Skip to Content

Robert Owen:paternalist utopian

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Owen. The Owenites introduced the word “socialism” but Owen himself always opposed the class struggle.

Owen’s key idea, indeed perhaps his only one, was: “Man’s character is made for and not by him”. He thought that it was therefore possible to give a person any character you like. He was, in short, a ‘man moulder’.

Robert Owen was born in Wales. He had little formal education but through hard work and nous (including marrying the boss’s daughter) soon became a big cheese in the cotton spinning business. In 1800, at the age of 29, he moved to New Lanark in Scotland.

This was the real era of the dark satanic mills. Sans unions and sans factory legislation, the workers toiled endlessly for a measly pittance, existing in a degraded condition in filthy slums. Owen took New Lanark (which it must be said was even at the start one of the better mills) and made it a model factory estate. Nice Mr. Owen became well known as a genial entrepreneur and benevolent philanthropist. At his factory at Lanark he improved hours and conditions, introduced schooling, and banned ‘morally harmful’ out of hours activities (outlawing pubs and books and fining extra-marital sex). He raised the minimum working age from six to ten years. Entertainment for his workers was a little harmless music, some dancing and physical jerks. Military drill was introduced to “give them an erect and proper form, and habits of attention, celerity, and order”. In addition “firearms, of proportionate weight and size for the age and strength of the boys shall be provided for them”. A key element in the workplace was the public display of a block showing the behaviour of the individual (shades of Maoist self-criticism). This was said to be character building but also produced a disciplined and productive workforce. (All quotes are from A New View of Society Owen's account of New Lanark).

The aim at New Lanark was made absolutely clear in a letter from Owen to The Times in 1834:

“I believe it is known to your lordship that in every point of view no experiment was ever so successful as the one I conducted at New Lanark, although it was commenced and continued in opposition to all the oldest and strongest prejudices of mankind. For twenty-nine years we did without the necessity for magistrates or lawyers; without a single legal punishment; without any known poors’ (sic) rate; without intemperance or religious animosities. We reduced the hours of labour, well educated all the children from infancy, greatly improved the condition of the adults, diminishing their daily labour, paid interest on capital, and cleared upwards of £300,000 of profit.” (quoted in GJ Holyoake’s History of Cooperation).

Like Lord Leverhulme at Port Sunlight, Owen found that treating your workers better makes better workers which makes better profits. The rest of Owen's life was an attempt to recreate the Lanark Mills experience on a large scale. True later on for different reasons. But Owen never really understood that at New Lanark he was able to impose ‘nice’ upon his workers by their very status as workers.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought a period of crisis including mass unemployment. This resulted in a high poor rate. Owen, being a businessman, sought to lower this with a plan for solving unemployment. Again this was the 5 percent philanthropy at work. Concern for the suffering was tempered by profit making – in the form of a lowered tax burden. Some time around 1817 this tax plan became a general scheme for the changing of society.

Essentially society was to be transformed by means of experimental communities. These self-contained and self-supporting complexes were to be built as grand squares, the parallelograms. In the communities the precise form of ownership of property was left open, leaving the way open for ‘community of goods’. However Owen was averse to this. Economics, like the precise form of internal administration in the colony, was unimportant. Education was the key to Owen's scheme and its purpose was to mould the individual into an ideal social character. Finance was to come by an appeal to the rich and influential. Such was not forthcoming. Owen blamed his failure on his relatively mild criticism of the established church and the family. Doubtless this had some effect but the rich really had no particular interest in solving the problem of poverty. So far as they were concerned the poor could rot.

From 1824 Owen poured his own money into setting up a community in America. New Harmony, in Indiana, failed within a few years, essentially due to lack of discrimination in choosing occupants (the great problem of freeloaders). Without the power that goes with being a factory owner, Owen was unable to make the communists behave as he wished, particularly as, despite his own high opinion of himself, he was not a particularly good organiser, often leaving deputies to deal with problems while he swanned off for parties with the wealthy (Owen was always fond of the Great and Good, dedicating the New View to the appallingly corrupt Prince Regent).

When Owen returned to Britain in 1829 after the dismal failure of his American experiment, he found the situation somewhat altered. Throughout the country the working class was making use of the repeal of the anti-combination laws to set up trade unions. These were as yet little more than local self-help clubs, often carrying out some form of cooperative trading venture. Many of those involved looked to Owen as a source of inspiration. Owen himself had lost virtually all his money and whatever slight influence he may have had amongst the wealthier classes. Bandwagonning a little, he began to associate himself with the various self-help schemes – co-operatives, barter schemes and trade unions. Although so far as he was concerned these were only of use in ‘preparing the public’s mind for community’, this short period (1829-34) was the making of Owen as a figurehead of the old Left.

Within a short time Owen had set up his own cooperative (Association for the Promotion of Cooperative Knowledge), union (Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) and labour exchange (National Equitable Labour Exchange) organisations. The latter functioned as an extension of the cooperative store, surplus coop produce forming the basis of its activities. Essentially goods brought in were valued by a committee and a note issued indicating the amount of labour required to produce the item. This could then be exchanged for other goods in the bazaar of the same labour time value.

The various groups were viewed as fund raisers and mind openers – fronts in modern parlance – rather than useful in themselves. Strikes were certainly not on Owen's agenda. And when the true class war came to a head in the summer of 1834, Owen bailed out, disassociating himself from the GNCTU. Extreme pressure from employers led to the failure of the union, which brought down in its wake the cooperatives and labour exchanges. The latter were probably fatally flawed in any case due to their limited ability to satisfy needs, most goods making their way there being unsaleable on the open market.

In 1835 Owen renewed the attempt to found a community. This time the attempt was made through a distinctly working class body. This was variously named the Association of All Classes of All Nations (1835-39), the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists (1839-42) and the Rational Society (1842-46). At its peak in 1841 there were 70 or so branches spread throughout Great Britain. In key centres, such as Manchester and London, meeting halls were built (the Halls of Science) and regular indoor and outdoor propaganda meetings held under the auspices of ‘Social Missionaries’. By late 1839 the efforts bore fruit with the opening of a community at Queenwood in Hampshire. This became known as Harmony.

Harmony was however distinctly unharmonious. Owen regarded the whole enterprise as a means towards the perfection of humanity, a great experiment in making people nice. The workers however saw Owenism in general and the community in particular, as a way of abolishing their own poverty. Conflict was inevitably the result, with control of the enterprise swinging back and forth between the paternalist Owen and the self-organising proles. The true downfall of Harmony however was really Owen’s responsibility. Having selected a hopeless site in the chalk uplands, he proceeded to build a hopelessly ornate ‘super workhouse’, burdening the society with unsustainable debts. In the summer of 1845 Harmony was sold off. Further details of the Harmony scheme can be found in Edward Royle’s excellent Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium (Manchester University Press, 1998).

Historically the attitude to the Owenites of the 1830s and ‘40s has been determined by the semi-religious millennial language that was used and group dismissed (e.g. by GDH Cole) as nothing more than a sect. Although there were elements of this, Owen as the secular saviour leading his chosen people to the glorious paradise of Community, the reduction is a rather unfair slur. Many contemporary organisations, including the Chartists, used flowery language. And the image of Owen as unquestioned leader was certainly far from the truth.

Owen has further been criticised for paying no attention to the main mass movement of the day – Chartism. Chartism was a movement for political democracy and as such was irrelevant to Owen’s aim – setting up experimental communities. It must also be said that so far as the starving worker of the day was concerned the issue of mere possession of the vote in itself would not have brought them food. The demand for the ballot was resisted by the upper class largely because it was believed anti-capitalist measures would follow in its wake. Owen recognised, unlike most Chartists, that political democracy is not the solution in itself to capitalist misery. He did not however recognise that it could be a means to this very end.

After 1845 Owen went into a form of retired senility. Seances, bumpreadings and other such garbage were the order of the day. Perhaps his greatest contribution of these years was his autobiography The Life of Robert Owen by Himself, published in 1857. Although obviously biased it is a great from the horse’s mouth source.

The principal practical result of Owen’s life was the setting up of utopian communities. The Owenite communities, both the official ones detailed above and the numerous examples in which Owen had no hand, failed to demonstrate Owen's theories of character formation, which was of course their main aim, because they never became properly established. What they do demonstrate however is how easy it is for such a community to fail. And since such communities would primarily be a demonstration of cooperation, providing a haven for a few from capitalism, the amount of enthusiasm and resources invested was surely wasteful.

Perhaps surprisingly, although Owenism was unfruitful in achieving its specified aims its by-products were far from inconsiderable. The Rochdale Pioneers, founders of the modern cooperative movement, were Owenites and the modern secularist movement can also trace its ancestry back to the Owenite movement of the 1840s.

The importance of the Owenites is that they marked a watershed; for the first time a complete change in the nature of society was contemplated by a section of the working class. We also owe them our name. Although previously in use, the name ‘socialism’ was adopted by the Owenites in 1837 to describe their aims and within a few years Owenism and Socialism were synonymous. The connection was so strong that Marx and Engels were forced to have a Communist Manifesto rather than a socialist one. The meaning of the phrase has altered much since then, primarily due to the influence of Marx and Engels, however the underlying assumptions of Owen and the Owenites that human nature is not eternally fixed and therefore a better world is possible remains the basis of socialism.

KAZ