Book Review: ‘The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier’

A Prophet of Liberation

‘The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction’, translated and edited by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Cape, £3.95

Marx and Engels praised and criticized Fourier. The criticism, inevitably, was that of all the Utopian Socialists of 1800 and thereabouts. As Engels put it in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

    “The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”

Yet the praise was undeniable too: for Fourier’s satire, the “power and charm” of his denunciations of commerce, his view of women’s position, and his historical insight.

Of all the Utopians, Fourier most readily wins sympathy today. Saint-Simon’s gospel of work may seem too severe. Owen’s experiments not free from the suspicion of progressive management; with Fourier, however, the human concern which won that word “charm” is almost irresistible. His answer to the classic question of who would do dirty work under Socialism is memorable. Muck? Filth? Let children do it: they love such things.

The present collection of Fourier’s writings draw strongly on material which was not available to Marx and Engels. This is the volume published for the first time in Paris in 1967 under the title Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux (The New Amorous World). It would not have altered their view, but it greatly amplifies the vision of a satisfying society as Fourier saw it. It enables us also to see how far away the Fourierists who founded 19th-century communities were from what was in his mind: straitlaced groups who, as the Introduction remarks, “for tactical as well as personal reasons” ignored his intention of a realm of sexual freedom.

After a financially comfortable upbringing, Fourier was woken to the realities of social life in the years following the French Revolution. Experiences in the Lyon insurrection of 1793 are said to have given him “a lasting horror of political revolution and social turmoil”, and the rifeness of profiteering and speculation under the Directory made him a bitter critic of “anarchic” competition. From these points of departure he constructed a series of proposals for the reconstruction of society, leading to the master-plan: a scheme of “natural association” in which the gratification of personal desires and passions would be for human good. By 1819 he had completed, but was never able to publish in entirety, his Grande Traité on society and human nature.

It was essential to Fourier that his idea be put into practice. His conception was of a community called the Phalanx, made up of small “passional” groups. For years he sought a patron to provide the land and the backing; he tried bankers, philanthropists and ambassadors. Though these appeals brought nothing, a small band of disciples formed. He quickly dissociated himself from an attempt at a community in 1833; after his death in 1837 Fourierism became a political fashion for a few years. Fourierist study groups in Russia included Dostoevsky and Alexander Herzen among their members. A number of Fourier communities were set up in America, almost all under-capitalized and incapable of survival for any length of time—the only part-successful one, Brook Farm, was ruined by a fire in 1846.

Fourier’s emphasis was on human fulfilment. He saw that capitalism and its commerce were not only degrading and starving millions of people physically, but also deprived them of necessary emotional satisfactions. He was concerned about ending work as slavery—not by inducement to make work attractive, but by letting it be attractive as he was convinced it was to everyone: civilization had perverted it. There was no reason why men should spend all their lives or even all day at one kind of work. In Harmony (Fourier’s name for his Utopia) they would do many different things, in pleasant surroundings and among friends and lovers. Economic security would be provided by the “social minimum”, a guaranteed income which made the framework for freedom of choice.

Like most Utopians, Fourier advocated a predominantly agricultural life. He did not deny the place of industry, but it had to be secondary; and factories and workshops must be specially luxurious if people were to want to work in them. However, he argued a great increase in agricultural production and a decrease in manufacture: goods would be so excellently made as to need replacing only occasionally, while the Harmonians would consume correspondingly more of the social wealth in food. The fullest expression of pleasure in work would be the appearance of armies of “a million industrial athletes” for huge projects like bridge-building and land reclamation.

But the real destiny of mankind in this new world was the complete liberation of the instincts. The satisfaction of material needs led to organised release from sexual and emotional bondage. As Engels pointed out, 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”. Fourier attacked Christianity’s “enslaved monogamy” furiously, for brutalizing sexual relations and for the hypocrisy which turned love into a self-centred activity. He saw sexual love as a central part of community life.

    “Love in the Phalanstery is no longer, as it is with us, a recreation which detracts from work; on the contrary it is the soul and the vehicle, the mainspring of all works and of the whole of universal attraction.”

The proposals for a free sexual life turn out to be elaborately regulated. There is a hierarchy of officials, and a mighty rule-book. The orgies sound like committee-ridden village fêtes, and there are even Courts allotting playful forfeit-type penalties. Fourier insists that the code is voluntary and to facilitate expression, but it rings uneasily of regimentation; the high priests, matrons, pontiffs etc. are plainly sexual bureaucrats in the making. Nevertheless, the vision remains a remarkable one when it is seen in contrast with all that was taken for granted about sex relationships in the bourgeois society of the period.

In one respect particularly Fourier was startlingly ahead of his time. His Utopia involved the liberation of the sexual “deviant”:

    “In Harmony manias will be particularly bizarre and plentiful among the more complex personality types. In civilization on the contrary the complex personalities are those who try hardest to stifle and hide their manias. They do so out of an excessive respect for civilised standards and public opinion and also out of a desire to avoid criticism, of which they already have quite enough.”

Every person’s proclivities would be marked on papers he carried, so as to find appropriate partners without difficulty. The “manias” would contribute to society’s well-being just as much as normal sexuality. The only line Fourier drew was at activities in which a person was abused, or made an object against his will. Thus, he anticipated by a century and a half the “gay liberation” movement and its logical conclusion—that society must be reorganized first.

This was indeed the great merit which enables us to see Fourier as a forerunner of Socialism. He perceived that the material basis of life was the essential condition to be provided, and this could be done only by creating a new kind of social order. Capitalism’s “disgusting civilization” was inimical to every human need:

    “The results of this system—poverty, oppression, deceit and carnage—are wholly contrary to man’s desires and to the goal of nature.”

When security, comfort and pleasure in work have been attained, man could then become truly liberated. Sexual relationships would be freed from coercion and necessity, and the gratification of instinct produce social enthusiasm and harmony.

The translation of this vision to class-consciousness and comprehension of political power as the means was, as Engels wrote, simply not possible in Fourier’s time. It remained an idea, hopeful of achievement by luck or infection. There is very much, however, which resembles what Socialists today look forward to in the society of the future. The belief in small communities as islands of liberated living still persists, but—as in Fourier’s day—a world away from what his mind saw. His view was of a whole society; no group of men is an island.

Robert Barltrop

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