Why Owenite communities were destined to fail

Robert Owen, a British Industrialist in the XIX century is considered to be the father of socialism in Britain. A philanthropist, he developed a series of ideas which have been labelled as ‘Utopian Socialism’ and he distinguished himself by revolutionising the social organisation of a community of mills he owned in Scotland. His example inspired a series of identical communities which one after another disappeared at different points in time. Nonetheless, questions and debates around his figure and his ideas are still actual. Can he be labelled as a socialist or a communist? Were his communities the first cooperatives? The debate which will be assessed in this essay looks at the following question: were Owenite communities destined to fail? My answer is that these communities were indeed destined to fail. It seems easy and uncontroversial to say this in the XXI century, knowing that they indeed failed, but there is not much focus in literature on why they were set to fail. To support my answer, the essay will be structured in the following way. Firstly, I will analyse Robert Owen’s social views. Secondly, I will examine his political thoughts. Thirdly, I will look at what he did in New Lanark and during his campaigns. Finally, I will expose my arguments on why the Owenite Communities were set to fail, relying in three main arguments.

I make an explicit difference between Robert Owen’s social and political views because he was without a doubt a social visionary, but he could be described as a political traditionalist. Owen’s social thoughts challenged the major beliefs of his time. In the early XIX century in Britain, the bourgeoisie argued that poverty was inevitable if progress was to be achieved. Furthermore, poor people were responsible for their fate. Owen denied all of this: he believed society should provide means to the poor to develop themselves. He was probably one of the first thinkers to argue for a kind of societal intervention to alleviate poverty. Gregory Claeys, a political scientist, named Owen’s doctrine ‘philosophical necesitarianism’. The core belief of this doctrine was that individuals were not fully responsible for their ideas and actions; rather, these were instead determined by the society they lived in. Hence, people’s bad behaviours which included cruelty and selfishness were ultimately influenced by the environment that surrounded them. Hence society should be drastically changed to create the ‘New Society’. If people changed their behaviours from cruelty and selfishness to kindness and sympathy, this would progressively change society until the New Society is created. This is a rather utopic view, which later on gave his ideas the name of ‘Utopian Socialism’.  Finally, Robert Owen thought that the impulse of this ‘New Society’ should come ‘from above’. This means that either a rich philanthropist like him or the state, should re-organise society to change it. This is a very ‘paternalistic’ approach to politics.

 If there is a fair amount of consensus on his social thought, his political views are somewhat more contested and it is easy to find divergent opinions in the literature. On one hand, he has been presented as ‘despotic’ and undemocratic while on the other hand, he has been described as more democratic than socialists of his time. Indeed, his political thoughts were less advanced that the social ones and they were constrained by the epoch he lived in, with an emerging capitalism and an undeveloped antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Thus, according to Ralph Miliband, Owen had really negative views on the workers. He saw them as an ignorant mass, who in their desperation could engulf society in anarchy and chaos. He did not believe in the emancipation of the working class. Rather, he talked about emancipating humanity with a universal union and peace with all men. Hence, his proposals did not want to present any threat to wealth and power. He believed the same order should be maintained and that his proposals were indeed a wall against a revolution. However, there was an important change in his political views in the early 1820s: gradually he started embracing socialist positions. He started believing that the system of private property and the subordination of all human affairs to the drive of profit was also an impediment to social improvement.

In 1800, Robert Owen arrived to the New Lanark mills in Scotland. He started implementing a series of social changes that would bring him fame. In Great Britain, the conditions of the working classes were horrendous: men and kids worked more than fourteen hours per day. In New Lanark, Owen founded infant schools, where children went during the day. Working hours were no longer than 10 and a half hours per day. More impressive: when a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. After a couple of years, the business doubled in value. Owen has been accused of improving the life of his workers but without giving them the means to organise. In fact, he even introduced some forms of democratic management: workers committees elected judges who would rule over infractions committed in the community. Meanwhile, Robert Owen tried to spread his ideas. He made a continental tour to promote himself. He even made a conference in front of the Congress of the USA. At the beginning, he was not seen as an agitator and he was very well received in many circles, but when he started pushing for reforms, he faced the hostility of many rich. On the other hand, he did not believe in the working class leading itself and was also confronted with the growing Trade Union movement.

However, Owenite communities were destined to fail, both as an example of societal organisation and as an instrument of change. The three main reasons of failure were the following. Firstly, the communities were heavily reliant on a paternalistic figure, either the state or a philanthropist. If this figure did not fully commit to the wellbeing of the community, it could not succeed. Indeed, some Owenite communities failed as soon as the philanthropist withdrew. Following this first idea, the second reason why they were destined to fail is because they did not offer enough empowerment to the working class. Workers had some responsibilities, but as Owen did not think they were entitled to govern, he never gave them full responsibilities. These two reasons together show why these communities were destined to fail as a societal organisation. The third reason why this communities were destined to fail, this time as an instrument of change, is because they did not challenge the established political and economic order. Taking terms from Olin Wright, this was a mixture of symbiotic and interstitial transformation. Interstitial because the communities were created at the margin of the system. Symbiotic because a powerful figure was needed to start the process of transformation. Overall, even though New Lanark wanted to change society, it did not present a fundamental challenge to capitalism. Robert Owen cared about conditions of life of the poor, but he never sought to empower them: he always considered the ruler as a major agent of social change and even after heading towards socialism, he did not lose faith in the goodwill of the powerful. Overall, to end on a positive note, I would argue that Owenite communities were the embryo of socialism, a sort of proto-socialism. Hence, as the very first expression of the quest for a new social and economic order, it probabilities of surviving were low, but it set an example and ideas which would be used later on.

To summarise, Robert Owen was a philanthropist and a man ahead of his times in terms of social beliefs. He did not think that poor people were responsible for their condition. Rather, it was the society in which they lived that influenced their behaviour. To eradicate poverty, a ‘New Society’ impulse by a philanthropist or the State should be created. Politically he was more conservative. He did not believe the workers could govern themselves and he saw them as an ignorant mass. His beliefs were a wall against a revolution. In real life, Owen got confronted both with rich people and the Trade Unions. In New Lanark, he improved drastically the life of all the workers with his measures. Overall, however, Owenite communities were destined to fail for three reasons. First, they were heavily reliant on the figure of the philanthropist. Secondly, they did not give any real empowerment to the working class. Thirdly, it did not represent a challenge to the established order. Rather, it was a mixture of symbiotic and interstitial transformation which ultimately was set to fail. It nonetheless laid the grounds for future socialism.

Note: To make it easier for the reader, I have not included footnotes nor the bibliography. However, this can be found for further consultation on the original paper, which is uploaded and available in the website academia.edu:


© Mario Cuenda García