Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Fuller's Socialism

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Fuller's Socialism

Article excerpt


In a much-cited passage of her penultimate dispatch to the Tribune from Italy, dated 15 November 1849, Margaret Fuller wrote, "I believed before I came to Europe in what is called Socialism, as the inevitable sequence to the tendencies and wants of the era, but I did not think these vast changes in modes of government, education and daily life, would be effected as rapidly as I now think they will, because they must. The world can no longer stand without them" (SGD 320).

What kind of a "socialist" was Fuller before she left for Europe, and what kind of socialist did she become before her early death? Recent biographers agree that she was "not a Marxist socialist": "Her view of reality and human progress was opposite that of Marx," writes Meg Murray: "she was fundamentally American in her insistence on the right of individuals to determine the path they take in life and on their need to accept responsibility for their actions" (351). Here is Joan von Mehren about the Fuller of 1849: "Although she was sophisticated about class conflict and realized that expectations had been unleashed that would change the future of Europe, she considered republican governments the radical political form within which mankind would realize its individual aspirations" (326). Charles Capper observes that "class questions [...] would largely remain the blind spot in Fuller's view of the Risorgimento" (11:423). But he also cites Elizabeth Barrett Browning's remarks on Fuller's lost book, "which would have been 'deeply coloured by those blood-colours of socialistic views'" (11:486), as well as Fuller's letter to Marcus Spring of December 1849 ("I have become an enthusiastic Socialist"), and he writes that "she saw socialism as a logical answer to [the] defeat" of Europe's revolutions in 1848-49, while noting that Fuller, "unlike her American communitarian compatriots, [...] saw socialism as deeply entangled with politics" (11:487). As to what socialism might have meant "programmatically" for Fuller, Capper thinks it probably meant "state intervention to establish voluntary associations of production and welfare. Certainly, there was nothing revolutionary, much less proto-Marxist, about her socialism" (11:487), as she continued to view both Europe and America "through optimistic liberal democratic lenses" (11:488).

Although one is tempted to leave the matter right here, these assessments still invite questions. Where is Fuller vis-a-vis the emerging Marxist analysis? How "revolutionary" was she, and what do we mean by this term: the ends (the world turned upside down?), or the means (changing the world gradually or quickly, peacefully or through violence, by persuasion or by conflict?), or both? Although her method of analysis had been formed before she left for Europe (indeed, much of it was in place before she left for New York), Fuller's republican radicalism, if not her optimism, increased between 1848 and 1850; despite her preference for peace, she does not exclude violence as a necessary means to achieve the goal of democratic government in Europe, and she becomes more comfortable with the concept of revolution, while not clearly distinguishing it from radical reform. While she uses the term "socialism" in her dispatches and in her letters while in Europe, she does not elaborate much on what that might mean, other than a (to her, necessary) tendency of the age. And while she uses some other terms from the socialist lexicon, such as "class," "labor," "the poor," "the people," and even "utopia," such use appears unsystematic. What kind of a "socialist" was Margaret Fuller?


Starting with Fuller's self-labeling gives us the working premise that she was a "socialist" and allows us to ask how her views could be located, however loosely, in the historical landscape of socialism. To start with, her contemporaries Marx and Engels would put her in two categories: "conservative or bourgeois" and "utopian. …

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