1902 Encyclopedia > François Charles Marie Fourier

(François) Charles (Marie) Fourier
(commonly known as: Charles Fourier)
French utopian socialist thinker


FRANÇOIS CHARLES MARIE FOURIER (1772-1837), one of the most celebrated socialist writers, was born at Besangon in Franche-Comte, on the 7th April 1772. His father was a draper in good circumstances, and Fourier received an excellent education at the college in his native town. After completing his studies there he travelled for some time in France, Germany, and Holland. On the death of his father he inherited a considerable amount of property, which, however, was lost when Lyons was besieged by the troops of the Convention. Being thus deprived of his means of livelihood, Fourier entered the army, but after two years' service as a chasseur was discharged on account of ill-health. In 1803 he published a remarkable article on European politics which attracted the notice of Napoleon, some of whose ideas were foreshadowed in it. Inquiries were made after the author, but nothing seems to have come of them. After leaving the army Fourier entered a merchant's office in Lyons, and some years later undertook on his own account a small business as broker. He obtained in this way just sufficient to supply his wants, and devoted all his leisure time to the elaboration of his first work on the organization of society.

During the early part of his life, and while engaged in commerce, he had become deeply impressed with the conviction that social arrangements resulting from the principles of individualism and competition were essentially imperfect and immoral. He proposed to substitute for these principles co-operation or united effort, by means of which full and harmonious development might be given to human nature. The scheme, worked out in detail in his first work, Theorie des Quatre Mouvements (2 vols., Lyons, 1808, published anonymously), has for foundation a particular psychological proposition and a special economical doctrine. Psychologically Fourier held what may with some laxity of language be called natural optimism,—the view that the full, free development of human nature or the unrestrained indulgence of human passion is the only possible way to happiness and virtue, and that misery and vice spring from the unnatural restraints imposed by society on the gratification of desire. This principle of harmony among the passions he regarded as his grandest discovery—a dis-covery which did more than set him on a level with Newton, the discoverer of the principle of attraction or harmony among material bodies. Throughout his works, in uncouth, obscure, and often unintelligible language, he endeavours to show that the same fundamental fact of harmony is to be found in the four great departments,— society, animal life, organic life, and the material universe. In order to give effect to this principle and obtain the resulting social harmony, it was needful that society should be reconstructed ; for, as the social organism is at present constituted, innumerable restrictions are imposed upon the free development of human desire. As practical principle for such a reconstruction Fourier advocated co-operative or united industry. In many respects what he says of co-operation, in particular as to the enormous waste of economic force which the actual arrangements of society entail, still deserves attention, and some of the most recent efforts towards extension of the co-operative method, e.g., to house-keeping, were in essentials anticipated by him. But the full realization of his scheme demanded much more than the mere admission that co-operation is economically more efficacious than individualism. Society as a whole must be organized on the lines requisite to give full scope to co-operation and to the harmonious evolution of human nature. The details of this reorganization of the social structure cannot be given briefly, but the broad outlines may be thus sketched. Society, on his scheme, is to be divided into departments or phalanges, each phalange numbering about 1600 persons. Each phalange inhabits a plialanstère or common building, and has a certain portion of soil allotted to it for cultivation. The phalanstères are built after a uniform plan, and the domestic arrangements are laid down very elaborately. The staple industry of the phalanges is, of course, agri-culture, but the various series and groupes into which the members are divided may devote themselves to such occupations as are most to their taste ; nor need any occupation become irksome from constant devotion to it. Any member of a group may vary his employment at pleasure, may pass from one task to another. The tasks regarded as menial or degrading in ordinary society can be rendered attractive if advantage is taken of the proper principles of human nature : thus children, who have a natural affinity for dirt, and a fondness for " cleaning up," may easily be induced to accept with eagerness the func-tions of public scavengers. It is not, on Fourier's scheme, necessary that private property should be abolished, nor is the privacy of family life impossible within the phalanstère. Each family may have separate apartments, and there may be richer and poorer members. But the rich and poor are to be locally intermingled, in order that the broad distinc-tion between them, which is so painful a feature in actual society, may become almost imperceptible. Out of the common gain of the phalange a certain portion is deducted to furnish to each member the minimum of subsistence ; the remainder is distributed in shares to labour, capital, and talent,—five-twelfths going to the first, four-twelfths to the second, and three-twelfths to the third. Upon the changes requisite in the private life of the members Fourier was in his first work more explicit than in his later writings. The institution of marriage, which imposes un-natural bonds on human passion, is of necessity abolished; a new and ingeniously constructed system of licence is sub-stituted for it. Considerable offence seems to have been given by Fourier's utterances with regard to marriage, and generally the later advocates of his views are content to pass the matter over in silence, or to veil their teaching under obscure and metaphorical language.

The scheme thus sketched attracted no attention when the Théorie first appeared, and for some years Fourier remained in his obscure position at Lyons. In 1812 the death of his mother put him in possession of a small sum of money, with which he retired to Bellay in order to perfect his second work. The Traité de l'Association Agricole Domestique was published in 2 vols, at Paris in 1822, and a summary appeared in the following year. After its publication the author proceeded to Paris in the hope that some wealthy capitalist might be induced to attempt the realization of the projected scheme. Disappointed in this expectation, he returned to Lyons. In 1826 he again visited Paris, and as a considerable portion of his means had been expended in the publication of his book, he accepted a clerkship in an American firm. In 1829 and 1830 appeared what is probably the most finished exposition of his views, Le Nouveau Monde Industriel. In 1831 he attacked the rival socialist doc-trines of St Simon and Owen in the small work Pièges et Charlatanisme de deux Sectes, St Simon et Owen. His writings now began to attract some attention. A small body of adherents gathered round him, and the most ardent of them, Victor Considérant, published in 1834 his Destinée Sociale, undoubcedly the most able and most important work of the Fourierist school. In 1832 a newspaper, Le Phalanstère ou la Réforme Industrielle was started to pro-pagate the views of the school, but its success was not great. In 1833 it declined from a weekly to a monthly, and in 1834 it died of inanition. It was revived in 1836 as Le Phalange, and in 1843 became a daily paper, La Démocratie Pacifique. In 1850 it was suppressed.

Fourier did not live to see the success of his newspaper, and the only practical attempt during his lifetime to establish a phalanstère was a complete failure. In 1832 M. Baudet Dulary, deputy for Seine-et-Oise, who had become a convert, purchased an estate at Condé sur Vesgre, near the forest of Bambouillet, and proceeded to establish a socialist community. The capital supplied was, however, inadequate, and the community broke up in disgust. Fourier was in no way discouraged by this failure, and till his death, in October 1837, lived in daily expecta-tion that wealthy capitalists would see the merits of his scheme, and be induced to devote their fortunes to its realization. It may be added that subsequent attempts to establish the phalanstère have been uniformly unsuccessful.

For an examination of the principles on which Fourier's socialist scheme is based, reference must be made to the general articles COMMUNISM and SOCIALISM, but a word must be added as to the character of the man and his works. Fourier seems to have been of extremely retiring and sensitive disposition. He mixed little in society, and appeared, indeed, as if he were the denizen of some other planet. Of the true nature of social arrangements, and of the manner in which they naturally grow and become organized, he must be pronounced extremely ignorant. The faults of existing institutions presented themselves to him in an altogether distorted manner, and he never appears to have recognized that the evils of actual society are immeasurably less serious than the consequences of his arbitrary scheme. Out of the chaos of human passion he supposed harmony was to be evolved by the adoption of a few theoretically disputable principles, which themselves impose restraints even more irksome than those due to actual social facts. With regard to the economic aspects of his proposed new method, it is of course to be granted that co-operation is more effective than individual effort, but he has nowhere faced the question as to the probable consequences of organizing society on the abolition of those great institutions which have grown with its growth. His temperament was too ardent, his imagination too strong, and his acquaintance with the realities of life too slight to enable him justly to estimate the merits of his fantastic views. That this description of him is not expressed in over-strong language must be clear to any one who not only considers what is true in his works,—and the portion of truth is by no means a peculiar discovery of Fourier's,— but who rakes into account the whole body of his specu-lations, the cosmological and historical as well as the economical and social. No words can adequately describe the fantastic nonsense which he pours forth, partly in the form of general speculation on the universe, partly in the form of prophetic utterances with regard to the future changes in humanity and its material environment. From these extraordinary writings it is no extreme conclusion that there was much of insanity in Fourier's mental constitution.

Ch. Pellarin, Fourier, sa Vie et sa Théorie, 5th éd., 1872; Sargant, Social Innovators, 1859 ; Reybaud, Réformateurs Modernes, 7th éd., 1864; Stein, Socialismus und Communismus des heutigen Frankreichs, 2d ed., 1848; Booth, Fortnightly Review, N. S., vol. xii. (B. AD.)

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