The failure of a socialist dreamer
Born in poverty, he became very wealthy as a young industrialist. Surrounded by captains of industry who ruthlessly exploited the poor, he introduced far-reaching reforms to improve the lives of workers and children. With almost no formal education, he became one of the leading intellectuals of his time and later turned to both the British House of Commons and the US Congress. And to ensure a better future for humanity, he put his money where his mouth was and funded one of the most important utopian experiments in US history. It failed miserably.
Who Was Robert Owen? How did he rise from the dark to play such a prominent role in 19th century history? And why did his greatest dream end in a nightmare? These are questions I frequently ask my philanthropy students at Indiana University and groups of aspiring leaders that I bring to the site of his utopian experiment in southern Indiana each year. Such questions are particularly timely now as we celebrate Owen’s 250th birthday on May 14, 2021 and the federal government is launching a program of unprecedented public spending in peacetime.
Owen grew up in Wales, the sixth of seven children of an ironmonger and saddler. Although he lacked formal education, he liked to read. When he was trained as a draper he became manager of a garment factory in Manchester at the age of 21, where he soon joined the local philosophical society. At the age of 28 he married Caroline Dale, the daughter of the owner of the New Lanark Mills, with whom he had eight children. Owen and his partners soon bought the mill from his father-in-law and began a series of reforms designed to improve the conditions of those who lived and worked there.
Up until Owen’s day, workers were typically only paid with vouchers in corporate stores that sold inferior goods at inflated prices. Owen began selling high quality goods at prices barely above cost. He pushed for an eight-hour workday. And he introduced educational innovations and brought children from the factory to school houses. These and other reforms have drastically reduced alcohol abuse and illegitimacy, increased respect and loyalty among workers, and made Owen famous. Among the visitors to New Lanark who studied his methods was the future Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.
Owen believed in the plasticity of human character, in the idea that people become what they are shaped for. If he could gain control over the physical and social forces that shape people in the early years of life, he could eliminate vice and promote virtue. He opened an institute for character formation and hung a cube, each face of which was a different color, above every worker, a “silent monitor” that shows how well everyone was doing his job. Eventually, Owen’s views on socialism, a term he introduced to the English-speaking world, took him. He wrote:
Is it not in the best interests of humanity that everyone be instructed and placed in such a way that they find their ultimate joy in deriving from the continued practice of doing everything in their power to promote the well-being and happiness of each individual? Man, woman and child, regardless of class, sect, party, country or skin color?
Owen sailed to America and put his ideas to the test in southern Indiana. A millennialist named George Rapp and his group had cleared the country and built a thriving Christian community called Harmony there in the early 19th century. In 1825, Owen bought the parish and renamed it New Harmony, investing most of his fortune in it. There he expected to prove that a city of “unity and mutual cooperation” could attract some of the best and brightest people and open a “new moral world”. The first efforts seemed successful when prominent scientists, artists, and educators flocked to the city.
The community was based on Owen’s rejection of “three monstrous evils”: private property, organized religion, and marriage. Reflecting on his socialist ideal as he envisioned implementing it in America, he wrote:
The principle of association and cooperation for the promotion of all virtues and wealth creation is now generally recognized as far superior to the individual selfish system, and all seem ready or ready to prepare quickly to abandon it and adopt the former. Indeed, the whole country is ready to found a new empire based on the principle of public property and discard private property and the not-for-profit notion that man can form his own character as the basis and root of all evil.
Whether Owen joined atheism is doubtful, but he was undoubtedly a passionate opponent of organized religion.
My friends, I tell you that so far it has only been because of the mistakes – gross mistakes – combined with the basic concepts of every religion that humans have been taught to know what happiness really is that you have been prevented at all. As a result, they have made man the most inconsistent and miserable being there is. The flaws in these systems made him a weak, stupid animal; an angry fanatic and fanatic or a wretched hypocrite; and should these properties be carried not only into the planned villages, but also into paradise itself, paradise would no longer be found!
Owen’s hazy view of the current state of the institution of marriage is evident in his efforts to promote the liberalization of divorce laws:
All I wish now is to see another law enforcing divorce. . . can be sustained by rich and poor alike; to eliminate the root cause of so much existing deception, prostitution, promiscuous intercourse and crime, and the terrible evils that necessarily flow from them to both sexes. . . . And that change in divorce law is all that is required now to empower me. . . To present to the world the greatest, easy-to-introduce practical arrangements for man’s liberation from ignorance, poverty, division, and crime ever conceived in even the most ardent and optimistic imaginations of poets, philosophers, and reformers past and present.
It found people reluctant to work hard when they saw that others who did little work were enjoying the same life.
True to his word, in New Harmony, Owen sought to eradicate personal fortune, turning the Harmonist’s houses of worship into civic centers, and discouraging any religious basis for marriage. He envisioned a life in which children until the age of 3 would live with their families. At that point, the church would take responsibility for their care and upbringing. Men and women would live on an equal footing and would each have an equal responsibility to contribute to the work of the community. Workers would be paid strictly according to the time they worked.
But Owen’s vision collapsed after just two years. Owen himself was often absent and instead chose to travel to promote his ideas and leave the day-to-day management of his utopia to others. He also seems to have overestimated the degree of harmony he could promote. One resident, Josiah Warren, wrote:
It seemed that it was the inherent law of diversity that had conquered us – our “united interests” were right at war with the individualities of persons. . . and the instinct of self-preservation.
It found people reluctant to work hard when they saw that others who did little work were enjoying the same life. Owen’s son David wrote that the city attracted a “heterogeneous” group that included principled people, “lazy theorists” and “a pinch of unprincipled sharps”.
Although Owen finally left New Harmony after the experiment failed, five of his children chose to live there. One became a member of Congress, another conducted groundbreaking geological surveys, and a third was the first president of Purdue University. Owen himself returned to England, no longer rich, but determined to promote better working conditions, publicly funded education and his vision of an enlightened society. Before he died in Wales in 1858 at the age of 86, he became a spiritualist, arguing that the spirits of the dead play an important role in the further development of society.
Late in life, a clergyman asked Owen if he regretted wasting his life on fruitless projects. He replied, “My life has not been useless; I gave important truths to the world and it was only for lack of understanding that they were ignored. I was ahead of my time. “Owen, always the idealist, never doubted the validity of his ideas and only lamented the fact that he was born into a world that was not ready to receive it. When others examine the same evidence, they might wonder if Owen was so in love with his utopian vision that he found it difficult to grapple with the real world.