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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reading #6: Utopian Socialism

The CHS class has just gotten a bit ahead of us! My own fault, since I’ve been too busy to post.

So, I’m just going to go ahead and post the FINAL READING of Volume I, on Utopian Socialism, pp 166-192. 

This is a particular interest of mine, since it represents the ‘other path’ not taken by Leftist politics, the range of strategies, conceptualizations, and possibilities that were, to be honest, rather aggressively wiped out by Marxism and other insurrectionary models of socialism in the second half of the century. In aggressively dismissing utopian discourse in favour of exclusively insurrectionary models, the radical Left abandoned the concepts of peace, and of local autonomy, to the Liberals.

There are some obvious good grounds for a distrust of these models: a certain naiveté regarding human nature and especially concerning the resistance of invested powers to maintaining their hegemony; an absurdly rigid schematism in their systems, a wild emphasis on proscription rather than adaptability to evolving conditions or tactical metis; religious frameworks which (I suspect) may have been quite astute in the conditions in which they were formed, but which would have required a progressive atomization had the utopian tradition continued to develop in dialogue with the Marxist critique, rather than replaced by it; I would add to this the absurd claim to ‘inevitability’ that Fourier in particular adopted, but it was adapted by Marx and Engels as well, albeit with its inherent religious logic suppressed. In the case of Fourier, the utterly absurd nature of some of his prophetic conclusions—seven-foot-tall men, lemonade-flavoured oceans, life on other planets, etc.—made him very easy to discredit (though other conclusions, such as climate change, no longer seem as ridiculous as they once did, though the changes seem more sinister than anticipated).

On the other hand, there was a baby in the bathwater that Engels and Marx tossed out. While the economic and class analyses of Fourier and Saint-Simon have been superceded both by the mathematical and sociological rigour of Marxism and by the continual development of Capitalist society, the utopian model of social change presented a vastly different picture of society than the highly centralized, consolidated State-structure promulgated by most forms of Communism, especially after the ’71 Commune. (In a couple days I’ll post a little micro-essay on this subject that I wrote a couple months back). Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the utopian movements, in particular their rigidity and fantasizing natures, had their continued development not been crushed by Marxism’s insistence upon ideological hegemony, they might have developed (and, in the wake of the Marxist critique, could still develop) into more responsive, fluid, adaptable models in some ways comparable to current anarchist practice, along lines already implicit in the foundations of the Fourierist and Saint-Simonist systems. This perception is responsible for the interest taken by the Dadas, Surrealists, and Situationists in Fourier, and I would argue that precisely this re-thinking of utopian socialism can be discerned—fairly explicitly—by the Romanticist avant-garde, who took the term ‘avant-garde’ itself from a Saint-Simonist tract. But that comes along a bit later, in Vol. II…

In the meantime. Some prompts / possible research areas…

  • Though I’m not familiar with any Fourierist Phalansteries actually founded in France, there were a number founded in America in the 1840s and ‘50s. Most of them seem to have been very successful until shut down by opposition/ arson/ harassment by people from the surrounding towns and countryside. There’s surely a lot of interesting stuff to be dug up regarding these experiments.
  • While I am currently nearing the end of a fairly recent translation of Fourier’s Theory of the Four Movements (and Lily from the CHS class will be reading it for her critical paper in class), I was unable to find a public domain translation—only an anthology of ‘selections from Fourier’ which is highly selective. In particular, this explains why none of Fourier’s more outré predictions are in the Reader—most of his followers weren’t in a hurry to highlight these things. Even beyond that, many of his ideas which I find most applicable to real social practice—in greatly re-imagined form—could not be reproduced; and his system generally is so absurdly, delightfully complex that it can’t be given in a nutshell. Still, I’d be interested in how some of the ideas of these systems might be adapted to more realistic conditions, re-thought in useful ways. Sometime before the end of the year, I hope to give a Shadow School presentation in Roanoke explicating Fourier’s system and extrapolating some of its possible applications. Any ideas?
  • To my knowledge, NO BOOK WHATSOEVER by Saint-Simon has ever been translated; odd (perhaps) considering that the Saint-Simonists at one point had a large, successful commune in the middle of Paris (shut down by police raids on trumped-up “morality” charges), a newspaper with a circulation in the tens-of-thousands, weekly meetings attended by thousands of working-class and middle-class families, a network of free schools, food co-ops, and other projects throughout Paris, as well as comparable organisations in other large cities in France. So just about anything on the specifics of the Saint-Simonist movement is of interest.
  • Feminism was the central tenant of both Fourierism and Saint-Simonism; the latter eventually produced a Feminist splinter-group, who published a feminist socialist journal and several pamphlets while maintaining a food co-op, weekly reading groups for working-class women, etc. The only resource I know of for this fascinating group is the recently published Feminism, Socialism, and French Romanticism. Unfortunately the authors don’t seem to know much about French Romanticism, and reduce it, rather laughably, to textual analyses of one book by Rousseau (?!) and one by Chateaubriand. Notwithstanding, the historical information is revelatory and there are over a hundred pages of new translations by the women themselves.


  1. RE: saint-simonims-
    i was able to dig this up:
    to the left of the webpage, you can follow a link to read online. The author as included extracts from Saint Simon but does not bother to translate them from the french, and I'd barely be able to put a dent in the translation myself.

  2. Yeah, this looks like one of the best sources on the movement in English--Vol. II of the Liberté Reader actually includes a passage from this book, but I haven't had time to thoroughly explore it. At some point I'm going to try to track down a physical copy of it, either original or facsimile...

  3. skimmed about half the book. crazy stuff! i'm equally fascinated and scared.