IV. ROBERT OWEN: 1771—1858

We turn with pleasure to Robert Owen, the successful manufacturer who tried to make the British economy a love affair between capitalism and socialism.

He was born in Newtown, Wales, where his father was successively saddler, ironmaster, and postmaster. Robert in boyhood was a physical weakling, but he learned to care for his health, and lived to be eighty-seven. He was put to work at the age of nine; at ten he was apprenticed to a draper in Stamford; at fourteen he became assistant to a draper in Manchester; at nineteen he was made manager of one of the largest mills in Lancashire, at an annual salary of three hundred pounds ($7,500?). There he remained for eight years, earning a reputation for ability and integrity. He saved, studied, read with discriminating eagerness, and made stimulating friendships: with John Dalton and his atomic chemistry, Robert Fulton with his steamboats, Samuel Coleridge with his radical ideas and haunting verse. In 1799, aged twenty-eight, he bought from David Dale, for himself and two partners, a group of textile mills at New Lanark, near Glasgow, and received as a bonus Dale’s daughter, who became his loving wife. She gave him seven children.

New Lanark was a town of about two thousand souls, including some five hundred children sent there from the poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh. As Owen later recalled, “the population lived in idleness, poverty, and almost every kind of crime; consequently in debt, out of health, and in misery…. The ignorance and ill-training of these people had given them habits of drunkenness, theft, falsehood, and uncleanliness,… with strong national prejudices, both political and religious, against all attempts on the part of a stranger to improve their condition.”26 The little mill town had almost no public sanitation; the houses were dark and dirty; crime seemed an exciting relief from dulling labor, and the “pub” was a warm and jolly refuge from the quarrelsome home. Owen had lost all supernatural belief, but had clung all the more devotedly to the ethical idealism of Christ; and he was repelled by the combination of the new industrial serfdom with the old Christian theology. He resolved to seek some reconciliation between successful capitalism and Christian morality.

He contented himself—alarmed his partners—with a five percent return on their invested funds. He raised wages, and forbade the employment of children under ten years of age. He rejected the argument of Malthus that a rise in wages would increase the pressure of population upon the food supply, would raise prices, and leave real wages unchanged; he argued that limitless edibles from the sea, the spread of cultivation by increased population, and the multiplication of inventions and labor productivity would enable the population to eat and grow and prosper—if the government would adopt the reforms that he would propose.27 He opened at New Lanark a company store, which sold the staples of life practically at cost. He patiently instructed his employees not only in the techniques of production but in the art of life; he assured them that if they would practice mutual consideration and aid they would enjoy a peace and content such as they had never experienced before. He seems to have won many of his workers to habits of order, cleanliness, and sobriety. When his partners complained that he was spending on charity and education money that might have made higher profits, he dissolved the partnership and formed a new firm (1813), whose members (one of them Jeremy Bentham) applauded his experiment and were content with a five percent return on their investment.

The mills at New Lanark acquired a national—even an international—reputation. The town was far off the main roads—a full day’s ride by post from Glasgow through mountains and mists; nevertheless thousands of visitors came to examine the incredible phenomenon of a factory operated on Christian principles; twenty thousand signed the guest book between 1815 and 1825. They included writers, reformers, realistic businessmen, princes like Archdukes Johann and Maximilian of Austria, and, in 1815, Grand Duke Nicholas (soon to be czar), who approved the operations and the results, and invited Owen to establish similar factories in Russia.28

After fourteen years of his experiment Owen felt warranted in proclaiming it to the world, for he was confident that its universal adoption would “give happiness to every human being through all succeeding generations.”29 So in 1813 he issued the first of four essays which, under the general title A New View of Society, became a major classic in the literature of reform. He offered his proposals in no combative spirit; he assured the rulers and manufacturers of Britain that he had no desire for—and no faith in—any violent change; that his plan threatened no loss to anyone; that, in fact, it would swell the employer’s returns; and that it might save England from revolution.

He began with a proposition almost fundamental to any basic reform—that the character of man, supposedly fixed by an ancient and immutable heredity of competition and conflict, is substantially molded through childhood experiences and beliefs. “The greatest of all errors [is] the notion that individuals form their own characters.”30 On the contrary, an individual’s character is formed for him by the thousand influences impinging upon him [before his birth and] from his birth to his death. Owen concluded, with an enthusiasm that rejected modifiers: “Any character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by applying certain means; which are to a great extent at the command, under the control, of those who possess the government of nations.”31 From this principle Owen drew two propositions: one, that the present possessing classes were not to blame for their practices and beliefs, since they too were the product of their past and present environments; the other, that reform must begin with the children, and with the improvement and multiplication of schools. Every effort must be made to bring up children to understand that since no one individual is to blame for his character or for the condition of society and industry, each must be considerate of all others: must cooperate willingly, and must be undiscourageably kind. So, at a time when there were very few schools in England for the children of commoners, Owen proposed that “the governing power of all countries should establish national plans for the education, and general formation of the character, of their subjects;… and that without… exception for sect or party or country.”32

David Dale had already done much for the education of children in New Lanark. Owen carried this further by establishing, in one of his buildings, his “New Institution” (1816) for the transformation of angels and barbarians into Christians without theology. He asked for them “as soon, almost, as they could walk”;33 like Plato he feared that the parents, already formed or deformed, would transmit to their children the aggressive and competitive spirit of the existing regime. He yielded to mothers who insisted that children, in their early years, needed maternal affection and care. Usually he took them at the age of three, and let them, weather permitting, play and learn in the open air. The girls, as well as the boys, were to get the three R’s, but also they would be instructed in the household arts. The boys would be trained in military exercises, but, like the girls, they would be taught to sing, dance, and play some instrument. All this would be subordinated to the formation of moral character, with emphasis on courtesy, kindness, and cooperation. There would be no punishments.34 At the close of each schoolday the children would be returned to their parents. They would not be allowed to work in the factory before they were ten years old.

Apparently there was no religious instruction in Owen’s school, nor in the evening lectures offered to adults. As a child of the Enlightenment he was convinced that religion dulled the mind of the child with superstitions; that intelligence is the supreme virtue; that widespread education is the only solution to social problems; and that progress, given this aid, is inevitable and limitless.35 In his mills and his school no distinction of race or creed was made; “charity and kindness admit of no exception.”36 He believed that the methods he advocated were an attempt to move in the direction of the ethics of Christ, and he looked forward fervently to the moral utopia that he expected his principles to bring.

In his fourth essay (1816), dedicated to the Prince Regent, he offered some proposals for legislation. He asked Parliament to progressively reduce the importation of “spirits” (liquor), to raise taxes on their consumption, and finally to end the licensing of “gin-shops” and alehouses, so that drunkenness would become the luxury of moneyed fools. He recommended the spread and financing of elementary schools for the moral betterment of the coming generations. He pleaded for a “factory act” that would forbid the employment of children under ten years of age, and the night labor of persons under eighteen; that would regulate the hours and conditions of labor, and would maintain a system of regular inspection of factories. A governmental Department of Labor should periodically collect statistics of local variations in the supply and need of labor, and should use this information to alleviate unemployment.37 He called for the abolition of the state lottery as a disgraceful scheme to “entrap the unwary and rob the ignorant.”38

He agreed with Malthus that the Poor Laws—which kept the unemployed and impoverished at a level of subsistence just a step from starvation—degraded the recipients of relief, and left them fit for only fertility and crime. Instead of the workhouses maintained by this system, Owen proposed (1817) that the state should set up communities, each of which, with five hundred to fifteen hundred souls, would be organized by a self-sustaining division of labor to produce its own food and clothing, and maintain its own school.39

Having appealed to Parliament with scant result, Owen issued (1818) an address “To the British Manufacturers,”40 describing the success of his system at New Lanark, and urging them to dispense with the employment of children under twelve years of age. They could not see their way to doing this; and they resented Owen’s analysis of economic depression as due to inventive productivity outrunning the purchasing power of the people. They dismissed him as an atheistic visionary who had no real understanding of the problems that employers had to meet, or of the human needs that only religion could satisfy.

Finally Owen turned to the laborers themselves, and sought their support in an “Address to the Working Classes” (1819). He pleased them by acclaiming “manual labor, properly directed,” as “the source of all wealth, and of national prosperity.”41 But he cautioned them that England, and its working classes, were not ready for socialism; he disclaimed any intent to propose that the British government should now give direct employment to all its working population.42 He discountenanced any precipitate measures, and he rejected revolution as “calculated to generate and call forth all the evil passions of hatred and revenge.”43 However, in his 1820 Report to the County of Lanark (a body of landowners), he declared that what England now needed was not piecemeal reforms but a basic transformation of the social order.44

Frustrated in England, he turned hopefully to the United States, where several religious sects had made some communistic experiments. In 1814 a group of German-American Pietists bought thirty thousand acres along the Wabash River in the southwestern part of the Indiana Territory, and developed there a town called Harmonie. By 1825 they faced bankruptcy. Owen rescued them, and ruined himself, by giving them forty thousand pounds for the acres and the town, which he renamed New Harmony. He invited men and women of goodwill to join him there in establishing a cooperative community. He paid all expenses except for the school, which was financed by William Maclure. A thousand enthusiasts came, ate for a year at Owen’s expense, slowly reconciled themselves to disciplined work, and fell to quarreling about religion and politics. In 1827, having lost most of his forty thousand pounds,45 Owen turned over the colony to Maclure, and returned to Britain.

He was not quite finished. He led a movement for the development of trade unions into guilds that would compete with private enterprise in productive industry. The National Operative Builders Union accepted contracts for construction. Other unions followed suit, and in 1833 Owen organized them into a Grand National Consolidated Trades-Union, which he hoped would gradually supplant British capitalism, and finally replace the state. Parliament intervened with repressive laws, which were rigorously enforced; the banks refused loans; and in 1834 Owen acknowledged defeat.

His life, which had been so successful in industry, seemed now to have reached an almost total failure. Religious differences had darkened his marriage; his wife was a fervent Calvinist; when she discovered that he was an agnostic she worried daily about his inevitable damnation. Later she urged their son Robert to undertake his father’s conversion to Calvinism; the result was that the son’s religious faith suffered considerable dilution.46 After returning from America, Owen lived apart from his wife, though remaining on friendly terms with her. He believed in divorce, but did not seek one; his devotion was absorbed in his mission.

He gave his active encouragement to several communities that tried to practice his principles: at Orbiston in Scotland, at Ralahine in Ireland, at Queenwood in England. The first disbanded in two years, the second in three, the third in six. He continued to spread his ideas through addresses and writings, and lived to see the development of many consumers’ cooperatives in the British Isles. He kept busy writing recommendations for reform to learned bodies, to governmental personnel, to Queen Victoria. Finally, in 1853, he turned to spiritualism, became the dupe of various mediums, and held intimate conversations with Franklin, Jefferson, Shakespeare, Shelley, Napoleon, and the Prophet Daniel.47 In 1858, having long outlived his era and himself, he returned to his native Newtown, and died there in his eighty-eighth year.

He was a good man, as near to selflessness as any self can be who is completely certain. He could not quite transcend his ego; he had his secret pride in power, success, and intellect; his enterprises were predicated on his personal rule; but he was right in assuming that competent cooperation requires discipline and authority. The best a man can do is enlarge his ego to include his kin, his country, his kind, and so find satisfaction in a widening beneficence. This, after all, is what Robert Owen did, on a bravely broadening scale; and that is enough to range him among the inspiring prophets of a better life.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!