Robert Owen was born on 14 May 1771 at Newtown, Montgomeryshire and in 1781 he was apprenticed to a draper. At the age of 19 he became superintendent of a large cotton mill in Manchester, which did very well under his management. Owen used the first American sea island cotton (this was a fine, long-staple fibre) ever imported into England, which improved the quality of the fabric produced. In 1799, at the age of 28, Owen became manager of David Dale's cotton mills in Lanarkshire. marrying Dale's daughter a year later, and became a partner in the firm, which he later took over running.
Owen was an idealistic Socialist, without Marx's class perspective.
He is often referred to the 'father of English Socialism' or the father of ModernSocialism'. He founded the Co-operative movement in Britain and actively championed the belief that to achieve equality people must change their attitude, a self-help approach which reflected his own experience and success.
Owen was a genuine revolutionary, an atheist who wanted to bring about real social change - a change in attitudes rather than simply promoting benevolence to the poor. He believed that environment was the key to the advance of humankind. He reasoned that the circumstances in which one lived had the greatest effect on one's character (nurture rather than nature) and therefore that better environments would inevitably produce better people.
He believed that psychological revolution was the real requirement to establish a rational mind prepared to handle self supporting and governing communities.
Owen disliked the squalour of the industrial towns of the age, and thought it an unnecessary evil. His target was a society made up of small, self-sufficient industrial communities. Political reform left him cold, it was purely social, and particularly environmental, reform that he interested himself in.
His first venture into putting his ideas into action was to create a community at New Lanark, based around his philosophy.
New Lanark had a population of 2,000 people, including 500 children from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Whilst the children had been well treated, their environment had been appalling. Education was lacking, sanitation all but non-existent, housing conditions squalid and unhealthy and crime and vice arising from these conditions was common.
In contrast, Owen set up a model factory and model village. The factory conditions were clean, children were not permitted to work under the age of 10, and children and women worked short hours in comparison with other factories: a 12 hour day including 1.5 hours for meals. He provided decent housing with good sanitation. He rewarded cleanliness and good behaviour and, by example, encouraged clean, ordered, thrifty habits. His whole approach was paternalistic.
Owen opened a low profit shop where good quality items could be bought cheaply, and where the sale of alcohol was strictly supervised. What profits he made were reinvested in the school at New Lanark where the children of the factory workers were educated.
Over time, Owen won the confidence of the wary workers, and the mills continued to thrive commercially, but the cost of his schemes displeased his partners, who attempted to restrict him to more traditional business practices. Frustrated by this, he organised a new company with stockholders including the legal reformer Jeremy Bentham and the Quaker William Allen. These new partners were content with a 5% return and allowed Owen to explore his ideas. New Lanark became internationally famous when Owen's experiments resulted in increased productivity and profit, even given the much higher costs associated with this kind of operation, compared to traditional ones.
Owen's influenced Sir Robert Peel (senior) into presenting the 1802 and 1819 Factory Acts to parliament. He didn't feel that the acts went far enough - he felt that New Lanark should be the model on which things should be built, but nonetheless, his influence improved conditions across the country.
Education was Owen's greatest passion, and his greatest success. In 1813 Owen's 'A New View of Society' was published. It was education that he saw as the key to prompt men to take action for themselves to improve their environment and situation, and he felt it should encompass ideals as well as traditional academic subjects. In 1816 he opened the school at New Lanark which took children between 3 and 10 years old, (nursery schools were Owen's original concept) and offering an extension to 13 if a child's parents could afford to do without the wages the child would earn. The aim of the school was to practise the Utilitarian theory of education, forming good habits and helpfull dispositions in its pupils. The approach was very much the 'play way', making education fun, not a grind.
He believed that national education was essential to help individuals broaden their perspectives and to free them from what he saw as the oppressive dogmatism of the church. He considered education as it stood as to blame for the ills of society, and education as it should be as their cure.
Worse still, he felt, was that society punished men for becoming what society itself had shaped them into. Owen wanted to produce working people with initiative and the ability to help themselves, so where others sought political reform, Owen worked towards making 'the State' itself a redundant concept.
Owen envisioned the establishment of self supporting communities where the unemployed could retun to work on the land and in small scale manufacturing. These 'villages of co-operation' would be made up of about 1000 people occupying 1,000 to 1,500 acres of communal land. Everyone would live in one large building with public kitchen and dining. Each family would have its own private apartment and the entire care of their children until the age of three, thereafter, children would be raised by the village, seeing their parents at meals and all other proper times. These comunities would unite with others, if threat or other circumstances ncessitated it.
Owen thought that communities of this might easily be established by a number of agnecies including individuals, parishes, counties, or central government, supervised by suitably qualified people. Labour and its profits would be shared by communally by the entire village/community.
Owenite community experiments - in effect, early experiments in classic communism - in were established at Queenwood, Hampshire (1839-45), at Orbiston, near Glasgow, Lanarkshire (1826-27) and at Ralahine, County Cork (1831-33). Owen himself was directly involved with only the first of these. Although Owen's base ideas were widely acknowledged and praised, none of the villages succeeded, and over time the communities disbanded.
New Harmony, Indiana
Disillusioned by his apparent lack of success in England, in 1824 Owen decided to test his ideas of communityin a younger, less hidebound society - America. He bought 30,000 acres in Indiana and settled about 900 people. However, the mixture of personalities within the community conflicted and by 1827 New Harmony was a complete failure. Owen returned to England and became involved in co-operatives and the trade union movement.
The ultimate failure of Owen's schemes resulted not so much from his ideals but his personality - he was dogmatic and heavy handed, making his New Lanark workers adopt his own stringent standards. He expected and brooked no criticism from those below him, and when his peers - his partners - became critical, he simply bought them out and got rid of them. Unchallenged, then, on any side, he became increasingly dogmatic and allowed his ideals to become more important to him than the people they were supposed to benefit. He sacrificed practicalities to theory; and did away with the concept of private property. Effectively, his ideas, if successfult would have been community totalitarianism. However, while his specific projects in social engineering were not successful, the effect he had on working conditions, education, co-operative societies and trade unionism was far reaching and profound.