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Robert Owen and 'villages of co-operation'

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism'. He was the founder of the Co-operative movement and believed in worker control although he was a high capitalist himself. He believed that if the working man ever was to achieve equality, then the man must change first - in attitude. Also, the working man had to know of, believe in and be equipped to fight for the cause, according to Owen. This is very much the self-help ethic.

Owen's was a very individualistic socialism: he advocated social changes because he was trying to create a changed working man. This differs from philanthropy, which 'gives' things to the working man. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual's personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy.

Owen disliked the new industrial towns and saw no need for squalor. He aimed for small, self-sufficient industrial communities. He was not interested in political reform: his entire concern was for social reform, with the emphasis on the environment and consequently he has been seen as one of the first environmentalists. He firmly believed that the environment, rather than genes, governed man's development - hence his belief that a psychological revolution was needed. He believed that social change must come first, therefore he disagreed with Chartism.

Owen believed the common theories about over-production and the bad effects of all machinery in displacing labour. He proposed to substitute the spade for the plough, and he announced the socialist doctrine that ‘the natural standard of value’ is ‘human labour.’ Owen circulated the report at his own expense; it was translated into French and German and proposals were made for carrying the scheme into effect. He estimated that £750,000 would be required, but consented to make a beginning with £50,000. A. J. Hamilton offered a site at Motherwell, not far from Lanark. Owen subscribed £10,000, but ultimately withdrew from the scheme because of differences of opinion with other promoters.

Owen wanted self-supporting communities to be set up so that the unemployed could be put to work on the land and at some subsidiary manufacture. He advocated a scheme for 'villages of co-operation' based partly on the New Lanark model, which were to be arranged round common buildings, and in which all labour was to be for the good of the community. These 'villages of co-operation' were part of his co-operative idea. The scheme was advanced in the post-war depression. The idea was implemented, but was unpopular with the workers and initial middle-class support fell away. Each village would consist of about 1,200 persons living on 1,000 to 1,500 acres; all would live in one large structure built in the form of a square, with public kitchen and messrooms - hence the nickname "Owen's parallelograms". Each family would have its own private apartment and the entire care of the children until the age of three, after which they would be raised by the community. Parents would have access to them at meals and all other proper times. Such communities, Owen believed, might be established by individuals, by parishes, by counties, or by the state. In each case there would be supervision by suitably qualified persons. Work and the enjoyment of its results would be shared in common. The size of the projected community had been suggested by that of the village of New Lanark, and Owen soon advocated an extension of the scheme to the reorganisation of society in general.

Under his plan, largely self-contained communities of between 500 and 3,000 would first be set up, mainly agricultural and possessing the most modern machinery. As they increased in number, he wrote, "unions of them, federatively united, should be formed in circles of tens, hundreds, and thousands," until they embraced the whole world in a common interest. The main Owenite community experiments in Great Britain were at Queenwood, Hampshire (1839-45), in which Owen took part for three years; another was established at Orbiston, near Motherwell, under the management of Abram Combe who had visited New Lanark in 1820 and become an ardent disciple of Owen. Combe disapproved of the thoroughly communistic principles which were adopted in September 1826, after the scheme had been at work for a year. His death on 27 August 1827 marked the end of the scheme; the buildings were pulled down in 1828. Another community was set up at Ralahine, County Cork (1831-33). Owen was not directly concerned with either of the later communities. None of the villages succeeded although his ideas were widely acknowledged by contemporaries and were strongly applauded by the Americans and Owen began to see himself as an international prophet. Owen's idea was later adoped by Feargus O'Connor in his Land Plan.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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