Born in Newtown, Wales, in 1771,
Became one of England’s earliest
proponents of socialism and the co-operative
Began an early career as a factory manager
KNOWN FOR: His creation of cooperative
communities at New Lanark, Scotland, New
Harmony, Indiana, as well as later activism
New Lanark, Scotland
Viewpoint in early years: he asserted that human character is a
product of environment, and only by treating workers humanely
can they develop into full, moral individuals.
Set out to transform the mills and the community. Determined to
both eliminate child labor in the mills (so that children could be
educated) and to improve working conditions of all workers.
In essays from this period (1813-1825), he argued that the ideal
moral community would be a cooperatively-run agrarian and
industrial village. So he enacted change:
renovated workers’ homes so each had two stories
developed systems for sanitation and garbage disposal
paved roads and implemented street cleaning
opened a free village school
The profits from the company mill largely financed these efforts
Politics and public opinion…
Owen proposed regulations to Parilament to raise the minimum
age of employment and limit the working day, and also proposed
a system in which children would have half-time education until
His ideas deemed impossible, Owen largely turned away from
politics and public policy and instead focused on changing public
opinion with the creation of alternative communities
Owen suggested that the solution to England’s economic problems at
the time lay in making the poor productive.
He advocated the formation of “Villages of Cooperation” in which 800-
1,200 individuals would work together in agriculture and factories to form
one self-sustaining unity.
Houses would be grouped to share common living rooms and kitchens.
Children would be boarded in a community school so that they could be
best educated, and community gardens would surround the school. On the
outskirts would lie the factory
Most English policy makers and thinkers of the time found these
communitarian proposals idealistic and unrealistic
Disgruntled, he fled to
Owen founded a settlement called New Harmony in Indiana
Believed he could enact his social vision of the cooperative
But, eight hundred settlers arrived in the first weeks, long
before any proper arrangements for their living or work
assignments had been made, and chaos ensued.
Dissatisfaction grew and in 1827 the community divided into
smaller groups, few of which ended up being viable.
Owen began to face ideological conflict with his partners in the
By 1828 it was clear New Harmony had failed and Owen
returned to Britain.
Activism in England…
Owen returned to England in 1828
He wrote and gave lectures that demonstrated a radical progression in
his thinking and vision.
He now came out explicitly against private property,
commercialism, and inequality in general.
The development of “Owenism” (the ideas associated with Robert
Owen) was evolving and forced Owen to alter his approach
working-class trade unionists and other activists transformed Owen’s
vision of alternative communities into more immediate proposals for the
improvement of working class life.
Thus three institutions of working class “Owenism” emerged
the cooperative store
the labor exchange
the trade union
(These, esp. the labor exchange theory, should be viewed as key to his
Cooperative stores and societies involve consumer-
owners of stores purchasing goods in bulk at
affordable prices for the benefit of their
members (think GreenStar for shorthand…)
While many of these co-ops initially failed, they
inspired the successful British co-operative
movement of the second half of the 19th century
(co-operatively-owned stores still play a significant
role in the British economy).
Labor Exchanges and the
Labor Exchange Theory
Workers not only wanted more affordable goods, but also to reap the
full benefits of their labor.
They developed proposals for “equitable labor exchanges,” an idea
which Owen received enthusiastically.
The labor exchanges attempted to institutionalize “the labor theory of
value,” the belief that the true value of a good is based on the
amount of labor that it took to produce it, plus the cost of the raw
materials used to make it.
The labor exchanges were locations where individual cooperators or
trade unionists (usually individual artisans) exchanged goods without
the use of money, but with “labor notes,” which represented a
certain amount of hours-worked.
Owen had previously suggested that labor be made the standard
of value, and his followers followed suit.
However, by 1834, difficulties in keeping the system insulated from the
broader market economy and emerging factory production led to the
eventual downfall of labor exchange system.
Trade Unionism… Socialism!
At the same time (1825-35) Britain’s trade unions were fighting for
shorter hours, the end of child labor, and safer worker conditions
Owen had been the most visible reformer for these ideas in
Britain, and so he eventually became the most identifiable leader of
the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU), which within
a few weeks in 1834 grew to over half a million members.
The workers and activists behind trade unions transformed
“Owenism” (the term then used for ideas associated with Robert
Owen) into a critique of what trade unionists saw to be the unjust
combination of wealth, power and privilege in England.
Though the British government would brutally repress the GNCTU, the
GNCTU, closely associated with Owen, represented the first
manifestation of socialist-oriented trade unionism.
Thus, Robert Owen is known to this day as one of the key figures
in the founding of British socialism
(Recap of) Early belief: Owen asserted that human character is a
product of environment, and only by treating workers humanely can
they develop into full, moral individuals.
As his career progressed, his philosophy developed from one of
benevolence towards his workers into a desire to found just,
When those utopian communities failed, Owen shifted his focus to
aiding workers struggling for greater control over their labor by means
of producer and consumer cooperatives and strong trade unions.