Robert Owen (1771-1858)

 

An Utopian Communist and Revolutionary Social Reformer

 

By Joseph Adams, August 2019, www.thecommunists.net

 

 

 

Robert Owen was born in Newtown Wales in 1771 to a prosperous middle class family. At an early age Owen was sent to London to learn a trade and he became a shop assistant. He stayed in London with a family called McGuffog who had a paternal interest in Robert.

 

“There thanks to McGuffog’s recommendation he was taken on as shop assistant with Flint and Palmer an old established and respectable firm of Haberdashers”. [1]

 

Robert was quick to learn and an avid reader. He had an apt head for figures and technical information and very soon he was to start his own business as a Mill manager and machine maker. This was the period of rapid development in industrial progress with several inventions in the cotton industry which Owen was to excel at as a leading industrialist and capitalist. Owen was to leave London in 1788 for Manchester, a growing town which would become a thriving city of workers and the oppressed. Frederick Engels, who together with Karl Marx was the founders of scientific socialism, wrote about the terrible degradation suffered by the working class in his book about the conditions of the working class.

 

Much of the town’s growth historically was explained by textiles, major innovations in spinning technology notably Hargreave’s spinning Jenny Arkwright’s water frame and Crompton’s mule , had already begun to demonstrate the potential for mass production , particularly where those inventions could be harnessed up to water wheels or steam engines”. [2]

 

 

 

Mill Manager and Machine Maker in Manchester

 

 

 

Owen easily with his technical knowledge and foresight recognised the possibilities and started to become a major capitalist and master in Cotton weaving which was the major industry in 18th century Britain at this time. Owen teamed up with a partner called Jones.

 

He and his partner agreed to rent a large machine workshop also containing some rooms for cotton spinners and specially constructed for them by a local builder. Soon they had 40 men at work. Their business was duly advertised in the issues of the Manchester Mercury for 18th and 25th January 1791”. [3]

 

Another opportunity opened up for the promising business man and Owen made the acquaintance of Drinkwater, a major Industrialist in Manchester. Owen made himself known to Drinkwater and discovered that there was a vacancy for a Superintendent for his factory. It meant of course that Owen would now have to give up his business if he wanted to become the new Superintendent.

 

A condition of Owen’s employment that he cease trading and devote all his time to managing Drinkwater’s Mill. But if he just happened to be in the right place at the right time it paid off and as he later observed the circumstances made a lasting impression because they led to important future consequences”. [4].

 

The importance of the position that Owen took at Drinkwater’s mill would show that Boulton, Arkwright and Watt’s inventions were all fitted at Drinkwater’s mill giving Owen further technical advantage over his competitors. Still only a young man, Robert Owen was establishing himself as a major force amongst the Manchester elite.

 

In 1794 Owen left Drinkwater and with other partners joined the Chorlton Twist Company. Owen was becoming known in literary circles and had started developing ideas about social questions particularly the hours and conditions of the workforce.

 

Nor is it surprising that the successful young factory manager with a nascent in social conditions and a questioning mind in the matter of religion should attract the attention of like-minded individuals who formed the intellectual core of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical society”. [5]

 

 

 

New Lanark

 

 

 

On a visit to Scotland on a business trip for the Chorlton twist company Owen met Caroline Dale, the daughter of David Dale who was the owner of the New Lanark Mill. He and his partners would buy New Lanark and Owen would marry Caroline. This is where his development as a social reformer would come into his own. It would be at New Lanark and at Harmony in the United States where Owen would practise his communist experiment.

 

“New Lanark came to play a vital role in Owen’s ambitious plans for a new system of society and had a significant impact on later community experiences and Owenite activities”. [6]

 

In 1814 Owen put his plan into operation at New Lanark to improve conditions at New Lanark establish a communist village with education, less hours of work, improved conditions with no child labour or long hours of work.

 

“At 7 o'clock at night children were not only taught reading and writing but also the polite accomplishments. Dale evidently employed singing masters and dancing masters to teach the factory girls and boys to dance. Apart from instituting day schools to accommodate children under 10 who were no longer employed in the mills”. [7]

 

Robert Owen published his new view of society for changes to how society was run especially the barbaric conditions of laizzez faire capitalism with its exploitation of workers, children and women in degrading and appalling situations, the eradication of the workhouse and all that entailed. His system as expounded in his essays was put into effect at New Lanark.

 

“But the new system now embraced character formation, popular education, poor relief and the community plan”. [8]

 

 

 

Owen’s Communist Experience

 

 

 

Frederick Engels in Anti-Duhring explains that Owen was a revolutionary who put forward plans for a future communist society within the orbit of capitalism.

 

“He saw in it the opportunity of putting into practice his favourite theory, and so of bringing order out of chaos. He had already tried it with success, as superintendent of more than five hundred men in a Manchester factory. From 1800 to 1829, he directed the great cotton-mill at New Lanark, in Scotland, as managing partner, along the same lines, but with greater freedom of action and with a success that made him a European reputation. A population, originally consisting of the most diverse and, for the most part, very demoralised elements, a population that gradually grew to 2,500, he turned into a model colony, in which drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity, were unknown. And all this simply by placing the people in conditions worthy of human beings, and especially by carefully bringing up the rising generation. He was the founder of infant schools, and introduced them first at New Lanark. At the age of two the children came to school, where they enjoyed themselves so much that they could scarcely be got home again. Whilst his competitors worked their people thirteen or fourteen hours a day, in New Lanark the working-day was only ten and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. And with all this the business more than doubled in value, and to the last yielded large profits to its proprietors”. [9]

 

Owen’s communism was based upon this purely business foundation, the outcome, so to say, of commercial calculation. Throughout, it maintained this practical character His advance in the direction of communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honour, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his communist theory that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage. He knew what confronted him if he attacked these — outlawry, excommunication from official society, and the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press, ruined by his unsuccessful communist experiments in America His advance in the direction of communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honour, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his communist theory that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage. He knew what confronted him if he attacked these — outlawry, excommunication from official society, and the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened”. [10]

 

As Engels had commented Owen’s communism was translated into the cooperative movement with the formation of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844.

 

“However, the idea of the co-operative movement did not die completely, for in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers started a co-operative venture in Lancashire which eventually grew into the modern Co-operative Movement”. [11].

 

In 1832 Robert Owen founded the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. Owen’s turn to the working class proved that Owenism was the most important development for socialism before the great working class struggles of the 1850’s and the emergence of Chartism. Owen was a true revolutionary who developed socialism within the limits of a capitalist society. Without the emergence of a developed working class the true ideas of communism could not develop. It would be left to the founders of Marxism to put it on a proper materialist understanding.

 

“In 1832 he proposed that the unions should unite and in 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed. Within a week it had over half a million members and the government were alarmed by this new mass labour movement”. [12]

 

Although it did not last it would lead to Chartism the big working class movement which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had an enormous influence in promoting and fighting for Chartist revolutionary demands. I will consider this in a future article.

 

 

 

Footnotes

 

 

 

1) Ian Donnachie: Robert Owen Social Visionary: John Donald, p.30

 

2) Ibid Pg. 32

 

3) Ibid Pg.37

 

4) Ibid, p.43

 

5) Ibid, p.59

 

6) Ibid, p.113

 

7) Ibid, p. 108

 

8) Ibid, p.178

 

9) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch23.htm

 

10) Ibid

 

11) http://robert-owen-museum.org.uk/Robert_Owen_1771_1858/trade_union

 

12) Ibid