Two and a half centuries ago last week, Charles Fourier was born in Besançon, France, the son of a successful small businessman. He became a salesman for a cloth merchant in Lyon, as well as a witty, imaginative writer. And as a socialist and feminist thinker, he was far ahead of his time.
Indeed, Fourier is sometimes credited with inventing the term “feminism.” Not only a staunch advocate of women’s equality, he was also one of the first to understand that the patriarchal order could not be fully destroyed without socialism. Fourier was also far ahead of his time in understanding how gender politics were intertwined with all social reaction and progress. In 1808, he wrote:
As a general proposition: Social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women. Other events influence these political changes; but there is no cause which produces social progress or decline as rapidly as a change in the condition of women.
After his death, Friedrich Engels credited him with the idea of alienation, that under capitalism we lack a personal connection to our work because it profits someone else. Fourier’s ideas inspired Marx and Engels to further develop the idea of “alienated labor.” He imagined small, communal societies in which work would be enjoyable (“attractive work”), even libidinal, partly because of participants’ love for the collective, but also because when possible, people could be assigned to work they enjoyed. Most people don’t, for example, like smelly garbage and getting dirty, but little boys do; why not, then, he reasoned, give young boys the dirty, stinky jobs?
Fourier has many imaginative and weirdly practical ideas along these lines. He imagined that in his utopian community no one would need to go without sex: the recently rejected or otherwise sexually deprived could be visited by an “army of lovers” (and yes, that would become the name of a 1980s pop act). The appeal of the idea grows when one considers the violent crimes and terrible right-wing politics sometimes perpetrated by incels in our contemporary world, though it’s not hard to guess why the idea has never taken off in any actual human community. However, some of Fourier’s ideas are mainstream today: he was way ahead of his time in advocating for the acceptance of homosexuality, for instance.
The socialist society he envisioned was partly agrarian and based in small, cooperative societies of about eighty to a hundred people, in which all chores and child-rearing would be shared. Blanca Missé, a professor in the French department at San Francisco State, argued in a 2020 paper that Fourier could be read as an ancestor of social reproduction theory, a strain of socialist feminist thought that has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Sexual liberation was also central to his vision: in sharp contrast to the prevailing mores of his day, women and men over eighteen would be free to choose their sexual partners, and there would be no economic need or moral pressure obligating anyone to be part of a nuclear family or marriage.
Fourier’s socialism is a pleasure-centered one, in which humans can enjoy work, sex, friendship, food, and many other delights. Significantly, too, given that he came of age during the French Revolution, Fourier understood the ideal of freedom, and, at once, what a hollow notion it was for most people under capitalism. In the aftermath of the Revolution — in which he fought and served time in prison — he was disillusioned, writing,
Philosophy was right to vaunt liberty; it is the foremost desire of all societies’ creatures. But philosophy forgot that in civilized societies liberty is illusory if the common people lack wealth. When the wage-earning classes are poor, their independence is as fragile as a house without foundations. The free man who lacks wealth immediately sinks back under the yoke of the rich. The newly freed slave takes fright at the need of providing for his own subsistence and hastens to sell himself back into slavery in order to escape this new anxiety that hangs over him like Damocles’ sword.
Along with liberty, he found the other two buzzwords of the French Revolution, equality and fraternity, equally ridiculous as long as people suffered from economic precarity and were forced to endure hunger or wage-slavery. While Fourier didn’t envision a completely classless society, he did imagine a “splendid minimum” standard of living that everyone would share.
Marx and Engels didn’t suffer from any prissy aversion to Fourier’s ideas, even his more outlandish ones. Nor did they fail to take him seriously, as some self-professed Marxists have. Their main criticism of what they called “utopian socialism” wasn’t the sex or the whimsicality; in their view, Fourier and other thinkers like him — Henri de Saint-Simon, for example — had no concept of how their imagined society might come about, and they lacked a class analysis. Marx and Engels understood that capitalists would want to keep their wealth and property, and would therefore fight to preserve capitalism and would have the state on their side. It would, therefore, take a revolution spearheaded by the material losers of capitalism to achieve socialism. They had a theory of the political struggle that would bring socialism into being, imagining that the agent of that change would be the proletariat — the working class — while Fourier and other utopian socialists seemingly imagined that everyone would see the benefits of living under more joyous and rational arrangements.
The utopian socialist communities inspired by thinkers like Fourier — satirized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s prudishly prurient 1852 novel, The Blithedale Romance — hoped their example would show others that socialism worked, and because of that widespread realization, it would then be widely adopted. The road to “utopian socialism” is a voluntaristic one. There is something oddly charming about the fact that they were so convinced of the appeal of a reorganization of society along their preferred lines that it didn’t seem to occur to them that the state or ruling class might resist.
Some of Fourier’s writings don’t hold up at all. His attitudes about non-European cultures were racist, and he was also antisemitic. Many nineteenth-century European writers suffered from these prejudices, but in his case, they not only seem at odds with many of his strikingly modern ideas, but also probably reflect the sort of analytical confusion about capitalism for which Marx and Engels took him to task. The idea that Jews are more responsible than other groups for finance and commerce, and are more susceptible to capitalist greed, is bigoted — but it’s also just not at all how capitalism works. Capitalism is a material, not a cultural, phenomenon. Capitalism is a system, not a moral failing on the part of any specific people or groups.
The problems with Fourier’s thinking still matter. But his insights on women’s liberation and human freedom, and his vision for a pleasure-seeking socialism, may be even more enduring.