1771 - 1858
by David C. Gabriel
by Robert Owen
by Gregoire Presseau
Utopian socialism, as envisioned by great thinkers such as Robert Owen, Henri Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, is meritorious and deserves full consideration by students of comparative economic systems. Robert Owen was among the first classical utopian socialists and it is upon his work that this paper will locus. After brief biographical introduction, the paper will highlight his thoughts and views, while noting his accomplishments at New Lanark. It will examine criticism of his work by Karl Marx, and discuss his ideas about the transition to his brand of socialism. A clear understanding of Owen’s theories is necessary to realize his just place in economic, social and philosophical history.
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Wales on May 14, 1771. 1) He left home, by his own accounts, at the age of ten and headed first to London. 2) It is important to note that, according to all sources he was a precocious child who learned much on his own through personal experiences. As a young man in London, he attempted to start a business making (cotton) spinning machinery. 3) The period of the late 18th century marked the beginnings of the industrial revolution in England and machinery which produced cloth from cotton was among the first innovations. His business venture failed, but he would soon meet a young woman named Anne Dale, and purchase, with help of several partners, a huge spinning mill at New Lanark In England. His experiences and experiments at New Lanark would prove to make him famous and spawn his many ideas of socialist/communal living. His life after New Lanark centered around its success and Owen's attempts to have his ideas taken seriously. He was greatly misunderstood and viewed skeptically by his contemporaries until his death on November 17, 1858.
After becoming a partner of the mills at New Lanark, Owen became aware of the awful conditions under which the workers lived. He made it possible for them to obtain sufficient items for basic human necessities such as hygiene. He was appalled at the miserable manner in which the workers were treated and his efforts to make their lives better made him very popular. Owen had a keen perception of the life of the poor and was very sincere and generous in his endeavors to help them. 5)
In 1806, the U.S. placed an embargo on the exportation of cotton to England. It was primarily a diplomatic action because of increased tensions between the two countries, but Owen, who shut the mills due to the dislocation of the cotton supply, insisted on paying the workers for four months during the embargo. 6) In addition, Owen worked to improve housing, sanitation, labor hours, working conditions, and educational & cultural facilities. 7) His policies at New Lanark were a great success and allowed others to witness a peaceful and productive industrial community.
Beyond New Lanark, however, the world was not so kind. Owen 's harsh opinion of the overall economic state of society was understandable when one considers the upheaval which he saw as the economy moved from being agrarian to industrial. He felt strongly that the workers were exploited through low wages, long hours, and degrading working conditions. Owen says, "...the working classes (are) made the slaves of an artificial system of wages, more cruel in its effects than any slavery..."8)
Indeed, the most crucial component in understanding Owen's influence and ideals is the fact that he viewed the world in highly moralistic terms. This attitude manifests itself several ways. In his philosophical outlook of the world, Owen, Like Marx after him, believed that the surroundings at birth are determinant in how the individual will behave. 9) In other words society creates the character of the individual and he is at its mercy. In support of this, Owen said, "...men do no wrong...(they are) impelled by their surroundings..." 10) One can see that he regards things rather passively. He expects that the change to socialistic thought will occur because its benefits will be blatantly obvious.
Even in terms of political change, Owen maintains that Socialists will not take part in "political agitation" because they are certain that "prosperity and happiness" can be achieved as long as "the government recognizes the principle of toleration." 11)
Marx would later predict that exploitation of the masses would necessarily facilitate violent revolution. Owen felt otherwise. It was his opinion that revolution by force was "injurious to all" and that revolution by reason would prove "beneficial to all." 12) Owen's lack of desire to actively pursue his goals would draw much criticism from Marx, but it says much about his integrity and character.
In historical retrospect, one quickly notices that the opinion of Owen by scholars was greatly influenced by Karl Marx. Marx felt that Owen's work was very important. (In fact, he coined the term Utopian Socialist.) However, Marx also felt that Owen did not concentrate enough on the class struggle. Marx's theory of historical materialism was much more active and pragmatic then Owen's passive and inert ideals.13) Therefore, the growth and popularity of Marxism proved hindering to Owen because of the comments.
Nevertheless, the work of Owen was important and deserves study. Later in his life, Owen proposed a new, alternative society, similar to New Lanark, and offered ideas as to its formation. He offered co-op villages with allotted housing and land for the participants 14) He also suggested that the government of the co-op would be established by the members, who would be made up of both workers and capitalists.15) One can see that Owen did not propose the classless centralization of a Marxian system, but one where capitalist and worker perform in harmony. Owen, as always, was concerned for labor and directed that it would be operated "under all the advantages that science and experience could give. 16) He felt that this model could, and should be universal and that “the governments of the world will take it upon themselves to begin the transformation" after seeing and realizing the benefits. 17) Owen relied heavily on the goodness of men and in his wisdom from past experiences.
Robert Owen was a very noteworthy and important figure In comparative economic history. His success at New Lanark and the honest integrity of his arguments are compelling. However, he failed to offer reasons or methods of transition to his utopia beyond a moral imperative. Perhaps that is still beyond man's capability because the values of Owen and his utopian contemporaries never found their way to the real world.
1) Lloyd Jones, The Life, Times and Labours of Robert Owen (New York, AMS Press, 1971), p.7.
2) A.L. Morton, The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen (New York, International Press, 1962), p. 20.
3) ibid., p. 21.
4) ibid., p. 22.
5) ibid., p. 63.
6) Jones, op.cit., p. 65.
7) Morton, op.cit., p. 25.
8) ibid., p. 116.
9) William Lucas Sargant, Robert Owen and his Social Philosophy (New York, AMS Press, 1971), p. 4
10) ibid., p. 432.
11) Sidney Pollard and John Salt (ed.), Robert Owen, Prophet of the Poor, Essays in Honour of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of his Birth (Lewisburg, Bucknell U. Press, 1971), p. 42.
12) Morton, op.cit., p. 156.
13) Pollard and Salt, op.cit., p. 287.
14) Morton, op.cit., p. 170.
16) ibid., p. 176.
17) ibid., p. 178.
Lloyd Jones, The Life, Times and Labours of Robert Owen (New York, AMS Press, 1971),
A.L. Morton, The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen (New York, International Press, 1962),
William Lucas Sargant, Robert Owen and his Social Philosophy (New York, AMS Press, 1971),
Pollard, Sidney and Salt, John (ED.) Robert Owen, Prothet of the Poor, Essays in Honour of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of his Birth. Lewisburg: Bucknell U. Press, 1971.