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The pioneers of socialist utopia

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Issue 1746

What socialists say

The pioneers of socialist utopia

By Matthew Cookson

THE barbarity and injustice of capitalism have produced many different visions of an alternative kind of society over the last two centuries. One of the first groups of thinkers to challenge the priorities of an early capitalism was Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. They later became known as the utopian socialists.

They all wrote in the early part of the 19th century after the French Revolution as the industrial revolution was transforming the world. The new capitalist system brought progress and wealth alongside great poverty and suffering. Thousands of people were herded into unsafe and unhealthy workplaces and exploited for the profits of the capitalists.

The disparity between wealth and poverty led Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen to rail against capitalism and identify with the poor and the oppressed. They argued that the needs of everybody could be met because of the new technology and ways of working that capitalism had produced. But millions still lived in poverty and starvation because capitalism put profit first. For Saint-Simon the world was divided between “workers” and “idlers”. The “idlers”, such as the aristocracy, were those who lived off the backs of those who worked.

He included factory owners, merchants and bankers amongst those who worked. But as the socialist Frederick Engels pointed out in the late 19th century, “what interests him first and above all things is the lot of the largest and poorest class”. Saint-Simon argued for a new society based on cooperative production. His vision was one of the first socialist attempts to find an alternative to capitalism.

Fourier also argued for the anarchy of capitalism to be replaced by a rational society in which human beings could be in “harmony” with one another. He said, “Social progress occurs by virtue of the progress of women towards liberty, and social decline by virtue of decreases in the liberty of women.” Fourier planned a “utopian” society called a “phalanstere”.

In this society everybody was to have the vote, all children were to be given the same education and people would swap jobs so they didn’t become tired or bored. Robert Owen went further than Fourier in trying to build a new society. As a wealthy English factory owner he had direct experience of the exploitation of working people. Owen believed that all the wealth inside capitalism was “the creation of the working class” and it belonged to them.

In 1800 he opened a new cotton mill in New Lanark, on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland. He decided to turn the mill and the community that had developed around it into an experiment in rational and humane methods of production. He cut the working day, paid higher wages than other bosses, set up infant schools for workers’ children and built decent housing.

Engels stressed the importance of the work of the three great utopian socialists in providing a key inspiration for himself and Karl Marx, who together developed the ideas of socialism. He also argued against the limitations in their ideas and plans for change. The utopians saw that capitalism created misery for workers. But they were writing before the great working class struggles that broke out later in the century, so they didn’t focus on the ability of workers to challenge the system.

They believed that simply pointing out the insanity of capitalism was all that was required to bring about change. Both Fourier and Owen tried to create their new societies within the capitalist system. The pressures of the outside world caused these plans to fail.

Fourier attempted to win capitalists to backing his “phalansteres” but they ignored his plans to benefit everyone, preferring profits for a few. Owen’s New Lanark experiment had to make profits to stay in business. Workers still worked long hours and did backbreaking labour. As Owen himself said, “The people are slaves at my mercy.”

His experimental egalitarian “colonies” in America all failed. He then returned to England, “turned directly to the working class” and fought for the rights of working people for the next 30 years. The ideas of the utopians provided the beginning of a socialist alternative to capitalism.

But they looked to a few enlightened individuals to bring about change and not to the people who created all the wealth in society. By the 1840s capitalism had created a working class that had the capacity to seize control of the factories and produce goods and services to satisfy people’s needs.

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