Who is Robert Owen?

By | March 10, 2020

[March 10, 2020]  It has said that leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.  But some ideas work and some don’t work.  There is a long-standing controversy about whether the views of Robert Owen, one of the founders of Socialism, actually work.

Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer, was one of the founders of Utopian Socialism and the cooperative movement.  In 1824, Owen traveled to America and invested most of his fortune in an experimental socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana.  Other Owenite Utopian communities, including New Harmony, only lasted about two years.1

Owen regularly tested his social and economic ideas, earning himself an international reputation.  Social reformers, politicians and royalty, and academics studied his methods carefully.  The opinions of Owen’s work were favorable and received general praise.  His most significant success was in support of youth education and early child care.  This support included support of child labor laws and free education for children.

Found in socialist writings, was the idea that our human character is formed by conditions over which individuals have no control.  Thus, individuals should not be praised or blamed for their behavior or situation in life.  This principle led Owen to conclude that the correct formation of people’s characters meant placing them under “proper” physical, moral, and social conditions from their earliest years.

Philosophically, Owen’s ideas are not that different from today’s socialist movements.  For example, Owen believed in the inherent irresponsibility in humans.  Thus, according to Owen, is the need for intervention by those more educated and morally superior.  He also criticized organized religion, including the Church of England, and developed a belief system of his own.2  Owen publicly claimed that all religions were false.3  He would later convert to Spiritualism.

Owen’s Utopian communities attracted a mix of people, many with the highest aims.  But they also attracted “vagrants, adventurers, a collection of Radicals, and a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers.”  Josiah Warren, a participant at New Harmony, asserted that the community failed for lack of individual sovereignty and personal property.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Owen
  2. Donald E. Pitzer (Spring 2014). “Why New Harmony is World Famous.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. 26(2): 12.
  3. Richard William Leopold (1940). Robert Dale Owen, A Biography. Harvard Historical Studies. 45. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 8. OCLC77489
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Who is Robert Owen?

  1. Randy Goodman

    Interesting that Robert Owen initially rejected religion (just like Karl Marx and the communists) but later adopted “spiritualism” whatever that is. Good article and worth thinking about.

    Reply
    1. Kenny Foster

      This type of action is going to slam the world economy really really hard.

      Reply
    2. Jerome Smith

      I know I’m off topic a little here (should be discussing Robert Owen) but I must agree. What I would like to see is someone who can compare socialist countries to capitalistic countries and how they each are affected by this downturn in the economy due to the Coronavirus.

      Reply
      1. apache2

        That is the BIG question these days Jerome. Which system is best designed to take a hard hit from whatever reason.

        Reply
  2. Harry Donner

    Here is a good description of the history of Robert Owen by the History Guide:
    http://historyguide.org/intellect/owen.html
    I recommend it. The conjunction of the industrial revolution and the rise of both health and education and its link to socialism is a worthwhile pursuit.

    Reply
    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      Agreed. Here is a relevent quote from the article “In the 1840s, Owen embarked on a new settlement at Queenwood Farm in Hampshire. There was insufficient capital and the community, projected to support 500 members, never attracted more than ninety communitarians. In 1841, Owen secured capital from a consortium of capitalist friends and built a luxurious mansion, Harmony Hall, to house a community “normal school” which would train Owenites in a correct communitarian environment. Owen quickly spent his funds and in July 1842 was removed from control. He resumed control in May 1843, but his concept of a “normal school” was not what many Owenites had hoped for, and in 1844 the annual Owenite Congress rebelled against his DESPOTIC CONTROL of community policy.”

      Reply
      1. Jane Fillmore

        Got it, Jose and well done! “Despotic control” is what all ventures of this sort eventually lead to.

        Reply
  3. Valkerie

    Thank you General Satterfield for another informative article and this one on my favorite anti-topic, Socialism.

    Reply
  4. Max Foster

    Gen. Satterfield, when I first read this article I thought to myself ‘why would he write about such an obscure person?’ Then I realized that Robert Owen, a businessman, was one of the founders of modern-day socialism and that it was based upon Owen’s practical observations. The fact that these ideas did not work when he put them into practice is the crux of your article. Well appreciated. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Len Jakosky

      Max, I do believe you are right on target for what I was also thinking. Now it makes a little more sense. Robert Owen has been rejected by modern Socialists because he doesn’t carry the right background (hint, they hate businessmen – they are the enemy) and it establishes the idea that they are really Marxists in disguise.

      Reply
  5. Ronny Fisher

    Never heard of him before. Despite being Welsh (or British??), I do believe he is not well known simply because of the lack of a good philosophical underpinning of socialism that he tried to create. He may have been successful as a business man but his work on utopian communities failed.

    Reply
    1. Eric Coda

      And this is the very reason his name should be brought up and discussed. If you want an idea to spread, then put the argument up for its goodness for all to see and debate. But that is not what ‘democratic socialists’ want. They want power like all socialists historically.

      Reply
    2. Autistic Techie

      Ronny and Eric, you both have hit the heart of the problem that undergirds Socialism. Thanks.

      Reply
      1. JT Patterson

        Yes, Autistic Techie, I agree. These are important and yes fundamental comments that should be addressed by our socialist friends and neighbors who are predisposed to adopt socialism.

        Reply
    3. Eva Easterbrook

      Ronny, I think no one here in the US has heard of him except a few in those old, failed communities he established. They all drifted away from his ideas and are now pretty normal places to live and have a family.

      Reply

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