Communal Socialism in Practice: Owenite and Fourierite experiments
Robert Owen and Charles Fourier developed distinct solutions to the problems of poverty, hunger and inequality of the early nineteenth century. Their theories were adapted and applied in small, short-lived communities, mostly in America, and proved that these communal socialist visions might work better as eye-opening thought experiments, rather than rules that a village should live by.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and Robert Owen (1771-1858) were amongst the first thinkers in nineteenth-century Europe to not only identify the existence and roots of the ’social problem’ of increasing poverty, but to also provide a blueprint for overcoming that issue. They believed that approaching problems of the time from a political perspective had become discredited with the failure of the French Revolution. Instead, they believed the answer lay in tackling these issues on a social level. They criticised ‘poverty, unemployment, thriving dishonesty, maritime piracy, commercial monopolies’ and blamed the exploitative nature of ’free competition’, industrialisation, overproduction and antagonism between the poor and the rich in ’civilised’ Europe. Fourier and Owen shared the view that the goal was changing the flawed morality of the age they lived in and thus called for a creation of a new morality that starts with the people. They believed a difference could begin to be made in small communities.
Owen and Fourier
Robert Owen was a talented industrialist. Rising from low social ranks, by the age of 21 he had become a manufacture manager in a Britain just starting to feel the effects of the Industrial Revolution. However, managing the New Lanark mill (from 1799) showed him the dark side of the competitive wage system, where workers were pitted against each other to compete and exploitation of men, women and children was the norm. He saw in his own factory that workers were more productive when treated with humanity, thus, he aimed to provide good living conditions and a well-governed community in New Lanark. It was this experience of a factory town that inspired Owen’s thought, which he soon began to preach as a socialist Utopia. In his view, the factory had shown people that reorganisation of society along the lines of small, self-sustaining communities was possible. His paternalistic system, where rulership was based on age, was far from a democracy. Abolition of property also wasn’t an Owenite goal; even profit-sharing was absent from his early model.
Although Fourier also favoured a solution based on small communities and sought a reestablishment of morality, there are major differences between the two men’s approaches. Coming from a part of Europe where industrialisation was a much smaller factor than in Britain, he identified the main problem to be the commercial system and repression of the ‘pure, ardent’ passions in society. Directing these passions (he counted twelve of them) in an ‘associative order’ and leading them towards fulfilment in an orderly manner would guarantee morality and harmony. To provide this guidance he envisaged the creation of the Phalanstery, a building designed to meet the needs of his ideal community. All participation in the work done in these establishments would be voluntary and the profits of association would be distributed in fixed proportions amongst the inhabitants.
The Owenite Communities
Robert Owen began his own socialist experiments. He found Britain to be less receptive to his ideas in the 1820s, so he travelled to America, purchased a small village in Indiana and attempted to implement his theories. This is how New Harmony was founded in 1825 and Owen invited ‘any and all’ to join him in making the project a success. But as the number of inhabitants of New Harmony quickly increased, the village got out of hand and was in desperate need of stronger leadership. Constitutions were drafted but even these failed to give full explanation of how the community should function. The diversity of the inhabitants became increasingly disruptive with no strong leader or religious doctrine to unite them. Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, explained the failure and disintegration of New Harmony in 1827 by describing its previous inhabitants as ‘a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.’ Between 1825 and 1830, twelve similar Owenite communities were established in America, including Fanny Wright’s experiment to educate and eventually emancipate slaves at Nashoba Community.
Robert Owen could not give up on the creation of a socialist community functioning according to his theories, and after his return from America established Harmony Hall in Hampshire in 1839. By the 1840s, most of the Owenite experiments had failed in Britain and America too, most commonly due to the communities’ inability to provide for themselves. The failure of Harmony Hall, with its bankruptcy in 1845, marked the end of the last Owenite attempt.
The experiment of the Phalanstery
Implementations of Fourier’s socialist community also faced many difficulties. No Fourierite community was established during his lifetime, but his American followers, most importantly Albert Brisbane (1809-1890) transformed and implemented a version his theory in the 1840s. Transformation was essential as Fourier’s writings included extravagant, often nonsensical claims, such as the seas turning into lemonade and the climate changing until the North Pole becomes mild in the state of perfect harmony. To later socialists some of these predictions of Fourier’s system appeared inexplicable. It must have seemed hard to integrate Fourier into the system of thought of which he was supposed to be a founding father, let alone base an entire communal system on his writings.
The Fouriterite journal ‘The Harbinger’ popularised the French political philosopher in America, but only in an already altered way, moderated by Albert Brisbane. As a result, out of the 31 Fourierist villages that came to be established in the nineteenth century, the majority found home in America. The first completely secular village, and perhaps the best known one, was Brook Farm. Here, an ambitious communal building was constructed, similar to Fourier’s plans of the Phalanstery. Although the founder of Brook Farm, George Ripley, tried to remain true to Fourier’s descriptions of the ideal village, this became almost impossible. Fourier gave very detailed accounts of certain aspects of his Phalanx and remained vague and theoretical about others. For example, he identified 810 personality types, doubled that number to include both sexes and determined the ideal size of the community should be 1620 people. Next to such impossible expectations Fourier provided no detailed explanation of how the Phalanxes should function, which was especially difficult in light of his theory of a community without leaders. But the changes that the later Fourierites implemented were also unable to make Brook Farm a success. The inhabitants became disillusioned with the restrictive rules and the rigid structure, which went against what attracted them to the Phalanstery in the first place: a more equal, freer way of life. Brook Farm was experiencing difficulties in 1844 but when Albert Brisbane, the unifier of the village, travelled to France to study Fourier manuscripts, it disintegrated completely.
One further reason for the failure of the Phalansteries is best demonstrated through the example of La Réunion. This community was founded by another Fourierite, Victor Prosper Considerant in 1855, in Lyon. He made the journey to America with a group of fellow French intellectuals and bought a piece of land in Texas, near the city of Dallas. None of the settlers had farming experience and soon after the purchase they were faced with the fact that their land was unfit for farming. Thus, the village could hardly reach self-sustainment and became dependent on the original population of the area. A blizzard destroyed much of the crops of La Réunion shortly after farming began and the summer drought took its toll on whatever was left. Similarly, Brook Farms experienced the outbreak of disease and a final destructive fire in 1846. The intellectual socialists could not cope with such challenges.
‘Once established in a single canton they will be imitated spontaneously in every country, simply by virtue of the vast profits and numberless pleasures this order will guarantee all individuals’ claimed Fourier. The quick decline of the Owenite communities and the Phalansteries contradicted his statement. The reality was a quick failure of all such projects for various reasons. The first problem was the expectation that a group of people (often socialist intellectuals) with no previous experience could begin to take up farming in an uninhabited territory and aim to be self-sustaining straight away. As a result of these irrational expectations the communal experiments collapsed because of economic insufficiency. Equally, lack of leadership in the communities resulted in chaos, while stricter control led to dissatisfaction amongst the inhabitants. The writings of Fourier and Owen could not provide solutions to either of these problems and the dissolution of the communal socialist experiments showed that these blueprints were impossible to apply.