The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Robert Owen

Category: Famous people

Robert OwenThe Early Period of Owen’s Activities

Robert Owen was born at Newtown, a small town in cent­ral Wales, on May 14, 1771. At the end of the 18th century Newtown was a quiet little place of one thousand inhabitants with a single business street across the town.

Robert’s father, an ironmonger, was poor, and Robert went to school till he was 9, when he had to start his early work.

When Robert was still a small boy he showed outstand­ing abilities, a passion for reading, an independent think­ing and a strong character. At ten years of age he left home for good.

He went first to London and then to Stamford in Lin­colnshire where he was apprenticed to a draper. Here he found time to read as much as five hours a day, as he wrote in his book Life. Among the books which he selected at that period were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost and many other popular novels. “I believed every word of them; and I generally finished a volume daily,” Owen wrote in his Life.

In 1784 Owen left Stamford and became an assistant to a large firm of London drapers. Here the work was hard and the hours long. Next year he went to Manchester. This town was in the centre of the Industrial Revolution just entering its period of greatest advance. Owen was now well qualified and he knew about textiles. He was industrious and ready to learn.

As everyone around him was talking about the cotton trade, the new machinery and the profits, he borrowed one hundred pounds and started his own business. The situa­tion was favourable to him. He was one of those business­men who, under the conditions of the Industrial Revolu­tion, managed to make a fortune in a very short period of time.

Owen became quite a rich textile manufacturer. In 1794 he was a shareholder of a large mill in New Lanark, Scot­land, and in 1800 he became its manager.

New Lanark Mill

The New Lanark Mill, employing about a thousand workers, was among the largest in Britain.

In the twenty years following Owen’s arrival at New Lanark one success followed another. Overcoming the na­tural suspicion which the workers felt for an employer, he gradually won their confidence.

Their houses (all of them belonged to the company) were entoged, sanitation improved, hours of labour shorten­ed and conditions of work made better.

Shops were opened at which cheap and good quality food and clothes could be bought. Educational and cultural facilities were improved year by year. Even during crises, when production was reduced, the workers at New Lanark were paid their full wages. Owen also established a hospital fund, opened schools and organized kindergartens for the workers’ children.

The fame of the New Lanark Mill and its manager spread first to England and then to the European continent. In the course of a few years New Lanark became known all over Europe as a model community and hundreds, then thousands came to see it every year.

In 1813—1814 Owen published his first important book, A New View of Society, in which he wrote about his New Lanark experiment.

However, Owen was not satisfied. In spite of everything he did for the workers he saw that they continued to be, as he said, the slaves of the employer. He began to think about the fact that his mill, in spite of a shorter working day and other reforms, continued to bring in profit, and that the profit was even greater than before. There arose a question—where did the difference between the “amount of wealth” used by workers and produced by them go? The answer was simple. The difference was appropriated by the owners of the mill. Each year they got 300,000 pounds of profit.

Thinking about this Owen gradually became critical about the capitalist way of production. So in 1817 he put forward a plan of organizing labour communes.

He even made an attempt to set up a communal colony in America. But although he spent a great part of his money, his attempt failed—the people were too set in their old ways.

Owen lived in an age of bitter and increasing class struggle, but he never understood it. For him class struggle was merely the result of ignorance and could be avoided by demonstrating that it was unreasonable. For this reason, though the workers were attracted by the prospect of a new society as he presented it, he was never able to be an effec­tive leader of the working class.

And yet Robert Owen played a great part in the deve­lopment of the working class. His positive achievement was the conclusion that the key to the change of society lay in the hands of the working people.

Owen’s public work was many-sided and here are some details about it.

Friend of Children, Founder of Co-operatives

In those days almost half the workers in spinning mills  in England were children and they entered mills at the age of 4 or 6. That is why Robert Owen, as soon as he was able, set up schools for children under ten.

He insisted that children must never be beaten in his schools. They must be spoken to kindly and taught to make friends with each other. Dancing, music and drill were taught.

He said of his schoolchildren that “they were the happi­est he ever saw”. Judging by the way children were usually treated in those days no doubt they were happy.

Owen wrote a lot and spoke at many meetings. As a re­sult of the great success at New Lanark he was known all over Europe and America.

He wanted to build co-operative villages in which all work was to be for the benefit of the people. They would make the goods and exchange them—no profits for masters. In fact, his idea was the spark of Communism.

He tried to get the government to pass a law to reduce working hours. Most of the big factory owners were up in arms at once. They made such a fuss that, although a law was passed in 1819, it was nearly useless. Owen was dis­gusted and for a time was very discouraged.

In 1828 Owen came back to England from America where his plans for setting up a communal colony had failed.

In England, by this time, some of the progressive work­ers were trying to put Owen’s teaching into practice. At­tempts were made to start co-operative trading. Workers made goods and exchanged them among themselves.

In 1824 a London Co-operative Society was formed. In 1827 it began to publish a paper called The Co-operative Magazine, and for the first time used the word socialist, meaning the rule of the working people.

Many other such societies were formed. The period was one of great distress for the workers and there were many strikes. Owen tried to get all strikers to join the co-operative societies to fight more successfully against the employ­ers. He also did much to get all workers to form one Grand National Trade Union. In 1832 he introduced a scheme which caused quite a stir, though for various reasons it failed. He opened a store called the Equitable Labour Exchange. Here goods could be sold for Labour Notes instead of ordinary money. The notes showed how many hours it had taken to make the goods; with these notes other goods could be bought.

The idea was founded on the truth the capitalists want the workers to forget—labour is the source of all wealth.

Robert Owen went on speaking about co-operation all over the country. He helped to organize strikes. Though in many ways Robert Owen failed, but his ideas showed the way for the workers to follow.

It is in the Socialist lands, and not yet in his homeland, that many of Owen’s ideas have been realized.

Owen popularized his ideas of utopian socialism among broad sections of workers till the end of his life, he spoke at public meetings, published books and magazines, founded workers’ colleges and houses of science.

In 1830 Owen made another attempt to set up a labour commune in Harmony-Hall, England, but it also failed. Again and again he applied to the representatives of the ruling circles in the hope that they would begin to see clearly but everything was in vain. His activities became a sect losing touch with the mass working-class movement.

Shortly before Owen’s death he was visited by the great Russian revolutionary democrat Alexander Hertzen, who described the meeting in his famous book My Thoughts and My Past. “I expect great things from your country,” Owen told Hertzen.

Robert Owen died on November 17, 1858. A few days earlier he tried to make a speech before the National Asso­ciation for Promoting Social Sciences. But his strength gave way before he began to speak and he was carried out of the hall on a stretcher.

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