Robert Owen

Article

May 29, 2022

Robert Owen (14 May 1771 Newtown – 17 November 1858 Newtown) was a Welsh social reformer, considered one of the founders of socialism and co-operatives. He was one of the most important utopian socialists.

Biography

Son of a family of modest artisans, after climbing different steps of production, he became director of important Scottish spinning industries in Manchester and, at the age of 30, was co-owner and manager of a factory in New Lanark, which had been founded in 1785 by David Dale and Richard Arkwright. There he reduced the working day to 10.5 hours a day—an advance for the time, as the working day of a typical textile worker was 14 to 16 hours. He was also concerned about the quality of life of his employees, building houses for the workers' families, the first kindergarten and the first cooperative. Owen opened a store where people could buy quality products for little more than the cost of the product. The sale of alcohol was strictly controlled. These principles became the foundation for the co-op stores in Great Britain, which continue to operate today. Owen had originally been a follower of the liberal and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. However, with the passage of time he became more and more an adherent of socialism. In 1817, he evolved from welfare action to a frontal critique of capitalism, trying to convince British and foreign authorities of the need for reforms in production. New Lanark itself became a place of pilgrimage much frequented by social reformers, statesmen and European personalities, including Nicholas, later Emperor of Russia. Owen founded, in the United States, the socialist colony New Harmony, which worked well in the early years but ended its experience without achieving the expected success. Owen returned to England, where he died at age 87.

Philosophy

Owen's philosophy was based on two pillars: First, no one is responsible for his own will and actions, for his whole character is formed independently of himself; people are products of their heredity and environment (hence their support for education and labor reform). Second, all religions are based on the same ridiculous idea that man is a weak animal, an imbecile, a raging fanatic or a miserable hypocrite.

Conversion to spiritualism

Despite his dislike of religion, in 1854, at age 83, Owen converted to spiritualism after a series of "sessions" with the American medium Maria B. Hayden (who is credited with introducing spiritualism to England). Owen made a public confession of his faith in The Rational quarterly review and later wrote a pamphlet entitled The future of the Human race or great glorious and future revolution to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women. Owen claimed to have had mediumistic contacts with the spirits of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others. According to him, the purpose of such communications was to replace the present miserable state of human existence with a true and happy state, "to prepare the world for universal peace and to infuse in all the spirit of charity, tolerance and love".

Selected published works

A New View of Society: Or, Essays on the Formation of Human Character, and the Application of the Principle to Practice (London, 1813) Retitled, A New View of Society: Or, Essays on the Formation of Human Character Preparatory to the Development of a Plan for Gradually Ameliorating the Condition of Mankind, for the second edition, (1816) Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System. (London, 1815) Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Laboring Poor (1817) Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working