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Robert Owen

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So, with the outage repaired in what I have to consider record time, and other things more or less out of control on the usual bases, I actually got to settle down with a book I need to pay attention to, and that book is Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism.

When I told a friend of mine I was reading this, he remarked that he wasn’t sure socialism  had fallen.

That may be true, but the book is still interesting, intelligent and very informative, so let me make a few notes here for anybody who might want to think about reading it.

The first is the author, who was what we called in my day a “red diaper baby”–someone born and brought up in a Communist/Socialist family and who who brought up on Marxism the way other children were brought up on Catholicism.

There is an interesting opening chapter/prologue about that upbringing and about his parents and their friends, all of it leading up to the fact that Muravchik is now a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s not a unique trajectory.  A number of prominent writers on the Right these days share it, including, most prominently, David Horowitz, who has become more or less a Rightist the way Lenin was a Leftist.

I know nothing at all about Muravchik, but that in itself is probably indicative.  If he was pursuing a career as an intellectual bomb thrower, I probably would have heard about it.

After that initial autobiographical note, Muravchik proceeds by giving the personal stories of various people  important in the history of socialism, beginning at the French Revolution and ending with Tony Blair and New Labour. 

One of the reasons I was interested in this book is that he includes Mussolini and the Fascists (including the National Socialists), which is something most people who write about the Left rarely allow themselves to admit.

So far–I’m not finished yet–I’ve been impressed by the amount of information I didn’t already know, such as the nearly lifelong personal connection between Lenin and Alexander Kerensky.  For someone, like me, who reads a lot in this area, this is not an easy thing to do.

But so far, the most interesting material in this book concerns a man named Robert Owen and his attempts to build the New Cooperative Society, right here on earth, right now, and not through coercive politics.

Owen was a Welsh industrialist in the years before the American Civil War, and  it is important to note what he was not.

He was not born to a wealthy family, and he was  not sent to university to become an intellectual.

Instead, at fourteen years old, he left home to make his way in the world.  His parents were prosperous members of the working class, but they were members of the working class.  They gave him  10 pounds to help him on his way, and he went to London.

What happened after that is the kind of rags-to-riches story that we now think Horatio Alger made up.   He worked in draper’s shop, then went to Manchester and got a job in another draper’s shop.  He moved from there to a mill, and by the time he was twenty-one he was a manager at the same mill.

At that point,  he started making serious money, and very serious money it was, too.  Before he reached middle age, he was one of the richest men in Europe.

He was also something else by then, and that is one of the most prominent advocates of Enlightenment ideas about human nature and social organization.

In spite of the fact that his formal education stopped when he was ten, he’d not only  managed to keep up with all the new ideas floating around, he’d become an honor champion of them.  He was elected to several learned societies that would ordinarily have requited their members to have much higher levels of formal education, and he began to write on his pet project of creating a heaven on earth.

He called this heaven on earth the “new cooperative communities,” and he was convinced that once they were founded, men and women would be completely different from the way they were in his own society.

This was because he believed absolutely that there was  no such thing as free will, and that therefore all the behavior we saw that we didn’t like–theft, idleness, alcoholism–would disappear once men and women came to live in cooperative communities wi thout personal property and saw how much better such societies were to their own.

This was not a particularly unusual set of ideas at the time.  It was the thinking that came out of the French Revolution, and writers and lecturers who embraced such thinking were very popular.

There is a wonderful story in this book of then-President John Quincy Adams leaving the White House after lunch one day to walk across the street to hear Owns lecture–no Secret Service detail or anything!–and these were, of course, the ideas adopted by many of the New England Transcendentalists.

What’s more, there was something of a vogue in founding communitarian settlements, especially in the United States.  Some of those settlements were notably successful.  These included the Shakers, whose last two surviving members were still living in their northern New England settlement houses in the 1970s, and a group known as the Rappites.

The Rappites were the followers of a man named George Rapp.  They’re important to t his story because they founded a large and flourishing cooperative community at New Harmony, Indiana just about the time Owen was looking around the United States for a place to found a cooperative community of his own.

It was just at the time when Rapp was having one of his periodic fits of restlessness.  New Harmony was actually the third site on which his community had settled.  Every once in a while, Rapp would get the idea that his community was actually in the wrong place and would demand they all pick up and move.  From what we can tell, they mostly did.  And they mostly flourished.

And, like the Quakers, they died out in the end only because their rules of celebacy made producing a new generation difficult.

It’s remarkable how many of the people who found and occupy these kinds of settlements cannot wrap their minds around the fact that not producing children will be a crimp in the continued survival of their project, but there it is.  Not having sex was as popular in early nineteenth century American communist settlements as having it with everything except the cat was in Sixties and Seventies communes.

On that front, Owen had an advantage.  He didn’t intend for the citizens of his New Cooperative Communities (or New Communal Societies) to refrain from sex.  He had an entire, elaborate system all written down and ready to be put into place about how mates would be chosen and when and on what basis and…well, you get the idea.

So Owen bought New Harmony, the Rappites moves (I think) to upstate New York, and then–the entire New Harmony experiment fell apart.

In fact, it took  less than a year before Owen’s New Harmony community completely destroyed the flourishing agricultural system that the Rappites had left them.  Crops went unplanted or were eaten by wondering livestock, livestock went untended (which is why the were eating the crops), and in no time at all, the single most important group to the survival of the settlement–the skilled workers and artisans–picked up and left.

Actually, that’s the group of people  most necessary to the survival of any society of any kind, and when Atlas shrugs, it isn’t Rand’s industrialists who go, it’s the ironmongers, the blacksmiths, the shoemakers, the builders and the rest of the people who have specialized knowledge of how to make things work. 

If Atlas shrugs this time, my guess is that the plumbers, the electricians, the mechanics and the engineers are the ones who are going to go this time.

Along with these people, of course, went the experienced farmers, the ones who understood that you have limited windows of opportunity to plant and to reap, among  other things.

The ones who stayed were in one of two categories:  people looking for a free ride, and intellectuals trying to live out their own passionately held theories.

Neither group seemed to know how to actually do anything.

This may seem inevitable, and just what you’d expect, so that there’s no point in belaboring the obvious. 

But two things interest me here.

First, Owen should have known better.  He was not a professional intellectual, although he became one in practice.  He was not only a businessman, but a phemonenally successful businessman. He knew what it meant to meet a payroll, as they say in politics these days.

And he knew that some of the ideas he had about human nature and how human beings behaved were wrong, because he’d seen the wrongness of them in his own factories.  At o ne point he tried to introduce a system whereby workers would police their productivity themselves.  The free riding was terrific, and the system had to be abandoned within a year.

Even if we adopt the explanation Owen himself did in later years–that people conditioned by a selfish society couldn’t  just become communal and cooperative overnight–it’s something that should have been evident from his own initial theories.

But here’s the big thing.

Remember how I said that several of these Communist communities in antebellus America were successful?

They were.  They were very successful, and many lasted not just years, but decades.

Of course, there were many such communities that fell apart in no time flat, and disintegrated into squalor and penury almost as soon as they were founded.

These unsuccessful communities, like Owen’s unsuccessful community, differed from the successful communities in one specific way.

Openness to the market?


Observant of individual rights?


Some form of draconian punishment of free riding?


What was it?


All the successful voluntary Communist communities in antebellum America were declaratively and distinctively religious communities before they were anything else.

All the unsuccessful ones, in contrast, were declaratively opposed to religion in  all its various forms.

Owen was so adamantly opposed to religion that he went on at length even in lectures about other things to declare it the worst evil on earth and in need of being eradicated as soon as possible.

Some of the Transcendentalist communities were a little squishier than this, in that they only outrightly rejected Christianity. 

They then went in for the sort of vague “spirituality” which consists of thinking warm fuzzy  pseudoprofound thoughts while not actually committing oneself to any set of substantive beliefs in particular.

It’s discouraging, sometimes, to realize that all this stuff has been going on for centuries, with not so much as a significant detail ever changing from one decade to the next.

It’s even more discouraging to realize that I’ve got friends and students who would sign on to all this right this minute without a second thought.

But I’m still very interested in Robert Owen, who doesn’t fit the mold for the kind of politics he adopted.

Oh, and then there were his children, who remained in America after the New Harmony experiment failed, repudiated their father’s ideas almost in their entirety, and went to work in their New Country.  They go elected to the state legislature, build businesses and–in the case of his most cherished son–became a banker.

Written by janeh

November 3rd, 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Robert Owen'

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  1. The tendency of such communities to fatally misunderstand the importance of practical skills is something I’ve read or heard before…and there are a LOT of sort-of management types today who haven’t the faintest idea why their plans won’t work, and who won’t listen to anyone who tries to explain, because after all they’re providing the leadership!

    I’m not surprised by your comment about the religious ones. I sometimes think it would be really useful, from the point of view of having a livable society, if some suitable religion was generally supported even by the non-religious. I don’t always think that, because I’d rather people followed religion because it was true than because it was an essential part of human society, and I’ve read plenty about those of the rich and the intellectuals who think well, it’s OK for keeping lower class in line, but it certainly shouldn’t restrain the upper class’s activities.

    There’s something about the conviction that you’re not a good person and have to strive to become one that seems more beneficial to the person and the community than the conviction that you’re a good person who might have made some mistakes. This assumption of the basic goodness of humanity is so far off base, I don’t know how anyone can believe it.

    And if you don’t understand that you (and everyone else) is sometimes bad, how do you come back from devastating actions?

    Last week, I read something online – probably BBC, it wasn’t local – about a young woman sentenced for killing her young children. There was, as is so often the case, evidence of mental illness. She was quoted as saying she’d done a terrible thing, but she was a good person. I can see a desperate ill person trying to hold on to the last bit of self-respect she has – the conviction that she’s a good person. But how can she build a new life on the conviction that she’s already good; that being good goes along with doing terrible things? I can understand mentally sick and recovering. I can understand sinner and repenting – and any combination of the two. But good and murdering? Not that I murdered anyone, but I think I wouldn’t have made what little progress I have if I’d convinced myself, right after I really did something I shouldn’t have, that I was a good person anyway.


    3 Nov 12 at 12:06 pm

  2. I’ve actually visited two utopian sites, Hancock Shaker Village, and Fruitlands, in Harvard, Mass. The religious difference may be significant, but to me, the difference between the successful utopian communities and the unsuccessful ones is the understanding that SOMEONE has to do the dishes, slop the hogs, and not just once or twice, but in perpetuity.

    The Shakers did this with “hands to work, hearts to God” and by making good, solid work a sacrament in itself. It seems that those at Fruitlands had a different take, they were all going to swan around in diaphanous linen dresses and write profound thoughts in their journals while communing with nay-chur.But nobody had romantic notions of actually washing & ironing said dresses, or doing the backbreaking labor necessary to life on a farm in the 19th century. Especially with the drastic restrictions on diet & habits required at Fruitlands, I’m surprised it lasted even 7 months.

    I’m not certain that religious underpinnings are necessary to a solid work ethic, but I do think that there must be a common BELIEF in a community to sustain its members in unrelenting toil. Because everyone in a Shaker community worked, they also had enough leisure for extensive worship. Because the folks at Fruitlands tended to spend their time in teaching or talking philosophy as a priority over work, and because they had entirely unrealistic ideas about HOW to farm, they failed in record time.


    3 Nov 12 at 2:27 pm

  3. The “new atheists” puzzle me. They are all fervent believers in evolution and insist that religion is unnecessary.

    I believe in evolution. I also believe that we have 5000 years of history and that every society that we know of had some form of religion. Survival of the fittest suggests that religion has an important role in society.

    As for washing the dishes, the poem “The Sons of Martha” by Rudyard Kipling says it all.

    “It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
    It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
    It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
    Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.”


    3 Nov 12 at 3:52 pm

  4. The practical, hard-working and talented bail out first from the Communist utopia? Such things survive only with the support of religion? And celibacy is part of the mix? I say thee “Duh!” But then…

    I grew up with Georgette Heyer, and can’t remember when I first read Drusilla Morville’s description of the proposed Pantisocrat colony (The Quiet Gentleman) or whether it was before or after reading about the demise of 20th Century Motors in Atlas Shrugged. Rand points out at least twice that John Galt isn’t recruiting captains of industry as such–but the people who make the firms work, who are often much lower in the hierarchy.

    It was C. Northcote Parkinson in Left Luggage (1967) who pointed out the connection with religion–that “For us at least, the Kingdom of Christ or of Lenin must already have come.” (Chapter Six–and he cites G.K. Chesterton to buttress his argument.)

    As for celibacy–well, of course it’s an economic boon to go Shaker and let someone else pay for the first six or 10 years of child-rearing. I am minded of Bujold’s Ethan of Athos in which a member of an all-male society (they use uterine replicators) can’t understand where other societies are concealing the expense of child-rearing. It’s the biggest item in the planetary budget, after all.

    But it’s deeper than that. Apart from the commitments implicit just from sex, no one certain of his or her own children is going to treat them equally with strangers in the communist sense–and when the leadership starts playing favorites, the whole Comunist system falls apart. Take a look at “cadre families” in Comunist China–or read Court of the Red Tsar, and mark how well the grandchildren of Stalin’s henchpeople are still living. And we didn’t need to wait for the experiment: Kipling and Jerome K. Jerome both pointed it out before there was a single Socialist, let alone Communist, government.

    I was raised in books, and I answer in books–but none of this would be a shock to any competent non-commissioned officer or foreman. Perhaps there are things you need a good education NOT to know.

    Which does leave the question of Owen, who on form ought to have understood all of this. Perhaps it’s just further proof that when people are determined to believe something, they won’t let facts and logic stop them.


    4 Nov 12 at 1:49 pm

  5. What I take from the described patterns of success and failure and the desertion by the people “who actually make things work” from communitarian societies is this:

    It takes religion to get the people who can actually do the stuff that keeps things running to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those who can’t boil water for tea.

    Absent a, oh call it a narrative, that imposes some duty to others above economic calculations — the doers look around, realize they’re being taken for a ride and leave. Religion in other words, by whatever means, is convincing people to act against their own self interest.

    I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly a whole different kind of cynicism.

    I would observe that a very much similar thing must also happen to convince those same people to labor away for wages for a corporation, which pays them peanuts — while making billions, while convincing the sheep to not organize into a union which might effective negotiate a more equitable distribution of gross profits.

  6. In the case of utopian communities – whether of the religious or union or philosophical type – the appeal to everyone, including the ones with practical skills, comes before the disillusion. The initial appeal may focus on religion, political theory etc., but it’s the actual lived experience of the proposed new way of life that causes falling away. I’m not sure self-interest is as obvious a motivation as disillusion. A farmhand’s self-interest might have driven him to try for a life in a completely different social setting, and his realization that he’s going to starve because they don’t have enough willing bodies to spread manure the one that drives him out.

    As for the corporation – I think a lot of people who work for businesses (and other enterprises, like education) realize that not every job requires the same skills and pays the same salary. If they earn enough to live on, have some job satisfaction and sense (false or real) of security for the future, they’re happy enough with their bargain.

    I personally am somewhat pro-union, having benefitted from union activity, but they aren’t the be all and end all of modern life. Like any other powerful social force, they’ve got their advantages and disadvantages.


    5 Nov 12 at 7:07 am

  7. Correlations don’t prove much.

    Admittedly, neither would my anecdotal evidence about the benefits and risks of unions.


    5 Nov 12 at 9:21 am

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