10 sensational revelations concerning Étienne Cabet and his Journey to Icaria, with a biography of the author

Étienne Cabet‘s Voyage en Icarie (excerpt) is his novelised idealisation of Napoleonic nationalist totalitarianism: if not exactly a New Jerusalem, then certainly a New Paris, built around a New Seine, designed by its dictator, the Icar. This book and its hype led hundreds of families, mainly French, principally artesans (sez James Chastain) to doom and disillusion in several of the stranger parts of the American wilds in the mid-19th century.

It is unfortunate that, in our on-going enthusiasm for messianic Obamas, some rather interesting details of the book and project have been glossed over:

  1. It’s easy enough to build a town with identical dwellings laid out over a grid, but, even with proto-Hitlerian eugenicists working the Icarian standard of six days a week to get them all into shape, a multi-sized population was clearly going to bust out of Cabet’s planned one-size-fits-all overalls. Nothing if not a progressive chiliast, in his novel he turned to the material which had recently revolutionised the Parisian corset and gaiter industry: elastic. Here’s an exclusive still from my forthcoming film on Cabet showing the Dictatorship of the Icariat in session:
    Etienne Cabet and Icaria council in session
  2. Cabet’s novel was condemned by Marx for failing to address what the latter viewed as the popular imagination:

    [W]e want to influence our contemporaries, particularly our German contemporaries. The question arises: how are we to set about it? There are two kinds of facts which are undeniable. In the first place religion, and next to it, politics, are the subjects which form the main interest of Germany today. We must take these, in whatever form they exist, as our point of departure, and not confront them with some ready-made system such as, for example, the Voyage en Icarie.

    Put this down to professional jealousy if you will–in terms of book sales and immediate influence, Cabet was something of an Aaron to Marx’s Moses–but, whatever the case, the Russian, Catalan, … social revolutions and their repression are essentially replays of this argument.

  3. Cabet didn’t take part in the initial American settlement–he was in prison–and was subsequently convicted and then exonerated of fraud on the participants.

    (Messiahs do seem to be afflicted by this kind of embarrassment. One of the most amusing cases I know is Barcelona’s wannabe revolutionary, Francesc Ferrer i Guardia, who went to his death following the Tragic Week rioting betrayed by his stockbroker: he had emerged from hiding to enquire on the progress of his portfolio, which included a significant holding in the municipal company charged with reconstruction.)

  4. The original settlement may have foundered because the (French) settlers didn’t understand the (English) land grant contract:

    Gouhenant the leader was carrying the contract with the Peters Company that was written in English. Had it been written in French, they may have realized that the homesteading period ended on July 1, 1848 and after that the land would cost $1.00 per acre. The land was not in contiguous plots and they had to build a house on each 320 acres of land before July 1, 1848 to claim the land. When July 1 arrived they had completed 32 huts with rightful claim to 10,240 acres of land in Prescott and Mercer Townships in Denton County, TX. They planted some wheat and built some fences but hard reality took over.

    Per ardua ad astra is frightfully jolly, old chap, but do pay a translator.

  5. Two Barcelonan Icarian communists–doctor Joan Rovira and Pedro Montaldo–joined the settlement, inspired by submarine man Narciso/Narcís Monturiol’s popularisation of Cabet via the newspaper La fraternidad and his Spanish translation of the novel. Rovira later complained about Cabet’s improvidence. More on this walk.
  6. Cabet showed a great interest in women’s rights, but in the Iowan Icaria, “except on a few questions, women were excluded from voting.
  7. Centrepiece of the Nauvoo settlement was to be Cabet’s reconstruction of the great temple left behind by Brigham Young and the Mormons, from whom the property was acquired following their flight westwards. In a clear setback for the author of True Christianity,

    After a considerable sum of money had been spent, a terrific storm struck Nauvoo, and seeming to single out the Temple, felled the walls with a roar that was heard miles away.

    Subsequently the zone was resettled by some sensible Germans who used the rubble to build a residential and commercial development. The Icarian schoolhouse is now Roman Catholic.

  8. On arriving in America, Cabet–according to the terms of the community’s contract–took dictatorial control. “He prohibited the use of tobacco and whiskey, interfered in the personal lives of members, and encouraged spying. At length he became so much hated that the members gathered at his house to sing the Marseillaise outside his windows, and, in an open meeting, they asked defiantly, ‘Have we traveled three thousand miles not to be free?’ The majority drove him out, and he died shortly afterwards in St. Louis.”
  9. How did he die?
    1. Of a stroke, whereafter he was buried three times.
    2. By suicide. (Albert Shaw says this was Fritz Bauer, a sect member.)
  10. Icaria -> Dogtown -> Dogville:
    • Dogtown is one of the names used for the area that comprises the site of the Icarian settlement in Cheltenham, St. Louis, Missouri. (Bob Corbett thinks that it may not owe its name to the theft of dogs from the 1904 World’s Fair by hungry Filipino immigrants, the Igorots.)
    • Rufino Salguero Rodríguez says Lars von Trier’s Dogville is not simply anti-American but instead an assault on French idealism, the village representing “a sort of Icaria, a utopian ideal community, lost in the mountains, far from the evil and competition of civilisation, from political and religious power”. I suppose you could see young philosopher-experimenter Tom and his Frankenstein’s social monster as an echo of the revolt of new Icarians against first generation decadence.

Eric S Rabkin’s cool annotations to his History of utopian literature provide useful pointers for further unrealistic general reading. Chapter 8 in Lewis Mumford’s The story of Utopias provides an excellent summary of Icaria and of Cabet’s context and achievements. Finally, Louis Gustave Vapereau‘s fine Dictionnaire universel des contemporains (1858) has a good straight-forward chronology of Cabet’s lives and lunacies:

CABET (Etienne); french publicist, head of a communist sect, was born in Dijon on January 2 1788. The son of a cooper who, having had him work for him until he was 12, was able to give him a liberal education, he began his studies, following the Jacotot method, and read and practised law in his hometown. In 1816 he defended General Veaux againsts accusations of conspiracy with such zeal as to compromise his position at the Dijon bar. He went to Paris in 1818 and joined the staff of Mr. Dalloz’s Journal de la jurisprudence. After 1830 [ie the July Revolution], he was appointed Attorney General in Corsica by Dupont de l’Eure [who was briefly Minister of Justice]. Exceeding excessively the ideas and interests that had triumphed in July, he adopted an official language which showed his lack of respect for the botched charter, as it was called then, and was dismissed by Mr. Barthe, the new Minister of Justice (May 31 1831). The following July he was elected deputy by Dijon’s second electoral college and was admitted to the House without satisfying the suffrage requirements.

Mr. Cabet was reported amongst the strongest opponents of the dynasty and published a series of pamphlets […] and a monthly, le Populaire (1833-1834), whose publication was suspended on several occasions, but which always reappeared, and was the official communist journal. Mr. Cabet was prosecuted and sentenced to a heavy fine and two years’ imprisonment (February 13 1834), but took refuge in England where he spent the five years necessary for his sentence to expire. He lived there in utter poverty and researched socialist theories ancient and modern, including Thomas More’s Utopia, which inspired in large part his social and philosophical novel, Voyage en Icarie … In a double literary hoax, he at first published the book under the pseudonym Dufruit as a mere translation of the English of a certain Francis Adams: Voyages et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie … , and due to an ironic error some biographers took him for the clumsy plagiarist of this imaginary lord. In this happy land of Icaria, thanks to its community system, state intervention in all things and the universal provision of the law, there was no poverty or debauchery.

This dream of happiness, which lacked neither originality of thought, nor stylistic accomplishment, seduced the labouring classes towards the end of the reign of Louis-Philippe, and Icarian communism acquired many followers in the cities of French. [Text missing] sold out four editions, and le Populaire spread its doctrines into the very garrets. Pressed to put them into practice, Mr. Cabet secured during a trip to London in 1847 the concession of one million acres of land in Texas. In the same year, with 100 of his supporters, he signed the first treaty of association which conferred on him, with absolute authority, the freedom to dispose of all goods given by members for the benefit of the community. The first departure, announced in le Populaire at the beginning of January 1848, took place on the 2nd of the following month. Mr. Cabet, already worried and facing litigation accused of fraud, was detained in Paris following the events of February [ie 1848 revolution]. His popularity as opposition leader and school founder initially gave him an importance which promptly vanished. At the end of April, violent threats of death were made against him. He unsuccessfully attempted to gain national representation. Finally, the claims of the first emigrants and those who had followed forced him to leave for Texas at the end of 1848. During his absence further prosecutions for fraud led to him being sentenced to two years in prison (September 30 1849).

In Texas the community was in complete chaos and misery was rampant. M. Cabet, abandoning to its own devices the minority which had called for the dissolution of the company, left with the rest of its members for Nauvoo, Illinois, where he acquired at a low price property which the Mormons, object of hostility from the surrounding population, had been forced to leave in order to flee deeper into the West. In 1850 amid resurgent protests by dissidents, Mr. Cabet resolved to return to Europe to fight his accusers in the court that had sentenced him. In addition to the voluminous memoirs he had published in his defence, he reported a resolution passed on his behalf by the Assembly of Nauvoo justifying his seizure of dictatorship and the accuracy of the accounts he had submitted. He argued his own case for four hours in the Parisian Court of Appeal and, despite the vigour of new prosecutions, judgement reversed the inicial verdict and said he had committed neither malversations of funds nor fraudulent manoeuvres (July 23 1851). During his stay in Paris Mr. Cabet, popular once more, was selected for a by-election to the Legislature as the first candidate of the delegates of the democratic-socialist faction. He failed, and then the coup of December 2 removed all hopes he had had of playing a political role and, not wanting to serve any religious or social doctrine alien to his system, his influence on the masses, he returned to Nauvoo. For five years few details emerged regarding the Icarian establishment until it was learned that at the beginning of 1856 Mr. Cabet had been forced to resume his dictatorship by some kind of coup d’état and had been reduced, a few months later, to taking refuge in St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in December of the same year. In 1857 a subscription for his widow was opened in Paris.

[list of publications, including some fairly riotous sounding pamphlets]

Here’s the uncorrected French original:

CABET (Etienne); publiciste français, chef d’une secte communiste, est né à Dijon le 2 janvier 1788. Fils d’un tonnelier qui, après l’avoir fait travailler avec lui jusqu’à l’âge de 12 ans, put lui faire donner une éducation libérale, il commença ses études, suivant la méthode Jacotot, fit son droit et exerça d’abord la profession d’avocat dans sa ville natale. Il défendit, en 1816, le général Veaux, accusé de conspiration, avec une ardeur qui compromit sa position au barreau de Dijon. Il vint à Paris, en 1818, et fut attaché à la rédaction du Journal de la jurisprudence, de M. Dalloz. Après 1830, il fut nommé par Dupont (de l’Eure) procureur général en Corse. Dépassant de beaucoup les idées et les intérêts qui avaient triomphé en juillet, il tint un langage officiel qui manifestait son peu de respect pour la charte bâclée, comme on disait alors, et fut révoqué par M. Barthe, le nouveau ministre de la justice (31 mai 1831). Au mois de juillet suivant, il fut élu député par le deuxième collège électoral de Dijon et fut admis à la Chambre sans justifier du cens d’éligibilité.
M. Cabet se signala parmi les adversaires les plus ardents de la dynastie et publia une série de pamphlets: Révolution de 1830 et situation présente expliquée, etc. (1832, in-8; 1832 et 1844. 2 vol. in-12); Louis-Philippe à lui seul fait plus de propagande républicaine, etc. (1833, m-8), etc., et un journal mensuel, le Populairé ( 1833-1834) qui, plusieurs fois suspendu, a toujours reparu, comme le moniteur officiel du communisme. Poursuivi devant le jury, M. Cabet fut condamné à une forte amende et à deux ans de prison (13 février 1834); mais il se réfugia en Angleterre où il passa les cinq ans nécessaires pour la prescription de sa peine. Il y vécut dans le dénûment et y prit connaissance des théories socialistes anciennes et modernes, notamment de l’Utopie de Thomas Morus qui lui inspira, en grande partie, son roman philosophique et social, le Voyage en Icarie (1842, in-18, 2* edit.). Par une double supercherie littéraire, il donna d’abord ce livre, sous le pseudonyme de Dufruit, comme une simple traduction de l’ouvrage anglais d’un certain Francis Adams: Voyages et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie (1840, 2vol. in-8), et par une erreur assez piquante, il passe, auprès de certains biographes, pour le plagiaire maladroit de ce lord imaginaire. Dans l’heureuse contrée de l’Icarie, grâce au système de la communauté, à l’intervention de l’État en toutes choses et à la prévoyance universelle de la loi, on ne connaît ni misère, ni débauche.
Ce rêve de bonheur, que ne relevait ni l’originalité des pensées, ni le talent du style, séduisit les classes laborieuses, vers la fin du règne de Louis-Philippe, et le communisme icarien compta de nombreux adeptes dans toutes les villes de France. [Text missing] épuisé quatre éditions, et le journal le Populaire en propageait les doctrines jusque dans les mansardes. Pressé de les mettre en pratique, M. Cabet s’était assuré, dans un voyage à Londres, en 1847, la concession d’un territoire d’un million d’acres au Texas. Il passa, la même année, avec 100 de ses partisans, un premier traité d’association qui lui conférait, avec une autorité absolue, la libre disposition de tous les biens dont chacun s’engageait à se dépouiller au profit de la communauté. Le premier départ, annoncé dans le Populaire au commencement de janvier 1848, eut lieu le 2 du mois suivant. M. Cabet, déjà inquiété et poursuivi, à cette occasion, comme prévenu d’escroquerie, mais sans que l’affaire eût alors des suites, fut retenu à Paris par les événements de février. Sa popularité, comme chef d’opposition et fondateur d’école, lui donna d’abord une importance qui s’évanouit promptement. A la fin d’avril même, de violentes menaces de mort se produisirent contre lui. Il se mit inutilement sur les rangs pour la représentation nationale. Enfin, les réclamations des premiers emigrants et de ceux qui les avaient suivis, le forcèrent de partir, ayant la fin de 1848, pour le Texas. Pendant son absence, sur de nouvelles poursuites en escroquerie, il fut condamné par défaut à deux ans de prison (30 septembre 1849).
Au Texas, le plus grand désordre régnait dans la communauté, et la misère y sévissait M. Cabet , abandonnant à elle-même la minorité, qui réclamait la dissolution de la Société, se rendit avec le reste de ses adhérents à Nauvoo, dans l’Illinois, où il acquit, à bas prix, rétablissement que les Mormons, en butte aux hostilités des populations voisines, étaient forcés de quitter, pour se réfugier plus avant dans l’Ouest. En 1850, au milieu des protestations renaissantes des dissidents contre lui, M. Cabet résolut de revenir en Europe, pour combattre ses accusateurs devant le tribunal qui l’avait condamné. Outre les volumineux mémoires qu’il avait publiés pour sa défense, il rapportait une délibération rendue en sa faveur par l’assemblée de Nauvoo, pour justifier la dictature qu’il avait prise et l’exactitude des comptes qu’il avait rendus. Il plaida lui-même sa cause, pendant quatre heures entières, devant la Cour d’appel de Paris, et, malgré la vivacité des nouvelles poursuites, un arrêt, infirmant le jugement primitif, déclara qu’il n’avait commis ni détournements de fonds ni manœuvres frauduleuses (23 juillet 1851). Pendant son séjour à Paris, M. Cabet, redevenu populaire, avait été désigné pour une élection partielle à l’Assemblée législative, comme le premier candidat des délégués du conclave démocrate-socialiste. Il échoua; puis le coup d’État du 2 décembre lui ôta tout espoir de jouer un rôle politique, et, ne voulant mettre au service d’aucune doctrine religieuse ou sociale étrangère à son système, son influence sur les masses, il repartit pour Nauvoo. Depuis cinq ans, on avait peu de détails sur l’établissement icarien, lorsqu’on apprit, qu’au commencement de 1856, M. Cabet s’était vu forcé de reprendre la dictature par une sorte de coup d’État, et qu’il avait été réduit, quelques mois après, à se réfugier à Saint-Louis dans le Missouri, où il mourait au mois de décembre de la même année. En 1857, on ouvrit, à Paris, une souscription en faveur de sa veuve.

There, I think it has stopped raining now.

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  1. Before you besmirch the name of Ferrer i Guardia, who was killed by the fascists because he wanted to help the poor, maybre you would like to give some evidence. Your blog is a disgraceful litany of slanders.

  2. I’m sorry you don’t know anything about fascism.

    Joan Connelly Ullman’s The Tragic Week (1968) is a well-researched account and is the basis for my belief that FiG may also, or actually, have been a conniving bastard, hoping to make a fortune from the misfortunes of working men, rather the secular martyr created at the time by the international press:

    Another matter left unresolved was the report, widely circulated in Barcelona, that Ferrer and Radical politicians wanted a republic proclaimed in order to cause a decline in the value of the Monarchy’s state bonds, and thereby to make money through speculating on a drop in the stock market. Ferrer’s defense lawyer, Captain Francisco Galcer’an, denounced this as an attempt to discredit the idealism of his client. The accusation, however, is not so easily dismissed. As early as the fall of 1908, at the time of the teamsters’ strike, an informant had told police that Ferrer was “apparently trying to carry out a stock market operation through certain revolutionary labor elements.”

    In August 1909, the charge that the rebellion constituted a stock market maneuver was lodged originally against five Radical party officials: Iglesias, Vinaixa, Juan Rovira Palau, Jos’e Mir y Mir’o, and Vald’es. An anonymous letter to military authorities, dated August 2 1909, supplied the names and addresses of the six brokers who had handled the transaction.

    In mid-August the charge was expanded to include Ferrer. “Pierre” [Domingo Gaspar Mata], a Radical journalist who had fled to France, was reported to have said that Ferrer met him in the street shortly before the Tragic Week and advised him to play the market on the basis of a drop in stock values. “Pierre” believed the rebellion was nothing more than an attempt by Ferrer and Emiliano Iglesias to make money.

    Ferrer, it will be remembered, had amassed his fortune through harsh economics and shrewd stock market operations, primarily with shares in the construction company that held a monopoly contract on Barcelona’s public works (Fomento de Obras y Construcciones, S.A.);* the value of this stock was thus intimately related to municipal politics.
    Army officers investigated the charges but found them difficult to prove or disprove. Stock prices had declined sharply, both because of the war and the disorders in Catalonia. When questioned about the possibility that individuals had profited from this decline, stock exchange officials could reply only that they had no record of a large-scale operation by registered brokers but they pointed out that the transaction could have been handled through unofficial stock agents in Barcelona or through exchanges located in other cities.

    * These stocks were of such concern to Ferrer that they led directly to his arrest. On August 16 a note came due in Barcelona on a bank loan for which Ferrer had pledged the Fomento stocks as collateral. Ferrer was hiding in caves on his farm, protected by reports published by friends in Paris that he was safe in France. He sent Soledad Villafranca to renew the note but she was told she must have Ferrer’s signature. He committed the amazing indiscretion of signing it because he thought he could trust the bank manager, a personal friend. Military authorities, however, were informed; unable to locate his hiding place, they deported Ferrer’s relatives on August 19 and waited for him to attempt to escape. On August 31 he was apprehended not far from his home, as he made his way toward France.

    Such claims of the use of insider knowledge to profit from the consequences of public mayhem were not uncommon. The Catalan Duce Francesc Macià was also accused of market manipulation following his absurd invasion plot. Unfortunately I can’t recall other examples at this moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was a standard item in the repertoire of the political police. I wonder whether anyone followed up the Ferrer case, and how much of the evidence is still available.

  3. (I was going to post this anyway at some stage. It’s not like I have obscure doctoral theses lying all over the room.)

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