Familistère values: How one 19th-century stove maker created a socialist utopia in northern France

Jean-Baptiste André Godin was born the poor son of a locksmith. By 1870, he had created an industrial commune in a small town – one of history’s most successful and enduring socialist utopian communities.

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The year 1968 in France is remembered as a period of idealism and revolution among ordinary workers: factories were occupied, protests swarmed the streets, and millions of workers went on strike. It seemed like a new beginning for many, as street posters declared the start of a new struggle. But it was also an ending for a lesser-known socialist utopia. The Familistère, in the small northern French town of Guise, had served as a microcosmic society for over a century, was forced to sell itself and transform into a limited company. But with over 1,700 working inhabitants at its height, the Familistère remains one of the great historical examples of a functioning utopian community – and it all began with one man.

Jean-Baptiste André Godin was born in 1817 to a working-class family of locksmiths. He was a bright child, but left school at 11 years old to help his father and train alongside him. After years of working as an apprentice, after he turned 18, Godin embarked upon a traditional trip around France with his cousin: over two years, they visited a vast array of different factories in France in order to improve their ironworking skills. It was on this journey that Godin first developed an in-depth awareness of the living and working conditions of factory workers across the country. The reality shocked Godin, and instilled in him a strong sense of social justice. As his trip came to an end, he vowed that, if he should ever have the money to do so, he would improve the lives of ordinary workers.

At 23, Godin’s marriage offered him an opportunity to do just that: he used the money he gained through the union to build his own iron workshop, manufacturing stoves and cookers. He started out with only three employees, but quickly began expanding.

At the same time, Godin was reading voraciously. In 1842, at 25, he discovered the works of utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and was instantly taken with his ideas. While Fourier himself had died a few years earlier, Godin got in touch with other self-proclaimed Fourier-ists and studied their attempts at practically implementing Fourier’s ideas. La Réunion, a commune in Dallas, Texas, which lasted 18 months, particularly caught Godin’s attention. It inspired him, in 1846, to take his family and 20 employees and relocate to Guise, where he began building his ideal working community. By 1880, he had more than 2,000 inhabitants under his care.

Building commenced in 1859, and over the next 15 years, his idealistic project became a reality. He built a sprawling factory with living areas just a short distance away, separated by the river Oise. Godin constructed three palatial housing buildings, each with large glass-rooved courtyards in the centre where residents could socialise and where celebrations were often held. Encircling these imposing buildings, Godin built a school, laundry rooms, a swimming pool, shops, a bar, a nursery, gardens, a gym – everything his workers and his families would need – organised around a square.

In the centre of this symmetrical arrangement was a theatre, which Godin envisioned as a “secular temple” to “the religion of life and work” – it was the home of meetings, orchestral performances, and plays, and the focal point of communal living in the Familistère. In fact, Godin designed every aspect of the Familistère with a higher quality of life in mind – right down to tweaking cot designs for maximum comfort for Familistère babies.

The architecture of the commune reflects these detailed ideals of self-contained community life. While traditional family units were often erased in Fourierist projects like La Réunion, Godin wanted to retain these traditional structures within his democratic microcosm: each worker would have an apartment for his family to live privately, but with access to shared services. These services aimed to offer his workers the “equivalent of wealth” –  education, hygiene, culture, comfort. What they couldn’t afford to buy for themselves, Godin would provide structurally. As well as these, his workers received their salary, and shares in the factory. In 1880, Godin legally founded the Cooperative Association of Capital and Labour: workers acquired the rank of associates and elected the managing director. The Familistère was, essentially, collective property.

Part of Godin’s socialist vision of a better life for working-class citizens was a focus on gender equality. He insisted that all children, regardless of gender, would receive compulsory education in mixed classrooms at the Familistère school until they turned 14. He also believed women had the right to work within – something that was trickier to achieve as, at the time in France, women could only legally work if their husbands agreed. Nevertheless, the Familistère provided a number of working opportunities for women outside of factory work, for example, as teachers or shop assistants on site. Godin also placed a strong emphasis on the availability of childcare for all women, regardless of whether or not they worked – as he believed outsourcing childcare for a certain number of hours a day provided the optimum balance of welfare for all family members.

Godin died in 1888, but his Familistère lasted another 80 years. Godin had insisted on creative thinking, setting competitions and incentives for innovative approaches to both iron work in his factory and social planning in the Familistère in general, but after his death, the community eventually settled into a routine of generations mimicking their predecessors. The factory slowly became less financially viable. In 1968, it became SA Godin LTD, (becoming part of Le Creuset for a time), and the apartments were sold off to private owners. The factory is still functioning today, and the residential blocks remain partially inhabited – but the Familistère is now open to the public as a museum.

Walking around the Familistère today, the scale of Godin’s project seems overwhelming. It is beautiful and enthralling – it seems impossibly idealistic, but its longevity suggests it was practical too.

The artist Francis Cape currently has an exhibition in the central residential pavilion. “Utopian Benches” sees 20 wooden benches bathed in sunlight streaming from the glass roof, surrounded by the pavilion’s yellow walls. Each bench is modelled on one used, or currently in use, by a communal society: from Scotland’s New Lanark (1800-1825) to the United States’ Twin Oaks (1967-present). Most striking are the similarities between each of these pieces of furniture, which form a society in themselves. Here, they remind us that, while Godin’s project is, in many senses, an astonishing anomaly, the basic impulse to share is universally human, and enduring.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.