Today it is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen, the socialist pioneer from Newtown who along with figures such as fellow countryman Richard Price, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and his French counterparts Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon, did so much to establish the principles and foundation stones for modern progressive politics, as the French Revolution and its consequence reverberated around Europe.
After leaving Wales at the age of 10, a precocious child, and establishing a successful career as an industrialist in Manchester, he moved to Scotland where he transformed the cotton mill of his father-in-law into a socialist experiment that changed the world, and now stands as a UNESCO Heritage Site. New Lanark demonstrated that another industrial world was possible, one which rejected capitalism, fostered rather than dehumanised its workers, and aspired to place people and nature in harmony. This co-operative, communitarian, arguably feminist venture provided a blue print that in its ambitions is more contemporary than ever.
It is important that we do not indulge in hagiography of course; Owen’s unremitting criticisms of his contemporary society did not extend adequately to its Empire; there are issues around Owen’s overbearing influence on the nominally democratic community he established; in terms of his analysis and approach to unravelling the capitalist system, his faith in the power of reason and the ability of the elite to reform itself looks naïve in retrospect.
Equally, however, we must not fall into the trap of presentism and judge his actions on the basis of hindsight, nor compare his academic analysis to a figure such as Marx. This would be to lack appreciation of the world in which Owen found himself, and to judge his contribution on the basis that he was largely an intellectual. Indeed, if we wanted some comparison with today we might think of him as a figure alongside some of the great author-activists such as Silvia Federici. What characterised him most was what Marx himself described as his utopian socialism.
Owen’s main philosophical insight, and the principle upon which he premised his New View of Society, was his characterisation of human nature – one that was not without precedent, but which was revolutionary in the manner in which he developed it. In essence, Owen regarded human nature as being largely, if not entirely determined by a person’s environment. Human nature, therefore, does not have some essential quality. Certainly we are not born evil as the predominant Christian doctrine of original sin holds; rather evil is a function of society that treats its people badly – we are all born with basic capabilities to become good people.
It is testament to his work and that of others that the importance of environment on character is now widely recognised as a truism (save for the most trenchant conservatives – such as those who run the UK). However, if we think about the world in which Owen was born – he was 18 when the French Revolution broke – the hierarchical view of human nature was predominant. Carrying on where others had left off, his work and writings were a direct and unrelenting assault on the privileged elite, a social order grounded of course in the notion that the aristocracy’s superiority was inherited.
When Owen’s countryman Richard Price railed against privilege and the British Monarchy in his sermon, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, he was mounting an attack on the aristocratic elite of the church and state. Edmund Burke’s famous response in his Reflections on the Revolution in France – the seminal Conservative Text – was a crushing counterpunch on behalf of the British establishment, but that text would itself lead to responses by the likes of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, which would in time usher in progressive forces that could not be held back.
Indeed Wollstonecraft’s critique of society’s treatment of women was too revolutionary by half and was largely ignored until society had caught up with her somewhat; arguably, however, her sophisticated analysis of how a woman’s environment undermined any hope of a fulfilling and virtuous life provide the key insights that Owen himself developed. For he generalized and radicalised Wollstonecraft’s insights by showing how the vast majority of society are predetermined to be illiterate, poverty-ridden and prone to criminality through society’s structures, and that a caring, nourishing and educated environment ensures any one can develop as flourishing human beings.
This is what he argues in his New View of Society, and this is what he demonstrated in New Lanark. Even the Russian Tsar came to visit this experiment in living that initiated nursery education, adult education, an 8 day working day, minimum working ages and childcare, whilst ensuring clean and secure housing in an environment that encouraged leisure and sought harmony between people and nature.
Beyond the immediate environment of New Lanark, Owen sought a far more expansive and ambitious objective. He saw that the only way in which society could be organised in such a way that the working people were not exploited and oppressed was to overcome, or to outgrow capitalism. New Lanark was based on a co-operative model where workers were in part owners, and in Owen’s vision it was through establishing a network of co-operative communities that an exploitative capitalist system based on relentless competition could be overcome.
Whilst some on the left have subsequently dismissed Owen because of his apparent naivety and reformist approach, these criticisms overlook the utopian vision that he held for world. As a theorist, his analysis of history, his philosophical depth and his analytical prowess cannot be compared to Marx – and few can be (Marx, as much as a social and economic theorist, must be viewed as the third in the triumvirate of German philosophers including Hegel and Kant who reached largely unrivalled philosophical heights). However, that is not to question the power and appeal of his ideals, that Marx himself so admired, and the way in which Owen’s example, tireless campaigning and writing, inspired a socialist and trade union movement.
And whilst his faith in those who held influence was indeed a blind spot, his arguments for how a truly socialist society could only take root properly through gradual change over generations is an important and perhaps telling counterpoint to the Marxist revolutionary module – and one might even suggest prefigures Gramsci’s emphasis on the ‘war of position’ and gradual institutional change.
One other aspect of Owen’s utopian vision which is striking, in view of the fact that he was one of the socialist pioneers, were ideas and values that appear so relevant to today’s situation. As socialism developed in parallel with industrialisation, there has been a tendency over time for certain assumptions about the value of work, and the (lack of) value of the environment to become embedded in the socialist world view. It is painfully clear now of course what the cost is of a purely extractive view of nature, whilst in the context of contemporary unemployment and the challenge of automation, many on the left still cling to the importance or inherent value of work (in part perhaps because of a misunderstanding of Marx’s emphasis on our productive, creative nature).
One sees no such commitments in Owen’s worldview; as noted, he saw the importance of a respect for and harmony with nature, whilst for him the advance of technology was something that could emancipate people from work. In a world threatened by the climate emergency, and in a society where machines take up increasing amounts of labour, and where localism and the foundational economy are increasingly feted, these are just some of the reasons to return to Owen as a seminal socialist figure.
The Welsh Father of Socialism?
Owen’s past status is suggested in one of the moniker’s bestowed upon him: ‘the Father of English Socialism’. For him to be claimed in such a way gives a sense of his historical importance, but it also, of course, raises question for us in Wales, eager to claim Owen as our own. The moniker can in part be explained by the age-old false equivalence between ‘English’ and ‘British’ and in fairness we might suggest that he was more of a Brit than most: formed in Wales, making his fortune in England, changing the world in Scotland.
However, there are certain senses in which we should consider Owen as quintessentially Welsh, with relation to his philosophical outlook (beyond the claim that his vision of co-operative communities was inspired by his childhood home, Newtown). One can for instance cite his utopianism as a tendency that places him within – and is explicable in terms of – a Welsh intellectual tradition. Indeed if one places Owen’s utopianism in the context of Richard Price’s thought, and before him (within the puritan tradition from which Price emerged) Morgan Llwyd’s radical mysticism, one can read it as a form of secular millenarianism.
Millenarianism comes in many forms, but the idea of Jesus’ second coming as the harbinger of a period of peace of justice on earth, so central to Llwyd’s thought, is heavily substantiated in Price’s political world view – one that regards the states of the world working towards a global peace in preparation for the new millennium. With Owen, we have a fully developed secular version. Such idealised, overblown ambition is a pattern of thought that in Wales can be mapped back to the Mabinogi and even the pre-Roman world, with its motifs of heroic struggle and visions of utopia, such as Ynys Afallon.
More prosaically, and related to historical material conditions, these ideas have a historic appeal for the temperament of marginalized communities that await some form of redemption or salvation. Owen himself rejected organised religion and the Methodist revival that had swept his homeland, but a utopian temperament can be seen in later generations in Wales as nonconformism developed in different radical political forms, not least in the dissent led by Unitarians that would influence revolution in communities such as Merthyr. Later of course the egalitarian, salvationist spirit of Owen’s politics would be realised in a Christian form in the spread of the social gospel.
Certainly since his death – the only time that Owen returned to Wales after leaving as a child – the Welsh have occasionally made a genuine effort to reclaim him, and perhaps the most interesting of those are the efforts of RJ Derfel, who would in turn be an inspiration for that other great Welsh utopian socialist, TE Nicholas, or Niclas y Glais. Derfel took Owen’s ideas as a starting point for developing what he considered to be a particular form of Welsh socialism, with its radical, communitarian temper that was both an alternative to Marxism and the mainstream British Labourism that began to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century.
Indeed these are the figures that Martin Wright refers to in mapping a dissenting Welsh socialist tradition in his work on Wales and socialism before the Great War. One might argue another figure in that vein was the Merthyr MP SO Davies, who combined a Welsh nonconformist background with a radical socialist agenda.
What happened to that tradition? One might ask the question, for today it is not only questionable whether there is any distinct form of Welsh socialist politics, more fundamentally one must ask what our distinct forms of thought might be as we have been assimilated culturally, linguistically and intellectually. In the secular, postmodern age, Robert Owen and his socialism presents to us many challenges about what we believe socialism to be, and who we the Welsh left believe ourselves to be.