Robert Owen’s place in history

Manufacturer Robert Owen, a man of deep-rooted convictions, a reformer, an

Robert Owen

advocate of Utopian Socialism and of the materialist philosophy that people’s characters are made for them by heredity and environment earned the respect of many of his contemporaries, including Friedrich Engels. Owen was a critic of religion, marriage and private property and a founder in 1834 of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland (numbering between half a million and a million members). In April 1834 he supported the mammoth procession to present a petition to the Home Office against the conviction of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. He also championed the National Equitable Labour Exchange (opened in September 1832) in its attempt to dispense with money and opposed the cruel and ruthless treatment of children under the factory system.

Shop assistant to capitalist
His birth and death (1771-1858) were in Newton, Montgomeryshire, where his father combined the occupations of postmaster, ironmonger and sadler. By the time Owen was seven, he had assimilated all that his school could teach him and in the two years thereafter acted as assistant teacher. At the age of nine, he became a shop assistant in his home town, and at ten entered the service of a Stamford linen draper in Lincolnshire. A few years later, he was employed in a Ludgate Hill shop in London, where he endured a crucifying workload. At 18, and with a small loan from his brother William, he set up in business with a man named Jones, making and selling cotton-spinning mules (then displacing the spinning jenny and the water frame). But Owen was soon required to sell back his share of the business to Jones — a transaction which left Owen, at the age of 19, in possession of three mules. He then rented a building, employed three men, and started a small-scale business on his own account. Soon after, he learned that one Drinkwater, a rich Manchester cotton manufacturer, had advertised for a manager. Owen successfully applied for the position and within a short time was offered, and accepted, a partnership in the business. He resigned in 1795 and became one of the managing directors of another large concern, the Chorlton Twist Company. In 1797 Owen had accumulated enough capital to enable him and some wealthy partners to purchase the New Lanark Cotton Mills from the philanthropist David Dale. He married Dale’s daughter and settled in New Lanark as manager and part owner; in 1800 he was vested with sole management.

New Lanark
Owen now had an opportunity for social experiment. Rejecting the Christian doctrine of original sin, he implemented his theory that people are creatures of pre-natal and post-natal circumstances. The environmental improvements he brought about at New Lanark saw the disappearance of vice, crime and drunkenness, and in their place a model village. He worked tirelessly to set up infant schools and to stop recruitment of children from the Edinburgh and Glasgow workhouses. He also reduced the New Lanark working day to ten-and-a-half hours — unlike his competitors who employed their workers fourteen hours a day. He ensured that medical attendance was denied to no-one in his community, and that a sick fund was created for the purpose. All these welfare and educational measures led to the founding in January 1816 of the Institution for the Formation of Character, a centre of communal life marked by a spirit of harmony and co-operation. Visitors were deeply impressed by the temper of the children and Friedrich Engels, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, remarked:

  At the age of two the children came to school where they enjoyed themselves so much that they could scarcely be got home again . . .

Fall from grace
Gradually New Lanark’s fame spread throughout Europe and it became a centre of pilgrimage, visited by bishops, economists, philanthropists, royalties, statesmen and diverse celebrities. Nicholas 1, Czar of Russia, was a pilgrim in 1816 and even Napoleon, in exile on the Island of Elba, knew of the New Lanark experiment. Owen at this time was at the height of his fame, but as soon as he proclaimed what were considered outrageous views, he fell from grace. As Engels explains:

  . . . As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honour, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: property, religion, the present form of marriage. He knew what confronted him if he attacked these — outlawry. Excommunication from official society, the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of the consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press, ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working class and continued working in their midst for thirty years . . .

Instances of Owen’s courageous dedication and financial sacrifice are legion. In 1806, when the American embargo on cotton nearly brought business at New Lanark to a halt, he prevailed upon his capitalist partners — whose priorities were profit rather than welfare — to pay the workers their full wages throughout the four-month embargo. Following disagreements with his partners, Owen offered to buy the New Lanark undertaking, but on their refusal of his offer he resigned as managing director. However, in December 1813 New Lanark was auctioned to Owen at £114,100, then a vast capital sum.

Yet for all Owen’s benevolence, he could not put his social theories into practice other than by means of capital, wages and their corollary money, which ultimately determined the success or otherwise of his New Lanark and other co-operative communities. Nevertheless he did conceive of purely communistic societies that went far beyond limited reform of capitalism. In these societies the workers would labour in a community of common interests and enjoy free access to the necessaries and comforts of life. No disputes would arise over divisions of property and the desire to accumulate goods would disappear. Such was his vision. But because of the inescapable logic of capitalism, he could not but depart from the simplicity of his aims.

Defeated by economic laws
In other words, Owen was defeated by the economic laws of capitalism. His collapsed experiments at New Harmony in Indiana, at Orbiston near Glasgow, and at Tytherly in Hampshire, are enough to show that these laws cannot be suspended or overridden. Invested capital must yield rent, interest and profit and welfare must play second fiddle. This reality applied to Owen’s model villages, which were anyway inextricably tied to the outside market economy. Village land, buildings and machinery represented capital, and where Owen was not the sole proprietor the economic pressures were even greater, for his shareholding partners expected a return on capital. ‘‘Excessive” wage and welfare costs which eroded profits and threatened bankruptcy were not viewed by them with favour.

The incompatibility of Owen’s Utopian benevolence and capitalism’s laws was manifest at Orbiston, which in the late autumn of 1827 was close to collapse; the land, buildings and standing crops were sold by public auction because of pressure by the mortgagees to recoup the £16,000 security they had advanced on the property. No less disastrous was the agricultural experiment at Tytherly which may be said to have ceased in the summer of 1845 — Owen having spent enormous sums on projects which were never completed and the enlargement of farm buildings, none of which was worked at a profit. Small wonder, then, that these losses and those at New Harmony left Owen a comparatively poor man. Such was the sacrifice he had made in a life-time of sincere endeavours to eliminate poverty and misery from workers’ lives.

Owen has an honourable and lasting place in working-class history. Since his death in 1858 socialists have had not only the benefit of the work of Marx and Engels, but also more than one hundred years’ political experience.

Vic Berry