1848-98 Socialist Utopia Icarian Community Structure : Etienne Cabet

Etienne Cabet (1788-1856)

Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Icaria was founded by Etienne Cabet, a French anti-monarchist who moved to England in 1834. There he wrote who wrote Voyage en Icarie, a novel which imitates More’s Utopia and reflects Rousseau’s French romanticism: return to a simpler, primitive economy where private property and the selfishness inherent in it never existed. His ideas mirrored those of the French Socialists in their plan of social progress through the leadership of a natural elite identified by equal education for both sexes. Cabet knew Robert Owen and borrowed his emphasis on the importance of a healthy physical environment as at New Lanark. He also subscribed to the golden rule: Love your neighbor as yourself; do not unto others the harm you would not have others do to you; do to others the good that you wish for yourself.

In 1849, in Nauvoo, Illinois, Cabet and his followers purchased land and buildings from Mormons who had left for Salt Lake, Utah. The group eschewed money and private property, preferring communal meals and apartment living. Children were moved from their parents’ environment at the age of four and housed in boarding-school buildings; they were allowed to visit home on Sundays, having been taught to love the community, not to have special affection for their parents. Every adult had a job in a workshop or on the farms.

The Icarians supported no religion but they met to discuss Christian morality and Cabet’s teachings. Men and women had equal voices in the weekly assembly which adopted a formal charter that prescribed the political structure described inVoyage-en-Icarie. Annually, they elected a president and four officers in charge of finance, farming, industry, education. Candidates who lived at the commune for four months became members upon election by a majority vote of the Icarian men and the payment of eighty dollars. Other sources of income were funds Cabet raised in Paris and royalties on his writings.

When Cabet proposed a four-year term for himself as president, the group suffered the first of its many splits. As splinter groups moved west, each community continued to cling to its original blueprint of life as put down in Cabet’s book, the dream of a community that would be “a truly second Promised Land, an Eden, an Elysium, a new Earthly Paradise.


The Icarians (in German, Ikarier) lived in communal dwellings of dormitories that shared central living and dining areas. All families lived in two equal rooms in an apartment building and had the same kind of furniture. Children were raised in a communal creche , not just by their own parents. Tasks were divided among the group; one might be a seamstress and never need to cook.


When the Icarians first arrived at Nauvoo on March 15, 1849, they purchased a number of buildings, grounds, houses, cattle and the like. The burned-out Mormon Temple had an enclosed area of 4 acres (16,000 m2) which the Icarians intended to use as an academy or school.

After all purchases and repairs were done, the Nauvoo Icarian village consisted of a dwelling of individual apartments, two schools (one for girls and the other for boys), two infirmaries, a pharmacy, a large community kitchen with dining hall, a bakery, a butchery, and a room for laundry facilities. Soon thereafter, a steam-powered flour mill, a distillery, pigsty and sawmill were added. A local coal mine was worked for fuel.

The housing situations in Iowa and California were not anywhere near as organized as those in Illinois. What little information is available paints a picture of oppression and despair


All work was divided by gender. Men worked as tailors, masons, wheelwrights, shoemakers, mechanics, blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, and butchers. Women worked as cooks, seamstresses, washerwomen and ironers. To earn money, the Icarians established commerce with the outside world by a small store out side of St. Louis. Here they sold their handmade shoes, boots and dresses, and also sold items made by the mills and distillery.


The Icarians believed in a higher power and had a ten-section principle that briefly stated what they thought was needed in a perfect society.

The religion of choice should have an understanding of the following:

  • Evil, Misfortune
  • Intelligence
  • Causes of Evil
  • God and Perfection
  • Destiny of Humanity, Happiness
  • Sociability
  • Perfectibility
  • The Remedy
  • God, Father of the Human Race

At eighteen years of age, the Icarians were instructed on world religions.Marriage in the community was highly encouraged, almost insisted upon.Divorce was allowed; however, members were encouraged to remarry as soon as possible.

Cabet‘s book Vraie Christianisme (True Christianity) was often read from and formed the dominant influence on religious thought, though it was not intended as a specific instruction on religious observances. In the Iowa colony, the Icarians adopted the practice of an informal religious gathering known as the "Cours Icariens" ("Icarian Course") on Sunday afternoons. In addition to reading fromVraie Christianisme and other books, these gatherings included quiet games and conversation.


Culture in Icaria was the second highest priority, second only to education. The community held several concerts and theatrical productions for the entertainment of its members, performing works such as "The Salamander", "Death to the Rats", "Six Heads in a Hat", or "Fisherman’s Daughter".

In Nauvoo, there was a library of over 4,000 books, the biggest in Illinois at the time. The community also distributed a biweekly newspaper titled Colonie Icarienne.

The most important holidays were February 3, the anniversary of the First Departure of Icarians from France, and July 4, the summer festival. On July 4, the refectory was decorated with garlands and boughs; cardboard signs declared "Equality", "Freedom", and "Unity", and banners had quotations like "All for Each; Each for All", "To Each According to Their Needs", and "First Right is to Live; First Duty is to Work". They raised the American flag and played the "Star Spangled Banner" and "America". They travelled into Corning to watch the Fourth of July parade, but they remained apart from the anglophone Americans. At the end of the day, they returned to Icaria (three miles east) for a banquet, dance, and theatrical presentation. Icarians also celebrated Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Fete du Mais, a fall harvest corn festival similar to Thanksgiving.

Gender equality

Men and women were given equal participation opportunities in weekly community assemblies, voting on admissions, constitutional changes, and the election of the officer in charge of clothing and lodging.


From start to finish, the Icarian movement of Cabot Etienne lasted forty-nine years. Like all utopias of this era, the Icarians met their demise from within their own community. Poor planning and poor financial management along with personal disputes seem to be at the root of the disbandment. Although the disagreements were never mentioned in complete detail, it was obvious that debt was their biggest downfall.

Further reading

  • America’s Communal Utopias, by Donald E. Pitzer, 1997, The University of North Carolina Press ISBN 0-8078-4609-0
  • An Icarian communist in Nauvoo:commentary, by Emile Vallet. With an introduction and notes by H. Roger Grant, 1917 ISBN 0-912226-06-4
  • "Socialism in America", Edited by Albert Fried, 1970, Boston Public Library.
  • "Dream Worlds?", by Pamela Pilbeam , 2000, The Historical Journal, Vol 43
  • "Communism and the Working Class before Marx", 1971, The American Historical Review Vol. 76
  • Soldiers of Humanity, by Dale R. Larsen, 1998, The National Icarian Heritage Society.


  1. Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks, Marx to Ruge, September 1843
  2. Dale R. Larsen (1998). Soldiers of Humanity. The National Icarian Heritage Society.
  3.  http://dnr.state.il.us/Lands/Landmgt/parks/r4/nauvoo.htm
  4. "American Experience: The Mormon’s". Act 3 – Persecution; Chapter 5. PBS Documentary. (2006) DVD, 240 minutes.
  5. Paul S. Gauthier (1992). Quest for Utopia. Gauthier Publishing Company, Corning, Iowa 50841. pp. 91-92
  6. ALBERT SHAW, Ph. D. (1884). "Icaria, Chapter in the History of Communism" . G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS. pp. 124ff. Retrieved 2008-09-16.
  7. Hine, Robert V. (1953). California’s Utopian Colonies. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library. pp. 58–77.

External links
Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Icarians .

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Mastering Life
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