution and the upheavals of social and political change, Fourier emerged from the caldron and entered into business. As a businessman and successful entrepreneur, he experienced the negative aspect of enterprise and by the beginning of the nineteenth century became concerned with how to create a better society before it was too late. In his book, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-century AmericaCarl J. Guarneri described the experiences of Fourier in business: “During a long career as a traveling salesman and a modest commercial employee, Fourier saw at first hand the duplicities of mercantile life: adulteration, loan sharking, speculation in paper money, and the creation of artificial shortages that left rice rotting on the docks of Marseilles while people starved in the streets. In Lyons, the misery of silk workers in conflict with master mechanics over declining wages gave Fourier his first inkling of the coming Industrial Revolution. He came to believe that an entire economic system based on the anarchy of free competition was wrong. A radical change was imperative, but it must be constructive, orderly, and peaceful. Having lost his inheritance in the French Revolution when Parisian troops dusted his stock of goods during the siege of Lyon,Fourier abhorred social conflict and dreamed instead of a society guaranteeing class harmony through scientific organization.”

Critical of capitalism, realizing that such an economic system exploited workers, Fourier wrote one of the founding documents of socialism, Social Destiny of Man, or Theory of Four Movements (1808) was quite explicit in how people should behave in modern society. This book is very complex, and, like many Enlightenment philosophers, Fourier attempted to rationalize his thoughts through elaborate models which compartmentalized and counted the various passions and modes of human beings. Having been a cloth merchant in Lyons and having watched the workers attempting to organize themselves against management, Fourier decided that society needed to be redrawn. Interestingly, he disliked business and yet did not see the dangers of industrialism, perhaps because his solution to the rising tide of social ills was retreat into the countryside. Here he proposed a social formation of a variety of people of different talents  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 presented the idea of the Phalanx as the proposed basic social unit of a world that was harmonious–free on one hand and highly regulated on the other. Civilization, he thought, organized society by controlling and managing the “twelve passions,” but the result was misery. Passions, and there were some eight hundred ten variations, would be organized within a phalanx of 1600 people of all ages and social classes. They would live together in a large building called the “phalanstery,” (phalanstère) where the God-given passions that needed to be expressed and could be provided free rein in a regulated and structured environment. In his book, The Teaching of Charles FourierNicholas Valentine Riasanovsky described the building itself: “Correct building called for a huge phalanstery, some six stories high, with a long main body and two wings. Its form was to be characteristically symmetrical and rectangular, providing also for inner courtyards and a spacious parade ground immediately in front, with the main body of the phalanstery and the two wings adjoining it on three of its four sides. The central part of the main body of the building, culminating in a tower, would contain among other things the grand entrance and the grand staircase, and a central hall or hals, as well as a carillon and postal pigeons. A large hothouse would serve as its inner court. As opera and a church would also be in the same vicinity or they might be erected as separate buildings behind the projecting wings and connected to the phalanstery proper by subterranean passages. All noisy occupations would be defined to one wing and its inner court. A circumventing ‘street gallery’ would constitute a special feature of the harmonious architecture of the future.”

The description is interesting because the modern reader recognizes a prototypical shopping mall, a self contained enclosure where all desires are met through commerce, a place where all classes intersect. But a mall is temporary and the phalanstery–a combination of a monastery and a military organization–was forever. Needless to say, such a society required capitalist backing to be successful. However, Fourier’s concept eliminated the idea that people would have to work at jobs they did not like. People should have occupations that gave them pleasure and expanded their souls. Of course there are always jobs that some people do not want to do but in the phalanstery, jobs would be rotated among then members, who lived in this garden city/agricultural commune. Although the idea of the community was never realized successfully in France, in England, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution was another site for the creation of an ideal community. Like Fourier, the English utopian socialist, a textile merchant from Manchester, Robert Owen (1771-1858) was also in the cloth business.  Like Fourier, Owen also turned his back upon the profit motive which shaped the way in which society was organized. He felt that workers should not be exploited but paid what they were worth in a community where they would share with each other and not compete with each other. Very early, in 1800, Owen created a utopian community in New Lanark in Scotland. He began with reforming his factory, by giving his workers a ten hour day, which was shortened to an eighth hour day, set off by eight hours of sleep. Buoyed by the good wages and good working conditions, the mill showed a handsome profit and Owen was inspired to expand his vision to actual communal settlements. In 1816, he imagined a utopian community where no one would be exploited. In order to achieve his dream, in 1824, Owen shifted his utopia to the New World, where a clean start could be made with new settlers. He selected Indiana as the site of New Harmony, stating, “I am come to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one and remove all causes for contest between individuals.”

Coming full circle, the ideas of the socialists mirrored those concepts described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, discipline and control. Although Owen and Fourier had benign intentions, they still wanted an autocratic control over an isolated and closed society. Owen believed in equality between men and women, but this radical idea extended only to the educating girls in the domestic arts. To protect children from the malign influences of their parents, separation of families was practiced. He replaced religion and other social institutions, such as marriage with a system of rational ethics which he expected people to practice. The “people” he experimented on were the lower classes and, like Fourier and Saint-Simon, this wealthy and well meaning man was attempting to organize people with less power and resources with his beneficence. The result was predictable–New Harmony collapsed in three years.  Although he had deemed the Virgin Land of America, an ideal site for New Harmony, 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. Although, thanks to Foucault, Bentham is famous today, what is less well known is the fact that he was a partner, an investor in the New Lanark venture, having a one thirteenth share of the venture. Bentham, a famous recluse, never visited his investment but his partnership with Owen was his only successful speculation. In 1818, Owen wrote to Bentham, “The balance of our transactions for the past year has just been made and the sum to be carried to the credit of the parties will be £9000 over and above interest of capital. You are now entitled to receive the interest of your capital for last year and one third of share of your profits for 1816. May I request you to say to whom and when you would wish this suit to be remitted?”

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  of  the “proletariat” and trusting of the power of the ruling class. True communal equality was hard to imagine.

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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