Fourierism and Sexuality: A Couple Thoughts on Socialism and Sexuality in 19th C. America

This is probably a useful thing to do, writing a blog post, a way to get some words on paper and, prior to that, some thoughts composed. I’m presenting a paper at the C19 conference in Berkeley in just over five weeks on the representation and rhetoric of sexuality, gender, and marriage (too much to do, really) in turn of the 20th century novels about socialism (for it, against it, defining it, etc.), what I am calling “novels of socialism.” In order to ground my work, I’m looking at the earlier 19th century history of utopian, communal socialist movements in the US, notably the Fourierists, but I will also end up looking into other groups, too (Owenites, for example).

Carl Guarneri’s The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (1991) has been indispensable to this end. Charles Fourier (1772-1837: here’s a good, contextualized run-down of his ideas) offered a wide-ranging, and all-encompassing, to say the least, set of critiques, ideas, and recommendations for social change. His theory accounted for the stages of human history, the working of the universe, and predicted the demise of present religious systems with the growth of a “religion” in which people lived in “unconscious obedience to natural law” (Guarneri 94). Also, nations would fall away, to be replaced by 2 million phalanxes (structured living and working communities of a particular size). But, among Fourier’s ideas, as Guarneri notes, “most distressing” to those reformers who wished to act on Fourier’s critique of modern life and economics and build cooperative communities along the lines he described, “was Fourier’s prediction of a ‘New Amorous World’ that would give full scope to human sexual ‘attractions’ by organizing love in a series of graded ‘corporations’ ranging from ‘vestalic’ virginity to complete promiscuity, both heterosexual and homosexual” (94).

American Albert Brisbane, an adopter/adapter of Fourierism, and other such reformers tried their hardest to distance themselves from Fourier’s more speculative ideas by offering translations of Fourier that simply left out what they considered objectionable or distracting and, in practice, working with the most concrete and practical of Fourier’s ideas. Additionally, the Associationists (the name they adopted to forestall being labeled as disciples of Fourier) set ‘Organization of Labor’ as its ‘exclusive aim'” (Guarneri 95) and took pains to state clearly that they accepted some but not all of Fourier’s ideas. Still, some in the press attacked Brisbane and the Associationists, suggesting that Fourier’s “passional psychology legitimated free love or criminality.” Some writers, furthermore, “served up juicy excerpts” from Fourier’s original writing, “fueling suspicion that Brisbane and his American converts were hiding Fourier’s–and their own–true beliefs” (95). Fourierism ultimately failed in the US, but that’s not germane to this post.

So, to sum up, there’s this French guy, Charles Fourier, who offers a sweeping critique of contemporary economic and social organization and a set of predictions about the future (his “futurology,” as Guarneri has it) that includes a vision of human sexuality that utterly breaks 19th century (and 20th and 21st century?) bounds of sexual propriety. In America in the 1830s, Albert Brisbane and the Associationists adopt some of Fourier’s ideas (the critique and the most practical reforms), center their efforts on labor, and deliberately leave out Fourier’s futurology (actively disowning it, actually), and STILL, they are tarred with the brush of sexual perversity.

A couple things strike me about this little narrative:

1. There’s an implicit “closet” claim (although that way of putting it is certainly an anachronism) articulated by Brisbane’s critics: “he says he’s not into free love and even says he disagrees with it but he actually is into it, only he’s hiding it?” He says he’s an American, but there’s something very French or maybe European about him that he just won’t be honest about.

2. Related to number 1, there’s also an implicit notion that one cannot just take part of a theory or a subset of a person’s ideas without supporting all of his ideas. It’s an either – or proposition, apparently, a compulsory doctrinal purity. Fourier supported a co-operative form of production and the breaking of sexual limits. How can you take one of those, but not the other? Either you are a Fourierist or you aren’t. Either you’re gay or you’re straight. If you claim to support one idea but not others, you must just be in the closet about what you won’t admit that you support. In this way, political ideas are likened to sexuality, with some ideas allowed in the daylight — heterosexual, exclusive monogamous pairing — and others to be shamefully closeted. Thus, shifting the scene to the present day (but I think the idea can be applied to the 19th c., too) , one can be called a “closet socialist,” and one can, thus, “come out” or be “outed” (try this google search), more likely the latter, especially in campaign season and when you want to suggest something shameful and skulking about your opponent.

In the late19th and early 20th century, too, I am finding in novels that a battleground over socialism in the US at the end of the century (and “socialism” means a wide range of things to a wide range of people) is sexuality and marriage (and gender, of course, too).

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