The Value of Utopia: The American Tradition of Radical Utopianism (Part 1)

Nicholas Partyka, Phd


For many centuries persons, peoples, and civilizations, have dreamed about what an ideal society (utopia) would look like, and worried about ways in which society could be much worse (dystopia). Utopian dreams and dystopian worries are powerful tools for thinking about what sorts of changes a society should pursue or avoid, and what underlying dynamics these proposed changes expose. This series examines the tradition of utopian and dystopian thought in western culture, beginning with the ancient Greeks, but continuing on into the modern period. Our focus in this series will be on the important social, political, and economic ideas and issues raised in different utopian stories. When we look into utopian stories, and their historical times, what we’ll see reflected in the stories of utopia are the social, political, and economic concerns of the authors, their societies, and or their particular social class.

The meaning of the word ‘utopia’ comes to us from ancient Greece. In our modern world the word takes its current form because of Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same name. Indeed, it is this book from which most of the modern western European utopian tradition takes its origin; or at least, this work inaugurates it most common trope. Where we have in our lexicon one ‘utopia’, the Greeks had two. The difference, even confusion, between them marks an essential cleavage. For the Greeks, there was both Eu- topia, and Ou-topia. Both are derived in part from the Greek word topos, which means “place”, and the suffix ‘ia‘ meaning land. Translated into English, ‘Ou-topia’ means something like, ” No-place land”, whereas ‘Eu-topia’ translates as “good-place land”. More succinctly, the difference is between the idea of the best place, and an impossible place. It is the difference between a place which does not exist, because it has not yet been realized, and a place which cannot, and could not, ever exist.

Our modern word is pronounced as the Greeks pronounced ‘Eutopia’. However, the meanings of these Greek words were confused by modern writers, who ended up with the spelling ‘utopia’, from the old English ‘Utopie’ as opposed to “Eutopia”, as meaning “good place”. This basic confusion about utopias, between “good place” and “no place”, inserts an important ambiguity directly in the center of thinking about utopias. This ambiguity forces one to wonder of utopian writers, Are their visions supposed to be dreams of possible futures meant to incite us to action, or are they impossible dreams meant as reminders that the world is not easily re-shaped by human effort? Is a utopia supposed to be a good place or a no-place, is the author supporting or condemning the practices of the fictional societies they describe?

One qualification must be made right away. A utopia is not a paradise. There is a colloquial usage of ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ that seem to suggest that it is a paradise. And compared to the societies in which actual humans lives, many of the fictional utopias would have indeed been seen as paradises, relatively speaking. However, we must draw a technical distinction between a paradise or a golden-age, and a utopia. In a paradise or golden-age no work and no effort are required by humans to obtain the things they want and need. Perhaps the most famous golden-age many are familiar with would be the Biblical Garden of Eden. Another well-known paradise is described in the mid-14th century poem The Land of Cockaigne, where fully cooked turkey legs literally fly through the air and into one’s mouth. In this place the only effort on need put in is to chew.

The whole idea of a Cockaigne, or a paradise, is that everything one would ever need is abundantly supplied without any effort. The natural world is just so constructed – either at random or by design – that there springs forth automatically an abundance of everything necessary for everyone, all the time, always. In this kind of society, or world, there never arises anything resembling what we – or most societies in the history of our world – a political problem. Everyone has enough of everything. So there is no cause for argument. There is no inequality, because everyone has everything everyone else has. Or at least, everyone has access to just as much of what others have whenever they would like it. In this kind of world what causes could there be for strife, or for civil war? A paradise, or a golden-age, is thus totally non-political, and not terribly interesting.

What this means is that utopias are enough like our own condition, our own world, that we can take inspiration from them. They are enough like the social conditions we know that we can learn lessons for and about ourselves and our societies by examining at them. This is exactly what makes utopias so interesting. As we will see, utopian literature has a long, very long, history with human beings. The enduring appeal of and, interest in utopias testifies to their relevance. This is the reason that we too are looking at utopias. We are all concerned with, or at least we are all effected by, the way our society is organized. By looking at how other ideal societies might be organized we can explore the merits, and demerits of various kinds of social institutions, and of the various ways of structuring those institutions. We are concerned to change our own society, and utopias allow us to think about the direction of that change.

We have a colloquial usage of the word ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ in contemporary society that works to prohibit much creative thought, and dismisses utopian thought as feckless, and as such, worthless. Part of the aims of this series is to demonstrate the value of this “worthless” endeavor. Dreaming, far from idle, far from impotent, is essential. Without wonder, without questions, the human imagination will atrophy. The value of this is that thinking about utopias allows us to both critique present societies, but also to articulate a vision of how we’d like our societies to be different. The deeper value of utopian thinking is that it sets us free, free to speculate and more importantly to give expression to our striving, to our desire for a better world. Everything human beings can be must be first be dreamed by human beings. This is the value of utopia and dystopia. Thus, the first pre-requisite for this series is the rejection of this colloquial notion of utopia and the utopian. Dismissed from the start, it will not be a surprise if we fail to learn anything from our utopian traditions.

Brief, but spectacular. That is how I think of the Occupy movement. An article I read recently lamented that the anniversaries of this movement seem to come and go now with but a murmur, a faint echo of the voice that all too briefly seemed capable of shaking American society out of complacency, of opening up new possibilities. There have by now been enough autopsies of this movement, and its failures. One thing that stands out is of course the fact that the movement never coalesced around a set of demands, never formulated a coherent political programme. Whether or not the Occupy movement did a good job distilling its critique, and its vision, neither were sufficiently theoretically developed or promulgated. Occupy in many senses seem to try to be a leaderless and theory-less movement. Of course, the main reason for the end of the Occupy movement was the physical clearance of the encampments by the thugs of the ruling class, that is, the police.

Much more fruitfully, when we look to the practice of Occupy, and the many encampments around the country, and indeed around the world, we can see that there is certainly a clear political, and moral ethos animating the activity and structure of the movement. What emerged from the Occupy encampments was an ethos of self-organization, free association, of de-centralized participatory democracy, and non-market modes of distribution. In Occupy encampments around the country people organized themselves to provide many kinds of basic, and some more advanced, services and community infrastructure, e.g. free meals, free educational opportunities, free healthcare, and much more. The diversity of services offered by different Occupy encampments was truly an amazing display of cooperation, solidarity, and self-organization. And indeed, this is what was really threatening about the occupy movement, it offered a robust vision of a more participatory, more solidaristic form of community, and worked diligently to create this, first within the bounds of its camps, and then the communities around the camps. Building up a vision of a new society, and a physical representation of that vision, became a major challenge to the ruling class because of the speed with which this movement grew and gathered strength.

Occupy was not the first time “utopian” ideas of more democratic, more participatory, more egalitarian, forms of community captured the imagination of Americans, and threatened the ruling class by becoming a movement. This has happened several times in our history, but, as one might expect, these lie outside the mainstream narrative of U.S. history. Thankfully, in the wake of Howard Zinn, much work has been done to recover and disseminate the knowledge and memory of the existence of radicals and revolutionaries, not to mention their important role, in American history. Utopian ideas, and vision of better societies have captured the imagination of Americans, and become large movements more than once. These largely forgotten episodes include the Bellamyite movement in the 1890s, and the Fourierist movement of the 1840s. These latter two represent the more secular and political end of the spectrum of utopian experiments in American history. The 19th century, when utopian movements of many kinds were very prominent, there were also a wide array of religiously inspired utopian communities that thrived in America.
Looking Backwards, on Bellamyism

While it is almost totally forgotten now, at the end of the 19th century, the only American works of fiction to sell more copies than Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, andBen-Hur. His book, and the ideas and vision contained in it, was so wildly popular that is spawned an intense, but short-lived political movement in the form of Bellamyite “Nationalist Clubs”; indeed they were often called “Bellamy Clubs”. These clubs arose quickly following the release of Bellamy’s novel, and while the first club originated in Boston, chapters soon popped up in cities across the nation. These clubs, via coordinated activity, became a political force as a movement in the first half of the last decade of the nineteenth century, before disappearing after merging with the Populist movement. They turned Bellamy himself into a politician, although he was perhaps not well suited to the role of leader of a socialist political movement.

When Looking Backward was published in 1888 its popularity owed much to its readability, engaging narrative, but especially to its grand vision of a utopian future. Another big part of its popularity was conditioned by the times in which its author lived. Over the course of Edward Bellamy’s forty-eight years he saw a great deal of turmoil, indeed, he would have been around fifteen the year the Civil war ended, and not quite twenty five when the Long Depression began in 1873. After the war American society experienced the rise of giant integrated capitalist firms – the infamous trusts – to positions of monopoly power; it had experienced a series of sometimes devastating economic recessions and depressions; it was experiencing increasing labor militance and strikes, for example the Great Strike of 1887; in conjunction with the latter, there was much radical socialist political agitation, see for example the 1886 Haymarket Affair and its highly controversial aftermath. Over this time the social effects of capitalism and industrialization became more pronounced. As is the still the case, it was workers, and the poor who bore the costs of material “progress”. From the end of the Civil war to the turn of the century was when American capitalism really came into its own, when it rose to social and political dominance. As material prosperity of society increased, it looked to increasingly many Americans that, economically and politically, the decked was stacked against them, and that the lion’s share of these gains were being accumulated by the wealthy.

Bellamy adopts the Rip Van Winkle trope and has his protagonist fall asleep in then present-day 1887, and wake up over a century later in the year 2000. Bellamy’s hero, Julian West, finds himself in a utopian future society in which the evils of the world of 1887 have been rectified through application of reason, science, and technology. The book takes the form of a kind of guided tour of the future given to Julian by his host, a Dr. Leete, who is caring for Julian after he wakes up. Dr. Leete and his family take turns escorting Julian around, showing him different aspects of the future, and answering his many questions about how the world of the future works, and how things came to be that way. Long story short, the Unites States of the future has been transformed by a rational and irresistible bloodless revolution into a socialist utopia, as one giant national trust, operated for the public benefit. All industries have been nationalized, and are democratically controlled by their workers; there is centralized distribution of important goods; there is gender equality; the economy has been reorganized as a rational and egalitarian “Industrial Army”. As Bellamy describes this future, there are no wars, no government, no bankers, no corruption, no jails, and no more “buying” and “selling”.

The social revolution that brings about the society of the future, as Bellamy presents it, occurs much like Marx describes. The revolution is a natural occurrence, and as such irresistible, that happened once society developed to a certain level of rationality. Once people become sufficiently rational they simply perceive the need to radically transform society, and then do so in the form of a revolutionary mass social movement that peacefully takes power and then restructures society. Bellamy, like many of his age, was not keen to abandon the benefits of industrialization, and mass production, but wanted to change the composition and distribution of what is produced. Thus, his vision of the future economy is one where society takes the form of one large trust, but because it will be run democratically by worker-citizens, it will pursue their interests. Bellamy’s vision is a kind of syndicalism, in which a congress of industrial unions forms the core of the national government. Moreover, because the people of the future are so rational they organize their society along the most rational, and thus egalitarian, lines. This is why, for example, in Bellamy’s utopia social classes are not abolished but re-organized on rational lines, which for him means according to age. This there is a course of age-based classes, or stages, all persons pass through. All the stages are designed to maximize the development of citizens’ personal talents and capacities, to effectively train people to be competent workers fit for important jobs, as well as to be active and engaged citizens.

The application of reason to social problems results, in Bellamy’s utopia, in progressive policies like equal educational and occupational opportunities for women; everyone must work between 21 and 45; universal basic education for all until 21; occupations decided, as much as possible, by aptitude; remuneration based on effort; college open to all, with admissions based on social need and individual merit; free universal healthcare. In keeping with his syndicalist vision, Bellamy’s utopia has a political structure framed around industrial unions. Bellamy’s novel envisions the future President of the United States as the general of the Industrial Army, and serving a five year term. This person is to be elected by a vote of all those worker-citizens who have retired, i.e. those over forty five years of age. In this utopia there would be ten industrial departments, or unions, each with its own head, or chief, elected by the retied members of the individual departments; the group of these chiefs serves as a kind of cabinet to the President. There is a national congress, which meets every five years to pass or revise laws. He proposes a separate entity he calls, the Inspectorate, to pursue consumer complaints, fraud, abuse, misconduct, et cetera. The job this agency is to seek out graft, inefficiency, or waste, as well as health, safety, or environmental hazards.

The central metaphor of Bellamy’s novel is presented in his analogy of the General and the Balloon. Dr. Leete in trying to explain the reasoning behind the organization of the society and economy of the future tells Julian, “It is easier for a general up in a balloon with perfect survey of the field, to manoeuvre a million men to victory then for a sergeant to mange a platoon in a thicket”. [1] It is most rational to organize society into one big corporation because this will facilitate macro-level social and economic planning in the public interest. The idea is to harness the power of the large trusts, because their centralization afforded them a larger view of the economic landscape, and allowed to plan accordingly. Under capitalism this planning took the form of the great trusts trying to manage competition between oligopolists to keep prices high. When all the nation’s industries were organized under centralized control, like in a trust, and all these trusts nationalized, society would be able to engage in the kind of economic planning that can create the utopian society Julian West encounters.

The idea for the Bellamy clubs emerged very soon after the novel debuted. A reporter in Boston, Cyrus Field Willard, is credited with coming up with idea, as there is a surviving letter in which he ask Bellamy for permission to found a club to promote Bellamy’s ideas. Bellamy assented, and the ball began rolling. In the fall of 1888 Willard’s “Nationalist Circle”, merged with the independently organized “Boston Bellamy Club” of Charles E. Bower & Arthur F. Deveraux to found the first permanent Bellamyite group. The Bellamyite movement was at this point more a moral association than a political party. In 1889 they began publishing a magazine, The Nationalist. Groups were very quickly found in large Eastern cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C.. The movement was particularly strong in California. That state had sixty five local clubs, whereas, even a large and populous state like New York had only sixteen local Bellamyite groups.

The early Bellamyite movement eschewed political action, that is, participation in a ‘democratic’ political process they felt was rigged. They focused instead on propaganda, e.g. organizing public lectures, printing and distributing pamphlets and periodicals. As the fever pitch of labor and socialist militance and agitation, combined with events like the Great Strike of 1887 and the Homestead Strike of 1892, The Bellamyite movement reversed course and engaged furiously in political activity focused on more immediate gains, with a particular emphasis on the elections of 1892. The economic and political climate of the age created other reform minded groups in addition to Bellamyites, groups which would cooperate and compete with each other as they often had large segments of over-lapping memberships. Economic depression, political corruption, financial speculation and market manipulation, all fueled the rise of the Populist movement, and of the People’s Party. Bellamy, and many other members of the Nationalist clubs were so supportive of the People’s Party that eventually the Bellamyite movement merged into the Populist movement. The failure of Bellamy as a political candidate did not help the situation, as the alliance of the People’s Party and the Bellamyites rendered most of the latter’s organizational functions redundant. In the wake of the 1892 elections the Bellamyite movement began to dissipate as it was largely subsumed by the Populist movement.

In early 1894 Bellamy’s own journal, The New Nation, was forced to close due to financial difficulties. Later in this same year Bellamy ceased his political activity on behalf of the movement that bore his name. Other Bellamyite periodicals continued to be published over the next couple years, but in dwindling numbers. By 1896 there were only a handful of Bellamyite groups still active, for example those in Wisconsin which were organized enough to run candidates for the state offices that year. After this, the Bellamyite movement basically vanishes as a movement, save for a scattering of die-hards. Bellamy himself would die only two years later, on May 22nd 1898. Though he claimed that he did not write his novel with the aim of providing an explicit plan of economic and political reform, his utopian vision of a more democratic, more equal future resonated deeply with a nation weary of the effects of capitalism.
Political Utopias in Antebellum America

The populist and reform movements of the 1880s and 1890s, as well as the socialist movement emerging in this era, had important precursors in American history. Indeed, the success of a radical utopian inspired movement like Bellamyism will not surprise one acquainted with the utopian movements of antebellum America. There was a very limited Owenite movement in America during the 1820s, the culmination of which was the experimental community at New Harmony, Indiana. Much more extensive and successful was the Fourierist movement that emerged in the 1840s. [2] This movement attracted a fairly large following, and was able to establish a number of experimental communities, called Phalanxes. In contrast to Bellamyism, which was an American movement, both Owenism and Fourierism are European movements which crossed the Atlantic. The success of Fourierism, and relative lack of success of Owenism, in transplanting to America is explained by the differences in the economic climates in which they came to America. Fourierism resonated more deeply with Americans than Owenism mostly because they were more open to radical utopian experiments in the wake of the economic crisis of 1837, and the depression that followed. If not for the economic crisis of 1873 and the ensuing depression, the 1886 Haymarket Affair, the Great Strike 1887, the crash of 1893 and the depression that followed, Bellamyism may not emerged as a mass movement.

One major difference between Owenism and Fourierism, and a factor in their respective levels of success, is in the manner of their transplantation to America. While Owenism was brought to America by Owen and his sons, Fourierism was brought back to America by an American disciple of Fourier’s, Albert Brisbane. Owen purchased the town of New Harmony in Indiana from its previous occupants with the intention of founding a utopian community there based on his philosophic principles and the lessons learned in operating his mills at New Lanark in Scotland. American Fourierists began with editing Fourier’s ideas into a coherent form, and then propagandizing on behalf of these ideas. When these agitation efforts combined with economic depression in the wake of 1837, with the lingering effects of the second Great Awakening, the example of successful utopian communities in America, and the sympathetic affinities of various immigrant groups Fourierism became a rather large movement. At its high point the Fourierist movement could boast of dozens of Phalanxes across America.

The Owenite movement in America was comprised almost entirely of the experimental utopian community the movements’ founder Robert Owen established, and his efforts to acquire funding and attract personnel for this community. Though there were other Owenite communities in the U.S., the story of Owenism in America is largely the story of the New Harmony colony. Unfortunately, Owen found little success in America, less than some of the experiments within Great Britain, and his utopian experiment lasted only four years before the colonists abandoned the Owenite philosophy. The community at New Harmony persisted, but they were no longer an Owenite utopian project. Owen had originally purchased the land, and a few buildings, from the previous residents at New Harmony. These previous occupants were Rappites colonists, a mostly German Protestant religious sect, which had moved to Indiana from Pennsylvania to more freely practice their beliefs and communal way of life. After establishing the first group of settlers at his community, Owen left his son William in charge at New Harmony and returned east to find more funds and colonists for his project. When Owen returned in April of 1825 he found the community of several hundred residents in chaos. He did his best to put matters in order, and succeeded fairly well, he departed again in June 1825 in search of more funds and colonists. In all Owen spent only a few months residing at New Harmony.

Within two years of its founding as an Owenite utopian experiment the New Harmony community was an economic failure, that is, it was not financially or materially self-supporting. There are a host of reasons that account for the failure of the Owenite experiment at New Harmony. The colony had trouble attracting residents, and those who did come were not always of the highest caliber. While New Harmony did bring in many ideologically committed Owenites, but also welcomed in many types of people. In a letter Robert Dale Owen, one of Robert’s sons, describes the population of New Harmony as, “a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in”.[3] In another letter William Owen, another of Robert’s sons, says that besides committed Owenites, New Harmony had attracted, “crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers whose presence in the town makes success unlikely”. [4]There was a laundry list of complaints about why the New Harmony project failed; not enough skilled craftsmen; not enough unskilled laborers; insufficient and inexperienced management and supervision; not enough housing; not enough land; not enough privacy; too much freedom; not enough freedom.

Robert Owen was often away from the colony, and many colonists only stayed a few months. This high turnover, as well as the problems listed above, seemed to doom this project from the outset. Between the motley collection of colonists, the factional infighting, and the lack of economic viability, the New Harmony settlement ended as a failure for Owen. The lack of economic success and factional squabbles over questions of theoretical principles and practical organization led to a large schism at New Harmony in 1826. A group carried on the Owenite project for another couple years, but finally gave up the ghost in 1829. Owen severed ties with the community he founded in 1827, transferring ownership to his sons. After 1829 the town abandoned Owenism, and converted their community to a traditional capitalist private property system.

While the town was a failure as a utopian experiment, it did produce some very interesting and significant results and persons. Under Owenite leadership New Harmony could boast of; the first free public library in the U.S.; the first free public school open to both girls and boys; it also became a leading center of scientific discovery in the natural science, in particular in geology where Owen’s third son David Dale achieved prominence. Robert Dale, the oldest son of Robert Owen, in addition to publishing many books and pamphlets, served in both the Indiana state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. He advocated for women’s rights, for free public education, and opposed slavery. It was in fact Robert Dale Owen who introduced the bill which founded the now world famous Smithsonian Institution.

Like the Owenites, the practical activity of the Fourierist movement in America was directed towards the founding of utopian communities. In the minds of the Fourierists these communities, or rather the network of these communities, would form the basis of the new society, and the transformative effects would radiate out from these communities. Though the Fourierists did much to expound and promulgate their theories in writing, their main energy was directed at founding and linking Fourierist phalanxes. A working example of their vision of a utopian way of life would, in their estimation, be the best piece of propaganda they could have. An operational model Phalanx was more likely to attract actual converts than hundreds of pounds of printed literature. One quite decisive advantage of the Fourierists was that they, unlike Owen, were not intensely skeptical. Indeed, the embrace of religious arguments, appeal to religious morality, and the use of religious modes of presenting Fourierist ideas very much helped Fourierism gain a large following in America.

The Fourierist movement was more successful than the Owenite movement in America, and thus it was larger and more diverse. It was however, more distant in its ideology and practice from its founder than the Owenite movement was from Owen. The experience of the movement is not so directly tied to any one individual community. This movement was, like Owenism, short-lived, despite many Fourierists being intensely passionate. Albert Brisbane, an American traveling in Europe, became a votary of Charles Fourier and his utopian socialist philosophy. In the early 1830s Brisbane returned to America and eagerly set to work proselytizing for Fourier’s ideas; edited and parsed by Brisbane for American audiences. By 1840 he was publishing The Phalanx, a Fourierist journal, but his big break came in 1842 when Horace Greeley allowed Brisbane to purchase a front-page column in his popular newspaper The New York Tribune. This platform allowed Brisbane to bring Fourier’s ideas to the huge audience of the Tribune‘s readership. Running for about a year and a half, and reprinted in dozens of other newspapers, Brisbane’s column, helped ignite the spark of the American Fourierist movement. We should note that Brisbane as not alone in working to advance Fourier’s ideas in America, nor was his journal the only Fourierist publication, though it was among the earliest.

Over the next decade Fourierist phalanxes sprung up across the country, perhaps the most famous of which was the Brook Farm community in Massachusetts. The organized Fourierist movement established at least thirty phalanxes, and at it height, the movement consisted of perhaps as many as fifty Fourierist communities. One must be cognizant that there were several strains of Fourierism in America, and so deciding which communities count as Fourierist can sometimes be a matter of debate. The “phalanx” was the name Fourier gave to his ideal utopian communities. They were largely agricultural, but did not reject machinery. They were designed to self-sustaining communities in which all participants would have a chance to prosper. Fourier’s phalanxes were not communist, since they were supposed to contain inequalities, that is, individuals were to be rewarded both for their effort as well as their contribution of capital. By the mid-1850s however, all but a hardy few phalanxes remained. What few did survive the collapse of the movement, were wiped out by the Civil war. Most Fourierist phalanxes lasted, on average, only a couple years; indeed, critics labeled Fourierists, ‘four-year-ites’. The longest lasting community was the North American Phalanx of Colts Neck, New Jersey, which was in continuous operation for twelve years.

There is one very important way that the experience of the Brook Farm community was characteristic of the larger Fourierist movement. The Brook Farm community was originally established a utopian community by Transcendentalist-inspired reformers. In the spring of 1841 George Ripley, and a small coterie of fellows, decamped to Brook Farm and established an experimental utopian community. Their aims were to counter the effects of a depersonalized and unequal society by removing themselves from that society, and forming a more ideal communal way of life. The Brook Farmers rejected Emerson’s more individualistic, more isolationist, vision of Transcendentalist “self-culture”. After four years of disorganization, factional quibbles, and lack of a cohesive vision, inhibiting the communities’ prosperity, the Brook Farmers decided to adopt Fourierism in1844 because it offered a more concrete plan and structure. This is what attracted many, beyond Transcendentalists, to Fourier’s system, and to Fourierist phalanxes, in this era. It was a detailed plan of action for forming communities in an age when so many utopian schemes were vague and ill-defined.

The Fourierist movement, brief as its life may have been, as well as the legacy of its example, made important contributions to later American political movements. Several important legacies of the Fourierist movement stand out. First, in the 1840s the Fourierists were among the earliest and strongest critics of the nascent industrial capitalist order. The Fourierists criticized capitalism as an anti-democratic system of “industrial feudalism” which subordinated workers to employers. Fourierism, and indeed the whole communitarian movement, achieved its prominence at a kind of tipping point in American history, and its failure to stop the advance of the burgeoning industrial capitalism set American society on different path than had this movement had more success. On a longer view, the legacy of the Fourierist movement continued to be seen in the communitarian aspects of the American socialist movement, as well as in the American labor movement, especially in its advocacy of producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives. The Fourierist movement has an additional interesting legacy in the way that it influenced the thinking of Edward Bellamy. Indeed, several important elements of Fourierist philosophy appear in Bellamy’s utopia.

The utopian alternative was very much alive in the 19th century in America. The threat various utopian movements constituted can be seen in the sheer numbers of people who flocked to religious or secular utopian communities all over the country. From the 1820s through the 1850s thousands and thousands of Americans experimented with utopianism, joining one or another experimental community. Over these decades nearly one hundred different utopian communities and projects were launched in America. Some lasted just a few months, others only a few years. Others, however, enjoyed some longevity. In general the utopian communities that tended to last longer were the religiously inspired ones, which also had the advantage of being ethno-religious groupings. Many utopian groups like the Rappites or Harmonists, the Amish, and the Hutterites, were largely German Protestant sects. Though there were religious groups, e.g. the Shakers, who were successful at converting many different kinds of people to their way of life. Other utopian groups attempted to create new religions, e.g. the Mormons, and the Oneida community.

In a fairly common pattern manner people turned to utopian communities when economic hardship became most acute, and then left when conditions improved. They very existence of alternative, non-for-profit, ways of living posed a threat to the nascent capitalist order in America. It was only in the decades after the Civil war that most kinds of utopian communities became economically unviable as corporate consolidation, mechanization of production, and economies of scale replaced durable hand-made goods with cheaper but less durable factory-made goods. Utopian communities, as small-scale industrial producers of craft goods could simply not compete. Though many of these communities continued to be self-sufficient and survived as communities, their prosperity at first slowly, and then rather quickly, diminished, making attracting new followers and maintaining their communities difficult.

What the experience of utopian communities, both religious and secular, testifies to is the ability of possibility to capture the imagination, and to inspire action. Their many different aim and principles notwithstanding, these utopian movements all sought to transform the lives of human beings through radically transforming social relations. Beyond utopian experiments in communal living utopian thinking provided some inspiration for more practical movements like the early women’s suffrage movement, the abolitionist movement, and the prohibitionist movement. The Occupy movement, brief but spectacular, is part of this utopian tradition in American history. Its memory is worth preserving, its anniversaries worth noting, because of the utopian aspect of its existence. Even for a brief time, just as with our 19thcentury forebears, a utopian political movement allowed a great many people the freedom to participate in the dream that a better world is possible, to experience the thrill of feeling that such a possible better world could be realized.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. 1888. Quote from Claeys, Gregory & Lyman T. Sargent. The Utopia Reader. New York University Press, 1999.

For an excellent history of the American Fourierist movement see; Guarneri, Carl J.. The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in 19th Century America. Cornell University Press, 1991.

Quoted from; Clayton, Joseph. Robert Owen: Pioneer of Social Reforms. A.C. Fifield, 1908.

Quoted in; Wilson, William. The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony. 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press, 1967.


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