Robert Owen (1771 – 1858), a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, was born in Wales 250 years ago last month on May 14. He was a scholar who acted according to his sayings. He believed that the character of humans is shaped by his environment; if the environment is good then even the worst can improve. He was a factory owner therefore was well-acquainted with the evils of capitalism personally too. He made the plan for such a classless society whose every single unit would be limited from 300 to 2,000 people. So in 1800 he bought a cotton factory at New Lanark in Scotland and began experimenting with his views on a party of 500 workers. Gradually the population of his colony reached 2,500. In the beginning when these people began working in the factory and living in the colony, their moral condition was very low. Owen made this neo-colony a living example of the social life of the future. There was neither wine-drinking in this neo-colony nor fighting and quarreling. There were no police, courts, cases, beggary or charity because the working conditions of people were very good and the atmosphere of living was extremely pleasant.
Owen paid special attention to the education and training of the new generation. So, he is very much the founder of the first school for children. These schools of a modern type were, as such, first established in New Lanark. Children would be sent to school at the age of 2 years. There, so many things of their interest would be supplied and they would have so much fun that they would not even mention going home!
Owen paid special attention to the education and training of the new generation. So, he is very much the founder of the first school for children
At that time workers had to work for 13-14 hours in the factories of the capitalists but in New Lanark the timings of work were merely 10.5 hours. Once there was chaos in the cotton market, the factory at New Lanark was closed for 4 months. Despite this the workers regularly received wages and the business, too, expanded twofold!
But Owen was not satisfied. He thought that this settlement of 2,500 creates wealth for work just as much as what was produced 50 years ago by a settlement of 600,000. He asked himself what will be the difference between wealth used by 2,500 and 600,000 people. The answer was clear in that from this same difference the capitalists investing in the factory were sold goods at the rate of 5 per cent; in addition to a profit of 300,000 pounds. “So when such was the situation at New Lanark, then what to speak of other industrial factories of England?” he thought to himself. Who had created this new wealth and power other than workers? Therefore the fruit of this power should indeed be given to them. Robert Owen stumbled upon the secret of a new social system – one in which the productive forces are the common property of society, so that everyone can benefit.
As long as Owen did welfare work, he was praised but as soon as he raised the slogan of practical socialism, political circles, newspapers and politicians all turned against him – so much that his new experiment was made to fail.
As long as Owen did welfare work, he was praised but as soon as he raised the slogan of practical socialism, political circles, newspapers and politicians all turned against him – so much that his new experiment was made to fail
Robert Owen and other utopian socialists were desirous of changing the societal conditions of their time so that the common people could live their lives with ease and tranquility; nobody would be dependent on another and nor somebody eat the fruit of someone else’s labour. These thinkers believed that the reason for the defects of the capitalist system was that people have not acted upon the principles of reason and equity – so that the need is merely that such a complete plan for society be prepared which is based on reason and equity. Then this plan be made popular among the people through propaganda and wherever possible experiments be made as per this plan so that people acknowledge the qualities of this new system after viewing these models. They were sure that if a reasonable and equitable plan to reform society could be prepared then nobody would object to its acceptance.
But fortunes do not change with wishes. They had no idea that there are a few principles and a few conditions for the movement and transformation of society which are above the wishes and desires of individuals. They wished for the salvation of the entire human race but did not know that all transformations in society that had occurred until then had come about due to the most revolutionary classes of society. These thinkers did not have a consciousness of the revolutionary classes of their time and their historic role and nor could they tell who would bring these transformations about – and how.
Be that as it may, the teachings of Owen and other utopian socialists of the 19th century are very important in that the founders of modern socialism Karl Marx and Engels ended up learning a lot from these trail-blazers.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com