Robert Owen

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Robert Owen
BirthplaceNewtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales
Co-operator; social reformer, factory owner; inventor

Owen, Robert,

1771–1858, British social reformer and socialist, pioneer in the cooperative movement. The son of a saddler, he had little formal education but was a zealous reader. At the age of 10 he began working in the textile business and by 1794 had become a successful cotton manufacturer in Manchester.

In 1800, Owen moved to New Lanark, Scotland, where he had bought, with others, the mills of David Dale (whose daughter he married). There he reconstructed the community into a model industrial town with good housing and sanitation, nonprofit stores, schools, and excellent working conditions. Mill profits increased. The New Lanark experiment became famous in England and abroad, and Owen's ideas spread. He instigated the reform that resulted in the passage of the Factory Act of 1819—a watered down version of his proposals, but still a landmark in social reform. He also proposed the formation of self-sufficient cooperative agricultural-industrial communities. One such community, called New HarmonyNew Harmony,
town (1990 pop. 846), Posey co., SW Ind., on the Wabash River; founded 1814 by the Harmony Society under George Rapp. In 1825 the Harmonists sold their holdings to Robert Owen and moved to Economy, Pa., where their sect survived into the early 1900s.
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, was established (1825) in Indiana but failed after numerous disagreements among its members.

Professing a disbelief in religion (1817) and calling for the transformation of society rather than its reform (1820), Owen gradually lost much of his former upper-class support but was embraced by the working classes. After his return (1829) from the United States he became involved in the trade union movement and advocated the merging of unions with cooperative societies. Soon, however, the government took repressive action, and many workers responded by proclaiming the need for class struggle. Believing in the peaceful reordering of society, Owen ended his association with trade unionism and spent the last 25 years of his life writing and lecturing on his beliefs on education, marriage, and religion. Throughout his life Owen based his social programs on the idea that individual character is molded by environment and can be improved in a society based upon cooperation. Chief among his extensive writings are New View of Society; or, Essays on the Formation of Character (3 vol., 1813–14), Report to the County of Lanark (1821), and his autobiography (1857–58, repr. 1970).


See biographies by F. Podmore (1907, repr. 1971), G. D. H. Cole (3d ed. 1966), R. H. Harvey (1949), and M. I. Cole (1953, repr. 1969); studies by A. Morton (1962); J. Butts, ed. (1971), and R. G. Garnett (1973).

Owen, Robert


Born May 14, 1771, in Newtown, Wales; died there Nov. 17, 1858. British Utopian socialist. Son of an artisan.

After graduating from a local school, Owen began an intensive program of self-education. He worked in commercial establishments from 1781. In the late 1780’s and early 1790’s he became friends with the English physicist and chemist J. Dalton and joined a literary and philosophical society. He became an entrepreneur in 1791, and in 1794–95 he founded the Chorlton Twist Company. From 1800 to 1829 he was manager of a spinning enterprise in New Lanark (Scotland). Owen’s break with orthodox Christianity was important in the formation of his world view. His acquaintance with the rationalistic materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment led him to conclude that its ideals were no closer to realization than Christian ideals. Observing the first, primarily sociopsychological effects of the industrial revolution (“the corruption of the character” of the rulers and the ruled) and proceeding from the sociological and ethical conceptions of Enlightenment philosophy, Owen came to believe that human nature has a decisive influence on individual and historical destiny. According to Owen, from time immemorial society had been led by people who did not understand the laws that govern the universe in a strictly deterministic manner. Thus, society’s leaders had, by their actions, distorted these laws.

Rejecting the principle of free will, to which he reduced all bourgeois doctrines, Owen asserted that the suffering masses must not be held responsible for being poor and ignorant. Likewise, all the credit for wealth and culture should not go to the ruling classes. According to Owen, human beings are the product of their environment. If people are depraved, the environment giving rise to them is depraved. This essentially materialistic idea was oriented toward the effectual transformation of the environment. But Owen, whose mechanistic, materialistic world view was inconsistent and interlaced with deism and pantheism, understood the idea of the transformation of society as a truth outside history. He believed that the beginning of a qualitatively new condition in the world—harmony among mankind—could come only with the education of the people.

Until the mid-1820’s, Owen did not associate the transformation of society with the elimination of private property. He presented the program for this period of his work, which may conventionally be called a period of bourgeois philanthropy, in A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character (1812–13). Under favorable economic conditions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Owen attempted to establish an ideal industrial community in New Lanark, relying on “reeducation” and improvement in the living conditions of the workers to achieve his objectives. He was convinced that his ideal community would guarantee both the well-being of the working class and high productivity, as well as high profits.

However, as a result of the economic crisis of 1815–16 and acute social conflicts, the increase in investments aimed at improving the condition and education of the workers encountered determined resistance from Owen’s partners, including the Quaker W. Allen and the philosopher J. Bentham. Legislation drafted by Owen to shorten the workday to ten hours, as well as his “Plan for National Upbringing and Education Under the Direction of the State and the Observation of the People,” met with opposition from bourgeois circles and from the clergy. Owen concluded that the workers in New Lanark, like those in other capitalist enterprises, “remain slaves.” Concentrating on fundamental economic and social problems, he arrived at the conviction that “the magic power of machines,” which was directed against working people under “the existing system,” was capable of ensuring an abundance of material goods that would make private property and accumulation meaningless.

In March 1817, Owen came out with a Utopian plan, drawing on certain of his accomplishments in New Lanark: his success in overcoming crime, drunkenness, and national and religious animosities; the implementation of elements of self-government, conscious labor discipline, emulation, cooperation, and social planning; and the combining of instruction with productive labor and physical and aesthetic education. Under his “plan,” the unemployed would be settled in “villages of unity and cooperation,” where private property, classes, exploitation, contradictions between mental and physical labor, the opposition of city and countryside, and other antagonisms would be unknown. This step marked a turning point in Owen’s life—the transition to a Utopian socialist position. In the 1820’s he established experimental communist colonies, including New Harmony [USA] and Orbiston and Harmony Hall [Great Britain]. He also founded a number of educational institutions and journals.

Leaving New Lanark in 1829, Owen devoted himself entirely to propaganda. On the basis of his initial plan, he proceeded to develop a Utopian communist system for restructuring the life of all of humanity—a system that was most fully presented in the Book of the New Moral World (published 1836–44). Under this system, “community settlements” established on voluntary principles would form a federation. In Owen’s opinion, the federation would be capable of demonstrating its economic and moral superiority—a superiority resulting from the greatest possible development of new (“scientific”) productive forces (including chemistry), as well as from the training of a new, harmoniously developed human being and the establishment of new social relations.

On Owen’s initiative, the Equitable Labor Exchange (1832–34) and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (1833–34) were founded in the 1830’s. He hoped that these organizations would become a means of realizing his plans for the transformation of society. But as V. I. Lenin remarked, he did not take into account “such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class” (Poln. sobr. soch, 5th ed., vol. 45, p. 375). Furthermore, like the other Utopian socialists, Owen could not “explain the real nature of wage slavery under capitalism, [he] could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 46). Emerging at an early stage of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the socialist doctrine of Owen and his disciples—J. Gray, T. Hodgskin, W. Thompson, and J. Braby, who were first referred to as socialists in the mid-1820’s—played a significant role in the education of the British working class and gave some impetus to the development of the trade union and cooperative movements in Great Britain. As the historical situation changed and the class consciousness of the proletariat grew, Owenism degenerated into a sect that attempted to distract the workers from class struggle. Withdrawing into messianic illusions, Owen himself arrived at mysticism and spiritualism at the end of his life, especially after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848–49, in the reactionary atmosphere of postrevolutionary Europe.

Nonetheless, Owen’s historical merits are indisputable. Of the great Utopian socialists, only he attempted to implement his socialist ideals with the participation of the workers. In the productive forces that had developed under capitalism, Owen discerned the preconditions for a higher organization of society, associated with the establishment of social property in the means of production. For this reason, his dreams of a qualitatively new condition for mankind anticipated in part the ideas of scientific communism. F. Engels considered him the “father of English socialism” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 2., p. 459). Assessing the significance of Owen’s work for the British working-class movement in the first decades of the 19th century, Engels wrote: “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers, links itself on to the name of Robert Owen” (ibid., vol. 20, p. 274).

Owen’s ideas also influenced the development of socialist thought outside Great Britain. In Russia his name was known as early as the middle of the second decade of the 19th century. The members of the Petrashevskii circle, as well as A. I. Herzen, N. A. Dobroliubov, and other revolutionary democrats, were to some extent influenced by his ideas.


The Life of R. Owen Written by Himself, vol. 1, parts 1–2. London, 1857–58.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. soch., vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vols. 2-A, 18–19, 23–24. (See index of names.)
Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vols. 2, 4, 6, 29, 45. (See index of names.)
Plekhanov, G. V. Utopicheskii sotsializm XIX v. Izbr. filosofskie proizv., vol. 3. Moscow, 1957.
Volgin, V. P. Istoriia sotsialisticheskikh idei, vol. 2. fasc. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Anekshtein, A. [Ark. A-n]. R. Ouen. Moscow, 1937.
Kan, S. B. Istoriia sotsialisticheskikh idei, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1967.
Nemanov, I. N. “K voprosu o kharaktere N’iu-Lenarkskogo eksperimenta R. Ouena.” In Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoe razvitie Rossii i zarubezhnykh stran. Smolensk, 1972.
Liebknecht, W. R. Ouen. Moscow-Petrograd, 1923. (Translated from German.)
Cole, G. D. H. R. Ouen. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931. (Translated from English.)
Podmore, F. R. Owen, vols. 1–2. London [1923].
Morton, A. L. The Life and Ideas of R. Owen. London, 1962.
Harrison, J. F. C. R. Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. London, 1969. (References.)


Owen, Robert (Dale)

(1801–77) social reformer; born in Glasgow, Scotland. He taught briefly in New Lanark, Scotland, where his family owned the cotton mills, and occasionally he ran the factories in his father's absence. Influenced by Robert Dale (his father), whose theory of social reform was based on cooperation, practical education, and humane working conditions, he emigrated with his father to America (1825) to set up the New Harmony Colony in Indiana. Unfit for manual labor, the son taught school there and edited the New Harmony Gazette. The community failed (1827) and he would later criticize its participants as "lazy theorists" and "unprincipled sharpers." (His father returned to England in 1828.) Known for practicality in the application of social ideals, he nonetheless came under the influence of Frances Wright and the "Free Enquirers," a liberal group that advocated an early form of socialism. Moving to New York to join the group's inner circle (1829), he edited the Free Inquirer and helped form the Association for the Protection of Industry and for the Promotion of National Education. Joining his father in England (1832), he coedited The Crisis with him for six months, then returned to New Harmony where he served three terms in the Indiana legislature (1836–38) and was able to secure large-scale public school funding. He also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1843–47). Appointed chargé d'affaires at Naples (1853) and then minister (1855–58), he embraced spiritualism in Italy. On his return to the U.S.A. (1858), he became a leading advocate of the emancipation of slaves; commissioned to purchase arms for the state of Indiana (1861–63), he wrote an influential pamphlet, The Policy of Emancipation (1863). As chairman of a national committee to study freed slaves, he wrote The Wrong Slavery (1864). He was also the author of an autobiography and several novels.
References in periodicals archive ?
Barrister Matthew Curtis, for Robert Owen, said he received disability living allowance and saw a drugs counsellor.
Machynlleth mayor Gareth Jones was presented with the Co-operative award - named after Welsh social pioneer Robert Owen - at Cardiff University on Friday.
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was an early industrialist--perhaps best known for his model textile factory and village at New Lanark in Scotland.
284) Between 1924-25 four of the greatest critics of the courts' power died or retired: Walter Clark, Robert LaFollette, Samuel Gompers, and Senator Robert Owen.
It may have been an admirable goal to avoid discussing the merits of contra policy, but it was not one shared by Oliver North, Robert Owen, Robert McFarlane, Richard Secord, and the House Republicans.
SIR - We would like to respond to the letter from Mr Robert Owen, published on August 16, regarding the price of flights from Cardiff Airport to Paris for the Six Nations fixture between France and Wales.
In this unlikely little spot beside the Clyde, Robert Owen came the closest anybody has to creating the socialist utopian ideal.
ONE farmer who uses homebred Suffolk tups across the whole flock is Pwllheli producer Robert Owen.
Coroner Sir Robert Owen will tomorrow hear witness applications for anonymity at the London hearing.
But two more, who have sometimes tended to slip under the radar, have been elevated to more popular status by local writer Robert Owen, who personally knew both Alex Coxon and Ron Aspinall, hence the title of his book, 'Two Huddersfield Cricketers.
The hotel's banking facilities will now be provided through HSBC's South East Wales Commercial Centre, based in Bute Street, Cardiff, and managed by Senior Commercial Manager Robert Owen.
Megan, 56, is a volunteer at the Robert Owen Tea Bar, located in Outpatients, at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital.