Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen

By A. L. Morton

Book Review

By Richard E. Noble

I stumbled across the name Robert Owen cross-reading for my book, America on Strike. My book is on the American Labor movement and deals with various famous strikes throughout American History.

Mr. Owen was most notable for operating a factory in New Lanark, Scotland that was opened by David Dale and Richard Arkwright in 1785.

Robert Owen took the factory over in 1800. Prior to that time he had been running a successful textile factory in Manchester, England. And thus began one of the most unique experiments in industrial history. With about 2000 poor and destitute – drunks, homeless, poverty stricken, criminal, uneducated rabble – including 500 children from various poor houses, Robert Owen built a successful and quite prosperous Mill town community.

This experiment in social engineering was so successful that people came from around the world to see with their own eyes this, thought to be impossible, miracle. My hometown of Lawrence and its sister city of Lowell were supposedly fashioned via inspiration from Mr. Owen and his ideas and example.

Robert Owen was born May 14, 1771 and died in November of 1858. He is the quintessential model for the self-made man. Born to a large working family he set off at the age of ten to make his fortune. And he did.

He went to London and then to Stamford in Lincolnshire. There he apprenticed himself to a well established draper.

By the time he was a young man of just twenty years of age and now experienced in business and factory work, he made his boss, Mr. Drinkwater, a proposition to take over and manage his factory and run it more profitably than ever before. The boss accepted and Robert fulfilled his boast and was bought into the firm as a partner.
In 1779 he went on a business trip to Glasgow and met Anne Caroline Dale, daughter of mill owner David Dale. He ended up marrying Caroline. And in time, he became manager and partner in the Manchester factory and then talked his partners into purchasing the factory in New Lanark.

His success at New Lanark astounded the world. He became very wealthy and well respected.

He had “discovered” a philosophy. Men were the product of their circumstances. Their characters were not made by them but for them. Provide men, women and children with positive circumstances and they will live positive productive lives. Men are not to be judged or to be praised. They are therefore not responsible and should be treated reasonably and fairly whatever their actions. Clarence Darrow had a similar philosophy.

He became a philanthropist and a Utopian. He attempted colonies or communes in the New World. One was called New Harmony and was attempted in Indiana.
He was a man of unlimited self confidence. He loved children and dreamed of creating a perfect world. He made written plans for this New World and even named it. It would be called New Jerusalem. Talk about being a man with a plan.

He supposedly coined the word Socialism. It was designed to be contrasted with the word Individualism. Individualism to Owen had grown to represent selfishness and indifference to one’s neighbors and the community. Socialism would be the opposite of individualism and it would represent the spirit of social responsibility – man’s love and sense of obligation to one another.

This book is a patchwork of writings and ideas of Robert Owen. It is bits and pieces and slices from the writings of Mr. Owen. It provides a good overview of Mr. Owen and his ideas and philosophy but I find it somewhat disjointed and bumpy. Owen wrote an autobiography in his later days. Unfortunately he went over the deep end as an old man and fell off into the world of spiritualism and talking with “spirits.” He was not a fan of organized religion and spoke openly and publicly about the perils of religious thinking. I will be checking it out but in any case, I am sure someone has written a good biography.

Robert Owen was a giant in the advancement of Labor and fair play for the poor in Britain. He was a talker and a doer. He put his money where his mouth was. I’m not a fan of communal life but Owen and his ideas on cooperative businesses and social structures may be having a comeback. I will be looking into his thoughts. He was quite a character too. From what I’ve read so far he was a man worth knowing and I want to learn more about him.

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