Robert Owen and New Harmony

Utopian socialism wasn't limited to France. Across the channel, industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858) was also drafting a blueprint for an ideal society.

Owen entered the world of reform as a successful self-made factory owner who preached that employers had social responsibilities to their workers. The son of a Welsh saddle maker and ironmonger, Owen left home at the age of ten and worked his way up in the world. By the time he was twenty, he was the manager of a Manchester cotton factory that employed 500 workers. As a supervisor, he was increasingly disturbed by the gap between “the great attention given to the dead machinery, and the neglect and disregard of the living machinery.”

Owen became convinced that people's characters were shaped by the circumstances in which they live. If their circumstances were changed, changes in their behavior would necessarily follow. Because mankind was essentially good, but was corrupted by a bad environment:

. . . the members of any community may by degrees be trained to live without idleness, without poverty, without crime and without punishment; for each of these is the effect of error in the various systems prevalent throughout the world. They are all necessary consequences of ignorance.

Success at New Lanark

Owen first practiced his innovative ideals in the mill town of New Lanark, Scotland, where he bought existing cotton mills in 1799. When he first arrived in New Lanark, the population:

. . . possessed almost all the vices and very few of the virtues of a social community. Theft and the receipt of stolen goods were their trade, idleness and drunkenness their habit, falsehood and deception their garb; . . . they united only in a zealous systematic opposition to their employers.

In addition to drunken, unreliable adults, his crew included children between five and ten years old who were placed there by orphan asylums.

Owen set out to transform New Lanark, both in the mills and in the town. He limited the returns paid to his partners and put the balance of profits back into the community in improvements. He paid his workers higher wages than any of his competitors, reduced the length of the work day, and instituted a system of rewards and punishments based on quality of work and attitude.

He improved the housing, building small cottages in neatly organized neighborhoods. He replaced the shoddy, expensive goods that were sold in the company store with good-quality materials that were priced at little more than cost. He opened a school for the children that included music and dance as well as reading and writing, and occasionally taught there himself.

Any resistance to his changes disappeared when he took the unprecedented step of paying full wages when American trade embargoes cut off his cotton supply during the War of 1812, forcing him to reduce production.

Nature or nurture?

Victorian scientist Francis Galton coined the phrase “nature versus nurture” in 1874 to describe the long-standing argument among social theorists over whether heredity or environment is more important in shaping a person's character. Owen, and many later socialists, believed that nurture was the deciding factor.

By 1815, New Lanark was a model example of the company town. A regular flow of visitors, including the future Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, came to the village to see the living proof of Owen's claim that squalor and misery were not the necessary result of industrialization. The side effect of improving the lives of his workers was increased productivity: The mills at New Lanark were enormously profitable.

Owen Wants to Do More

Owen was certain that his principles would work in a much larger community. His efforts to convince other employers, the Church of England, and the government to adopt the New Lanark system on a wider scale met with hostility. He was horrified when a less than diplomatic diplomat finally told him that ruling classes didn't want the masses to be well educated and well fed because then it would be impossible to control them.

After failing to win support for the creation of New Lanark clones, Owen became more radical. Already known as an advocate for shorter working days and the abolition of child labor, Owen began to flood Parliament and the newspapers with tracts promoting a plan for social reorganization on a grand scale.

In place of the existing system of private property and profit, he proposed the creation of Villages of Cooperation. Each village would be a self-sufficient unit of between 500 and 1,000 people that combined agricultural and industrial production. Every family would have a private apartment, with common sitting rooms, studies, and kitchens. He also suggested that money be replaced with “labour notes,” which would represent the time spent at work.

In 1822, Owen formed the British and Foreign Philanthropic Society to raise the £96,000 needed to set up one experimental Village of Cooperation. When the society failed to raise the money, Owen decided to devote his personal fortune to proving the value of his ideas.

New Harmony

After touring the Continent in search of opportunities to spread his ideas beyond Great Britain, Owen decided that Europe was past saving. The United States was the obvious place to build a new society.

In 1824, he purchased the town of New Harmony, Indiana, and 30,000 surrounding acres of land from the Rapperites, a German religious sect that successfully founded a communal Christian republic in the American wilderness and was ready to move to a location further west. Eight hundred settlers poured into New Harmony over the course of a few weeks. On July 4, 1826, Owen opened the community by issuing Declaration of Mental Independence, from the three great oppressors of mankind: “Private Property, Irrational Religion, and Marriage.”

Owen soon returned to England and left New Harmony to run itself. Without Owen's paternalistic influence, the community lasted less than three years. In 1828, Owen sold the land to individuals at a loss.

Owenite Communities Without Owen

New Harmony was a failure, but the Owenite movement remained alive. Followers established at least a dozen Owenite communities in America and Great Britain.

One of the most interesting was Nashoba, founded in 1825 by Scottish-born social reformer Frances Wright on the Wolf River in Tennessee. Wright intended to prove that education and a change of environment could have the same transformative effect on slaves as they had on the proletariats of New Lanark. Wright planned to purchase slaves, educate them, and free them. The plan failed because the community could not produce enough income to pay back the debts incurred in buying the slaves.

The Cooperative Movement and Trade Unionism

Back in England, Owen discovered that one of his ideas had a significant amount of working-class support. Working cooperative societies were being formed around the country, as well as producers' and consumers' cooperatives. By 1830, more than 300 such cooperative societies were in operation.

Fact

One spin-off from Owen's cooperative movement was an enduring success: the consumer cooperative movement founded by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844. Formed by 28 weavers and other artisans to buy food, the Rochdale Society developed a set of operating principles that remain the foundation for consumer cooperatives around the world.

Inspired by his unexpected success as a leader of the cooperative movement, Owen plunged into trade unionism. He founded the Grand National Moral Union of the Productive and Useful Classes, soon shortened to the Grand National; leaders of the early trade unions believed Owen was a man who would speak for their interests and rallied under the Grand National's banner.

By 1833 the Grand National was a nationwide organization with 500,000 members that included virtually every important union in England. From the union leaders' viewpoint, the Grand National's primary goal was an eight-hour workday. From Owen's perspective, the goal was a total transformation of society based on Owen's Villages of Cooperation.

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