Friday, 8 June 2012

Owenism and the Cooperative movement.

How did Robert Owen's ideas affect the lives of men and women involved in the labour movements of the 19th century?

Robert Owen (1771-1858)
  The political movement known as "Owenism" named after the 19th century reformer Robert Owen, was the result of one man's vision to create a spiritual, social and political revolution among the disenfranchised. Broadly speaking, it was an attempt to create a better world based on the maximum use of reason and co-operation, an abandonment of "individual ignorant selfishness", and embracing "the origin of truth and good". If his aims could truly have been realised, it was Robert Owen's belief that humanity would enter a new age succeeding the unstable and ruthless period of industrial capitalism, where there would be a union "man to man" and lasting harmony "to nature and to God." (1858, Owen. R, pp.III).

  To many these aims may sound unrealistic, archaic, or vaguely defined. Therefore, it must be investigated as to how Owen aimed to achieve this utopian dream of his, and ultimately what the results were.  Was it doomed as a failure?, or were there successes and improvements for the lives of those men, women, and children involved with this historic movement? 
  Owenism itself is a difficult term to narrow down due to the broad array of reformers who were inspired by Owen's ideas of cooperation and self help. "Owenism" itself included thinkers who were anti-chartist, anti-insurrectionary, and on many occasions there were those who were sympathetic to Liberalism and Tory radicalism, with Richard Oastler's paternalism bearing a striking resemblance to Owen's.  Alternatively many of those who embraced Owen's ideas were sympathetic with the more revolutionary forms of syndicalism (2011, E. Hobsbawm, pp.152)

  E.P Thompson suggests that Robert Owen theoretically was in line with thinkers such as William Godwin, and rather than being the "first of the modern Socialist theorists" he was "one of the last of the eighteenth century rationalists", (1991, pp.863). However, from a philosophical and theoretical point of view "Owenism" is largely considered a form of socialism. Indeed, in the manner of his contemporary radical thinkers he believed that the "natural standard of human labour" should be recognised as the "practical standard of value". This would later inspire the rule: "Cost the Limit of Price" given by Josiah Warren (father of individualist-anarchism and part time associate of Owen).  However, since the time of Thomas Hodgskin's publication of the pamphlet Labour Defended, there had already been a far more systematic criticism of the current economic system, with the declaration that capital, contributing little to nothing on its own to the creation of value, reaped a disproportionate amount of the reward that labour (being the true source of value) was entitled to.
  Nevertheless, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in certain instances spoke highly of him. In somewhat praising terms, "English Socialism" according to Engels, "arose with Owen," 

 "a manufacturer, and proceeds therefore with great consideration toward the bourgeoisie and great injustice toward the proletariat in its methods, although it culminates in demanding the abolition of the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat." (1845, Engels. F, pp.236).

   Another view that is usually considered vital in order to be considered a socialist, is the belief in human equality. For Robert Owen however there had always been a strong sense of paternalism. In Owen's eyes the poor did not simply need to be alleviated from material want, but their intellectual and spiritual outlook also needed to be changed. Without a completely new social order based upon his principles, without proper education and enlightenment, as a class they could never rise above their current lowly way of life. However, despite his views concerning the current moral condition of the poor, it must be noted that he believed human beings were influenced by their environments and were all equally malleable, and therefore everybody had the same potential to be improved as a human being under the correct circumstances.  However, Marx noted in his thesis on Fuerbach that: 

"the materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one which is superior to society." (1968, Marx. K, pp.660).

  Owen was also attacked by the more contemporary radical reformers for his proposals, and his model co-operative villages were scornfully referred to by William Cobbett as "Mr Owen's Parallelograms of Paupers". The idea of setting up villages for the poor and indoctrinating them into new ways of thinking resembled Malthusianism, and it was feared that under the authority of the already hated British government these villages would quickly show themselves to be no different from the dreaded workhouses. William Sherwin for example, feared that these proposed institutions would be "prisons", "a community of vassals":
 "Mr Owen's object appears to me to be to cover the face of the country with workhouses, to rear up a community of slaves, and consequently to render the labouring part of the people absolutely dependant upon men of property." (1817, Sherwin. W)

 This was of course hyperbole, and Robert Owen firmly denied these claims. In light of this bitter hostility from the democratic reformers and their fear of it escalating into tyranny, it must now be shown if in reality Owen's proposals when taken into action did successfully affect peoples lives in a positive way, or confirmed their criticisms.

  The first of Owen's projects was a textile factory in New Lanark in Scotland. It was here that Owen introduced many improvements to working conditions compared with other factories. Hours were shorter, working conditions were safer, there were schools for all ages, moral education, renovated housing, an end to child labour and insurance plans funded through payroll deduction. Under the influence of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, it was commonly assumed that such measures to insure the well being of the workers would necessarily lead to a decrease in profits, however the factory itself managed to yield considerable profits. It must be noted that Owen was himself morally opposed to the reckless hedonism of the profit motive, but nevertheless intended to generate profits for the factory, which could then be spent on improving conditions within the factory even further. In this sense Robert Owen was trying to create a self sufficient community. Eventually, New Lanark became a common place for tourists to visit our of sheer curiosity regarding this strange new venture (2009, Kreis. S).
  The project would not last long however and took up much of Owen's fortunes, this was because it received too little support from public finance and even less from the private sector. The lack of support and often outright suspicion from the rest of the labour movement made it difficult for it to grow in size. However, this one failed venture must not be seen as a representation of the entire history of Owenism and its war against depravity.

  After the failure of New Lanark, Owen set sail for America in order to repeat similar experiments there. It was here where Robert Owen would be joined by Josiah Warren in the new cooperative village known as New Harmony. Unfortunately, the interests of the nine hundred people who had joined were too disconnected, and many members desired to keep their rewards to themselves individually, a warning Warren had already given. Warren eventually left in 1827 because in in New Harmony he believed that:
Josiah Warren (1798-1874)

"interests were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation... and it was evident that just in proportion to the contact of persons or interests, so are concessions and compromises indispensable."

  As this unfolded however, Owen's ideas had begun to take hold among the working class movement in England. Between 1820 and 1840, Owenite ideas were being adopted and fused with the anti-capitalist notions of the "Ricardian Socialists" (including Hodgskin), those who had already taken to their revolutionary conclusions, the implications of David Ricardo's economic theories on rent, wages, and the labour theory of value presented in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). It was much to Owen's shock to find that on his return from America his theories were being refined by the likes of Thompson, Grey, and others and were being widely discussed and held in much wider respect than before he had departed. Not merely in theoretical circles and debates over reform were Owen's ideas being taken on board, but many trade unions were now using Owenite schemes and going by cooperative principles of self help and mutual aid. Examples of this would be Dr King in Brighton writing the Cooperator  and conducting multiple experiments in cooperative trading all based upon the New Lanark model of in store credit. Owen had found himself at the head of a movement which led on to the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. 
   It was because of the increasingly radical aims of movements such as the Grand Union that the liberals eventually began to withdraw their support for the Owenites and quell the more radical tendencies of the left. Eventually the British armed forces, which had been deployed against the Chartists in the past, were now holding the Owenites in check. This happened despite the commander of the armed forces sympathising with their more middle class reformist aims (2011, Hobsbawm. E, pp.149). 
   The arrest of the 6 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' for attempting to create an agricultural workers union was yet another example of an attempt to stifle the potential success of such cooperative movements. This merely solidified the discontent the labouring poor had already had with the liberals and the moderates since the reform act of 1832. According to Eric Hobsbawm, in the 1830's there had been a growing working class movement which considered the Whigs to be traitors. This movement itself was Owenite influenced and support for them grew astronomically between the years 1839-1842 and remained significantly high for many years. The movement however was reduced to little more than an educational and propagandist movement with a co-operative store in Rochdale, due to a lack of effective planning on the part of their leaders. Therefore it was easy for the government and employers to wage offensives against them and gain the upper hand. It is because of this that Owenite socialism would largely fall out of the mainstream of labour agitation, and would be surpassed by the Chartists as the main front for social justice (2011. Hobsbawm. E, 149-152).
  According to George Lichtheim, after having been thrust to the forefront of the cooperative movement after his return from America and being looked towards by a number of labour leaders for guidance, Owen's response was yet another Utopian colonisation scheme which itself failed. Owen would shortly depart from politics, leaving the labour movement to its fate with Chartism, which too eventually failed in turn. A man considered by Engels to be the father of the movement and who had been looked upon by much of the labour movement had had his vibrant political career "succeeded by... sad last years" (1970, pp.42).

Instead of looking for the short term successes of Robert Owen, perhaps it is better to examine what he left behind. 

 In an essay by Sidney Pollard it is pointed out that since the time of Owen, the cooperative movement had been concerned with more than material well being, food, clothes etc. and focused on moral education and teaching people to look after their fellow man. It always taught that cooperation was preferable to standing alone because by himself, "the working man was always helpless against the powers which assailed him; united with others he could "acquire education, accumulate capital, organise large businesses, and ultimately, perhaps, employ himself." (Pollard. S, 1967, pp.111).

 In conclusion, Owenism then is ultimately a term hard to define due to the various differing reformers who themselves adopted Owenism into their own thinking. Nevertheless, the basic principles of co-operation, the maximisation of human potential, self help and surpassing a system of reckless hedonism etc. are all attributable to Owen's thoughts and resonated long throughout the cooperative movement. In terms of his success, it appears that the fatherly figure found himself wasting large amounts of money on schemes to alleviate the poor that largely failed. However, in addition to the few thousand lives he improved on a short term basis, his greatest success was his legacy; the future of the cooperative movement which for years despite many hardships endured and provided pockets of harmony for those fortunate enough to be involved with them. 

(2009) Engels. F, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Cosimo Inc, New York, pp.236
(2011) Hobsawm. E, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, Abacus, London, pp.65, 149-152.
(2009) Kreis. S, Lecture 22, The Utopian Socialists: Robert Owen and Saint-Simon (2), [online], Available at <>[Accessed 23 March 2012]
(1964) Hodgskin, T. Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, Hammersmith.
(1970) Lichtheim. G, A Short History of Socialism, Praeger Publishers Inc, London, pp.42.
(1968) Marx. K, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp.660.
(1858) Owen. R, The Life of Robert Owen, Vol 1:A, Effingham Wilson, London, pp.III.
(1971) Ricardo. D, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 2nd edition, Pelican Classics, Middlesex.
(1817) Sherwin. W, Political Register, 26 April, 9 August, 20 September.
(1991) Thompson. E.P, The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd Ed, Penguin Books, London, pp.861,863.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your efforts. Very interesting article.