The Utopian visionary who founded a community

Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium
May 14, 1999

Within the categories of the disciplines of political thought and political theory, the thought of Robert Owen has usually been considered marginal. Socialism from the middle years of the 19th century came to be divided, in Engels's words, into Utopian and scientific varieties. The so-called "Utopian" socialists were seen as men of vision with a noble idea, but essentially dreamers who offered no road to the visionary new society they advocated. Marx and Engels, however, mapped a scientific road by which the whole of society could be transformed and which had to be the only realistic way in which the evils of unrestrained competitive capitalism could be replaced by an egalitarian and cooperative society.

It is easy to forget, in looking back at the early history of socialism and socialist ideas, that the so-called Utopians were the people who made attempts to set up alternative communities in their own time, and to put into practice the ideas of cooperative production and cooperative living which they advocated. Owenite communitarianism has too often been seen as an example of mistaken endeavour or, in spite of the fact that Owenite ideas informed many of the most successful institutions of the 19th-century labour movement, as shoring up rather than challenging capitalism and therefore hindering rather than contributing to the development of a socialist society.

The experience of Europe in the second half of the present century has tested many of the ideas and beliefs which informed the socialist labour movements. If the ideal of a just society that recognises equality of worth between human beings - if not equality of endowment - and seeks to eliminate or at least control the brutality and greed that seem unavoidable accompaniments of power is to be pursued, the methods must be sought in the past as well as in the musings of theorists. The communities founded by the Owenites, the St Simonians, the Fourierists and others, may have more to say to the modern world than the scientific predictions of their intellectual superiors.

Edward Royle is the historian of 19th-century rationalism and secularism. Early socialist thought was for the most part rationalist, although it was always a tempting short-cut even in the rational argument for human equality to invoke the religious concept of the joint brotherhood and sisterhood of the creator's children. Since most religious organisations in the 19th century had adopted authoritarian and heirarchical systems of government and of thought control, the seekers after earthly justice and humanity usually preferred to begin from a secular and materialist standpoint. But, as Royle shows, elements of Christian thought are present in Owenism as in most European socialist thought. The teachings of the master socialists, Owen among them, often appeared more like revealed religious dogma than rational discourse. It is one of the ironic contradictions in the Owenite story that it suffered both from the hostility of most organised religious bodies and from the authoritarian and quasi-religious behaviour of its leader.

The present volume tells in full the story of the only full-scale community established by Owen and his followers in England. It was founded in the year of the greatest activity in support of the People's Charter - a year in which desperation among the working population was fuelled by the effects of economic recession and by bitter resentment at the "reforms" of the first reformed parliaments. The great strength of the study is that it places the story firmly in the context of prevailing ideas in popular movements as well as in the development of Owen's own ideas.

Owen's idea of community emerged from traditions of thought and action among the more thoughtful and benevolent early manufacturers. His New Lanark works was the largest cotton manufacturing business in Scotland, just as that of another radical and Chartist supporter, John Fielden, was the largest in Europe. Thoughtful entrepreneurs considered the idea of communities of workers in which education and rational amusements would be organised for the benefit of well-housed employees and their families. Owen's ideas about community developed beyond the paternalism of his contemporaries and his own early career but nevertheless retained a strongly paternalist attitude. The story of the Queenwood community demonstrates this at many points. It also shows that the tradition in which it falls naturally was the Spencean one of agrarian community living rather than the one from which Owen's original ideas had emerged, that of the industrial community. Both traditions are examined and the problems involved in the elision of the two are shown to be part of the story of the community's failure.

The story of Queenwood and its successor the Harmony community are told in full and fascinating detail, but the story is set firmly in its material and intellectual context. It is a book for the intelligent general reader as well as the specialist and should have a place in any serious study of early 19th-century England.

Dorothy Thompson is author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power .

Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium

Author - Edward Royle
ISBN - 07190 5426 5
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 4

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