Utopian socialism

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Utopian socialism is a label used to define the first currents of modern socialist thought as exemplified by the work of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet and Robert Owen. [1]

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership and workers' self-management of the means of production as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Charles Fourier French utopian socialist and philosopher

François Marie Charles Fourier was a French philosopher, influential early socialist thinker and one of the founders of utopian socialism. Some of Fourier's social and moral views, held to be radical in his lifetime, have become mainstream thinking in modern society. For instance, Fourier is credited with having originated the word "feminism" in 1837.

Étienne Cabet French philosopher

Étienne Cabet was a French philosopher and utopian socialist who founded the Icarian movement. Cabet became the most popular socialist advocate of his day, with a special appeal to artisans who were being undercut by factories, and his commutarian ideals later influenced Karl Marx and others. Cabet published Voyage en Icarie in French in 1839, in which he proposed replacing capitalist production with workers' cooperatives. Recurrent problems with French officials, led him to emigrate to the United States in 1848. Cabet founded utopian communities in Texas and Illinois, but was again undercut, this time by recurring feuds with his followers.


Utopian socialism is often described as the presentation of visions and outlines for imaginary or futuristic ideal societies, with positive ideals being the main reason for moving society in such a direction. Later socialists and critics of utopian socialism viewed "utopian socialism" as not being grounded in actual material conditions of existing society and in some cases as reactionary. These visions of ideal societies competed with Marxist-inspired revolutionary social democratic movements. [2] The term is most often applied to those socialists who lived in the first quarter of the 19th century who were ascribed the label "utopian" by later socialists as a pejorative in order to imply naiveté and to dismiss their ideas as fanciful and unrealistic. [3] A similar school of thought that emerged in the early 20th century is ethical socialism, which makes the case for socialism on moral grounds.

A pejorative is a word or grammatical form expressing a negative connotation or a low opinion of someone or something, showing a lack of respect for someone or something. It is also used to express criticism, hostility, or disregard. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social or ethnic groups but not in others. Sometimes, a term may begin as a pejorative and eventually be adopted in a non-pejorative sense in some or all contexts.

Ethical socialism is a political philosophy that appeals to socialism on ethical and moral grounds as opposed to economic, egoistic and consumeristic grounds. It emphasizes the need for a morally conscious economy based upon the principles of service, cooperation and social justice while opposing possessive individualism. In contrast to socialism inspired by rationalism, historical materialism, neoclassical economics and Marxist theory which base their appeals for socialism on grounds of economic efficiency, rationality, or historical inevitability, ethical socialism focuses on the moral and ethical reasons for advocating socialism.

However, one key difference between utopian socialists and other socialists (including most anarchists) is that utopian socialists generally do not believe any form of class struggle or political revolution is necessary for socialism to emerge. Utopians believe that people of all classes can voluntarily adopt their plan for society if it is presented convincingly. [2] They feel their form of cooperative socialism can be established among like-minded people within the existing society and that their small communities can demonstrate the feasibility of their plan for society. [2]


The thinkers identified as utopian socialist did not use the term "utopian" to refer to their ideas. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first thinkers to refer to them as "utopian", referring to all socialist ideas that simply presented a vision and distant goal of an ethically just society as utopian. This utopian mindset which held an integrated conception of the goal, the means to produce said goal and an understanding of the way that those means would inevitably be produced through examining social and economic phenomena can be contrasted with scientific socialism, which has been likened to Taylorism.[ citation needed ]

Karl Marx Revolutionary socialist

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary.

Friedrich Engels German social scientist, author, political theorist, and philosopher

Friedrich Engels was a German philosopher, communist, social scientist, journalist and businessman. His father was an owner of large textile factories in Salford, England and in Barmen, Prussia.

Scientific socialism social-political-economic theory

Scientific socialism is a term coined in 1840 by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his What is Property? to mean a society ruled by a scientific government, i.e. one whose sovereignity rests upon reason, rather than sheer will:

Thus, in a given society, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government, — that is, for a scientific government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism.

This distinction was made clear in Engels' work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1892, part of an earlier publication, the Anti-Dühring from 1878). Utopian socialists were seen as wanting to expand the principles of the French revolution in order to create a more "rational" society. Despite being labeled as utopian by later socialists, their aims were not always utopian and their values often included rigid support for the scientific method and the creation of a society based upon scientific understanding. [4]

<i>Socialism: Utopian and Scientific</i> literary work

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a short book first published in 1880 by German-born socialist Friedrich Engels. The work was primarily extracted from a longer polemic work published in 1876, Anti-Dühring. It first appeared in the French language.

<i>Anti-Dühring</i> literary work

Anti-Dühring is a book by Friedrich Engels, first published in German in 1878. It had previously been serialised in a periodical. There were two further German editions in Engels' lifetime. Anti-Dühring was first published in English translation in 1907.


The term "utopian socialism" was introduced by Karl Marx in "For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything" in 1843 (and then developed in The Communist Manifesto in 1848), although shortly before its publication Marx had already attacked the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Das Elend der Philosophie (originally written in French, 1847). The term was used by later socialist thinkers to describe early socialist or quasi-socialist intellectuals who created hypothetical visions of egalitarian, communalist, meritocratic, or other notions of "perfect" societies without considering how these societies could be created or sustained.

<i>The Communist Manifesto</i> 1848 publication written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto is an 1848 political pamphlet by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Commissioned by the Communist League and originally published in London just as the Revolutions of 1848 began to erupt, the Manifesto was later recognised as one of the world's most influential political documents. It presents an analytical approach to the class struggle and the conflicts of capitalism and the capitalist mode of production, rather than a prediction of communism's potential future forms.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon French politician, mutualist philosopher, economist, and socialist

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician and the founder of mutualist philosophy. He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist, using that term and is widely regarded as one of the ideology's most influential theorists. Proudhon is even considered by many to be the "father of anarchism". He became a member of the French Parliament after the Revolution of 1848, whereafter he referred to himself as a federalist.

In Das Elend der Philosophie, English title The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx criticized the economic and philosophical arguments of Proudhon set forth in The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty . Marx accused Proudhon of wanting to rise above the bourgeoisie. In the history of Marx's thought and Marxism, this work is pivotal in the distinction between the concepts of utopian socialism and what Marx and the Marxists claimed as scientific socialism.

Although utopian socialists shared few political, social, or economic perspectives, Marx and Engels argued that they shared certain intellectual characteristics. In The Communist Manifesto, [5] Marx and Engels wrote: "The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society? Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel".

Marx and Engels used the term "scientific socialism" to describe the type of socialism they saw themselves developing. According to Engels, socialism was not "an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historical-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict".

Critics have argued that utopian socialists who established experimental communities were in fact trying to apply the scientific method to human social organization and were therefore not utopian. For instance, Joshua Muravchik on the basis of Karl Popper's definition of science as "the practice of experimentation, of hypothesis and test" argued that "Owen and Fourier and their followers were the real ‘scientific socialists.’ They hit upon the idea of socialism, and they tested it by attempting to form socialist communities". Muravchik further argued that in contrast Marx made untestable predictions about the future and that Marx's view that socialism would be created by impersonal historical forces may lead one to conclude that it is unnecessary to strive for socialism because it will happen anyway. [6]

Since the mid-19th century, Marxism and Marxism–Leninism overtook utopian socialism in terms of intellectual development and number of adherents. At one time almost half the population of the world lived under regimes that claimed to be Marxist. [7] Currents like Saint-Simonianism and Fourierism attracted the interest of numerous later authors but failed to compete with the now dominant Marxist, Proudhonist, or Leninist schools on a political level. It has been noted that they exerted a significant influence on the emergence of new religious movements such as spiritualism and occultism. [8]

In literature and in practice

Perhaps the first utopian socialist was Thomas More (1478–1535), who wrote about an imaginary socialist society in his book Utopia , published in 1516. The contemporary definition of the English word "utopia" derives from this work and many aspects of More's description of Utopia were influenced by life in monasteries. [9]

Robert Owen was one of the founders of utopian socialism Portrait of Robert Owen.png
Robert Owen was one of the founders of utopian socialism
Utopian socialist pamphlet of Swiss social medical doctor Rudolf Sutermeister (1802–1868) Ehrerbietige Vorstellung und Einladung an meine lieben Mitmenschen.pdf
Utopian socialist pamphlet of Swiss social medical doctor Rudolf Sutermeister (1802–1868)

Saint-Simonianism was a French political and social movement of the first half of the 19th century, inspired by the ideas of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). His ideas influenced Auguste Comte (who was, for a time, Saint-Simon's secretary), Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and many other thinkers and social theorists.

Robert Owen (1771–1858) was a successful Welsh businessman who devoted much of his profits to improving the lives of his employees. His reputation grew when he set up a textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland, co-funded by his teacher, the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and introduced shorter working hours, schools for children and renovated housing. He wrote about his ideas in his book A New View of Society which was published in 1813 and An Explanation of the Cause of Distress which pervades the civilized parts of the world in 1823. He also set up an Owenite commune called New Harmony in Indiana. This collapsed when one of his business partners ran off with all the profits. Owen's main contribution to socialist thought was the view that human social behavior is not fixed or absolute and that humans have the free will to organize themselves into any kind of society they wished.

Charles Fourier (1772–1837) rejected the industrial revolution altogether and thus the problems that arose with it, Fourier made various fanciful claims about the ideal world he envisioned. Despite some clearly non-socialist inclinations,[ clarification needed ] he contributed significantly even if indirectly to the socialist movement. His writings about turning work into play influenced the young Karl Marx and helped him devise his theory of alienation. Also a contributor to feminism, Fourier invented the concept of phalanstère , units of people based on a theory of passions and of their combination. Several colonies based on Fourier's ideas were founded in the United States by Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley.

Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), influenced by Robert Owen, published a book in 1840 entitled Travel and adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria in which he described an ideal communalist society. His attempts to form real socialist communities based on his ideas through the Icarian movement did not survive, but one such community was the precursor of Corning, Iowa. Possibly inspired by Christianity, he coined the word "communism" and influenced other thinkers, including Marx and Engels.

Edward Bellamy (1850–1898) published Looking Backward in 1888, a utopian romance novel about a future socialist society. In Bellamy's utopia, property was held in common and money replaced with a system of equal credit for all. Valid for a year and non-transferable between individuals, credit expenditure was to be tracked via "credit-cards" (which bear no resemblance to modern credit cards which are tools of debt-finance). Labour was compulsory from age 21 to 40 and organised via various departments of an Industrial Army to which most citizens belonged. Working hours were to be cut drastically due to technological advances (including organisational). People were expected to be motivated by a Religion of Solidarity and criminal behavior was treated as a form of mental illness or "atavism". The book ranked as second or third best seller of its time (after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur). In 1897, Bellamy published a sequel entitled Equality as a reply to his critics and which lacked the Industrial Army and other authoritarian aspects.

William Morris (1834–1896) published News from Nowhere in 1890, partly as a response to Bellamy's Looking Backwards, which he equated with the socialism of Fabians such as Sydney Webb. Morris' vision of the future socialist society was centred around his concept of useful work as opposed to useless toil and the redemption of human labour. Morris believed that all work should be artistic, in the sense that the worker should find it both pleasurable and an outlet for creativity. Morris' conception of labour thus bears strong resemblance to Fourier's, while Bellamy's (the reduction of labour) is more akin to that of Saint-Simon or in aspects Marx.

The Brotherhood Church in Britain and the Life and Labor Commune in Russia were based on the Christian anarchist ideas of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910).

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) wrote about anarchist forms of socialism in their books. Proudhon wrote What is Property? (1840) and The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty (1847). Kropotkin wrote The Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories and Workshops (1912). Many of the anarchist collectives formed in Spain, especially in Aragon and Catalonia, during the Spanish Civil War were based on their ideas. [10]

Many participants in the historical kibbutz movement in Israel were motivated by utopian socialist ideas. [11]

Augustin Souchy (1892–1984) spent most of his life investigating and participating in many kinds of socialist communities. Souchy wrote about his experiences in his autobiography Beware! Anarchist!.

Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) published Walden Two in 1948. The Twin Oaks Community was originally based on his ideas.

Ursula K. Le Guin (born 1929) wrote about an impoverished anarchist society in her book The Dispossessed published in 1974 and in which the anarchists agree to leave their home planet and colonize a barely habitable moon in order to avoid a bloody revolution.

Some communities of the modern intentional community movement, such as kibbutzim, could be categorized as utopian socialist.

For example, religious sects whose members live communally such as the Hutterites or Bruderhof Communities [12] are not usually called "utopian socialists", although their way of living is a prime example. They have been categorized as religious socialists by some. [13]

Classless modes of production in hunter-gatherer societies are referred to as "primitive communism" by Marxists to stress their classless nature. [14]

A related concept is that of a socialist utopia, usually depicted in works of fiction as possible ways society can turn out to be in the future and often combined with notions of a technologically revolutionized economy.

Notable utopian socialists

Notable utopian communities

Utopian communities have existed all over the world. In various forms and locations, they have existed continuously in the United States since the 1730s, beginning with Ephrata Cloister, a religious community in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. [15]

Owenite communities
Fourierist communities
Icarian communities
Anarchist communities

See also

Related Research Articles

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Marxism economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

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Economic determinism

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Classical Marxism economic, philosophical, and sociological theories expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

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Further reading