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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Icarian Communism

Yes, communism.  Although later followers and modern commentators would refer to the system invented by Étienne Cabet as socialism, he insisted that it was communism.  To this day there is confusion regarding any meaningful distinction between the terms. 


Not that it makes much difference.  As we saw in the previous posting on this subject (the oddities of socialism), whether socialism, communism, capitalism, esotericism, or any other label used, the essence of socialism is a shift from reality discerned by reason guided and illuminated by faith, to some abstraction based on faith in one’s personal opinion.

Possibly due to the failure of his utopian communities in the United States, Cabet is not often given his rightful place in the socialist pantheon.  Nevertheless, in his heyday before moving to America, Cabet was the most popular and influential socialist (or communist) prophet in France.  Many principles and assumptions that people think of as quintessentially socialist originated with him.


Étienne Cabet

In particular, Cabet appears to have been the first socialist of note to take a clear anti-capitalist stance and turn the movement in that direction.  As a result, people tend to forget not only that socialism began as an alternative religion to replace Christianity — particularly Catholic Christianity — but that it was in many respects regarded as an improved application of capitalism.  This often surprises people whose familiarity with socialism derives from half-remembered explanations of Marxism and the sloganeering that passes for intellectual discourse these days.

It amazes people, for example, to discover that Robert Owen, one of England’s leading socialists, was also one of England’s richest industrialists — a capitalist.  Karl Marx’s collaborator (and, according to some, the real source of Marx’s more radical theories), Friedrich Engels, was a wealthy mill owner.  Félicité de Lamannais and Henri de Saint-Simon were moderately wealthy aristocrats, at least until they ran through their money, while Charles Fourier was a member of the bourgeoisie.

Louis Philippe


Cabet was one of the few early socialists who actually came from the working class and seems early on to have imbibed a deep suspicion of both aristocrats and the wealthy.  Trained in the law, he was the youngest son of an artisan.  As a member of the Charbonniere (the French branch of the Carbonari, the loose confederation of Italian revolutionary organizations) in the 1820s, he became imbued with the ideas of freemasonry and a rational and social religion freed from supernatural elements.

As the head of one of the revolutionary committees seeking the overthrow of Charles X, Cabet was rewarded with the post of Attorney General for Corsica following the 1830 Revolution that put Louis Philippe, “the July Monarch,” on the throne.  Increasingly dissatisfied with the conservatism of the new July Monarchy (actually, the wrong sort of liberalism, according to the socialists), he published Histoire de la révolution de 1830.  In Révolution de 1830 et situation présente, he claimed that the new government had “smuggled away” the revolution.

Robert Owen


Losing his position as Corsican Attorney General, Cabet evidently decided he could be more effective as a legislator than as a bureaucrat.  In 1831 he was elected to the French Chamber of Deputies as an extreme radical.

As one of the most vocal adherents of socialism (or, as he preferred, communism), Cabet continued his attacks on the government.  In 1833 he founded a newspaper, Le Populaire, mostly written by himself.  The government suppressed the paper in 1834, and Cabet found himself convicted of treason.

Sentenced to five years in exile, Cabet sought refuge in England.  In that country, he furthered his socialist research, notably by studying the thought of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier.  As many others have done since, Cabet added an egregious misinterpretation of Saint Thomas More’s satire, Utopia.  He took More’s work as the blueprint of an ideal society instead of understanding its true character as a scathing indictment of Tudor society.


Thomas More

In 1839, after marrying Delphine Lasage in London, Cabet returned to France.  Despite his misreading of More’s book — or (more accurately) because of it — in 1840 Cabet published his own fictional ideal society, Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie (“Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria”), under a pseudonym.  An obvious pastiche of Utopia, the book’s success inspired Cabet to turn his dream of an ideal society into reality.

Announcing himself as an Apostle of true Christianity, Cabet declared his revelation as the basis of an entirely new social order.  Despite his claims of originality, however, Cabet’s program was essentially no different from that of other prophets of the Democratic Religion.

The Saint-Simonians having fallen into disrepute by this time, Cabet evidently decided to assert his presumed originality by attacking two other socialists who claimed to have discovered the true Christianity, but in ways not to Cabet’s liking.  These were de Lamennais, and de Lamennais’s purported disciple, Alphonse-Louis Constant.

Félicité de Lamennais


Both men had received Catholic ordination, de Lamennais a priest, Constant a deacon, and as far as Cabet was concerned, “once a priest, always a priest.”  In Cabet’s view, despite his later renunciation of Christianity, de Lamennais’s one-time position as leader of the Neo-Catholic movement meant that his understanding of true Christianity remained shackled by his Catholic viewpoint.  Constant’s occult researches and his “Universal Catholicism” rendered him too spiritual to grasp the real message of Jesus, the first communist.  Cabet subjected both men to vicious attacks.

Cabet’s insistence on his position as the only authentic prophet of the New Christianity became increasingly strident the more popular he became.  In the 1842 edition of Voyage published under his own name, he added an appendix in which — probably inspired by the Fraticelli, regarded by socialists then as now as the only true Christians of their day — he declared,

Jesus Christ himself has not only proclaimed, preached, commanded the Communauté [communism] as a consequence of fraternité, but he has practiced it with his Apostles. . . . We also learn that heretical and reformist sects from antiquity until the present day had practiced the “Communauté according to Jesus Christ. The current Communists are thus the Disciples, the Imitators, and the Continuators of Jesus Christ.


Subsequent declarations come across as tinged with more than a little hysteria.  False religions (especially Catholicism), false kings, false governments, false prophets must all be brought down and submit to the true religion of Jesus as revealed to Cabet.  Christianity unpolluted with spirituality or mysticism must give way to communism.  Anyone who disagreed with Cabet was a traitor to Christ.

Not surprisingly, other socialists and communists — to say nothing of the authorities — failed to catch the general enthusiasm for Cabet’s vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth.  In particular, other socialists who wanted to claim the term communism as their own objected to the explicit, albeit questionable, religiosity of Cabet’s thought.

The anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for example, ridiculed Cabet as a charlatan who used radicalism to promote a phony new religious gospel to the discredit of true communism.  In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels seem to have considered Cabet’s brand of religious or utopian socialism as the exemplar of all they detested in non-scientific socialism.


Despite the sneers of rivals and his own attacks on others, however, there is no reason to think that Cabet was anything other than perfectly sincere in promoting his new concept of religion and brand of materialist Christianity.  It was not, as most commentators assert, merely a tool to persuade the gullible.

Nevertheless, sincerity is no guarantee of orthodoxy.  Someone’s faith in his own beliefs may be very strong, but he can still be unable to support his position with sound reason or even resolve obvious contradictions.

Cabet made his most important — and to the orthodox, the most shocking — declaration of his new religion in 1846 with the publication of Le vrai christianisme suivant Jésus-Christ (“The True Christianity According to Jesus Christ”).  In this multi-volume work, Cabet proclaimed the unity of religious and civil society under the pure Christianity and communism of Jesus.

Insisting that Jesus had preached communism, Cabet also took the trouble to chronicle what he considered the errors and abuses of the Catholic Church.  Chief among these errors and abuses was the fact that the Church misled and deceived people by promising them a mythical heaven in an afterlife, instead of the concrete Kingdom of God on Earth in the here-and-now.

Although it is estimated that at its height Icarian communism had 400,000 followers in France, official disapproval and the economic depression of the late 1840s led Cabet to decide that French society was beyond redemption.  After consulting with Robert Owen, who had at one time wanted to establish a utopian community in Texas when it was part of Mexico, Cabet gathered a group of followers and immigrated to the United States.  The effort to establish Icarian settlements in America was not outstandingly successful.