Who Were the Utopian Socialists?

The three great Utopian Socialists, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier, inspired generations of social reformers, democrats, and revolutionaries. Yet they also have their critics.

Apr 4, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

who were the utopian socialists


Utopian socialism, exemplified in the work of Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier represents the first current of modern socialist thought. These visionary thinkers offered sharp early critiques of modern capitalism, imagined more socially just ideal societies, and served as inspiration for future generations of budding socialists and social reformers. However, at the same time, their ideas were often dismissed as unrealistic, fanciful, and detached from the material conditions of society. This disregard for the specificities of class politics and political struggle earned them the label “utopian” in a pejorative sense.


Henri de Saint-Simon

Henri de Saint-Simon, founder of New Christianity, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Henri de Saint-Simon, founder of New Christianity, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), born into a wealthy Parisian noble family, was profoundly shaped by the French Revolution. However, his socialism was confined to the realms of philosophy and theology as opposed to pragmatic action. Saint-Simon’s doctrine saw society’s great antagonism as the struggle between productive “workers” (which included merchants, industrialists, and bankers), and parasitic “idlers” – the old privileged classes and those who lived off their income without taking part in the productive process. 


His proposed solution was the unification of the productive classes and harnessing of science and industry to forge a rationally organized, publicly managed society. His grand vision was to be realized through the creation of a “new Christianity.” For Saint-Simon, by disregarding Catholic and Protestant dogma, and returning to the teachings of Jesus, society could be reoriented towards the ultimate goal: “the swiftest possible amelioration of the moral and physical conditions of the poorest and most numerous classes.” 


Robert Owen

new harmony robert own indiana
Robert Owen, New Harmony from Mary Evans Picture Library, 1838. Source: BBC


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Robert Owen (1771-1858) held the belief that while human character was partly hereditary, it was primarily shaped by one’s environment. Owen rose from a lower middle class family in Monmouthshire, Wales, to become a prosperous industrialist, philanthropist, and social reformer. Unlike Saint Simon, he was a man of action. 


His first great experiment was New Lanark, a mill complex and workers village built by his father-in-law, David Dale. Assuming the role of managing partner, between 1800 and 1829 Owen implemented a raft of social and welfare initiatives for the workers and families of New Lanark, including the inauguration of Britain’s first infant school in 1817.


Beyond New Lanark, Owen spent the rest of his days agitating for broader social reform. He helped pioneer the cooperative movement and played a significant role in the formation of Britain’s first national trade union. His most audacious feat was the foundation of New Harmony (1825) an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in cooperative living. 


Charles Fourier

Fourier phalanstery
Early 19th century sketch of a phalanstery, artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Charles Fourier (1772-1837), the son of a prosperous small businessman, led a dual life as a cloth merchant by day and a radical writer by night. Unlike Owen and Saint-Simon, he eschewed the idea of work as a virtue, instead proposing the emergence of small communities grounded in pleasure-centered socialism. 


In his writings, Fourier submitted bourgeois society to ruthless critique, arguing that capitalist societies were unable to break from a “vicious cycle,” where dire social conditions were consistently reproduced. Despite claims of pursuing prosperity, Fourier asserted that “poverty [was] born of superabundance itself.” He envisioned the phalanstery as the solution. Blending the concept of the “phalanx” (ancient Greek military unit) with the French monastery, the phalanstery was the ideal architecture to harmoniously integrate communal social life with industry and agriculture. Within the phalanstery chores would be shared, work would be allocated depending on one’s interests, and sexual liberation would be enjoyed by all. 


The Utopian Socialists and their Critics

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, by Friedrich Engels (1886), Source: Wikimedia Commons
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, by Friedrich Engels (1886), Source: Wikimedia Commons


There is much to commend in utopian socialist thought. Robert Owen’s influence persists in the shape of social democratic and labor politics, while Saint-Simon’s theology remains a keystone for radical Christianity. Charles Fourier was remarkably ahead of his time in terms of his views on sexuality and the catastrophic effects of patriarchy.


Through their writings, speeches, organizations, and communal living experiments, the utopian socialists sought to convert people to socialism by contrasting the misery of capitalist society, with the envisioned harmony of their proposed alternatives. However, for some, this approach revealed a fundamental weakness.


As Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels famously argued, while the three great utopian socialists offered insightful ideas, they lacked a thorough analysis of class dynamics and political struggle. The result was that they had little to say about how their ideas might come about – raising serious questions about the feasibility of their proposals. 

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.