What is an intentional community? (pt. 2)

(This is the second of a four part series on the history of Intentional Communities in the US.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest starting with part 1)

Religion has had a strong hand in the formation of intentional communites, stemming from a sense of both protestant acetiscism and prosecution.  In the last post I made about the history of intentional communites, I noted that early Pilgrims and other relgious migrants could be considered an early “wave” of ICs that occured in the United States.  The second wave swelled similarly during a time of religous fervor in the US, around the early 1820s Progressive Era, though it was just as heavily influenced by the waxing of socialism on the industrial landscape.  The same sense of acetiscism prevailed, as the newly formed ICs of this time were concerned about “right” living, though in a distinctly secular fashion through maximizing the satisfaction of the human condition in contrast to the rise of grueling factory conditions.  Similar to earlier relgious communities, there were a few charasmatic individuals that led the charge with various views of what the ideal social arrangement should be in order to maximize the sense of satisfaction and achivement in the human condition.  

Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were formative figures in this period, both for their experiments in collective living and writings that addressed the human condition in response to industrial capitalism.  Henri de Saint-Simon and Marx could be considered contemporary to this movement, though neithers legacy generated the grand collective experiments of workers in the way the former were able to, and both addressed the need for change from the vantage of class rather than individual.  Because of the association with these historical figures, this wave of IC formation is often referred to as “utopian socialism,” though in the broader sense arc of ICs, calling them utopian might just be a little redundant.

A successful British merchant in his time, Owen had a (by all accounts) somewhat mysterious transformation halfway through his life.  Though his purchase and management of New Lanark Mills in Scotland made them highly profitable under his tenrue, his utilitarian tendencies meant that such success didn’t lead to massive accumulations of wealth but rather re-investment in the workers of the mill.  At New Lanark, he implemented reforms to improve the quality of life for the some 500 workers there, most notably were an 8 hour work day (compared to the 12 or 14 hour days contemporary factor workers faced) and a school for the children of mill workers (raising the age of child labor).  Owen believed that elevating every individual in society elevated all of society, which placed him as a radical among his contemporaries.

That all hitherto fundamental principles on which society has been hithterto founded are erroneous, and may be demonstrated contrary to fact… the change which would follow the abandonment of these erroneous maxims which bring misery to the world, and the adoption of principles of truth , unfolding a system which shall remove and for ever exclude that misery, may be effected without the slightest injurt to any human being.

- Owen (in Morton 1969)

He invested most of his money in this ideal, traveling to the US and purchasing a plot of land in Indiana, and recruiting hundreds of volunteers to follow him.  This community, New Harmony, was actually the third IC built at the site, the previous two being religious settlements of the German “Harmonist” tradition (so maybe it should have been called “New New” Harmony).  While the appeal of socialist tendencies had begun to migrate to the United States, New Harmony never got off the ground and failed after two years. Biographer A.L. Morton (1969) summarizes his failed endeavor as the result of taking anyone and everyone that would join, rather than selecting for the healthy, sane, and hard working.

Owen’s ideals of evelevating the condition of the common worker persisted, even if his experiments in building settlements to express that in its truest form never did.  He made several further attempts throughout his life to raise funds from British elites for new experiemnts in worker’s settlements, but with modest and ultimately insignificant support.  His greatest benefactors were Quakers, including Jeremy Bentham, whom represented a major segment of intentional communities at the time, and so generally supported Owens idea.  They balked, though, at the kinds of leisure he wished to afford workers, like dancing, which limited his funding.  Though he only had a direct hand in New Harmony, Owen has often been called the founder of Socialism, and his ideals influenced a generation radicals - both communitarian and otherwise.

On the other hand, Fourier was never a wealthy man but nonetheless quite successful in the influencing the foundation of many intentional communities.  

"Fourier, too,  convinced that work was essential social problem and the labor was key to human happiness.  But he would not join the chorus of classical economists, Bourgeois moralists, and socialist theorists who were singing the praises of work. He scornfully rejected any attempt to infuse human labor, as it was practiced by civilization, with fraudulent theological or social value, and he despised as hypocrites and charlatans the philosophers who tried to deceive the masses into loving work because it was a religious or social duty. Work was a man's destiny, but so, too, were happiness, comfort, and rich and passionate fulfillment.”

(Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)

His work never bore concrete results - the formation of a community - in his lifetime the way Owens did.  But, shortly after his death in 1837, a book by Albert Brisbane in the US based on Fouriers works sparked the formation of at least 30 phalanxes” through the 1940s - from the French “ phalanstère,” named for the basic military unit in ancient Greece because they were the same size of 500-1000 as the size goal of the community.  These were meant to be self-sustaining and highly integrated in terms of social life and cooperation.  

Phalanxes, unlike Owenite communites, had a strong architectural component to go with the social component.  The image above is an artist’s rendering of what Fourier describe as his ideal layout - one big building with two wings, a lot of courtyard space, and great halls for common space (thanks, Wikipedia!).  It would be surrounded by rural land that would be farmed to feed the community.

None of these communities lasted more than a decade, and few lasted more than a year or two.

What Owen a Fourier disdained in common, besides the arrangement of industrial society, was intellectuals.  Owen hardly read anything besides the London dailies, while Fourier was convinced that all previous philosophers had done nothing to solve the problem of human happiness.” (Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)  Both were rather singular in their pursuit, and doggedly stubborn.

One way in which Fourier stands out, though, is in his specific focus on the role of women in society.  Of this, he says “social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women towards liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women.” (Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)  So, while he was inclined to eschew the works of previous philosophers pretty much to a fault, at least he was able to see what few others could about the position and progress of women in the Western world.  He is also credited for laying the foundations of the word “feminism."

Neither mans work was borne out through success in those who tried to build on their ideas to create the perfect arrangement for human society.  But then again, such is the general folly of utopianism in trying to manage such a complex beast as an assembled mass of humans - and this wave was certianly indiciative utopian visions.  We’ll see that again in part 3, where the intentional communities that formed in the 1960s and 70s started from a the notion that there was somehow a correct arrangement of humans, both physically and socially, that could achieve a maxiumum of harmony and happiness, but derived from the works of prominent social psychologists.  Those that survive to today - and this is why none of the Owenite nor Fourierist ones did - do so because they quickly abandoned the search for perfection and instead began the search for “better”.


Beecher, Jonathan and Richard Bienvenuw, eds. 1971. Utopian Visions of Charles Fourier. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press.

Morton, A.L. 1969. The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen. New York: International Publishers.

Zach Rubin, 2018