Icarian Communism

13 January, 2022

Icarian Communism
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The League of Communists and its Manifesto of 1848 were a fundamental moment in the process of the constitution of the workers as a class. However, the League was not, and could hardly have been, the first nor the most extensive of the political expressions of a proletariat that was taking shape. “Icarian communism”, with all its political weaknesses, was in reality the first great workers’ party and its experience -which goes far beyond that of the colonies in the United States- can still teach us some things.

Table of Contents

Étienne Cabet

Étienne Cabet
Étienne Cabet

Cabet’s biography and evolution reflect quite well the concerns of a proletariat whose forms are still artisanal, which has been part of the left wing of the bourgeoisie in the great revolutions of 1789 and 1830, and which seeks to assert itself as a class. This implies developing its own program and reinterpreting the bourgeois revolutions of the previous half century.

After taking an active part in the 1830 revolution, Cabet held a public office from which he was forced to resign because of his excessively democratic ideas and was elected deputy for the Côte d’Or before having to go into exile in Great Britain in 1834.

There he developed philosophically and matured his thinking. He studied the philosophers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries: Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, Filangieri, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Beccaria, Jean Baptiste René, Robinet… He discovered Adam Smith, and on The Wealth of Nations he noted that civil society’s public attention should be focused on education. He also drinks from the sources of Owen, whom he criticizes for not developing a plan of social organization.

Standing resolutely on the importance of the principles of the French Revolution, he maintains that the ideal of communism owes nothing to the Conspiracy of the Equals, headed by Buonarroti and Babeuf, although, still in London, he frequents the neo-Bavouvists. Against them he vindicates Robespierre and rejects Babeuf, but from the texts of Thomas More he reflects on equality, reaching the conclusion that the community of goods solves economic, political and social problems. Everything suggests that his fundamental text, Voyage en Icarie, is written in opposition to the Bavouvist political program.

Voyage en Icarie

Voyage en Icarie takes the form of a novel because he wants to address working-class women. Most of them are engaged in literacy training or listen to the novel read to them by a lectrice while they work. Cabet’s aim is to feminize the nascent communist movement and to turn the political debate in the domestic workshops into a family discussion.

In the novel the details of life in Icarie are described not as programmatic elements but as bases of everyday social organization, paying attention to urban planning, means of transportation, the system of home ownership, the absence of currency, the rhythms of daily life, the culture of picnics, food, reading habits, love relationships… The main objective of the work is to determine the political arrangements so that citizens can embark on a journey towards a new set of social and political goals.

As for the form of government, Icarie is a democratic republic combining the functioning of a representative democracy at the national level and a direct democracy at the local level based on two institutions: the National Assembly and the People’s Assemblies in which all the citizens participate. Its name does not derive from the mythical Icarus, but from Icar, a leader who led a revolutionary dictatorship during the transition between the old class system and the establishment of society as a community.

In 1838 the first copies of the Voyage en Icarie were printed and Cabet sent them to several colleagues for comparison. Favorably, d’Argenson replies that the novel lays the foundations of future civilization. Arago in a hostile tone replies that a good memoir on the organization of work would be more useful than all his travels.

How Cabet was won over to the workers’ movement… but not to their revolutionary project

In 1839 Cabet settled back in Paris: his priority, to regain a position in the Republican party (or what was left of it by then). He conceived a plan for its reorganization, which would be the formation of a large public committee and the purchase of the newspaper Le National to turn it into the official organ of the democrats. He keeps thinking of himself as the left wing of the past revolution.

He consults Arago and Lamennais to obtain their support, but Arago launches a large association for electoral reform to which Cabet is not invited. Cabet requests authorization from the Royal Council of Public Instruction to open a course in Universal History based on legislation and Philosophy. He receives an unfavorable notification from the inspector and his situation becomes complicated: he is burdened with a considerable debt due to his time in exile, he has no political prospects and no job.

He then devoted himself to the publication of his Popular History of the French Revolution and rewrote the pages dedicated to Babeuf: in the end, Babeuf was no longer the inventor of communism and the decision to attempt an insurrection in 1796 was a mistake. To invoke his name as a martyr of democracy is contrary to the interests of the People. He will receive for these lines vicious attacks from the militant Babouvists.

In the political environment of the time, there was a front around the Journal du Peuple – Arago, Lamennais, Garnier-Pagés – campaigning for electoral reform and the extension of suffrage to the working classes. They include the improvement of workers’ conditions and real legislation on the organization of labor. They organize events all over France attended by thousands of workers.

On the other hand, we have Cabet in Le National. It was at this time that the reformist party and the babouvist party split.

Babouvism and its new followers took the name of Communists. Something that made the authorities and the majority of the republicans equally uncomfortable, who regarded their revolutionary references with uneasiness, to say the least. But Buonarroti’s History of the Conspiracy for Equality became the vade mecum of all the new revolutionary militants.

Thoré’s article on Babouvism for the Political Dictionary triggers a new and definitive confrontation between reformists and Babouvists by attacking all those who aspire to “shackle human activity and progress”, defending legal imposition through violence and revolutionary dictatorship.

This is the moment Cabet chose to publish his Voyage en Icarie. We are in 1840 and it appears under the title: “Journey and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icarie translated from the Englishman Francis Adams by Th. Dufruit” in an attempt to go unnoticed before his theoretical opponents.

He distributed the first copies among militant workers. Until then, the only communism was that of Babeuf and for the first time the system of the Communauté is exposed in a long development rejecting any affiliation with the putschist tradition. Cabet’s basic elements will be Fraternity, Equality and Common Happiness.

We understand that democracy is not only a political form, what we want above all is a social organization where the public thing [res publica] belongs to all and benefits equally to all.

A series of strikes throughout the country and a failed assassination attempt against the King generated a climate of tension which led the government authorities to blame the violent events on reformist and babouvist workers alike.

Cabet reaffirms his support for democracy by vindicating the principles of the French Revolution: sovereignty of the people, liberty, equality and fraternity. He announces a program for the organization of a society based on these principles. He defines his political line: “I am a reformist rather than a revolutionary; I am above all a democrat”, he adds, “but I am neither a Hebertist nor a Babouvist”. He begins the publication of a new newspaper, Le Populaire with the project of gathering all the communist organizations and imposing a single leadership.

Le Populaire will be democratic, reformist and, above all, communist in the terms understood at the time. It will defend the Communauté – the collective ownership of the goods of production – asking public opinion for its establishment with a transitional and preparatory regime.

Justice, morality, tolerance, fraternity, will be the philosophical guides. The newspaper as a project aims at two spheres, the political and the social. In the latter Cabet deals with questions about the organization of labor, wages, workers’ associations, coalitions, the workers’ movement in all its forms.

The newspaper is for Cabet the means to conquer public opinion. A propaganda work to associate utopia with reality. It met with the rejection of monarchists and Fourierists. For the Fourierists, the triumph of communism will push society back to barbarism and the principles of equality and community will prepare a social division that will lead to anarchy. Both the Journal du Peuple and Le National will show total indifference without even commenting on the appearance of the new paper.

The birth of the Icarian Communist Party

The first page of the 1845 edition of the "Journey to Icaria" on which appears for the first time the communist slogan: To each according to his needs, from each according to his strength
The first page of the 1845 edition of the “Journey to Icaria” on which appears for the first time the communist slogan: To each according to his needs, from each according to his strength

During 1841 a public debate took place between Le Populaire and Le National on a theoretical question: peaceful communism. Cabet achieves in this battle the recognition of the main newspapers that present him as an honest man, lucid, with a popular style and conscious civility that make him a good man. Only one of the founders of Le National launched a tirade against him, accusing him, among other things, of being a defaulter.

However, the balance of the controversy will be positive for Cabet, it gives him public notoriety and allows him to regain the sympathy of a large part of the reformists, Fourierists and thousands of workers. Also during that year, Cabet published a manifesto against violence as a resource, the possession of weapons, clandestine newspapers, secret societies and the very banquets, the original form of the rally inherited from the clubs of 1879. A declaration of war on the neo-Babouvist communists.

He argues that Babouvist communism is inserted in the project of aggravating social antagonism, discord and class hatred. The opposite of an alternative proposal of reconciliation and pacification of France. According to him, the union of all citizens is the only option in keeping with the republican spirit.

Dézamy, who had been editor with Cabet in Le Populaire, in view of this proclamation, broke with Cabet and started a weekly magazine, Code de la Communauté, devoted to attacking Cabet and calling into question the foundations of the Icarian system based on the theories of Babeuf: Abolition of individual property, destruction of the cities, emptying of the countryside and the regrouping of everyone in communes of 10,000 inhabitants.

Despite continuous harassment, Cabet’s authority and growing influence did not wane. In September 1842, he organized a general assembly of members of Le Populaire. It was the true founding moment of a new party. The first workers’ party.

As the neo-Babouvists begin to call themselves communists, the Icarians begin to call themselves Icarian communists and support the principles set out on the first page of the Journey to Icaria and which include the famous defining phrase of the communist goal:

From each according to their strengths, to each according to their needs:

By the end of 1842, most of the communists in France are Icarians. The clearest and most marked difference with the neo-Babouvists is the constant rejection of violence and the coup d’état. In 1841 Le Populaire reminds the Icarian sympathizers:

Be men of principle rather than revolutionaries! Seek your strength only in discussion, in the ability to convince others, in public opinion, in the national will.

Throughout the years the message is repeated to differentiate themselves from the communists who…

reject the idea of the system developed in the Journey to Icaria, that is to say of the sovereignty of the People, of equality, of fraternity, of marriage, of the family, of social regeneration by discussion, by persuasion, by the power of public opinion.

Icarian communism

Icarian communism is a network, a movement, a ceremoniosity, a party, a new form of militant organization at the same time political and social. Newspapers and pamphlets circulate among artisans and workers, they are shared, copied, read during long days of domestic work. They are above all a tool for proselytism. Cabet’s strategy is based on gaining more supporters and maintaining mobilization and donations among its sympathizers.

One must bear in mind the competition for readers among the morass of democratic and republican newspapers. The price of subscriptions equaled the price of a basket of basic commodities at a difficult economic time for workers. Cabet decided to establish a single, more expensive monthly subscription and to publish an almanac. The combination of these two measures allowed him to broaden his social base, multiplying his reach.

Under the pretext of legally distributing a newspaper and pamphlets, the Icarian communists created an intellectual and political movement that was formidable because of its cohesion.

Between 1839 and 1848, Cabet lived without doubt his best period. He organized his militants in concentric circles, where he was at the very center, exercising absolute control that allowed him to maintain a rigorous doctrinal orthodoxy even if he did not pursue a homogeneous party.

The world of the Icarian communists that Cabet organized is complex, characterized by its nuances, very marked by the personality of the communities he organized: more or less masculine, more or less familiar or festive, more mystical or more vindictive according to local histories and traditions, more egalitarian or more paternalistic according to the regions.

Of the total number of Icarians, one third were in Paris. However, Cabet’s physical presence in the capital did not generate dependencies. They were organized into 4 or 5 levels of political commitment and responsibility. The men of the first circle, almost all workers, constitute Cabet’s closest entourage. Through frequenting him and speaking in public, they acquire new skills which strengthen their own intellectual, moral and political influence.

One of the most famous among the communist workers is Martin Nadaud. Almost illiterate when he met Cabet, he would become a collaborator in Le Populaire and deputy for Creuse. It was he who remained at the head of the Icarian movement when Cabet left for America. Nadaud was also the author in 1841 of the letter that circulated among the workers in the Paris factories. Cabet’s other major supporter was the tailor Firmir Favard.

At that time the Icarians were not only the majority among those who called themselves communists, they were also the largest radical-democratic movement in Europe and the first workers’ party on the continent.

Their form of organization resembles neither the clubs of the French Revolution nor that of the social-democratic parties that would be born with the telegraph more than twenty years later. The Icarians are counted among the subscribers to Le Populaire. Around them, the editors form the ideological core, the more than one thousand shareholders – mostly skilled workers and city dwellers – form the organizational structure and the subscribers, more numerous and less qualified, a committed group of sympathizers who participate in banquets and disseminate the Icarian point of view.

The whole, which in its outer layer includes the ten thousand buyers of the Icarian Almanac, is a diverse group, mostly agricultural proletariat and proletarianized peasantry in small towns and regional capitals, with many nuances in each place and with strong leaderships in each provincial town.

In this era of social change and revolt, it is not surprising for us to know much about the workings of the organized groups from police investigation reports of the time. One of them details the organization of the Icarians:

Cabet has the qualities of the founder of a religion: patience and tenacity. While his newspaper, intended for factories and workers’ meetings, among others, is extensive and vehement, his letters are brief, concise and moderate.

The police chief conducting the investigation draws up a list of the main propaganda agents of Icarian communism in which he identifies more than 300 names and registers correspondents in Spain, Switzerland, London and 67 French departments. He also determines the profession of about 200, of which over 120 are workers. But he leaves out one of the most robust pillars of the movement: the women workers, without whom Icarian communism would never have surpassed 10,000 organized members.

Women workers, Icarian communism and the American colonies

Karl and Jenny Marx attend a talk by Proudhon at an Icarian communist picnic in Paris. Scene from the movie "The Young Marx".
Karl and Jenny Marx attend a talk by Proudhon at an Icarian communist picnic in Paris. Scene from the movie “The Young Marx”.

Indeed, the number of subscribers, strikingly large for the time, is explained by the massive presence of women. Cabet insists again and again on the equality of rights between the sexes, affirming the equality of their intelligence and that women do not exist to be at the service of men as a kind of slave to the despotism of men. His Journey to Icaria had already taken the form of an adventure novel to reach the female working-class public benefiting from the movement’s own literacy campaigns.

With them, Icarian communism discovered a new form of public political activity: the Sunday picnics. Thousands of men, women and children gather in open spaces all over France to eat together, sing, dance, discuss, fly kites, enjoy lawn games… It is this experience, this exaltation of the family in community, that lends credibility to the idea of an organized society as a community. It is a small foretaste of communist life, a moral exercise.

In the picnics, Icaria ceases to be a literary model and becomes an attainable dream. The clumsiness of the repression, encouraged by the aggressiveness of the conservative media will gradually turn the talk of “how good it would be if we had a small Icaria at this time”, into a current that wants to make the leap to the reality of an Icaria here and now.

One of the pamphlets reissued then is “Woman in the Current Society and Woman in the Community”, initially published in 1841, which states that women are equal to men in intelligence and rights, that there can be no subordination between the two sexes, and that the system of male domination is pernicious to the whole of society. The fundamental principle of the Community, he declares, is fraternity between man and woman. The Community, he adds, will be the paradise of women.

And the women workers will be a fundamental pillar in the settlement of Icarian communism. The Icarians are beginning to feel like one big organized family, more and more of them feel like a people and begin to think that emigration to build their own community is a safer alternative than the approaching revolution.

Hasn’t Cabet himself insisted that their place is in the constructive rather than in the political battle? Increasingly, a split is growing between the desire to see Icaria materialized and the dream, never so satisfying, of a social republic for France in which they hope to be able to defend the idea of Community freely and openly.

It is this sector which, through the Polish exile Louis Krolikowski, encourages Cabet to take up his irreligious interpretation of the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth as a communitarianism. By presenting Jesus not as a divine figure but as a leader of the workers, True Christianity causes panic to the censors and the intelligence apparatuses of the regime. They realize that it can be real gunpowder in the working-class neighborhoods.

But in reality this does not reflect as they believe a new proselytizing line oriented towards the less skilled workers. What is happening is that grassroots Icarians are pushing new metaphors. Few dare to say it openly, but more and more are seeing France as the biblical Egypt and its future as an exodus led by Cabet.

Cabet and the Icarian leadership do not want to go down that road. They reject the setting up of small-scale egalitarian communities. The same Journey to Icaria condemns the Fourierists and his own friend David Owen with a telling paragraph:

No partial communities, for success can do no good and the fall, almost certain, would always do much harm! Only proselytize and always proselytize until the mass adopts the community!

Cabet will never openly take a stand, in fact he will oscillate in the following years to the despair of his followers both in France and in America, but from 1846 onwards he begins to give free rein to the publication of articles which begin to express that partial communities, which is what Cabet calls the organization of an egalitarian economy on a small scale, may be possible.

From there the arguments of the current wanting to leave Europe unfold: these communities would be schools for communal living and far from competing with proselytizing in France, they would reinforce the arguments of political propaganda, etc.

The waters of the Red Sea were parting. The pressure of the political police on a peaceful and familiar movement would turn the open path into a wide boulevard. In April Cabet discusses with those closest to him a text that will be announced as the great confidence. On May 9, 1847, it will be published in the final pages of Le Populaire under the discreet title Confidence-Remède, but it will be remembered for its final appeal, written in capital letters: Allons en Icarie!

The revolution of 1848 will confront Icarian communism with its contradictions. The Icarian communists will be given the opportunity to seize power by the armed workers of Paris. They will reject it, leaving the way open for their own repression.

Meanwhile, the supporters of creating colonies are swindled by the Texas government which sells them unusable lots. They begin a true via crucis of debts and resettlements that will end, half a century later with the agony of their last community in Corning, Iowa.

Marx and Engels’ critique of Icarian Communism

Marx’s relationship with Cabet is very interesting. In a letter to Ruge in 1843 he takes the latter and Weitling as the concrete references to communism that made him see worker communism as possible.

Therefore, I am not in favor of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to see clearly their own propositions. Thus, communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction in relation to which, however, I am not thinking of an imaginary and possible communism, but of a communism which in fact exists, such as that professed by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc.

In The German Ideology he will devote an entire chapter to defending Cabet from the misrepresentations of true German socialism by denying the utopian character of Icarian communism. For Marx, and for anyone who does not want to repeat the same barbarities of the German leftism of 170 years ago, Icarian communism is the first workers’ political party -he insists on almost a dozen occasions on this- and also the first party to have a communist program worthy of the name. Still in ’65 he will reproach Proudhon with

that petty-bourgeois mentality which impels him to attack in an unworthy, crude, clumsy, dull, superficial and even unjust manner a man like Cabet – deserving of respect for his practical activity in the movement of the French proletariat.

And it is not only to the Icarians that we owe the communist formula of each according to his strength, to each according to his needs, which Marx will later paraphrase in the Critique of the Gotha program, but also the first enunciation of the direct relationship with production and the conception of communism as a decommodified and abundant economic system, in which the sexual and intellectual division of labor and the opposition between city and countryside are overcome.

In 1847 Marx and Engels still hope that the Icarian Communist Party can have a revolutionary evolution, that is why they take good care in the Manifesto not to attack Cabet in the list of critical-utopian communists, differentiating him from Owen and remarking that the Icarians are not the same as the epigones of the American colonies which…

continue to dream of experimenting with their social utopias; of establishing isolated phalansteries, creating home-colonies in their countries or founding a small Icaria, a twelfth edition of New Jerusalem.

But although the Icarian communists believe in a transitional period organized from the state by a dictatorship, their conception of how to get there is still democratic – and at times, reformist.

This is what blew up in 1848: Cabet and the Icarian leadership refused to fight for power. Disenchanted, their own militants left the organization… only to become victims of repression. The party crumbles and Cabet became accursed for the conscious French proletariat. He will take refuge in England with Owen and will end up dying in the American Icarian colonies after having politically sabotaged them.

For the French internationalists, many of whom had been Icarians, it is difficult to think of a more miserable surrender. But then again, time makes Cabet worse as the weaknesses of Icarianism become crucial weaknesses of the entire class movement.

In the first place the struggle against Bakuninist sectarianism reminds everyone of the Icarian organizational forms, where the leading circles were elected by co-optation. But above all, the Commune, which posed the question of power in all its clarity, would be the one to overshadow the political memory of the first workers’ party.

It was then, and only then, thirty years later, that Marx and Engels retrospectively reconsidered Cabet within the sects that…

… levers of the movement in its origins, hinder it as soon as it surpasses them; then they become reactionary.

n 1872, precisely in The Pretended Splits in the International, they write

The first stage of the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie developed under the sign of the sectarian movement. This has its raison d’être in an epoch in which the proletariat is not yet sufficiently developed to act as a class.

Individual thinkers criticize social antagonisms and come up with fantastic solutions for them which the mass of the workers need only accept, propagate and put into practice. By nature, the sects formed by these initiators are abstentionists, strangers to any real movement, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions; in a word, to any movement as a whole.

The mass of the proletariat always remains indifferent or even hostile to their propaganda. The workers of Paris and Lyons were as indifferent to the Saint-Simonians, the Fourierists and the Icarians as the Chartists and the English Trade Unionists were to the Owenites.

These sects, levers of the movement in its origins, hindered it as soon as it surpassed them; then they became reactionary. Testimony to this are the sects in France and England, and lately the Lassalleans in Germany, who, after having hindered for years the organization of the proletariat, have ended up by becoming mere instruments of the police.

In short, the sects are the infancy of the proletarian movement, as astrology and alchemy are the infancy of science. Until the proletariat had overcome this phase, the foundation of the International was not possible.

The final balance will be made in 1890 by Engels, recalling the Manifesto of ’48 and remembering Weitling and Cabet as the first workers’ movement -that is to say, the opposite of utopian socialism- but… still utopian as a system.

The working class sector which, convinced of the insufficiency and superficiality of mere political upheavals, demanded a radical transformation of society, called itself communist. It was a crudely delineated communism, instinctive, vague, but powerful enough to spawn two utopian systems: Cabet’s Icarian in France and Weitling’s in Germany.

In 1847, socialism referred to a bourgeois movement, communism to a workers’ movement. Socialism was, at least on the continent, a doctrine presentable in the salons; communism, quite the opposite. And since we were already firmly convinced that the emancipation of the workers could only be the work of the working class itself, we could not hesitate in our choice of title. Later it never crossed our minds to change it either.

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