A Blupete Biography Page


Robert Owen
(1771-1858)

Socialism, it is said,1 was first propounded by Robert Owen. But, as we have seen, the "doctrine of Universal Benevolence, the belief in the Omnipotence of Truth, and in the Perfectibility of Human Nature, are not new, but 'Old, old ...'"2 The importance, however, of Robert Owen to our discussion, is that it was Owen who first tried to put socialistic theory into practice.

Born in Wales, Owen became apprenticed to a linen draper, but through "pluck and luck" soon found himself a part owner in a large spinning establishment in Manchester; he became the boy wonder of the textile world. In a few years he bought himself a set of mills in the squalid village of New Lanark, into the bargain, it would seem, Owen married the vendor's daughter. He then set out to "govern men by reason" and, to, in the process, "overturn bigotry and superstition."3

"Within a year Owen had made New Lanark a changed community; within five years it was unrecognizable; in ten years more it was world famous. It would have been accomplishment enough for most men, for in addition to winning a European reputation for farsightedness and benevolence, Robert Owen made a fortune of at least sixty thousand pounds for himself. ... he advocated the formation of the Villages of Cooperation in which eight hundred to twelve hundred souls would work together in farm and factory to form a self-sustaining unit. The families were to live in houses grouped in parallelograms - the word immediately caught the public eye - with each family in a private apartment but sharing common sitting rooms and reading rooms and kitchens. Children over the age of three were to be boarded separately so that they could be exposed to the kind of education which would best mold their characters for later life. Around the school were gardens to be tended by the slightly older children, and around them in turn would stretch out the fields where crops would be grown - needless to say with the aid of spades and without the use of plows. In the distance, away from the living areas, would be a factory unit; in effect this would be a planned garden city."4 (Heilbroner.)
Owen was of the view that the world was not inevitably good or bad; and that man was but a "creature of circumstances." Thus, it followed, according to Owen's philosophy, that a change in the circumstances of man would make a corresponding change in the man. Owen was never to realize his dream; New Lanark ultimately did not work and he sold his interest in the New Lanark mills. (In 1824, Owen took a second run at things. He went off to America, to the banks of the Wabash in Posey County, Indiana; there, he figured, he would finally establish his Utopia. This enterprise was a failure equal to that of New Lanark; Owen returned to England.)

Though he had his supporters in the highest of places5, and his project generated much public interest6 most people of his day took Owen and his planned community as oddities, "His schemes thus far are tolerated, because they are remote, visionary, inapplicable." Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate of England for a time, after his highland trek with Thomas Telford, the bridge & road builder, was given a personally guided tour of New Lanark by the man himself, Robert Owen. Southey concludes that what Owen set up was a factory-colony, run by white slaves, kept going only by the use of absolute power.7

"It was not only a practical saint who was responsible for New Lanark but a most improbable one. Like so many of the early nineteenth-century reformers on whom we look back as the Utopian Socialists, Robert Owen, the 'benevolent Mr. Owen of New Lanark,' was a strange mixture of practicality and naivetee, achievement and fiasco, common sense and madness. Here was a man who advocated the abandonment of the plow in favor of the spade; a man who from scratch became a great capitalist and from a great capitalist a violent opponent of private property; a man who advocated benevolence because it would pay dividends, and who then urged the abolition of money." (Heilbroner.)8
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NOTES:

1 See Manual of Political Economy by Henry Fawcett (1833-84); Owen and Fourier proposed "that a society living together should share all the wealth produced."

2 "A New View of Society," found in William Hazlitt's Political Essays (1819), reprinted in 1990 (Oxford: Woodstock). Hazlitt was sympathetic to the difficulties faced by a person, who like Owen "will find that it is not so easy or safe as he imagined to make fools wise, and knaves honest; in short, to make mankind understand their own interests, or those who govern them care for any interest but their own."

3 Hazlitt, op. cit., William Hazlitt, like so many of us, was caught in the middle between those who, like Malthus, emphasized the helplessness of man in his condition (scorned by many); and those, like Owen ("marked as a Jacobin, a leveller, an incendiary ... avoided by his friends"). Incidently, the biography I have on my shelf is, The Life, Times, and Labours of Robert Owen (1890) by Lloyd Jones (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 4th ed., 1905). There have been a number of biographies on Owen, including: Booth (1869), Podmore (1906) and Cole (1925); there is, also, Owen's Autobiography (1857-58).

4 The Worldly Philosophers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953), p. 101 & pp. 102-3.

5 Queen Victoria's father, The Duke of Kent was one who gave support to Owen.

6 20,000 signed the guest book between the years 1815 - 1825. "... the visiting crowds included such dignitaries as the Grand Duke Nicholas, later to be Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, Princes John and Maximilian of Austria, and a whole covey of parish deputations, writers, reformers, sentimental ladies, and skeptical businessmen." (Heilbroner, op. cit., p. 98.)

7 See The Birth of the Modern (World Society 1815-1830); (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) by Paul Johnson (1928- ), p. 823.

8 Op. cit., p. 100.



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