[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.
- Donald E. Pitzer (Spring 2014). “Why New Harmony is World Famous.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. 26(2): 12.
- Richard William Leopold (1940). Robert Dale Owen, A Biography. Harvard Historical Studies. 45. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 8. OCLC77489