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Robert Owen and New Harmony

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism' and was the product of self-help; a paternalist. A very practical man, he concentrated on the means to the end. 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, as did his work at New Harmony. However, Owen was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual. Owen forgot, at times, that 'mankind' was made up of individuals and so he failed.

In 1824 Owen heard from an Englishman in America who had visited the 30,000 acre estate of Braxfield on the Wabash river in Illinois and Indiana. It belonged to a German colony which had emigrated from Würtemberg in 1804 under the guidance of a Lutheran teacher called Rapp. They combined business energy with their religious views and had prospered at the place they called 'Harmony' from which they now wished to move. Owen sailed for America in the autumn of 1824; in April 1825 he bought the village and 20,000 acres of land for £30,000. On his way to Harmony, Owen was invited to give two addresses in the Hall of Representatives in Washington, which were attended by the president and other officials. Owen then went on to Harmony, where nine hundred people soon assembled and a provisional committee of management was appointed.

Owen returned to England in 1825 but made further journeys to New Harmony at the end of the same year, and again in the winters of 1826-7 and 1827-8. A 'communist' constitution was framed on 5 February 1826 and Owen was asked to manage the affairs for a year, although he had intended a longer period of probation. Communities sprang up in imitation at various places, and several were grouped round New Harmony. A Mr. Maclure founded a school system on a large scale. Difficulties, however, soon arose. In the community, inexperienced Zealots mingled in uneasy partnership with experienced rascals and the collection of colonists gradually gave up their communism. On his visits Owen did his best to patch things up and gave large sums of money even though he found that the communities had deserted his principles. Iin 1828 he finally broke off his connection with the place, leaving the communities to do as they pleased.

Owen spent over £40,000 on this experiment: he had given his sons - Robert and William - two shares in the New Lanark propertybut they turned these over to him when his funds ran low. Eventually, he willed them the New Harmony property, keeping an annuity of £300 for himself, which for many years was his only means of support. since the rest had been spent on his various philanthropical enterprises and publications. By 1827 New Harmony was a failure in all respects and the world took note.

While in England in the summer of 1828, Owen received a request for help in setting up a community from some people who had been granted land in Texas by the Mexican government. Owen sailed on 22 November 1828 with introductions to the Mexican authorities, and was received with high honours by President Victoria. He was told that congress would grant him land that was 150 miles wide that stretched through 13¾° of latitude - it was only necessary to change the law which made profession of catholicism necessary in Mexican territory. In the winter of 1828 a new party came into power and no more was heard of the grant to Owen who returned by the United States. Owen held a public discussion at Cincinnati on 1 April 1829, dined with President Jackson and the secretary of state, Van Buren and brought back pacific messages from them to the English foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, who gave him an interview.

Owne then turned his attention to the cooperative movement.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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