The Utopian Socialists: Robert Owen

The Utopian Socialists: Owen

The Grand Experiment of Robert Owen

Born in obscurity of Welsh parents, Robert Owen (1771-1858) rose to consid­erable fame and fortune before his thirtieth year. As he worked his way up the ladder of success in the textile industry, Owen observed the changes in eco­nomic and social life wrought by the rapid introduction of machinery. The me­chanical marvels of Arkwright (spinning frame), Crompton (spinning mule), and Hargreaves (spinning jenny) helped make Owen a wealthy man; but their impact also turned Owen's attention to the plight of the textile worker.

Owen did not believe that individual suffering among workers was a neces­sary condition for the accumulation of wealth. He challenged the predominant social view that poverty was the just consequence for the sins of the working class. In A New View of Society (1813) he turned traditional social theory up­side down by maintaining that an individual's character is formed for him and not by him.

In short, Owen maintained that the poor are wretched because they are poor; they are not poor because they are wretched! Improve a man's social environment, Owen argued, and you improve the man. This one precept was the central and innovational feature of Owen's social philosophy, but he em­bellished it considerably with the statement of what he called his "true prin­ciples." Owen set forth these true principles as follows in his Report to the County of Lanark in 1821:

1 Character is universally formed for and not by the individual.
2 Any habits and sentiments may be given to mankind.
3 The affections are not under the control of the individual.
4 Every individual may be trained to produce far more than he can consume, while there is sufficiency of soil left for him to cultivate.
5 Nature has provided means by which populations may be at all times main­tained in the proper state to give the greatest happiness to every individual, without one check of vice or misery.
6 Any community may be arranged, on a due combination of the foregoing prin­ciples, in such a manner as not only to withdraw vice, poverty, and, in a great de­gree, misery from the world, but also to place every individual under such circum­stances in which he shall enjoy more permanent happiness than can be given to any individual under the principles which have heretofore regulated society.
7 That all the assumed fundamental principles on which society has hitherto been founded are erroneous, and may be demonstrated to be contrary to fact.
8 That the change which would follow the abandonment of these erroneous max­ims which bring misery to the world, and the adoption of principles of truth, unfold­ing a system which shall remove and forever exclude that misery, may be effected without the slightest injury to any human being (cited in Morton, pp. 58-59).

The proving ground for Owen's social theories was New Lanark Mills in Scotland, the management of which Owen commenced in 1800, shortly after his marriage to the proprietor's daughter. The work force at New Lanark was known as an intemperate and immoral lot, given to frequent bouts of debauch­ery and drunkenness. But Owen did not approach his management position at New Lanark as just another job. He hoped to prove his theory that a change in social environment would change the workers' character. More important in the economic sense was Owen's conviction that a contented work force would be an efficient one. At New Lanark, Owen restricted the labor of children and devoted much time to their education. He also improved housing conditions for the workers and their families, raised wages, shortened work hours, and made other provisions to enrich the lives of the community's inhabitants.

Owen's investment in human character at New Lanark must be regarded as a success. To the amazement of his fellow industrialists, Owen's mills contin­ued to earn substantial profits after the introduction of reforms. Despite the social and economic success of New Lanark, however, Owen was eventually forced out of the venture by partners who resented his program. This con­vinced him that private initiative could not be relied on to bring about lasting social and economic reform. In a retrospective view of his grand experiment, Owen said:
Private initiative would give to the laboring poor neither education nor employment, for the children of commerce have been trained to direct all their facilities to buy cheap and sell dear; and consequently, those who are the most expert and successful in this wise and noble art are, in the commercial world, deemed to possess foresight and superior achievements, while such an attempt to improve the moral habits and increase the comfort of those whom they employ are termed wild enthusiasts (cited in Beer, I, p. 165).

As a result, Owen advocated a larger role for government. He sought laws on factory reforms, aid to the unemployed, and, eventually, a national system of education. He lived to see a second social experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, fail within three years of its establishment, but unfortunately he did not live to see many of his suggested reforms legislated into action. In this, Owen was clearly ahead of his time, for most of the reforms he championed are now commonplace in industrial societies.