Democracy

Forgotten Ideas: Robert Owen’s ‘A New View of Society’

robert owen

By Peter Marshall

In our academic lives we will undoubtedly find new and exciting ideas that open our minds. I had this in reading Herculine Barbin, the diaries of a 19th century French intersex person by the same name, with the introduction written by Foucault. Foucault, however, is par for the course in political theory. Whilst being relatively theoretically radical, after this year I will have been taught about him for three years in a row. There are, of course, key thinkers to study in politics (Plato, Wollstonecraft, and Marx, to mention but a few), but what of the voices of those rarely heard? That is the idea of this article (and hopefully subsequent articles), to briefly explore the ideas of non-conventional thinkers and hopefully inspire you to read some of these texts once you have the time (as my 50+ unread books can attest to my not having time), as I hope they will broaden your intellectual horizons.

Any critique shall be brief, not because I have an evil leftist agenda to take over Royal Holloway and then the world, although I do, but because I wish to cover as much of the thought as I can within a small article. I would encourage other people to do the same for other books and texts. As the title may have given away, this article shall be briefly looking into Robert Owen’s ‘A New View of Society’, the four essays of which were spread out across the years 1813-1814. If anyone studied Ideology for second year A-Level politics, the name may be familiar to you as one of Marx and Engel’s designated Utopian Socialists.

Robert Owen was born in Wales in Newtown in 1771 and died in the same place in the year 1858. A New View was written whilst he managed the New Lanark cotton mills, from 1800 to 1829.This town near Glasgow was the focus of A New View. The town was monetarily supported by, amongst others, Jeremy Bentham. After a failure to create a similar town in Indiana, he returned to the UK and headed the general Trade Union movement. He pushed governments in Britain, Europe and America to put a focus on a national education system, to improve factory conditions, and to have the state relieve the unemployed.

The major undercurrent of Owen’s thought is the formation of the character, in particular how it is moulded by its environment. Owen asserted that the character of a person –how one acts and how one is, or ones nature- is moulded by his cultural and physical environment. At the time of his writing, Owen saw this as being the promotion of the irrational through religion and selfishness through competitive individualisation. This coupled with the awful working conditions, a divisive market system, and poor education led to poorer peoples lacking both money and fulfilment. In this regard, he can be seen to have rejected the idea of a “human nature” – the idea of a level of universality within humanity – and suggested that those who do believe in such a concept are perpetuating irrationality. Crime, for example, is trained into the working classes, for which they are then punished. He asserted that:

Instead of punishing crimes after [the government] have permitted the human character to be formed so as to commit them, they will adopt the only means which can be adopted to prevent the existence of those crimes; means by which they may be most easily prevented” (p.103)

For him, this course of misery meant that education into rationality was key, as he saw the child as the most malleable. He believed that if children of all stripes (for him economic stripes) were all taught to be rational, then society would be better. The individualistic, unhappy world he existed in would be transformed into a rational, selfless, altruistic, and happier one. In New Lanark, he followed these ideas through, applying them to the adult workers as well. He limited childhood labour and kept children, and not just boys, in school for longer than other children at the time. He made it so that the factories and working environments were cleaner, lighter and healthier. He provided monetary provisions for when workers were sick, and when there was shortages of work, he paid the workers full wages.

He thus argued against revolutions, believing firstly that the truth will out and that the good arguments will always annihilate bad practice. One could draw parallels with J. S. Mill, which would be apt as Owen was an admirer of Bentham, and based his improvement of society in terms of happiness. Secondly, he believed that exclusion does not work.  He believed that once the privileged in society are exposed to the truth that were his beliefs they will lead to the ideal society he describes. He sees revolution as something that may damage this. This aspect of his beliefs is where those such as Marx and Engels most sharply call him a Utopian. Marx and Engels saw him as important, but did not think that he is grounded in scientific reality as he do not call for a revolution and does not analyse class conflict. Engels specifically has respect for Owen, as he treated his workers “like human beings”. Unlike what Gatrell suggests, his lack of revolutionary desire did not come from his respect of aristocrats (although he did respect the aristocratic structures and dedicated his book to members of the elite), rather it not being necessary.

Owen is not a philosopher (he uses too many words non-academics can understand), he is more a political or social theorist, even an activist. He is very succinct and gets to the point more so than classical thinkers like J.S. Mill, thus not have many aspects or nuances to his beliefs.  However, Owen’s ideas about the formation of the character can be applied to modern day, with modern education primarily being about finding a job, looking to maximise wealth without concern for others – forming a character that is in line with a system that looks for profit above all else.

Bibliography

Gatrell, V. A. C (1970) ‘Introduction’ in Gatrell, V. A. C (1970) eds.,  A New View of Society And Report to the County of Lanark , Great Britain: Pelican Books

Heywood, A. (2012) Political Ideologies: An Introduction, 5th edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Owen, R. (1970 [1813/1814]) ‘Report to the County of Lanark; A New View of Society’ in Gatrell, V. A. C (1970) eds., A New View of Society And Report to the County of Lanark , Great Britain: Pelican Books

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2004 [1848]) The Communist Manifesto, England: Penguin Books

Engels, F. (1908 [1883]) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Eccleshall, R., Geoghegan, V., Jay, R., Wilford, R. (1990) Political Ideologies, an Introduction, 5th edn, London: Unwin Hyman

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