Robert Owen (Newtown, May 14, 1771 - Newtown, November 17, 1858) was a Welsh inventor, entrepreneur and trade unionist.
Owen is considered one of the first socialists, being part of that band born in the first half of the nineteenth century that had the name of utopian socialism. Although his utopian experiments have failed, his activity in the field of associations and trade unionism makes Owen very important in the history of the British labor movement.
Owen was born in Newtown, a town in Montgomeryshire (Wales), where he received his school education, which he finished at the age of ten.
Philanthropy in New Lanark (1800)
During a visit to Glasgow (Scotland) Owen fell in love with Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale, owner of a factory in New Lanark, also in Scotland.
The New Lanark plant was started in 1785 by David Dale and Richard Arkwright, using the water energy generated by the Clyde Falls. The lives of around 2,000 people depended on the plant, including 500 children brought there at 5-6 years of age from workhouses and orphanages in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The rural people of surrounding Lanarkshire did not submit to the long hours and demoralizing routine of factories, whereby workers came from the lower levels of society: theft, drunkenness and other vices were common, hygiene and education neglected, and families lived in one room.
Owen induced his associates to buy New Lanark and after his marriage to Caroline in September 1799, he moved there. He was responsible and partly owner of the plant (January 1810). Encouraged by his great success in the administration of the cotton mills in Manchester, between 1800 and 1825 he attempted to run the New Lanark factory according to his ideal principles, putting commercial principles in the background.
Many entrepreneurs ran the truck system: the workers were paid in whole or in part with "vouchers" that had value only in the factory owner's "truck shop", which supplied him with cheap goods sold at high prices - later, various " Truck Acts "(1831-1887) would have prohibited the practice of not paying employees in current currency. Owen opened a shop where he could buy good quality goods at little more than cost (and where the sale of alcohol was strictly controlled): the savings from the wholesale purchase were passed on to the workers; these principles would become the basis of the cooperative shops that still operate in the UK today.
Owen's greatest achievement was the education of young people, to which he paid special attention. He was the founder of kindergarten in the UK, especially in Scotland. Although his reforming ideas resemble those then emerging in Europe, they were his own conception and probably not influenced by others at all.
At first viewed with suspicion as a stranger, Owen soon won people's trust in him. The factories were a great commercial success, but some of his projects were very expensive, which his partners didn't like. In 1813, tired of the constraints imposed on him by people who wanted to run the company according to customary principles, Owen arranged the purchase of their shares by new investors, which included Jeremy Bentham and a well-known Quaker, William Allen, willing to accept a 5% annual return on capital and therefore to leave room for Owen's philanthropy. New Lanark became something of a model industry, with very high wages and assistance for workers even outside the factory.
Anthropological and pedagogical essays (1813)
Also in 1813, Owen published four essays in which for the first time he expounded the principles of his own philosophy.
Owen was originally a follower of Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, but while Bentham believed that the free market (in particular, the right of workers to choose