Robert Owen New Lanark

Robert Owen New Lanark

Robert Owen of all socialists has the most strikingly original, not to say unique, personality. One of the greatest captains of industry of his time, where else have we such a commanding figure? Nor is his socialism simply the philanthropy of the kind-hearted employer. It is true that it is not revolutionary, and that he could not bring himself to support the Chartist movement, which seems harmless enough now. He never suggested expropriation as an ideal for working men, but he exhorted them to create new capital, and it is just here that the co-operative programme differs from the collectivist even to this day. But for all practical purposes Owen was a socialist, even a communist. Indeed, he was probably the first to inscribe the word 'socialism' on his banner.

His passion for Utopias did not prevent him from initiating a number of reforms and establishing several institutions of a thoroughly practical character. Special mention ought to be made of his interest in the welfare of his workers, an inspiration that has been caught by several manufacturers since.

Nor must we imagine, simply because we have placed him along with the Associative socialists, that association was the only solution that met with his approval. As a matter of fact there is scarcely a solution of any description which was not to some extent tried by him.

Beginning with the establishment of model workshops in his fac­tory at New Lanark, there is hardly a suggestion incorporated in his exposition of socialism which was not attempted and even successfully applied in the course of his experiments there. Among them are in­cluded such important developments as workmen's dwellings, refec­tories, the appointment of officials to look after the social and moral welfare of the workers, etc.

These experiments had the further distinction of serving as a model for the factory legislation of the next fifty years. We have only to glance at the following programme of reforms effected by him to realize this:

1. He reduced the hours of labour from seventeen to ten per diem.
2. No children under ten years of age were employed, but free education was supplied them in schools built for the purpose.
3. All fines—then a common feature of all workshops—were abolished.

Seeing that neither his experiments nor his prestige as an employer were sufficient to influence his fellow employers, he now tried to gain the sympathetic attention of the legislature. He turned first of all to the British Government, and then to that of other countries, looking to legislation to provide what he believed should have been supplied by the goodwill of the ruling classes themselves.

Even before the days of Lord Shaftesbury he had inaugurated a campaign in favour of limiting the hours of children working in fac­tories. In 1819 the first Factory Act was passed, fixing the minimum age at which children might be employed at nine years, although Owen himself would have put it at ten.

Discouraged by the little support which he obtained for his projects, and having satisfied himself as to the impotence of both patronage and legislation as forces of social progress, he turned his attention to a third possibility, namely, association. Association, he imagined, would create that new environment without which no solution of the social question was ever possible.