Utopian socialism is a term used to define the first currents of modern socialist thought. Although it is technically possible for any person living at any time in history to be a utopian socialist, the term is most often applied to those utopian socialists who lived in the first quarter of the 19th century. From the mid-19th century onwards, the other branches of socialism overtook the utopian version in terms of intellectual development and number of supporters. Utopian socialists were important in the formation of modern movements for intentional community and cooperatives.
Utopian socialists never actually used this name to describe themselves; the term "utopian socialism" was introduced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (in The Communist Manifesto) and used by later socialist thinkers to describe early socialist or quasi-socialist intellectuals who created hypothetical visions of perfect egalitarian and communalist societies without actually concerning themselves with the manner in which these societies could be created or sustained.
Although the utopian socialists did not share any common political, social, or economic perspectives, Marx and Engels argued that certain intellectual characteristics of the utopian socialists unified the disparate thinkers. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote, "The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?. Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel."
Marx and Engels used the term "scientific socialism" to describe the type of socialism they saw themselves developing. According to Engels, socialism was not "an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict."
Critics have argued that utopian socialists who established experimental communities were in fact trying to apply the scientific method to human social organization, and were therefore not utopian. For instance, Joshua Muravchik stated that science is "the practice of experimentation, of hypothesis and test," and argued that "Owen and Fourier and their followers were the real ‘scientific socialists.’ They hit upon the idea of socialism, and they tested it by attempting to form socialist communities." Muravchik further argued that, in contrast, Marx made untestable predictions about the future, and that Marx's view that socialism would be created by impersonal historical forces may lead one to conclude that it is unnecessary to strive for socialism, because it will happen anyway.
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a successful businessman who devoted much of his profits to improving the lives of his employees. His reputation grew when he set up a textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland and introduced shorter working hours, schools for children and renovated housing. He also set up an Owenite commune called New Harmony in Indiana, USA. This collapsed when one of his business partners ran off with all the profits. Owen's main contribution to socialist thought was the view that human social behaviour is not fixed or absolute, and that human beings have the free will to organize themselves into any kind of society they wished.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was by far the most utopian of the Socialists. Rejecting the industrial revolution altogether and thus the problems that arose with it, he made various fanciful claims about the ideal world he envisioned. Despite some clearly non-socialist inclinations, he contributed significantly - if indirectly - to the socialist movement. His writings about turning work into play influenced the young Karl Marx and helped him devise his theories of alienation. Also a contributor to feminism, Fourier invented the concept of phalanstère, units of people based on a theory of passions and of their combination.
Among the more minor utopian socialists was Étienne Cabet (1788–1856) who was influenced by Robert Owen. In his book Travel and adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria (1840) he described an idealist communalist society. His attempts to recreate it (Icarian movement) failed.