Sunday, 14 May 2017

Robert Owen ( 14/5/1771 - 17/11/1858) - Pioneering Welsh Social Reformer


Robert Owen who was born on 14/5/1771 in Newtown, Powys ,was a Welsh manufacturer who turned  into a social reformer, and became one of the most influential advocates and founders of utopian socialism and the co-operative movement.
His father had a small business as  a saddler and iron-monger, his mother came from one of the prosperous farming families. A bright and capable child, Robert was schooled at Newtown and then, at the age of 10, was articled to a draper in the town. In due course he moved to London to continue his trade and establish himself in the world.
This he managed to do with some alacrity. A move to the sprawling, manufacturing metropolis of Manchester saw Robert Owen installed as manager  of a cotton mill employing 500 people. He also became a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which discussed the ideas of reformers and philosophers of the Enlightenment, and it was here that his ideas on social reform began to take shape. 
After a visit to Glasgow he fell in love with Caroline Dales, the daughter of a New Lanark mills proprietor called David Dale who he was friendly with. With the financial support of several businessmen from Manchester, in 1810 Owen purchased Dale's four textile factories in New Lanark for £60,000.After his subsequent marriage with Miss Dale in September 1799, he set up home there. Encouraged by his previous success in the management in Manchester,  he had already formed the idea of conducting New Lanark on higher principles with  an interest in helping the poor and put his profits into a series of radical experiments, having been appalled  by the inhuman working and living conditions of his century. 
New Lanark was the springboard from which Owen’s Socialism was launched, and sweeping changes began to take place in and around the local community. For many years the poor had been living in filthy, cramped conditions, and Owen set about enlarging the houses of his workforce. Up until this time, local residents frequently dumped their waste in the streets, but Owen reorganised refuse collection and even built new streets. To ensure health, he urged his workers to appoint a visiting committee, which maintained the standards of cleanliness and domestic economy.
He set out to  make his new cotton factory,  a cooperative factory community that focused more on the  well- being of the community than on profits. Owen set out to make New Lanark an experiment in philanthropic management from the outset. He believed that a person's character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. He argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated For his mill, he set up an infant school, a day care center  for working mothers, providing education and health care to children starting when they were three. Children did not have to work in the mill until they were  10, which was revolutionary at the time. He also set up a cooperative shop that provided high quality goods at  reasonable costs for the mill workers and their families. Owen believed that education and safe cooperative work conditions would promote a happy, healthy and productive community of workers. This would not only be good for the business, but for the entire community. Owen was also a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark.The Mill became a successful model that prominent social reformers and industrialists visited.

                                           New Lanark Mills

He also found time to campaign and lecture on his view of social reform, writing his personal manifesto, A New View of Society in 1812-13. In 1816, he wrote: "I know that society may be formed to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold."
Owen also toured the country making speeches on his experiments at New Lanark. He  published his speeches as pamphlets and sent free copies to influential people in Britain. In one two month period he spent £4,000 publicizing his activities. In his speeches, Owen argued that he was creating a "new moral world, a world from which the bitterness of divisive sectarian religion would be banished"
Owen was also a religious free thinker. He was critical of organised religion, such as the Church of England. He argued that religion tended to create prejudice in men, which was a barrier to peace and harmony.
“I was forced, through seeing the error of their foundation, to abandon all belief in every religion which had been taught to man. But my religious feelings were immediately replaced by the spirit of universal charity — not for a sect, or a party, or for a country or a colour — but for the human race, and with a real and ardent desire to do good.” Life of Robert Owen (1857)  his autobiography
Over the next few years Robert Owen developed political views that has resulted in him being described as the "father of socialism". In the Report to the County of Lanark (1821) suggested that in order to avoid fluctuations in the money supply as well as the payment of unjust wages, labour notes representing hours of work might become a superior form of exchange medium. This was the first time that Owen "proclaimed at length his belief that labour was the foundation of all value, a principle of immense importance to later socialist thought".
However in 1824,  he had become so disillusioned with Capitalism that he left for America. For five years, he attempted to establish a Socialist community at New Harmony in Indiana, but his efforts were in vain. He lost a fortune in the process.
When he returned  to England in 1829, Owen was surprised to discover that  a movement had sprung up in his name, the 'Owenites' who were engaged in laying foundations for the Co-operative Movement. "The New Society is to be based," explained the pioneers, " on the free association of producers in guilds and manufacturing societies strong enough to dispense  with employers and with  the exploitation of labour for private profit.
Max Beer, the author of A History of British Socialism (1919) has argued that the word "socialist" was used to describe Owen's followers: "Common to all Owenites was the criticism and disapproval of the capitalist or competitive system, as well as the sentiment that the United Kingdom was on the eve of adopting the new views. A boundless optimism prevaded the whole Owenite school, and it filled its adherents with the unshakable belief that the conversation of the nation to socialism was at hand, or but a question of a few years.
After many disputes with his partners, who were always more interested in profits than in Owen's version of ideal living, he resigned from New Lanark in 1828. Owen turned to the formation of co-operative villages, some of which were already being run on Owenite lines in Scotland, Ireland and Hampshire.Although these communities eventually failed, the communitarian tradition persisted in Victorian England and elsewhere. Following the failure of these co-operative villages he entered into the trade union field, and his road to the New Moral World he now saw through the organisation of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which within a few weeks of its formation in 1834 had enrolled more than one million members. This too collapsed in 1834, following the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and Owen continuously fought for their return to England.
During a visit to his hometown and birthplace  of Newtown, Wales on November 17th, 1858, he was suddenly taken ill. On his deathbed  he said: "I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time."
He subsequently died and was buried in a local church yard. The Co-operative Union placed a memorial tablet near his grave in 1902. In 1956 a memorial statue was erected with funds raised by the Labour and Co-operative Movement.
This visionary Welsh man's ideals  who pioneered the prioritisation of welfare over profit,  have continued to inspire many trade and cooperative movements ever since. Friedrich Engels described him as "a man of almost sublime, childlike character," who was, nevertheless, "one of the few born leaders of men." He added: Every social movement and real advance in England on behalf of the workers links with the name of Robert Owen."
Owenism  has since exerted a significant influence on various strands of British socialism, including Christian socialism, ethical socialism, guild socialism, Fabianism and  the socialist labour movement. Co-operative socialism was perceived by these organisations as a replacement for the unjust competitive capitalist system.

                                          Robert Owen, memorial statue, Newport, Powys.

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