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Owen, Robert

Owen, Robert

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Robert Owen (1771-1858), British socialist, was born at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales. He began to influence social thought in 1799, when he acquired at New Lanark, Scotland, the cotton mills which he made famous. His mills became a showplace of enlightened management, and Owen’s reputation as a philanthropist spread throughout Europe.

When he entered upon the “government of New Lanark” as he called it, Owen’s object was not to be a “mere manager of cotton mills, but to introduce principles in the conduct of the people.” These principles had to do with character formation. Owen rejected the competitive business system through which he had made his money and urged the merits of a cooperative system in which “one man’s gain” would not be “another man’s loss” ([1813-1821] 1927, p. 124). In a cooperative community, he believed, a healthy and happy environment would shape individual character along the right social lines. Factories were nurseries of bad habits which only social controls, particularly education, could eliminate. It was necessary, moreover, to educate not only children but also adults.

Having expressed these views even before the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Owen was all the more convinced of the urgent need to apply them when the years following the wars brought economic discontent and distress to Britain. From his original interest in the effects of industrial working conditions on character he moved naturally to a concern with the state of the unemployed. He advocated “villages of co-operation” where work would be carried on collectively; these he considered not only a necessary remedy for unemployment but also a contribution to “social regeneration,” a remodeling of society on cooperative lines with no reliance on the profit motive.

When Owen failed to convince the rich and influential of the wisdom of his plans and the practicability of his vision of a new order, he turned to other sectors of society, particularly the middle and working classes. He broke sharply with the churches in 1817, and thereafter his cooperative philosophy became markedly anticlerical in tone. He also began to formulate more definitely communitarian ideals and, finding British opinion reluctant to support him, left Britain for the United

States in 1824. There he set up a system of community living at New Harmony, Indiana, an attempt to realize “the new moral world.” The community fared ill from the first (Maclure 18201833) and soon swallowed up most of Owen’s fortune.

Owen returned to Britain in 1829 and again was forced to plot a new course. He discovered that many of his ideas on labor as a source and standard of value and on cooperative production had been accepted by working-class groups of Owenites, and he was increasingly drawn into British workingclass politics. This phase of his experience reached its high point when in 1833 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was conceived. Although the Trades Union had over half a million members early in 1834, it disintegrated within a few months.

Owen’s greatest dream was even further from reality: it was a “Grand National Moral Union of the Productive Classes,” a pyramid of producers’ power with trade-union lodges at its base and a national labor exchange at its apex. Society would be quickly transformed—indeed, at a single blow—by the operation of the union. Like his previous schemes, this one also failed. Yet, still believing in the possibility of social redemption, Owen turned to the development of a secular religion and in 1839 to the development of a new community experiment at Harmony Hall (Queenwood), Hampshire.

As working-class cooperation developed in the 1840s under the leadership of the Rochdale Pioneers, it depended much on Owenite ideals, but soon thereafter became more practical in its emphasis. Owen was frequently dismissed as a “Utopian socialist”; it was even denied that he was a socialist at all. In fact, however, he had done much to develop a constructive critique of industrialism, to fashion the socialist vocabulary (Bestor 1948), and to stimulate working-class action by offering a new vision of society as it might be.

Asa Briggs

[See alsoEconomic Thought, article onSocialist Thought; Cooperation; Cooperatives; Utopianism.]

works by owen

(1813-1821) 1927 A New View of Society, and Other Writings. New York: Dutton. → First published as ANew View of Society: Or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character. Includes Owen’s “An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark” (1816) on pages 93-119; “Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System” (1815) on pages 120-129; and the “Report to the County of Lanark” (1821) on pages 245-298.

1818 Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes. London: Longmans.

1830 Lectures on an Entire New State of Society. London: Strange.

supplementary bibliography

Bestor, Arthur E. Jr. 1948 The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary. Journal of the History of Ideas9:259-302.

Bestor, Arthur E. JR. 1950 Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Cole, G. D. H. (1925) 1930 The Life of Robert Owen. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

Maclure, William (1820-1833) 1948 Education and Reform at New Harmony: Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot, 1820-1833.Edited by Arthur E. Bestor, Jr. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.

Podmore, Frank (1906) 1924 Robert Owen: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

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"Owen, Robert." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/owen-robert

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

The attempts of the British socialist pioneer Robert Owen (1771-1858) to reconstruct society widely influenced social experimentation and the cooperative movement.

Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Wales, on May 14, 1771, the son of a shopkeeper. Though he left school at the age of 9, he was precocious and learned business principles rapidly in London and Manchester. By 18 he was manager of one of Manchester's largest cotton mills. In 1799 he purchased the mills at New Lanark, Scotland; they became famous for fine work produced with high regard for the well-being of the approximately 2,000 employees, of whom several hundred were poor children.

A reader and thinker, Owen counted among his acquaintances Robert Fulton, Jeremy Bentham, and the poet Samuel Coleridge. Owen's reforms emphasized cleanliness, happiness, liberal schooling without recourse to punishment, and wages in hard times. As his fame spread, he considered implementing ideas that would increasingly negate competitive economics. His attack on religion at a London meeting in 1817 lost him some admirers. His pioneer papers of the time, including "Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes" (1818) and "Report to the County of Lanark" (1821), held that environment determined human development.

Owen learned of the religious Rapp colony in America at New Harmony, Ind., and determined to prove his principles in action there. In 1825 he purchased New Harmony and drew some 900 individuals to the community for his experiment. Despite the work of talented individuals, New Harmony did not prosper. By 1828 Owen had lost the bulk of his fortune in New Harmony, and he left it.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to institute a comparable experiment in Mexico that year, Owen returned to England to write and lecture. He propagated ideas first developed in 1826 in Book of the New Moral World. A kind, selfless man, he failed to perceive that the industry and responsibility that had made New Lanark great were not present in New Harmony and in other experiments he sponsored. Nevertheless, his views created theoretical bases for developing socialist and cooperative thought.

In The Crisis (1832) Owen advocated exchanging commodities for labor rather than money to relieve unemployment. The Equitable Labour Exchange founded that year failed but led to the Chartist and Rochdale movements. Labor unrest further fed on Owenite tenets, and in 1833 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed. It rallied half a million workers and fostered such new tactics as the general strike but fell apart within a few months, owing to opposition by employers and the government.

Owen continued to write and propagandize. Such experiments as Harmony Hall, in Hampshire, England (1839-45), derived from his theories. But new revolutionary forces and leaders put him out of the main current. His conversion to spiritualism in 1854 and his New Existence of Man upon the Earth (1854-1855) seemed to him a broadening of reality, rather than a retreat. His Autobiography (1857-1858) is one of the great documents of early socialist experience. He died in Newtown, Wales, on Nov. 17, 1858.

Further Reading

Owen's ideas are attractively presented in his own A New View of Society (1813). Full-length studies of Owen are Frank Podmore, Robert Owen (1906), and G. D. H. Cole, Life of Robert Owen (1925). Cole's Persons and Periods: Studies (1938) includes a brief, authoritative statement on Owen. Owen is often considered a utopian, but an immense literature establishes him with socialist founders; see, for example, George Lichtheim, The Origins of Socialism (1969). General studies include George B. Lockwood, The New Harmony Movement (1905); Arthur E. Bestor, Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829 (1950); and J. F. C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (1969).

Additional Sources

Altfest, Karen Caplan, Robert Owen as educator, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Claeys, Gregory, Machinery, money, and the millennium: from moral economy to socialism, 1815-1860, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. □

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Owen, Robert (1771-1858)

Owen, Robert (1771-1858)

British socialist and humanitarian. Owen was born May 14, 1771, at Newtown, Montgomeryshire. He was successful in the cotton mill industry and, in 1800, established a utopian society based on his cotton mills at New Lanark.

Owen established a community at New Lanark. This news induced the settlers of the Harmony Society in Indiana to sell land to Owen, who purchased Harmony with its mills, factories, houses, and land when the Harmonists moved to Pennsylvania. Owen came to the United States in December 1824 and established the community of New Harmony, based on socialist principles; the experiment did not succeed. For an account of New Harmony see Strange Cults & Utopias of 19th Century America by J. H. Noyes (Dover, 1966).

On May 14, 1856, at The First Meeting of the Congress of the Reformers of the World, detailed plans, based on spiritually-inspired architectural conceptions, were submitted through Owen's agency for building Homes of Harmony.

At the age of 83, Owen developed an interest in Spiritualism after several sittings with Maria B. Hayden, the first American medium who visited England. In 1853, in his journal, the Rational Quarterly Review, Owen published a formal profession of his new faith. In the same year he issued as a separate pamphlet The Future of the Human Race; or great, glorious and peaceful Revolution, to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women. The periodical installments of his New Existence of Man Upon Earth (1854-55) were, for some time, the only British publications dealing with Spiritualism.

Nevertheless, Owen cannot be ranked as a typical Spiritual-ist. Communication with the Beyond for him was another means for the advancement of mankind. Supposedly Andrew Jackson Davis, who saw him when lecturing in America in 1846, wrote in November 1847, some months before the Rochester knockings, that according to a message he received from the spiritual spheres, Robert Owen was destined to hold "open intercourse" with the higher world. Reportedly some of the prophecy communications were printed in Owen's autobiography The Life of Robert Owen (2 vols., London, 1857-58). Owen died at Newtown November 17, 1858, and his Spiritualist interests were carried forward by his son, Robert Dale Owen.

Sources:

Freudenberg, Gideon G. Robert Owen: Educator of the People. Tel Aviv, Israel: Dvir, 1970.

Harrison, John F. C. Quest for the New World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Oved, Yaacov. Two Hundred Years of American Communes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publications, 1993.

Owen, Robert Dale. The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next. London: Trubner, 1871.

. Footfalls on the Boundaries of Another World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1860.

. The Life of Robert Owen. 2 vols. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966.

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Owen, Robert

Robert Owen, 1771–1858, British social reformer and socialist, pioneer in the cooperative movement. The son of a saddler, he had little formal education but was a zealous reader. At the age of 10 he began working in the textile business and by 1794 had become a successful cotton manufacturer in Manchester.

In 1800, Owen moved to New Lanark, Scotland, where he had bought, with others, the mills of David Dale (whose daughter he married). There he reconstructed the community into a model industrial town with good housing and sanitation, nonprofit stores, schools, and excellent working conditions. Mill profits increased. The New Lanark experiment became famous in England and abroad, and Owen's ideas spread. He instigated the reform that resulted in the passage of the Factory Act of 1819—a watered down version of his proposals, but still a landmark in social reform. He also proposed the formation of self-sufficient cooperative agricultural-industrial communities. One such community, called New Harmony, was established (1825) in Indiana but failed after numerous disagreements among its members.

Professing a disbelief in religion (1817) and calling for the transformation of society rather than its reform (1820), Owen gradually lost much of his former upper-class support but was embraced by the working classes. After his return (1829) from the United States he became involved in the trade union movement and advocated the merging of unions with cooperative societies. Soon, however, the government took repressive action, and many workers responded by proclaiming the need for class struggle. Believing in the peaceful reordering of society, Owen ended his association with trade unionism and spent the last 25 years of his life writing and lecturing on his beliefs on education, marriage, and religion. Throughout his life Owen based his social programs on the idea that individual character is molded by environment and can be improved in a society based upon cooperation. Chief among his extensive writings are New View of Society; or, Essays on the Formation of Character (3 vol., 1813–14), Report to the County of Lanark (1821), and his autobiography (1857–58, repr. 1970).

See biographies by F. Podmore (1907, repr. 1971), G. D. H. Cole (3d ed. 1966), R. H. Harvey (1949), and M. I. Cole (1953, repr. 1969); studies by A. Morton (1962); J. Butts, ed. (1971), and R. G. Garnett (1973).

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Owen, Robert

Owen, Robert (1771–1858). Cotton magnate and utopian socialist. Born in Newtown (Powys), Owen became a partner in cotton firms in Lancashire and at New Lanark (Strathclyde), where he managed the mills and village (1800–25), gaining a reputation as a successful and humanitarian businessman. His experience led him to publish A New View of Society (1814–18), in which he advanced propositions that character was formed by environment, and that a system of villages of co-operation rather than unplanned large industrial towns was conducive to social progress. Attacked for his secularism and millenarianism, he accepted the labour theory of value and favoured state intervention to offset the effects of depressions in his Report to the County of Lanark (1820); he espoused factory reform, the legalization of trade unions, a national system of education, and co-operation. Described as the ‘Father of British Socialism’, Owen could be regarded also as a protagonist of scientific management.

John Butt

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Owen, Robert

Owen, Robert (1771–1858) Welsh industrialist and social reformer. He believed that better conditions for workers would lead to greater productivity. He put these beliefs into practice at his textile mills in Scotland. He also attempted to establish a self-contained cooperative community in New Harmony, Indiana (1825–27). His ideas provided the basis for the cooperative movement.

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Owen, Robert

Owen, Robert (1771–1856). See company town.

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