15. Robert Owen

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Before the nineteenth century, communalism was practically confined to millenarian religious bodies. The first attempt of any significance to form a purely secular community was Robert Owen’s New Harmony. Owen was born in 1771, the son of a small saddler and ironmonger. He left school at the age of nine, and by nineteen had become the manager of a cotton mill in Manchester employing five hundred people, which he made one of the best in England, not only in the quality of his product, the first thread of long staple sea-island cotton spun in England, but also in the efficiency of his production and the welfare of his workers.

This was a period of tremendous expansion and great profits in the textile industry in Great Britain. Within a few years Owen’s business, run on strictly rationalist lines, had become so profitable that he was able to persuade his partners to buy the largest cotton mill in Britain, at New Lanark on the banks of the Clyde in Scotland. The total labor force was around fifteen hundred, about two-thirds of whom were women, and five hundred of whom were children, paupers, and orphans from the poorhouses and orphanages of Edinburgh and Glasgow, many of them only five or six years old.

Owen immediately improved the living conditions of the workers, raised the minimum age to ten, and progressively reduced the hours of labor from thirteen or fourteen to twelve, with ten-and-a-half hours of actual labor. He opened a general store which sold goods and food of the best quality at cost plus a part of the overhead expense, and he began gradually to inhibit the sale and consumption of liquor. Owen likewise established a school for the children which not only was the most progressive in Britain, but which originated a number of ideas that were not to be accepted elsewhere for almost a century.

New Lanark was in no sense a utopian venture. Its enlightened patriarchalism operated on the strictest business principles, and it showed remarkable profit even in years of depression. It was an industrial village of a type that would become common later in the century, especially in the businesses of Quaker industrialists. A good example in America is the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, founded by the Mennonite chocolate-processing family. Contemporary with Owen, Jebediah Strutt in Derbyshire was operating a quite similar patriarchal mill town.

Owen looked upon New Lanark as something more than a model factory colony. He was a deist, an environmentalist, and a moderate necessitarian. He believed that human beings were morally the product of their environment, and especially of their early training, and could not be held responsible for their faulty behavior in later life. The school at New Lanark was far more important to Owen than anything else, for he hoped by his educational methods to produce an entirely new kind of working man.

The limited measures of community organization which Owen was able to introduce made a surprisingly rapid change in the character of his workers. When he took it over, New Lanark was ridden with poverty, disease, prostitution, promiscuity, and alcoholism. The strict discipline resulted in clean, vermin-free homes, cooperative enterprises, lectures and dances in the evening, social security, and eventual prohibition of drink; and of course the schools worked an amazing transformation in a comparatively short time. Soon large numbers of visitors, some even from the continent of America, were touring the works. Since Owen was able to show that his methods were eminently profitable, New Lanark began to exercise a definite effect on factory reform, long before the passing of the Factory Acts. “An idle, dirty, dissolute, and drunken population,” said Owen, “was transformed by the application of proper means into one of order, neatness, and regularity.”

From the point of view of Owen’s evolving theories of community, New Lanark had faults, or at least limitations. It was far from self-sufficient. There were various mechanics attached to the factory, and a few small craftsmen like shoemakers and tailors in the village, but the community did not provide itself with most of its goods and services. Furthermore, it lacked an agricultural base, although there were garden allotments for any of the workers who wanted them. There were also community dining rooms and laundries, but the women seemed to have resented them. The majority of the employees were women and children, so that many of the men had to find work outside the community. There were only about twenty managers, clerks, and teachers. All the rest were proletarians of the strictest definition, illiterate or semi-literate, with nothing to sell but their labor power.

The schools were a different matter. Here Owen had a free hand to do much as he wanted, limited only by the difficulty in the early years of the nineteenth century of finding teachers able or willing to carry out his ideas. Owen believed that children should not be annoyed with books, but taught by sensible signs and familiar conversation. The natural interest of childhood formed the basis of his educational method. Children learned through playing, dancing, singing, and participating in “military exercises” (what we would call calisthenics). Owen was a passionate believer in dancing, and visitors were fascinated by the children dancing in their kilts, and the neighboring Scottish Presbyterians were outraged that he permitted little boys to dance “without trousers” with little girls. The evening dances for adults were a very important part of Owen’s social discipline and therapy, and seem to have been enthusiastically welcomed by the workers, and no doubt more than were the lectures on rationalist, utilitarian, and radical subjects.

Although New Lanark made money, often when other mills were losing it, Owen twice found it necessary to reorganize the business and change his partners. They objected on moral (or more properly immoral) grounds to his methods, and especially to his deism, in those days verging on Gnosticism, and his disdain for all organized religion — attitudes which he insisted on inculcating in his workers and in the children in the schools. These principles were to cause him trouble throughout his career, although interestingly enough the objections grew, rather than declined, as the Enlightenment died out in England, to be replaced by what would come to be called Victorianism. In the final reorganization, he was able to secure the support of a number of English radicals, including Jeremy Bentham.

As the fame of New Lanark grew, Robert Owen became a very important person and in 1817 he was invited to submit a report to the House of Commons embodying his suggestions for reform and the “cure of pauperism.” By this time Owen had given much thought to the problem and had evolved a definite system. He shared with Ricardo and anticipated Marx in the elementary working-out of a labor theory of value. He rejected Malthus’s theory of the growing pressure of population and, consequently, impoverishment, and charged on the contrary that capitalist production resulted in under-consumption. He accepted the steady increase of the use of machinery but proposed to limit and diffuse industrialization and keep it secondary in agriculturally based small communities. He also proposed that about twelve hundred people should be settled on collective farms of about an acre per person. All would live in one large building in the form of a square with a public dining hail. Each family would have its own room and the care of children until the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community, although their parents might have access to them. All work should be cooperative and its proceeds communally shared. There should be small shops with the best machinery available and enough craftsmen to make each community largely self-sufficient, although certain communities also would turn out specialized products for trade.

Coupled with this rational analysis and plan was a definite strain of millenarianism. Owen was already beginning to believe that society as then constituted was doomed to disaster and that the capitalist’s methods of what Marx would call “the period of primitive accumulation” were profoundly evil. He shared William Blake’s judgment of the dark Satanic mills and was coming to think of himself as a messiah called to lead man into a New Moral World.

It is extraordinary how well received his proposals were. Leading capitalists, politicians, nobility, even the Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, became enthusiastic supporters. Unfortunately, Owen’s belief that men were shaped almost entirely by environment and could be changed by changing their environment was closely linked to his rationalistic deism and his hostility to all forms of institutional religion. Thus at a great meeting in London he was carried away and launched into an anti-religious diatribe and immediately lost a large share of his support, although it is remarkable — considering the storm such a speech would raise in the next generation, at the height of Victorian reaction — how many people, even important figures in the establishment, continued to support him, and how much this support cut across class and political lines. His followers were by no manner of means all radical Whigs. In fact, Owen, with his profound sense of the responsibility of wealth, power, birth, and education, and his rejection of “free enterprise,” can actually be considered one of the founders of radical Toryism.

Although Owen found plenty of verbal support and sympathetic interest, he did not find the decisive action from the State or the establishment which naïvely he seems to have expected. Owenite clubs were formed. He gained articulate disciples who promulgated his ideas, and in the course of time a movement grew up which would last until the third quarter of the century. Eventually a number of communities embodying the principles of either his projected communal settlements or of New Lanark, or something of both, were established. Most of them failed within a year, but for over a generation Owenite communities continued to be formed in Great Britain. The longest lived were Queenwood and Blues Spring in England, Orbiston in Scotland, and Ralahine in Ireland. Essential to the life of all these communities were their schools, where the malleable young would be formed into citizens of the New Moral World.

The Owenite communities lead directly to the cooperative garden villages of a later generation, but their greatest influence was probably upon education. Owen’s special combination of his own ideas and those of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi established the progressive model of British education. As we have seen, one amusing aspect was Owen’s enthusiasm for dancing. Here Owen seems to have instinctively discovered one of the most important forces for commitment and community — the orgy. Dancing was almost as important to him as it was to the Shakers, in whom he had early been interested, and from whom he learned more than he may have acknowledged.

However much of a following Owen may have obtained in Great Britain, he became increasingly aware of widespread resistance and of the iron crust of custom. There was freedom in America, unlimited land in the New World. It would be possible to build the New Moral World, and in an open, flexible society it would be quite possible to convert, by successful example, the entire country in a relatively short time. Owen decided to found his major colony on or near the American frontier. He began to withdraw from the government of New Lanark in 1828 after a long period of friction with his partners, resigned all connections, and in 1825 went shopping in America for a site.

In March he began the negotiation to buy Harmony for one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars — the entire colony, village, shops, and land — from the Rappites; and in May they moved out to their new colony in Pennsylvania, which became even more successful than Harmony had been. Characteristically, Owen did not bother to investigate sufficiently to find whether rumors of malaria being endemic at the Harmony site on the banks of the lower Wabash were true.

Owen and his first colonists took possession in April — thirty thousand acres of land, a complete village with one hundred and sixty houses, churches, dormitories, flour mills, textile factory, distilleries, breweries, a tannery, various craftsmen’s shops, over two thousand acres under cultivation with eighteen acres of vineyards and orchards, as well as additional pastureland and woods.

From the beginning the man who had been so canny, businesslike, and careful at New Lanark seems to have proceeded with a truly exceptional lack of good sense. He began by touring the eastern United States, addressed Congress and met the President, and exhibited a large model of his future colony building, which greatly resembled the later planned, but never built, Fourierists’ phalansteries. He was listened to with the most serious attention because, of course, in the early years of the last century there was a widespread hope that it might be possible to make a radical turn in the development of society away from the industrial capitalism which so obviously was destroying both men and values and purposefully steer society into a new moral order of collective cooperative life. Capitalism, as a social system, had yet to develop an ideology and propaganda of its own, and least of all a “consensus.” Many of Owen’s ideas and special terminology derive, in fact, from radical Freemasonry.

In April 1825 Owen made an impassioned speech at New Harmony inaugurating a New Order of the Ages, and affirmed that in a very short time the example of New Harmony would convert the civilized world. In May a constitution was adopted and the Preliminary Society of New Harmony was formed, with Owen in charge of the community for three probationary years, during which time all property would remain in his possession. Meanwhile, he had advertised in the papers inviting all men of good will to come and take part in the founding of the new civilization! They came — in a few months more than nine hundred of them. Some were convinced Owenites. A few were skilled mechanics, very few were experienced farmers, most of the serious people were intellectuals and what we would call white-collar workers. There were no people to operate many of the enterprises left by the Rappites and no serious effort was later made to recruit such workers. Although colonists came in the hundreds, in fact, Owen unbelievably left to make more speeches.

During the succeeding year, over ten Owenite colonies were founded. Those in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nashoba, Tennessee, were of historical importance, but within a year most had failed. The Mormon leaders may have learned from Owen. They systematically recruited by ordering their missionaries to speak out and convert exactly those trades and professions needed for a well-rounded, self-sustaining community, with a base of farmers and agricultural workers. They even sent orders to their missionaries for the conversion of specifically needed craftsmen. Owen did quite the opposite as a matter of policy. He welcomed anyone who came. New Harmony was what today would be called an “open-gate commune.” Soon there was an ever increasing proportion of crackpots, loafers, and rascals. From his travels he wrote back to his son in New Jersey to get to work on the immense communal building, for which there were neither workers nor stone, and gave instructions for other equally visionary and impractical schemes. His son replied with desperate requests for experienced mechanics and farmers.

Owen obliged by returning in January 1826 with the famous “Boatload of Knowledge,” a whole bevy of intellectuals, some of them of very considerable importance, who would have been a credit to any European university, though they were not the people needed to build utopia on the American frontier. The most important was William McClure, the president of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the “Father of American Geology,” and the most active American advocate of the Pestalozzian system of education. There were other scientists — Thomas Say, Gerard Troost, the famous explorer Lesueur, the educator D’Arusmont, Madame Fretageot, and Frances Wright, one of the leading feminists and radicals of her time. There was also Josiah Warren, who had organized an orchestra and was to become one of the founders of Mutualist Anarchism, and who had already anticipated many of the theories later to be identified with Proudhon.

McClure, D’Arusmont, and Madame Fretageot immediately organized a school. Within a short time some of the colonists split off to form a nearby settlement called McCluria, concerned almost exclusively with education, and ignoring economic problems, agriculture, and industry. On January 25 they adopted a new constitution. Owen withdrew as “dictator.” The colony was reorganized on the basis of complete communism, with the general assembly of all members as the authority embodied in an executive committee of six. Work was no longer to be rewarded for its worth to the community, but rather all goods were free to all members alike. Owen set up a sort of public cash box, not unlike that long ago set up at Münster, from which any member could draw at will, but this was soon abandoned as the unscrupulous emptied it daily. Within two weeks New Harmony obviously was breaking down, and the assembly by majority vote begged Owen to resume authority. The worst rascals and idlers withdrew under pressure and an effort was made at production in the fields and shops. Within a month another group split off. They were mostly farmers who came with Owen from Great Britain, who objected to his prohibition of alcoholic drink. They named their colony FeibaPeveli, in accord with a system invented by an English eccentric, Whitwell, in which a cipher represented the latitude and longitude of any given place. New York was OtkeNotive, and London LafaVovutu.

The fragmentation of the settlement continued with a new constitution in April, and three more during the summer. Each schism was settled somewhere on the estate. Whenever the daily rhythm of crises reached a peak, Owen’s solution was to make a speech and adopt a new constitution. On the Fourth of July 1826 he persuaded the community to adopt a “Declaration of Mental Independence” which forthrightly denounced religion, marriage, and private property — all of which led to further and more serious schisms. By the end of the year Owen’s euphoria was beginning to wane, and early in 1827 a large part of the town was split up into houses and lots for sale, and into private small businesses and establishments including gin houses. In March eighty people left to start a community near Cincinnati. The communal life had broken down. The community kitchens and dining rooms, recreation centers, meeting house, warehouses, and granaries were abandoned. The school, however, continued and in one form or another would survive, and there the remnant of the colonists took their meals and carried on what community life they could. Leaving his son Robert Dale in charge, Owen went off on a speaking tour urging, with the greatest optimism, the development of more Owenite communities. But when he reached New York he took ship for England and never came back. The first secular communist community was dead and Owen had lost about a quarter of a million dollars, although most of the property was still administered by his sons. A few other colonies were formed, one as far away as Wisconsin, then a wilderness, but by 1830 all had ceased to exist. Owen went on to become a leader of British radicalism, a founding father of modern trade-unionism and the cooperative movement, and a strong influence on the development of British cooperative villages — “garden cities.” In his old age he became a Spiritualist.

This bare account of the brief life of New Harmony as a communist colony makes it difficult to understand its influence and historical importance. Owen did practically everything wrong. He bought a ready-made settlement, so that the colonists had no sense of having built something for themselves. He took in anyone who came, and most of those who came had little or no commitment to his ideas or to the purposes of the colony. There was nothing to bind the members together. Each person was a law unto himself, and everyone disagreed with everyone else on the most fundamental principles and the most ordinary practices. No attempt was made to keep out rascals, cranks, or even, to judge from the record, the seriously mentally ill. Not only did most of the colonists not share Owen’s ideas, but his attacks on religion and marriage antagonized many of the most valuable members, namely, the workers and farmers, and were shared by only a minority of the intellectuals. The employees at New Lanark, in Scotland, were just that, employees, and the ultimate discipline was the control of their job — they could be fired.

Owen’s dictatorship of New Harmony was devoid of power by his own wish. Questions of discipline were thrown into the general meeting, whose decisions were unenforceable. Many seceded from the colony or simply left, but few were expelled. There were lectures, concerts, dances, but there was nothing beyond these to bind the colonists together and to enforce commitment like the confessional meetings of the religious groups. Owen introduced a kind of dress-reform costume which was to be the uniform of the community, but only a minority of the people ever wore it, and there were no other techniques of enforcing group self-identification. By the time the Rappites had sold Harmony to Owen, they had become an almost self-sustaining closed economy with a surplus for the outside market which was making them rich. Owen had neither workers with the necessary skills to operate the Rappite plant nor a sure method for ensuring that people did the work they were supposed to do.

Yet New Harmony was not a total failure. It certainly provided an example, though seldom heeded, of what not to do in the organization of a secular communalistic community. But it also introduced America to educational methods which would profoundly influence all public education, in the north at least, and which would help to make the Indiana school system for three generations the most progressive in the United States. Robert Dale Owen entered the Indiana legislature and was responsible for giving married women control of their own property and liberalizing divorce and inheritance laws as they affected women. The Owen brothers also made New Harmony a focus for early scientific activity. In 1839 David Dale Owen was appointed U.S. Geologist and established the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey in New Harmony, and was a founder of the Smithsonian Institute. From the colony’s Workingmen’s Institute and Library similar institutions spread across the country — one still exists in San Francisco — and out of them grew the free public library.

Only two of the many daughter colonies of New Harmony were of historical importance: Nashoba, founded by Frances Wright, and a succession of experiments led by Josiah Warren. John Humphrey Noyes, the leader of the Oneida colony, said of Frances Wright, “She was indeed the pioneer of the strong-minded women.” Not only was she the leading woman in the beginnings of secular communism, but she was essentially the founder of the secular anti-slavery movement and women’s rights. Even today she would be considered a radical feminist. Her interest in the Rappites at Harmony preceded that of Owen’s. She visited various Shaker settlements and other communalist groups, lived in the communities, questioned the leaders, and studied their problems. She also traveled through the southern states discussing her great plan with planters and politicians. It was certainly an extraordinary one. She hoped to establish a communist colony led at first by white people and freed Negroes, but consisting mostly of slaves, whom she proposed to purchase, or who would be donated by slaveholders, and who would be paid half of what they produced — with which they would eventually purchase their freedom. She accompanied the Owens to New Harmony and took part in the formation of the community and left in 1826, before the disintegration. She purchased two thousand acres, mostly marshy woodland on the Wolf River, thirteen miles above Memphis, Tennessee, and settled it with several Negro families, including fifteen active workers, whom she also purchased. Accompanying them were a number of whites, amongst them D’Arusmont from New Harmony, the family of George Flower, her younger sister Camilla Wright, and a wandering communist, James Richardson.

At first there were only two cabins, one for slaves and one for whites with Frances and Flower the only white people, but in the course of the winter the others came down, bringing a former Shaker, Richesson Whitby. Frances spent the bad weather in Memphis and on good days went out and helped to clear land. As soon as it grew warm, it became apparent that the site was malarial. Frances, exhausted with manual labor, caught the disease and almost died. She went up to New Harmony for a rest and “the better air.” New Harmony, of course, was also malarial. At this time she began her long off-and-on love relationship with Robert Dale Owen. Meanwhile she wrote and lectured on free love, a new enthusiasm. It was not long before the newspapers discovered her and linked her advocacy of free love with the interracial colony at Nashoba, and she became the priestess of Beelzebub. She and Robert Dale Owen went down to Nashoba where he hoped to live “a life of lettered leisure” while she visited her friend Lafayette in France. Owen was horrified at the poverty and disorder at Nashoba and decided to go to Europe with her. They solved the problems of Nashoba, as those at New Harmony were solved, by drawing up a new constitution. Lafayette, Camilla Wright, the Owens, the white people of Nashoba, and William McClure were made trustees and Frances gave them title to the estate, all her personal property, and the ownership of the slaves, and the others were invited to “invest” in the venture by donating money, property, or labor. The slaves were supposed to have the same rights as everyone else, but in fact they were still slaves. Noyes compared them to the helots of ancient Sparta, with the difference that they were continuously lectured about communism, racial equality, and free love.

Owen and Frances departed from New Orleans. George Flower left, disgusted, and Whitby took his place. Before embarking, Frances gave lectures in which she advocated both free love and miscegenation, and envisaged a creamy-colored race more suitable to the climate of the south than either black or white. The press raved, and audiences booed, but some took her seriously and listened. The fact that she was not mobbed or lynched is an indication of the open-mindedness of the American public in the 1820s, so different from a generation later. In New Orleans they also recruited several new members, including a creole of color, Mam’selle Lolotte, with several children, including a grown daughter, Josephine. Mam’selle Lolotte took over the school, such as it was, and all children were taken from their parents and placed under her management. This led to bitter resentment on the part of the slaves, who grew increasingly antagonistic to the free Negroes and to those of lighter complexion. Whitby and Camilla Wright got married and Richardson and Josephine began to live together, and Richardson gave a lecture on free love and miscegenation.

The extracts from the daybook of the colony, filled with this sort of thing, were sent off by Richardson to the abolitionist paper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation. American, British, and continental papers picked up the story and Nashoba became an international scandal. Camilla responded by publicly attacking marriage and stating that Richardson’s conduct had the approval of all at Nashoba. Even Frances stated that Camilla and Richardson had been foolish. She returned from England bringing no converts, but accompanied by her friend Mrs. Trollope, who planned to tour the United States seeking a business opportunity for her husband, preferably in the west, possibly Cincinnati. Mrs. Trollope came to Nashoba for Christmas and was horrified at the tumble-down, improperly built cabins, the idleness, disorder, dirt, and disease. Camilla, moreover, was seriously ill with malaria. When Mrs. Trollope left, Whitby and Camilla went to New Harmony with her, and Richardson said farewell to Josephine and joined them. Frances drew up a new constitution, hired a white overseer, and likewise departed for New Harmony. This time she and D’Arusmont fell in love, and Frances lectured in Cincinnati to packed houses. She was becoming a sensational lecturer, her ideas growing ever more radical as both New Harmony and Nashoba disintegrated. She and Robert Jennings went on a lecture tour of the country; and activities at New Harmony narrowed to publishing The Gazette, with Jennings, D’Arusmont, Frances, and Robert Dale Owen writing the copy and doing the printing. They eventually moved the paper to New York, and renamed it The Free Inquirer. Nashoba was hopelessly demoralized. Frances and D’Arusmont took the slaves to Haiti and freed them. The freed Negroes, including Mam’selle Lolotte, vanished from history. Frances went on to other adventures. She became a power in the Workingman’s Party. Camilla’s baby died, and then Camilla. Frances and D’Arusmont went to France and were married and a daughter, Frances Sylvia, was born. They returned to America and Frances, against the objections of D’Arusmont, resumed her lecturing and became the leader of the women’s rights movement. They quarreled and D’Arusmont went back to France and eventually divorced her. In 1852 she slipped on the ice in Cincinnati and broke her hip and died, probably of pneumonia. She was only fifty-six and had led one of the most eventful lives of any woman in history.