18. Fourierism

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

François Marie Charles Fourier was born in 1772 and died in 1837. His family had lost its modest wealth in the French Revolution and François’s life as a result was conditioned by his sense of the injustice of the maldistribution of wealth. Behind him lay feudalism which in its best days had been functional, ordering society, but his life was to be spent in the demoralization and disorganization of the beginnings of the industrial age, Marx’s period of the primitive accumulation of capital.

Fourier, more than any other utopian socialist, tried to solve all the problems of society by the construction of an elaborately detailed system in which every person, activity, and thing had its place, and every contingency was anticipated. He believed that the completely free development of man and the unrestrained indulgence of all desires and appetites would necessarily produce the good man in the good society, and that vice and evil were results of restraints upon freedom for complete self-gratification — the most extreme form of social optimism. Man was naturally good because he bore within himself a fundamental moral harmony, the reflection of harmony in the universe. His “natural man” was considerably more natural than Jean Jacques Rousseau’s, but he proposed to liberate him by means of a most rigidly organized society. Of course, the assumption was that once a sample community of this society, which only Fourier knew how to construct, was set up, it would prove so immensely attractive that it would be adopted universally within a very short time.

Society was to be divided into phalanges, or as they were usually called in America, phalansteries or phalanxes, each with a common building, housing from sixteen hundred to eighteen hundred individuals on about three square miles of agricultural land, divided into fields, orchards, and gardens — Fourier was very fond of fruits and flowers. The population would be divided into groups of at least seven persons, with two in each wing, representing both the ascending and descending streams of taste and ability, and three in the center for balance. At least five groups would form a series, again with a center and wings. There would be a series for every conceivable occupation, and the members could move freely from one to another. Each person might work no more than an hour or two in any one series, so that all would find complete fulfillment. Unpleasant work like garbage removal would be performed by junior battalions of children, who would be encouraged to find tasks like cleaning privies great fun. Each family would have a separate apartment in the phalanstery, which would also have a center and two wings, and there would be theatres, concert halls, libraries, community dining rooms, counsel chambers, schools, nurseries, and all public amenities. The fourth side of the square would be closed by the barns, warehouses, and workshops, and on the center plaza the groups would be mustered each morning and marched to their work with music playing and banners flying. The phalanx would be financed by the sale of shares of stock, but every member need not be a stockholder, nor every stockholder a member. Work would be paid for and the worker would be charged rent and other expenses. At the end of the year the profits of the phalanx would be divided, five-twelfths to labor, four-twelfths to capital and three-twelfths to skill. Seven-eighths of the members would be farmers and mechanics, and the rest professionals, artists, scientists, and capitalists. There would be no discontent or discrimination, since all roles would be interchangeable. There would be a Chancellery of the Court of Love, and Corporations of Love, and an extraordinary system of organized polygamy. Not only sex, but food and all other sensual pleasures, would be organized to give maximum pleasure.

Fourier did not limit himself to reorganizing society. His utopia found its place in a fantastic cosmology. The stars and planets are animals like ourselves, he thought. They are born, mate, grow old, and die as we. The average life of a planet is eighty thousand years, half spent in ascending vibrations and half in descending; there are thirty-two periods of the earth, of which we are now in the fifth. When we reach the eighth, the Great Harmony will be consummated, and men will grow tails, with eyes on the tip. Dead bodies will be turned into interstellar perfume. Six new moons will appear. The sea will change into lemonade, and all fierce and noxious animals and insects will be transformed into sweet and gentle anti-lions, anti-rats, and anti-bugs. Then the phalanxes, numbering exactly 2,985,984, will spread over the earth, which will become one great Community of Love, ruled over by an Omniarch, three Augusts, twelve Caesarinas, forty-eight empresses, one hundred and forty-four Caliphs and five hundred and seventy-six sultans.

In his later years Fourier ran advertisements in the newspapers, saying that he would be home at a certain hour every day to meet with any capitalist who wished to invest in the future, found a phalanx, and possibly become a sultan or a caliph. No one ever came, but as time went by he gathered around himself a small group led by Victor Considerant, who in 1832 launched a Fourierist movement with a newspaper, Le Phalanster, which ran under various names until it was suppressed by Louis Napoleon in 1850. A community was established in 1832 near Paris, but failed almost immediately. There were no attempts of any importance after that in France. Fourier was patently mad, but Considerant was not. The Fourierists were careful not to emphasize the seas of lemonade and the men with seeing-eye tails. Instead they contrasted the combination of detailed planning and lives of joy, wonder, and sensual pleasure promised by Fourier’s phalanxes with the frigid, hard-working, puritanical utopias of his competitors.

Associated with Considerant was the American journalist Arthur Brisbane, who returned to the States and began active propaganda of lectures and articles. In 1848 he published The Social Destiny of Man, a simple and logical exposition of the conceivably practicable ideas of Fourier, purging anything that might hint at Fourier’s madness. The book attracted the attention of Horace Greeley, editor of The New Yorker; and in 1842, when Greeley became editor of The New York Tribune, he gave Brisbane a regular column in the paper and, in addition, considerable publicity for what Brisbane had christened Associationism in news and editorials. Greeley took to the lecture platform himself and finally pledged his property to the Association. Brisbane started a magazine, The Phalanx, which was absorbed in The Harbinger when Brook Farm was converted to Fourierism.

The conversion of the Brook Farmers and their associates gave the movement prestige and intellectual respectability, which it had never enjoyed in France, where any expurgated version of its doctrines could be compared with the original works of the master. George Ripley, Charles A. Dana, John S. Dwight, William Henry Channing, T.W. Higginson, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Fuller, William Cullen Bryant, in fact, almost all the New England intellectuals and Transcendentalists except Emerson and Thoreau, wrote for The Harbinger and the other Fourierist papers that blossomed in the next few years.

The movement also gathered up many abolitionists and, at least for a while, almost all primitive socialists. Its cooperative industry was an answer to both chattel slavery and the increasing debasement of the working class by the industrial system. The advent of Fourierism in America happened to coincide with a long period of economic depression and with the increasing social tensions which would culminate in the Civil War. Fourierism became a craze which the leaders found difficult to control. Somewhere between at least forty and fifty phalanxes were started in the next few years. Of these only six survived more than a year, and only three for more than two years.

Often crowds of a hundred or more colonists trouped off with flags flying and music playing to the wilderness, or to abandoned farms for which they had paid high prices. The first day began with a picnic, and ended with dancing, drinking, and the fulfillment of Fourier’s parcours, the concurrence of all sensual pleasures in perfect bliss. Within a few days, provisions began to run short, necessary skills were found to be in even shorter supply, and tempers were shorter yet. Soon competition for what little was available seemed worse than in the world they had left, and they began to quarrel and accuse each other of stealing. Some colonies lasted only a few weeks, and left the leading members seriously indebted. The tendency to buy as much land as possible and as heavily mortgaged was almost universal, and the purchasers were seldom able to distinguish malarial swamps and barren sand flats from agricultural land. Commitment to Owen’s New Harmony had been weak enough. It was practically nonexistent in the abortive phalanxes. Anyone was admitted who had become excited by reading the Fourierist press.

Almost all colonies began with a completely open-door policy. Not only was there no attempt to secure the balance of occupations, mechanics, and farmers necessary for any functioning community, but the phalanxes, like New Harmony, attracted a specific class, a caste of déclassés which had come into existence with capitalism itself — bohemians. Bohemians have been called people who would enjoy the luxuries of the rich without securing the necessities of the poor. The breakup of the old functions of society had produced large numbers of over-educated and under- or unemployed technical and professional people who were unable to find positions in society to which they fancied they had been called, and who had become increasingly alienated. They could not function with any satisfaction in the dominant society, and hoped to find a life aim and a significant role in an alternative community. But the demands of such a community were even greater than those of the dominant society, so they were, with few exceptions, foredoomed to still greater disappointment and demoralization.

The most successful Fourierist colony was the North American Phalanx, founded in 1843 near Red Bank, New Jersey. The founders were a group of Fourierists from Albany, New York, who had been discussing the possibility of organizing the community for some time and had thus become well acquainted. After considerable exploration, they selected a site of about seven hundred acres with pasture and woodland, but mostly under cultivation, and with two farmhouses. In August 1843 they called a convention, adopted a constitution, and raised an initial eight thousand dollars on shares. Although the constitution was largely an ideological manifesto, it also included a considerable amount of practical organization.

During the fall of the year, the first families occupied the farmhouses to capacity and began to build a large dormitory building for the main body which would come in the spring; in addition they went about doing all the necessary fall plowing and sowing. During 1844 about ninety people had settled in, planted and eventually harvested crops, built shops and mills, and worked out the details of practical organization. Membership was limited to what the project could support, and applicants were carefully screened and then underwent a probationary period of a year, preceded by a thirty to sixty-day visit. North American was anything but an open-door commune.

As time went on, the original joint-stock type of organization and the complicated system of paying wages and profits gave way to a more communal economy than even that of pure Fourierism. It took a while to work out the details of organization. One member said that the meetings of the first five years “were largely taken up with legislation.” Unlike any other phalanx, they could afford the time. The members were far more united. They had money. They were not threatened by bankruptcy. At the beginning, the property was worth twenty-eight thousand dollars, with about ten thousand dollars in outside debt. In November 1852 the property was estimated at eighty thousand dollars, with an outside debt of about eighteen thousand dollars and about one hundred and seven dollars credited to each person, man, woman, and child, or some one hundred and twelve members. To reach this point they had worked hard. There was never time for the constant picnics, concerts, and lectures characteristic of Brook Farm. Life at North American remained spartan to the end. Partly this was due to the influence of Shakerism on some of the leaders.

In September 1854 fire broke out in the flour mill and eventually destroyed the warehouses and shops. There was only two thousand dollars in insurance and the members estimated the total loss at more than twenty thousand dollars. A meeting of the stockholders was called to raise new funds. Instead they voted to dissolve the colony. Most of the stockholders by this time had become absentee members. A few people lingered on into the next year, when the property was finally sold off.

Had it not been for the fire, North American could have gone on indefinitely. The attrition of the years had left a community of people who were content with a very low-level utopia of hard work, plain living, and almost no intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction. Members had not been admitted unless they were prepared to do unskilled or agricultural labor. Professional people were discouraged. The colony even turned down a skilled printer who wanted to establish a press, and they were never able to attract highly skilled mechanics, but forced to hire them as needed. In spite of this, most of the colonists, but especially the children, remembered their years at North American with pleasure. Many of the members migrated to Victor Considerant’s colony in Texas, which never really got started, and others distributed themselves over a variety of communes, all of them short-lived.

The Wisconsin phalanx was almost as successful as North American. The original members, mostly residents of Racine County, Wisconsin, were exceptionally stable and practical men under the strong leadership of Warren Chase, who seems to have been — as were many other Fourierists, including many at Brook Farm — a Swedenborgian, and later a Spiritualist. The community started out free of debt, on ten sections of land near Green Bay. The first twenty pioneers spent the summer planting twenty acres of spring crops and one hundred acres of winter wheat, erecting three buildings, which housed eighty people, and putting up a saw mill, barns, and outbuildings. Within a year, they had joined the three buildings into a two-hundred-foot-long phalanstery, built a stone schoolhouse, a grist mill, dam and millrace, a large shop, a washhouse, a hen house, and a blacksmith shop, and they estimated their property as worth almost twenty-eight thousand dollars. Next year they had eight hundred acres in crops, but only admitted one new member.

The Wisconsin phalanx went from one success to another, very probably due to the solidarity and commitment of the members and the exclusion of eccentrics, cranks, and loafers — one new member out of hundreds of applicants. Everything was done systematically. The colony as a whole was incorporated and the phalanstery was incorporated as a town. Although they seem to have had far less bickering and factionalism, in December 1849, at the height of their success, the members voted to dissolve, and the property was sold off, mostly to members, in small farms and village lots, and the profits of the sale, which were considerable, were distributed. John Humphrey Noyes, summing up the brief history of the Wisconsin phalanx, said: “On the whole, the coroner’s verdict in this case must be — ‘Died, not by any of the common diseases of Associations, such as poverty, dissension, lack of wisdom, morality or religion, but by deliberate suicide, for reasons not fully disclosed’.” Communalism and the ideas of Fourier seem to have been only a technique, for once eminently workable, by which a group of practical men and their families opened almost four square miles of good agricultural land on the frontier, developed it, and sold out at a profit.