Proposing a new social organisation based on the satisfaction of basic human drives, Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was a visionary political philosopher whose ideas have been echoed by progressive thinkers from Karl Marx to Wilhelm Reich.

Francois Marie Charles Fourier was born in Besancon, France into a family of cloth merchants, and received little formal education with no schooling in philosophy or politics. By day, he worked as a travelling salesman, but by night he dreamt of upturning the new social order that the French Revolution and the growth of industrialism had brought about.

Fourier despised the commercial world in which he lived, the rationalistic thinking of the day, and the way that mass production and the division of labour had narrowed the lives of workers. He has much in common with other thinkers of the period, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon, who were with Fourier dubbed by Marx "utopian socialists". But while Owen was a successful mill-owner and an eminently practical man who paid attention to the contemporary theories of utilitarianism and human rights, Fourier was a romantic visionary rejecting science and obsessed by numerology and ideas of free love.

The key components of Fourier's philosophy are his theory of the passions and his conception of the ideal social system which he called the phalanstere or phalanx. These allowed him to move away from the horrors of division of labour, and to reformulate the world of work so that all the tasks necessary for human survival became enjoyable and satisfying. This idea of work becoming play has entranced political thinkers as different as Marx and Bob Black.

Fourier explained:

To secure liberty a Social Order is necessary which shall (1) Discover and organize a system of industry; (2) Guarantee to every individual the equivalent of their natural rights; and (3) Associate the interests of rich and poor. It is only on these conditions the masses can be secured a minimum of comfortable subsistence and enjoyment of all social pleasures. Man has seven natural rights: (1) Gathering of Natural Products; (2) Pasturage; (3) Fishing; (4) Hunting; (5) Interior Federation (association with others); (6) Freedom from care; (7) External marauding (to pillage others).1

According to his theories, there are twelve fundemental passions which must be satisfied for human happiness. These are divided into three classes: five passions of the senses, four of the soul and three distributive passions. The senses are (of course) sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste; the passions of the soul are friendship, love, ambition, and parenthood.

Those in the final class, the distributive passions, are less obvious. These are la Papillone, love of variety; la Cabaliste, which involves conspiracy, rivalry and competition; and finally la Composite. This last passion is the vaguest in his description, but seems to refer to the excitation produced by the combination of stimuli from different passions: according to one commentator it might refer to "the sharing of a good meal (senses) in good company (soul) while conspiring (la Cabaliste) to arrange a sexual orgy with the couple at the next table."2

The condition of workers can be improved if their work is organised to satisfy the various passions. Rivalry could be used in improving society by pitting teams against each other, while the love of variety has obvious implications for the way work is divided, with workers allowed to flit between tasks. The composite passion is satisfied by allowing workers to select the work they wish to do and to change as they see fit.

To replace industrial society and the factory, Fourier proposed an alternative method of organisation, the phalanstere (translated into English as phalanx, based on the military unit of ancient Greece). In the phalanx, work would be distributed on a rotating basis, and all work would be enjoyable and chosen by the worker. He believed that phalanxes would both increase production and benefit workers.

Fourier proposed that each phalanx should be a self-contained community of 1620 people, with numerous subdivisions for different functions. He determined there were 810 different psychological types and wanted a male and female of each type to make up his ideal society.

Occasional efforts have been made to establish actual phalanxes, one at Rambouillet, France, from 1834-1836 that ended in bankruptcy, another by George Ripley at Brook Farm in Massachusetts from 1841-1846 (which was also influenced by the Trancendentalist ideas of Henry David Thoreau). Fourier's ideas were also influential on the kibbutz movement in Israel.

Fourier was interested in sexual liberation, and accepted all consensual sexual behaviour. He was an early feminist, seeing how traditional family structures restricted women to a domestic and inward role; however he did not call for full equality between the sexes because he believed innate biological differences precluded this.

His intellectual legacy lies in his psychological insight, both in the way he championed variety at work, and also in his description of the phenomenon of alienation that was to be so important to Marx and Engels. His ideas of the importance of satisfying instinctual human drives can be seen in many psychoanalytic and psycho-social theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. But as well as a political theorist, he was also a satirist, a poet and a visionary (and an eccentric crank), and lies as much with romantics like William Blake as with rationalists like Marx.

Major works

  • The Social Destiny of Man, 1808
  • Theory of Social Organization, 1820
  • The New World of Communal Activity, 1829
  • The False Division of Labour, 1835

Further reading about Fourier



1 Charles Fourier, Theory of Social Organization (1820). Modern History Sourcebook., accessed November 1, 2002.

2 Steven Kreis, "The Utopian Socialists: Charles Fourier". The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History., accessed November 1, 2002.

Note for mathematicians: Charles Fourier did not invent the Fourier transform. That would be Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier.