Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Socialism and Sects at the Square des Saint-Simoniens

Near the summit of Paris sits what seems to be one of the quietest parks in the city, with little remaining to trace it back to its time as the centre of a curious - but very influential - social movement called saint-simonianism.

Today the park is surrounded by apartment blocks, including one large tower that dominates the eastern edge. In the morning sun, a small group practices tai chi moves under the bare cherry trees. Well wrapped children brave the dew drops in the playground, whilst a group of teenagers play football as seriously as if it were an important cup final. It is a scene of serene egalitarianism, and one the saint-simonians would no doubt have approved of.

The movement
Saint-simonianism was
a kind of utopian socialism, inspired by the ideas of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, particularly those in the journals he published in the early 19th century. His profound belief was that science and industry would liberate people from medieval theocracies, and that useful work would create true equality. To this end, he has been recognised as an influence to a diverse range of people, including Auguste Comte (
featured here previously on Invisible Paris, and who was once Saint-Simon's secretary), Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill.

Amusingly, one of his works, 'De la réorganisation de la société européenne' (On the reorganisation of European society), seems to predict today’s European Union, with the exception being that he placed the United Kingdom at the heart of the institution, rather than as a meddlar on the fringes!

Towards the end of his life though, Saint-Simon reverted back towards a kind of benevolent christianity, a move that led his followers to veer off in two different directions after his death in 1825.

Those still promulgating the power of science and industry were less visible than the other branch - led by the charismatic Prosper Enfantin - who twisted saint-simonianism towards what would be today classed as a religious sect. Enfantin declared himself to be the Père Suprême (Supreme Father) of the movement, and began making declarations such as the fact that ‘the tyranny of marriage’ would be replaced by a system of ‘free love’.

Enfantin always wore a badge on his breast displaying his title of ‘Père’, and was known by his followers - who were encouraged to wear a special uniform - as ‘the living law’. He gave some of his missionaries the task of finding him a ‘female messiah’ who would be the mother of the ‘new saviour’, but no suitable person was ever found.

With his activities becoming more and more bizarre, Enfantin began to attract the attention of the authorities, and in 1832, his offices in Paris were closed by the government. Following this, he chose to retire to the estate in Menilmontant his mother had left him (on the site of today’s Square des Saint-Simoniens park, but at that time a large country house conveniently far away from the city and the authorities). Joining him were 40 disciples, all men, who would jointly attempt to create a new defining text - Le Livre nouveau – which would reveal the truth through mathematical formulas.

On Saturdays and Sundays the community would open its doors to visitors (quite a trek up the hill in those days), but when this too began to attract too many people, Enfantin and his followers were arrested (strangely enough, by a ‘commissaire de Belleville’ called Maigret!). At his trial, Enfantin would not let his followers speak without his permission, and asked to be defended himself by two women ‘because the subject was of particular importance to women’. This request was refused and he was sentenced to one year in prison.

Prison though was no hardship for Enfantin. He continued to attract followers behind bars, and was even invited to dine with the director of the prison. Indeed, being 'retained' in a four-room apartment, he was even able to write to those outside that ‘nous sommes ici comme des princes’ (we live here like princes)!

In reality though, Enfantin was highly discredited by the trial and the imprisonment, and had become a figure of ridicule in the press. His branch of saint-simonianism died out at this point, although he himself continued to hold positions of responsibility and influence, for example in the new railway companies that were being created.

Other followers of Saint-Simon also took on posts of great importance, and the ideals of the movement lived on in many of the actions of the French state, as well as in the creation of a feminist movement. It is a movement that is still much studied today, with some claiming that it forms the basis of modern socialism.

The house and park
The Square des Saint-Simoniens park was created in 1937, and it is perhaps a little strange that it has kept the name of the movement, particularly as it was only associated with it for a short period in 1832. Little is written on what happened to Enfantin's house after his release for prison, but what is known is that
he died in another house on the Rue Ballu in 1864. He was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, and you can still see his tomb - with a superbly bearded bust - today.


Although saint-simonianism is a much written about subject, Enfantin's house in Menilmontant seems to have not attracted much attention. However, from the sketch below - dating from 1869, 5 years after his death - it looks as if it must have been a very impressive place, albeit not especially egalitarian!



Perhaps it fell into ruin after Enfantin's death, but nothing else is listed for the site until 1925 when building permits began to be issued. Several constructions are listed for the site up until 1935, with the park being finished itself on the house's grounds in 1937. Nothing seems to remain from the original construction, but perhaps it had a typically saint-simonian ending. A space which contained just one large house which was home to one person is now filled with a mixed range of housing and a shared park for people of all ages, sexes and races!

1 comment:

Peter said...

Thanks for this complete post! Not so many of us are aware about the Saint-Simonian influence.

A lot of good ideas, with some more or less regrettable deviations (religion, colonization…). Apart from the different doctrines which still influence a lot of today’s society, remain also materially the Suez Canal, railways, banks, schools …

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