Utopian Socialism: Origin, Characteristics, Experiments, Critique

Introduction to, Origin and History of Utopian Socialism: In 1515, Thomas More conceptualised an atheistic and communist republic in his novel, ‘Utopia.’ Utopia [ou-topos = not place] has come to denote a vision of an ideal and flawless society. [ou-topos = not-place] The etymology of this word which literally translates to a place that doesn’t exist, is representative of an idealistic stream of thought, something utopian socialists platformed in the early 19th century.

Utopian Socialism, although not an established and homogenous school of thought, refers to the ideas of Welsh manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen and French philosophers Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier.  A reaction to the prevailing economic system which prioritised private interests at the expense of the working class, Utopian socialism denoted the belief that society can and must voluntarily transition away from capitalism into a society run by co-operation and harmony.

Emerging at an early stage of Capitalist development, Utopian socialists witnessed the consequences of unregulated economic growth and shared a sense of outrage at the suffering and waste produced by early capitalism. This also explains the ambiguity surrounding ‘Utopian Socialist’ theory for the anti-capitalist rhetoric was first articulated in great detail by Marx, Engels, and other socialist thinkers.

The French and Industrial Revolutions which they had witnessed, produced a breakdown of traditional values and community bonds, causing individual detachment from work. Thinkers like Fourier noticed society was becoming increasingly hostile, fragmented and individualistic. Utopian socialism thus emerged as an idea in response to this detachment, what Marx later called ‘Alienation.’ Utopian Socialists attributed societal evil to Egoism which followers of Saint-Simon called, “the deepest wound of modern society.” These notions and observations helped cement anti-capitalist thought and set the foundation for the development of modern socialist doctrines.

Utopian socialists failed to provide articulate critical analyses for the social conditions they disagreed with, but their ideals and aims are clear. Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Owen sought to set up communities which were ruled by principles of justice, benevolence, and cooperation.

Characteristic features of Utopian Socialism

  • Ethical Reform- The utopia that these socialists aimed to create were ethically homogenous communities based on values of harmony, association and co-operation. The ideas proposed by Utopian socialists were ethical in nature, as opposed to scientific or even economic. These thinkers strongly believed that a clear conscience and good morals could transcend class warfare and allow owners and workers to live and work communally.
  • Voluntary transformations-  Utopian socialists came of age in an era characterised by optimistic perspectives, hope and a romantic faith in unbounded progress. Social perfectibility, can thus be found at the crux of all their theories. They believed in peaceful transformations of society and that Industrialists/ capitalists would voluntarily reconfigure the system and share it with the working class.
  • Science + Religion: A striking feature of Utopian Socialist thought was that, although these thinkers presented their work as the articulation of a truly objective understanding of the laws of human nature and industrial society, they also seemed to adopt a religious tone. These laws of human nature were also the laws of God and hence, their utopian science became an articulation of true religion. This allowed them to blend both science and religion, prophecy and sociology

Utopian socialist Experiments

Every Utopian Socialist managed to construct his utopia on a small scale. Some of these experiments include:

Saint Simon

The first Utopian Socialist experiment was carried out by the Saint-Simonians. These followers regarded Henri de Saint Simon as a prophet of this new world in which science and co-operation could create material change and propel the moral regeneration of humanity. In 1825, soon after his death, his followers started journals and organized lecture tours designed to elaborate and spread his ideas. By 1830 they had created a new religion that aimed at utilizing the productive forces of the emerging industrial society, to alleviate the ills imposed on the poor and consequently fill what they perceived to be as a religious and moral vacuum of their era. These societies were made illegal in France in 1830 but still sustained its influence worldwide till 1848, boasting more than 40,000 adherents. According to Keith Taylor, in his book ‘Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists’: the saint Simonian movement was experiencing internal turmoil over moral and religious questions. The rejection of Christianity and desire to create a new religion with new moral and social codes including a more liberal approach towards sexual relations and marriage, did not reflect mass opinion. He adds that towards the end of the 1830’s the movement began to tilt towards authoritarianism with Prosper Enfantin declaring himself ‘Supreme Father’, banishing ‘heretics and advocating a ‘rehabilitation of the flesh’

Robert Owen:

Robert Owen established seven communities in Britain between 1825 and 1847 and one in New Harmony, Indiana which was arguably the most successful. A cooperative society, this community boasted the first kindergarten, the first trade school, the first free library, and the first community-supported public school in the US. These societies comprised of between 500 and 1,500 people who would engage industrial and agricultural production. In the early 1830’s, the ‘Owenites’ engaged in labour organisation and made a large effort to create a national federation of trade unions. The Owenites predominantly spent their time attempting to create working-class communities in which property was collectively owned and socio-economic activity was organised in a cooperative manner. These societies succeeded for much of the 19th century but not much is known about exactly why they failed.

Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier posited that most of the problems he observed arose from the dislocation between people’s passions and the manner in which society functioned. He believed that this conflict could be resolved with the establishment of these so-called phalanxes, or communes. Between 1841 and 1859, about 28 phalanxes were established in the United States. The relative success of Fourier’s experiments can be attributed to their small scale and anti-industrial outlook which provided refuge to agricultural workers and craftsman who were anxious about their employment in their rapidly industrializing society. Simultaneously, Fourier’s phalanxes were said to be badly led and organised, with Fourier expecting the charity of benevolent capitalists to help operate his schemes. As organisation began to improve, the phalanxes began to inch towards being a religious community centred around Fourier who was perceived as a messiah at this point. Keith Taylor states that splits in the Fourierist leadership can also be credited with the movement’s failure in France. These phalanxes in America however, began to thrive, they were considered to be libertarian and anti-authoritarian in outlook. The movement was in effect, so liberal that the French government tolerated it and allowed it to thrive without interruption, unlike the communities of the Saint-Simonians.

Etienne Cabet

Inspired by Thomas Mores utopia, Etienne Cabet wrote ‘Voyage to Icaria’ In 1839. Cabet’s Icaria called for perfect equality and was highly democratic in terms of the popular participation it entertained. This community attracted 100,000 to 200,000 thousand people, mainly working-class folk such as artisans who were insecure about their employment as industrial societies began to mechanise production. Icarian societies were established all over France, and one group set sail to America in 1848, where one community persevered until the end of the 19th Century.  Keith Taylor mentions that Icarianism’s founding ideas lacked coherence, stating that these communities did not survive increasing governmental persecution in the late 1840’s and that there were also failures of leadership.’


Utopian Socialism was arguably platformed by Engels who introduced this concept by critiquing it in his 1880 book, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.’ Radical socialist thinkers ascribed the label ‘utopian’ to refer to the naivete of the theory, calling it fanciful and unrealistic. Making the case for socialism on moral grounds, several socialists dismissed the work of these utopian thinkers, on the basis of its failure to acknowledge the class struggle, liberation, and the analysis of actual material conditions.

Due to the time in with these ideas were birthed, these theories were not able to critically analyze nor comment on the liberation of all oppressed groups. Slavery was still legal when Robert Owens established his utopian community in Indiana; the liberation of the working class, for them, was not extended to black people in the neighbouring farms. Several Saint-Simonites were also in favour of the French colonization of North Africa, neglecting both colonialism and imperialism from their analysis of poor social conditions caused by capitalism.

Adopting an unrealistic and illusory approach, the optimism which streaks all utopian ideas was criticized heavily by emerging socialist thinkers. Utopian socialists believed that members of the ruling class could easily reconcile social conditions and ease the transition into a utopia, their theories neglect class struggle and actively advocate against seizing the means of production through revolution. Nonetheless, modern Socialist discourse lying at the intersection of idealistic and more pragmatic currents, appears so only because of the utopian characteristic of early socialist thought. This ideology provided a loose framework for revolutionary leaders and theorists to build off of, creating a comprehensive and elaborate articulation of what Socialism truly means.

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Shivanka Gautam is a student at FLAME University, studying Psychology and Literary & Cultural studies. She has a passion for Critical theory, Cultural Affairs, Political Philosophy and Academia.