Pink Lemonade Socialists

By Pilbeam, Pamela | History Today, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Pink Lemonade Socialists

Pilbeam, Pamela, History Today

Pamela Pilbeam, looks at the appeal of utopian socialism in early nineteenth-century France.

SOCIALISTS in early nineteenth-century France were very different from their successors at the end of the century, many of whom followed Karl Marx's defining vision of socialist thought and action. Almost all these early socialists were driven by religious faith and were nationalists, keen to export their ideas to liberate other Europeans. They tried to smooth away class conflicts. Most also proclaimed themselves feminists, including a number of dynamic women. Nor were they as solemn as later socialists: Charles Fourier, the first to dream of a perfectly harmonious society, suggested that the seas would turn, not to champagne, but to pink lemonade. Yet their influence permeated the Second Republic of 1848-52. By the 1860s socialists used the rhetoric of class war and revolution, and defined themselves as materialists, actively hostile to matters spiritual. After Marx proposed a scheme for an Inter national Workingmen's Association in London in September 1864, socialists were internationalists, asserting that the brotherhood of the proletariat knew no state boundaries. By the end of the century they were pre-occupied with the problems of male workers, rather than the issues relating to feminism.

Two issues almost all early socialists regarded as paramount were the concept of association and the liberation of women. Both were highly controversial and put socialists into conflict with the conservative ruling elites. Association was the socialists' alternative to capitalist competition, which they believed could only lead to social conflict. The concept ran counter to laws passed during the 1789 revolution, however, such as the Le Chapelier law of 1791 which had banned worker associations. Article 291 of the Civil Code of 1804 outlawed any association of more than twenty members. The Napoleonic Codes had also made the non-status of women explicit. The law of 1792 that permitted divorce was abolished in 1816.

Early socialists were involved in a number of utopian schemes between the late 1820s and the early 1850s. The amusing extremism of many of these has long tended to mask the varied practical projects for worker associations in which socialists were involved. In Theory of Four Movements (1808) Charles Fourier (1772-1837) insisted that society should be reshaped into phalanges. These would be autonomous, profit-sharing communes of 1,620 psychologically compatible individuals. Work would be attractive, because members would decide on teams each day and share the different jobs, changing around every hour. Fourier was opposed to communal property ownership and thought social equality was unnecessary. All would be perpetually happy because they would be free to fulfil their individuality. He always insisted that phalanges would make a profit. Everything would be shared, even the architecture would shape a totally communal life-style. The individual would be alone only when asleep. The other famous imagined socialist community was that described by Etienne Cabet (1788-1856). In his Voyage en Icarie, first published in 1840, he proposed new, self-governing communities, in which all property would be held in common, money would be superfluous and all aspects of life would be egalitarian and standardised.

Later, the bizarre features of the phalange were recalled by anti-socialists with glee, but up to 1831 when a Fourierist movement at last developed, only about fifty people had read his Theory. Cabet, on the other hand, was unique among early socialists in creating the first mass workers' movement, the Icarians. By 1846 he had about 100,000 followers, mostly traditional artisans: tailors, weavers, hatters and shoe-makers, and their wives. How had he won such numbers? Cabet's book was easier to read than those of Fourier, and by 1848, five editions of Voyage had been published. However, it is more likely that those who became Icarians were drawn to the movement by Cabet's newspaper, Le Populaire.

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