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The Optimism of Socialists

In to the 1800s, people in Britain and France were living in greater number in rural rather than urban areas, but the industrial revolution was underway – "industrial revolution" a phase invented in France in the 1820s. Urban areas were growing in size and factory workers were growing in number.

Factory owners were struggling for advantage against competitors and getting as much work as they could from their employees, and from children, as young as six. A lack of labor laws left workers without protection as to working conditions and hours of work. Stories arose of children as young as ten being whipped for not working fast enough or some other infraction of the factory owner's rules. And the twelve-hour day was common, for children as well as adults.

At least a few people imagined a better future. Some of them were encouraged by advances in technology and predicted central heating, air conditioning and artificial lighting. Some others predicted a new world improved not only by technology but also by better social organization.


Count Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) was an aristocrat who had served as an officer with the French in the American War of Independence. He was moved by the new hardships that accompanied the industrial revolution and by the idea of material progress that accompanied the technological change.

Saint-Simon saw a possibility in the new technology and a better organized society to abolish poverty, and he also wanted an end to war. He was devoted to science and rationality and looked with disfavor upon church support for the status quo. He wanted scientists to replace theologians, and he desired a new moral code built on reason rather than on miracles. He wanted justice and equal opportunity rather than inherited wealth and idle aristocrats. Eschewing the traditional place for women as described by the churches, he believed in emancipation for women. He wanted public education in order to make people as 'talented' as they could be. He took that big step toward socialism by favoring planning rather than an economy that he saw as anarchistic. As John Bowle writes in Politics and Opinion in the 19th Century, "Laissez-faire was to Saint-Simon a doctrine both morally and psychologically pernicious." Saint-Simon is known for being first to use the word socialist or socialism.

He wrote four books but gained little attention except during the French Revolution. For nine months, during the Terror, he was imprisoned on suspicion of engaging in counter-revolution activities.

After his death in 1825 some noticed his writings and became followers. They emphasized the creation of a society in which each person was ranked according to his or her capacities and rewarded according to his or her work.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was from Wales, and like Saint-Simon, he believed that life could be better for common people. He married the daughter of a conservative Presbyterian owner of a squalid textile mill at New Lanark, in Scotland. In 1799 Owen took control of the mill, and he ran it intending to produce goods to sell but also to create an orderly community of productive citizens.

He looked after the health of his employees and provided them with better food and housing. He set up a community school for their children. He provided his workers with a comfortable existence, and his mill was among the most profitable in the industry. In ten years, New Lanark was attracting worldwide attention. Writers visited New Lanark, as did ladies of wealth interested in the betterment of humanity. Skeptical businessmen came, and also Grand Duke Nicholas, the future Nicholas I of Russia. At Lanark they saw the homes of workers in neat rows along streets without trash strewn about, and they saw no children running wild during weekdays, as children did in other communities.

Owen paid higher wages than other mill owners, but still the workday at Lanark was long, and some children who were ten or older were working 10 hours and 45 minutes per day. People were not expected to have a lot of free time for frivolity. But, for the children he kept his factory doors open rather than locked prison-style, and for the children there was no corporal punishment.

Owen toured Britain, making speeches and arguing for a "new moral world," a cooperative world, without "the bitterness of divisive sectarian religion." His criticism of the Church of England annoyed many. In general, other industrialists kept to their ways of getting as much out of their employees as possible and giving them as little as possible, and governments were posing no laws to force them to do otherwise.

In 1824, Owen moved to the United States to build a community of the future. He purchased 30,000 acres in the state of Indiana, and he called his place New Harmony – a place that he wanted free from religion, private property and crime. Settlers came. And following the news of New Harmony, people created copycat communities elsewhere in the US and in Britain and Ireland.

There was conflict at New Harmony between those who believed in their individuality and those who advocated conformity. There were complaints about some who were doing too little work.

The work being done was not keeping the community financially solvent. And New Harmony failed to attract an adequate number of workers with skills. Owen's multitude of reports to explain the deficient production helped little. The community had, in the words of one observer, "plenty of storekeepers, clerks, committeemen and rangers [but] few smiths, artisans, and farmers."

By 1828 New Harmony had been reorganized five times and Owen had lost four-fifths of his fortune, including that which he had received from the sale of the mill at Lanark. He disbanded New Harmony, blaming the failure on people not having acquired "those moral characteristics of forbearance and charity necessary for confidence and harmony."

Owen returned to Britain, and there, in 1833, he pursued his dream of a cooperative and harmonious society. He created the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. Industrialists remained uncooperative and organized opposition to his union. Government and the courts were also opposed. In 1834 his union began to break up. In 1835, the year he turned 64, another of his efforts, the Association of All Classes and All Nations, also failed.

Followers of Owen, meanwhile, had been creating consumer cooperatives. Their original purpose was to collect funds to start their own Owenite communities. Interest in the communities had faded, but they found cooperatives for consumers beneficial, and from this the consumer's cooperative movement developed.

Charles Fourier

Fourier (1772-1837) believed that the factory system was a phase, and he looked forward to its passing. Neither did he believed in laissez-faire liberal economics or Bentham's utilitarianism. All these, he believe would pass. Human nature, he held, had been created by God, and he wanted a community that respected nature and that was tied together by love and a singular devotion to God.

In 1829 he published his book The New Industrial World (Le Nouveau Monde Industrial et Sociétaire). His plan was to organize people into what he called phalanxes. Each phalanx was to be a community of 1,620 persons with its own production facilities and farming, with a great hotel-like dormitory at the center, divided between first class, second class and third class depending on one's wealth, with as much privacy as one could afford, including having meals brought to one's room. Everyone would work a few hours each day, doing what suited him or her best. Recognition would be given to the best producer in each field of endeavor. He expected each of his communities to be profitable and the profits to be divided among the community, whose members would be encouraged to be both workers and shareholders.

Enough people took his writing seriously enough that several of his communities were created in the United States, but none were a success.

Pierre Proudhon

Proudhon (1809-1865) saw himself as less utopian than other socialists. He wanted a society based on cooperation. Competition, he believed, was the root of evil. He wanted to change the system through non-violent “revolutionary” politics and economic development that gradually eliminated state government and wealthy bosses. He was known for saying that property was theft, but he had modified his view, deciding that free people ought to have enough property to assure their independence.

Proudhon was opposed to indoctrination. In an 1846 letter to Karl Marx, Proudhon wrote:

Let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason.

Not believing in organization, Proudhon belonged to no political organization. His influence was as a journalist. During the June 1848 uprising in Paris, he was disturbed by the violence. He had always disliked violence. He called for a resolution to the conflict through peaceful conciliation. People in the streets had been clashing with police. Hostile and aggressive people scared King Louis-Philippe from power. Parisians invaded the Chamber of Deputies and demanded a republic. Proudhon gets no credit, but he continued as a journalist. According to Wikipedia "his polemical writing style, combined with his perception of himself as a political outsider, produced a cynical, combative journalism that appealed to many French workers but alienated others." He had been elected to the Constituent Assembly, but his career in electorial politics Chamber of Deputies was largely ineffective.

It is unclear what Proudhon's thoughts were regarding criminal behavior in his cooperative society – thoughts regarding a police force empowered to use violence if necessary.


The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert L Heilbroner, 1986

Bentham, by John Dinwiddy, 1989

Politics and Opinion in the19th Century, by John Bowle, 1964

The Worldly Philosophers, Chapter V, "The Visions of the Utopian Socialists," by Robert Heilbroner, 1986

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