CREAGH, Ronald

Dreaming America: How Utopian was the Icarian Experiment? (1)

MARX, Karl (1818-1883)France. 19th CenturyÉtats-Unis. 19e siècleFrenchEmigration and immigrationUtopiaCABET, Étienne (1788-1856) Fondateur du communisme en FranceTexas (USA)CREAGH, Ronald (1929 - ....)

The utopian dimension of historical experiences needs some delineation: did explorers, pioneers and immigrants, experience America as the land of Utopia, as it has often been repeated?

What is a utopian imagination of the United States? This is not just a matter of history, but also one of theory, and it raises several issues. Is a word like “utopia” to be understood in the very strict sense of an earthly paradise or is it just a worn cliché? Should we rigorously follow the pattern of Thomas More’s utopia or can one elaborate a more innovative definition? If a humorless study of humor is quite boring, a repetitive analysis of utopian definitions hardly belongs to utopian thought.

Besides, many theoretical issues are involved, particularly the distinction between myth and utopia. And one should put aside the preliminary objection that a concept which is not grounded on historic experience is just another ideological endeavour. This positivist approach forcloses the very possibility of historical creativity.

These issues can be debated in much of American history, but this analysis will examine a particular immigration issue, that of a French intentional community, the Icarians.

1. Enthusiasm, Illusion and the decline of Fraternity

2. Utopia and the Collective Imagination


Souvenir of the Nauvoo community, Illinois

Indeed, there are at least three good reasons to study this adventure: the founder, Etienne Cabet, is the father or the forefather of French communism; his followers, the Icarians, constitute one of the most important emigration from France to the United States: about a thousand people; and, last but not least, as the author of Voyage en Icarie, he was presented as a prototype of the utopian thinker by no less than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. [1]

Etienne Cabet’s life, ideas and influence have been adequately studied, and so have his various intentional communities. Manuscripts, publications and the last witnesses have been put to contribution, and their material culture has been studied. Questions about the reasons for the conflicts, the decay of the colonies and their integration within the larger setting have received sober attention from sociologists, historians, folklorists, architects and researchers in utopian studies.

Born on the eve of the French Revolution, in 1788, Cabet was an important public figure who had gained celebrity as a successful lawyer in a cause celebre. A director in 1820 of the secret group of the Carbonari, he belonged to the insurrectionary committee of the Revolution of 1838. Most of all, he had written a best seller, published in 1840, Voyage en Icarie, which had made him the French equivalent of Robert Owen and inspired so much enthusiasm that he was pressed by many to bring into being that Icaria which he had described in his book.

It is the embodiment of this enthusiasm in a communal attempt that will be described in the first part of this paper, which is entitled “Enthusiasm, illusion and the decline of fraternity”. This will be followed by what I hope will be a satisfying attempt at creating some articulation between utopia and the collective imagination Following the lead of Marx and Engels, historians have called these experiences utopian.

This qualification of an experience in colonization has some advantages. Migration studies hardly consider the philosophical contributions of emigrant settlements: they are more preoccupied with what is called culture, the way they behave, create their own institutions and whether they integrate or not within the larger setting. But when a group is seen as utopian, then one may wish to go beyond those trite observations: by definition, an idealist collectivity questions our own views of the world and our eventual attitudes of commiseration.

Nevertheless, the opposition between utopian and pragmatic, as well as other Manichean dichotomies such as idealistic/realistic, successful/unsuccessful, – and I would add dictatorial/democratic,– may also be called into question. This form of binary opposition - «one person’s heaven is another one’s hell» - relies on a rhetoric of purity which has a tinge of fundamentalism. Following the lead of Marx and Engels, historians have called Cabet and other similar experiences utopian.

It is here, however, that the shoe pinches. Utopia is a floating signifier, for reasons too complex to develop here. The main rationale is that scholars refuse to give up their empirical focus and adopt a theoretical framework. The result is that there are as many definitions of utopia as there are writers, with the consequence that if there has been much sophistication in methods, a variety of remarkable approaches from a feminist perspective as well as from other viewpoints, there is no agreement nor progress between researchers on what is a utopia, apart from this common consent to remain within an empiricist approach. An examination of the Texan experience and failure may bring light to what is utopian and what is not, it may tell us if Cabet may be ranked among the French utopians and, more generally, suggest some precaution in the ways we qualify collective imaginations.

This endeavor has its limitations, since Cabet himself did not come to Texas, and we also need to make a brief excursion to see what happened afterwards. We will first consider the historical travel to Texas of the Icarian pioneers and then will discuss its relation to utopia.

- 1. Enthusiasm, Illusion and the Decline of Fraternity

- 2. Utopia and the Collective Imagination

[1On French immigration in the United States, see Ronald Creagh, Cousins d’Amérique, Payot: 1983, which also presents a detailed history of the Icarian immigration