The first modern socialists: their means were utopian, but not their goal

Feb 1, 2008

Since the advent of class antagonisms in human society, oppressed people and others angered by injustice have dreamed of a better world. In the face of poverty, disease, humiliation and exploitation, people have counterposed their hopes and aspirations for a life free of sorrows and worry, where the pain and suffering of daily life no longer exists.

In earlier centuries, those hopes frequently took form in a religious context. Since people are taught that suffering and exploitation are necessary features of human life—the ruling class always presents its exploitation as “natural” and “the way things are”—people look for refuge in an afterlife or a heaven.

“You will eat by and by,” the old Joe Hill song parodies reactionary preachers, “in that glorious land in the sky. Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

But not always were the dreams of a perfect world relegated to a far-off afterlife. Sometimes they inspired struggles for a better life in the here-and-now. For example, in the mid-19th century, a Chinese Christian visionary named Hong Xiuquan led a massive rebellion known as the Taiping Rebellion against the European-backed Qing dynasty.

Hong established a “Heavenly Kingdom.” Private ownership of land was banned, foot binding of women was outlawed and restrictions on women were forbidden. Sexual relations between men and women were forbidden.

The Heavenly Kingdom was overthrown in 1861 by a combined Qing-French-British military campaign, but the Taiping Rebellion continued for another nine years.

All visions of a better world did not have religious roots, however.

During the Industrial Revolution in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, thinkers and philosophers grappled with the questions not just of what a better world would look like, but how to achieve it. As industrialization brought about the prospect of eradicating the problems associated with scarcity altogether, the quest for a better world took on a different outlook and character.

Conditions give rise to utopian socialism

At the root of this 18th- and 19th-century thinking was the contradiction between the promise of a society based on greater wealth and progress, on the one hand, and the realities of life for the vast majority of the working class on the other.

Frederick Engels describes the conditions of the industrial working class in Britain, for example, as “social murder,” because the ruling forces of society intentionally placed workers in a position where premature and unnatural deaths were inevitable.1

The conditions of the British working class were much like those for workers in other industrializing countries. Engels was one of many to document how workers—even young children—worked 14 hours a day in dangerous factories and mines, in order to meet the demands of burgeoning capitalist production. Major injuries and deaths resulting from dangerous working conditions were common. Hundreds of children died of neglect as mothers and fathers locked their children in the house and left home to earn meager wages. The annual rate of death in England was 22.2 for every 1,000 persons.2 (By comparison, the 2007 mortality rate in the United States was 8.26 per 1,000 persons.)

Mass migration to urban areas in search of work led to oppressive living conditions. As many as a dozen workers shared a single room. Without proper public services in place, the streets were filled with garbage and excrement. Overcrowding and poor ventilation, along with rampant pollution from factories, created severe respiratory problems for many workers. Clean water was largely inaccessible. Overcrowding resulted in several epidemics of typhus, causing tens of thousands of deaths.

On top of all this, most workers suffered from insufficient clothing and diet. Conditions were particularly difficult for immigrant workers, who had to endure discrimination in addition to the widespread sufferings of the working class.

The cruel realities of the industrial working class exposed the exploitative nature of capitalism. At the same time, rapid industrialization and socialized production brought with it the reality that societies could be established on the basis of abundance rather than scarcity.

This reality led to the idea of early socialist intellectuals that human society could and should be transformed into a truly democratic world—a socialist world—where there would be no exploitation of one class by another, and the needs of all people would be met.

‘Evolving from the brain’

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels called these early socialist thinkers “utopian socialists”—a reference to the term popularized by a 16th-century writer Sir Thomas More about a perfect society that could never really exist. Marx and Engels called the thinkers utopian not because of their ultimate aim but because of their proposed methodology to achieve that aim.

While utopian socialists had visions of societies that would ultimately influence the works of Marx and Engels, their visions did not include a scientific evaluation of the reality of the class struggle and how a better world could be achieved out of those material conditions. For this reason, in his classic exposition “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Engels writes that utopian socialism “attempted to evolve out of the human brain.”3

For example, Henri de Saint-Simon (1770-1825), believed that 18th-century French society could be transformed into a rational and harmonious society led by philosophers and scientists in the interests of the greater good for society. He pointed out the class struggle, although he portrayed it as the struggle between those who work and those who are “idle.”

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Saint-Simon’s contemporary, envisioned cooperative communities called “phalanxes” in which disparities in wealth would still exist but less desirable work would receive higher pay. He subjected bourgeois society to the most scathing criticism, pointing to how exploitation lay at the core of “civilization.”

Fourier was also one of the early proponents of women’s liberation. Engels notes that Fourier “was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.”4

Both of these thinkers set about to make their ideal worlds a reality—by appealing to the good nature of France’s liberal bourgeoisie. Saint-Simon initially sought to win over scientists and philosophers to take up his social causes. He sought out bankers and “enlightened” bourgeoisie. Many of his followers ended up forming quasi-religious societies.5 Likewise, Fourier hoped to find wealthy and educated capitalists to fund his social projects. One banker, Jacques Lafitte, politely turned down Fourier’s pleas for assistance, while acknowledging he was “flattered by what [Fourier] said of the influence which his name would have in France.”6

Utopia in practice: New Lanark

While both Saint-Simon and Fourier had followers who at various times in the 19th century attempted to implement this or that element of social reform, Robert Owen (1771-1858) set out to put his ideas into practice.

Owen, a wealthy Welshman, was perhaps the best-known utopian socialist. Along with his business partners, Owen bought the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland in 1800, when he was 29. He strongly believed that people were a product of their environment, and strove to improve the productivity of New Lanark through prioritizing the welfare of the people rather than profits.

Owens was determined to improve working conditions. Engels noted that the working day in New Lanark was 10 1/2 hours, as compared to 13 or 14 hours a day at competing mills. When New Lanark workers were out of work, they continued to receive their full wages.

Due to the value placed upon the well-being and integrity of the working class, the workers of New Lanark were extremely productive. Its population of 2,500 produced as much as a population of 600,000 would have produced 50 years earlier. Further, drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws and charity were unknown in the community.7

Despite the vast social and commercial successes of New Lanark, Engels notes that Owen was not content: “The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. ‘The people were slaves at my mercy.’”8

Owen referred to the fact that while the condition of workers in New Lanark were far superior to those of workers elsewhere, they were still subordinate to the rules of capital. At the end of the day, it was the investors of the New Lanark mills who pocketed the profit.

Owen’s solution to this dilemma was to build a society based on collective work and ownership—a kind of communism. He believed that the ruling class would be won over by the sheer rationality of communism and would cooperate in its establishment. After all, as a businessman and philanthropist who improved the lives of thousands in New Lanark, Owen was considered a hero. The ruling class praised his project when it was seen as a charitable experiment—and he made money at the same time.

Yet when Owen began advocating his ideas of establishing communism on a wider scale and abolishing private property, he became an outcast from public life. He soon began to organize socialist communities in the United States, including the most well-known one in New Harmony, Indiana.

Doomed to failure

Owen’s proposal for building communism could not succeed because Owen, like the other utopian socialists, did not take into consideration the irreconcilable class contradictions that govern capitalist society. As Engels explained, utopian socialism “criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them.”9

Owen was further disgraced when his communitarian project in New Harmony, Indiana, failed, partially due to the fact that his business partner ran off with all the profits.

The rule of the capitalist class is dependent upon the complete irrationality of the capitalist economic system. The utopian socialists did not understand the dynamics of capitalism, namely that the class interests of the ruling class and the working class are in direct opposition to each other. They did not understand the impossibility of building alternative social orders within the framework of world capitalism or the need to uproot capitalist exploitation entirely.

Marx and Engels, despite their efforts to differentiate their scientific socialism from the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, did not subject them to the same fierce criticism that they did to other later political opponents within the working-class movement. On the contrary, they gave the utopians credit for seeing the outlines of a new society—before the social agent to make those dreams a reality was able to take center stage.

In fact, the main limitation of the utopians was the fact that they were trying to develop a socialist vision before the class that would be able to fulfill it was fully formed. The modern wage working class—the proletariat—only emerged as a political force with the Chartist movement in England in the 1830s and in the European revolutions of 1848.

The same cannot be said of the modern-day “communes” and “intentional communities.” With the class struggle raging in the 21st century, with the examples of working-class power and even efforts to build socialism, these efforts sometime share the same form as the utopian socialists of the 19th century, but none of the revolutionary content. They are escapist fantasies for petty-bourgeois elements who are trying to escape from the very class struggle that can lead to a new society.

Making dreams a reality

Socialism and communism are not utopian goals. They are perfectly rational and humane models for society. For the first time in history, we are able to produce enough goods and services to meet the needs of all people—and in a way that will not destroy the environment in the process. On the contrary, it is capitalism—a system that hoards the fruits of the labor of poor and working people for profit—that is completely irrational.

Realizing the dreams and aspirations of oppressed and exploited people will take more than the visions of the most advanced and enlightened thinkers, however. It will take the application of scientific methods to understand the motor force of history—the class struggle—and to unlock the tremendous social power of the working class.


1. The Conditions of the Working Class in England, p. 108-9.

2. Ibid., p. 118.

3. F. Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers, 1970, p. 119.

4. Ibid, p. 122.

5. Booth, Arthur John, “Saint-Simon and Saint-Simonism,” Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1871, p. 23-24, 40.

6. Pellarin, Charles, “The Life of Charles Fourier,” W.H. Graham, 1848, p. 73. See also p. 56, pp. 63f.

7. Engels, p. 123.

8. Engels, p.124.

9. Engels, p.133

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