How we cope with social problems is always topical. Owen was an early pioneer who tried his best.
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a Welsh utopian socialist, philanthropist, and social reformer. A textile manufacturer, he had left school at the age of ten and was largely self-educated. He made his fortune as an investor in, and later manager of, a textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland. The mill had been running since 1785. Owen and his partners bought it in 1799 and Owen became its manager in 1800. Of some two thousand people connected to the business five hundred were children from the poorhouses of Edinburgh and Glasgow. They had been reasonably well-treated but most of the workers led wretched lives. Trapped in poverty, ill-housed, and poorly educated, they were suspected of every vice imaginable. And it is true that many sought solace in drink and sex.
These workers were representative of a new class of people, uprooted from the old agricultural life. They worked to an imposed timetable in the new factories of the industrial revolution. They were the first members of an alienated class that Marx and Engels would describe. Indeed, the textile workers must have seemed completely alien to the local country folk who would have nothing to do with them.
No Truck with the Old System
They were paid through the so-called “truck” system that paid workers in tokens which could only be used in the company shop where the goods available were usually overpriced and of poor quality. Owen did indeed have a shop for his workers but he offered goods at only slightly above wholesale prices, savings he made by buying in bulk were passed on to his staff. Sales of alcohol were controlled.
Using the mill as a testing ground for his ideas, he introduced education for the children, child care facilities, and an eight-hour working day. His relations with his staff were excellent, the mill was a commercial success. In 1813 he sold his share of the business. This gave him the opportunity to practice his philanthropy on a wider scale. He became an advocate for workers' rights, child labor laws, and free education.
He came to advocate the establishment of socialistic communities in which there were communal kitchens and dining halls, although families had private apartments. He finally decided that a working community should have between five hundred and three thousand members, be primarily agricultural, well-equipped, and offer a variety of employment. These communes should aim to be self-contained but, once there were enough of them, they should confederate as they shared a common interest. This system was the one that collective farms in the Soviet Union would emulate (with very mixed results).
In 1825, Owen began launching communal living establishments in the United States. Perhaps the most famous of these was New Harmony in Indiana. The town of Harmony had been founded in 1814 but this Lutheran community decided, in 1824, to move to Pennsylvania. On January 3 1825 Owen purchased the town, named it New Harmony, and invited anyone who was interested to come and live in the town. Although many of the people who answered his call were genuinely committed to making the experiment work, many were not.
This cooperative experiment only lasted two years. According to one of the residents, it failed because the interests of the community at large clashed, as they were bound to do, with the interests of the individual members. However, many of the residents, including five of Owen's seven surviving children along with educators, scientists, and artists, remained in the town.
Owen moved back to Britain. In London, he continued campaigning for social reform. He was instrumental in the provision of free public libraries and museums, in the area of workers' and women's rights, and in developing the cooperative and trade union movement.
Having spent his life trying to help others he died virtually penniless, in 1858.