I recently stumbled across a reference to Robert Owen and his status as "the first socialist
". I recalled that name immediately--in the text
for my Educational Theory course, Owen was identified as a "Utopian Theorist and Communitarian Educator". My written response to the text's chapter on Owen was visceral, but measured:
As someone who spent my formative years preparing for war against communists, I find very little value in Robert Owen as a theorist or as a person. I mean, here was a man whom Marx and Engels disagreed with only because he sought gradual communism instead of a revolution of the proletariat. And like most people of his ilk, he was a hypocrite: he wanted communal ownership of everything but he didn’t give up any of his own worth; he wanted everyone to be equal but he “acted in a top-down paternalistic fashion” (p. 251). He didn’t even admit his theory was wrong when New Harmony failed—and it failed because Owen, like all utopians, refused to believe in the one constant in the universe: human nature.
In proverbial stopped-clock fashion, he got some things right: the equality of women, a “permissive but controlled” environment in schools (p. 258), teachers who related to children (p. 258), a “subject centered” curriculum (p. 259). He and I might agree with some of his beliefs about what and how a classroom of students should be taught.
He believed that “education was inextricably related to society” (p. 261), but was mistaken about that relationship. Who cares if he was “the creator of a comprehensive social and educational theory” (p. 261) if that theory could not have been more wrong? As I said, he wasn’t entirely wrong as far as his “in the classroom” ideas went, but on balance I find him lacking.
So, who was Robert Owen, this person whom next to no one today has ever heard of? He was an industrialist during Britain's Industrial Revolution. He identified the ills of the Industrial Revolution, but incorrectly identified the solution as "communitarianism"--communism, essentially. He believed in Hillary Clinton's "village" much more than he believed in the nuclear family. While he cleaned up the town, New Lanark, where his mill was, he also viewed his workers as "downtrodden to be helped" instead of as equal humans; he would even "inspect" their apartments to make sure they were living "correctly". He was the quintessential do-gooder, and insisted that people live his
way. He believed people weren't responsible for their own character, that circumstances dictated character. Such people always want to tell others how they should live.
In 1824 he moved to New Harmony, Indiana, and tried to establish a "communitarian society" on America's frontier. He got plenty of people to flock there, despite the town's abolition of private property. Within two years Owen proclaimed New Harmony a rip-roaring success, but by 1828 a lack of Harmony caused Owen to pack up and return to Britain, his communitarian experiment an abject failure.
So that's what I know about Robert Owen--what did the link I saw
say about him?
In 1825, industrialist Robert Owen came from Scotland looking for a
place to set up his own version of socialist paradise. (It is one of the
lost mysteries of history whether Owen himself or his adherents coined
the term.) He was well-known and applauded in his home country
for the way workers in his cotton mill were treated and for their
onsite living conditions. He wanted to set up a society in America for
the whole world to see, where people lived according to his ideals of
equality, atheism, and science.
He'd still fit in with his fellow-travelers on the political left today, that's for sure.
Soon, somewhere between seven and nine hundred Americans — all followers
of Owen’s socialist plan — showed up at New Harmony in an attempt to
make history. Like almost all of the Utopian collectives of the day,
Owen’s settlement at New Harmony failed, and by 1829 the property had
been sold off to former residents, among them five of Owen’s adult
At least it wasn't a revolution that ended it! But isn't it funny that people didn't want to live under his yoke any longer, so they bought
their property from the communitarian who previously wouldn't let them own it! When they wouldn't live as he wanted them to do, he made money off them. Some might call that hypocrisy.
didn’t live there; he devoted his time to traveling the US and Europe
promoting his ideas. When he did arrive for a visit in January of 1826,
his response to the disaffection and unhappiness among his citizens was
to hold some meetings and reorganize, while pretending the experiment
was successful. The settlement had already been bogged down by
bureaucracy and regulation; it was only a matter of time before New
Harmony was finished as a social experiment. Several more
reorganizations failed to achieve the results expected.
in the same way today’s socialists refuse to accept failures of their
chosen system, other groups of the time thought they could succeed. Owen
sold off some of the New Harmony property to small groups wanting to
establish socialist societies of their own. Including others under
different leadership and slightly different precepts, at one time there
were as many as 50 socialist societies in the United States.
All of them failed; most within a matter of two or three years.
returning to England, after spending almost all his money on the New
Harmony disaster, he blamed the location, the people in the
group — everybody and everything else. Sound familiar?
Seems he left off "outside agitators". It's always "outside agitators" who disrupt social idealism, isn't it?
But why did New Harmony--indeed, socialism/communism itself--fail? Here's the answer in a nutshell:
As the first of the socialists, Robert Owen made some obvious mistakes
that would continue to be made until the present day. The first of those
was his failure to recognize people as individuals. He saw people as a
homogeneous mass, with identical needs, without taking into account the
differences that abound in character, ability, intelligence and other
aspects that make us all uniquely human. He never recognized that his
fellow socialists had free will, and most of them wouldn’t hesitate to
use it. Neither did he recognize that his solution for economic slavery
and oppression was equally oppressive and enslaving, only in a different
Socialism/communism don't comport with human nature. That is why they require compulsion in order to operate, and that is why they eventually fail.
One hundred years from Lenin’s revolution, the body count stands near
100 million. Yet, socialists still refuse to admit they are wrong.
But they believe in "science". Perhaps a little study of history would do socialists some good. I'm reminded that the Jamestown experiment almost failed--until the socialism was dispensed with and the colonists got a dose of capitalism, getting to keep the fruits of their own labor. That's what works, that's what comports with human nature.
It's why I'm a capitalist. It's why I'm a conservative. It's why I'm an American.