Robert Owen: The Woolly-Minded Cotton Spinner

Mr. Barger is a corporate public relations executive and writer in Toledo, Ohio.

The nearby Wabash river must have seemed symbolically reassuring to Robert Owen on the day he arrived in Harmony, Indiana in late 1824 to launch the millennium.

It had been on another river, the Clyde in Scotland, that Owen became rich and famous as the director of the New Lanark cotton spinning mills. Here at Harmony, on the Wabash, he was about to establish a community that would become a beacon for all mankind. For too long, in Owen’s view, the world had been in bondage to the sins of individualism and self-interest. He had a better way, a way of cooperation and sharing. New Harmony, the name he gave the village after purchasing it early in 1825, would direct the world to this new way by its successful example.

But as students of American history know, Owen’s millennium never came. New Harmony was a colossal failure that consumed at least four-fifths of his fortune and destroyed his reputation as an astute businessman. Far from proving that individualism and self-interest could be eradicated, New Harmony revealed perverse and virulent forms of both traits. Hailed as a new beginning in cooperation, the community of 900 persons on the Wabash was characterized by bickering and dissension almost from the start. Established as a new social order that would bring economic security, the village quickly fell behind in crop production and ordinary maintenance tasks were neglected. Proclaimed as the model for a system that would usher in a new era, Owen’s village was copied only briefly by other communistic societies in America and was then abandoned. As a venture that was supposed to spark the millennium, New Harmony was a total failure.

Oddly enough, however, the New Harmony debacle may have been the high point of Robert Owen’s life, because it won him a place in American history and created a heightened interest in "Owenism," the brand of socialism he espoused. Unfortunately, neither Robert Owen nor his followers learned the lessons that New Harmony could have taught them, and much of the "democratic socialism" that is now practiced in the Western world reflects the same fuzzy thinking that destroyed Owen’s model community. We are still paying for Owen’s folly and for the failure to understand the contradictions of Owenism.

Why did the New Harmony venture fail? It certainly had everything going for it. The community was actually a going concern with good buildings, cultivated lands and orchards, and afair amount of livestock when Owen purchased it from a German religious sect called the Rappites. It could have had good leadership, because Owen was wealthy and had proved himself a capable manager. The New Harmony movement also had wide support in the new American nation, and Owen had even been given an audience with President-elect John Quincy Adams and the Secretary of the Treasury when he arrived in Washington. There was a kindly tolerance of new ideas, and if New Harmony had been a sound and workable system, the United States had both the political freedom and the available land for thousands of such communal enterprises. Then or now, nothing in the fundamental American idea was opposed to the socialistic communities of the early 19th century, since they were voluntary arrangements and used peaceful means. So why didn’t New Harmony become – as Owen hoped it would – the seed colony of a new social order for the country and the world?

How Allocate Resources?

The seed colony didn’t reproduce because the problems that undermined New Harmony are essentially the same problems that bedevil every social democratic country in the world, including the present-day United States. Using strictly voluntary, peaceful means, how do you obtain human cooperation and allocate resources in a socialistic society ? How do you convince the most productive workers that they should keep on producing when everybody, including the idler and the incompetent, is rewarded equally? How do you decide what is to be produced? Or who is to have what job? Who should do the saving to provide investment funds? How can you exchange goods and services in a fair and equitable manner? These are tough, common-sense questions, and they weren’t answered satisfactorily at New Harmony. So far, the democratic socialists haven’t really answered them either. Socialists are either forced to yield to the requirements of the marketplace, because of their love of freedom, or to move towards the totalitarianism of the Marxist-Leninist camp, because of their blind love of socialism. Both actions are a tacit admission that democratic socialism doesn’t work.

In Owen’s case, he made no compromises with reality, since he was basically rigid in his outlook and was not capable of altering most of his views. Early in his adult life, he had developed a distaste for individualism and competition, although he was in many ways a gifted individual who could easily compete with others. He wasalso a man of deep humanitarian instincts, and he would have abhorred the brutal socialism of modern Russia and China. Beyond that, however, he was dogmatic and single-minded. Macaulay regarded him as a "gentle bore" and he was said not to have thought differently of a book for having read it. In other words, Owen was in- some ways insensitive to the realities of human nature and did not learn a great deal either from study or from experience. Yet he was an outstanding person of great ability, a high achiever in what would later be the Horatio Alger, Jr. tradition.

A Successful Businessman

Owen was born in Newton, Wales on May 14, 1771, and grew up under circumstances that seem severe by modern standards but were important in shaping his philosophy and life’s goals. Unlike some advocates of social change -Karl Marx, for example – Owen was a happy and successful man who had no personal reasons to resent the economic system of his day. Although he began his working career as an apprentice at age 10 without pay for the first year, his abilities were such that he had become a manager of a cotton mill at age 18 and within two years was able to demand and obtain a responsible position at the then handsome salary of 300 pounds yearly. He soon became well known in the British cotton spinning industry, and in 1799 he purchased an interest in a group of mills at New Lanark, Scotland. He became world famous as a result of the success of his enlightened policies in running the New Lanark mills.

Owen was born at the right time and landed in the right place for the kind of business success he was to enjoy. The mechanization of the cotton spinning arts was in full swing in the late 18th century, and was presenting excellent commercial opportunities for large profits and rapid growth. It was also an ideal opportunity for a person such as Owen who had considerable management skills but, at the outset, little capital.

Owen’s adult life can be divided into several periods of interest and activity. During his first 13 years at New Lanark, he was occupied with the problems of running the mills and bringing about improvements in the educational system and working conditions for the people employed in the mill. As he became wealthier and acquired national prominence, he began to speak out on social conditions and was soon producing the first of many essays outlining the program that eventually became known as Owenism. He was associated with the New Lanark mills until 1828, but long before that the promulgation of his social program had become his chief interest.

With the closing of the long Napoleonic wars in 1815 and a sudden dropoff in demand, England went through a depression. Alarmed because of widespread unemployment, a committee of nobles and other leaders sought advice from manufacturers on ways of dealing with the problem. Owen proposed the development of Villages of Cooperation – the self-sustaining community idea that became the blueprint for New Harmony.

New Harmony

Owen thought that an ideal community such as a Village of Cooperation would bring out the best in people and put an end to competitiveness and other traits which he saw as social evils. He decided to prove this when he purchased the Harmonie (Harmony) settlement in 1825 from the Rappites. He renamed the community New Harmony and issued an open invitation to persons who might choose to affiliate with the settlement. But the venture was characterized by friction and indecision from the start, and by 1828 Owen withdrew most of his support, though retaining title to the property. His financial losses were so great that Mrs. Owen, who had not accompanied her husband to America, was forced to move out of their large mansion into smaller quarters.

Owen unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Mexican government to sponsor a community similar to New Harmony. He then returned to England and spent the rest of his life advocating social reforms. He was associated with another community venture in England, but like New Harmony, it was also shortlived. He experimented with a Labour Exchange, a sort of tradesmen’s cooperative to which individuals would bring articles in exchange for notes in lieu of currency. The exchange soon failed. Owen also led a massive union movement in England in the 1830s, but this collapsed within a few months. For the remainder of his life, Owen continued to publicize his social theories. But he had lost most of his influence by 1834. He spent his last five remaining years as a devotee of spiritualism, and believed himself to be in contact with famous persons who had passed on. At age 86, he wrote his autobiography, a book that is surprisingly lucid and carries important sections outlining the basic tenets of Owenism. He died at 87.

Robert Heilbroner described Owen as "a strange mixture of practicality and naiveté, achievement and fiasco, common sense and madness." We are not accustomed to such "strange mixtures" most of the time. Actually, however, Owen’s behavior was contradictory only to those who lacked his view of matters, which he was to call "a new view of society." He always knew what he was doing and had supreme confidence in himself. He perceived a certain kind of role for himself and lived up to it.

Guiding Principles

Throughout his adult life, Owen was guided by three obsessive beliefs about himself and mankind which were to influence almost everything he did. Many of Ow-en’s actions will appear stupid and contradictory to the person who does not understand Owen’s motivations and attitudes. In fact, however, Owen was an unusually consistent person. He almost always behaved in accordance with his fundamental beliefs. It was his consistency, in fact, that may have led to his downfall on some occasions.

What were the three guiding elements in Owen’s life? First of all, he was committed to a form of humanitarianism, and was certainly humane in his desire to seek a better life for all and to put an end to wretched social conditions and human suffering. He loved people, although in a way that some persons may have felt demeaning and patronizing. He was kindly and gentle, and it is virtually impossible to find an instance in which Owen exhibited spite, vindictiveness, jealousy, or greed. He had a friendly manner that others found attractive. His writing also had a warm, friendly tone, and his criticisms were usually carefully phrased when they involved specific persons.

The second guiding force in Owen’s life was messianism and a belief in the eventuality of an earthly millennium. Yet he was openly anti-religious. He saw himself in a messianic role with a personal responsibility for causing the millennium (i.e., a New Moral Order) to come to pass. Had Owen been merely a humanitarian without a messianic mission, he probably would have ended his days as the genial director of the New Lanark mills. But he was not content with relative progress. He was able to prove at New Lanark that considerate treatment of employees and a general interest in improving employees’ well-being is also compatible with good business. But such improvements were too slow for the transformation that he believed was needed. He wanted to take dramatic and effective action that would quickly transform the world and bring about the glorious millennium. It was this messianic mission – and belief in millennialism – that took him from New Lanark to New Harmony.’

Determined by Environment

The third guiding belief in Owen’s life was determinism. He was unqualifiedly deterministic, and seems to have been almost completely committed to the belief that individuals are shaped by their conditions and their environment. He gave some weight to heredity, but devoted most of his attention to conditions. He was openly critical of individualism and seemed to be unwilling to admit that certain persons were capable of rising above the conditions imposed on them by society (even though he had !). Owen was dogmatic in stating his belief in the proposition that individuals are shaped by their environment.

In the first essay in A New View of Society, Owen stated a fundamental principle which expressed his determinism and also became the rationale for many of his plans. This principle was restated frequently in Owen’s writings and has been considered typically Owen by his biographers. The principle is:

Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men.²

Owen’s determinism, like his messianism, also helped take him out of New Lanark and into a wider world of social action. Had he not been basically determinist in his outlook, he might have been able to see some of the pitfalls in his plans for Villages of Cooperation. As a practical businessman, Owen knew that successful ventures require certain character traits and skills in management personnel and workers. If he had applied this same understanding to his proposals for ideal communities, he would have admitted more freely that the communal ventures would require similar individual traits in order to succeed. Although Owen steadily lost power and influence in the socialist movement after 1834, he continued to travel and to lecture whenever he could find an audience. New stars were appearing in the socialist constellation, among them Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Both paid homage to Owen as a man and a pioneer socialist, but neither thought much of his utopian socialism and they thoroughly refuted his major tenets. The struggling labor movement also honored Owen in the breach. Owen approved of general strikes, but wanted them carried out in a spirit of universal charity and philanthropy – an idea that never has caught on with any major labor union.

Religion Rejected

Owen also made a colossal mistake when he turned his back on organized religion and even attacked the church in an 1817 speech. This position cost him valuable allies, of course, but it also blinded him to the important role of religion in shaping society. It was indeed ironic that a religious sect, the Rappites, had established Harmony and operated it as a successful and prosperous community ; but things quickly fell apart under Owen. Owen wanted the kind of sharing and serving that groups such as the Rappites practiced, but he rejected the religious beliefs that held them together. As C. A. Burt, a resident of the famous Oneida Community, said with reference to New Harmony’s failure: "There are only two ways of governing such an institution as a Community; it must be done either by law or by grace. Owen got a company together and abolished law, but did not establish grace; and so, necessarily, failed." To this day, socialistic communities survive only when they are held together by religious or nationalistic feelings or are ruthlessly totalitarian.

Misreading the Market

Perhaps Owen’s greatest blunder, however, was in failing to understand the marketplace in which he had first accumulated his wealth and acquired prestige. Despite his success as a businessman, there is no evidence that Owen ever attributed his good fortune to the relative freedom of the marketplace in Britain or saw much social good in the mechanization of the cotton spinning industry. He did not seem to be interested in the kind of progress that occurs by increasing the productivity of the individual worker through the use of labor-saving machines. During Owen’s lifetime, for example,his own cotton spinning industry had made low-priced clothing and fabrics available to the masses. The impact of the cotton-spinning industry was so extensive that J. A. Schumpeter asserted that English industrial history can (1787-1842) "be almost resolved into the history of a single industry."3

The rapidly improving productivity of the cotton spinning industry exemplified Adam Smith’s argument that "the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, . . . occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people."4 It did not seem to occur to Owen that he and his fellow manufacturers, albeit for profit-seeking purposes, had performed a great social service in building an industry that gave the majority of the people access to better clothing at lower prices. To Owen, cotton spinning machines had enslaved the worker and left him poorer than before. Adam Smith, studying the same industry, would have concluded that the steady improvements in machinery would tend to benefit almost everybody and that the British standard of living could be expected to rise with every increase in industrialization. Owen was unduly pessimistic about the future of mechanized industry, despite the fact that he had a major role in early stages of the industrial revolution.

Utopian Socialism Replaced by Bolshevism

By the time Robert Owen died in 1858, his utopian socialism had been largely displaced by the fiery doctrines that eventually became modern Bolshevism. But democratic socialists still claim him as their true ancestor. Clement Atlee, the British Labour Party leader who engineered a great upset victory at the polls in 1945, was quick to point out that "socialist theory was developed by Robert Owen in Britain long before Karl Marx." Perhaps this comment reflects the hope that Owen’s humanitarianism will triumph over the harshness of Marx and the totalitarianism of Lenin and Stalin.

The unfortunate verdict of unfolding events does not sustain this hope. The Owenism that failedat New Harmony did not die there; it has become the underlying philosophy of today’s British and American governments. If there are redeeming qualities in all this, it’s that many democratic socialists share Owen’s decency and humanitarianism. But they also share the woolly-mindedness and impracticality that sank his New Harmony enterprise and led to weakness and failure in Owen’s other ventures. If it’s the spirit of Robert Owen that pervades modern society, some of us might want to echo the words of an editorialist of Owen’s time:

Robert Owen, a benevolent cotton-spinner . . . conceives that all human beings are so many plants which have been out of the earth for a few thousand years, and require to be reset. He accordingly determines to dibble them in squares after a new fashion.

Everybody, I believe, is convinced of Mr. Owen’s benevolence and that he proposes to do us much good. I ask him to let us alone, lest he do us much mischief.

Robert Owen – humanitarian, messiah, and determinist – didn’t want to let anybody alone. Today, we live with the mischief of his faulty philosophy. VV

1 Frank Podmore, an Owen biographer, wrote, "When (Owen) published his New View of Society, he looked for the regeneration of the world to begin on the morrow: throughout his long life that high vision, ever receding as he advanced, was still before his eyes; and he died at the age of eighty-seven happy in the belief that the millennium was even then knocking at the door." Podmore, Frank, Robert Owen, Augustus M. Kelley, Publishers, New York, 1968 (a reprint of the 1906 hook), page 124.

2 Robert Owen, A New View of Society, first published 1813/14, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1969, page 101

3 J. A. Schumpeter, Business Cycles, vol. 1 (1939), page 271 (referred to in Phyllis Deane’s The First Industrial Revolution, Cambridge University Press, England, 1965, page 84.)

4 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Gateway Edition, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, printed in 1953, page 19.


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