Romantic socialism refers to the socialist thought that existed before 1848. The failure of the socialist movement to influence the revolutions in Europe that took place that year dealt it a blow that it didn't recover from until later in the century. Romantic socialism was the ground that both anarchism and marxism, as well as social democracy, came from. Before 1848 things weren't so clear cut as they would become later on. What attracts me to Romantic socialism is really its place as the first generation of socialist thought after the French Revolution.
Essentially, this was the birth of socialism and it came about because of the deficiencies of classical liberalism in dealing with inequality and social justice, as well as its inability to extend the type of equality it did offer to a wider range of people than just farmers. The French Revolution, and some of the thought that went into the American Revolution, talked a lot about individual rights, yet this was set in a context of inviolable private property and an inviolable competitive market. A person not only possessed civil rights, but it was thought that with property available for everyone, provided that they had enough money to buy it, and with social advancement not hindered by any official barrier, that whatever state of affairs came out of this would be just.
People with more talent would rise to the top, people with less talent would fall to the bottom and most importantly, any attempts to interfere with this process by way of social legislation or unions would disrupt the equilibrium and just lead to greater injustices. The Romantic socialists, and the early labor movement, were the first people to confront the idea that the classical liberal set up provided the best outcome for society.
It's not hard to see parallels between the sort of questioning that went on in that first generation of socialist thought and what's going on today. The problem isn't just neoliberalism, even though that's a sort of global extension of the classical liberal thought, the problem is also that in the U.S. the basic idea of another order beyond classical liberalism has been under assault since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. I for one haven't lived in a time when I was aware of any other model of doing things; for my entire lifetime the status quo has been conservatives on the attack shooting down any sort of social program or idea of social welfare as being some sort of violation of personal liberties. That's where the country is coming from in its mindset. The idealism of the Kennedy years and the ethic of Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty are nice ideas to read about but they're not real living things that I can get my mind around on a real basic level, like I can with Reaganism, and I think it's the same for a lot of people, at least younger people. Even if older people still harbor memories of the time the political reality has changed so that Reaganism is what has to be fought against. All of this is a round about way of saying that through the assertion of free market ideas and the attack on any sort of intervention designed to lessen inequality the Reagan years have brought us back to a point similar to that of the first socialists in relation to the classical liberals.
The same questions that they face, things like does working for collective justice infringe on individual rights, what happens if people in general support it but a few people dissent from it, are questions that need to be answered in today's world, and the arguments of the Romantic socialists can help us get there. The particular philosophies that some of these early thinkers employed, like those of Charles Fourier or Henri Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, Lamartine, or Louis Blanc...or Gracchus Babeuf...aren't necessarily as important as the way that they fended off charges that they were anti-liberty and anti-society. Of course it helps that among these thinkers, who loosely fit into the categories of 'Utopian Socialists', an unnecessarily negative term, and social reformers, few of them really were anti-liberty. Etienne Cabet is probably the only one who really was and he was known mostly for a novel where people gave up their liberty to live in a rigidly controlled commune with property abolished and all decisionmaking concentrated in a board, as well as founding a few communities in the U.S., than anything else.
Romantic socialism was also associated with the broader progressive reaction to the French and American revolutions, which the Romantic philosphers of continental Europe, the Idealist philosphers, and the poets of England were most associated with. Like the socialists they saw holes in the image of society that the classical liberals had outlined and had tried to correct it or supplement it with new ideas. Although it's the most well known of the three in the English speaking world, the poets are probably the least important. Some of them were very progressive and socialist in their thought, like Shelley, William Blake, and the young Wordsworth, but in general they gave way to really bad poems about how the established order couldn't come to grips with the power of love, established society with its cold mechanical notion of human nature. That's all very good but it gets really sappy after a while and doesn't really contribute to an alternative view of society as a whole. Plus, it's become the grist for generations of alienated teenagers. "Don't you think the beauty of a single flower overpowers your view of the world as being atoms that run into each other, with no point, no aim, with random determinism leading to everything?". It has some validity.... But I'm getting off on a side track.
The Continental Romantics and the Idealist philosophers are applicable to today's world largely for the same reasons that the Romantic Socialists are: We're starting from a basis of a very stripped down classical liberalism, one that also allies itself to science in a very destructive way in that the same sort of materialism underlying that view has been assimilated by science as its official ideology and is somewhat determining things. This is bad because on questions like genetic engineering or ethical applications of science and technology this viewpoint leads to rational limits on what's permissable being shot down as not being 'objective', as being ethical systems with no scientific validity and so therefore inapplicable. But the consequences of science are just one area of life that suffers because of this reductionist view of the world. Human relations, what the human experience is all about, what's important in life, what life should be about, what society's goals should be, what values our society should hold and strive for, how we understand ourselves, all of these things are issues that the deterministic worldview doesn't deal well with and that the continental Romantics and Idealists faced and grappled with.
Many of the thoughts of the continental Romantics are accessable through the writings of people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists.
It's like America never learned the lessons of the 19th century, at least the important ones, and with the onset of the conservative attack leading into neo-liberalism those ideas might be more important than ever before.
The vacuum that neo-liberalism and free market conservatism created is, in my opinion, on of the major reasons that post-9/11 we've been slipping towards a fascist state. Threaten the edifice once and the whole thing falls apart.