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Robert Owen’s Relationship with Nineteenth Century Radicalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2526 words Published: 16th Mar 2021

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Paternalist; socialist; communist; which of these terms best summarises Robert Owen’s relationship with nineteenth century radicalism? 

 To some people, Robert Owen was known as the ‘father of British socialism’ resulting from the political views he acquired, which as the Cambridge dictionary states, the definition of socialism is ‘the set of beliefs that states all people are equal and should share equally in the a country’s money or the political systems based on these beliefs’[1] Although to others who did not share his views, he was thought of as a communist, and seemed to be compelled to experiment with these beliefs during the time before he ventured to America and whilst he was there. However, during Owen’s time in New Lanark, he took on the role of paternalist, a person who creates ‘a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other’[2] However, Owen continued with his socialist ideas for the next few decades until his death in 1858.

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Robert Owen was born in May 1771 in NewtownMontgomeryshire, in Wales, to Anne Williams and Robert Owen. His mother was the daughter of a farmer and his father was a saddler, ironmonger and local postmaster. Owen was one of seven children although two of his siblings died in childhood. He left school aged ten and was apprenticed to a draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire for four years. After working in London draper shops during his teenage years, Owen moved to Manchester when he was approximately eighteen years old. After hearing about Richard Arkwright and his success in his textile mill, Owen borrowed one hundred pounds and set up business as a manufacturer of spinning machines, with an engineer named John Jones. He sold his share of the business and went on to manage a factory with five hundred employees, where he studied the workings of the factory and improved the manufacturing process, beginning his ideas. Owen met several businessmen in the textile industry through this employment, one of whom, David Dale, owned the Chorton Twist Company based in New Lanark, Scotland. Dale went on to become Robert Owen’s father-in-law in 1799, when Owen married Caroline Dale. In 1800, Owen purchased Dale’s four factories in New Lanark for the sum of £60,000 and under his control, the company expanded further. Engels wrote that ‘Robert Owen had adopted the teaching of the materialistic philosophers: that man's character is the product, on the one hand, of heredity; on the other, of the environment of the individual during his lifetime, and especially during his period of development. In the industrial revolution most of his class saw only chaos and confusion, and the opportunity of fishing in these troubled waters and making large fortunes quickly. He saw in it the opportunity of putting into practice his favorite theory, and so of bringing order out of chaos.’[3] Owen had some experience from his previous management of the factory in Manchester, although his purchase of Dale’s New Lanark mill gave him further opportunity to implement his experiment to a fuller extent. ‘In the Report to the County of Lanark (1821) suggested that in order to avoid fluctuations in the money supply as well as the payment of unjust wages, labour notes representing hours of work might become a superior form of exchange medium. This was the first time that Owen "proclaimed at length his belief that labour was the foundation of all value, a principle of immense importance to later socialist thought".’[4] Owen implemented many more socialist ideas at New Lanark.

During his time in New Lanark, Owen became extremely critical of other factory owners who employed young children in their factories. In addition to making money, Owen was concerned with his employees’ living and working conditions, including their education and that of their children. ‘In the manufacturing districts it is common for parents to send their children of both sexes at seven or eight years of age, in winter as well as summer, at six o'clock in the morning, sometimes of course in the dark, and occasionally amidst frost and snow, to enter the manufactories, which are often heated to a high temperature, and contain an atmosphere far from being the most favourable to human life, and in which all those employed in them very frequently continue until twelve o'clock at noon, when an hour is allowed for dinner, after which they return to remain, in a majority of cases, till eight o'clock at night.’[5] New Lanark began as a philanthropic experiment for Owen. He believed that a person’s environment effected how that person’s character evolved and was confident that with the correct environment, his employees and their families would be well balanced, well behaved and generally good citizens. Owen’s argument was that people were inherently good but were affected by the way in which they were treated, therefore if they were treated callously, they would react to that treatment. On Owen’s arrival at New Lanark, he found children from the age of five years old, working thirteen hours a day in the factory. In an address to a parliamentary committee, Owen stated ‘I found that there were 500 children, who had been taken from poor-houses, chiefly in Edinburgh, and those children were generally from the age of five and six, to seven to eight. The hours at that time were thirteen. Although these children were well fed their limbs were very generally deformed, their growth was stunted, and although one of the best schoolmasters was engaged to instruct these children regularly every night, in general they made very slow progress, even in learning the common alphabet.[6] Owen strongly opposed corporal punishment in schools and factories and prohibited the use of such in New Lanark. He also stopped employing children under the age of ten years old and built nursery and infant schools for the younger children in the village. Although older children continued to work in his factory, they also had to attend school for part of their day.

During the American war, resulting in a cotton crisis, putting a halt to work for four months, Owen’s workers nevertheless continued to receive full wages for the whole time. Despite this, the business continued to provide substantial profits whilst the value of business increased two-fold. Engels stated that ‘In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. "The people were slaves at my mercy." The relatively favorable conditions in which he had placed them were still far from allowing a rational development of the character and of the intellect in all directions, much less of the free exercise of all their faculties… To them, therefore, the fruits of this new power belonged. The newly-created gigantic productive forces, hitherto used only to enrich individuals and to enslave the masses, offered to Owen the foundations for a reconstruction of society; they were destined, as the common property of all, to be worked for the common good of all. [7] In response to his feelings on this matter, in 1823, Owen developed a plan to build Communist colonies that he proposed would help in Ireland. These plans included costings, maps, expenditures and possible revenues that could be implemented, using Owen’s ideas of social reform, which in theory could have had great success.

As a philanthropist, Owen was recognised as, Engels states, ‘the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and prince listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing.[8] Unfortunately for Owen, his continuing advances towards Communism did nothing for his popularity within British society. Added to this, his denouncing all types of religion as being responsible for making man ‘a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a miserable hypocrite’[9] had the effect of upsetting not just the clergy but also one of his own business partners, William Allen, who was a devoted Quaker. However, according to Edward Royle, these comments regarding religion ‘did not mark such a crisis in his life as he himself expected or as his biographers have suggested… Complaints about the pernicious effects of Owen’s theological opinions became common only after 1828.’[10] Royle continues to state that these complaints did not cause the uproar expected until Owen returned from America after his failed experiments with New Harmony. 

Owen lost faith in Britain and travelled to America with his son, William, to experiment with his socialist ideas. After purchasing the town of Harmony, Indiana, Owen renamed the town New Harmony and established it as his first experiment into a utopian community in America. Unfortunately for Owen, the experiment was not successful due to the different types of people the town attracted. His success in New Lanark had the difference of being for industrial purposes with the town and factory already in situ. Several smaller communities sprang up within New Harmony and this eventually led to Owen becoming disillusioned with the project and he returned to Britain in 1828. Owen worked amongst the working-classes for the next thirty years, including becoming associated with trade unionism, serving for a time as the leader of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

Robert Owen died in his hometown of Newtown, on 17th November 1858, although his ideas still live on today. Engels stated ‘Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.’[11] Robert Owen was a socialist but he was also a humanitarian and cared about the working classes enough to endure ridicule from his peers regarding his thoughts and ideas for the future. At New Lanark, Owen bought goods in bulk for the worker’s shops and was able to keep costs down in this way. This idea still functions today and was the basic beginning of the co-operative movement, benefitting all and not just the men in charge. The way in which Owen’s ideas have been an influence in the time since his death, have become his legacy. His impact with the fair trade and co-operative endeavours is world-wide and his work for worker’s rights, healthcare and education, still continue to this day.



[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org.dictionary/english/socialism

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paternalism

[3] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/o/w.htm#owen-robert

[4] https://spartacus-educational.com/IRowen.htm [accessed 08.01.2020]

[5] Robert OwenObservations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System (1815) p. 9 via https://spartacus-educational.com/IRowen.htm [accessed 08.01.2020]

[6] Robert Owen, Robert Peel's House of Commons Committee (26th April, 1816) via https://spartacus-educational.com/IRowen.htm [accessed 08.01.2020]

[7] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/o/w.htm#owen-robert  p. 2.

[8] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/o/w.htm#owen-robert  p. 3.

[9] Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester, University Press, 1974), p.60

[10] Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester, University Press, 1974), p.60

[11] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/o/w.htm#owen-robert  p. 3.


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