Robert Owen (May 14, 1771, Newtown, Powys – November 17, 1858) was a Welsh utopian socialist and social reformer, whose attempts to reconstruct society widely influenced social experimentation and the cooperative movement. The innovative social and industrial reforms which he introduced at his New Lanark Mills during the early 1800s made it a place of pilgrimage for social reformers and statesmen from all over Europe. He advocated the elimination of poverty through the establishment of self-sustaining communities, and experimented with such a utopian community himself at New Harmony, Indiana, from 1825 to 1828.
Owen believed that a man’s character was completely formed by his environment and circumstances, and that placing man under the proper physical, moral, and social influences from his earliest years was the key to the formation of good character and to the amelioration of social problems. Owen's doctrines were adopted as an expression of the workers' aspirations, and he became a leader of the trade union movement in England, which advocated control of production by the workers. The word "socialism" first became current in the discussions of the "Association of all Classes of all Nations," which Owen formed in 1835.
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire (Wales) on May 14, 1771, the sixth of seven children. His father was a saddler and ironmonger who also served as local postmaster; his mother came from one of the prosperous farming families of Newtown. Owen attended the local school where he developed a strong passion for reading. At the age of ten, he was sent to seek his fortune in London with his eldest brother, William. After a few weeks, Owen found a position in a large drapery business in Stamford (Lincolnshire) where he served as an apprentice. After three years he returned to London where he served under another draper. His employer had a good library, and Owen spent much of his time reading. Then, in 1787 or 1788, he moved to Manchester in the employ of Mr. Satterfield, a wholesale and retail drapery merchant.
Owen now found himself in what would soon become the capital city of the English Industrial Revolution, just as factories were being built and textile manufacture expanding. He was a serious, methodical young man who already possessed an extensive knowledge of the retail aspect of his chosen trade. In late 1790 he borrowed £100 from his brother William and set up independently with a mechanic named Jones as a manufacturer of the new spinning mules. After a few months he parted with Jones and started business on his own with three mules as a cotton spinner. During 1792, Owen applied for and was appointed manager of Peter Drinkwater's new spinning factory, the Piccadilly Mill, where he quickly achieved the reputation as a spinner of fine yarns, thanks to the application of steam power to the mule. One of Drinkwater's most important clients was Samuel Oldknow, maker of fine muslins. Drinkwater had intended Owen to become a partner in his new business by 1795, but a projected marriage alliance between Drinkwater's daughter and Oldknow caused the cancellation of the agreement with Owen. Hurt and unwilling to remain a mere manager, Owen left Piccadilly Mill in 1795.
Owen was approached by Samuel Marsland, who intended to develop the Chorlton estate in Manchester, but instead he found partners in two young and inexperienced businessmen, Jonathan Scarth and Richard Moulson, who undertook to erect cotton mills on land bought from Marsland. Marsland assisted the three young partners. Owen made use of the first American sea island cotton (a fine, long-staple fibre) ever imported into England, and made improvements in the quality of the cotton being spun. In 1796, the financial basis of the company was broadened with the inclusion of Thomas Atkinson, to create the Chorlton Twist Company, which in 1799 negotiated the purchase of David Dale's New Lanark mills.
Richard Arkwright and David Dale had planned the industrial community at New Lanark in 1783, to take advantage of the water power of the Falls of Clyde deep in the river valley below the burgh of Lanark, 24 miles upstream from of Glasgow. The factory of New Lanark began production in 1791. About two thousand people were associated with the mills; 500 of them were children who were brought at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The children had been well treated by Dale, who safeguarded heir welfare, but the general condition of the people was very unsatisfactory. Many of the workers came from the poorest levels of society; theft, drunkenness, and other vices were common; education and sanitation were neglected; and most families lived in only one room. The respectable country people refused to submit to the long hours and demoralizing drudgery of the factories.
By 1800, there were four mills, making New Lanark the largest cotton-spinning complex in Britain, and the population of the village (over 2,000) was greater than that of Lanark itself. Dale was progressive both as a manufacturer and as an employer, being especially careful to safeguard the welfare of the children.
Owen first met David Dale by chance, through an introduction by the daughter of his friend, Robert Spear, to Dale's eldest daughter, Caroline. During a visit to Glasgow he fell in love with Caroline. Owen was interested to learn that Dale wanted to sell New Lanark to someone who would continue his humane policy toward the children. Owen's willingness to do so was probably responsible for both Dale's agreeing to sell to the Chorlton Twist Company and also his consent to the marriage of Owen and Caroline in the fall of 1799.
Owen induced his partners to purchase New Lanark, and after his marriage with Caroline in September 1799, he set up home there. By 1800, there were four mills, making New Lanark the largest cotton-spinning complex in Britain, and the population of the village (over 2,000) was greater than that of Lanark itself. Owen was manager and part owner, and, encouraged by his great success in the management of cotton factories in Manchester, he hoped to conduct New Lanark on higher principles, not only on commercial principles.
Though at first the workers regarded the stranger with suspicion, he soon won their confidence. His paternalism was more rigorous than that of his frequently absent partner, Dale. The mills continued to be commercially successful, but some of Owen's schemes involved considerable expense, which displeased his partners. Tired at last of the restrictions imposed on him by men who wished to conduct the business on ordinary principles, Owen formed a new firm in 1813, partnering with Jeremy Bentham and a well-known Quaker, William Allen. The investors in his firm, content with a 5 percent return on their capital, were willing to allow more freedom for Owen’s philanthropy.
Through New Lanark, Owen's reputation as a philanthropist was established. The village remained much as Dale had organized it; more living space was created and higher standards of hygiene were enforced. Owen’s primary innovation at new Lanark was the public buildings which demonstrated his concern for the welfare of his workers: the New Institution for the Formation of Character (1816); the Infant School (1817) which enabled mothers to return to work when their children reached the age of one year; and the Store, which increased the value of the workers’ wages by offering quality goods at prices just slightly higher than cost.
At New Lanark, Owen involved himself in education, factory reform, and the improvement of the Poor Laws. His first public speech, in 1812, was on education, and was elaborated upon in his first published work, The First Essay on the Principle of the Formation of Character (1813). Together with three further essays (1813-1814), this comprised A New View of Society, which remains Owen's clearest declaration of principles.
For the next few years Owen's work at New Lanark continued to attract national and even European attention. His schemes for the education of his workpeople were enacted in the opening of the institution at New Lanark in 1816. He was a zealous supporter of the factory legislation resulting in the Factory Act of 1819, which, however, greatly disappointed him. He had interviews and communications with the leading members of government, including the premier, Lord Liverpool, and with many of the rulers and leading statesmen of Europe. New Lanark itself became a place of pilgrimage for social reformers, statesmen, and royal personages, including Nicholas, later emperor of Russia. According to the unanimous testimony of all who visited it, New Lanark appeared singularly good. The manners of the children, brought up under his system, were beautifully graceful, genial and unconstrained; health, plenty, and contentment prevailed; drunkenness was almost unknown, and illegitimacy occurred extremely rarely. The most perfect good feeling subsisted between Owen and his workers, and all the operations of the mill proceeded with the utmost smoothness and regularity. The business was a great commercial success.
Owen had relatively little capital of his own, but his skillful management of partnerships enabled him to become wealthy. After a long period of friction with William Allen and some of his other partners, Owen resigned all connection with New Lanark in 1828.
Gradually Owen's ideas led him from philanthropy into socialism and involvement in politics. In 1817, he presented a report to the committee of the House of Commons on the Poor Law. The general misery, and stagnation of trade consequent on the termination of the Napoleonic Wars, was engrossing the attention of the entire country. After tracing the special causes, connected with the wars, which had led to such a deplorable state of the economy and society, Owen pointed out that the permanent cause of distress was to be found in the competition of human labor with machinery, and that the only effective remedy was the united action of men, and the subordination of machinery.
His proposals for the alleviation of poverty were based on these principles. Communities of about 1,200 persons each should be settled on quantities of land from 1,000 to 1,500 acres (4 to 6 km²), all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments, and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community, their parents having access to them at meals and all other proper times.
These communities might be established by individuals, by parishes, by counties, or by the state; in every case there should be effective supervision by duly qualified persons. Work, and the enjoyment of its results, should be in common. The size of his communities was probably suggested by his village of New Lanark; and he soon proceeded to advocate such a scheme as the best form for the re-organization of society in general.
In its fully developed form, the scheme did not change much during Owen's lifetime. He considered an association of from 500 to 3,000 as the fit number for a good working community. While mainly agricultural, it should possess all the best machinery, should offer every variety of employment, and should, as far as possible, be self-contained. "As these townships" (as he also called them) "should increase in number, unions of them federatively united shall be formed in circles of tens, hundreds and thousands," till they should embrace the whole world in a common interest.
Owen's plans for the cure of pauperism were received with considerable favor until, at a large meeting in London, Owen explicitly declared his hostility to revealed religion. Many of his supporters believed that this action undermined his support among the upper classes. Owen's denunciation of religion evoked a mounting campaign against him which in later years damaged his public reputation and the work associated with his name. His last substantial opportunity to secure official approval for his scheme came in 1820, when he produced his Report to the County of Lanark in which his communitarian and educational theories were blended with David Ricardo 's labor theory of value.
At last, in 1825, such an experiment was attempted under the direction of his disciple, Abram Combe, at Orbiston near Glasgow. The next year Owen bought 30,000 acres of land in Indiana (United States) from a religious community, renamed it New Harmony and began an experiment of his own. After a trial of about two years, both failed completely. Neither of them was an experiment with paupers; the members came from many different backgrounds; worthy people with the highest aims were mixed with vagrants, adventurers, and crotchety, wrongheaded enthusiasts, and were, in the words of Owen's son "a heterogeneous collection of radicals... honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in."
Under Owen’s guidance, life in the community was well-ordered for a time, but differences soon arose over the role of religion and the form of government. Numerous attempts at reorganization failed, though it was agreed that all the dissensions were conducted with an admirable spirit of cooperation. Owen withdrew from the community in 1828, having lost £40,000, 80 percent of all he owned. Owen took part in another experimental community for three years in Great Britain at Tytherly, Hampshire (1839–1845); he was not directly concerned in its formation or in another experiment at Ralahine, County Cork (1831–1833). The latter (1831) proved a remarkable success for three and a half years until the proprietor, having ruined himself by gambling, had to sell out. Tytherly, begun in 1839, failed absolutely.
Josiah Warren, one of the participants in the New Harmony Society, asserted that community was doomed to failure due to a lack of individual sovereignty and private property. He says of the community:
We had a world in miniature — we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ...our "united interests" were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation... (Periodical Letter II 1856)
Warren's observations on the reasons for the community's failure led to the development of American individualist anarchism, of which he was its original theorist.
In his “Report to the County of Lanark” (a body of landowners) in 1820, Owen had declared that reform was not enough, and that a transformation of the social order was necessary. His proposals for self-sufficient communities attracted the younger workers who had been brought up under the factory system. Between 1820 and 1830, a number of societies were formed and journals were establisheded which advocated his views. The growth of labor unionism and the emergence of the working-class into politics caused Owen's doctrines to be adopted as an expression of the workers' aspirations, and when he returned to England from New Harmony in 1829 he found himself regarded as their leader. The word "socialism" first became current in the discussions of the "Association of all Classes of all Nations," which Owen formed in 1835. During these years, his teaching gained such influence among the working classes that the Westminster Review (1839) stated that his principles were the actual creed of a great portion of them.
In the unions, Owenism stimulated the formation of self-governing workshops. The need for a market for the products of such shops led to the formation of the National Equitable Labour Exchange in 1832, applying the principle that labor is the source of all wealth. Exchange was effected by means of labor notes; this system superseded the usual means of exchange and middlemen. The London exchange lasted until 1833, and a Birmingham branch operated for only a few months until July 1833.
The growth of labor unions made it seem possible that all the various industries might some day be organized by them. Owen and his followers carried on a propaganda campaign all over the country, which resulted in the new National Operative Builders Union turning itself into a guild to carry on the building industry, and the formation of a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834. However, determined opposition from employers and severe restrictions imposed by the government and law courts suppressed the movement within a few months.
After 1834 Owen devoted himself to propagating his ideas on education, morality, rationalism, and marriage reform. By 1846, the only permanent result of Owen's agitation, zealously carried on in public meetings, pamphlets, periodicals, and occasional treatises, remained the co-operative movement, and for a time even that seemed to have utterly collapsed. In his late years, Owen became a firm believer in spiritualism. He died at his native town on November 17, 1858.
Owen’s thought was shaped by the Enlightenment, the exposure to progressive ideas in Manchester as a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and the Scottish Enlightenment. From an early age, he had lost all belief in the prevailing forms of religion, and had developed his own explanation for the existence of social evils. Owen's general theory was that man's character is formed by his environment and circumstances over which he has no control, and that he should therefore neither be praised nor blamed for his condition. He concluded that the key to the formation of good character was to place man under the proper influences, physical, moral, and social, from his earliest years.
These principles, the irresponsibility of man and of the effect of early influences, formed the basis of Owen's system of education and social amelioration. They were embodied in his first work, four essays entitled A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, the first of which appeared in 1813. In Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race, Owen asserted and reasserted that character is formed by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances of the individual's experience. Owen felt that all religions were "based on the same absurd imagination" which he said made mankind "a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a miserable hypocrite."
Owen had originally been a follower of the classical liberal and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. However, whereas Bentham thought that free markets (in particular, the right for workers to move and to choose their employers) would free the workers from the excess power of the capitalists, Owen became more and more socialist as time passed.
At New Lanark, Owen instituted a number of reforms intended to improve the circumstances of workers and to increase their investment in the products of their labor. Many employers operated the "truck system," whereby all or part of a worker’s salary was paid in tokens which had no value outside the factory owner's "truck shop." The owners were able to supply shoddy goods to the truck shop and still charge top prices. A series of "Truck Acts" (1831-1887) stopped this abuse. The Acts made it an offence not to pay employees in common currency. Owen opened a store where the people could buy goods of sound quality at little more than cost, and he placed the sale of alcohol under strict supervision. He sold quality goods and passed on the savings from the bulk purchase of goods to the workers. These principles became the basis for the co-operative shops in Britain that continue to trade today.
To improve the production standards of his workers, Owen installed a cube with different colored faces above each machinist’s workplace. Depending on the quality of the work and the amount produced, a different color was displayed, so that all the other workers could see who had the highest standards, and each employee had an interest in doing his best. Owen also motivated his workers by improving the living conditions at New Lanark for the workers and their families.
His greatest success, however, was in the education of the young, to which he devoted special attention. He was the founder of infant schools in Great Britain. Though his ideas resemble the efforts being made in Europe at the time he probably arrived at them on his own.
Robert and Caroline Owen's first child died in infancy, but they had seven surviving children, four sons and three daughters: Robert Dale (born 1801), William (1802), Anne Caroline (1805), Jane Dale (1805), David Dale (1807), Richard Dale (1809) and Mary (1810). Owen's four sons, Robert Dale, William, David Dale and Richard, all became citizens of the United States. Anne Caroline and Mary (together with their mother, Caroline) died in the 1830s, after which Jane, the remaining daughter, joined her brothers in America, where she married Robert Fauntleroy.
Robert Dale Owen, the eldest (1801-1877), was for long an able exponent in his adopted country of his father's doctrines. In 1836-1839 and 1851-1852, he served as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives and in 1844-1847 was a Representative in United States Congress|Congress, where he drafted the bill for the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. He was elected a member of the Indiana Constitutional Convention in 1850 and was instrumental in securing to widows and married women control of their property and the adoption of a common free school system. He later succeeded in passing a state law giving greater freedom in divorce. From 1853 to 1858, he was United States minister at Naples. He was a strong believer in spiritualism and was the author of two well-known books on the subject: Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1859) and The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next (1872).
Owen's third son, David Dale Owen (1807-1860), was in 1839 appointed a United States geologist who made extensive surveys of the north-west, which were published by order of Congress. The youngest son, Richard Owen (1810-1890), became a professor of natural science at Nashville University.
Robert Owen wrote numerous works about his system. Of these, the most highly regarded are:
The Robert Owen Collection, that includes papers and letters as well as copies of pamphlets and books by him and about him is deposited with The National Co-operative
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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