A Summer with Mr Owen

Robert Owen died 150 years ago on 17 November 1858.  Stirling Smith reflects on his reputation and relevance for our times

A real celebrity

A few years ago, there was a BBC2 television series in which celebrities argued the case for their nominee to be elected by viewers as the greatest Briton of all time.

Robert Owen was not even on the long shortlist of 100 people. Perhaps he had no celebrity backing. Or perhaps the BBC had not heard of him.

But the main reason must be the lack of recognition that he was, in fact, a quite extraordinary man.

If you go into a factory anywhere in the world where there is a law protecting workers’ safety or limiting the hours, you can thank Owen; if there is an abstract of the law on the wall, that was Owen’s idea. If inspectors ever visit the factory, you can thank Owen. If you walk down the road from the factory into an infant school and see  pictures on the wall and the children dancing, that’s because of Robert Owen.

The fact that the children are in the school rather than in the factory is thanks to Owen. If the workers in the factory can use a co-operative store, or have access to co-operative housing – well, that’s Owen again.

That should have been enough to get him on the shortlist of Great Britons!

Queen Victoria

Robert Owen actually was a European celebrity for many years.  Thousands of visitors flocked to New Lanark to see the model factory, school and village that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In his lifetime, Owen was lavishly praised by figures as different as Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator of Karl Marx, and the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria.

He moved in the highest circles of the establishment in early 19th century England and was also hero worshipped by working class radicals whom the same establishment locked up in prison.

His ideas were seriously considered by the 19th century equivalent of today’s G-7.

Rediscovering Owen

These thoughts came to my mind when I was asked, at the start of the summer, to write a study of Owen and his relevance in the 21st century by the Co-operative Group.  As I spent six years at university studying the history of British working class movements, I thought I knew quite a lot about Owen.

But as the summer progressed, I became more engrossed and fascinated by Owen and his achievements. I climbed up into the attic and recovered books that I had not opened for 20 years; I scoured second-hand bookshops; and I plundered the library of the Co-operative College (although Gillian Lonergan, the College’ s archivist and librarian, was very careful to ensure that I did not leave the premises with any irreplaceable items!).

His contribution in so many fields of human endeavour have rarely been excelled.

Utopian or realist?

While the case can be made for Owen as the father of socialism, the co-operative movement, the trade union movement, factory legislation, corporate social responsibility, infant schools, the UK secular movement and the ILO, he is still often seen as an impractical figure, a utopian.  There are three possible reasons for this.

Firstly, Frederick Engels included Owen, along with the French writers Saint-Simon and Fourier, in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.  So the “utopian” label was applied by many subsequent left-wing writers who failed to read Engels’ text thoroughly.

Engels actually considered Owen to be a very practical man: “in his definite plan for the future, the technical elaboration of details shows such practical knowledge that once the Owenite method of social reform is accepted, from an expert’s standpoint, there is little to be said against the actual detailed arrangements”.  He also thought that Owen was “one of the few born leaders of men”.

Secondly, there is no doubt that many of Owen’s schemes from the 1820s onwards were failures.  Attempt to establish new ideal communities in United States, England and Ireland all foundered.  However, the seeds of Owen’s “villages of cooperation” sprouted into the Garden City movement of the late 19th century, and the New Towns of the post-Second World War. We can see an echo of Owen in current plans by the Co-operative group to build an eco-town in Leicestershire.

Thirdly, towards the end of his life Owen became increasingly eccentric, if not downright odd.  He became a spiritualist and was convinced that great figures from history who had “passed over” to the other side, were in contact with him, supporting and encouraging his work.

When a man dies at the considerable age of 87, it is too easy to look at the last 20 or 30 years of his life and judge him by those.  After the mid-1830s, Owen had little connection with the mass movements of workers such as Chartism and he became irrelevant.  But we would all like to be judged by history on the basis of our best work and by what we aimed at in our lives. So let it be with Robert Owen.

Owen and the 21st century

Owen’s world seems very remote from our own times.  There were no planes, cars, railways, computers or telephones – there was no electricity. The king could make or break governments.  Nearly every country in the world was ruled by an absolute monarch.

The idea that all human beings possessed rights, simply by virtue of being a person, and that these rights apply to everybody, irrespective of gender, religion, race or nationality would not just have appeared strange. Holding such an idea would have landed you in prison.

But in many ways, the world today is unfortunately all too similar to the world of the 1770s.

According to the World Bank, 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty in the world today, defined by the Bank as $1.25 per day.  This is nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Inequality is on the increase.  Despite the so-called credit crunch, top bosses in the UK continue to pay themselves inflation busting increases.

Exploited workers

The TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment estimate that around two million workers in the UK find themselves in vulnerable employment – which it defined as “precarious work that places people at risk of continuing poverty and injustice resulting from an imbalance of power in the employer-worker relationship.”

The starving hand-loom weaver, the parish “apprentice” sent hundreds of miles away to work 15 hours a day in a cotton mill could understand that.

There is one national minimum wage inspector for every 4,000 businesses in the sectors most likely to have minimum wage jobs, so the chances of an employer who pays less than the national minimum wage being caught are virtually nil.

A better world

Robert Owen was convinced that poverty and the evils it gave rise to were quite unnecessary:

society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold

That was a view shared by the first co-operators.  Their vision was of a Co-operative Commonwealth.

Robert Owen’s ideas and values have evolved.  The generation of the Rochdale Pioneers took those ideas and applied them in a practical way.  Today’s generation can build on that.

When it works well, the co-operative movement still contains within it that idea.  That another, better world is possible.

A better world is not one with more “buy one get one free” (BOGOF) offers, or where my jeans are cheaper this year than last thanks to workers in Bangladesh getting poverty pay and having no right to organise.

It is a world where the scales of justice are balanced. Where the poor and powerless have a voice and that voice is listened to.

It is a world where the small cocoa farmer in Ghana, or a coffee farmer in South America will get a fair price for their produce.  It is a world were workers can join a trade union without fear of reprisals. Where children go to school and play, not work.

Co-operators have always objected to what used to be called the “profit system”, not profit as such. We ask, “How are profits made? And how are the profits used?”

Questions posed by Robert Owen.

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My different judgement is that Robert Owen’s contribution to Co-operation and Co-operatives is exaggerated and much over-rated - not under-rated. It is difficult to see through the mist of parroted hero worship, how far he supported the Co-operative idea of people providing and deciding for themselves and how far he was a control freak. Owen was however remarkable in other respects. He was among the first to recognise that human behaviour (like that of Skinners rats and pidgins) was but a consequence of the conditions that the subjects themselves confronted and were required to respond to. So that if you wanted to change behaviour you needed to change the conditions which that behaviour was a response to. Unlike religious people and the traditional view over centuries that you could improve behaviour simply by direct appeals for its improvement, or the instilled fear of Gods wroth, Owen recognised the need to look to change the external causal conditions themselves. And because he was right in theory he was successful in practice. But what huge and unsubstantiated assumptions are being made in suggesting that Owen’s self-sufficient and isolated colonies had anything to do with the Garden City movement of the late 19th century, and the New Towns of the post-Second World War. It is however stretching credibility beyond endurance to suggest that the unacceptable Co-op proposals, or any of the other Government proposed Eco-Towns are in any way attributable to Owen. The Government’s reasons for requiring the Eco Towns, namely (i) the existing and future potential for a mass influx into this already crowded population and (ii) concerns for global environmental disaster, have nothing to do with the Owen’s reasons for developing his unsuccessful isolated colonies and are in no other respect similar. It’s far too easy to attribute anything to Robert Owen, in terms of “seeds sprouting” (in one case) and of “seeing an echo” (in the other).


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