Robert Owen (1771-1858) — The Social Communes

The events that happened in the first quarter of the 19th century incited great fear in the hearts of the average soul regarding their futures because of capitalism. Industrialization resulted in the total destruction of worker's traditional way of life. Strict discipline in work places, miserable living conditions in metropolitan cities, economic insecurity, and higher unemployment rates increasingly stimulated the resistance of workers against the capitalist system. In fact, strikes, riots, rebellions, and general social unrest became very common.
The earliest resistance attempts by workers to resist the capitalist system were to form labor unions. However, labor unions were not a very effective means of resistance because the memory of the French revolution of the late 18th century encouraged capitalists to issue new laws against labor unions. In doing so, capitalists sought to destroy any labor movement and keep workers powerless and silent. The Combination Act was specifically enacted, for instance, to prevent workers from having legal rights to destroy machines and other factory property. Nonetheless, this did not stop workers from revolting against the system because their economic insecurity and life standard deprivation worsened. Rather than destroy factory equipment, especially machines, many defenders of the working class turned to institutions that helped reform capitalism.

Robert Owen was a middle class capitalist who became one of the most influential leaders of a movement to improve conditions for the poor in the 1830s. Owen was the most famous Utopian socialist of his time and wrote The Book of the New Moral World (1962). He descended from an ironmonger and saddler in Wales. Unlike some of the highly educated scholars like Bentham and Mills, Owen attended school for only a few years. At age nine, he worked as a shop-boy and was later employed in dry-goods. At eighteen, Owen borrowed a hundred pounds and, along with a partner, set up a business building textile machinery.

At age 20, Owen managed a mill after acquiring a factory at New Lanark in England. Insisting on decent working conditions, livable wages, and education for working class children, Robert Owen began to set a new standard for the manufacturing industry with regard to treating workers. Owen believed that if human beings were treated humanely, both productivity and profits would increase. His experience showed that they did. Unfortunately, Owen found no capitalists interested in following his example.

Robert Owen is renowned for creating "voluntary cooperatives" where small communities shared produce and where private ownership of means of production was abolished. His cooperative movement had significant effects on the European labor movement. Even Adam Smith and David Ricardo were influenced by his cooperative ideas by helping them refine their own perspectives and notions regarding class conflict.