Robert Owen & Utopian Socialism

Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

Robert Owen was one of the pioneers of utopian socialism, and his impact spanned both Europe and the United States. Read about Owen and his varied experiments in creating utopian communities.

Utopian Socialism

As Britain rapidly industrialized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, reformers came to envision alternative societies. Rather than civilization defined by harsh industrial labor practices driven by greed and the profit motive, utopian socialists argued society could be both industrial and humane.

A significant part of this was the utopian socialists' creation of planned communities, where individual competition would be replaced with a communal society where no one was wanting. Though their critics dubbed these projects 'utopian' (hence the name utopian socialists), many communal societies were attempted in both Britain and the United States. Some, of course, were more successful than others.

Utopian socialism and these exemplary planned communities were also infused with millennialist thought. Millennialism was the belief that Christ's Second Coming was near, and humanity needed to prepare. One way to prepare society for the millennium, utopian socialists argued, was to create these small, perfect communities. As one American utopian said in 1844, 'Our ulterior aim is nothing less than Heaven on Earth.'

Robert Owen's Utopian Socialism

Englishman Robert Owen (1771-1858) made a fortune in the textile business of Manchester. He could have taken his riches and enjoyed the luxurious life, but instead he promoted an alternative socialist vision to the current competitive, industrial society. Owen said that the profit motive should not be the primary shaper of society; rather, he said he could create a community in which workers were paid what they were worth and shared, rather than competed, in all areas of life.

Robert Owen
robert owen

In 1800, Owen decided to create such a utopian community in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen reformed the textile mill industry at New Lanark and provided workers with good living conditions, a 10-hour day, free school for their kids, and other incentives designed to encourage good work. Eventually, Owen reduced work to an 8-hour day and proclaimed laborers should have the right to 8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation, and 8 hours of sleep. The factory and Owen both made a profit, and New Lanark became known far and wide across Europe as a model of industrial efficiency. In many ways, however, this would be the positive limits of Owen's vision.

Buoyed by this success, in 1816, Owen expanded his utopian aims beyond the factory. He proposed a model community of around 2,500 residents, where property and life, in general, was communal. He hoped this would create a new type of human society, one not marred by competition for profit and individual advantage. Owen also infused this idea with millennialism, quoting scripture and warning the end of the existing industrial world was nigh.

Owen chose America in which to make his utopia a reality.

Owen and Utopian Socialism in America

When Robert Owen arrived in America in 1824 he boasted, 'I am come to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one and remove all causes for contest between individuals.' He founded the small utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, the next year. All facets of life at New Harmony were communal and regimented. Not only was labor coordinated and collective, but so was cooking, child care, and other aspects of domestic life.

New Harmony, Indiana
new harmony

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