Utopian Socialism: An attempt to understand the precursors to Scientific Socialism

Anmol Narain

Utopia has been lovingly described as a state of speculative existence in which society possesses qualities that are highly desirable and near perfect with respect to the dynamics of the division of labour, of individual liberties enjoyed by citizens in a collectivist framework and the distribution of power amongst the inhabitants of that particular entity. The word utopia was first coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516, in his book describing the fictional island of Atlantis.

The term has, over the years, been used to describe both social experiments grounded to reality and works that have been associated with the description of a fictional state of existence that chronicle a perfect end to be achieved. Dystopia, on the other hand, finds its way into the murky waters of well written fictional enterprise that elaborates upon everything that could go wrong in situations that, in practice, centralise power to such an extent that individual freedoms take a back seat. Take, for example, George Orwell’s 1984, the epitome of everything that could go wrong with the excessive centralization of power to the extent that freedoms thought to be free from infringement, such as basic privacy, are rendered unimaginable. One could even think of Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, which takes one to the institutionalisation of mankind’s most basal sexual passions, the underlying theme amongst both pieces converge in the excesses of power and control, which could be interpreted to be manifestations of the biggest fears of western liberal thought espousing individual freedoms. This, as well as practical failures of excessive centralization and their eventual collapse, has created a culture that cringes at the every hint of the term ‘social engineering’, which is quite detrimental to the pursuance of certain value orientations, albeit, with a healthy system of checks and balances in place.

This very end to be achieved, in terms of the virtues that the near perfect state will possess, varies across different conceptions of the term utopia. One could start by categorising the differences in all of these near perfect ends on the basis of the themes that are most commonly addressed in the most prominent works of discourse ranging from Plato to utopian socialists like Owen that consolidated the platform for the beginnings of scientific socialism. These differing ideas vary along the lines of the distribution of power within social systems in relation to the ownership of property, in the division of labour with respect to the contribution of different aspects of the population in the process of production and in individual freedoms and liberties that citizens enjoy. All these processes are then seen in the light of the larger moral structure that conforms to each author’s perception of what is right and wrong, built upon socio-cultural institutions that complement each other like the family in relation to theology, music, literature and systems of education.

The earliest conception of an ideal society can be traced to Ancient Greece, within which, the works of Plato delve into fundamental questions about what constitutes justice, virtue and reason. The true nature of these absolutes can only be perceived if people manage to obtain a great degree of control over the mind and body that arises from years of rigorous training in mental, physical and moral arts. This, in essence, would allow people with the necessary intellectual vigour to perceive reality in its absolute form, as an interaction of abstractions removed from reality allegorically described as the objects that cast a shadow on the walls of the cave that represents the vision of humanity (Cohen 2006). Plato, in one of his last dialogues refers to the creation of his ideal city, Magnesia, which would be situated far from ports that would have facilitated maritime trade, which by consequence would have made the population of the city more vulnerable to corruption that stems from the mercantile aspiration of profit making, wealth creation and hoarding. His conception of the city is influenced by the close relation between ethics and law, between education and moral psychology in bestowing upon the citizens, the ability to attain true virtue (Plato Laws 664 CE, cited in Bobonich and Meadows, 2013).

In accordance with what was stated earlier in The Republic, it consists of a society that is divided into classes on the basis of a division of labour. It proposes a categorization of citizens into a class structure of producers in the form of farmers and artisans, the warriors which are the auxiliaries and guardians which constitute the ruling class. Virtue, at first glance, can be contextualised as adherence to normative functions that place people along the societal hierarchy. But at a deeper level of understanding, the very concept of what virtue constitutes of becomes of paramount importance in relation to the true nature of things and the existence of absolutes that only those with the necessary intellectual vigour can grasp. This is where the role of the king who understands the fluidity between the true nature of things and how they have to be contextualised to different situations in practical reality, comes into play.

Power hence rests within the hands of those who have access to resources involved in the process of production such as the merchant class but even more so with the guardian classes and the philosopher kings. They, by virtue of being on a higher platform in terms of intellect combined with access to robust training, have a clearer understanding of the forms and hence have greater moral authority. Each household within Magnesia is to be given ownership of two plots of land that are equally productive. Hence, there is individual ownership of land but each shareholder must consider his share to be the common property of the whole city, though the land itself is passed down within the family over generations. Further, each household is to help fund the city’s system of common meals. The volume of land allocated differs in within the classes wherein those at the top receive land that has assets four times worth the value of the lot a given to the class at the bottom (Plato 740A3–6, Bobonich and Meadows, 2013)

In terms of citizenship, it is only the landed gentry and their male heirs that constitute the decision-making mandate in a participative direct democracy of the polis. But within Plato’s utopian city of Magnesia, Although women lack an independent right to own property, they are liable to military training and service and attend their own common meals. The Athenian holds that they can attain the four cardinal virtues and for this reason requires that they are educated (Laws 804D-805A, Bobonich and Meadows, 2013).

For Aristotle, women are not citizens of the ideal city, since they are excluded from political office. But in Plato’s Magnesia, women can participate in elections and hold political office and so the Athenian explicitly counts them as citizens. All citizens apart from the philosopher-rulers arguably remain within the cave with access to the glorified vices of music and poetry that is correct only if deemed virtuous by a man that possesses virtue himself, of a higher social standing, of course, which in effect, though extremely subjective, leaves little room for individual choice, freedom and creativity. But this is only in respect to creativity in expression, in terms of rhetoric and logic, all citizens are educated in accordance with their aptitude for mathematics, resistance to basal pleasures and rhetoric wherein those who qualify to move on to dialectics and become the future pool of guards and rulers. Those who do not, are directed towards practical aspects of social life such as trade and commerce.  In terms of religion, god is presented as the appropriate source of law and human institutions. But the very definition of god is that of the immortal element within each human, which is the reason.  Hence virtue is equated with a godlike quality of reason and the standard that one must aim towards. (Peters, Zarnic, Besley and Gibbons 1999)

As society trudged through the rise and fall of empires that had consolidated themselves into the ambit of a feudal nature with the surplus of mercantile capitalism, it eventually came to a point where the change in the productive forces was such that it brought to light the beginnings of a new class struggle that stemmed from changing social relations between the dispossessed and those with resources. The identity of the proletariat developed in this context of the aftermath of the French revolution and the beginnings of industrial capitalism stemming from science, innovation and the influx of capital from colonies. (Mukherjee 2010)

There came a point in time during the Kantian period of enlightenment that constituted the bedrock of the greater movements towards positivist empiricism, that everything was subjected to the most unsparing of criticism wherein everything had to justify its existence before reason. Hence, the reason became the sole measure of everything. Hegel characterised this point as one in which the world stood upon its head (Engels 1880)

It was only later on in history, that it became possible to contextualise this vision only to the bourgeoisie. And virtues of justice and reason could only be confined to beneficiaries within that class. Hence the ideals of the French revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) though the product of the antagonism between the feudal nobility and the powerful guilds, were only limited to those that had the material resources to benefit from the auctions of the land seized from former nobility. This is in contradiction to the general perception of the victory of the exploited masses over the rich and lazy.

At this point in time, the antagonism between the masses and the capitalists had not developed because it was at this point that the workers began to get alienated from the guild workers as capitalism moved from her mercantile origins to industrial vigour which later consolidated proletariat identity. Hence, the great thinkers of the 18th century could no more than their predecessors; go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch. (Engels 1880)

It was in this context that Saint-Simon, Fourier and George Owen came to be and the one thing they had in common was the fact that none of them represented the interests of the proletariat in particular. They didn’t claim to emancipate a particular class to start with, but all aspects of the population in one go. They, like the French philosopher Rousseau, wished to bring about a kingdom of eternal reason and justice, but this kingdom, they realised was as far from reality as that of the French philosophers. It is to all three that the bourgeoisie world seemed as irrational and unjust as the feudalism and barbarism that preceded it. This claim towards a higher ideal, a truth of sorts was seen more as a happy accident from individual men of genius, isolated from the chains of historical development. The ideals of  Rousseau’s social contract, convoluted in practical reality, had found their way into the reign of terror, from which the wealthy upper middle classes, who had lost confidence in their own political capacity, had taken respite in the corruption of the directorate and finally under Napoleon’s despotism. The polarisation of the working class as an identity came to be a consequence of the freedom from property that the small-scale peasant and capitalist proprietors were subjected to.

To sum it up, the brilliant promises of the French philosophers and what they believed to achieve with the social and political institutions born out of this triumph of reason were, disappointing caricatures, beings of satire. The time was apt for men to formulate this disappointment and search extensively for better alternatives. 

The categorization of a class war

It was in 1802 that Henry Saint Simon’s Geneva letters came to be. Born in 1760, as Engels puts it, he was the son of the great French revolution. Quite scientific in his approach, he has been known as the founder of modern sociology. His analysis of class difference and human ideals to achieve were less based in the quantitative but on more qualitative aspects such as socio-cultural institutions that, according to him, would foster an environment conducive to the achievement of his ideals of a just and fair society. To him, the conflict between the 3rd estate and the privileged classes was one that was characterised by friction between the workers and the idlers. These workers and idlers were, in his account, not restricted to particular classes. The workers included the wage workers, the merchants and the bankers. From the reign of terror, it had become apparent that the workers were not capable of handling political power in a just and transparent manner. The idlers had already lost their capacity for intellectual leadership, he, therefore turned to a rigidly hierarchic New Christianity that would combine science and industry, while giving legitimacy to political power in a pseudo-theocratic structure. (Caspar J M Hewett 2008)

The scholars that represented science and the bourgeois that represented industry were to transform themselves into public servants while at the same time, retain a position of social and economic privilege. It was at this time that he showed fluid tendencies towards authoritarianism within a capitalist setup and welfare in terms of responsibility to the poorest of the poor that would, through concerted action like the extension of credit to all, eventually be elevated to higher levels of socio-economic prosperity. This must be seen in a temporal context wherein there was no significant polarisation along the market-state continuum in popular political discourse. (Vincent Geoghegan 1988)

What Saint-Simon especially laid stress upon is this: what interested him first, and above all other things, was the lot of the class that is the most numerous and the poorest (“la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre”).

Due credit must be given to him for categorising the French revolution as a class war, not one between the nobility and the guild workers but also one that involved the non-possessors, which was in the year 1802, a pregnant discovery. It was in 1816 that he declared that economic conditions were the basis for political institutions. In terms of administrative structure, he called for the decentralisation of power wherein decisions would be made on the basis of unbiased market forces and precedence to be given to individual decision making in the hands of the aware and reasonable. (Engels 1892)

An Amorous World: Coming to terms with our metaphoric relation with Nature and the Law of Passionate Attraction

Charles Fourier was born in 1772 at Lyons into a family of drapers. After losing all his property to the revolution, he went into business as a broker. It was in the context of this market-oriented structure that he was struck by the shortcomings and injustices of individualism in a competitive social space. He spoke about the perfectibility of human nature and put emphasis on the free play of appetites and passions as opposed to the misery that stems from the restraints imposed by society. Unlike his contemporaries, his criticism of society on the basis of its historical growth is valuable in the anticipation of scientific socialism. The four stages of the development of society are Savagery, Barbarism, Patriarchy and Civilization. (William Morris and E. Belfort Bax 1886)

Civilisation represented the period of modern society that he happened to live in during the post-enlightenment era. In his criticism of mercantile and industrial capitalism, he insightfully speaks of the creation of poverty as a result not of a lack of resources but, of superabundance in direct reference to systems of competition that increase the gulf between those that have access to resources related to production and those that do not. “under civilization poverty is born of superabundance itself” (Engels 1892)

In terms of his utopian vision, he wrote, in precise mathematical formulations, the exact number of people he wanted one polis to consist of. His people were to be governed by a ministry of Amorous Relations. He does not dispute the division of labour, rather, he celebrates it in a form that encourages and enables people to do what they want to do, thus abolishing the opposition between pleasure and work. Hence power would be centralised to the extent of proper state machinery which would not come at the cost of individual freedoms and passions. The link between pleasure and wealth is the very ground of his conception of an alternative social order. (Christopher Prendergast 2012)

Family relations were to be deconstructed and reconstituted in accordance with god-given passions which were the elementary fluid of the cosmos wherein the purpose of science was to discover a mechanism by which the satisfaction of human beings was the highest. Hence, in the Amorous world, Omnigamy was imperative to the functioning of utopia.(Beecher 1986)

Social Experiments: New Harmony and New Lanark

Robert Owen was a welsh industrialist who conducted several social experiments in order to create self-sustaining systems of utopia that he invested and lost most of his fortune in. His alternative to the existing regime was not based on a theory rooted in progressive history. He was of the opinion that history was a series of fortunate or unfortunate accidents dictated by chance rather than the human agency, independent of patterns of any significance. He had the utmost faith in the ability the of capitalist enterprise to uplift the masses. It was on elite social engineering and the manipulation of the environment by those with means in the form of resources at their disposal, that he laid emphasis on. This would primarily be the initiative of the government which would take the lead in policy and practice to kick start a slow and gradual process of transition towards his utopia of freedom from the dogma of religion and institutionalised norms supporting specific status quos, a society where reason would prevail. (Stewart, Anne 2012)

It was he who popularised the notion of establishing islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism. He happened to be a successful capitalist himself.From 1800 to 1829, he directed the great cotton mill at New Lanark, in Scotland, as managing partner with a population, originally consisting of the most diverse and educated elements that gradually grew to 2,500. He turned an industrial township into a model colony called New Harmony within which drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity, were unknown. He was the founder of infant schools and introduced them first at New Lanark. (William Morris and E. Belfort Bax 1886)

He posed great faith in the development of human agency at the hands of external circumstance and nurturing environments. It was with this in mind that he set up comprehensive systems for education and at the age of two, the children in his experiment went to school, where they enjoyed themselves so much that they could scarcely be home again. (Engels 1892)

Whilst his competitors worked their people 13 or 14 hours a day, the working-day at New Lanark was only 10 and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. And with all this, the business more than doubled in value, and to the last yielded large profits to its proprietors. In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. “The people were slaves at my mercy.” Three great obstacles seemed to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the existing form of marriage. He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawries and excommunication from official society.

Banished from official society and ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working-class and continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen. He forced through in 1819, after five years’ fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labour of women and children in factories. He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade Unions of England united in a single great trade association.


The new mode of production was only beginning to gain momentum in terms of the consolidation of the class antagonism between the newly forming proletariat and the bourgeois capitalists. Socialist thought until the advent of scientific socialism was governed by notions of breaking away from systems to create entirely new ones. The formulations of different ideals to be achieved came out of a need for meaning and greater purpose, the conquest of reason, in a society manipulated by greed and crony profiteering. Escapists, as some might call them, they were well-informed mechanisms that isolated themselves to a very large extent from the existing mode of production and called for a leap to a greater pedestal of clarity and truth. The fundamental flaw common to all conceptions of utopia before the advent of scientific socialism was an understanding of the historical process that didn’t base itself on historical materialism but rather to random happenings of chance not worth studying in detail, Fourier being the only exception to the rule. Unfortunately, he proposed a resolution between Freudian repression and actual impulses which were, and still is to a very large extent, an idea that most societies aren’t ready to face.


(Anmol Narain is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at anmolnarain@nls.ac.in)



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